Photograph by Prima Alam
(with special thanks to Juboraj Shamim)
My little brother Mohan has gone missing again. Haven't seen him around for an entire day now. Second time this week. I suppose as the wiser and more intelligent sibling I should be out looking for him. But this story isn't going to write itself! And I have tonnes of homework to do…
According to my best friend Ranu, kids in big cities aren't allowed out on their own. What a nightmare! How do you hang out with all your friends in the neighbourhood? How do you discover secret shortcuts and climb your favourite tree? How do you show up all of your friends by being the best at hide-and-seek? Or any other game for that matter. I've lost track of the number of times I've won the 'Biggest Star in the Area' annual talent competition. Since we all know each other really well, it's quite common for children to roam around freely and play in our neighbourhood.
Anyway, Mohan is becoming quite a nuisance if you ask me. Not that my mother notices much. Or at least she pretends not to.
"Where's Mohan today, Auntie?" a visitor asked Ma earlier.
"Oh I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Probably just playing outside."
That's a lie. We all know where he really is - next door with his other mother, Saira.
You're probably thinking, 'Two mothers! How progressive for a small town!' Well, let me give you some background before your imagination runs a marathon.
I was about eight when it all started, this other mother business, and it's pretty much been the same story for the past six years. Saira and her husband had moved in next door when Ma was still pregnant with Mohan.
As soon as Mohan was born, Saira was helping Ma look after him and all sorts. She and her husband own a shop down the road, so they were pretty much splashing some serious cash on fulfilling Mohan's every need. Not that I was jealous. Money can't buy talent and I'm priceless.
So my best friend Ranu said that her ma once heard Omar's ma talking about how Saira couldn't have children of her own and wanted to take Mohan away from us.
Once I even heard Saira introducing him as her own son! I didn't bother correcting her. She can have him if she wants. It's really my mother's fault, since 'Mohan' literally means bewitching. I think that's what he's done. He's bewitched poor Saira with his charms, or is it the other way around? Saira's cast a spell on him with the promise of an infinite supply of chocolates and toys.
Ma must have heard these rumours too, because things got a little heated at Mohan's fourth birthday party a couple of years ago. Brother dearest had started calling Saira 'Ma' and treating us like strangers. My mother was not pleased to say the least. A legendary showdown took place that day.
"I know what you're trying to do, Saira! Don't you dare try taking my son away from me! Just because you can't have your own!" Ma was literally screaming her lungs out. She was all red in the face with steam coming out of her ears and everything.
"Oh don't be ridiculous! I can't help it if Mohan loves me more than he loves you!" The Other Ma was being equally as loud, "And we all know that Maya is your preferred child and a girl genius!"
OK, I added that last bit myself. Although I am both the favourite child and a genius.
After this most eventful birthday party, Ma tried everything to keep those two apart. She was pretty harsh with Mohan at first, she even resorted to keeping him locked up at home like one of those city kids who don’t even know who their neighbours are. When severe discipline failed, she resorted to bribing him in order to keep him home. More sweets and toys for the bewitching Mohan!
In the meantime, Saira and her husband had adopted a cute little newborn of their own. Ma's worries seemed to magically evaporate as soon as this happened. Why would Saira want Mohan now that she had a baby to keep her busy? I mean, why would anyone want Mohan anyway? Spoilt brat that he is.
Nothing really changed though, despite the arrival of Saira's newborn. Saira and Mohan are still as inseparable, and insufferable, as ever. But Ma is no longer too concerned by any of it.
So now you can see why it's no surprise that my dearest little brother has gone missing again. I sometimes wonder what it's like for Mohan growing up with two families as well as having an incredibly inspiring and gifted older sister. Maybe I'll ask him, if he comes home today.
Photograph by Prima Alam
We link hands and look at the water as the sun sets on the brook. We watch it glitter as we each swing our legs back and forth wordlessly, lost in thought. I break the silence.
I ask you, “What is your mother like?”
I want to know what kind of woman brought you in to the world.
Was she young? Was she old? Was she married for a long time or was she just a child herself when she had you?
I want to know how much she wanted you.
Were you planned meticulously, did she keep a track of her ovulation chart religiously? Did she have a small ring-bound notebook with baby names which she kept hidden in a secret place?
Or was your name an afterthought? Were you hastily labelled by a shell-shocked teenage Mum?
I want to know whether you look alike.
Did you get your high cheekbones and long straight nose from your mother? Is she an elegant woman with a strong, almost severe face which is growing harsher with age? Or is her face plump? Do her warm, soft features balance out the tough masculine extremes which characterise the face of your father?
I want to know if your mother is a generous lady.
When you were a child did she shower you with gaudy, flashy plastic robots and cars? Did she give you anything your heart desired? Or did she take a more traditional approach, teaching you the values of quality over quantity? Did she carefully hand you a small selection of wooden toys which have been passed down through the generations?
I want to know if you get your personality from your mother.
Is she gregarious and lively on the outside but quiet and secretive on the inside, just like you?
Or is she just one of the two?
I want to know if she is proud of you, and I want to know how she shows it.
Does she keep dozens of framed photographs of you around her living room documenting every stage of your transition from a baby into a man? Does she talk to strangers about you? Or does she keep her love private? Are the pictures of you tucked safely away in a wallet meant for her eyes only?
I want to know how she loves you
Does she call you and text you regularly to say how much she loves you? Or does she think that her love should go without saying and so you never hear her say it, the words “I love you”. I wonder if this has had an effect on you.
I want to know so much about the woman who made you. Which is why I asked you that question,
“What is your mother like?”.
You turn to look at me, open your mouth and reply,
“Yeah, she’s nice”.
Women in Zika affected countries have been advised by their health officials to ‘avoid pregnancy’ in order to minimise their risk of having a baby with birth defects associated with the disease. In El Salvador women are being asked to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.
