A heavy burden

The day had been quite uneventful. I had gone to work in the morning and returned in the evening. After returning, I had gone with my son to our regular park for some much-needed playtime. At the park, it was much quieter than on other days: it was, after all, just before a major holiday. My son and I ran around for a while and played in the dirt. We made friends with tiny wildflowers, rough stones, peeling bark, and shiny beetles. As sunset approached, we regretted having to return home, so as a compromise of sorts, we decided to take the longer, more scenic route back.

Any other day, I might not have noticed the old man walking down the sidewalk toward me, but it was hard to miss him today, since there were no other people. He was crouched over something, panting loudly with a grimace on his face, and barely moving. As I came closer, I noticed what he was holding. It was a bag filled with groceries. I looked at him with concern. The man was most certainly grimacing.

I approached him. “Sir, can I help you?”

He put the bag down on the side of the street and put his arms on his waist. He was still crouched and breathing heavily. “If I can get to the bus-stop, I should be fine,” he said between short breaths.

“Well, I can most certainly help.” Not willing to hurt his self-esteem, I added, “My son and I were returning from the park. I don’t even need to carry your bag. I can put it in the carrier of his stroller.”

The man nodded and I collected his bag. We followed his lead quietly. I did feel the need to make pointless conversation, and he did not feel the need to make eye contact. I understood.

Once we reached the bus-stop near the town library, we parted ways. I said “Have a good weekend.” He nodded and sat down on a bench.

Up until that point, I had been quite happy about the prospect of the long weekend and how I would be spending it, but walking away, I felt a tinge of sadness. Who was this man? Why was he carrying such a burden? Where was he going? What would he be doing tonight? Did he have any family and friends to spend time with during the holiday?

My son is eighteen months old now. I am getting older. One day I will be old too. One day we will no longer be living together. When I am not with him, I hope he instincitively does the right thing. I hope he reaches out to others, because they remind him of his parents.

My son and I reached the intersection. When the lights changed, we crossed the street. I couldn’t help but quickly glance at all the young men and women in their fancy cars.

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Why don’t you have your husband’s surname?

Today, my wife and I went  for our routine eye-check. Both of us were told by the optometrist that our eyes were getting worse with age, that we should eat food with plenty of antioxidants, and that we should wear prescription sunglasses whenever we venture out in the sun.

In addition to these scare tactics, which we’ve gotten quite used to, something a bit awkward happened. During my wife’s eye check-up she was asked by the optometrist, who she had never met before, why she had a different last name from me.

On the surface of it, it seems like a rather harmless question, rather low on the hierarchy of inappropriate questions a person has to deal with it during the course of a day. And yes, it is certainly less demeaning than requiring a woman to state her husband or father’s name, as is done for official documents in India. Thankfully, the United States does not officially condone such patriarchy, and so my wife’s first inclination (and indeed, mine) was to brush the question aside.

Yes, it is a personal choice. I get that. But not asking yourself why someone had no qualms before asking a personal question is to tacitly approve of the default- that women are expected to change their name upon marriage. As a man, of course, I’ve never been asked a similar question, and the idea that I would change my last name, would probably not even occur to anyone. Even so, I’m compelled to do the same thought-experiment. What if the default in society was that the husband changed his last name when he got married? How would I feel about it?

My wife had more earned degrees that I did when we got married. She had a real job with a real income, while I was still a graduate student. Even so, had I been asked the question at the time, I would think of changing my own last name as a nuisance. I’d have to get an affidavit filed and new documents. Changing a name isn’t the same as writing “2013” instead of “2012” on emails after the New Year, and I find that hard to remember as it is. But at the core, more so than the nuisance factor, I’d have to grapple with the expectation that I would give up a part of my identity. Would I do it? Probably not.

