#inspiringwomen: “Breaking down was not an option: I had to carry on for my son”

It’s been four years, but the evening is still fresh in my mind. Arnav was home playing with Ayushman, when a neighbor came by and told me Ayushman’s father is seriously ill. Kapil rushed out to assist and I ran out a little later with emergency medication for a heart attack. Downstairs, I found Ayaan slumped in a wheelchair surrounded by neighbours. Surprisingly, the doctor not only refused the medicine but even the suggestion to take him to a reputable private hospital nearby. He just recommended we take him to the nearest local hospital. I didn’t know it was already too late to do anything for Ayaan.

Soon after, Kapil called me to the hospital. I was tasked with breaking the news to Antara, Ayaan’s wife. His cousin did not have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had either.

I don’t know how a woman is supposed to respond to her husband’s untimely death. Will she cry? Scream? Collapse? Faint? I don’t know. Antara took the news without any reaction. Her first sentence was, “How will I tell Ayushman, He is so close to his father. He is only six”. From that day to now, I have never seen her cry. She has hidden her grief and tried to keep life as normal as possible for her son. This year Ayushman will turn 11.

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I asked Antara with trepidation if she would like to share her story with the world, not sure if she would be willing to share a loss as personal as this. But she took the challenge. As she has, these last four years. I worried if she will break down sharing her story. But she didn’t – just as these last four years.

Antara was born and brought up in Kolkata, had a happy, uneventful childhood. An only child, she preferred being on her own and had select but close friends. Her parents gave her the freedom to be – her mum wanted to work, but could not, so she always encouraged Antara to be independent, have a career. Her dad was busy with work and mom dominated all household decisions, like all Bengali households, she laughingly tells me. That open upbringing and a strong mother figure, made her into the strong woman she is today, not afraid to deal with life on her own terms. The foundation laid by her parents, is what has helped her get through the hard reality of life she faces every day.

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She met Ayaan while doing a two-year course in computer programming and coding. They became friends and were part of the same group. While Antara was reserved, Ayaan was her total opposite. Outspoken and friendly, Ayaan made friends easily.

They started dating only after both started their jobs. After finishing their studies, they kept in touch and slowly an unsaid bond developed. Antara says there was never really any proper proposal. They both grew into the relationship and neither had to formally ask the other. Ayaan moved to Delhi for work and Antara followed a year later, when they got married.

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Ayaan was an ambitious, hardworking young man. As Antara says, he was self-made – he got through most of his education on the back scholarships he earned. He wanted to make sure they had their own house before having a child. They both worked hard to achieve that goal and shifted into their new house, three months before their baby was born.

“Though he never mentioned, I think Ayaan was not very close to his mother. However, he really cherished the relationship he had with his father.” Perhaps to compensate for the fractured relationship, Ayaan loved his son to the hilt. No wish went unattended, Ayaan showered Ayushman with toys, gifts and most of all his time. The two developed a very close relationship and Antara feels that Ayushman is probably still not as close to her as he was to his father. The threesome loved holidaying and spent some cherished vacations together. But time was short.

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9th April 2014. Antara had a job interview and Ayaan offered to drive her to the venue. On the way back, he complained of a slight pain in the chest. Shrugging it off as a gastric issue, he came back home and took some medication. When he didn’t feel better till evening, they decided to go to a doctor and Ayaan went to change. Antara was in another room, when she heard a strange gurgle followed by a thud. She ran to the room and found Ayaan lying on the floor, unconscious. She screamed.

Too soon it was all over. He was declared ‘brought dead’ – and was no more a person. Ayaan had become a ‘body’. The hospital could not release ‘the body’ till a post mortem was done to find cause of death. A police report was required.

And in the middle of all this was Antara. Surrounded by women – mostly neighbours – no mother – no sister – no friend. No one she could lean on and cry with. So she just held everything in. Steeled herself to go through all the processes.

Antara had decided to take Ayushman for the cremation. A psychiatrist told her that it was important for Ayushman to understand his father was no more. We all collected at the Lodhi Road crematorium where we waited for Ayaan’s parents to arrive. They reached soon after we did, and I will not forget the cries of a woman who has lost a young son. Crazed by grief, she was in stark contrast to Antara’s composure. Two women who loved the same man, bound and separated by his death.

She broke down once again, when they laid her son on the ground. In her grief, she wanted Ayushman to touch and feel his father for one last time. The little child, not seven yet, froze with fear. Unable to comprehend what was going on around him, he wanted to run. I took him away with me, holding him, playing with him while the last rites were being completed.

Ayaan had been very popular and loved wherever he went. Many of his friends surrounded Antara and helped her with all the arrangements, the paperwork, the post mortem. But they all also had to get back to their own lives. One by one they left. And Antara was left alone to pick up the pieces of a life that once was.

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Kapil turned 40 last December. The exact same day Ayaan would have turned 40 too. I remember feeling that death had prowled our corridors that fateful day and took Ayaan finding him home. Even now I shudder at how close by death had been. I am once again reminded how important is each moment lived. And how lives can change in a minute. Here one minute and gone another.

