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narrative therapy india

A space to share stories of our work using narrative practices with children, adults and families in the Indian context

Peeping through the ‘mirror’ : Experience of observing narrative practices at Ummeed Child Development Center, Mumbai

Curiosity began two years back, since the day I started long-term training in narrative ideas and practices in Kolkata with Ummeed. I was in the first batch of trainees in Kolkata and this was my first visit to Ummeed. I wanted to see how narrative ideas are being practiced in the soil, in the organization, our trainers were from. Traversing the distance helped opening my eyes and mind to many possibilities. I felt like sharing with you some of my experiences and thoughts on observing the works, particularly of the mental health team at Ummeed.

Movement’ is the word that comes to my mind when I think of those days, a week of sitting behind the one-way mirror to observe live sessions, watching therapy session videos, being there at team meetings, participating in workshop, teaching sessions, narrative gathering, discussing with the therapist, eating together and not to forget the movement between the two buildings, Ummeed training centre and the clinic space. The days used to end going back to hotel room navigating Mumbai-traffic; tired body, but mind full of new thoughts and ideas! It seemed to me a ‘movement’ indeed at the level of resisting many dominant discourses and bringing changes slowly and sustainably, which is quite different from the mainstream understanding of movement.

There was life in the not-so-big rooms where they play, photos on the walls that speak, books on the racks that connect, colourful corridors where staffs, children, families meet and greet, and in the people who dare to try to make a difference.

It was heart-warming to see the therapist or developmental pediatrician playing with the child sitting on the floor, ‘dirtying’ their hands with sands and clay, unfortunately an uncommon scene in India. There were options, games, toys, different playmaterials, for one to choose. Often the children blow soap-water bubbles making it more fun. The friendliness, eagerness to help and flexibility perhaps also added to the humane approach.

The chairs in the therapy rooms were not designated separately for therapist and clients, which is rare to find in most of theclinical set ups, both Governmental and private, in our country. There was no table placed ‘centrally’ between the therapist and client and the sitting position and posture kept varying. In all the sessions I observed, irrespective of individual difference intherapy-style, narrative ideas were being practiced. I am not aware of any other organization in India where the whole mental health team follows narrative ideas in their works. The mental health work at Ummeed is led by a conviction in the power of narrative ideas. The observations helped me learn more and myconviction in the power of narrative practices only grew stronger.

Irrespective of the position in the organization, seniority, gender and experience, team members sit to discuss, agree, disagree, laugh, eat and move with the ideas. The work calendar gets filled with overlapping dots that might scare many like me. When I asked how do you manage so much?”, somebody told me smiling,  O, it’s fun. The enthusiasm in their efforts, one cannot miss.

One workshop on community mental health and healing with a group of young people, facilitated by two trainers at Ummeed,particularly touched me deeply. I experienced how the pain of marginalization, discrimination and violence experienced by people were validated and held, that lead to healing and generation of solidarity, but not to ignition of ‘fire’. I witnessed influential de-centered positioning in group work and it made me think of its relevance and possibilities in today’s time of violence.

I am thankful to the organization, and the people who put such effort and heart to keep the doors open for trainees like us to enter, observe and learn. Coming back home to Kolkata, one of the first visible things I tried at the clinic is that I pushed the table aside from the ‘centre’ in between me and the client and started afresh with renewed enthusiasm. Hope is to take the practice beyond the limitations of clinic and the dream is to have more and more people join the ‘movement’.

About the author –

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Ujjaini Srimani is a mental health professional, a queer woman from a suburb of West Bengal, currently living in Kolkata. She struggled hard with finding meaning of life during the years of acquiring degrees, MBBS and MD in Psychiatry. The forcible focus on ‘career’ that time helped her survive the ‘heart-breaks’and secure the ‘position’, though. By the time she topped in her MD examination, she started doubting many of the ‘claims’ and‘delusions’ existing in the medical systems without really having a clear articulation. She practiced as a consultant psychiatrist for some years and tried to engage in social interface through interactive programmes, media appearances, working with NGOs, etc .She went on hiding from the familiar professional work when the ethical pain and dissonances bacame quite disturbing,! Coming in contact with Buddhism in the mountains of Himachal, she found ‘home’. Following training in narrative ideas and practices in Kolkata, from Ummeed Child Development Centre in 2017, she found a reliable and meaningful way to come back to ‘professional work’ after a sabbatical of 2 years. She is attempting to put narrative ideas into practice in her new role as a therapist. One of her areas of interest is gender-sexuality and mental health. Oscillatingbetween the noise of knowledge and silence of knowing, moments of accepting ‘not knowing’ help her keep moving withthe people she works with. She would be 40 this year.

