Sunday 11 February 2018

Love blossomed in the house of dead

Two spouses of dead meet and fall in love. My latest for the V-Day published in today's Kannada Prabha Sunday supplement. Here's the link:

Friday 9 February 2018

The why of cooking

What’s the most efficient path to kitchen wisdom?

It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.

This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.

The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.

Short of enrolling in a cooking school, is there not a more direct, less haphazard way to arrive at a fuller idea of the theory behind good cooking? One gets the sense that chefs and cookbook authors are in possession of some magnificent guidebook full of culinary insights, consulting it to construct their dishes and revealing its secrets to everyday cooks only in fragments. No book could live up to that hyperbolic image, but I was still surprised, after roughly a year of searching, to find that there are very few books that concisely articulate the concepts that underlie good cooking, in a way that neither patronizes nor overwhelms. One might call what I was looking for “a metacookbook”—a book not about a certain cuisine or style of cooking, but about cooking itself—and I found good ones to be surprisingly rare.

One of the reasons for this is that the standard recommendations for a concept-based book about cooking are not completely helpful. Many of them, I found, were not metacookbooks at all, but rather in-depth guides to mastering the fundamentals of a classically respected cuisine (most often French or Italian) or matter-of-fact catalogues of cooking techniques, such as how to poach an egg or make a soufflé that doesn’t cave in. And of the recommendations that did fit the category, few struck a readable balance between in-the-weeds scientific digressions and everyday pragmatism. After reading through about a dozen metacookbooks, I did eventually arrive at the sort of knowledge I’d hoped for, but I also saw how some were much better than others at getting me there. Of all of them, my favorite—and the one I’m most likely to recommend to a beginning cook with even a faint desire to improve—is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is out this week.

But before getting to Nosrat, I started where nearly everyone appears to start: with Mark Bittman. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was the first book several people (and websites) recommended to me when I first described the sort of knowledge I was after. Indeed, it was the first cookbook I ever received, from a gift-giver who correctly guessed that it would satiate my culinary curiosity (or, less charitably, that it would finally stop me from hovering over the stove, asking questions about every step of a preparation).

People start with How to Cook Everything for good reason: It is near-encyclopedic and approachably written. Moreover, it is highly reliable; when following one of its recipes, disappointments are rare, especially compared to what comes of cooking from the recipes that can appear at the top of Google results. All this, plus the fact that it includes many variations on each recipe, makes How to Cook Everything a fantastic book to have on hand, especially for beginners.

Learning about, say, the etymology of a leafy green sheds little light on how best to prepare it.
Yet, despite being so often recommended, it is not the ideal metacookbook. Over the course of a thousand pages, one may reach an understanding of what it takes for a meal to truly come together, but How to Cook Everything seems like one of those books that few other than the copy editors have read cover to cover. It is best used as a reference book, absorbed in two-to-three page bursts that describe the basics of, say, bouillabaisse or baked potatoes. Reading it in its entirety would be like reading through the dictionary.

Looking for a book that would more clearly illuminate what makes a good meal—which flavors or textures complement each other and fundamentally go together—the next phase of my search focused on science-heavy books. Perhaps I overcorrected by looking next to another common recommendation, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee is a legend in the food world, and the book, first published in 1984, is a favorite of many professional chefs. More than 30 years after its publication, the book still stands as an astounding informational achievement; in the foreword to a more recent edition, McGee recalls having had basic questions about food, failing to find satisfactory answers to them in book form, and hitting the stacks of a college library to read academic papers from journals like Poultry Science and Cereal Chemistry. The book he ended up writing based on that research unsealed knowledge that had previously been considered of narrow interest to academic and industry researchers, and the cooking-obsessed culture that has blossomed since its publication proved his instincts sharp.

The idea of a book that explains everything about cooking, down to the molecule, is fascinating, and On Food and Cooking is a fun title to have around. But learning about, say, the etymology of a leafy green sheds little light on how best to prepare it. McGee’s book is so exhaustive that it might be less readable (in a cover-to-cover sense) than even Bittman’s book. I tried to read it straight through, and stopped dejectedly in the middle of a history of dairy—I think around where McGee describes the first time humans turned water-buffalo milk into mozzarella. McGee’s book is better skipped around in occasionally than turned to for a focused lesson on cooking concepts.

On Food and Cooking inspired a number of cooks and cookbook authors to integrate scientific approaches into their practices, and some of them have produced cookbooks that read as more populist versions of McGee’s book. But however informative they are, the handful that I encountered more than anything prove the difficulty of writing about kitchen science in a way that both grabs the reader and feels relevant to actually developing better cooking instincts. The editors of the exacting and widely beloved magazine Cook’s Illustrated put out The Science of Good Cooking, which breaks its teachings down into 50 lessons—an improvement on McGee from a readability standpoint. Still, the book is hardly more digestible than a textbook, with chapter titles ranging from the weakly playful (“All Potatoes Are Not Created Equal”) to the downright dry (“Potato Starches Can Be Controlled”).

Another option I checked out, Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks, similarly displayed the limits of grounding cooking lessons too much in science; what it made up for in its looser writing style, it more than lost in its distracting tendency to try flattering the “geeks” who might read it by pandering to the most basic clichés about them. The first line of the preface, for instance, is: “Hackers, makers, programmers, nerds, techies—what we’ll call ‘geeks’ for the rest of the book (deal with it)—we’re a creative lot who don’t like to be told what to do.” I know more than a few programmers who would be fascinated by the information in Potter’s book but put off by his tone.
An illustration from Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
If the books put out by Potter and Cook’s Illustrated make clear some of the challenges of framing a scientific approach, The Food Lab—a physical distillation of the spirit and content of J. Kenji López-Alt’s passionately experimental blog of the same name on the website Serious Eats—demonstrates its potential. López-Alt’s method is simple: He tries a bunch of different ways of preparing a dish, and then picks the best recipe and explains why it’s the best, in uncomplicated but unpatronizing language. After a recipe for penne alla vodka, for instance, he includes an explanation of why it’s good not to omit the vodka—it lends the dish a slight piquancy that can cut through the sweetness of the tomatoes and cream—and describes what the sauce tastes like without it. While López-Alt’s book is full of recipes, it in my mind still qualifies as meta because he is intent on taking them apart to see how they work; in this way, López-Alt usefully cuts out some of the inefficient extrapolation that’s usually required to squeeze lessons out of recipes, and simply explains why any given one works.

The downside of The Food Lab (for my purposes) is that it is compiled like How to Cook Everything, which makes reading it all the way through—and coming away with a simple, overarching understanding of the concepts behind good cooking—out of the question. Two prosier science-oriented metacookbooks I came across, Russ Parsons’s How to Read a French Fry and Michael Pollan’s Cooked, were at least meant to be consumed from beginning to end. But Parsons’s, though highly insightful, could have used some further conceptual zooming-out beyond detailing the chemical specifics of certain dishes (like the browning of the titular french fry) and ingredients (like how a berry’s cells change once it’s picked or refrigerated). And the few big thoughts gleaned from Cooked, which takes several detours into memoir and food history, seemed too elementary.

