Sunday, October 29, 2017

Prerna: From hopelessness to hope

Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) organised a programme  to raise awareness on breast cancer and salute the individuals who grapple with the disease. The unique event, on 30th October, 2017 - ‘Inspiring Art from Adversity’, was built around the aesthetic exposition and expression of human will and determination in troubled circumstances. Bringing about a creative synergy to the experience of breast cancer, the students of the renowned JJ School of Art were commissioned by Abbott Pharmaceuticals to depict a cancer patient’s pathway using the refined medium of art. This grand initiative that generated twenty-five art masterpieces was appropriately titled, “Prerna (inspiration)”. 

I was invited on this occasion to share my experience. Here is the text of my speech:

I am honoured to be here and sharing the stage with Ms. Devika Bhojwani and Ruby Ahluwalia. Ruby is a dear friend and I have witnessed her journey at close quarters. When Nishu called me, my first reaction was that I have nothing to my credit so what can I possibly share…..But even as she persuaded me, I realised that all of us who have been through this experience have made some difference somewhere and if nowhere else, then at least each one of us has grown and transformed for the better. Destiny has a way of choosing its subjects very carefully …..choosing the ones who will make a difference as Devika, Ruby, and many more have done. So I try to remember that I am among the chosen ones.

Cancer was, and still is, spoken in hushed tones and obituaries thought of and drafted as soon as the diagnosis is delivered. It is also associated with a painful end. Our movies and media have only served to reinforce this. In fact, this notion was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that if I was playing rapid fire and you said cancer I would have responded with hopelessness or end or some such word. This is of course before my own brush with cancer. Now my response would be curable or second chance. I first saw cancer at close quarters when my father in law was diagnosed with the disease in 1995 and underwent treatment at TMH for the following seven years. It was a difficult journey for him and all of us.

It was while he was being treated for recurrence of cancer that I felt a very small hard nodule in my breast….I say nodule because it was so small it did not deserve the status of a lump. I ignored it. It didn’t even cross my mind that it was worth investigating. Soon it grew into a lump in a matter of four months. That’s when I first saw a doctor. The verdict was cancer. And as you will all agree nothing prepares you for this diagnosis. I had seen and nursed my father in law through cancer……but it is one thing to tell someone how to handle the diagnosis and treatment and quite another to practise it.

My diagnosis came at a time when my father in law was not too well and needed a lot of assistance and care. We did not want to upset him with my diagnosis and add to his burden so we kept up a pretence of all being well and I decided to do all initial hospital trips for tests etc. on my own. It kept me busy and left me with little time to brood. Further, I imagined the journey would be a long one and I wanted my family to conserve their energy for a time when I needed it more. After all life will and has to go on.

I count myself among the fortunate ones who are blessed with good health (yes I had cancer but I was in good shape otherwise) and resources …..I mean finances, friends and family. Friends were my great support. Family was my strength and weakness too. I realised that they were suffering as much if not more than me. And I can’t tell you how grateful I was to God that it was me and not them. This I could bear, that I could not have.

For me, the simplest way I can describe my experience is  that it was a journey of faith ……faith in everything…, hospital, god, destiny, goodness, self……that everything that was happening was good for me in some way……and believe me it was. I wasn’t young when I was diagnosed…..I was 43……it seems young now though…….but cancer made me realise that I was living life pretty thoughtlessly and like I was going to live forever. Putting off things for tomorrow……whether it was an apology, or charity or fun and enjoyment, or pursuing my interests, or calling and visiting old friends and relatives. The biggest reminder this disease gave me was that I was mortal….. Tomorrow may literally not come …….Life as it existed would end one day. So every moment is precious…..not necessarily to be used in some way but definitely to be savoured.  To be alive took on a new meaning. My doctor (no marks for guessing who it is….Dr. Badwe) helped me realise that it is not the length of one’s life that is material but how well it is lived. And that thought or sentiment stayed with me and guided me through. You know, after my mother underwent cataract surgery, she was delighted because, though nothing in the house or environment had changed, all the colours seemed brighter and clearer. Cancer did that to me. That’s the closest analogy I can think of. Everything was the same as before but every experience became sharper, sweeter, and brighter.  I consciously stopped thinking or questioning how long I would live. Tried to live each day as well as I could in the circumstances.

