#inspiringwomen: Against All Odds – I Delivered Babies in Vegetable Carts, During floods, Under Lanterns….

 “Water swirled around the jeep dangerously high as we rode along a narrow road. It had been raining for the last few days and many villages around Rewari were flooding. The cries of the woman in labour interspersed with the loud pattering of the rain on the windshield. It was pitch dark and the jeep could move only as fast as the boys guiding us with lanterns could walk. Luckily, we reached the nursing home in time, and the woman and her child could be saved.”

“But I wasn’t as lucky always. Once, I remember, by the time I arrived, the patient had miscarried and the baby couldn’t be saved. The patient was bleeding heavily and her condition was serious.” We needed to get her to the nursing home immediately. There was no stretcher, no ambulance and all I had for help was my compounder and the lady’s husband. We put her on a durrie and used that as a makeshift stretcher to bring her down the narrow stairs of her first floor house. At that late hour, no means of transport were in sight. No rickshaw, no tonga. The compounder spotted an empty wooden cart and we used that as a trolley and brought her to the nursing home.”

“These are not isolated cases. My early years of serving Rewari are full of such memories. These were late 1950s and early 1960s. Medical services were very basic and barely reached villages. Infrastructure was extremely poor and even towns were not easily reachable. Camels to rickshaws, bullock carts to tongas, I have used them all, countless times to reach my patients in need. Treating patients in the light of a lantern was also not uncommon.”

As I talk to Dr. Tara Saxena, I am astounded at the conditions in which she lived and treated her patients. And I am inspired that she was determined to not only continue serving the people of Rewari in these difficult conditions, but also resolute in improving them. This octogenarian is Rewari’s first lady doctor and was instrumental in developing and establishing good quality health care services in the region. She can also be credited with encouraging the purdah clad women of Haryana and Punjab to come out and assert their equal status.

This women’s day, continuing with my series on #inspiringwomen, I decided to share her life with my readers. She belongs to one of the first generations of Indian women who came into their own and fought not only for their own rights but also empowered other women along the way. A woman like this does not only impact future generations of her own family, but those of an entire region and sometimes even a country.

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A precocious child

Dr. Tara was born 7th of her 8 siblings and is proud to share her birthday with Swami Vivekananda. She grew up in a family that followed Gandhian values and led a simple life. Family discussions revolved around Gandhi, Nehru and Bhagat Singh on the one hand and science and technology on the other. She loved listening to stories of Newton and Darwin and discussing their theories with elder brother Rajan.

A precocious child, she had devoured classic works of literature by Premchand, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky by age 10! (At that age I had begun to read my first Enid Blytons) Biographies of Madam Curie and Florence Nightingale inspired her to aim high and serve people. Stories of her maternal grandfather who was a renowned doctor also motivated her to study medicine and become a doctor.  She finished her matriculation exams with distinction, securing 100% in Mathematics and chose science as a further study subject. In 1954, she finished her MBBS but could not finish her post graduate as her father retired.

But sometimes, what may seem to be a setback may actually prove to be a step forward in the larger scheme of things. Unable to study further, Dr. Tara joined Govt. service and for 3 years served a number of villages in Uttar Pradesh. This experience laid the foundation stone of her life and work as a doctor who built medical services from scratch in the district of Rewari.

Building medical services from scratch

Dr. Tara got married to Dr. S.N. Saxena in 1959 and moved to Rewari. Life was tough. Her husband was the eldest of 7 siblings, his father had retired and the responsibility of running the house and settling the younger siblings came on the shoulders of the young couple. The large family lived in a 3 room house, there was no electricity, no running water, no sewerage and cooking was done on a coal cookstove. Drinking water had to be bought and rationed hard water was provided for other tasks. It was common to see fights break out over water.

At that time, the only asset that the young couple had was their medical degrees. Soon after their marriage, the couple started their medical practice from a small 3 room rented house. In a place that barely had basic infrastructure, it is not a surprise that medical facilities were also negligible. Rewari had a civil hospital in a run down building at that time, that lacked even a stack of proper medicines and few doctors made rare visits when it suited them. Then there was a small railway hospital and a maternity hospital built by a social worker. The latter was much better than the civil hospital but hardly had any equipment – the few that were available were mostly rusted! Local quacks were the primary care providers!

This was the story of not only Rewari but majority of the country at that time. A country with negligible infrastructure, widespread poverty, a dearth of educational institutions and rampant superstition. Those of us born in the latter half of the last century can probably not even imagine the hard task that lay before our leaders and how far we have come now. And there is a lot to be done still.

