Ayakkad Amma, your love lives on…

Blogging Challenge – Day 7

A couple of weeks after Amma (my mother-in-law) passed away in February this year, Bala asked me why I was not writing a piece on her like I did for Appa (my father-in-law) in 2015.

It’s not that I did not have anything to share about her. Twenty years of being a (daughter)-in-law in the Ayakkad family came with a lot of memories. There was so much to write, and I didn’t know where to begin.

Last evening, my colleague Dipti was dropping me home and we got talking about the largeheartedness of the generations before us.  In an instant, the first person who came to my mind was Amma. Largehearted defined her, wholly and completely.

As I sit before my laptop screen and try to put together some sort of a tribute, I realise Amma does not need one. After her passing away, the number of Ayakkadians who came to visit us said it all. One remembered the number of times Susheela maami (as she was known) made sure he had food at home, another remembered her leading the band of women who made murukkus and laddoos for a village wedding, her enviable collection of traditional recipes (she didn’t have to repeat a dish for three weeks) and yet another for her nuggets of wisdom.

While Amma was conservative and superstitious about certain things, she was very open-minded about a lot of others. She never commented on my “short hair”, or sense of dressing but was rather pleased that I never hesitated to wear a saree when the occasion demanded it.

As the first home in the village, anyone who visited the temple dropped in at ours. Relatives, friends or old-timers, Amma made sure they had a quick meal, and in olden days, some of them even stayed over for a few days. If I learned how to welcome guests in the wee hours, do jugaad and stretch a sambhar with some modifications or whip up a simple upma at midnight, I learned it all from her.

At a time, when in-laws were put on a pedestal because they are “sammandhis”, the bond between my family and my in-laws was often envied. Whenever Amma and Appa made a trip to Cochin, I would joke that they packed  half the house into the car. Amma would pluck fresh sambhar keerai from the backyard, pack buttermilk and milk (because we got milk in packets in the city), make special sweets and would never forget to buy halwa from Lakshmi Bakery for my kid brother, Karthik. Once they were in Cochin, Amma would take over the kitchen for a few days because my father loved her cooking.

Her food came with a lot of stories…. how certain vegetables were preserved for the monsoons when fresh vegetables would be scarce, how every part of vegetables could be used to make more delicacies (for example, the nendran stem was made into thoran, the pulp of the pumpkins into thuvaiyals, etc). She and Appa diligently plucked the manaithikalis growing in the front yard, and pickled them along with fat chillies in curd. The nellikas (gooseberries) would be made into pickles or drowned in salt water. Every waking moment was spent in doing something fruitful. Her cooking was to die for… and the variety mind-boggling. Amrit insists that no one can make better sambhar, rasakalan or chutney podi (that the children lovingly called paati podi) like his Ayakkad paati.

She faced a lot of struggles in her lifetime, but took them in her stride and showered all her love on her five children. She was warm, friendly, disciplined and a woman of the world.

Alambalam Narayanan Parvathy (fondly known as Susheela maami), your love lives on!

 

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Dance like nobody’s watching…

Blogging Challenge – Day 6

It was edavam already… but the monsoon seemed to have a a mind of its own. While  dark clouds signalled rain, frogs croaked in anticipation and the night air was filled with petrichor, so far, there was just a trickle here, a drizzle there… It was not raining in torrents, not yet.

Kshama stood by the window, staring at the clouds. “Let it rain and soothe my beating heart,” she thought, as she reluctantly put on her anklets. She switched on the tape recorder, and as the song came to life, she had only one thought on her mind. “Will my body listen to me?”

As guruji taught her, she began with the aamad… her jingling feet making contact with the ground just as a sigh escaped her. Was her heart really in it? What if people mocked her? Tore apart her presence among all those nimble feet ?

And as if to calm her wandering mind, a streak of lightning lashed across the sky, followed by thunder that that brought on a shudder. As she practised the morni chal,  she saw the outline of the raindrops on the windows. She could feel the weight slowly slipping from her mind.