Nosrat’s wisdom is apparent in the way she instructs, which lets her cover food science without ever getting lost in the finer points of chemistry.
To be sure, the scientific route is likely one that will resonate with ambitious home cooks who gravitate toward precision. But I left each of these guides with a nagging sense that there is a simpler way—one more grounded in common sense and intuition—that might inspire people who do not already fancy themselves dedicated cooks and/or scientists. A more welcoming, more widely appealing, and thus more effective method might be one that teaches cooks to start with their thoughts and senses rather than a temperature setting on a sous-vide device. If a lesson or two about science is gained incidentally in the process, fine, but let’s leave the history of water-buffalo domestication out of it for now.

The metacookbooks that take this tack are up against a challenge: It’s hard to teach intuition, which in truth can only fully arise through experience. But it is possible to come close. Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook does a passable job of this, but reads a little too densely for a book about being spontaneous. More impressive was Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty, whose organizing principle is to walk through 20 fundamental building blocks of good cooking—things like “grill,” “vinaigrette,” and my favorite, “think”—and includes recipes and little kitchen experiments that best illustrate each concept.

Cook’s Illustrated gives readers 50 essential lessons and Ruhlman gives them 20, but my favorite metacookbook has only four. They make up its title: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In it, Samin Nosrat, a former chef at the foundational farm-to-table Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse (and, among other things, Michael Pollan’s cooking teacher), offers a beautifully simple checklist for ensuring a dish ends up in a good place: Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.

Much shorter than reference-style books like How to Cook Everything and On Food and Cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is written smoothly and casually, and kept breezy via charming watercolors by the perceptive Bay Area artist Wendy MacNaughton. Nosrat’s wisdom is apparent in the way she instructs, which lets her cover food science without ever getting lost in the finer points of chemistry. Because she puts theory first, her approach to cooking is not just much easier to grasp and emulate than, say, López-Alt’s, but it also applies to just as many dishes. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s framework is a valuable user’s manual for recipes, letting even the greenest cooks disassemble them to see how their parts fit together.

Her book is full of perspective-altering moments that are akin to being told about the arrow hidden in FedEx’s logo and never being able to unsee it. Her guidance in salting water boiled for pasta (which is to do so very generously—it should taste “like the summer sea”) led me to see how much of an exponential leap in quality can come from simply not being afraid of over-salting. There are plenty of books that contain the same information as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—indeed, its bibliography cites books by McGee, Ruhlman, and Pollan—but, at least for readers new to cooking, it demonstrates how some parts of its predecessors could stand to be boiled off. A book like López-Alt’s is highly valuable to have around once one has confidence in the kitchen, but Nosrat’s seems much more vital for the purposes of getting to that point.

Apart from these more subjective assessments of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, there is also an egalitarian argument for Nosrat’s book that recommends it over its peers. While cooking is for many a hobby, it is also a thing that nearly everyone has to do, usually when time is short. As the writer Elizabeth G. Dunn wrote for this site two years ago, so many recipes and cookbooks today “carry promises of speed and ease,” irritatingly claiming that “freezing my own chicken stock is a ‘no-brainer’ [and] homemade Calabrian chili oil is an ‘easy’ way to add big flavor.” These assertions can weigh on hobbyist chefs who, despite trying their darnedest, still find from-scratch recipes onerous and time-consuming. But more importantly, they likely scare off the people who don’t consider themselves cooks in the first place—arguably the people who would benefit most from a few basic pointers. Not everything described in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is easy or quick, but it is nonetheless an achievement that Nosrat’s book would be of value both to people who don’t consider themselves cooks and to people actively striving to become better ones. It is additionally impressive that she accomplished this without going into as much depth as other writers have felt the need to.

On top of Dunn’s point, so many of today’s more popular cookbooks are essentially postcards from some idyllic region or some big-shot chef’s critically acclaimed restaurant. They have recipes, sure, but they devote just as much space to the stuff of aspirational lifestyle publications—short essays reminiscing on some effortless backyard summer dinner party, photography whose beauty is perfectly calibrated to spark envy and lust. These cookbooks can be enchanting, but the message they carry is that your truest, most carefree self is unlockable only by assembling the perfect grain bowl in an immaculate kitchen other than the one you own. Nosrat’s is different. It is about using simple concepts to make the most of the scratched-up cutting board, the stove in need of a thorough cleaning, and the slow-to-heat oven that are already right in front of you.

(Source: The Atlantic)

I deleted WhatsApp for a year and here's what I learned

An initial flurry of real calls and more time to read turned into losing contacts, missing out on groups and upsetting my wife, writes Knut Traisbach in the Guardian. Read on: 

At the end of 2016, I sent a message to all my contacts: “After 31 December, I will not use WhatsApp any more. Instead, I will use Threema and Signal.”

On New Year’s Eve, I closed my WhatsApp account and deleted the app from my phone. A few clicks later, I’d left all my family, friend and work groups, the school groups of my children and all my individual contacts.

During the first minutes of 2017, I saw my friends typing on their phones while mine remained unusually silent. Suddenly I was not available anymore. It felt strange, uncomfortable, daring and good.

My initial reasoning for such a drastic step had little to do with mindfulness or the want of being disconnected. I had installed WhatsApp in 2012 only because all my friends had it. By the end of 2016, the ubiquitous chat app started to send me annoying periodical reminders that it would stop working because the operating system of my beloved Nokia phone was no longer supported.

The notifications made me wonder whether I should be using non-Facebook-owned alternatives and stop spending so much time on convenient but seldom meaningful chats.

My defiance turned into a social experiment: I bought a smarter phone but uninstalled the application that, Facebook says, “one billion people around the world use … every day to stay in touch with their family and friends.”

My app-stinence had a promising start. Good friends sent text messages during New Years Day, called or responded to my calls. Instead of typing and recording messages, I returned to having actual conversations on the phone. My family and closest friends even installed one of the new non-Facebook messaging apps I had suggested, but suddenly I went from having 70 contacts to just 11 on my list.

At the beginning, I often felt isolated and as if I had abandoned friends. Some contacts ebbed away, while I had to withstand the odd awkward look of disbelief and discontent from others when I explained that I did not use WhatsApp.

I checked my phone less – which meant I missed out on what was happening in
my kids’ school groups. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA
After a few weeks, I noticed that I checked my phone less, did not scroll through my contact list to look for updated profile photos or send messages to people low on the conversation list just to say hello. I began to read more. But I also learned what it meant to miss out and not to be part of groups anymore.

When I met friends, I needed to be updated about earlier group exchanges. I had to continually ask my wife about discussions in our kids’ school groups. She became understandably annoyed when forced to scroll through 94 new messages about the next birthday party or unexpected drama in the kindergarden of our two toddlers.

No alternative
In the ensuing discussions over the past year, it became more difficult than I thought to defend my step in terms of privacy and data stinginess. Those sympathetic with my decision often said that for work and social reasons they had no alternative.