Anyhow, the young doctor couple persevered with providing medical services to people as best as they could. Both of them left their respective government jobs and focused on one of the most backwards regions of Punjab. By 1962, they had laid the foundation of their hospital and built it brick by brick over the decades into a multi specialty hospital that stands proudly in Rewari today. The first oxygen cylinders were introduced in 1963, the first X ray machine in 1964 and the first microscope in 1973. Before this samples had to be sent to Delhi for the most basic lab tests. In 1966 the state of Haryana was created and Rewari witnessed faster progress. Electricity was one of the first conveniences to reach the town. Prior to that most of the work was done in the light of kerosene lamps, lanterns and petromax. With the nationalization of banks in 1969, loans were made to small to entrepreneurs including doctors. This encouraged other doctors to also start setting up services in Rewari. Today Rewari can boast of international level medical services thanks to the untiring efforts of Dr. Tara, her husband and the scores of doctor couples that followed the same path.

Bringing women to the forefront of development

Rewari was not only one of the most backward districts, its women were also some of the most disempowered. When Dr. Tara moved to Rewari, she noticed that most women observed the purdah and barely stepped out of their houses.

She believes change begins from home. Her own marital home also had purdah, but she soon impressed her father in law enough to discontinue this practice. Daughter in Law Ruchi was touched by her insistence to come and sit at the dining table with the rest of the family and not stay back in the kitchen. She always encouraged her to think of herself beyond her duties at home.

The condition of women was very bad. Maternal mortality rate was very high. So was infant mortality rate. Due to lack of proper medical services, cases of tetanus were very common. But this was not much of a concern for anyone. One wife dies, get another one and then a third one. After all, her primary job was to produce the next generation. A woman who gave birth to a girl received next to nil post natal care. An infertile woman’s life was hell. These were age old beliefs and in order to challenge them, education was critical.  

Maternal Mortality Rate in India

In 1964, Dr. Tara and other illustrious people in Rewari came together to establish the education board. This initiative started the transformation of education in Rewari and slowly a number of higher education institutions including medical and engineering came up. Dr. Tara later went on to found All India Women’s Committee (AIWC), Lioness Club and many other women’s organisations. Under her leadership, the AIWC established a number of training centres for women including stitching and tailoring and other employable skills. Hundreds of women were trained.

By 2001, Rewari had more than 20 lady doctors and Dr. Tara laid the foundation of Rewari Obstetrics and Gynecological Society (ROGS). Because of the illegal use of ultrasounds, female feticide was common and the sex ratio was dismal. Members of ROGS mounted a battle against this and involved a number of NGOs to fight this battle.

Sustained efforts have meant that many more girls are being educated, more and more are getting employed and balance between the genders is improving. Yet, the task is not finished and much more needs to be done.

Miles to go before I sleep

Dr. Tara is 87 years of age, but her mind is much younger. Her levels of energy can surpass those of a younger woman (mine definitely!) She has accomplished a lot in her life but her will to continue working is indomitable. Her multifaceted personality has been a source of inspiration for many.

Her daughter Chitra compares her aptly to Leonardo Da Vinci whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science and many more. “Mummy is our very own Da Vinci with multitude of talents, creative genius with a heart of gold. Apart from being a doctor and social worker, mummy is also a brilliant scientist, mathematician and has excellent knowledge of history, geography and politics. She is a great leader, orator, writer, singer, dancer, painter, gardener, photographer, and can also do sowing and stitching, embroidery, cooking and so many other things.”

With daughters Mitra and Chitra

Daughter Mitra believes she has learnt both what to do and what not to do from her mother. She remembers her mother’s large heartedness and willingness to keep giving at her own cost. She remembers when her mum gave away her scooter to a young nephew to help him continue his private practice. That nephew himself went on to become famous in his area of expertise. She was an absolutely honest and fair person – values that Mitra has also imbibed in her own life. Despite being a busy doctor, she always made sure that the family remained connected. Mealtimes were full of fun and laughter where children were encouraged to talk about anything and everything – from movies to politics. But Mitra has also seen the downside of giving too much of oneself. While the world may acknowledge your accomplishments, at times family may not be able to give you that recognition. And if it is the family that one turns to for validation, disappointment may be in store. Her learning is that one should perhaps not expect too much from anyone, not your spouse, not your family. This perhaps is the mantra for remaining happy.

Today, Dr. Tara has received many accolades and is very respected in Rewari. Yet, she feels there is a lot more to do. Her advice to women and young girls is to believe in themselves. “Women may be the weaker sex physically, but no one can match our brains. From my childhood I had confidence in my intelligence. So girls be confident and the world will be at your feet.”