What was that Rajan told her? “What have you done in your life so far? Changed 25 jobs… moved five cities. You have no purpose or aim in life.”

Or that one that hit a new low: “You are a workaholic, who will want to marry you?”

Each snide remark that swirled in her mind brought new rhythm to her feet. Outside, it began to rain… the raindrops frolicked to the sound of thunder, the lightning sending out sparks…

It was as if the strobe lights had switched on, bathing the room in an iridescent glow. Kshema brought on the chakars in full flow, as she pirouetted across the room. Chaugun, dugun, athgun, she danced with gay abandon in a perfect jugalbandi with the rain that was now falling in torrents.

It was as if the Edavapathi had heard her prayers.

At 44, she was learning Kathak. Throwing criticism and judgmental cynics to the winds. Taking the reins of her life.

One taal at a time.

Outside, as the wind blew loudly, the storm in the heart settled.

And it was time to take a bow! As if nothing else mattered!

 

 

So you ask, what did I do in a women’s magazine in the Middle East?

 

So women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive. And about time too! Clap clap…

So what does one think when one hears the word, Middle East? One is judged and painted with the same brush as Saudi Arabia.

So you wax eloquent about the misogyny, repression of women and abaya-isation of the Middle East, and claim you know it all. Without having stepped out of your myopic haze? Why? Because women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Until last week.

For fuck’s sake, as they say in Hindi, apne gireban me jhaank kar dekho kabhi… to Asifa and nearer home, as the Ola auto driver on hearing the muzzein’s call to prayer tells me rather matter-of-factly, “Yeh sab log Pakistan ko support karte hain!”

Or the Marwari friend of mine from Jabalpur who has to wear a ghunghat every time she is in front of a male relative.

Or my so-called educated relatives who still segregate women when they have their periods. You get the vein, don’t you?

Yes, I lived in Muscat, Oman in the Middle East for 20 years. I worked in a newspaper and a women’s magazine. And I was an accredited journalist there. The smug and reprehensible question I have been asked over the course of the last year in India, continues to be, “So what did you guys have to write about?”

I don’t think I owe you an explanation. But I owe the wonderful, inspirational women in Oman one, and must give them their due.

Not every woman in Oman wears an abaya or a hijab – it’s her personal choice. Like it’s their choice when it comes to where they want to study, work, who they want to marry or why they want to divorce. They revel in their choices. They don’t take their husband’s names and the female cashier at National Bank of Oman would never reveal my account balance to my husband, she would write the number down on a piece of paper and give it to me. How that that for women’s rights, people?

I have met and interacted with a number of women in senior management positions –CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, Directors and entrepreneurs. The country has special scholarships for women who wanted to study abroad – they utilized this right, and yes, they came back to their country and took up jobs in homegrown companies and worked their way up. Purely on hard work, and ambition. How’s that for breaking the glass ceiling?

Near my home is the Krishna Temple – a sprawling Hindu temple flanked on one side by a church and on the other by a mosque. We practised our faiths, yes, in a Muslim country. And on Indian festivals, the Omani women at office were the first to wish us. How’s that for women and secularism? Yes, in the Middle East.

Now let me come to my job. Though I headed an English women’s magazine, my Omani colleagues respected my experience enough to let me supervise their own Arabic one. Why? As a former colleague once told me, “Women all over the world face the same challenges, whether you are an Indian or an Arab.” How’s that for respect of experience, guys?

So, together, we interviewed achievers, discussed drug abuse, smoking, equality of the sexes, and also fashion choices and make up.

I don’t need to take names here… but I am proud to have among my friends – those who were chosen to be part of the National CEO Programme, another who is a drift racer, one who combines a high-profile job with being a mountaineer (she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro), a 26-year-old who is a footballer, a football commentator and working wonders in the agriculture sector and yet another who is a corporate trainer. I can go on and on… yes, all this in a small country in the Middle East.

