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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

My life in the present…

 

It is raining heavily in Bangalore. Heavier than it was in Kerala in the 10 days I stayed there. I stand close to where the rain is falling in torrents and can feel the water trickling down my face. Just outside the gate there are red and pink roses in full bloom and my heart does a song – Raindrops on roses. Sound of Music may sound clichéd in today’s times but when the heart wants to sing, it wants to do so like Maria.

It’s three weeks since I left my job, cancelled my employment visa and landed in India. For one week after that, I was still in work mode – barking instructions to my colleagues to the point of exhaustion. This one is embargoed, cancel it – This one is revealing, cover up or are you sure this is the right picture?

And then one week later, the little post-its in my head started disappearing and so did the intros and headlines I would always think of. There were no appointments in the phone calendar. A few stray emails kept the connection alive. And they too stopped. My email was diverted and so I deactivated it on my phone. A few of my colleagues spoke of everything else but work on WhatsApp. My disconnect with work was complete.

For the first time in 21 years, I was off work. How does it feel? Strange and bewildering. I had gotten so used to stressing myself out and now, there was nothing to panic about. Even on annual holidays, I was so connected to work that I composed edit notes in my head. And here there was absolutely nothing to do but relax.

Elizabeth Gilbert in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, called it Bel far niente – which in Italian means the ‘sweet joy of doing nothing’. In the past few weeks, I have managed to catch up on sleep by taking short naps and regularizing my night sleep. I have eaten three meals a day without skipping on any. I have simply snacked without feeling guilty. A childhood friend spent an entire day with me where we spoke of school days and imminent travel. I also met up with a friend and ex-colleague in Bangalore and it was fun to be at our favourite haunt – a bookstore and catching up with Muscat news and of course, work figured in our conversations too – loads of good memories of Costa coffee and chai at Madras Café. (Food as they say, is a great leveler!)

I am at a place now where I am not thinking of what tomorrow will bring. I know it may bring happiness and joy, panic and worry, love and longing but it will also bring with it the strength to accept.

Meanwhile, I will let my rain wash my soul and my heart do a song and dance of its own.

 

RIP Ayakkad Appa

RIP Ayakkad Appa

We all wish our parents were immortal and they would live for a long, long time. At whatever age a parent dies, peacefully or in suffering – the void will still remain in our lives, even though others would reassure us that he/she had lived a good life.

Having lost both my parents by the age of 32, my in-laws Appa and Amma were the closest I would have as parents. As is the custom, we would also call them Appa and Amma as they were our parents too.

With the passing away of Appa recently, there would be nobody to call Appa or as I would say, Ayakkad Appa. He was a great soul, very flexible in his ways, jovial, widely travelled and a ‘no-complaints’ policy that endeared him to all.

He never treated us, his daughters-in-law differently and would often go out of his way to make us feel comfortable. I remembered when I got married and came to Ayakkad, it was my first experience in a gramam setting. Appa would painstakingly boil water for baths in a wooden stove and pour it into buckets in the bathroom. Later when I was pregnant, I used to be scared to go to the bathroom which was at the back of the house. He would accompany me and stand guard, saying, ‘Onnum varadhu’ (there is nothing here). He would do so many times, even in the middle of the night.

Till the day he died, he would wash his own clothes, clean the puja vessels, draw water from the well for cooking, chop vegetables and scrape coconut for my mother-in-law. Theirs was a cute relationship – Amma would forbid him to eat fried food and Appa would counter with a sarcastic comment. In a way both of them were child-like, living their old age at their own pace. He was also president of the grama samoohan and respected by all.

He would often recollect memories from the past, his stint at the Kollengode Palace, his passion for black & white photography, how the Land Act changed the family’s entire fortunes, his RSS days and more. Last year, I chanced upon some of his job applications and was surprised at his mastery over the language. In his trunk, I also discovered an old railway ticket from 1955 when he had taken his mother to Kashi.

He was a foodie but never had any specific preferences. Every dish would be met with a ‘Besh!’ (superb). He loved garlic rasam and would argue with Amma and make it himself. The foodie gene has passed on rightfully to everyone in the family, and by association to the daughters-in-law as well.

