Monday, June 15 2020

We have noted that the House of Representatives of Nepal has passed a constitution amendment Bill for changing the map of Nepal to include parts of Indian territory. We have already made our position clear on this matter. This artificial enlargement of claims is not based on historical fact or evidence and is not tenable.

That’s the spokesperson for the External Affairs Ministry responding to Nepal’s unexpected act of “cartographic aggression.” The Lower House of its Parliament unanimously passed a bill to approve a new map of the country. The problem: it includes three regions—Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura—that are claimed and controlled by India. Illustration: Parth Savla

the big story

The death of Sushant Singh Rajput

The TLDR: The 34-year old actor appears to have died by suicide. The tragic event sparked a heated, often angry—but timely—conversation about mental illness. 


What happened?

Wait, can we start by talking about Rajput’s life instead.


Of course…

He was a Patna boy who wanted to be an astronaut, and later a pilot. As a teenager, he had a ‘Top Gun’ poster on his wall—which he angrily tore up the day his parents insisted on an engineering degree from Delhi Technological University instead. In fact, Rajput was a ridiculously bright science nerd, winning the National Olympiad in Physics.


He would finally rebel in the final year of college—dropping out to move into a tiny flat in Mumbai. Rajput landed his first big role—after playing a backup dancer in ‘Dhoom 2’—in the TV serial ‘Pavitra Rishta’. His big break: ‘Kai Po Che’ in 2013. And his most memorable role: ‘MS Dhoni: The Untold Story.’ For more, read The Hindu’s emotional tribute to his movie career.


Our favourite slice of Rajput’s life: is narrated in his own endearing words


“While preparing for engineering entrance exams, I’d sometimes take a break and stand in front of the mirror and lip-sync to Suraj Hua Maddham. I used to do these things but not with the ambition of becoming an actor. It was just for fun. Honestly, even if I would’ve been offered a role back then, I would’ve refused because I was a complete introvert. 


The lip-syncing and posing would happen only in front of the mirror, with just me in the audience. I wanted to be the head boy in my school but, when I had to give a speech, I didn’t go to school that day. I didn’t want any attention. Of course, we all need some kind of acknowledgement, but I was getting that with my grades. I had just two or three close friends but that was it. Life was perfect! Or so I thought.”


That’s lovely and sad…

Yes, and also a reminder that Rajput is not just a headline or a dead movie star—but a human being who lived and laughed.


Do we know why…?

No. There has been some unverified discussion of his struggle with depression. But until one of his family members decides to share his story, none of us will know—and that’s okay. A person’s medical history is their business, not ours… as in life, so in death. 


But people are talking about mental illness now…

Yes, and it was sparked by ugly media coverage that appeared to blame Rajput for ‘throwing away’ his life—and included photos of his body being wheeled away from his residence. (Reminder: someone leaked a clip of Rishi Kapoor during his last hours at the hospital. So this is hardly a new low). 


But the nastiness led to a big pushback on Twitter—much of which centred on use of the phrase “committed suicide,” which is viewed as harmful.


Wait, why is that wrong?

Because it stigmatizes and assigns blame to the person who died. A psychiatric expert explains


“The term ‘committed suicide’ is damaging because for many, if not most, people it evokes associations with ‘committed a crime’ or ‘committed a sin’ and makes us think about something morally reprehensible or illegal.”


And words matter because media coverage of celebrity deaths exacerbates a phenomenon doctors call ‘suicide contagion’—where exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior increases the number of suicides and suicidal behaviors. A 2018 study found:


“...stories about celebrity suicides, headlines that included information about how a suicide was completed and statements that made suicide seem inevitable were all correlated with suicide contagion. (Other research backs this up: In the four months after Robin Williams’ highly publicized 2014 death by suicide, one study found a 10% increase in suicides across the U.S.).”