A colleague pointed out that he had no Facebook account, so the matching between accounts for advertising purposes was not possible. I knew that in Europe Facebook had been asked to “pause” the data sharing from WhatsApp. “But what happens with the data of up to one billion people that has been matched and shared already?” I asked.

Facebook has not been obliged to delete this data. That we do not know precisely how this data is used to nudge and influence us without us noticing, worried me. “Anyways, I have nothing to hide,” several friends told me, hardly concealing their annoyance. The main question that I started to ask then was: why do we trust private companies more than we trust our governments?

Our default position is to mistrust strangers and governments, but we trust convenient services without really knowing anything about them. We trust that private companies use our data to “improve our lives”, but we hardly reflect on where our lives are taken. Facebook paid $19bn for a company that has encrypted the contents of messages since 2016 and does not advertise.

Clearly there is value in information about our habits and contacts, not just the content of our conversations. Companies create personal profiles with our data, but these profiles are about who we are, not about who we want to be.

During the last year I realised how little we know and how little we care. We do not regard our data as a scarce and valuable commodity. Data seems like time; we just assume it is there.

Over coffee I asked a friend: “If you had only one piece of personal data left to spend, how would you spend it?” He laughed, paused and then his phone whistled.

Ankit Saxena murder: How girlfriend’s mother meticulously planned the killing

The Ankit Saxena murder was meticulously planned by his girlfriend's mother, the probe has revealed. She had intentionally created a road rage like situation before killing the Delhi photographer.

He was murdered in the most brutal fashion even as his parents begged and pleaded before the killers, the eyewitnesses have told the police. Ankit Saxena was in love with a woman called Shehzadi. Her parents were opposed to the relationship. He was stabbed to death by the girl's family in Delhi last week.

The police learnt that Ankit was in his car in the neighbourhood. The girlfriend's mother got to know about the same and rushed to the spot on her scooter. She then intentionally hit against the car which forced Ankit out of the vehicle.

When he got out, the mother confronted him about the relationship. The rest of her family then joined in and started abusing Ankit. They then began assaulting him. His parents were right there and were begging to spare their son's life. However Ankit was murdered in the most brutal fashion, eyewitnesses have told the police.

The eyewitness also said that Ankit's mother too was assaulted when she tried to intervene. When his mother fell to the ground, Ankit tried to save her. As he picked her up, a family member of his girlfriend pulled him by his hair and stabbed him. Shehzadi's uncle and brother held Ankit while the father slit his throat, the police were also told.

(Source: One India)

'World's loneliest bird' dies surrounded by concrete replicas he thought were his family

‘It would have been nice if he had been able to hold on a few more years and found a partner’

A much-celebrated gannet, the only one of its kind living on an island off the coast of New Zealand, has been found dead surrounded by concrete replicas of birds it is believed he thought were his friends and family.

Nigel “no mates”, as he was affectionately known, lived his life on the edge of a desolate cliff on the almost-uninhabited Mana Island, with only 80 fake gannets for company.

His body was found alongside one particular concrete gannet replica conservationists say he believed was his partner. Nigel had attempted to woo the replica in 2013 in an act of courtship, which led to him building a nest from seaweed, mud and twigs for the bird.

“No mates” Nigel was lured to the island five years ago by wildlife officials, who first placed the concrete replicas on the cliff side in December 1997, broadcasting their calls through a sound system in hopes of establishing a new colony.

He was the first gannet to settle on Mana Island in 40 years and conservationists hoped there would be many more, but none followed and he developed a moniker among his fans of “the world’s loneliest bird”.

In a cruel twist of fate, three new gannets were spotted on the island last year on Christmas Eve, marking 20 years since the concrete colony was first established, and it was thought that Nigel would finally have some flesh-and-blood company.

Posting on Facebook, the Friends of Mana Island group, who throughout the years have kept Nigel’s fans up to date with his exploits, said: “Some sad news from the island ... Nigel our first gannet has died suddenly.

“Nigel won the hearts of Friends of Mana Island members and visitors to the island, settling there alone.

“Here’s hoping the three new arrivals stay and reproduce.”

The island itself is a scientific reserve and subject to a restoration project, with seabirds playing a vital role to the ecosystem, their droppings providing rich nutrients and their burrows creating homes for other wildlife.

Nigel’s body was found by Chris Bell, a ranger from the New Zealand Department of Conversation, who also inhabits the island alone.
Nigel surrounded by his concrete look-a-likes (Facebook/Friends of Mana Island)
He told New Zealand news website Stuff that it was incredibly sad to lose the gannet patriarch just as three new birds were joining the colony.

“This just feels like the wrong ending to the story. He died right at the beginning of something great,” he said.

“I certainly feel sad. Having had him sat there year after year with his concrete mate, it just doesn’t seem how it should have ended.

“It would have been nice if he had been able to hold on a few more years to find a partner and breed.”

The Friends of Mana Island group posted a poem in tribute to Nigel, with the lines: “We weeded, we painted, we sprayed guano around, we hoped you’d find the real thing.

“Three newbies arrived, a Christmas surprise, but suddenly you are gone.”

Nigel’s body has now been sent to the Massey University to determine a cause of death.

It is unknown where he will be laid to rest but one fan suggested on the Friends of Mana Island group that he be cremated and his ashes stored in a concrete urn made to look like him.

(Source: Independent)

Women are speaking out about being sexually harassed during Hajj

While one might think that men would tame their vile urges while performing their religious Islamic duties in the holy city of Mecca, the reality is quite disturbing.

Women have recently been speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment while carrying out tawaf around the Kaaba during their pilgrimage to Mecca.

It all started when Pakistani Sabica Khan shared a heartfelt Facebook post in which she detailed being harassed while performing tawaf, after which women began sharing their own encounters with sexual harassment in Mecca.

"My entire experience at the holy city is overshadowed by this horrible incident"

"I was literally petrified."

Khan started off her post by writing, "I was afraid to share this because it might hurt your religious sentiments." She then narrated how she was sexually harassed several times while performing tawaf.

Khan said she first felt a hand on her waist but brushed it off as an innocent mistake. However, the touching persisted and she was very uncomfortable.

"During my sixth tawaf, I suddenly felt something aggressively poking my butt, I froze, unsure of whether it was intentional.

I ignored [it] and just kept moving slowly because the crowd was huge," she wrote.

Khan explained that she could not turn around because of the huge crowd.

"When I reached the Yemeni corner, someone tried to grab and pinch my butt," she added.

In response, she stopped moving, grabbed the harasser's hand and yanked it off her body.

"I was literally petrified. [I] couldn't even escape, so I stood, and turned around as much as I could, to see what's happening, I turned around but... couldn't see who it was," Khan explained.

Khan went on to say she felt "so violated" and was "unable to speak out," adding that she remained quiet about the incident fearing that people would not take her seriously.

"My entire experience at the holy city is overshadowed by this horrible incident," she concluded, urging women to speak up about harassment.

Countless women said they have faced similar encounters

Encouraged by Khan's words, several women commented on the post with their own experiences.

One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, told StepFeed she has been sexually harassed multiple times during her many visits to Mecca for Umrah, the non-mandatory Islamic pilgrimage.