I am by nature impatient. But at TMH you have to wait and wait and wait. You will be seen but you have to wait.  The treatment and TMH taught me patience or maybe surrender is a better word. By surrender I don’t mean give up. Sometimes you have to surrender and conserve your energy rather than fighting what cannot be changed. During chemotherapy, often the discomfort is not eased by anything….you just have to wait it out. You can crib or cry or curse but the body and the drugs take their own time. One learns “This too shall pass”. And this training has stood me very well in many life situations faced later.

I learnt many things about breast cancer, its increasing incidence in urban India, lack of awareness about it which made for poor prognosis and survival, and cultural inhibitions among women in talking about their bodies and bodily changes and so on. I was also acutely aware of all the emotional upheaval that the patient and family goes through. I was very keen to contribute in some way towards spreading awareness about breast cancer and also providing support to those going through it. One always emerges stronger from this experience but it is nice if there is someone to hold your hand while you walk just to encourage you when you may be losing hope or help you shift your perspective. I had so many who helped me on this journey and I almost felt compelled to contribute in some way.

I was a risk averse, tread the straight and narrow kind of person. Having come so close to losing it all I learnt to take some risks. Cancer gave me the strength and insight to confront my insecurities and gather the courage to leave a job where I was stagnating in every way but was not quitting because status quo was so comfortable. Then I could devote time for volunteering at TMH and other social causes. Between then and now I also did things which I never thought I would attempt……I started a blog, learnt swimming and singing and blithely performed at social gatherings! These maybe easy things for many but for me they were milestones!

However I did have inhibitions in talking about cancer and my experience on a public platform.. It took me quite some time to get over that. It is my doctor who egged me on and the first time I shared my journey with breast cancer was at the breast cancer support conference in 2006. Talking about it publicly was cathartic and I realised that was when I healed completely….. inside out.

In 2007, along with a survivor I met during my treatment and now a very dear friend, and supported and encouraged by Dr. Badwe, Dr. Parmar and Dr. Sarin we introduced a post operative rehabilitation cum group counselling session for the breast cancer patients with a small takeaway which includes a bag to carry the drain and a small cushion to support the arm. This is well institutionalised now. And this friend is none other than Mamta Goenka, now a three time survivor and a very well-known face and loved volunteer at TMH.

For me coming to TMH has always been like a pilgrimage. The courage and resilience of the patients never fails to inspire. My own troubles fade into insignificance and remind me to be grateful. I deeply admire all the doctors and staff here and have learnt a lot by observing their dedication and compassion. So I will sign off by saying that I do believe that my tryst with cancer has been enlightening and transforming and since my husband and daughter are not present here to contradict me… I can safely say that I am a better person for this experience. I try to never forget

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours to see
Que será, será

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A letter to Angelina Jolie

My dear Angelina,

The world is singing paeans to your bravery and heroism……..but I am struggling to find meaning in your actions. You have willingly chosen to have a double mastectomy as a preventive measure against breast cancer. A double mastectomy……any woman’s worst nightmare. When you tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and were told that you had a 87% chance of getting breast cancer, did the doctor not spell out the other non-invasive monitoring mechanisms? Like regular breast self-examination and screening both clinically and technologically at periodic intervals? Were you not told that breast cancer can be cured if detected sufficiently early? Were you aware that if you did not chop off your breasts and were at some stage to contract the disease, the treatment would have involved surgical removal of the lump only (if detected early) and at worst the whole breast?