I am reminded of Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a month after Antara did. She wrote on her FB, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.

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As we talk, I tell her how amazed I have been with her self-control. She says she doesn’t know where it came from. Even her mother says she had no idea how brave her daughter was. As far as Antara is concerned, she knew she had to be strong for her son. She did not show her grief, so her son could retain a sense of normality.

She remembers the evening of the cremation. When she came back home, it was empty. Silent. Her mum had not come yet and Ayushman was with us. She just sat down in the drawing room, soaking in the silence. The cacophony inside and the chaos outside needed to be silenced so she could think. But even then, she did not cry.

When her mum came, she allowed herself to grieve a little, but something still held her back. A close friend called from the U.S. and she was crying on the phone. Antara did not. Her friend told her she needed help and advised her to see a psychiatrist. Antara is glad she took her advice. The first time she really let go of her emotions was with the psychiatrist. Perhaps, it is easier to be vulnerable in front of a stranger.

Till almost a year ago, Antara would suddenly go blank, in the middle of things. But she has been getting better. For almost nine months after Ayaan was gone, she could not bring herself to go out and resume working. (I wonder how she even had the energy to get out from the bed every morning.) But life doesn’t give us so much time. There was a house to run, home loans, Ayushman’s fees to be paid. Some people even advised her to move Ayushman to a cheaper school, but Antara chose not to. She wanted things to run the same way.

With the help of her mum, who moved in with her, she restored normalcy to life. Four years down the line, life is not ideal, but they are happy. Ayushman is a cheerful young boy. They go out for vacations. They celebrate festivals. She goes out with her friends. She is living her life.

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Antara says she has matured as a person. She was very emotional earlier – could get upset at small things, now she learns to ignore such incidents. She was also a very carefree person, “I didn’t even buy a packet of milk – Ayaan would do all that.” Now of course she has the responsibility of running the whole house.

They have almost lost touch with Ayaan’s family, but she holds no grudges, “I don’t expect anything from anyone anymore. I just believe in carrying out my own responsibility.” “I have also learnt, that money is important. It may not be everything, but it is needed to live a life.” She worries about Ayushman, “What if something happens to me?”. She has heavily insured herself. But now she reads the small script carefully. Four years later, she is still submitting papers for Ayaan’s insurance claims.

Have you ever thought of remarrying, I ask. “No. I am content. I have already led a happy married life and I don’t feel the need.”

“And I miss him so much……………………………”

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Do share this if you think it can inspire someone.

#InspiringWomen: A Pioneer, An Entrepreneur – She Built Lives Not Only Institutions

Today is the international Women’s day and we will hear/ read stories of many exemplary women, high achievers in their respective fields. It is important to acknowledge the great work and achievements of these women. In a world that still does not offer equal opportunity or a level playing field to women, recognition of those who have crossed many barriers to reach where they are today is essential.

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However, to a common woman, the achiever’s story might well be a benchmark but perhaps not an example she would be able to follow easily. Most of us common people look at the people on top with longing but never assuming that we can reach those levels. This is where it becomes important to look at women around us – women who have faced issues similar to ours, fought the same battles, maybe even worse than ours and came out a winner. When we see them overcome the challenges life threw their way, we believe we can do that too. We can also achieve, overcome, overthrow, win. As I wrote a few months ago – I have been shaped by the women around me.

For this women’s day, I have decided to bring out the stories of everyday women, women like ourselves who have made the best of their circumstances. By being true to themselves they tell us we can do it too. They have overcome grief, physical hardship, disability, poverty and built institutions. They are us. We are them.

Like the Navratans (9 jewels), I have chosen nine women whose stories I would like to share over the next few weeks. Whether it is Anita, born in poverty and thrown out of her house or Tara, the only female doctor in small town Rewari of the 1950s or Joyce who lost her only child, each of them has the power to encourage us, to tell us that nothing is insurmountable.

As I spoke to each of them, a common pattern that emerged was their own mothers or fathers, that shaped them to who they have become. So let me also start with the story of my mother. I have not chosen her because she is my mother – but because she was part of the first wave of women entrepreneurs of the 1980s, who started out on their journeys, without any examples they could follow, without formal guidance but only their own skills, confidence and conviction.

So let me stop here and dive into Purnima’s life.

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“The person I am today, is in a large part influenced by how my mother brought me up. Even in 1960s, when women had limited power over their own lives, she wanted to make sure that I was educated and trained to be self dependent. I was given full choice in choosing my career and life partner”, says Purnima. A textile designer by profession, Purnima is one of the handful of women entrepreneurs that existed in the small city of Jaipur of 1980s. She established her own institute that went on to develop a formidable reputation. It is also probably not an exaggeration to say that she pioneered design as a serious career option for a generation of young women that had started to aspire for economic independence and challenging professions.

Soon after moving to Jaipur post marriage, she was approached by a lady wishing to start courses in textile designing for young women. Purnima accepted her offer to develop and conduct the course which soon became very popular. A few years later, however, due to differences with management she resigned from her job.