So next time, you ask me what I did in the Middle East – yes, I was a journalist for a women’s magazine. I worked as hard as scribes in India, bringing stories of hope, faith and yes, equality. I worked with nationals, and expatriates from a dozen countries, Pakistanis too. All this in a small country, in the Middle East.

It’s time we get off our high horses, and respect women, wherever they are, for whatever they are doing.

That we are privileged because we live in a democracy is a joke. Please, kabhi kabhi apne girebaan mein jhankar dekho. You may get some answers that may shock you.

 

Serve with a smile…

Blogging Challenge – Day 3

“Madam, le lijiye, yeh nimbu ghar ke pedh se hai.” (Here, take some lemons, they are from the trees at home.)

“Indha poo naane thoduthen. Vechukongo.” (I strung these flowers into a gajra. Please take them.”

These were just some of the many conversations at a monthly medical camp I volunteered at when I was in Muscat. Organised and spearheaded by the SAI Group, it was attended a number of expatriate women from different religions and nationalities, mostly domestic help who did not have access to any kind of medical care.

I didn’t have to do much. Just check their weight, write down BP and blood sugar readings and direct them to the doctors at the camp. Once it was done, we offered them coffee or tea and biscuits and had our own little chit-chats. It was held on a Friday, mostly a half-day off for most of them, but they still took a bus or cab to attend the camp. Sometimes, a few of us picked up them  up, or dropped them off at central points from where they would then go onto their everyday lives, taking care of households, and waiting for that elusive trip back to their home countries.

While they were at the camp, they were all cheerful and full of banter. Despite the numerous health complications, one could feel that sense of positivity shining through. And also, commitment. One had a daughter to marry off or send for higher studies, another had a home to build, most of them had huge families to support… and all of them were chasing that golden pot at the end of the rainbow… through the big Gulf dream.

When some of the women couldn’t afford complex treatment, scans or even expensive medication, doctors and volunteers stepped in. Each case was followed up and solutions suggested.

You would say that we were all doing a noble deed. But I think it was the other way around. These women taught me more than I had ever learned in 20 years of my career. They battled adversity with optimism…they revelled in the happy moments of everyday life, with hearts full of love.

While leaving, they would thrust into our hands, bags of lemons or mangoes, a gajra or two strung with fragrant jasmine, and smile…

“God bless you! Agle mehne milenge!” they would say. We would smile too… that infectious smile that has now made us a little more understanding, a little more empathetic and filled our hearts with a little more love.

Deen dukhiyon se prem karo… mera Sai prasanna hoga…

To the girl on the bus yesterday…

Blogging Challenge – Day 2

On the bus back to Bangalore yesterday, the girl on the seat behind us was crying a lot. As in crying buckets of tears, enough to warrant concern. So I turned and asked, “Is everything alright?”

The girl was leaving home for the first time, from a village to the city, away from her family and friends to work and live on her own. Her mother was unwell with dengue, and she was wracked with guilt, unable to stay back and help.

We consoled her saying, that all of us went through these times, and things would get better and we were just a call away if she needed help. In half an hour, she was back to normal and even joined us for dinner.

I was only 23 when I left Cochin for Muscat – flying for the first time ever – to a country I knew nothing of, with a person I was married to for only 20 days. There were no mobile phones or internet then, ISD was so expensive that I called home only once a week and Oman Post took forever to deliver a letter. We relied mostly on friends going home on vacation to post our letters, crossing our fingers and hearts that they reach in 2-3 days.

Vacations then were only possible once a year due to high ticket fares and we packed as much as possible – temple visits, my home and the in-laws’, a short holiday within the vacation, medical check-ups and in the blink of an eye, the month was over.

But we forged new friendships and support systems, and in time, the line between friends and family became blurred and we built a circle of receiving and giving.

A small country in the Middle East taught me some friendships are forever, distances shrink and time doesn’t matter if the hearts are closer.

So to the girl on the bus, here’s a friendly piece of advice. Go out into the world with an open mind, make new friends, love with all your heart, fall down, pick up the pieces and live life, to the fullest.

There will be somebody to hold your hand, along the way!