She said harassment is most common in the queue leading to the Black Stone, a rock set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba.

She explained that she has encountered "pinches and inappropriately being touched by male organs at the butt" on multiple occasions.

As a result, during her recent visits to Mecca, she has been avoiding the Black Stone and performing tawaf in the outermost perimeter, which is less crowded.

"Women aren't safe anywhere" ... Women respond to Khan's post:

"The holiest place on Earth disgraced by human beasts"

People are applauding Khan for speaking out

"You're not alone"

The issue seems alarmingly widespread

A reminder of people's hypocrisy

"Places don't matter"

(Source: Step Feed)

Thursday 8 February 2018

I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest, darkest secrets

The dating app knows me better than I do, but these reams of intimate information are just the tip of the iceberg. What if my data is hacked – or sold? asks Judith Duportail in the Guardian. Read on: 

At 9.24pm (and one second) on the night of Wednesday 18 December 2013, from the second arrondissement of Paris, I wrote “Hello!” to my first ever Tinder match. Since that day I’ve fired up the app 920 times and matched with 870 different people. I recall a few of them very well: the ones who either became lovers, friends or terrible first dates. I’ve forgotten all the others. But Tinder has not.

The dating app has 800 pages of information on me, and probably on you too if you are also one of its 50 million users. In March I asked Tinder to grant me access to my personal data. Every European citizen is allowed to do so under EU data protection law, yet very few actually do, according to Tinder.

With the help of privacy activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye from and human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, I emailed Tinder requesting my personal data and got back way more than I bargained for.

Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes”, links to where my Instagram photos would have been had I not previously deleted the associated account, my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many Facebook friends I had, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.

“I am horrified but absolutely not surprised by this amount of data,” said Olivier Keyes, a data scientist at the University of Washington. “Every app you use regularly on your phone owns the same [kinds of information]. Facebook has thousands of pages about you!”

As I flicked through page after page of my data I felt guilty. I was amazed by how much information I was voluntarily disclosing: from locations, interests and jobs, to pictures, music tastes and what I liked to eat. But I quickly realised I wasn’t the only one. A July 2017 study revealed Tinder users are excessively willing to disclose information without realising it.

“You are lured into giving away all this information,” says Luke Stark, a digital technology sociologist at Dartmouth University. “Apps such as Tinder are taking advantage of a simple emotional phenomenon; we can’t feel data. This is why seeing everything printed strikes you. We are physical creatures. We need materiality.”

Reading through the 1,700 Tinder messages I’ve sent since 2013, I took a trip into my hopes, fears, sexual preferences and deepest secrets. Tinder knows me so well. It knows the real, inglorious version of me who copy-pasted the same joke to match 567, 568, and 569; who exchanged compulsively with 16 different people simultaneously one New Year’s Day, and then ghosted 16 of them.

“What you are describing is called secondary implicit disclosed information,” explains Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology at Carnegie Mellon University. “Tinder knows much more about you when studying your behaviour on the app. It knows how often you connect and at which times; the percentage of white men, black men, Asian men you have matched; which kinds of people are interested in you; which words you use the most; how much time people spend on your picture before swiping you, and so on. Personal data is the fuel of the economy. Consumers’ data is being traded and transacted for the purpose of advertising.”

Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states your data may be used to deliver “targeted advertising”.

All that data, ripe for the picking

Tinder: ‘You should not expect that your personal information, chats, or other communications will always remain secure.’ Photograph: Alamy
What will happen if this treasure trove of data gets hacked, is made public or simply bought by another company? I can almost feel the shame I would experience. The thought that, before sending me these 800 pages, someone at Tinder might have read them already makes me cringe.

Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states: “you should not expect that your personal information, chats, or other communications will always remain secure”. As a few minutes with a perfectly clear tutorial on GitHub called Tinder Scraper that can “collect information on users in order to draw insights that may serve the public” shows, Tinder is only being honest.

In May, an algorithm was used to scrape 40,000 profile images from the platform in order to build an AI to “genderise” faces. A few months earlier, 70,000 profiles from OkCupid (owned by Tinder’s parent company Match Group) were made public by a Danish researcher some commentators have labelled a “white supremacist”, who used the data to try to establish a link between intelligence and religious beliefs. The data is still out there.

So why does Tinder need all that information on you? “To personalise the experience for each of our users around the world,” according to a Tinder spokesperson. “Our matching tools are dynamic and consider various factors when displaying potential matches in order to personalise the experience for each of our users.”

Unfortunately when asked how those matches are personalised using my information, and which kinds of profiles I will be shown as a result, Tinder was less than forthcoming.

“Our matching tools are a core part of our technology and intellectual property, and we are ultimately unable to share information about our these proprietary tools,” the spokesperson said.

The trouble is these 800 pages of my most intimate data are actually just the tip of the iceberg. “Your personal data affects who you see first on Tinder, yes,” says Dehaye. “But also what job offers you have access to on LinkedIn, how much you will pay for insuring your car, which ad you will see in the tube and if you can subscribe to a loan.

“We are leaning towards a more and more opaque society, towards an even more intangible world where data collected about you will decide even larger facets of your life. Eventually, your whole existence will be affected.”

Tinder is often compared to a bar full of singles, but it’s more like a bar full of single people chosen for me while studying my behaviour, reading my diary and with new people constantly selected based on my live reactions.

As a typical millennial constantly glued to my phone, my virtual life has fully merged with my real life. There is no difference any more. Tinder is how I meet people, so this is my reality. It is a reality that is constantly being shaped by others – but good luck trying to find out how.

Yes, female genital mutilation happens in India

They promise you a chocolate, a movie or just an outing; they take you instead to dingy, dark room, pin you to a bed, take off your pants and cut that tiny part of you that was eventually supposed to make you experience one of the greatest pleasures of being a woman. With blades, knives or anything remotely sharp and long, they cut off your clitoris, and say it's in the name of culture. All this when you're a young girl of seven, or eight, or nine.

Female genital mutilation (FGM)--also known as khatna or khafz in the Muslim Bohra community, where it is practised in India--does not have any laws in India banning it. The United Nations has declared female genital mutilation a human rights violation, and yet, the act is not banned in India.

Why do some girls have to go through the torture?
In the community, the clitoris part of a woman's vagina is also known as 'haraam ki boti' or 'source of sin' or more simply, 'unwanted skin'. The idea behind cutting off this part of the vagina is padded with centuries of patriarchy--if a woman knows the pleasure she can receive through it, she might go "astray" in the marriage, or bring "shame" to the community.

For the uninitiated, the clitoris has more nerve endings than anywhere else in the female human body. So, depending on how sensitive a woman's clitoris is, they either derive absolute pleasure from it, or its stimulation can sometimes even lead to pain. The most interesting nugget of information is that the sole purpose of the clitoris is to derive pleasure. No other male or female organ is designed only for pleasure, according to

Who cuts the clitoris?
Untrained midwives or older women in the community are usually the ones carrying out this procedure. The procedure is carried out usually with a knife or a blade, on girls aged anywhere between six and 10--the idea is to "get it over with" before they hit puberty.