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I hope you were as inspired by Dr. Tara’s story as I was. Please read, comment and share. And if you have been inspired by a woman, let me know, so I can write about them too!

If you would like to read about other inspiring women I have written about, please see below:

#birthdaytime: Come On! Creep Along to the Minecraft Party!

In a previous blog I had admitted how obsessed I am about birthdays and how since Arnav’s 4th birthday we have been throwing theme parties. This year Arnav turned 10. But unlike the last few years when we started choosing a theme from December (2 months before the birthday), this year we didn’t plan on anything. Why? Well because this year was different. Arnav and I had moved to Almaty a few months ago and frankly I wasn’t sure how I would be able to organize a theme party in an unfamiliar city, where most people don’t understand the language I speak, and I don’t understand theirs. On top of it, my partner in crime – the creative director of all the parties, my husband, wasn’t here with us. How, oh how could we hope to do a theme party this year?!

Anyway, I decided to do what I don’t like. Go to one of the malls and book a fun park or party place. But that was easier said than done. Arnav and I went to one of the bigger malls in the city and checked out what they had to offer. They had a large kids centre that offered big computers and a room and party food. But the thought of kids bunched around large screens glued to their games made me want to cry. So sorry but no.

Then I visited another one – this one had a lot of video games and rides and bumper cars etc. and both Arnav and I liked it. Having the conversation wasn’t easy – because a) their brochures were in Russian and b) even more importantly, their people only spoke Russian! With the help of Google Translate I somehow communicated what we wanted, and they explained what was on offer. (it was quite a funny exchange with me writing out my questions and their salesperson speaking into my phone in Russian) We decided to finalise this place and I told them we will come back to pay the deposit. But when we did go back and started to work on the final details, I realised that probably I had not understood some of their key terms! Now very worried about not knowing what I was getting into, I told them I need time to think.

Arnav and I put our minds together. Both of us at the back of our minds wanted a theme party. And this seemed like a good excuse! And Kapil also told us to take courage and go ahead with a party at home! So with two weeks to go, Arnav and I chose a theme – not surprisingly Minecraft as he has been obsessing about it all this year! Okayyyyy…… time was short but we still had two weeks, maybe we could scrape together a decent party in that time. But no, complications hadn’t ended for us. I fell sick that weekend! For most of that week I ended up working from home – and couldn’t go out. Time to panic was here! The countdown had begun!

10 days to D DAY!

The first thing we needed was birthday supplies – Minecraft themed. I had no clue where to go! I turned to my expat group. They suggested a few places and I immediately went to the nearest, having no energy to go traipsing around town after the viral. Thankfully, I found some themed paper plates and cups and napkins! Also decided to choose rubik’s cubes as one of the party favours – since Minecraft is all about blocks. Okay that was not an exact fit – but right then we didn’t have the luxury of time.

9 days to D DAY!

With a few things in place, we turned our attention to food. That was comparatively easy. Minecraft has a number of food items in the game and it was fun collecting them! They have chicken so we got chicken nuggets. Then they have cookies and we got those too. For watermelon, we got watermelon candies. Green chips to make for grass and finally pizza which is an all time favourite with the kids! Cold drinks such as apple juice, coke etc. were renamed creeper cola, enderman  juice etc.!

The cake was not so easy though. In India it was easy to get the design one wanted, and we usually just got it printed. Never really liked the fondue cakes. But I didn’t know where to go in Almaty. And then I remembered! My landlady’s niece bakes cakes. I reached out to her. It took a bit of convincing, but she agreed in the end! A regular cake with a Minecraft design on top!

7 days to D Day!

I was really keen to do a photo booth and find some Minecraft related props but hadn’t been so successful yet. I was also keen to find Arnav a Minecraft T- shirt. I turned to my expat group again and they didn’t fail me! It is one of the most helpful group of people I have come across. I was guided to an Instagram account that could help. And they did! I managed to find not only a good T-shirt for Arnav but also a lovely pickaxe as a prop!

6 days to D DAY!

It was high time we invited people. We had planned for Arnav to distribute the invites in school.  But as luck would have it, Arnav fell sick a week before the party! (probably caught it from me :-/) Now who will go and give the invites? I had messaged some mums already but remember we are in a new city and I barely had a few contacts. They were kind enough to share a few other numbers, so I managed to reach out to some more. Then Arnav’s class teacher helped send an e-vite to all the parents – and I was a bit relieved. But what about those that weren’t in his class? Well, early one morning, in the freezing cold, I went down to Arnav’s school bus and handed some of the invites to his friend on the bus. He was kind enough to have them distributed! Phew! Finally, we did manage to get the invites out to everyone on our list! But by this time, it was 4 days to D Day!

