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Dr Shyam K Bhat MD is a
Psychiatrist and Integrative
Medicine specialist.

He is board certified in
Psychiatry, Internal
Medicine, and
Psychosomatic Medicine,
with additional certification
in clinical hypnosis


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The Element of Danger

Shortly after the terrorist attack that Americans refer to as 9/11, a professor I was working with at a university in southern Illinois told me that it would probably be better if I didn’t venture out at night for a few weeks, “until things settle down”. Overnight, images of the brown-skinned hijackers, and of Osama Bin Laden had been burned into the American consciousness. There were reports every day of brown skinned men being beaten up and when a man was shot death in Arizona because he looked, according to the shooter, “like a terrorist”, I became acutely selfconscious of the colour of my skin and even my foreign sounding name.

The next week, I had to go Atlanta for a conference. Midway, during the three-hour flight, I stood up and the airhostess came running to me. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?” she asked me, her eyes slightly wide. A tall man sitting across the aisle from me seemed to be ready to leap out of his seat, should the need arise.

“I need to use the restroom,” I said, feeling like a first grader whose nervous bladder has brought the class to a standstill.

In Atlanta, after the conference I decided to visit the Coca Cola factory. As a single brown guy in a building that housed one of America’s most recognizable symbols of capitalism, I suppose I should not have felt surprised that I was followed all day by a discreet but eagle-eyed security guard.

Back in Springfield, Illinois, not much changed at work – white coats help – and other than one patient who asked me, “Is it true that you guys treat women badly?” the hospital was a sanctuary against the changes outside. A few days later, after I was refused entry into a lounge “because of the colour of your shoes”, I decided to take a break from the Midwest and head to California. Like every liberal who is stuck in Middle America, I always enjoyed my visits to the state. The sight of veshti-clad men, and women in saris walking along the El Camino Highway never failed to comfort me; where else could one eat creamy and spicy dal makhani in a restaurant right opposite one that served quite possibly the best char-grilled burgers in America? (OK, maybe in NYC, but this didn’t seem like a good time to be visiting that city.)

I was staying in Mountain View, at a friend’s place. Kirk, a doctor who had recently moved from Springfield to Stanford, was “Asian”, which is of course an American euphemism to describe anyone with a prominent epicanthic fold. His parents were from China, and he had a Chinese name –“Chang Yung Fa” – but everyone called him by his western name – Kirk. I asked him once what he thought of himself as – Kirk or Yung Fa – and he sad he hadn’t really thought about it.?

As we ate prawns and rice at a restaurant that was more authentically Chinese than any restaurant that I had been to before, I told him about how things had changed in Springfield these past few weeks.

“Nothing’s changed here, right?” I asked.

”I think you should meet a friend of mine,” Kirk said in reply. “His name is Osama.”

The next morning we had breakfast at a small deli run by an irritable old white man. Back in Illinois, I would have assumed that his irritability was reserved for people with the colour of my skin, but here in the Bay Area, in the warm and inclusive atmosphere of California, I really didn’t care. ?As we were finishing up a demitasse of espresso, a red Mazda stopped in the parking lot.? “There he is,” said Kirk.?

Osama was wearing a skullcap even though it was not cold. He walked with a side-to-side swagger and exchanged high fives with Kirk. “Whatup whatup, homie?” he said and sat down. Over breakfast, Osama told me that he was from Lahore, Pakistan, and had been in the US for three years. He had a green card, he said, and worked at a grocery store part time while completing a degree in anthropology at the university.

“What’s it been like for you after 9/11?” I asked at some point during breakfast. Osama shrugged, as he lit a cigarette. “My work is okay, it’s no big deal. Actually it’s better after 9/11 because my boss can’t shout for me in front of the customers. But the campus is out of control, man, I am partying like a mother.”?

“Excuse me?” I said. Kirk interpreted for me. “He’s partying a lot, like crazy, right?”?

Osama nodded. “Yeah, first of all nobody, I mean nobody, asks me to spell my name anymore, none of that, ‘what’s your name again?’ Or ‘What an interesting name’ or any of that crap. Like, everyone knows my name, dude. It’s like I am a freakin’ celeb or something. I am telling you bro, when they started showing Osama Bin Laden on TV, I thought I was screwed. I said, ‘shit, my life is over now. I have to change my name or something.’”?

“So what happened?”?

“It started slowly. I was in the dorm and I started getting emails, invites to parties you know. I think they wanted to make me feel welcome, like they were not judging me or anything. So I went to, like, four parties in a week man. And the women, dude. The women just want to hook up with me.”?