More often than not, girls end up getting unwanted infections, have to tolerate extreme pain, or just end up bleeding for days together, because of the lack of training of the women performing these procedures.

How does FGM effect women later in life?
Cases of some women blocking out the horrid experience completely have been reported. They don't even know what's been done to their body. It's a very effective psychological way of blocking out pain from early years; minor rape victims have been reported using the same defense mechanism to "erase" the painful memory.

Even the ones who remember look at sexual intercourse as just an activity they need to do after marriage; the idea of pleasure thrown out of the window.

"I don't think I ever enjoyed sex in my marriage. I often wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't been cut. The sad part is I will never know," a mother from the Bohra community of Mumbai, who chooses to remain anonymous, told Hindustan Times.

The irony is, the Bohra community is known to be a more "open" Muslim community than most others, as it allows for its girls to get an education and travel, if they wish to.

Why is India becoming a hub for FGM?
The Muslim Bohra community is spread over the western cities of India, Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa, and some strewn parts of America and Australia.

 India is now becoming a hub for FGM because of the recent legal action taken against FGM among Bohras in Australia and USA. In 2016, Australia sentenced three Dawoodi Bohras to 15 months in jail under the country's female genital mutilation law. In 2017, United States officials arrested two doctors in Detroit for allegedly cutting the private parts of six girls; the trial is still underway.

In India of 2018, however, a law against female genital mutilation remains to be formed.

(Source: India Today)

Who was Dilli’s Khilji?

Ranveer Singh's portrayal of Alauddin Khilji has made the Delhi Sultanate ruler one of the most talked-about villains. It has also sparked off conflicting opinions about the ruler. ToI took a group of historians and explorers to Khilji's Tomb for a conversation on the Delhi-Khilji connect. Read on: 

"Who was Alauddin Khilji?" a child, who had come to visit the Qutub Complex recently, asked his parents. They quickly replied, "He was a ruler and someone you will watch in Padmaavat." This brief conversation made historian Archana Ojha smile.

The professor at Kamala Nehru College gave us a tour of the Khilji Tomb and talked about the ruler's influence on Delhi, his contribution to the city's architecture, as well as some interesting facts about the places in Delhi with a Khilji connection.

Joining her on the tour were Ajeet Kumar, a history professor at Kirori Mal College, and explorers Shrawan Chinchwadkar and Soumi Roy from the Delhi-based tour agency India City Walks. Soumi curates walks at various monuments and told us that the buzz around Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest release has led to an increase in the number of tourists visiting his tomb, which was earlier neglected by tourists visiting the Qutub Minar.

"Only a few know about Khilji and the history of this place. So earlier, most tourists would just ignore it as it wasn't the most 'beautiful' monument around," Soumi said.
(L-R) Ajeet Kumar, history professor, Kirori Mal College, Archana Ojha, history professor, Kamala Nehru College, Soumi Roy, explorers, India City Walks and Shrawan Chinchwadkar, explorers, India City Walks (BCCL/ Ranjit Kumar)
'Khilji wasn't a barbarian, stubborn ruler. He was a strategic administrator'
While Bhansali's Khilji might remind you of Khal Drogo from Game Of Thrones - a barbaric ruler who wears furry overcoats and gets an ostrich when asked for just a feather - historians insist that's how the ruler is described by popular culture, but that isn't who Khilji was. He was a ruler who used to spend 16-18 hours discussing ways to expand his kingdom to bring economic stability and devise strategies to strengthen his army.

Ajeet said, "If true history is shown in any movie, it will turn out to be a flop. I think we need to keep movies separate from history, so if Ranveer Singh looks like a Khilji who was a barbaric ruler, then that's not surprising."

Archana added, "In movies, they show that the lives of the rulers were grand, but the reality is that most of their time was spent in fighting wars and working long hours."
Qutub Minar
'Khilji is also called a medieval economist'
Delhi is known for its street markets, but what Delhiites do not know is that it was Khilji who introduced segregated markets.

"People go to Chandni Chowk when they want to buy clothes and a different market when they want to buy electronics. This is exactly how markets were segregated in the medieval times," said Soumi.
Hauz-i- Khas
'Bhansali's Khilji wears furs, Allauddin used to wear cottons'
While Bhansali's Khilji wears furs, the real Khilji used to wear cotton clothes.

Ojha told us, "At the beginning of the Turkish invasion, particularly from the period of Qutub-ud-din Aibak, at the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate, new dressing styles were introduced. Rulers would wear long coats and pyajamas with leather boots. But after some time, they realised that wearing those kinds of clothes wasn't conducive to the Delhi weather or anywhere in the northern part of India. Then they started wearing cottons rather than woollens. Ranveer's look in movie is not what Khilji was. The film looks too exotic and grand."
Alai Minar
'If it wouldn't have been for Khilji, Delhi would have been a different city'
No matter how much people denounce Khilji in popular culture, Archana says that Khilji's contribution to medieval history is immense.

"What Delhi's architecture is today is because of him. South Delhi, which is a prime location where everyone wants to own a house, is where the Sultanate also decided to establish their empire," she said.

Ajeet added, "Delhi would have been very different without Khilji."
Khalji's Tomb
'Khilji built the extended area of the qutub complex. The Alai Darwaza is an example of his architectural brilliance'
Can you imagine exploring Delhi without going to Siri Fort or Hauz Khas? Well, hadn't it been for Khilji, Delhi would not have had any of these sites.

Soumi said, "Delhi's architecture wouldn't have been what it is if it wouldn't have been for Khilji. The tourists and the locals love these places and the footfall at all these places, especially the Khilji Tomb, has increased significantly, thanks to the Padmaavat buzz."

"The Qutub complex was the first complex of Delhi - built by Qutub-ud-din Aibak, sultan of Delhi - and the complex that we see today is an extended area built by Khilji. One of the examples of Khilji's architectural brilliance is the Alai Darwaza. There were four darwazas initially, but all of them are broken now," said Ajeet.

"We need to understand that the site where Khilji's Tomb is, was not discovered by Sultanate rulers. It was the provincial city of the Chauhan dynasty. There was Lal Kot in Mehruali, which is very close to this place, with a six-feet-high fortification wall. So, this site was considered to be geologically, geographically and strategically important, because from here, one could also control Rajasthan," added Archana.

Siri Fort remains
'Padmaavat has created curiosity about Alauddin Khilji among people'
Apart from those who conduct history walks, nobody, not even guides talk in detail about Khilji's Tomb, but after Padmaavat, the curiosity about Khilji has led to a jump in the number of tourists visiting the Qutub complex.

"Whenever a Bollywood or a Hollywood movie is made on a specific topic, it generates an interest among people. For example, PK brought Agrasen Ki Baoli into the limelight," said Soumi, while Shrawan gave the example of Jodhaa Akbar making the Agra Fort popular.