3 days to D DAY!

Good! Things were falling in place! But we still needed to figure out the décor, the party favours as well as the games. What we needed for décor was a loooooot of green paper and I couldn’t find any at my nearest stationery shop. I asked a colleague, but she didn’t know either. I was a bit stumped. Another thing that stumped me was brown paper bags – for the party favours. All I could find were decorated ones – but that’s not what I wanted. My landlady helped do some search and found someone who was willing to deliver – but they felt our quantity was low. Anyhow, I turned to my savior Shatorupa who has helped me find stuff in this city when no one else has been able to. She is from India – but probably knows some places even locals don’t know! She took it on her to find me what I needed! We went to the Green Bazaar, an awesome local market and she found me everything I needed! I found some great green crepe paper. The exact colour I needed. I found the brown paper bags and some of the other party favours!

Party Favours!

A day before D Day!

The party was on Sunday and Arnav and I spent Friday evening and all of Saturday working on the décor, party favours and other things. It was fun but also hardwork. Unexpected issues came up. The crepe paper I so loved would just not stick to anything – glue, scotch tape – everything failed! This paper was key to our décor! Finally, we used a stapler. Thankfully that worked!

D Day is here!

Well finally, it was the day of the party. I was very worried about how many of Arnav’s friends would turn up. After all he was the new kid in his class and I was worried he would be disappointed if his friends didn’t come.

Anyway, in the morning we were busy finishing the decorations and barely had time to eat lunch. And at 4 p.m. the doorbell rang! Our first guest had arrived! Welcome! Creep on in!

The party is on!

Soon enough we had a roomful of little guests. They started with posing with the Creeper Arnav had made and the pickaxe we had bought. Once we had about 10-15 kids, we started with the first game. Minecraft Bingo! The kids had good time yelling out Bingo and the energy in the room was high!

We then moved onto Passing the Parcel. In this game, kids sit around in a circle and pass a parcel as music plays in the background. As soon as the music stops, the child whose hand the parcel is in has to open the top layer of the parcel. There is a task to do and a little treat at every layer. I had some good fun thinking through the tasks for kids. Given this was a multicultural, multilingual group of kids, I put in questions like – “how many languages do you know? Say a sentence in each language” or “Which country are you from? Tell us something about your country” and so on. I think the kids had a great time passing the parcel around and opening their little chits.

After this Arnav cut the cake and the hungry kids finally got some grub! All that running around had sure made them hungry. (the pickaxe was by now broken into two parts but still managed to keep the kids’ attention!)

We had our third game after food. This one was musical blocks – customized to Minecraft. We had 5-6 blocks of paper. Each named after a particular ore. (this is Minecraft lingo – I also learnt it during my research for the party!) There was redstone, gold ore, emerald etc. etc. You get the idea. I put a chair in the middle of the room with the ore blocks spread around it. Put on some music and the kids ran around the chair. When the music stopped, they had to go to the nearest block and stand on it. I would call out one of the blocks and the kids on that block would be out of the game. So on and so forth till only kid remained! Pretty brainless right? But it was good especially for me as I was exhausted by then!!! (wink, wink) but also the kids enjoyed running around!

We did the pinata after this. It was meant to be a Ghast but turned out quite ghastly because remember, crepe paper wouldn’t stick properly! After this it was a free for all, and everyone had a great time running around, playing with the props and by the end of the party the poor creeper was no more. It was broken and mutilated and what not!!

fights and making up….

All in all, it was a fun party and I think everyone had good fun. I was touched that so many of Arnav’s friends had turned up. I need not have worried. Two of his friends had tickets to the ballet that day but they came. One friend’s mum cancelled the ticket and brought her daughter to the party! Another mum who couldn’t cancel brought her daughter anyway, even if it was for just 20 minutes! Another mum sent her son even though it was her own birthday that day! I was really moved by this generosity!

Someone Is Thrilled With His Birthday Gifts!

At the end of the day, the house was empty but the sounds of laughter rang in our ears as Arnav opened his presents and I sat down to have some pizza! And yay! I am confident we can start planning the next theme party in December this year!