Her email id is srimaniujjaini@gmail.com

 

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A.S.K. – Adult Support Kendra

Five of our narrative community people  are a part of the endeavour Adult Support Kendra (A.S.K.), which aims to provide counseling and transitional support to adults with disabilities.

When young persons with disabilities reach their adolescent years and transition issues assume priority, it is often a time for new challenges and a bit of trepidation as to “what next?” We, at A.S.K., recognize this as a time when families may need a different type of support that addresses critical questions of vocational training, employment prospects, dealing with emotions, dealing with sexuality, setting goals for adult living, financial planning and so on. We plan to help families navigate these complex and somewhat overwhelming issues.

A.S.K. has on board, a social worker who is also a rehabilitation counselor, a psychologist with a doctorate in special education who is successfully running two facilities for supported employment for persons with disabilities and four other persons with different backgrounds trained in narrative practices. Three among us are also parents of adults with disabilities.

We are a network offering counseling sessions and chats for individuals and groups and interactive talks/workshops for individuals with disabilities and their families. We may soon start offering more services like sessions for professionals. Our future vision is to start a full fledged counseling center for adults with disabilities and their families.

We hope that the center would be able to support many adults with disabilities along with their families to live a life full of dignity, valued social roles resulting in receiving more respect and the enrichment of their multi-dimensional identities.

Adult Support Kendra is an endeavour of Yash Charitable Trust in collaboration with the Forum For Autism.

 

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Empowering Mobeds – Reflections from Kashmira Kakalia

 

The priests of the Zoroastrian community are respected members of the community. They meet their clients, the laity or the people who visit the fire temple. They meet with them regularly or for the prayers of their departed ones or on happy occasions. They have sensitive conversations with the laity during times of sickness and bereavement.

“Empowering Mobeds”; a session on training in self-awareness and basic counselling was conducted for the priests of the Zoroastrian community. It was an offsite training programme held in the midst of greenery and serenity.

Here are some reflections from the experience:

Exploring the self, communication with others, role of language, resonance and the importance of being decentred yet influential, were a few skills I tried to highlight with the use of my knowledge of the narrative ideas and practices.

As the session progressed, from just being listeners to active participation and dialogue based on mutual respect and non-judgemental conversations were some of my observations. A simple exercise using questions based on interviewing about a pleasing story resulted in awe and understanding among the priests who were co-workers.

With the practise of externalising conversations, sparkling moments were visibly noticed. The operations of hierarchy and power between the congregation and the Mobeds was made visible and a discussion on being aware and taking this into consideration in interactions was made possible using the narrative ideas and practices.

Our conversations drifted to various topics, though keeping in mind the timing of the session, I was reminded of how these conversations created a space for related conversations which needed to be addressed leading to an understanding of multiple identities of others, and the importance of “loitering”.

Here’s what one of the participant had to reflect, “It was a great way to know someone better. The experience got me more understanding after a certain flow; personally I got confused at a point myself while asking questions, but that was probably out of a lack of having these skills. There seemed like a sense of relief to the person being asked the question knowing that he knows the answer/ solution.”

Another participant said, “For the first time the priests reported the unique experience of being heard and sharing feelings.”

About the author –

Kashmira A. Kakalia is a Special Educator and enjoys working with students and adults with special needs,to promote their social, emotional, intellectual and physical development to facilitate them to be self reliant, confident and guide them to achieve their goals and qualify for a better tomorrow. She’s passionate about teaching and cooking she believes if for pleasure and fun. She has completed her training in the Mental Health Training Program at Ummeed.

You can contact her at kkakalia@hotmail.com

Inclusion: A Celebration of Diversity | Parul Kumtha | TEDxRAPodarCollege

Parul Kumtha : Focusing on universal design and sustainability, Parul Kumtha is the principal architect at Nature-Nurture Architects and Planners: an initiative that is committed to green designs, preservation of natural heritage and providing design solutions to old, existing buildings. A trained counselor in Mental Health and Narrative practices, she is the parent founder and trustee of the parent support group, “Forum for Autism”. In a world where the autistic are treated in a manner different from others, she stands out by saying, “Yes, they are different, just like you and I.” Here’s the story of Parul Kumtha, who shows us the world through different perspectives. Architect This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