It is true that my wife had her father’s surname. It is also true that our son has mine. The hospital in Virginia where he was born had done the right thing: they had not pre-populated the surname field of the birth certificate. Just before our son was born, my wife and I discussed what his name would be, and we both decided together that he would have my last name. I can say honestly that I would have been fine if my son had been given his mother’s surname: I’ll be fine if he changes it in the future.  My point is that it isn’t my decision to make unilaterally. It isn’t about me. The father’s contribution in raising a child isn’t greater than that of the mother. On the contrary, if the life of my boy is any indication, the father has a more peripheral role in a child’s early upbringing. If anything, my wife was being exceptionally generous in agreeing to my surname.

The case of the burning child: spontaneous human combustion?

One morning last week, through a friend on Twitter, I came across a shocking piece of news in The Hindu, arguably, one of India’s finest newspapers. The story entitled “Rare medical condition sets Chennai baby afire repeatedly” detailed the peculiar case of an infant who allegedly caught fire spontaneously shortly after birth. According to the story, widely repeated in both Indian and international media, the boy, Rahul, suffered burn injuries three subsequent times after that first horrifying event.

To quote the story:

He suffers from an extremely rare condition called spontaneous human combustion, doctors at KMC [Kilpauk Medical College Hospital] say. R. Narayana Babu, head of paediatrics at KMC, says the baby was referred to the hospital by the Villupuram collector.

“The dean got a call from the collector and the child came to us on Thursday evening. We researched online and found that over the past 300 years, 200 such cases were reported. The last reported case was of a 73-year-old man who died in his sleep, after going up in flames, in Wales, England, in 1995,” he says.

In the paediatric intensive care unit where Rahul is admitted, the authorities have placed a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher near the baby’s bed to tackle any emergency.

Terming it a ‘rarest of rare occurrence,’ Dr. Babu says, “It has been scientifically documented that concentrated combustion air excreted from the body could result in such episodes. In elderly persons, heavy drinking could lead to the body excreting alcohol-like substance which could get ignited.”

Rahul is now being treated with external application of ointment for his burns.

What struck me immediately was the matter-of-fact approach both the doctors treating the patient and the newspaper reporting the story took to diagnosing a case of “spontaneous human combustion”. What I also found quite odd was that having satisfied themselves that the boy was indeed spontaneously igniting (via some unexplained mechanism), the pediatric unit of the hospital chose to “research” the malady online (because whatever we read online is accurate, right?)

The term “spontaneous human combustion” is a misnomer, since there is no biochemical method by which humans spontaneously ignite. The spontaneous disintegration of a human into flames would also be a thermodynamically unfavorable reaction. A website claiming to describe the process by which a human “spontaneously” burns mentions that “the victim’s clothing is accidentally ignited by an external heat source”. This is as intrinsic a firestarter as being hit by lightning. Yet, we know, all too well, and all too tragically, that under the right circumstances and external flammable agent, humans do burn. In a very few rare cases, what has been called “spontaneous human combustion” (a phenomenon which no one has actually observed first-hand) is the melting of the fat of a deceased human like a candle through a wick-effect. Articles which propagate this phenomenon outline a series of events which are preconditions for this rare incineration: the flame burn victim must die for the body fat to start melting, the skin must be ruptured for the flammable fat to extrude the skin and mix with the clothes in the skin; and there must be a presence of flammable liquids or vapors to ignite the body. What bears repeating is that in these rare cases, the human is always deceased before the body burns.

When I read the report in The Hindu a few points stuck out apart from the bizarre decision of the doctors to consult online “sources”. The boy was burning up repeatedly and the boy was still alive. Therefore, based on the mountain of evidence, the simplest solutions were that the conditions of the house were such that the boy was either accidentally catching on fire or that someone was deliberately setting him on fire. The simplest solutions may be unpalatable, as they certainly are in this case, but they must be examined first before reaching for fantastic assumptions. Occam’s Razor, really should be a model for how we think.