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I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed celebrating. Would love to hear from you. I also want to recognise the many websites that helped us immensely in planning this party:

https://www.cleaneatingwithkids.com/host-cheap-minecraft-birthday-party-printables-step-step-party-planner/

https://merry-grace.com/blog/2017/minecraft-party-planning

https://www.catchmyparty.com/blog/free-minecraft-party-printables-from-printabelle

This Valentines’ Day, resolve to be a supportive partner -Unlock the key to a fulfilling relationship

How things change! I am writing about Valentine’s Day! My feelings about this day have changed from excitement to derision to a yearning over the years. I remember being excited during school days and secretly hoping year after year that some anonymous admirer will drop a card in my bag – sadly that never happened!!! And then in college when I finally discovered love, I remember how we totally looked down upon Valentine’s Day as being just a cheesy marketing gimmick and that WE, the ones in “true love” would not stoop down to celebrating it. After all who needs a day once a year dedicated to love when all 365 were full of it! But now here we are – 6 years of courtship and 15 years of marriage later, with 3 kids in tow, living in separate countries, away from each other. Perhaps it may not be such a bad idea dedicating a day to just love and nothing else!

Anyhow, all I am trying to establish through this long rigmarole is that after being in love for 21 years, I feel there is a thing or two I can share with you. I believe some relationships can be liberating and others could be restricting. Some could be indifferent. Needless to say, a liberating relationship is one which helps each partner grow and is perhaps the most fulfilling and nourishing. But it is easier to say than achieve. A relationship that is open, supportive and based on mutual respect requires us to let go of our egos, our fears and insecurities and be honest with ourselves and our partner.

Let me distil all that I have learned in 5 key essentials of a supportive relationship:

  1. Friendship: I firmly believe that friendship should be the foundation of love. (that’s how it is with us!) Some of the strongest couples I have met are each other’s best friends as well. Whether that friendship developed before or after their marriage is besides the point. Friendship brings a sense of togetherness and companionship that pure romantic love may not be able to sustain. Friendship also implies a basic equality between the two partners with no power equations in play. With a friend, also comes the comfort of trust and confidentiality and ability to share your thoughts and feelings. And finally, you will always have fun with a friend whether the going is tough or easy.
  2. Respect: any relationship demands respect. Much more so, the relationship with your life partner. Respect does not only mean respecting someone’s intellect or talent or achievements. It implies respecting a person for who they are – their thoughts, values, characteristics – regardless of whether they match yours or not. It may sound a bit extreme, but I believe if you can’t respect a person, you can’t build a worthy relationship with them. I have seen way too many spouses or partners belittle their significant others – their dreams, their habits, the way they do things or not – the list can go on. If you are doing that, even inadvertently – perhaps its time to stop that habit. Accept each other’s flaws and respect them despite those.
  3. Space: give the other space to grow, to build their dreams. Being in love should not be restrictive – it should be liberating. Give your partner wings to fly and explore themselves. Give space even if it means letting go. I remember when a friend turned down an offer of a University in the US because his girl friend could not come along. Or another friend who had to decline a job offer in another country because her husband was not supportive. Quoting from a nice article here, “Giving someone space doesn’t mean you’re going to lose them, it just means both of you can work on yourselves and come back stronger. Having space may even make you realize how much you two love and want each other in your lives.” This is exactly how it has worked for Kapil and me as well. Always.
  4. Be a cheerleader: encourage your partner to find their own answers – to be the best version of themselves. Give advice when asked to. Believe in them. Help them out of their self doubt. Do not say, “but how will you do it”, always say, “I am sure you can do it” and then help them do it. Your partner needs to work 16 hours a day? Say yes, go ahead, I will manage the house. Your partner needs to quit his job for his start up? Say yes, go ahead, I will help with finances. Your partner is starting her own Youtube channel? Say, yes, I will also improve my skills in video making and help you. Do not say no. If they fail, help them get out of their misery and be there if they want to get up and start again. Don’t be the one to give “permission”. Think of your role as a cheerleader’s.
  5. Be their ‘safe space’: be the person your partner can share anything with – fears, dreams, desires as well as their dark side. Because only then can you start weaving your own dreams together. Listen to your partner and reflect together. Long ago, I came across a very nice quote, “love is not looking in each other’s eyes, it is looking in the same direction.” Love is not a single word, it is a plethora of feelings. Feelings that change over the years. From the depths of passion to gentle understanding of each other. And you can be each other’s safe space through all the phases.
  6. Express your love: and finally say “I love you” whenever you can! This short uplifting sentence can do wonders! (I hope Kapil is reading!)

If all that sounded like a lecture – then let me tell you about my cousin and her husband. They are a couple I immensely admire – who have managed to retain their individuality and maintain their collective identity at the same time. Married for 25 years now, Sanjana and Ajey have two lovely daughters and are a very close-knit family. At any point in time the four can either be found together or could be scattered across four continents pursuing their dreams.