“Meaning they want to sleep with him,” Kirk explained, in case I didn’t understand what Osama was referring to.?

“Yeah, that’s right. They want to take me back to their rooms and they want to be in bed with me shouting out my name, ‘Osama! Osama!’”

I looked sharply this way and that to ensure that nobody had heard. The deli owner was busy slicing pastrami and there was nobody else around.?

“Hey it’s my name man, I should be able to say it loudly if I want to. It means the brave Lion, Osama!” he said once more and then polished off his espresso in one gulp. His phone rang, some new top 40 pop number, and he glanced at the phone: “It’s a girl I am meeting up with tonight. If you know what I mean.”

“Hey Amy.” He winked at us.

“No, no, Osama always has time for you baby, what’s up?”

Of course, Osama’s new found success with women was not surprising: women (or at least those under the age of 30) from all over the world find themselves torn between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the safe and the exciting, the stable and the unpredictable. Nice guys may not finish last, but they don’t always get the girl either, and so while the rubble was still being cleared, as George Bush was in the Oval Office preparing to launch an attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, my friend Osama from Lahore was reaping the unexpected benefits of sharing a name with the most wanted man on earth. The name lent him just enough danger, a frisson of menace, to transform him (at least in the eyes of impressionable young sophomores) from boring to attractive, from geek to cool, from ordinary to exotic.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for Osama’s new found success with the ladies: perhaps the name drew prejudices out into the open; like draining an abscess, the name “Osama” acted like a lancet, allowing hidden and unconscious stereotypes to be released, freeing people to connect with him on a more human level.

Or maybe I am overanalyzing the whole thing, and maybe women in California just have a thing for south Asian men.

Elevator Rules

A few years back, I was in a lift in a hotel in London. There were four or five of us, staring up at the numbers, or at the door, lost in our thoughts as we waited for the lift to get to our floor. On the second floor a young man walked in.

“Hiya, guys,” he said in a singsong Welsh accent. Nobody replied, and the lift started to move again. The friendly Welshman persisted: “I know we are not supposed to talk to people in lifts but look at you all, just standing there and not saying a word to each other, pretending that the other people don’t exist. There’s something wrong with that.”

Although I agreed with his logic, I had become uncharacteristically reticent as a result of my recent move to England, so I didn’t say anything. Neither did anyone else. An old lady nodded in a vague manner. A surly teenager with purple streaks in her hair looked up for a second, before returning to the examination of her black fingernails, and a stiff couple wedged against the mirror at the back stared stonily ahead, ignoring the exchange.

By the time the lift reached my floor, the Welshman had given up trying to make conversation and had joined the rest of us in a silence that had become even more uncomfortable by his earlier attempts at inspiring some kinship and connection with this transient group.

Of all the ironies of postmodern living, the lift is definitely the most striking – even though you are in close proximity to people, so close that you can almost smell them (more on that later), this proximity has nothing to do with intimacy. Indeed, when we are forced to stand close to strangers, we often ignore them as a means of retaining and enhancing our personal space.

So most of us “normal” people are not like the Welshman. Most people choose silence over conversation and adopt a whole range of behaviors that are designed to ensure maximum comfort for all.

Indeed, social behavior on lifts is fast becoming as codified as behavior in other public areas, like movie theaters for example, where talking into your cell phone in the middle of the movie will understandably incur the wrath of those around you.

So what are the rules that people follow while in an elevator? Here are a few: don’t make eye contact; keep greetings to a minimum, a nod and hello at most; if you are speaking with someone before entering the elevator, ensure that you wind down the conversation when you are inside; don’t sing, or hum loudly, and reduce the amount of personal space you are occupying.

To that, I add a final rule: do not fart in a lift (unless of course, there happen to be more than two people in the lift, in which case feel free to indulge – as long as you are discreet, the perpetrator will remain unknown.)

This last rule, I learned the embarrassing way when after a heavy meal I stepped into the elevator and let one off (if you catch my drift) only to have the lift stop at the next floor. The door opened to reveal a beautiful young thing and I would have spoken to her – elevator rules be damned – had not her smile disappeared probably because the fragrance of my Polo Black mingled uneasily with the topnotes of flatulence.

The Mark of a Man

The video that might signal the end of ND Tiwari’s political career could easily have launched him on an entirely different, and arguably more important, career.

If he had played it right, ND could have been an inspirational figure for the old, the infirm, and the sexually dormant all around the country.

Across the globe, another octogenarian politician Bob Dole is remembered more for his Viagra ads than his failed attempt at winning the American presidency.