There is always more to Stories

In March of 2018 when Prathama (Mental Health & Disability Support professional) and I were asked to conduct a daylong workshop on gender and sexuality using narrative method as a precursor to planning for Photo Kathmandu 2018, we were thrilled. The theme for this edition was Power, Patriarchy, Sexuality, Gender and Identity. We had just come back from the first block of Mental Health Training Program at Ummeed, Mumbai. Those 5 days of the first block felt very transformative for us. Through out 2018 we conducted a few more workshops introducing Narrative Approach and contextualizing it to mental health work in Nepal while going to Mumbai for the three blocks that happened every two months. I soon realized that partnership in doing these workshops, the process was the highlight for me because it captured the essence of Loitering as we call it in Narratives. What follows is my telling of how the process unfolded.

Friendship Partnership—the gift of Narrative

When I was introduced to Narrative ideas and the emphasis it put on language and its power I felt a resonance I hadn’t felt before. To feel that resonance together in the same room and taking it back with us to Kathmandu felt wonderful for me.  As we sat down to prepare, Prathama would write down the activities while I with my index cards would right down the lay out of the workshop down to the minute. Then on another note card I would write the key ideas that I hoped would unfurl in conversations. Putting all of this together calmed my anxious self.

However, since being part of the MHTP my focus was shifting from rushing and covering everything I intended to move towards intentional loitering. Loitering, as we all know takes a lot of preparation.  It wasn’t easy to start to practice loitering, as it doesn’t just happen!

Before any workshop I would go to Prathama’s apartment or we would spend a day together at cafes and through dinners or other meals we would discuss what is it that we hoped for in these workshops. Initially the anxiety to finish preparation would get the better of me—I wanted to arrive at what we would want to do and finish the preparation. But Prathama guided me towards loitering. What do you think if we…? How do you feel about…? These were the questions we began to ask each other in person, on the phone or via text through out preparation. The tentativeness of these questions created a lot of space for us to move ideas around and the pressure to arrive at a conclusion was no longer the end goal.

Talking about Power

One of the themes that resonated with me was Power. Discussions about power I felt were very limited or non-existent in circles where folks hold considerable privilege i.e. Photographers covering a marginalized community, a cis gender able bodied therapist working with their clients, teachers in classrooms with youth etc. How do we talk about our privileges without feeling the need to defend ourselves? How do we have those difficult conversations without the need to attack or without feeling attacked?

I felt that using the language of narratives through the lens of intersectionality made sense. Putting together of these concepts gave us the idea to talk about what Vicky Reynolds calls “imperfect allies.” As allies we have the responsibility to constantly educate ourselves and equip ourselves with knowledge without burdening the group we are allying with. Discussions about doubts, our personal biases, judgments then can happen in ally circles without traumatizing or doing harm to the groups we intend to help. For the first time I felt that I could talk about my own biases. More importantly I could come face to face with dominant discourses in me and explore where they come from and what I can do about it so that I am aware of it.

Narrative approach gave me the idea of dominant discourses that color our world without our even realizing and intersectionality assisted me in seeing how those discourses do less or more harm depending on where we as individuals or groups stand in the hierarchy of how things are in the world. Instead of feeling daunted by these realization I felt a sense of loosening up in the group from the tightness that comes with feeling always being afraid of doing harm. Instead being able to see dominant discourses around us, in us, it started feeling like we could be kinder to ourselves in settings like these while discussing our biases and afford that kindness to our peers as well. With more group conversations like these I feel that we can move towards becoming better albeit still imperfect allies reducing harm to the groups, communities and folks we work with aka “clients” as we engage with them.

Spaces of becoming

As part of Photo Kathmandu Third Edition programming, Prathama and I put together a daylong workshop with the intention of introducing some ideas of Narrative Approach. We decided to include the Lightning Testimonies, a work on display at the festival as part of the day. We specifically reached out to individuals related to mental health, like teachers, current students, psychosocial counselors, and folks living with diagnosis, primary care givers of individuals living with diagnosis. My intention in this was also to build a network in Kathmandu in the long run looking for support and resonance in the day-to-day work and lives of folks engaging in mental health be it as therapists or caregivers and bring out the alternative stories getting buried in the daily hustle.

The title of our workshop was: “Is there more to the Story?”

We decided to have 20 participants for a four-hour workshop.  We started out with

Watching “The Danger of a single Story” a TED talk by Chimamande Adichi, which sets wonderfully the ideas of the perils of Dominant Discourses. The idea that Stereotypes may not always be untrue but it is also not the only story of the individual and the community its about. Single stories or these stereotypes are thus very limiting hence dangerous. Then we did introductions.