Let’s talk depression… again and again

I remember a few years ago when I was working for the magazine, I used to edit my own copies thrice after writing them. After which, I used to print a black and white dummy and proof-read the entire magazine. I corrected the pages on screen, and then took another colour printout and edited and proof-checked again. And before signing off the final dummy, I would read the entire magazine again till I had each headline, intro, and blurb at the back of my mind.

I was the butt of many jokes for my “perfectionist” attitude. Until it reached a stage where my boss actually told me, half in concern and the other half in exasperation, “Okay, Rekha, let a mistake go. Let’s see what happens when we have to print a corrigendum.”

That would perhaps have been an ultimate blow to the walls of perfectionism I built around me. So I read some more… till I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

With the death of Kate Spade last week, and Anthony Bourdain yesterday, one feels gutted, shortchanged, and helpless.

There’s so much we talk about mental health… yet the stigma remains. We are afraid to seek help… and give help.

I’ve spoken of my experiences with anxiety disorder and depression time and again, and I still get those surreptitious glances and fake smiles. A very good friend, who I reconnected with after 30 years just said, “Don’t tell me anything. You are okay now and it’s all that matters.”

Why don’t we want to talk or hear anything to do with mental illness? The most educated are perhaps the most ignorant.

The term “depression” is bandied about quite loosely. If you are sad, it does not mean you are depressed. Yes, if the sadness lingers and takes over your life, it’s time to ask for help. Look up terms like Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia… there are plenty of mental health disorders that affect people. You can’t simply wish them away by denying their existence.

What one can do is quite simple. Listen and observe your loved ones. Don’t judge them for what they are going through. If you are the person suffering, listen to yourself. Go to a professional for help. Understand that medicine and therapy go hand in hand. And no, you won’t get addicted to anti-depressants if you follow what your doctor says and she will help you to taper the dose whenever required. Incorporate exercise into your lifestyle. Get your doses of serotonin and dopamine by making some small changes.

No one said life is easy. It can be underwhelming, overwhelming, difficult and bizarre. It’s okay to feel what you are feeling.

There are helplines and organisations and some wonderful people who have made it their mental health their mission. Personally, I have been blessed to be a part of Sayyida Basma Al Said and Whispers of Serenity’s Not Alone Campaign in Muscat. Closer home, in Bengaluru, I know Nelson Moses’s Suicide Prevention Foundation of India is doing brilliant work in suicide prevention.

Remember, you are not alone. This is my promise… I may not be a counselor or therapist… but I will give you my patient ear, understanding and confidence.

I have been there… and that’s why I talk of depression, again and again.

Oh! India, where have you lost your sense of empathy?

It’s going to be 10 months since Amrit and I decided to move to India, he to continue his studies and I, to test waters in a land I left 20 years ago. For greener pastures, you may like to believe, but definitely not I would say… and that’s a debate for another post.

Last month, my mother-in-law passed away in Mumbai after a month in hospital following a cancer diagnosis in January. It was a hard time for all of us, and when the news came, we felt numb, unable to do anything. That day, for whatever reasons, it took me an hour-and-a-half to traverse the 8 km home. There was a lot to do, book tickets, get to the airport in the wee hours… take local trains to my brother-in-law’s place and so on.

That night, according to tradition, we were not supposed to cook at home.

And I am sorry to say none of my neighbours came to ask how we were, or how we were coping. Not that I was unfriendly, my door is always open and I make it a point to speak to them whenever I am free.

You would argue why would that matter? It does, for me…. two years back, around the same time when we were in Muscat, my father-in-law had passed away suddenly. My brother-in-law and family were with us on a long-due visit and were visiting some tourist spots 250 km away from the city when it happened. The moment our friends came to know of the news, they were on speaker phone, calming Bala on the long drive back to Muscat. And once we were home, my neighbour had taken over, bringing cups of coffee to the huge number of friends and colleagues who had come home, another friend volunteered to “web check-in” all our tickets, some even helped us pack our clothes as we were similarly, numb with grief. Everything was taken care of without being asked to, right until the time we were dropped off at the airport.