So how did they do it? I asked Ajey. Ajay told me that they met each other the old school way – through a newspaper matrimonial. After a few meetings, they decided to get married. A few years after their marriage, they faced their first challenge.

While their daughters were quite young, Sanjana got an opportunity to pursue a masters in public health – she received a fully paid scholarship from the US. At this time their daughters were still small and Ajey could not move to the US. After all, while Sanjana studied, it would be his job to keep the two kitchens running. It was a difficult decision, but they also knew that this was an opportunity that Sanjana could not pass. This was when Sanjana’s parents stepped in and decided to move with her to the US and supported her through the entire duration of her program. Ajey visited them often.

This was perhaps the hardest decision they took, but thereafter there have been many shifts. When Ajay decided to leave his full-time job as the head of business at a leading pharmaceutical company to start an NGO, many people questioned his decision. However, Sanjana fully supported him in this decision and today he is content in following his calling.

I ask Ajey how they managed – what was their secret key?! He gave a beautiful response, which I will just quote verbatim, “We always visualized and worked at the larger picture that we wanted in life – what we called the life goal and went about getting ‘life ready’. We are very different from each other. I am the no nonsense, grounded guy; Sanjana is the dreamer, the visionary – always planning for the larger picture, thinking out of the box. Sanjana developed the larger vision for their lives while I ensured we remained grounded.”

…for each other… always….

“There were times in our life when one took a back seat or a break to support the other’s endeavors. We were prepared to sacrifice but did not miss a single special occasion to be together. We created tons of good memories as the two of us and together with our girls. At that time there were none of the modern gizmos to help us remain in touch, but we managed even then through long letters and every day hand written faxes. (then it was illegal to keep a fax machine without informing the telephone company!) We even bought a video camera (unheard of, super expensive and one had to pay customs duty to get it in the country) to record our girls, because they were with Sanjana in the US and I was in India.”

“But most important was listening to each other and being honest. Agreeing to disagree. And meeting each other half way. An important aspect of our life has been giving each other the space and the strong support system to fly and soar. We are strong individually but together we are a unit with a powerful invisible bond”

“And we are best friends! Being silly together is one of our best past times!! Bottom line though is LOVE and TRUST. Then you are not competing but celebrating in individual successes together.”

Today Sanjana is based in Abuja, Nigeria, managing the health portfolio of UNICEF and Ajey is running his NGO based in India. Their daughters are pursuing their dreams and are studying in universities of their choice.

As Ajey related their story, I was delighted to see that he mentioned each of the essentials I mentioned earlier – friendship, respect, space, encouragement and safe space. So this Valentines, resolve to be the wind beneath your partner’s wings and help them soar!

I hope you liked what you read. Do share and comment. And do let me know what has worked for you in your relationship?

Let me end with one of my favourite poems from Kahlil Gibran.

We the People and Children of India: What Does The Constitution Mean to You?

As India celebrates its 71st Republic Day, the nation is seeing unprecedented mass protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that uses religion as a criterion for determining fast track access to refugees for Indian Citizenship. Combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), this law could potentially strip vulnerable minorities of their nationality. The protests that began in December with the passing of CAA have now spread across the country with millions of Indians from all walks of life asserting their secular identity and belief in national harmony and equality – principles enshrined in our Constitution.

It is not a surprise therefore that a common sight at these protests is a reading of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. Most of us would have read it in middle school in Civics. I do not know how many still remember it, but this is a good time to go back to reading it and remind not only ourselves of what are the founding principles of our country but more importantly tell our children about it. We are perhaps the last generation of people who would have heard first hand stories of the freedom struggle from our grandparents. Now it is upon us to remind our children of the values our elders fought for and how to imbibe them as a way of life.

Given the current context, it becomes even more important to talk to our children about the Indian Constitution, its making, its values and the rights and duties. And what better time to do that than today. I am making it a little easier for you by deconstructing it as simply as possible.

What is a Constitution? And why is it needed?

In the simplest terms, the constitution of any country is a set of laws that decides how the country will be governed. The constitution lays down who will govern the country, how will they be chosen, what are the principles that should guide them and what are the rights and duties of the citizens.

But why is a constitution needed at all? A constitution is needed to ensure that a country is not ruled by force, that it is not controlled by a group of powerful people and that all citizens are treated fairly.