So what have you done? You have put yourself through an agonising procedure even WITHOUT the disease.  For all you know you could have been in the lucky 13% but you messed it up big time. You did not give yourself a chance. Poor misguided soul……..I feel really sorry for you. Only a person of sound mind is allowed to take decisions… were you allowed to…….because a mind gripped and paralysed by fear is not sound.

I am wondering how far this fear and insecurity will take you.  Which organ goes next? The ovaries of course and then I suppose the uterus and definitely the appendix and the gall bladder and perhaps stents in the arteries before they get clogged or even better a bypass surgery. And, then, I suppose you, Angelina Jolie, (or whatever is left of you) expect to live happily ever after. Amen!

You may say that it is your body and your life. So go ahead, but why glorify it? Aided and abetted by the media which is putting you on a pedestal and making poor gullible individuals out there wishing they had the money to safeguard themselves in similar fashion.

You seem to have forgotten that we are all mortal. While we are alive, we should live healthy and eat healthy,  and revere our body, but where is the wisdom in trying to fix something before it is broken and at what cost? You may feel that by removal of your breasts you have eliminated the possibility of suffering associated with cancer. You may think you have outsmarted the Creator who wrote your destiny………but He is having the last laugh…….He can see that, breast cancer or not, …… have inflicted on yourself all the physical and mental trauma that breast cancer diagnosis brings - dis-figuration of the body and fear of suffering and death. You will be fine, yes, till you are consumed by the next fear.

There is a very thin line between heroism and foolhardiness……depends on where you are looking from. Your actions remind me of the story of Don Quixote and the Windmills.

May God bless you with good sense and faith.

Yours affectionately,


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My timeless, ageless, priceless “Miss”

1A, 1D, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5C, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9A, 11………these alpha numerals spell my journey in St. Mary’s Convent High School, Allahabad (SMC). 10 is missing because for that one year I was in a different school as my parents moved to Jaipur and SMC had no hostel, otherwise, I would have lived out my fantasies of St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers.

6B and 7B stand out in my memory because of you, Miss........Mrs. Jaya Padmanabhan to the rest of the world but forever "Miss" to me. That is what we called all the teachers unless they were nuns, who were “sisters” or “mothers”. There were no males but for our basketball coach! You had joined the school that year and were assigned 6B as class teacher. You were new and we were the veterans. About 30 or 35 eleven year olds on the threshold of adolescence.We must have been more than a handful.

 I still remember my first glimpse of you on the first day of the session, as you marched into 6C to ask whether Nivedita Shrivastava was there. I was, and refused to go with you to my allotted section. All my classmates from 5C were promoted to 6C……I could not understand why my section had been changed. I have often in later years marveled at my audacity in resisting the change. There you were…….a portly figure, hair drawn neatly into a plait, beautiful complexion, a nose-pin (on the south Indian side), bright eyes hidden behind thick spectacles and a very firm and clear voice.

I dragged my feet as I followed you into “your” (not "my") section, both defeated and defiant. I was determined to dislike you. What a beginning to the most memorable and wonderful two years.I didn't know then that it would be two years. Who foresaw that you would be promoted with us J and be our class teacher in 7B? I do not think such a coincidence ever happened in the history of SMC.

I remember each one of my teachers right from Mrs. Hogg (1A) to Miss Caston (11). All memorable in their own ways,  but……there was always this qualifying “but”…..some were short on patience, some on intelligence, some on involvement, some on perception, …..some were self- absorbed, some played favourites, some were plain eccentric.

And you……despite starting off on the wrong foot………YOU……. just barged into my heart.
You taught us English, History, Geography, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Science……and much more…….