My parents were very close to Amma and Appa and they would take over the kitchen on their visits to Cochin. My father was a great fan of Amma’s cooking and I would often wake up at 7 and see Appa (my father-in-law) chopping vegetables and Amma making the choicest dishes for my father. Theirs was a relationship that went beyond ‘sammandhi’ or in-laws.

One of the most important qualities I fervently wish we and the kids would also imbibe is the ‘no-complaint’ attitude. If some relative did not turn up for a function he would say, ‘Vandha vaa koopdarom, varata virodhum illai’. (If they come, I will welcome with open arms, if they don’t I have no complaints!’ ) That together with absolutely no trace of ill will defined him as a great person.

Appa left for his heavenly abode on December 15. RIP Appa, you will live on in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, my namesake!

Even before I joined UMS, Rekha was my first point of contact with the company. She drew up my contract, answered thousands of queries (I am sure, with those classic rolling of her eyes) and we hit off almost immediately because of a common love for books. Within a year, she and I had read all the books we had and goaded each other to buy more. She would often look at me in disdain when I got another of those chick-lits but would still take them because she always claimed she had nothing to read. Almost every Wednesday, I would get a text message, “Gentle reminder, please bring me some books to read.” I had the upper hand because of my frequent trips to India and she would be the only person I would willingly lend my books to, because I knew her love for them was as fierce as mine. When we began running out of books, I bought a Kindle and later, forced her to buy one too. Just two days before she left for India, I loaded many books on her Kindle, asked her to relax and ‘just read’.

Little did I know, that chapter in my life would have such an unpredictable end. Just like those lunch sessions every day at Nirvana that would be full of sharing, jokes and camaraderie. Through her, I became friends with many of my Advertising colleagues and sometimes, we would all go out together for a meal. That we shared a common name was also cause of much mirth. A lot of my mails would go to her and vice versa. She would get interview requests and I would get last-minute requests for passes to an event.

Rekha was a solid source of strength for someone like me who would get easily worked up over a stray comment or stress at work. She was the only person I allowed to scream at me because she made sense. In turn, I would give her a ‘pleading’ look when I felt she was getting ready to scream at someone. And she would tell me later, “just because of you, I kept quiet. You are a bad influence.” And we used to chuckle together.

During our events, we knew we could depend on her for everything. Right from nominations to table sales – her sense of authority, responsibility and diligence was what saw our events to a wonderful finish. We would always go home together and the conversations on those nights are perhaps the most memorable of all.

Over the past one month, I have been speaking to her every week. Though she would be short of breath, she would still make it a point to enquire about everyone in the office. And she was apologetic too. “Please update everyone on what’s happening as I find it difficult to talk to whoever calls me.” She was making plans to come back next week.

We can call it fate, destiny or the unfairness of life! But this is a void that will remain forever.

Goodbye, my namesake! We may not have written that humourous bestseller together but in my Book of Life, your friendship is a chapter that will forever remain etched in my heart.

From Bhai to Bajrangi Bhaijaan

I have never been a fan of Salman Khan; the actor or the human being. But then I am a highly critical and cynical cinema viewer. And Salman Khan does not fall into my list of likeable actors, not even by a long shot. However, I did enjoy a short interview with the star last September only because of his self-deprecating humour. That veneer made good copy. More than his films ever did!

I must admit, that for lack of anything to do during the recent holidays, I went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I had no great expectations as I explained to friends. For God’s sake, it’s a Salman movie.

But this time, the sanctimoniousness and the smugness did go for a toss. It’s impossible not to fall in love with little Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) at first sight. And when Wagah, the Indo-Pak border comes into view, it is a foregone conclusion, director Kabir Khan has a hit on his hands.

There’s nothing that raises or helps race the emotions of Indians and Pakistanis like an Indo-Pak story. I mean a good Indo-Pak story. No jingoism, no OTT patriotism. But some cleverly-scripted dialogues that don’t proclaim but make us understand that we are no different from each other. Throw in a little helpless speech-impaired girl who gets lost in India, a Hanuman-bhakt who does no wrong, some cricket, a journalist on the right side of free speech, junta who flocks to the border to see the good Samaritan back to India (how is this ever possible?), and you know the peacenik intentions will tug at the heart-strings. Never mind if a few scenes make you baulk, “Gori hai, toh brahman hogi” (She is fair, she must be a Brahmin). And to top it all, the message that social media is the solution to everything in this world. Almost!