We wanted folks to share various aspects of their identity, as they felt comfortable to share with the group. We gave prompts such as race (skin colour), ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, education, geography etc. This idea of bringing to the front our various identities came to us after many hours of loitering during preparation for the workshop. With the first group, when introduction extended to over an hour, I started to panic. We were running out of time! Prathama seeing I was concerned whispered, “this is the way of narratives, we will be okay!” I felt a sense of calm.

We did not ask folks to stop talking or make their intros short and immediately what became clear to us was that the conversation on identities without the usual rush one feels in workshop setting really created that safe and soft space for hard conversations. We realized when we are able to really talk about our multiple selves there is an opening that then makes it possible for us to see the multiple identities of others—those that are in the room as well as of those that aren’t. It was evident that if we haven’t been allowed by forces around us to realize, see and be ourselves fully, then we also do not know how to afford that space to others around us.

From here on, transitioning into recognizing dominant discourse activity felt like a wonderful way of continuing to loiter.

Recognizing Dominant Discourses activity was one of the first ones we were introduced to during our MHTP at Ummeed. It goes as follows:

We mention a person with their identity, for example,

A teenager who is questioning their gender,
who has stopped going to school and is
brought to the a therapist by their parent…

With this information, the group consisting of 3-4 participants were asked to discuss what dominant discourses are prevalent about the said group; as a result of such dominant discourse how does society (their parents, friends, siblings etc at a micro level to the school, community at large) treat them. Thirdly how does the treatment affect their behavior i.e. how do they act as a result of being treated this way. Additionally if they transgress or do not agree to act in ways that society things they should what happens to them as a result. The participants were asked to list those actions and the consequences.

This activity is wonderful in bringing out our internal biases without us feeling judged or defensive. We felt that participants were comfortable with one another and often there would be pauses after which someone would say “I never knew I thought about this group in this way…”

After lunch we watched The Lightning Testimonies and discuss the idea of Absent but Implicit a narrative map at the heart of which is the idea that people are always responding in any given situation. And this response is resistance to power. For instance if someone is angry, that anger is a response to the violation of some value, vision in life that they hold dear. And asking a question like “What is that anger a testimony to?” makes all the difference. The question might not yield a succinct quick answer because these aren’t the ways we are encouraged to use language in general but they sow a seed in the mind and turn us towards landscape of possibilities, away from the constant noise of problem stories.

In the context of The Lightning Testimonies, we asked what resonated with you when you were listening and watching the installation? One of the most common response was that it shifted how sexual violence was seen, it did not put the “victims” in the boxes of single stories.

In the course of a month and half we conducted three different sessions with 56 individuals in total all of whom were related to the field of mental health as therapists, educators, students, doctors, caregivers, living with diagnosis etc. We were surprised by the resonance participants said they felt in the room. I felt lucky to be witness to the words as well as the moments of silence. The latter being the most difficult. What I am most thankful for is the creative alliance that Prathama and I were able to work towards. Workshops are best ways to co-research and create resonance and I feel that finding your tribe and working together is one of the best ways to go about it. Dominant Discourses are daunting and working together has been healing and empowering. We would like to thank the Ummeed MHTP team whose work-shaping style inspired me and Prathama to form a team in Kathmandu.

About the Author –

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Raji Manjari Pokhrel is a mental health worker living and working in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her background lies in community organizing and mental health and her passion is to integrate the two at the intersection of gender. She was part of Ummeed Narrative  Approaches  MHTP 2018. Raji loves to do collaborative work using narrative approach and somatic awareness to envision alternative ways of practicing psychosocial therapy. Working with Adhikaar and the Nepali-speaking immigrant community in Queens in 2006 sparked Raji’s passion for community organizing in the immigrant community. She went back to work with Adhikaar as a social worker from 2012-2015. She is forever grateful for her education and know-how of the world to the Nepali speaking domestic and elder care workers’ community in Queens, New York, who taught her to see emotional labour otherwise rendered invisible in everyday life. Upon returning to her home town in 2015 she has worked with the LGBTQI community on mental health issues. She provides therapy online and in person. She is cis gender and identifies as Queer. She completed her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University School of Social Work, 2013.

You can get in touch with her at manjariraji@gmail.com.