Further, that a young boy accidentally caught on fire was formally possible. But logically, that possibility must decrease with repetition. We can suspect accidental burning if it happens once. But the possibility of this accident occurring, especially after it has happened once, should go down. As an analogy, a man can win a lottery once without suspicion, but if he wins four times in a row, though still possible, we begin to suspect that something else may be a part of the story. In this case, if someone was harming the baby, it would be possible to test this hypothesis by isolating him and keeping him under observation. The outcome could be that the baby did not burn, which would be good news, or that the baby did (and that would open up a new avenue of path-breaking research on a truly unique child).

Instead of waiting and taking the logical approach, the doctors rushed to the media and prescribed this approach to the parents:

Doctors say the parents will be trained to take care to prevent exposing the child to situations that could cause him to go up in flames. “We have to teach them to avoid sending the child out in the sun and specify the kinds of clothes he can wear when he grows up,” Dr. Babu says.

Why did the doctors not consider the possibility that someone was harming the baby? Assuming good faith on their part, perhaps, it was the simplicity of the parents and their displays of concern? Perhaps, it was the unwillingness to acknowledge that someone could do something as heinous? Nonetheless, children are harmed globally and sometimes even by their parents. Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy is real and more prevalent than so called instances of spontaneous combustion. Indian culture would do well to acknowledge its possibility.

POSTSCRIPT: another friend pointed out a new story today that states the baby is “medically” normal and that the authorities are finally suspecting foul-play.

The man in the park

There is a man we meet at the park, just across the street from where we live, every day. He sits on a bench and looks at others who briefly share this public space. We come with our little boy to play. We exchange smiles him. There are others who also come to the park in the evening- runners, those who walk their dogs, watchful parents, and animated children. Some come to quietly enjoy a picnic under the shade of trees. Lovers steal private moments with their faces hidden from the rest of the world. But lovers, athletes, and parents and children have one thing in common: having spent a short amount of time in the park, we return to the city to resume our lives which we’ve briefly paused. The man in the park is in no hurry to go anywhere. He has no true home. He lives in the park.

The man in the park is not alone though. He had a family somewhere. He probably had friends at one time. Now he has acquaintances- other people like him, who because of lack of proper shelter, live with limited privacy in the park. There are people like him who have resigned themselves to their fates. There are other people who do not exchange glances but bear pained expressions: perhaps, the shame of being what our society ingrains as failures bears heavy on their minds. There are those afflicted by maladies of the mind, who speak to trees, squirrels, and the odd person brave enough to give them a blanket or a cup of coffee. There are those whose lives have spiraled into addiction and petty crime. There are those who came to this country in search of a better life, but who soon found that not knowing English or having the social structures they were used to in their native lands only accelerated their falling through the cracks. There are those who dress as if they are going to work, but instead sit on benches smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers acquired from passersby. There are those who have still not given up hope: who temporarily live the park, chain their meager belongings in suitcases to trees, shave in park bathrooms and seek work- any kind of work.

The homeless sit in benches in the evening and chat amongst themselves. They roll out their dirty linen and sleep under the stars, or if it is raining, then crowded together under the shade of a gazebo, at night. In the summer, they seek shade. In the winter, they cover themselves with layers of thick blankets.

The homeless are visible everywhere in the city, but rarely do we make an effort to acknowledge their existence in our shared spaces. We look out in the distance when we come near them, we look at our phones, and we refuse to make eye-contact with them, because to do so is to confirm that like us they too are human. We are too busy with our own lives to concern ourselves with them. And soon they become invisible to us altogether.

I spent many of my formative years in a small town in India, where there were many poor people, but very few people who did not have the means to put even a measly roof over their heads. The first few times I visited Kolkata, I was shocked to see that there were people who were living and dying on the same pavement that other well-to-do citizens in suits and expensive saris were walking by. No one seemed to notice they were there except for me, and that was because I was an outsider not used to seeing such things. Today, I live and work in another city in another country where homelessness is common. I fear I am also getting inoculated against empathy.

Our indifference to the homeless is all the more unfortunate because they are the story-tellers of the city. Their lives speak of heartbreak, tragedy, and magical incoherence. If only we would make an effort to reach out to them.