"When Jodhaa Akbar released, there was an increased interest in Agra Fort and Akbar's personality. Movies - Hollywood or Bollywood - have acted as a tool in piquing the curiosity of the locals about the landmarks of the place where the movie is based. The Harry Potter series made a village in Edinburgh a major tourist spot. So, at present, we have Padmaavat which has made people curious about Alauddin Khilji's dynasty and how he was as a person. Delhi also has its own connection with Khilji," said Shrawan.

Talking about the connection, Archana said that Khilji will always be of interest to Delhiites because of "his association with Delhi, what he did for it, and the kind of architectural features that he added to the city."

Single mother conducted her daughter’s kanyadaan

She was both mother and father to her daughter Sandhya. There was no question who would perform the Kanyadaan, writes Anakha Arikara in TBI. Read on: 

The picture is of a young bride, as the groom ties the auspicious mangalsutra around her neck.

It is a typical wedding picture, until you look closer, and see that the bride is sitting on her mother’s lap, in what is traditionally known as the practice of Kanyadaan.

The ritual holds particular significance in Hindu weddings, where it is the father who presents the bride to the groom, entrusting his daughter to him to cherish and care for, for the rest of their lives. When the father is not present, the honour goes to an uncle or any other male relative.

So when Raji Sharma, a single mother, stepped up to give away her daughter, Sandhya, many people were intrigued, and amazed that a woman had broken all conventions to perform the Kanyadaan!

“When Sandhya wanted to have a Hindu Brahmin wedding, the one thing I was worried about was Kanyadaan. In my daughter’s case, I wanted to take on the father’s role, but I didn’t know if my family would support my decision, or if I could even find a priest who would do it,” recalls Raji.

However, when she told the family about her desire to play a part in the auspicious ritual, they welcomed the idea with open arms and an open mind.

“They told me that as I have been both her mother and her father throughout her life, there was no question that I should be one who performs the Kanyadaan,” she says.

The family then set about finding a priest who would agree to such an unconventional wedding! Their search brought them to Raghavan, the priest who conducted the ceremony, and he had no qualms about it.

And thus, it was Raji who proudly gave her daughter away, a moment which was clicked flawlessly, by wedding photographer, Varun Suresh. On his blog, he remembers that the wedding was unlike any other he had attended.

“This wedding definitely got the better of me. The sheer extent of happiness that was shared and celebrated was humbling. I can easily say, even if this wedding lasted another week I would have shot through every second of it without breaking Facebook with my complaints,” he writes.

Raji’s journey hasn’t been easy. Hailing from a family settled in Chennai, she relocated to Sydney, Australia, after her marriage. Seventeen years and two kids later, she went through a divorce and had to rebuild her life again.

“I was at risk of losing my job, and I was going through a tough period in my life. I used to tell myself to think of and be inspired by the other Indians who had just landed in Australia and were trying to build new lives. With my amazing kids for support, I was able to get through it,” she recounts.

Raji is someone who believes that everything happens for a reason in life and every challenge teaches new skills. She says being the youngest sibling in her family, and relocating to different cities throughout her childhood gave her two admirable qualities: resilience and acceptance.

Today, she is a hardworking single mother, who has a great job at VMWare, and two wonderful kids, Sandhya and Mahesh, her pride and joy. She is also a passionate cook, and teaches cooking on the weekends!

When people see that photograph, they don’t see a woman going against tradition. They see the pure, unadulterated joy of a family.

They see a mother whose heart is filled with pride and love for her daughter—and that is really what makes a mere ritual, something of meaning and beauty.

HIA listed in top most beautiful airports in the world

Business Insider has listed Hamad International Airport in the 14 most beautiful airports in the world.

The American financial news website selected the top 14 airports based on architectural features and amenities.

The reputed website described Hamad International Airport as a modern art museum.  “Some parts of its interior look like a modern art museum,” the website said in its listing.

Among other airports Vancouver International Airport, Singapore Changi Airport, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Marrakesh Menara Airport also made it to the list.

HIA is currently a candidate for the “Best Airport in the World” award by Skytrax, which also classified it as a five-star airport in 2017, making it one among only five other airports in the world to achieve this prestigious status. Earlier this year, it was ranked sixth Best Airport in the World by the 2017 Skytrax World Airport Awards, moving up four places from 2016. HIA has also won the "Best Airport in the Middle East" title for three years in a row and "Best Staff Service in the Middle East" for two years in a row.

(Source: The Peninsula)

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Sherry Johnson was raped, pregnant and married by 11. Now she's fighting to end child marriage in America

In Florida's halls of power, Sherry Johnson is somewhat of an anomaly: a black woman who grew up destitute and survived child abuse.

Her story is shocking. Raped at 8 and pregnant at 10, she was forced to marry her rapist at 11. She had to abandon high school after the babies kept coming.

For years, she kept silent. But now, her voice rings clear in chambers where the state's laws are made. Her unrelenting public pleas to end child marriage are being heard.

After a lifetime of struggle, Johnson's time has come. Finally.

At 58, she sports a head full of thick, tight curls and a pantsuit that would make Hillary Clinton proud. She navigates the corridors of the Capitol with a black binder tucked under her left arm, a purse slung over her shoulder and a fierce look of determination.

I struggle to keep pace with her as she makes her way past sepia-toned photographs celebrating Florida in the early 20th century, as though they were glorious times for everyone. Past the rows and rows of framed faces of lawmakers who gained fame within these walls.

"All men," Johnson observes, as we dash by.

Johnson found an ally in Lauren Book, a Florida state senator
who is a co-sponsor of the child marriage bill.
On this winter morning, days into the 2018 legislative session, she is on her way to meet with a state senator co-sponsoring a bill to abolish child marriage in Florida. An identical version has been introduced in the House.

Johnson has spent the last five years lobbying lawmakers to stop the kind of abuse she suffered in her childhood. An effort to ban child marriage under the age of 16 got traction in the Florida House in 2014 but went nowhere in the Senate. Since then, Johnson's words have fallen on deaf ears. Doors have closed on her. Until recently.

As incredible as this may sound, Florida stands poised to become the first state in America to say no, unequivocally, to all marriages of minors.

Last year, Texas and Virginia enacted new laws limiting marriage to those 18 and over, but they made narrow exceptions for minors granted adult rights by the courts. The bills before the Florida legislature set 18 as the age for marriage and allow zero exceptions.

In Suite 202 of the Senate Office Building, Johnson gets a hug from Lauren Book, a 33-year-old senator from the south Florida city of Plantation who herself is a child abuse survivor and activist.

Book has blond hair, a Florida tan and big, bookish glasses. Her walls are blanketed by inspirational quotations from Plato, Shakespeare and even Coco Chanel: "If you're sad, add more lipstick and attack." She displays a brass desk plate that asks: "What would Beyonce do?"

Johnson has been testifying about her cruel childhood at the Capitol. Lawmakers say she has been instrumental in gathering support for the child marriage bill.
"Sherry and I have a lot in common," Book tells me.

"Until you put a face on this issue, people don't understand," she adds. "And Sherry has been that face. She has been able to destigmatize the process."

Book signed on as co-sponsor of the Senate child marriage bill introduced by Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican and rape survivor. The two women legislators embraced the #MeToo movement and have been vocal on sexual misconduct allegations clouding the Florida Legislature.