This time around, Amrit and I were alone… My brother was away… and no, we didn’t eat that night. But we did what we had to do, catch a flight to Mumbai and from there on, be with family.

This lack of empathy I find everywhere. The inability to stop, speak a kind word and move on. It’s ruthless, this dog-eat-dog world where “busyness” has been raised to an art form. The standard reply to everything is, “I am busy. There’s too much traffic,” even at times when I had expressed a desire to visit people or places. When we were planning to settle  in Bangalore, there were many who had said, “Come, come, we are all here.”

Sadly, the move taught me a few lessons and to believe in myself. So Amrit and I did everything alone – from finding a house, starting a home with just two suitcases and yes, over the past 10 months, have managed to find our feet in Bengaluru.

And fleece here is another word… your house help, the carpenter, the plumber, the auto driver who demands one-and-a-half or metre pe extra 30 rupees – everyone fleeces you for time and money. At times like these, I read the voice messages from Lakshmi, my former house help in Muscat, who always asks after me and Amrit and how we are doing in India. “Madam, don’t stress yourself. Eat well. Are you sleeping?,” she asks in every message.

I came to India happy to be among my own. Or so I thought. Only to realise “own” means different things to different people.

Being part of the diaspora in a foreign country taught me many lessons in togetherness than in my own country. Did we have all the time in the world there? No, we were busy with our jobs and our lives and still found time for others, for spirituality, and to forge strong bonds.

There are so many instances that remind me of such love. And it’s this love that keeps me going.

It would, however, be wrong of me to be cynical and generalise. I have found a few good friends at the workplace who I can depend on. That is one constant in my life that I have always been blessed with.

What does it take to empathise? Absolutely nothing.

Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to love without conditions attached.

The world will be better because of it.

 

 

 

 

 

How I discovered a lump in my breast and a Women’s Day message…

In the Chronicles of Madisaar Maami, a series I used to write on my blog a long time ago, I stopped at Part 18 with Maami discovering a lump in her breast. 

Almost five years later, in January this year, during a routine monthly self-breast exam, I felt a largish lump in my breast. The same week, Amma, my mother-in-law had been diagnosed with last-stage cancer and was in hospital.

It was a trying time for all of us. Did it rattle me? Yes, it did. I have a history of breast cancer in the family. My mother died of it when I was 11 and my maternal aunt (who incidentally is my mother’s cousin) also died of it a few years ago.

What helped me assuage my fears, even a teeny bit was that I had the knowledge. From 2008, I have been involved in breast cancer awareness campaigns for the magazine I worked for in Muscat – and through them I met the lovely Dr. Rajyashree who became to  me, a de facto sister – and helped me through many ultrasounds, a mammogram, and MRI – instilling in me the firm belief that there was a solution to everything – even if God forbid, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

This time around too, Dr. Raji was emphatic in the belief that ‘everything was okay’. So while constantly messaging her, I had a mammogram and a sonomammography here in Bangalore. It revealed quite a large cyst which looked benign to the radiologist but to be doubly sure, the oncologist suggested a biopsy.

Even though I have a low threshold for pain, more than the fear, it was the anxiety rearing its head once again. Each test takes me back to the past, of a time of suffering, numerous hospital visits and chemo sessions. I always pictured my mother going through hell – and didn’t want my family to suffer because of me.

The biopsy results came yesterday. The sample was benign. I would need to be on alert, however, all my life to any changes happening in my body. That one, I would do gladly.

And through all this, I had my friends here and in Muscat with me, cracking jokes, sending texts and WhatsApp messages and their prayers. I kept close to my heart my dear friend Gulu’s mantra, “It’s all good!” And yes, it worked.

The purpose of this post is not to elicit any sympathy but rather call upon all women out there to take their health seriously.

Most of my friends are above 40 and have not had a mammogram, yet. What stops you? Pain? The expense? The belief that nothing will happen to you?