From Theory to Practice: Putting Play for Peace Methods to Work

“The incorporation of Play for Peace methods and narrative ideas allows me to create more meaningful conversations. I am able to reach out beyond the problem and find skills in each person.” —Archana Magar, Play for Peace certified trainer

For Play for Peace, cooperative play is used as a catalyst for creating long-lasting positive change at the personal and interpersonal level. It promotes positive relationships among people who live in communities affected by conflict and helps them start a dialogue based on mutual respect. The process begins by creating a safe environment, where people of all ages and backgrounds can experience the joy of play. Since all activities are fun, caring, inclusive and cooperative, group members can get to know each other in a non-threatening environment. Laughing together releases tension, and the games allow participants to build trust in one another. Mutual trust is the condition for cooperating, finding solutions for conflicts, and creating peaceful communities.

Play for Peace clubs around the world use cooperative play to learn about the unique challenges their communities face. Play for Peace’s methodology is the basis for a productive and inclusive dialogue, so it can be incorporated into other concepts and/or programs. Furthermore, using Play for Peace methods not only increases our clubs’ success rate of reaching their objectives, but it also strengthens the sustainability of the Play for Peace model itself.

An example of Play for Peace methods being incorporated into another concept is in the work of Archana Magar, a certified trainer and regional coordinator in India. She currently conducts weekly narrative therapy sessions with terminal stage three cancer patients through a local organization in Mumbai, as well as monthly sessions for special need children and their parents. Narrative therapy concentrates on separating people from their problems while focusing on their many skills, beliefs, values, and abilities. This allows them to reduce the impact of their problems on their lives. The therapy consists of asking questions and helping people to recognize the solution from within. This self-realization makes the solution more effective and something people are more apt to follow. Archana is incorporating narrative ideas into her Play for Peace work and will share her experiences with the Play for Peace community, as well as experts working in therapeutic fields.

Play for Peace’s methodology and narrative therapy share many of the same values, and many Play for Peace activities bring out narrative ideas. This includes the belief that people are experts in their own lives. Conversely, narrative ideas can influence the way a Play for Peace community cooperates. With narrative therapy, the problem is seen as different from the person, so questions can be asked in a way that uncovers the story behind the problem, as well as the skills that will allow the person to solve his or her challenges. Practicing and incorporating narrative ideas in Play for Peace is an initiative and exploration with the ideas such as people being experts of their life. Through facilitating cooperative games, people become leaders and make own decisions. They taking risks and start exploring their own skills.

Archana successfully began incorporating Play for Peace into her narrative therapy sessions in December 2018, and it will be a steady component of future sessions. In her work with palliative care patients with cancer, she uses Play for Peace games to create the feeling of joy and laughter. This creates a safe space for participants to share stories they find within themselves. By using narrative ideas, those stories are analyzed in order to discern the skills they already had had or developed when making decisions in that story.

In a recent session one participant shared: “I would not have understood my own skills of looking at life so beautifully if I hadn’t been part of this session.”

Archana Magar, has shared her experiences with Play for Peace Global and started projects in Cancer Hospital and at the Family Court, applying and developing process of Play for Peace incorporating Narrative Ideas and Practices in this article written by Katrin Huenemoerder, Development Officer & Community Stories Lead at Play for Peace®.

About Archana Magar – 

archana profile

As the Play for Peace Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator, Archana Magar uses her skills and persistence to build and strengthen her community. Archana has been associated with Play for Peace since July 2008. She began as a volunteer and continued attending Play for Peace sessions while pursuing her Master’s degree in communications media for children. While studying, she spent holidays and weekends attending PFP trainings conducted by Swati Bhatt and Agyat Mitra in and around Pune, India. She then applied for certification while conducting PFP sessions in 2010.

Archana is an experiential educator working in the field of Experiential Education through Play for the past ten years. She is associated with organizations and schools to promote child rights, inclusive education, expressive arts-based therapy sessions for mental health, zero violence, and playful teaching techniques for marginalized communities through training processes and workshops.

As a Regional Coordinator, Archana’s responsibilities range from supporting members, clubs and communities, organizing global exchanges, collaborating with other PFP partners, and celebrating successes.

Play for Peace core values are very close to Archana’s heart. She sees enormous opportunities to share her expertise with children, youth, and adults in conflicted areas. This is her Play for Peace dream.

Contact Details:
Archana Magar, Mumbai India
Global Training & Community Events Coordinator
Contact : +91-8767560940
Email : archana@playforpeace.org
Website : http://www.playforpeace.org

Monthly Narrative Gathering -February 2019

Greetings!

Inviting everyone from our narrative community to witness our next monthly Narrative Gathering “Linking lives of parents of children with Autism using narrative ideas and practices”  in February 2019.