In Book, Johnson sees an ally. If the bill passes, Johnson wants to stage a play based on her 2013 autobiographical novel, "Forgiving the Unforgiveable." She's also compiled a budget for a bus tour to promote awareness. She asks Book to help her brainstorm ways to raise money.

"When the bill passes, I want the community to know this has happened," Johnson says. "I just want ideas. This is all so new to me."

"You've been working so hard to make all this happen," Book replies. "You have a lot going on. Take a break."

"I can't relax right now," Johnson says without hesitation. "I'm on a journey."

'I'm coming out'
I first spoke with Johnson a couple of months ago and was taken aback that child marriage was still a persistent problem in the United States.

hild marriages are legal in every US state because of a hodgepodge of exceptions that let minors get married with parental consent or judicial approval. A majority of these marriages are coerced and involve girls marrying adult men, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit group that tracks child marriage and aims to end gender-based violence.

The US State Department considers forced marriage a human rights abuse and, in the case of minors, a form of child abuse.

Though child marriages represent a fraction of all US marriages, the numbers remain significant. The Pew Research Center found that in 2014, nearly 60,000 15- to 17-year-olds were in marriages.

Few perceive America as a land where child marriage occurs; we think of developing nations like Afghanistan, Somalia and my homeland, India, which ignobly led the world with almost 27 million child marriages in 2017.

If the bills before its Legislature pass, Florida will become the first state to ban, unequivocally, all marriages of minors.
My own grandmother was the same age as Johnson -- 11 -- when she was married off to my grandfather. My great aunt was 14 on her wedding day. When her husband died soon after, she led the austere life of a Hindu widow, ostracized by society until her death at 90 as though she were somehow to blame.

I was drawn to Johnson's story and am even more so now, when increasing numbers of women are feeling empowered to speak out about abuse.

The women's movement has been gaining momentum and has helped push forward child marriage bills. Besides Florida, a dozen other states have legislation pending, though not all would set a strict age floor at 18.

In Florida, Johnson has been instrumental. She has been vocal about the cruel story of her childhood. She hopes that one day soon, she might be able to stand next to the governor as he signs a child marriage ban into law.

That would be the vindication she has so earnestly sought.

There has been little opposition to the bill, though critics would still like Florida to make exceptions for minors who are voluntary participants or if their would-be spouses are in the military. Young servicemen and women sometimes want to marry their girlfriends or boyfriends before deploying on dangerous missions.

To that argument, Johnson retorts: If you are under 18, you cannot make any other legal decisions.

You cannot buy a house, join the military, vote, rent a car or drink alcohol. How is it possible then to make a wise decision about entering into a legally binding partnership, one that is meant to be permanent?

Johnson leaves Book's office brimming with excitement.

"You know that song, 'I'm Coming Out' by Diana Ross?" she asks as we climb into her car. She starts belting out the lyrics: I want the world to know... There's a new me coming out. And I just had to live. And I want to give. I'm completely positive.

"This is exactly what's happening," she says. "People are coming out. My soul is so happy right now."

She has ambitions to organize a conference for survivors of child abuse and child marriage, so they can express themselves in public, just like she did when she testified before lawmakers. "So they can get it all out," she says.

She knows the importance of that firsthand.

A mother and wife by fifth grade
As a little girl, Johnson lived with her mother in Tampa in the back of the parsonage of their church. She was an only child.

Johnson and her mother belonged to an apostolic church and went to mandatory service six days a week, sometimes seven. Hats and long sleeves were required for the girls and women; they could not wear pants or jewelry. They behaved in accordance with strict church guidelines, and the elders told them what they could say or do.

Johnson's mother spent little time with her. When she did, it was to bake biscuits and fruit pies for the church. There was no television in the house, but her mother would, on occasion, sit down with Johnson with a coloring book and pencils. That is the fondest memory Johnson has of her childhood.

Johnson was forced to marry a man who raped her. She was so young she did not know how to act and mimicked the married couples she saw at her church.
Each day before school, Johnson sought out her aunt for lunch money because Johnson's mother worked as a substitute teacher and could barely make ends meet. Her aunt lived nearby in the same house as the bishop of their church, and one day, when Johnson was 8, he summoned her into his bedroom.

I got your lunch money. Come and get it.

He forced her to lie on the bed, used petroleum jelly and penetrated her. He said nothing and then sent her on her way, blood dripping down her legs. Johnson ran to a bathroom to wash herself, but she was a child in the fourth grade. She could not understand what had happened.

After that, she was raped repeatedly by the bishop and also a church deacon. But when she tried to talk about it, no one believed her, not even her mother. It happened so frequently that Johnson accepted it as a part of growing up.

Her elementary school classmates cruelly told her she smelled like fish.

Several months passed when, one day in class, she was summoned to a room where students received their vaccinations. Johnson was confused. She never got shots; her church forbade them.

She was examined by a nurse and sent back to class. A few minutes later, she heard her name again, blaring through the intercom. She was to collect all her belongings and wait in the office for her mother to pick her up. What had she done wrong?

You're going to have a baby, her mother blurted out in the car. Who's been messing with you?

I tried to tell you, Johnson replied. But you said I was lying.

A doctor examined her and gave her the news: She was seven months pregnant. She did the math and knew it was the deacon's baby.

Her mother stood up in church and told everyone her daughter was lying about being raped. She blamed Johnson for bringing shame on the family and sent her away to Miami with the bishop who had raped her. She was dropped off at Jackson Memorial Hospital and left there alone to have her baby.

On a February night in 1970, Johnson, only 10 years old, waited in a hospital hallway. She tried to imagine how a baby would come out of her body; no one had explained it to her. The stares burned through her; she felt like an oddity at an amusement park.

At 1:54 a.m., she gave birth to her first child. When she returned to Tampa, a child welfare worker came by to ask questions. She figures her elementary school must have tipped off the state.

The men who had raped her were adults and if the truth were to surface, they would face statutory rape charges. Instead, Johnson's mother arranged for her daughter to marry one of her rapists, the deacon. She bought a white dress and veil for her daughter and accompanied bride and groom to the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa.

Johnson was 11. The man she was marrying was 20.

Johnson remembers sitting at a long table that seemed bigger than her house. She remembers her mother speaking with the judge. The judge refused to marry a girl so young, even though she had a baby.

But a month later, they tried again, this time in neighboring Pinellas County, where Johnson was allowed to sign on the dotted line. The judge was fully aware of her age; the license lists her date of birth.

She had not finished fifth grade yet on March 29, 1971, when she became a wife as well as a mother.

So began a life of burden, a life she was forced to accept.

Johnson's mother took her daughter to Pinellas County to get married to her rapist. She was 11; he was 20.
Marriage before adulthood often has crushing consequences, undermining a girl's access to health, education and economic opportunities. Girls and women in abusive relationships often suffer from low self-esteem and can fall into a self-destructive pattern of attracting more exploitation. Johnson was no exception.