Ok, we need to be careful with our words…

Yes, but more importantly, we need to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Suicide is a very preventable tragedy. And the most important aspect of Rajput’s demise—and the one left unaddressed—is our own vulnerability during this time. 


Explain that to me

While there’s been a lot of attention given to the physical effects of the pandemic, it is also wreaking havoc with our mental health. According to the Scientific American:


“Even if most individuals prove resilient, the toll of the ­COVID-19 disruptions and the sheer numbers involved have experts warning of a mental illness ‘tsunami.’ People face a multiple wallop: the threat of disease, loneliness of isolation, loss of loved ones, repercussions of job loss and ongoing uncertainty about when the pandemic will end. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress will undoubtedly follow for some.”


Health professionals who have taken their own lives are like canaries in a coal mine—a warning of the toll that will inevitably affect the wider population. 


This is true in India too?

According to a recent survey, the number of reported cases of mental illness in India rose by 20% within a week of the lockdown. A leading suicide prevention expert warns: “At-risk populations include the 150 million with pre-existing mental health issues, Covid-19 survivors, frontline medical workers, young people, differently abled people, women, workers in the unorganized sector, and the elderly.”


But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are immune (pun unintended).


So what can we do?

First, pay attention to signs of trouble—either in you or your loved one:

  • Physical signs are increased heartbeat or that ‘butterflies in your stomach’ sensation. Also: preoccupation with negative thoughts.
  • Other signs are avoiding or withdrawing from others, becoming easily agitated, or aggressive, and excessive drinking or use of other narcotics.
  • Look for significant changes in daily routine, such as sleep patterns or appetite.
  • A red flag: the inability to focus or accomplish basic daily tasks.
  • And finally: the loss of pleasure and motivation. You stop enjoying your favourite  activities. Or you find yourself losing interest in things that used to drive you.


Point to note: We all will experience some of these ‘symptoms’—and it is entirely natural. But if they start to escalate, then it is time to do something.


What’s that ‘something’?

 Here’s a quick list from The Conversation:

  • helping others
  • finding a type of exercise or physical activity you enjoy (like yoga)
  • getting good sleep
  • eating healthy food
  • connecting with others, building and maintaining positive relationships
  • having realistic expectations (no one is happy and positive all the time)
  • learning ways to relax (such as meditation)
  • counteracting negative or overcritical thinking
  • doing things you enjoy and that give you a sense of accomplishment.


The good news: Research on human resilience shows that the vast majority of us will get through this:


“Two thirds of people follow a resilience trajectory and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25% struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover—a pattern known as the recovery trajectory. And 10% suffer lasting psychological distress. These results hold true across diverse populations and socioeconomic statuses.”


But we all need a helping hand sometimes. 


The bottom line: Suicide is a tragedy that can and should be prevented. Please read this valuable thread by Dr Soumitra Pathare. Plus: here’s a list of suicide prevention hotlines. Please share both widely.


 Reading list: 

  • Hindustan Times has Rajput’s endearing first person account. The Hindu has the best tribute. Here is Rajput’s last Instagram post—a tribute to his late mother.
  • Time has more on ‘suicide contagion’. 
  • Scientific American offers a must-read deep dive into the latest research on the pandemic’s effects on our mental health. 
  • Outlook India reports on how social distancing will affect the mental wellness of Indians.
  • The Conversation has more on how to cultivate mental health.
  • And here’s an excellent guide on how to respond if your loved one is not feeling ok.



sanity break

We totally heart this very funny—and very true—poetic tribute to the power and absurdity of human love.

headlines that matter

Psst from the Editor: A big thank you to all of our awesome founding members and early subscribers for giving splainer such an awesome start. We’re truly grateful and overwhelmed, and feeling kinda like… (h/t Mahesh Rao for the perfect image)


First, the India numbers

  • Latest number of cases: 320,922—after a record single-day jump of 11,929. 
  • Total number of deaths: 9,195—we added 311 to that number on Sunday. 
  • States that have reported the biggest 24-hour jump: Maharashtra (1,764), Tamil Nadu (597), Delhi (530), Uttar Pradesh (216), and Andhra Pradesh (193).
  • The bad news: A government study predicts that we will not hit our peak until October. The previous prediction: mid-July. 
  • Also: by the third week of September, we will not have adequate beds, ventilators etc. to meet our needs.