Ranjana Chakraborty and Manisha Bhattacharya are both associated with Autism Society West Bengal (ASWB), a parent organization working with families of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

They have been trying to explore narrative possibilities across the array of their work and wish to share their journey and amazing experiences over the past year and how it has changed their lives.

Date: 09th February 2019  

Time: 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm

Venue: Ummeed Training Facility

Zoom is available for those who cannot come in person. 

नैरेटिव सोच और तरीकों पर वर्कशॉप – फरवरी २०१९ / 2-Day Introductory Workshop on Narrative Ideas and Practices

उम्मीद की मानसिक स्वास्थ्य टीम फरवरी २०१९ में २ दिन का ” नैरेटिव सोच और तरीकों ” पर वर्कशॉप करने वाली हैं।
यह वर्कशॉप हिंदी में आयोजित की जाएगी।
अधिक जानकारी के लिए फ्लायर को देखें।

Ummeed’s Mental Health Team is conducting a two-day Introductory Workshop on Narrative Ideas and Practices in Mumbai on the 13th and 14th of February 2019. For more details, please refer to the flyer. Register soon!

ntworkshop hindi -01152019

Beyond the Dominant Concept of Aging by Arpita De

I was occupied with myself in exploring the concept of age or oldness. How do we define age or an aged person? The normative world goes by biological age. Generally there is a defined age to get into an activity/a job and for retirement, too. But what does the word ‘old’ bring in our mind? I have seen people to become sad and unhappy in becoming old. Even I have watched people to react when they receive a birthday wish on their birthday!

‘Oh!  One year more! I am becoming old! It is saddening!’- They often utter.

The word ‘old’ is also being used derogatorily to express inability or incapability. This is not very uncommon in our society. The term sometimes becomes an abused term in the daily discourse to express how incompetent and powerless one is.

I remember one recent incident in the metro. The metro was not much crowded. A young man was standing in front of the senior citizen seat and absorbed in his phone.  Another man entered the train who was visibly aged with white hair. He almost collided with the young man and said ‘could you please shift a little, I want to sit.’ The young man did not shift and not even show that he recognized his request. The train was running. It was really problematic for the old person to keep balance. It was also difficult for him to take a zigzag way to reach the empty seat. After his repeated requests, the old person took the zigzag path and found a seat. He was angry. He started shouting at the boy. The look the young man gave to the elderly gentleman and the body language he showed were mere expressions of abusive power and disrespect. Other people got involved. There were heated exchanges and ultimately when the young man left the train, he uttered an abusive term associated with oldness. It was ‘ghater mara’ (a dead body in queue) which means people having one foot in the grave. We the co-passengers ( 2/3 persons, others were indifferent) were busy trying to resolve the anger and humiliation of the elderly gentleman. Obviously this is not the only story and life is not single storied even.

But it exists in the society. This is how the mainstream deals with the marginalized.

‘Tumi buro! Tomar dara kichhu habe na’ (you are old so you won’t be able to do anything, you are worthless, powerless).

When we attach a gender lens with oldness it takes a different dimension altogether. ‘Girls never talk about their actual age’ goes a popular saying. There are plenty of popular jokes which prevail in the society associated with age and gender. I sometimes feel that they are embedded in the unwritten social norms and in our daily jokes in such a way that we fail to recognize the underlying humiliation and disrespect of these sayings.  People send such posts via WhatsApp and other social media and laugh. I remember stories from my own life. When I started growing white hairs I remembered stinging comments from friends, acquaintances and relatives. I took those comments with playful curiosity. It especially amused me to see the reactions of men with strong judgmental & patriarchal attitudes. Some of them (of my age and having white hair) were really cross. They were questioning me why I would not colour my hair? It sounded to me ‘how dare you to violate the unwritten norm of the society that girls should always try to hide their age?’ It is not again a single story but it is clear that the act of colouring my hair either ‘black’ or ‘green’ or ‘white’ or ‘grey’ is not my personal selection. A dominant surveillance is always there from the society which may include a different patriarchal politics. We need to understand it in different layers.

All these things came in my mind when I got an invitation to design a program to spend an evening in an old age home with the residents. My friend Angana runs an NGO. She works with underprivileged children in Sundarban locality. They were interested to celebrate the evening of the international day of older persons in an old age home. She requested me to design the program.  My mind was wandering in different questions arising out of the allied experiences I gathered in my life. I was trying to understand the dominant meaning of the term ‘aging’. I was relating to this word in the context of my experience and experiences of many others which I have been gathering during my life-journey.