Well, we can all be as myopic as we want to with life, but when it comes to health,  to put it on the backburner is downright foolish.

This Women’s Day, make a pledge to yourself – that your health, and in turn, your happiness will be your top priority.

Only then, can you make a difference in the lives of others.

Happy Women’s Day!

 

 

Hi there!

It’s been a long time since I posted on the blog. Well, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything. No writer’s block this, just an unconscious attempt to keep away from the written word.

It’s been a tumultuous year so far. A relapse in March saw me clutching at anxiety like second skin. It was the worst and violent phase I had gone through. But maybe it was also a blessing in disguise. I finally met a doctor who perfectly understood what I had been going through for the past nine years. His diagnosis came as a relief and for the first time I understood the implications of serotonin deficiency and why medication was imperative. I am at a state now where I know what I have to do to be at peace with my actions and choices. All thanks to the good doctor.

This year was a turning point for the son who wrote his 12th boards. His only entreaty was, “Trust me!” I plead guilty of pushing him not because I didn’t trust his hard work or his abilities but because I felt guilty of not being physically present with him during his exams. I missed hovering over him like a helicopter parent. But like all other worries, this too was unfounded! He did very well in his core subjects and did us proud. 

Today as he moves away from Science to Arts, it’s our trust that we know, will pull him through. As he moves to Bangalore and new environs, he will learn to take the good along with the bad, make mistakes, fall in love and experience life as an adult. I will be with him, not hovering over, not holding his hand but honouring the ‘trust’ he expects from me.

After 20 years of working non-stop, I am no longer career-driven. I don’t feel the need to prove myself or strive towards perfection. (This includes not proof-reading this piece a million times 😊) If I have to write, I will.

As I type this from Muscat International Airport en route to Bangalore, I can’t help but look back in gratitude. I have a wonderful family – husband, son, siblings and great friends who I owe my life to. Without you, I would never be Me. It’s this gratitude that makes me look forward to whatever life has in store!

Bring it on!

My life in the present… in bullet points

# Observation is key when it comes to human relationships. For the past two months, I have been travelling between Cochin-Palakkad-Bangalore-Bombay and observing people on buses, aircraft and trains. Observation is fascinating if you find the time for it – shut your phone and let your eyes do the talking. People, places, and situations are learning experiences – you just need to know where to look without being cynical or judgemental.

# I thought it would be a quiet train journey to Bangalore considering that half the train’s population was glued to their cellphones. Two hours into the journey, the lady sitting opposite me saw the new Harry Potter book I was reading and was soon asking me all about it. Soon, others joined in and before we could call it a night, a couple of them even had even decided to share a cab to their destination the next day. Since I was the only person ordering in, they all waited until my food arrived so that we could have dinner together. Train camaraderie remains alive, after all.

# On my way back from Bangalore on a sitting berth, a lively little girl kept us company with her antics. She spoke a lot and what would have been a painful sitting and boring journey, got over within no time. We had a lot of pineapple and watermelon slices together. A Gulf connection kept the conversation between the adults going. You just cannot go anyplace in India without bumping into a ‘Gelfie’.

# A bus journey from Cochin to Vadakkencherry turned out to be a frightening proposition when an elderly man was caught taking pictures of the women on the bus. Luckily a young man noticed it, grabbed the phone and deleted all the pictures. Before any action could be taken, the man quietly slipped away at the next bus stop. Kerala, voyeur’s own country.

# At Mumbai airport I met first-time fliers Swaminathan and his young son. It was of some reassurance to them that I also spoke Tamizh. The young man was travelling to Kuala Lumpur and from there to a port city Sibu where he would be joining a ship. The father was quite worried about his son making the journey all by himself but the son was extremely confident but without the cockiness of a youth his age. For the first time, I gave a stranger my phone number as I was worried about the young man reaching his destination without incident. (you hear so many things). Swaminathan called me up the next day to politely inform me that the boy had reached Sibu safely and thanked me for my prayers. I had indeed been praying for the boy.