But Bob has nothing on ND. Bob didn’t star in his own sex video, and to be honest, didn’t have much of a political career.

ND, however, after three decades of screwing the country, showed that he could also do the same to women.

Now, of course, in his debut video, ND lacked the pep and vigour some of us have come to expect from these productions.

For those of you who have not yet seen the video, here’s a recap: ND is lying on his back, his body stiff, save for the vital organ. His eyes are shut and he is looking up at the ceiling as the women minister to his body.

The overall effect is of someone who is undergoing a mild form of torture.

But nevertheless, let us not forget that this video is the first of its kind – an 80-something public figure showing that he still has sexual needs.

What exactly are people outraged about? That he was with prostitutes? That he was doing the dirty at the Raj Bhavan? That he was cheating on his wife?

Sure, those are all issues that are deserving of social censure. But the real reason that people are upset is actually this: ND is an old guy, and our society expects 84 year old grandfathers to play the role of the benevolent, kindly old man fading gently into the sunset.

And then here comes this video, of this old man with three younger women, and viscerally, people react with disgust or ridicule.

Let’s face it – our reactions to ND’s antics are nothing but ageism, a prejudice that is perhaps harder to fight than racism, or sexism, and one that will affect all of us, if we live long enough.

I might be overstating it a bit, but ND might in fact be a hero.

Instead of resorting to the “video was doctored” excuse, he should have held his head high, called a press conference, and used this opportunity as a “teaching moment”.

ND I am sorry that you saw the video of me with those three women.

Reporter Are you sorry because it was an immoral act?

ND No, no, I am sorry that you didn’t have to pay for the video

. Pandemonium breaks out. The reporter thrusts a mike in ND’s face.

Reporter Sir, sir, what are you saying?

ND The video took a lot of effort on my part. You must have seen clearly that I was not actually enjoying it. I was just doing my duty, my son.

Reporter Duty?

ND Yes, I was helping all the older men in our country. Tell me, son, when you are in your 80s and feel that you can’t perform as a man any more, who will you remember? What will you remember? Yes, you will remember ND’s old but strong body and you will think to yourself: If ND could do it, so can I

Pigs Flu

The most frightening thing about the swine flu epidemic is the alacrity with which a segment of the populace began wearing masks.

For all I know, you might have a mask on right now. If so, then please do yourself a favour and get rid of it. It’s useless. Firstly, if you bought the mask from one of those frantic looking men at a traffic signal, you should know that the mask began its life as a bra. (Those men could sell many more masks if they were upfront about its antecedents.) Secondly, even if you are wearing a surgical mask, you are still unprotected – the H1N1 virus is smaller than the pores on a surgical mask. Indeed, wearing an inappropriate mask might actually increase the risk of infection; after all there’s nothing like a bit of warmth and humidity to help make the virus feel at home.

If you really must wear a mask, then the only one that might do you any good is what people in the know call a “N95” mask. No, it’s not made by Nokia, and yes, it might protect you from swine flu, but only if it fits you as tightly as a muzzle on a crazed pit-bull.

But really, the point is not what kind of mask you are wearing, but why you are wearing one at all. One possible explanation is that you are wearing a mask because of a combination of fear and ignorance: the media did everything to scare you and very little to educate you. The reports in the newspaper, the frenzied, masked reporters on television describing another horrific death from swine flu, the name itself – “swine flu” – suggestive of some filthy postapocalyptic disease, all of this caused you to overestimate two things: Your risk of dying from swine flu, and the ability of the mask to protect you. And that is why you wore the mask.

But there was something else, I was convinced, something more to your mask-wearing fetish. A few observations struck me initially:

You are young, and seem healthier than most people who are not wearing masks.

You are male. Either women are generally more sensible, or would rather not have a bra wrapped around their faces.

You have a strange way of assessing and minimising risk in your life: for example, you wear a mask to protect yourself from the unlikely event of dying from swine flu, but you still ride your motorbike without a helmet.

And then I noticed that you seemed happier, more confident than usual. You looked at women with an uncharacteristic poise. You were louder, more assertive. You walked with a swagger, like a person who has conquered the elements, like someone who has stared at a deadly tiger in the face and laughed.

And then I realised that you are wearing a mask because it liberates you. Like alcohol and good dance music, wearing a mask decreases social inhibitions. You discovered the power of the mask, a power that people from all over the world have long known – from shamans in west Africa, to masked revellers at Mardi Gras, from people at masquerade balls, to Kabuki dancers in Japan. With your mask on, you feel empowered. With your mask on, you have found a new freedom. With your mask on, you have become more truly yourself.