Let us say for example that you and your friends love to play cricket. You make two teams and toss a coin to decide who bats first. At the start of the game, you decide it is a 10-10 over game and mark the boundaries. Here you have set the rules of the game. Without these rules an over could go on forever and not end with 6 balls, or the batsman may decide s/he is not leaving the crease even after getting out. And what would you do in case the strongest child decides not to follow these rules? That’s a tough one isn’t it?

As you see, if a small game needs rules to be played fairly, you would definitely need a large set of rules to ensure that a country is run properly. Here is a good video you can watch to understand what is a constitution.

When did our constitution come into being? And why did it take 3 years after independence?

Well before I answer that, did you know how long our constitution is, or how many people wrote it and how many of those were women? No? Then, let’s see some trivia about our constitution first.

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Interesting stuff, isn’t it?!

Anyway, let’s go back 73 years when India gained independence in 1947. You may know that this was a very difficult period in India’s history when it was ripped into two separate countries along religious lines and this was followed by devastating riots across the borders as hordes of people crossed over into India or Pakistan. Besides the religious divide, India at the time of its independence was an extremely poor country and deeply divided by caste, class and language. Majority of people were uneducated, a large part illiterate, there wasn’t enough food for people and there was no health care system in the country. The India you live in today has come very very far from where it was 70 years ago. But we still have much farther to go and you will be the torchbearers.

Want to watch another video? Here is one on the history of the constitution.

Our freedom fighters had won the country but now they had to find a way to sustain it, to manage it and run it. Soon after independence they decided to write the constitution. (Did you know that the British offered to write it for us? We politely refused.) It took almost 300 representatives and 3 years to write the constitution. To ensure that everyone had a voice in the writing of the constitution, these 300 people came from across religions, regions, caste and educational backgrounds. It was not an easy task to bring together the opinions of so many people but in the end our constitution was built upon the principles of Equality, Liberty, Justice and Fraternity.

Nice sounding words – but what do they mean?

Good question. Let us start with the Preamble to our Constitution. The Preamble is the very first sentence (a pretty long one!) that defines the guiding principles of the Constitution. Read it aloud, before we launch into the explanation.

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We, People of India (this bit itself fills me with immense pride!) – (it means all of us Indians, including children)

having solemnly resolved (have decided to) to constitute India into a: 

Sovereign,  (we decide for ourselves – no one else decides for us)

Socialist, (we produce and share wealth)

Secular, (we respect all religions)

Democratic Republic (a country run by people elected by its citizens)

And to secure to all citizens: (give all its citizens)

Justice, social economic and political; (all people should be treated fairly and honestly)

Liberty, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship (everyone should have the freedom to think and speak what they like, follow their beliefs and practice any religion.)

Equality; of status and opportunity (all citizens should be treated equally regardless of where they come from, what religion they practice or whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate)

And to promote among them all

Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. It means that all Indians should live together as a family despite our differences. India’s biggest strength is its Unity in Diversity.

Our Constitution as our Way of Life

Yes, you heard that right. Our constitution actually teaches us how to live our lives, how to be human. If you apply each of the words learnt above to yourself, you will realise how important it is for us to follow them. Only then would we be able to protect our rights and others’. Let’s see how some of these could apply to us.

So how can we be socialist? We all go for school picnics – don’t we. I am not sure about now, but we used to bring tasty food from home and share with each other. Now imagine one child could not get anything from home. Would you exclude him or her from the treat? What if you forgot to bring food? Would you want others to share their food with you?

What about being secular? India is a large country with people practicing almost all religions of the world. Each religion carries the message of love – only difference being that their way of following that message is different. Imagine going to a place where you are not treated properly because of the way you pray or not!

“This is not fair!!” when was the last time you yelled this? Did someone cheat you in a game? Or did a teacher play favourite? Think how would it be if only children who got A grades got go out and play during recess? NOT FAIR! So now you know what justice is. Getting a fair and honest treatment regardless of your background.

Are you allowed to express your opinion if you don’t like something? If not, then your liberty/freedom is at risk! You should be able to do think and say what you believe in and practice what you think is right – as long as it does not affect anyone else’s right.

And you should be treated equally, no matter what. How would it sound, if there was a painting competition but only those children who lived within 5 kilometers of the school could participate? That means, all children are not being treated equally. What if you lived 7 kilometres away? Would you protest? Yes, you should. You should fight for your rights.

What if you lived within 5 kilometers and so did most children, but 3 of your classmates did not. Would you protest? Yes, you should. Because you should not worry only about your rights – you should also be concerned about others’ rights. We need to have each other’s back.