“chaler pathe dine rate dekha habe sabar sathe” (a favourite line of mine from Tagore meaning in the course of the journey I meet so many people ).

Yes, we meet people — so many people — so many dialogues — so many stories –so many narratives.

I started my commencement of learning of narrative practices in the month of July 2017. Jehanjeb and Raviraj ushered me in the world of narratives. That was a magical moment for me to get a direction for my work. It has been redefining my work in the counselling sessions and in my life too. Since then I have been trying to apply it in my practice in the chamber and in everyday life. Things which are highlighted with power and pronounced with pride in the mainstream discourse continuously give rise to some grand narratives. Power and politics play an active role to create these grand narratives. The process of development of this dominant discourse or grand narratives may be very complex, but its manifestation creates people –‘others’ — who do not fall in the dominant group. Hence, the grand narrative gets priority, and the numerous narratives of our lived experience go unnoticed. These countless stories of an individual may hold the real strength of the person. In the chamber of a narrative therapist, those stories sometimes bring magical moments which may lead people to rediscover their strength and agency.

I found it to be important to understand the concept of aging from this dominant societal point of view. My first intention was to deconstruct the reality which identifies aged people as ‘others’ and marginalises them. Secondly, I remembered an exercise of narrative practices focussing on ‘how stories shape us’; this was a wonderful exercise to reflect on a pleasant story of one’s life to explore for new meaning.

In the meantime I met Ujjal (Ujjal Maitra) and Kabirda (Rezaul Kabir) who were from my friend’s NGO. Interestingly, Kabirda has started his work after his retirement from job as a bank official. He visits the school in Sundarban every week, stays there and teaches the children.

We all sat together and decided the program. It was planned in three parts. We would start by performing a drama. It would be a small drama involving natural conversation among four persons (us) exploring and deconstructing the concept of oldness. It would explore some important questions, such as:

─ What is international day of senior persons?

─ What does it mean to celebrate a particular day?

─ Is it important to celebrate a day?

─ There are some provisions for senior citizens. Is it a privilege or it is a right?

─ Is it important to redefine oldness and well-being?

─ Oldness doesn’t mean the end of all attainment. etc.

Finally kabirda (who has started a new life after retirement in Sundarban) would speak about his experience and realization.

In the Second queue we kept the exercise of ‘how stories build us’. We named the exercise in Bengali as ‘Galpo boli galpo shuni’ which means telling stories and listening to stories. Residents would participate in pairs, and they would interview each other following some questions which I translated in Bengali. It would be followed by a discussion and reflection from the participants.

In the last part there would be a celebration. Residents would be free to participate in any manner they pleased. There will be an arrangement of high tea and some gifts (a coffee cup and blanket for the residents) from the NGO too.

We decided one more thing. We designed a small card and planned to visit the residents in person and invite them.

We started working as per our plan. I made the script of the drama keeping in mind the deconstruction of the concepts. I tried to keep it as balanced as possible. I shared the script in the group. Angana made the card.  Ujjal got himself busy in making the other arrangements. I and Angana went to the old age home to visit and invite the residents for the evening. We met them in person and invited them. It was found that many of the residents were in their late seventies.

Finally, the awaited day came. Residents were coming and taking their seats in a hall which was the venue for the program. Some residents were coming with their attendants. Perhaps arthritis was a natural companion of age — I thought. I could feel my excitement inside me, but tried to keep myself as composed as possible. I was a little bit apprehensive about the size of the hall. The hall was small. We expected a number of 25. There was enough space for the drama and the celebration. But I became uneasy about the exercise. Would it be possible to do the exercise comfortably in pairs?

When we started the program, there were at least 40 persons in the hall. Apart from the residents there were participants from the administration too. Surprisingly, most of them were senior citizens. Participants enjoyed the drama. After our conversations in the drama, when Kabirda started talking about his own experience of new work, I found people with curious faces started asking questions. Naturally the session became interactive.

When it was time to start the exercise, we found that it was not possible to make arrangements for pairs to sit face to face. Scarcity of space forced us to pair them sitting side by side. I was slightly disappointed. But I found that the participants started the exercise eagerly. The interviewer and the interviewee became immediately engrossed in the activity. Initially there was a murmuring sound in the hall, but gradually the noise level rose. I was in a position to observe the absorbed faces clearly. The faces were immersed in narrating and listening, and the surrounding noise didn’t bother them. Excitement, happiness, curiosity and joy were dancing in those faces. Their expressions displayed their enjoyment of the exercise. As I witness the spontaneity reflected of each smiling face, my uneasiness and disappointment about the space faded away. This led to some self-reflection of my part regarding my initial views on how this exercise should be conducted. ‘I need to be more flexible’ ─ I thought, as I gained new insights into our concepts of forms/boundaries.