Salman Khan as Bajrangi Bhaijaan is to put it, in one simple word, endearing. Like a recent article pointed out, the actor should sack his PR outfit and turn to Kabir Khan. In one cinematic stroke, the ‘de-bhaisation’ of Salman Khan has happened. Bhai – a strong, goonda who can also be a brother. Bhaijaan – a respectable, loving brother who can be looked up to! What a masterstroke!

I watched the film on Eid day with a crowd mostly comprising Pakistanis and Omanis. And was overwhelmed by the experience. There was thunderous applause at all the subtle ‘India-Pakistan is one’ dialogues. I did eat a piece of humble pie, if not crow. The hearts were in the right place. All will be good!

India has not gone to the dogs… just not yet

(This is something I hope to continue as a series – for it’s all about hope)

Most of us are guilty of being armchair experts on India. We don’t live there… probably visit once or twice in a year, come back to our cosy little homes and hearths and then wax eloquent about bad the country of our birth is; the pollution, the work culture, the people, the transport system, the traffic, the racism, the list seems endless.

I too am guilty of ranting about a lot of things. Complaining is human nature but you will find hope in abundance, in India. Agreed, India is a work in progress. It’s a tough life out there – the competition, the environment, the education but it’s still mine and no, I have not lost hope yet.

More than five years ago, I walked into the Vytilla branch of the State Bank of India not expecting much. It was a far cry from the neighbourhood I grew up in, where I knew atleast one person in every bank. This was a busy branch, in the city, and I wondered whether I had made the right choice. As I entered, the person at the ‘May I help you?’ quickly came forward and asked what I wanted. I noticed he had a slight physical disability but that did not stop his enthusiasm and he was full of energy.  Within minutes, I had met the manager, opened an account, got access to a locker and many investment opportunities were explored.  The little devil did whisper in the ear, “Oh! But you are an NRI!” But within the next one hour, I watched as the young bank employee attended to a number of people, old and infirm people, migrants with no grasp of the language, – all with a smile and a spring in his step. He was all over the place… for some good reason – helping people.

Yes, State Bank of India is a public sector bank. One we often deride as not being customer-centric. I still frequent the same branch; many managers have come and gone; the smiles are different but still there. The man at the ‘May I help you?’ desk has won an award for best performance and tells me all about his trip to Malaysia where he had gone to receive it. He is raring to go. And his smile still stands out.  “Ma’am don’t worry,” he says, putting me at ease each time I am besieged by many doubts and I goad him with queries.

There is hope, yet!

Of being judgmental and cynical

Over the past many months, I’ve been asked by many people, including nodding acquaintances, why we are building a home in a village in Kerala. It’s funny how people judge you by where you grew up (in a city) and where you stay now (in a foreign country!) and how that has a bearing on where you want to stay in the future!

But then most of the world is like that! They have these presumptions and tend to put people into ‘brackets’ – small cubby-holes in what they think according to them is ‘imperfect’. Is it because they themselves are living in a ‘judgment’ well?

Some of the weirdest things I have heard are, “Oh! How can you live in a village? What will you do for entertainment?” Not that I am moving bag, baggage and my foreign roots tomorrow, but anyone hear of ‘every village in Kerala is a town?’ Another one is, “Oh, but there are snakes there!” To which the husband calmly replies, “Heard something called the ecosystem? You need a balance, right!” Atta, guy! That’s why I married you!

The largest number of comments comes from people who have lived in villages themselves and now live in cities. “How will you get along with the people?”, “Do you have Internet?, it will be so rustic,” and this one amuses me all the time, “why such a big house, what are you going to do with it?” Turn it into a marriage hall, maybe?

I come from a big city but the small, close-knit neighbourhood I grew up in has shaped me into the person I am today.  Multi-cultural pluralism, that is Mattancherry, tucked away in a corner of Cochin for you!

I believe that you take your roots wherever you go… only if you want to. I will be taking mine to a small village in Palakkad.  To the verdant fields, the overflowing ponds, the lilting bhajans, the warm people and to family…

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong…

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier on my village… https://rekhabaala.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/village-vignettes/