You stimulated and challenged us. You knew our strengths and weaknesses but made sure that neither overwhelmed us. You brought out the best in each one. You did not try to fit all of us into the same mould. You made sure the shy ones spoke up and the talkative ones learnt to listen. We learnt to compete but also rejoice in a classmate’s success and victory. We learnt the value of humility and pride. We learnt the difference between naughtiness and indiscipline. You saved us from the wrath of the nuns and sometimes our parents too. You knew when to punish and when to condone. And what fun we had……..Even those thick lenses could not hide the twinkle in the eyes. Sometimes you too had a tough time keeping a straight face as you empathised and, dare I say, enjoyed our mischief. We were “your girls”…….and as “your girls” there were boundaries of decorum and discipline we could not cross. If we did, you gave us the “look” and at worst “the cold treatment”. That was enough. “Your girls” had to be the best!

You gave us so much love………you know I used to feel that you loved me the most……….but now when I exchange notes with classmates, I find that each girl felt the same way!

I realised all this much later…….back then as an 11-12 year old, all I knew was that you loved me……..and how much……..and that you understood me. I would work double hard, in fact, outdo my capability for a word of praise from you.  I blossomed and bloomed in that love. It all came back to me in a flash as I heard that same strong, loving voice over the phone more than 4 decades later. I talked to you and was again enveloped in that warmth……..all was well with the world and everything will be alright.

Yes, Miss, when you say so.

Monday, February 4, 2013

This thing called marriage

An ugly fight over a very trivial issue between two very nice people married to each other, is what has set me wondering what marriage means to some…..

Marriage appeared to be a game in which winning was very important for both sides….My victory above all…. No ground rules and no room for any referee.

They seemed to be desperate to prove that it was a marriage of equals….equally vicious, equally loud, equally hurtful, and equally violent .....And a show of of rich vocabulary when it came to abuses.

They were hell bent on holding on to the precious nothings……their egos, their views, their expectations, their positions.....not love or respect.

Each could see so clearly how wrong and unreasonable the other one was and how reasonable and right he/she was. They had even kept count of how many times exactly he/she had given in to the other’s views. Wow! What a memory….both must be very intelligent too. I just wonder whether their memory will also retrieve the number of times the other had listened to him/her.

I want to ask them what they thought this thing called marriage was all about when they decided to get married.

What IS marriage all about?

I don’t know what it is about but I can list a few things it is not….

It isn’t a battle for supremacy….. “You vs. Me”
It isn’t a scoreboard keeping track of the hits and misses.
It isn’t about winning the argument and losing love and respect.
It isn’t about belittling the other to prove your greatness.
It isn’t about right and wrong unless moral or ethical issues are involved.
It isn’t about efficiency, capability or intelligence.
It isn’t about your past or the present.
It isn’t about “me” all the time.
It isn’t about fault finding.
It isn’t about “who stayed up all night with the baby” or “who changed the nappies” or “who took the dog for a walk”.
It isn’t about judging the other’s behaviour but judging your own.
It isn’t about equality either. (An estimation of equality in marriage can be considered only after at least ten years of marriage….the overall picture, because in any one situation it will never be 50-50. Sometimes it may be 40-60 or 70-30 or 60-40 or… so maybe over a ten year span one can evaluate how equal it was)

(This list is not exhaustive, needless to say, and I am sure everybody can add to it.)

Easier said than done……..very true…….who said it was easy? Marriage is a lot of hard work......provided, may I add, you want to LIVE with your partner. Loving is the easy part, LIVING together is the tough part.

I do not have a long list of “it is…..” Just one…… it is about love, of course, and lust  for each other, not just for the body, but for the company, the presence, the essence. Everything else derives from this….. because then there WILL be sacrifices, compromises, adjustments, humour, appreciation, enjoyment, fun and excitement......and above all.......forgiveness.