The virus returns to China

After two virus-free months, Beijing is facing a sudden spike in cases. The reason: an outbreak traced to the city’s largest wholesale food market. Authorities have found 42 symptomatic cases since Thursday—and another 48 asymptomatic cases linked to the market. The market and its neighbouring areas have been shut down, and all group gatherings have been banned. And the city is now on a “wartime emergency” footing to stem the spread. 


Kiwi sports fans have a blast

Over 20,000 fans celebrated the return to normal life and professional rugby over the weekend. New Zealand declared itself virus-free last week. The sports minister said: “It's a world first and it’s a payoff for all the hard work of five million New Zealanders.” See photos here


In related sports news: the Indian cricket board is plotting the return of IPL—but with zero fans in the stadium. The currently favoured venue: 


“If you imagine a city like Mumbai, which has four quality grounds and a fifth nearby in Pune, every side can have their own team hotel. We can explore if rooms need to be next to each other to ensure spacing between players…personalised towels, water bottles.”


Images and videos from the protests

Rightwing types in London decided to protest against the protests against cop violence… by punching cops!

In great need of protection from protesters: Winston Churchill. He is in such peril that his grand-daughter says his statue may have to be moved to a museum (of horrors, perhaps).


Also in need of protection: Wall Street’s mighty bull.



A white woman cop meets a little black girl, and this happened:

The Covid effect: the India edition

  • Raymond has fired hundreds of employees—many of whom have dedicated decades to the company—and in the worst way possible. Somesh Jha’s must-read Business Standard story is here. If you don’t have a subscription, check out his Twitter thread
  • H1-B workers are in peril—thanks to Donald Trump who is planning to suspend all employment-based visas. Numbers to note: The US issues 65,000 H-1B visas each year plus 20,000 advanced degree H-1B visas. Of these, 70% are Indians. 
  • A Mumbai union of domestic workers wants employers to take a Covid test. This is in response to resident associations insisting on the same from household help.
  • Realtors are redoing apartment layouts to make them more spacious and well-ventilated. Also in the blueprint is a separate small room for WFH: “We are replicating office environments at home. So basic infrastructure like electrical points, WiFi and broadband connectivity, air conditioning, power back-up and privacy, which are a given in an office, will all be available to our customers at home.”


The great parotta, paratha, barota debate

Karnataka authorities sparked off a great food debate by ruling that a parotta—not to be confused with the North Indian paratha—will be subject to a 18% GST tax. And that sparked great outrage, leading to a hasty clarification: Only frozen parottas will face such punishment, while the fresh kind will be subject to a normal 5% tax—similar to the humble roti. Indian Express explains the heated history of the tax battle over labeling—which has included existential debates over whether a Fryum is indeed a papad.


A kinder, more sensitive Oscars

The very-white Academy is scrambling to create new guidelines and processes to ensure a ‘more inclusive’ Oscars. There’s a lot of big words here, but here’s the TLDR: Movies submitted  for the Oscars will be subject to a ‘diversity and inclusion’ audit by a to-be-created task force. Point to note: none of this affects the 2020 awards.


Nidhi Razdan bids adieu to TV

The anchor is leaving NDTV after a 21-year stint at the organisation. Her new gig: Associate professor at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences. (Scroll)


Attack of the monster bats!

Mega-bats are terrorising Pakistani villagers and their mango orchards.


“The megabats are seen clinging to branches of trees. They have larger eyes and stronger sense of smell than microbats, but have smaller ears because they don’t echolocate. The rare megabats with wingspans of more than 4-5 feet and weighing 2.5 to 3.5 kilogram each speedily eat premature mangoes in dark times and the mammals cause huge financial losses in millions of rupees to the growers.”