Given the newness of the design field and lack of quality teachers at the time, some of her students insisted, begged and cajoled her to open her own institution. Moved by their faith in her and their own passion to prove their abilities to the world, she opened the Institute of Designing (IoD) in 1984 out of her own house. The garage became a classroom, the driveway was laid with two large printing tables and the terrace a place where students gathered to discuss and debate. Without any financial backing and with only her own skill and experience, Purnima took a decision that changed the course of her life and the lives of many of her students. (and i guess mine too!)

Keep in mind that this is the Jaipur of late 1970s – early 80s. Like most Indian cities of that time, Jaipur also aspired to greater development and urbanization. Infrastructure was developing, new schools were opening and businesses were growing. The mindsets were however still conservative. Many girls from well off families were still not being educated and many of those that were sent to school, were married off as soon as possible. Girls getting professional education were even lesser and the motivation in a large part was to add to their “sarva gun sampanna” status and make them more eligible for marriage. (photo credit colourbox.com)

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The first batch consisted of 7-8 girls which soon grew to 20 plus and then crossed 100s. At its peak, the institute had more than 120 students, many more classrooms had come up on the terrace and classes were conducted in two shifts. The spare room had been converted to the front office.

As garment and fashion industry continued to grow in Jaipur and in India, more courses were added to cater to various needs. Textile designing and printing; fashion designing, garment technology and so on. As NIFT and NID became more popular, designing became a more credible option. Children with a creative flair could now opt for a career more in sync with their talents – instead of having to go for science or commerce. This not only led to a greater demand for the institute, it also ended up in introduction of foundation courses for students who wanted to prepare for NIFT and NID entrance exams.

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By 1990s the institute had developed a strong reputation, so much so that postmen only needed Institute of Designing written on the address to deliver mail. (one of our neighbors got a letter addressed “opposite IOD!!” Another time, when I told a new acquaintance my address, he exclaimed that I live in Purnima Varma’s street! The pride I felt telling him that I am actually her daughter is indescribable!). She even had a few international students to her credit – who came all the way from the U.S. and Japan, lived a year or two in Jaipur to learn the craft. Media also did its bit in recognising her achievements.

 

Purnima was very clear that her courses will not be constrained to theory. Well aware that she was creating a skilled workforce that has to go out in the world and work, she laid a huge emphasis on practical work and exposure to industry. Her students did everything from scratch, right from preparing their own dyes to stitching their own designs. They were also given many opportunities to interact with the industry, display their work at exhibitions and fashion shows. One of the exhibitions attracted such a large crowd that the management of Jawahar Kala Kendra (where the exhibition was held) mentioned that this was the first time ever an art exhibition had so many visitors.

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(photo: Maharani Padmini Devi admiring the artwork)

In 1989, Purnima conducted the first ever fashion show in Jaipur. This not only gave a chance to her students to showcase their work, it gave them important lessons in managing such events from scratch. As was practice, the entire event was created and managed by the students and teachers of the institute. The fashion show started with a closed theater in Jaipur and over the years moved on to the large open air theater with the audience going into thousands.

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As a child (later teen), the institute for me was a fascinating ground for growing up (more in a later blog). On a busy day, you could see students busy tying knots on their bandhni designs. On the terrace, a few others could be seen making their screens for printing – painstakingly hammering the fabric on the wooden frame; tracing the design on the fabric and blotting out portions with enamel colour. In another corner you could smell the strong fumes of melted wax where students were dyeing their batik cloths. Upstairs sewing machines hummed amid the chatter of students. During the days leading to fashion shows, there was palpable excitement in the air and music all around as amateur models practiced their catwalk and students busied themselves preparing their costumes.

Through the decades of 1980s, 90s and 2000s, Purnima was witness to the changing social landscape of Jaipur. Some of her earliest students were driven to classes by their drivers who stayed till class ended and took them away soon after. Later in late 1990s, more and more girls started coming on their scooties or kinetics. One year, she had three students from the same family – mother, daughter and daughter in law – all three wanted to explore their selves and become more than just their familial duties. Many of her students went on to take jobs and start their own enterprises. Many came to her under-confident and went out ready to take on the world. A student describes her experience – “When I came to ma’am, I was like Jassi (an underconfident character from a popular TV show) and today I am as confident of myself as I can be.”

Unlike today, when education has become a money minting machine, at that time, an education provider was revered for the learning they imparted. Purnima established the institute to develop confident, mature women able to hold their own in a world, not balanced in their favour. Like a sapphire, she symbolizes honesty, purity and trust and those are the values on which she built her institute.

In her own words, “the best compliment I ever received was – ma’am aadmi banati hain (ma’am builds a person)”. Her life’s mantra – “Be true to yourself and have courage of conviction. Before becoming ‘somebody’, be a good person”.

So when I am in doubt, I think of this woman and tell myself, “if she could achieve all this, why can’t you solve your own little problem”.

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