A few are blessed with this understanding to begin with, most of us learn along the way and some learn too late....but everyone has a way of teaching us. (Even as I write this, though, I can recall a few lucky ones who got away because they had partners with enough understanding for both.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living with Emily

I fell in love with Emily at first sight, but I was not looking forward to living with Emily… know, loving and living do not necessarily go hand in hand. I was sure that there were many who would have perhaps given an arm and a leg to be the chosen one and I should consider myself honoured but to me it seemed like the pairing of spring and autumn….I was sure I would not be able to cope with her demands…..definitely not physically. I was regretting the moment of weakness (infatuation?) which had made me agree to the proposal. How could I even think of it at my age? And now it seemed there was no going back without showdowns and ugly scenes and recriminations…

So I landed in Mumbai - all keyed up, excited but apprehensive…about living with Emily. What a rousing welcome I got! Of course I was flattered and gratified but I still wasn’t sure this was the right thing to do. Her parents left that night for their holiday. So Emily and I were alone at last.

I peeped into her bedroom. It had been done up quite nicely. She jumped on to the bed and invited me. Well I was feeling a little tired after my journey and hungry too. Emily also wanted dinner but expected me to do all the cooking and serving. Well, I suppose if you are blessed with drop dead looks like her you can get away with anything. After dinner, she would not settle down and wanted to take a walk. A rather healthy habit, I thought, and would do me no harm to accompany her. And I felt quite proud at the envious glances I got from other walkers. That made me feel very good and I forgot all about the tiredness and all of that.

I wanted to watch some TV programmes but Emily would have none of that. She wanted all my attention…..and love. So be it I said. And what a lovely time we had. Should I give a graphic description? And then both of us fell asleep nose to nose.

Emily was a seductress I tell you. She made things so easy. But she was an early riser…a morning person. I got up in the morning with her breath on my face and her limpid eyes looking adoringly at me. We went for a walk, sat on the bench and enjoyed the early morning sights - little kids being packed off to school, the milk and newspaper deliveries. No words were needed…we were in perfect communion.

We came back home, fooled around with each other, had breakfast, and did our own thing till lunchtime. Wow, how wonderful! The evenings were spent with Emily playfully teasing me or sitting on my lap.

But, Emily would sometimes become very excited and overwhelmed by her emotions and she had long nails and well, I got scratched! Thank God, I wasn’t going to work – it could have been embarrassing. But she was such a darling….she got her nails clipped even though she hated it.

She had many friends and admirers in the colony where she lived and I was rather possessive but I need not have worried. After her parents, she loved me the most. Many people came up to talk to me as we walked in the evenings……I knew they were eyeing Emily….I was just an excuse to get close to her. But I ended up making a couple of friends.

She did not mind my old friends coming over or my going out with them…..but not in the evenings or nights….which had to be hers exclusively. She would get very upset if she was left alone in the evening. I learnt that the hard way. I came back one night to find the book I was reading in shreds. And believe me I had a hard time making up with her. It was the last time I made that mistake.

She loved being pampered and was quite a foodie. That was another thing we had in common. We enjoyed good food and did not believe in diets and restraint.

But the difference in our age did catch up and I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with her energy levels. And I had my family waiting for me at home. I did not know how to explain all this to her. I had to leave. And her parents were coming back too.

My dear dear Emily, I hope you will understand……I love you very much and will always be there for you…….but you need a younger companion.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Celebrating Teej

On the Shukla Tritiya of Bhadrapad, Hartalika Teej is celebrated in many parts of our country especially, Bihar, U.P., Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Lord Shiv and Parvati are worshipped by the womenfolk. Teej celebrates the union of Shiva and Parvati. As the katha goes, Parvati was deeply in love with Lord Shiva who was an ascetic and not even aware of her existence. Her father had promised her hand in marriage to Lord Vishnu. But Parvati was determined to marry Shiva. She performed penance in the Himalayas for many years till Shiva was forced to take notice of her and accept her proposal. On Teej, therefore, married women fast and pray for the well-being of their husbands and conjugal happiness....unmarried girls also fast so that they may be blessed with good husbands. The fast, of course, like all Hindu festivals includes dressing up in new clothes and jewellery and singing and dancing, often through the night. 