The discussion part was remarkable. They shared their feelings and thoughts and how they liked the activity. They were amazed at the happiness arose from the stories of their shared lived experiences. Some of them also talked about how they could easily relate to their partners’ stories. I remember a story of an elderly lady which came out at the time of discussion.

She was travelling in a country boat with local passengers in Sundarban locality. The passenger who sat next to her had glasses perched on his nose. Somehow a limb of the spectacles became loose which made the villager anxious about his situation. The lady had some band-aids in her bag. She repaired the glass with the ban-aid for immediate use. After this immediate solution of his problem the country man smiled out of relief. She talked about the smile in her story. The smile was so natural and beautiful she felt that she was experiencing God. It was an ‘aha’ moment for the lady, and she realized again in her life that God only resides in human beings.

The celebration was just wonderful. Participants came out spontaneously to sing, to recite and to dance. The administrators of the home had allotted one & half hour for the program. However happiness is not confined to time or space and the event ran over. We too were also drenched with joyfulness and happiness. It was really a motivating experience for all of us.

This experience made me realize how important it was to redefine certain terms such as ‘age’,’ aging’ and even the term ‘boundary. When we impose a boundary of age–  be it for any job, any project, anything–  we need to reflect again and again. In our daily life, in our day-to-day language, we sometimes are constrained by structural dominant ideas about aging and many other things. They are so deeply embedded in our language that we don’t really understand the true significance. We must be very careful and mindful to use such language, such terms. It may be true for anyone who is marginalized on the basis of mental illness, physical disability, gender, race, caste or economic condition.

The experience of that evening reminded me of Shefalidi  (Shefali Maitra) who has been teaching a class on feminism and related issues at the Department of Philosophy, Jadavpur University, after her retirement from the same department. Last year, we, the students celebrated its 10th anniversary. The class doesn’t have any formal recognition. One does not need any money, any degree, any admission test and any fixed affiliation of any subject or profession to take this class.  It is an open class. We call it The Thursday class. We wait eagerly for this class on Thursdays. It is an excellent example of the fact that formal retirement doesn’t speak of any closure.

I remembered the song of Tagore which he wrote when he was eighty.

‘hey nuton

dekha dik aarbar janmero pratham shubhakhan’.

Here he is hailing the new. He wants to see the sacred hour of birth once more.

I feel that the song is talking about continuous renewal. In order to start something one does not have to be confined by boundaries of time and space. Another important thing I realized is that we ignore a very important aspect of life, i.e., lived experience. It holds knowledge, but we ignore it. Older persons have more experience in their knapsack. We often forget to explore it. The program also taught me again that we must be careful about the fact that time is controlling us. Can we try to go beyond the popular concept of ‘time’ too?

 

About the Author –

arpita de

Born in 1963, Arpita spent early childhood in the Himalayan Terrains of Doors region of West Bengal. She received school level education in different district towns and finally came to Kolkata in 1981 for studies in college and University. As a professional, Arpita has a varied experience which includes teaching economics in a college, imparting IT education and developing software, building maps, charts & teaching aids for schools, and running GIS institute and making GIS maps etc. From the very childhood in her lived experience she has discovered different types of discriminations of which the most widespread is gender. The vast exposure in the professional life helped Arpita to understand the unwritten structural disparities prevailing in the job market as well as in the society too. At the same time, in her journey, she recognizes the fact that the real strength of people goes unnoticed in the mainstream culture. Her fascination for psychology and social psychology drew her close to the world of mental health and since 2009, she pursued relevant studies like MA in psychology from IGNOU, Counselling course from JU, Post PG Diploma in school counseling from CU etc. Currently she is doing her Ph D on Stigma and marginalization in mental health, from psychology department of Calcutta University. She is attached to a Kolkata based private hospital as a counsellor and also works in the SPU unit of Applied Psychology, CU. She has a special interest in feminism and related issues. The idea of Narrative Practices has brought new meaning in her work, and life.

Contact : epitome.arpita@gmail.com
Phone : 9830688126
WhatsApp : 9804205018

Arpita De
1 A, Udayan
1918 Garia Place
Kolkata 700084

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