At first, she returned to school while her mother looked after the baby. But her church prohibited the use of birth control, and Johnson had baby after baby.

Her husband abandoned her each time she was pregnant. She had no choice but to take him back when he returned after the baby was born. They lived in the same parsonage house with Johnson's mother and slept in Johnson's old bedroom surrounded by cribs.

Girls her age played with baby dolls. Johnson found herself with real babies.

She washed diapers, cleaned the house and cooked one-pot stews. Her husband rarely spoke with her; she was just there for sex. They struggled to pay the bills.

She was too young to know how to act, so she watched married couples in church and mimicked their behavior at home.

She loved studying and even skipped a grade one year. As it turned out, school was the only normal thing in her life. But that, too, was taken from her. She made it somehow to the ninth grade but then could go on no longer. By the time she was 17, she was raising six children. She never knew what it was like to play sports or go to the prom or graduate. Robbed of her childhood, she lost all motivation.
Every day when she woke up, she cried.

Johnson has become a public speaker on child marriage. Here, she watches a video of herself at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Tahirih Justice Center.
It was her husband who should have been handcuffed, she thought. She felt she was handcuffed instead.

She grew tired of her husband's lack of support and sought help from Legal Aid. They wrote her a check for $75 to pay an attorney to file for divorce. But not long after, at 19, she married a 37-year-old man. He, too, hurt her verbally and physically. She bore three more children and was 27 when her youngest daughter was born.

By then, Johnson felt the weight of nine children -- five girls and four boys -- and an abusive husband pulling her down. She was frustrated, tired, bitter and, most of all, angry that this life had been forced on her. It began to affect her relationships with her kids. She hollered and fussed at them more often and tried her best to remember they didn't ask to be born. It wasn't their fault.

She smiled on the outside, but inside she was always crying.

She felt worthless and even contemplated driving her car off the Howard Frankland Bridge that spans Tampa Bay.

It was only after she left her mother's church that Johnson was able to start healing. Through a new church, she met a psychologist, Joan Gaines. The two women began talking. It was the first time, really, that anyone had listened to her.

It had taken almost half her life for Johnson to find her voice.

I listened to Johnson recount her story, but I couldn't fully understand how she was able to heal after such horrific experiences. I called Gaines for her perspective.

"She was a child with nine children," Gaines told me. "She began to grow up much later in her life."

Gaines described Johnson as a smart, resilient woman who was keen on setting herself on a better path. She was like a round-bottomed roly-poly toy: No matter how many times you knock it over, it comes right back up.

Gaines, too, was an only child, but she had a happy childhood. Johnson's mother's actions were beyond comprehension.

"You don't have to be nurturing to be a mother," Gaines said. "All you have to have is a vagina."

Johnson leaned on Gaines and looked inward. She turned to her faith in God, and she learned to forgive her rapists, her mother and, most important, herself.

It was time, she realized, to escape the dungeon of bitterness that was sapping her energy. The past was hurting her because she had chosen to hold onto it.

For Johnson, forgiveness was the only way to move forward, the only way she could speak freely about what she had suffered so she could save others.

Johnson works as a caregiver and visits Tommye Hutto twice a week to help her out at home.
'The whole state of Florida failed me'
Hours after her jaunt to the Capitol, Johnson makes her way across town to see Tommye Hutto, a 78-year-old woman curtailed by rheumatoid arthritis.

Playing lobbyist is Johnson's passion, but her job as a private caregiver pays the bills. She also had been teaching behavior-challenged children at an elementary school but gave that up to focus her energy on the legislative session.

Hutto retired as communications director for the California Teachers Union and moved to Tallahassee to be near her daughters. She lives by herself in north Tallahassee, needs assistance around the house and is one of several elderly clients Johnson sees.

The day before, Johnson helped a woman in her 90s who can no longer fend for herself. Johnson fixed her a dinner of fish sticks and steak fries and then wrote out a checklist: Make sure the bed rails are up on both sides in the highest position; insert an extra pad in the adult diaper for absorbency; check that her life alert is around her neck; empty the trash; tidy the house.

I watched Johnson intently before blurting out the obvious question: "What's it like to take care of people after you did nothing but that all your life?"

"Well, I have to earn money somehow," she answered.

She took this job, she explained, because caregiving is what she's good at. She raised nine children, after all.

She moved to north Florida in 2008 after she remarried again. She and her third husband ran a barbecue place together in Tallahassee. But that marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Johnson could have returned to Tampa, where all her children were. But that was when she felt a calling. She felt compelled to share her story to make things better so no one else would have to endure what she had. She did not want her obituary to be confined to mother, grandmother and divorcee. She stayed in Tallahassee and launched her crusade.

She turned a small third bedroom into a home office and surrounded herself with her achievements.

They serve as reminders that her life is no longer broken: a volunteer of the year award, a congratulatory letter on her book from Michelle Obama, a high school diploma from Franklin Academy. Johnson took classes online and at the age of 55, marched in the school's 2015 commencement ceremony.

By her desk is a card one of her sons sent her on Valentine's Day. "Of all the moms in the world, you are by far the best the world has seen."

Johnson became an advocate for child marriage survivors and wants to make sure others will never have to suffer.
Despite her struggles, Johnson has no regrets about having her children.
"I still feel like I did everything I could do as a parent. I gave it my best shot with what I had," she told me. "I don't feel less than a mother."

On this evening at Hutto's house, her motherly instincts kick into gear. She fixes dinner for Hutto and plops down on the living room couch. It feels like a long day after her rounds at the Capitol.

Sometimes, the two women watch "Wheel of Fortune" together. Tonight, they decide on conversation instead. They discuss the tribulations of aging and one of their favorite foods: fried chicken from the Publix deli. And, they talk about the one thing they have in common: being an only child.

"I guess there's good and bad to that," Hutto says.

"What's the good part?" Johnson asks.

"Well, you get all the attention. You get to choose what you want. It's fun."

"I don't know any fun part," Johnson says, raising her eyebrows.

Hutto knows most of Johnson's story and was, like others, in disbelief that such things could happen in America. She's glad to know the child marriage bill is well on its way to becoming law and that it's getting attention.

"What caused you to start advocating?" Hutto asks, her curiosity piqued.

Johnson mentions her book and a non-profit she launched to support abuse victims after she began speaking at small gatherings and realized the need.

Hutto says she knew of one girl in her high school who got pregnant, had her baby and then came back to school. But she didn't get married.

"Did you know there were over 200,000 child marriages in America in the last 14 years," Johnson says. "Over 16,000 were in Florida."

"That's amazing," Hutto replies. "I had no idea. How did we not know?"

Johnson brings up her own case.

"The hospital knew. The school knew. The courts knew," she says. "So plenty of people knew, but nothing was done. The whole state of Florida failed me.

"I feel my life was taken from me," she says. "The ones who were supposed to protect me, didn't."
No response seems appropriate in this moment, and seconds pass in silence. Johnson looks down and takes a slow bite of fried chicken.

In a few days, she will be back at the Capitol, making her rounds -- and hoping that the state that failed her will not fail again.

(Source: CNN)