When I married a Bihari, this was the only fast that my mother-in-law asked me to do and I have religiously done so now for 30 years. I did not question it but my feminist friends questioned me….Why do you fast for the man? Does he reciprocate and fast for you? Such male chauvinism! Even after so much education you are following patriarchal values….and so on and so forth in the same vein. These arguments did have a point. I thought about the issues of gender equality, reciprocity, conflict of my own beliefs and actions raised by them and here I present the reasons why I continued to "religiously" observe Teej. This is especially for my very young friend who is likely to get married in the near future and may have to follow some similar traditions and rituals, which she does not subscribe to…in principle.

  • It isn't about principles, it’s about love. 
  • I do not understand and appreciate all the rituals or the reasons for the festival but I do understand and appreciate the sentiments and beliefs of those who have my good at heart and love and care for me. 
  • That is why, to give an example, I do not believe that applying sindoor is auspicious for my husband. Yet I do apply sindoor because it is a custom, it pleases my mother and mother-in-law, and it makes no difference to me……This is just one of the insignificant-to-me things I follow because they are significant to those whom I love and respect. 
  • I do not believe that by fasting on Teej, the longevity of my husband’s life is impacted. 

At the same time…

  • I do believe that fasting is good for my body because it is an opportunity to detox and it makes me appreciate and be thankful for the goodies on other days. So, some festivals are for feasting and some for fasting. Does it matter for what or for whom? 
  • I do believe that I am expressing gratitude to God for having a loving and faithful partner. 
  • I do believe that Teej (or for that matter Karvachauth) is just a festival like Holi, Diwali, Dussehra, Navratras…. I haven’t had anyone ask me why I celebrate Holi or Diwali. 
  • I do believe that the origins of Teej are from a time when women did not enjoy personal freedom and economic independence. Therefore the character and attributes of the man they married had a far greater impact on the quality of their life than we can imagine. 

True, the scenario is different now, at least for women like me and my young friend who has been fortunate enough to receive a good education and gender has never significantly hindered our ambitions and aspirations. But as I see it, these are festivals whose significance and meaning have changed with the times but their celebration is a part of our culture just like our traditional attire, our cuisine, our music, dance and arts.

Most of our festivals have their origins in an agrarian society and are related to harvesting and planting seasons. How many of us can say that when we celebrate Holi, Diwali, Onam, Sankranti, Dussehra, we even remember their connection with the agricultural cycle…….we continue to celebrate the festivals ….so also Teej.

In fact, what I find more selfish and chauvinistic is the use of toxic chemicals in the colours in Holi and the noise and air pollution caused by crackers in Diwali, the pollution of our rivers and the sea and not to mention the noise during the festivals of Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Pooja, than the simple fasting on Teej.

I hope this makes some sense to you, my friend….

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Slut Walk

Delhi has just witnessed the first Slut Walk.

I should have the freedom to wear what I want without fear of assault – verbal or physical, implicit or explicit.
Why am I slotted in the category of “loose” when the garments are too tight?
It’s my body and I will dress/undress in public as I please – so what if others find it revealing or titillating or inappropriate.
I should not be slotted in categories based on the clothes I wear. I am not my clothes.
Who decides what is appropriate and what is not?
How can you say that I invited trouble by wearing what I did?

Very true.....

Why should I lock my house when I go out?
It’s my house, the gate/door /wall marks the boundary and everybody knows that, things inside the house are my possessions and anybody entering without my permission is an intruder/ transgressor/thief.
If I leave my house unlocked and it is burgled why do people blame me and not the intruder?
With domestic help in the house why am I advised not to leave cash and valuables lying around?
How can you say I invited trouble by putting temptation in their path?

Very true .......

I have two options – take the safer one and lock my house or believe in the sanctity of ownership and leave it open.

See any connection?

I am a staunch advocate against sexual violence or harassment and firmly believe that no woman “asks” to be raped or molested. At the same time, I believe that appropriate dressing is contextual and decorum cannot be thrown to the winds. It’s just like taking appropriate steps to safeguard your home.

Correct me if I am wrong.