Wingspans of 4-5 feet!!

sanity break

Here’s a compelling and strange gallery of images from socially distanced restaurants around the world.

smart & curious

This is Taapsee Pannu’s tribute to the ‘Pravasi’

This short clip—with Pannu’s voiceover—is moving and a must-watch. The pain in her voice...


A list of intriguing things

A Sri Lankan treasure: Archaeologists have uncovered bone arrowheads that are between 45-48,000 years old in Sri Lanka. Why this matters: This is the oldest such find outside Africa, and it is in South Asia. Scientists have typically looked to Africa and Europe for evidence of early human innovation and creativity.


Behold: baby dragons! These are ancient underwater predators that can live up to 100 years—and only breed once in a decade! They are now on display in a cave in Slovenia.


This is Captain Arjun—the socially distancing robot who will be checking temperatures at a railway station near you. FYI, ARJUN stands for Always be Responsible and Just Use to be Nice.

A Covid-free list of good reads

We’re listing these separately for the benefit of those suffering pandemic fatigue:)

  • National Geographic offers a delightful roundup of wild and wacky lucky charms around the world—from waving cats to silver amulets and red underwear.
  • The lamphone technique allows spies to use lightbulb vibrations to overhear your conversation. Wired explains how.
  • Scroll offers a well-reported deep dive into the grimy world of Delhi cricket—and looks at why it continues to produce some of India’s finest.
  • William Dalrymple offers a stirring argument as to why Britons must tear down the statue of Robert Clive—a notorious and “vicious asset-stripper” and early architect of the colonisation of India.
  • Economic Times has a fun read on the big new trend of online parties—which can cost as much as Rs 25,000-30,000 per soiree.
  • Unography magazine—a recent and delightful find, courtesy one of its creators Dhruv—offers this lovely essay on online dating, which takes a tired topic and makes it fresh. Also refreshing: the illustrations. 


A list of good Covid reads

  • A girl child alert! Attention must be paid to what is happening to young Indian girls, who are being pulled out of school and pushed into marriage. This is an urgent and important bit of reporting.
  • This Covid diary of Indian Express journalist Shalini Langer is harrowing and all-too-relatable. This is how it is now.
  • The Economist offers a smart take on how Indian babudom ruined our fight to contain the virus.
  • Hindustan Times explains how IAS officers helped beat back Covid in Dharavi.
  • An inspiring Covid read: Here’s what octogenarians—who have lived through Partition, famines, riots and more—have to say about the pandemic.

life advisory

So you’re wondering if schools are safe…

New York Times spoke to hundreds of epidemiologists, and they are surprisingly okay with sending their kids back—many as soon as this summer. But only under certain conditions. (New York Times)


So you’re dying for a luxury getaway…

Shrabonti Bagchi—who is also our founding member—takes a tour of ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru to let you know what to expect. We were totally impressed with the UV sterilised pens. (Mint)


So you wanna do some good…

Founding member Amruta Ghanekar’s organisation—Family Planning Association of India—has been providing vital health services through its 40 nationwide clinics. And they have been more critical than ever:


“Most of our clinics remained open throughout the lockdown and continued providing antenatal care, contraception, abortion and other SRH services. The branch staff even distributed contraceptives and HIV medicine at the clients’ door step if they couldn’t reach the clinic.”

But their Covid safety costs have been escalating, and they need our support. Please contribute here. Recommended read: The Atlantic on how Covid has destroyed the sexual health supply chain.

the feel good place

A furry grihapravesh or ‘Who let the dogs in!’ 


The most informative infographic of this pandemic. (h/t our founding member Anita Guha).


This, ahem, academic paper is real. Someone wrote it, and someone published it. When life is funnier than fiction.


Good news alert: Wipro has converted its IT facility in Pune into a 450-bed Covid hospital.

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