Zika is a virus spread through mosquito bites, which in adults causes symptoms such as fever, a rash, joint pain and bloodshot eyes. Most adults recover within 7 days and are free of the virus within around 20. Only 20% of adults who have the virus experience symptoms. Zika is not a new virus and has been prevalent in Africa and Asia in the past.
In late 2015 a Brazilian doctor noted the huge increase in the number of microcephaly cases in his region and linked this with the Zika virus. He believes that there is a link between being infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, microcephaly and other birth defects.
At this time, the link between Zika and microcephaly has not been proven, but the evidence that there is a link is growing stronger. There is also evidence to suggest that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually as well as through mosquito bites.
The Zika virus has been spreading rapidly through large parts of Latin America, the location of this outbreak has significance. The majority of countries infected by this most recent outbreak are predominately Roman Catholic countries where abortion is illegal and the population have poor access to family planning education.
The governments' responses to the outbreak have generally been to advise women not to get pregnant. This is little comfort to the thousands of women who are currently pregnant and have been exposed to the Zika virus. In nearly all countries which have been impacted by the recent Zika outbreak, abortion is completely illegal. In Brazil, abortion is only permitted in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, where women have been asked not to get pregnant until 2018, it is not permitted under any circumstances and women face up to 40 years in prison if they seek an illegal termination. At present there is no indication that these governments are willing to change their policy in light of the growing epidemic. As a result, anxious mothers await to see whether their babies will have escaped harm or whether they will be born with long term, debilitating health complications which include visual and hearing problems, seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability and mobility problems. These conditions are often lifelong.
To combat Zika, governments in Latin America are putting money into accelerating research and creating a vaccine. However, it is unclear how long it will take to create a vaccine and how long the threat of this epidemic will last. It is perhaps a consequence of the laws surrounding abortion that health officials have asked women to avoid pregnancy in the first place. In any country this advice is at best naïve, but in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, this advice may be completly unrealistic. The Catholic church’s recommendations for family planning are either to practice complete abstinence or by calculating when a woman is at her least fertile in her cycle.
Evidence shows that in the US nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned, this figure could rise to up to 56% in the Latin America where Catholicism is more widely practiced. The dominance of Catholicism means that access to family planning and sex education is not as widely available as it is in for example, the rest of the Americas.
In response to questions surrounding the Zika virus, Pope Francis has said that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”. He believes this advice to be preferable than the risk of babies being born with microcephaly. Some have read between the lines and believe that Pope Francis is hinting that in light of the outbreak, if devoutly Catholic couples in the region needed to use contraception while at risk of Zika, then that would be ok. But he did not say this explicitly, and the official position of the Church towards contraception and abortion remains unchanged.
With such minimal and impractical advice from the state what hope is there for millions of women who have been given such an impossible task? It seems as though while health officials and scientists hastily conduct research and try to make a vaccine, the responsibility for quelling this epidemic has been given to women of child-bearing age. It is unfair and unfeasible to ask women who have no access to abortion and limited access to contraception and family planning education to ‘avoid pregnancy’. While these governments are doing the best they can to find a vaccine and discover more about the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly a stronger temporary solution is urgently needed. Men and women in the area must be equipped adequately to keep themselves and their families safe, access to education and contraception is needed. Family planning is not only the responsibility of women.
How can we, in non-Zika affected areas help people access the resources that they need?
As a result of this lack of state involvement, more and more people in this region are turning to charities for advice and support. This is where the public can make a difference. If you would like to support people in countries affected by the Zika virus, you can do this by:
More detailed information on how you can make a difference can be found here.
Photograph by Stephen Jackson
When one encounters a story like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” one cannot help but think to what extent our bond with our families which at times seems to be the most unconditional form of love in the world, is in fact conditioned by our physical being. “Metamorphosis” is essentially a story about the imprisonment of a human being within his animal physicality (isn’t it a universal truth?). It is a sad fact, but stories about sick family members, senior homes, among many sad family stories, tell us precisely that family is after all a worldly union. It comes with all the worldly constraints and conditions which challenge the unconditional love we feel within it. Especially when a family member is deprived of basic capacity of communication, due to illness or old age, it becomes difficult for the familial bond to endure.
We all want love to transcend. The difference of skin color, beauty and ugliness, old age, all those worldly things, to be overcome. But the brutal truth told by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is that Gregor was expelled out of his family because of his physical deformity. As he became an unrelatable monstrous bug, the family bond he took for granted deteriorated. When Gregor, propelled by an urge to respond to his family’s inquiry about his bodily conditions, heard only an incomprehensible squeak coming out of his mouth, there was no transcendent love available to him or to his family.
“Metamorphosis” does not so much explain to us what family is than asks: does what we call family (and familial love) always already conjure up definitive categories of humanity? More specifically, does becoming a family require family members to first of all be human? As in Gregor’s case, his new bug body, something that primarily changed nothing of his subjectivity, seems to have expelled him completely from the context of family, as well as from all other social contexts. The moment of despair resulting from miscommunication was robbed by an existential chaos—Gregor was unable to even affirm his own human nature in front of his family. He could not exonerate himself from the condemnation from his very own family of being less than human.
Maybe we should rethink the whole idea that we were born into our families. Maybe there is nothing that we were born into, apart from our bodies, which grant us part of our humanity. The other part consists in our becoming relatable social beings, establishing relationships with other human beings, and finally, becoming a family or a community. Then when old age or sickness seizes us, it will do nothing more than putting the precious feelings we reared to the test. Maybe love will win. Maybe it won’t. Then it will take us back to the examination of what constitutes human.
Carly Dee and Q Lei, Editors of BLYNKT magazine and hosts of BLYNKT podcast