This leads us to fraternity. Meaning living like a family. Living as one unit. Let’s go back to cricket or any other sport. Your team can only win if it plays together and supports every member of the team. So if we want to see India among top nations – it is important that we live together as a family, treat every one fairly and support everyone at their time of need.

Was that a lot of reading? Here, watch a video about your fundamental rights and duties and learn to be a good citizen! In the meantime, I will carry on the discussion with your parents.

Also see some good references for books:

We the Children of India – by Leila Seth

A Children’s History of India – by Subhadra Sen Gupta

What does the Constitution mean to you?

To be honest, I don’t think I read the preamble after my class 8 Civics exam. But I know I have been brought up to live these ideals. I grew up feeling immensely proud of our country – because of the rich diversity of culture – food, clothes, language, dances, music, architecture….. you name it and we can give you hundreds of varieties of anything! I remember commercials from our childhood talking about religious diversity – hindu, muslim, sikh, isai – apas mein sab bhai bhai. Clearly, they worked! My grandfather adopted a surname that wouldn’t easily reveal the caste – so I knew from childhood that caste segregation wasn’t good. One doesn’t need to read the preamble to be reminded of these values. They should run in our blood.

My fried Kiranjeet thinks along the same lines, “I think family history plays a role in how one looks at it. My grand uncle was the first student satyagrahi in undivided Punjab and Gandhiji named him ‘Vidyarthi’ when he dropped out of medical school at the call for non cooperation. That family story impacted my father. There was a direct and personal stake in the freedom movement and reframing the rules for the new nation state. The question of minority rights, language, education, justice – almost everything, impacted the lives of displaced partition refugees and thanks to there being a well thought out constitution, there were institutions and to handle disputes and offer benefits and opportunities. The citizens had a sense of pride even though this was a battered country especially in North West India.”

My colleague Poorna believes that the Constitution is our way of life. “India is a young democracy with young democratic institutions – so young that our older generation still consists of those born pre-independence. Which is why the constitution has always been the standard set of values for all of us. Its drafting by a Dalit is of immense symbolic value in a caste fixated country like ours. And it’s progressiveness and emphasis on secularism and universal franchise was path breaking for its time.”

Fellow Alumnus Karuna believes that the Constitution reinforces our freedom and equality and thus holds out a lot of hope and positivity for the future. “Constitution for me is essentially about the preamble we read as kids – its an achievement of the long fought freedom struggle. It symbolizes freedom and equality for me and is an assurance that my kid and I won’t be or cannot be discriminated against systematically.”

Another fellow alumnus Kishore brings attention back to our duties, “To me constitution is my God. I keep telling this to my children and friends that the liberty we enjoy in India is all thanks to the constitution. But most of us neglect the duties and responsibilities listed in it.”

So these are some thoughts on what fellow country(wo)men have about the Constitution. What are yours? Would love to hear.

And please do make the children in your family read and also please share with your friends and family.

I Moved My Cheese: Take the Leap – Don’t Be Afraid of Change

Welcome to the new year and a new decade! This is the time for reflection, of new resolutions and the hope that things will change for the better. So, I guess, it is a good time to write about change. Many of you may have been thinking of changing your lives for some time now. But perhaps have been hesitating to take that first step.

Despite wanting change, in reality, we are scared of the status quo changing. However unpleasant the current reality, we are at least familiar with it and have learnt (somewhat) how to manage it. But change….. whoa…. who knows what that will bring? Maybe the new boss would be worse – or my new business will fail – or maybe after the divorce I won’t be able to live alone. The fear of the unknown is the biggest contributor to inertia, I believe. And then of course there are our habits, the ones we keep planning to change but also keep putting off, year after year. Finally, many of us just don’t have the self-confidence to take that big leap. And status quo remains.

I am just like that. I am so scared of change that unless I know the next ten steps (ok, maybe a bit of an exaggeration there), I cannot move. I need to have a plan and then a plan B and sometimes even a plan C – just to take care of my insecurities. Plus of course, my self-confidence often takes a big dive when confronted with change. I really admire those people who believe in “things working out by themselves” – because I just don’t have that kind of faith – not in God, not in life, not in chances.

But perhaps, I should say DID. Because about two years ago, I took the first step towards a change, that ultimately shifted the axis of my life. I took a leap – and to my surprise, a net appeared. And while I can’t say I have become a faithful – at least I now believe that our fears shouldn’t stop us from making that one move – because solutions will appear as long as we work towards them. So, here’s my story:

I moved my cheese – bag and baggage to Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2019. It started in the year 2017, a few months after I joined back office from maternity leave. I was still exhausted – the twin pregnancy seemed to have sucked out all my energy; I was in grief – one of my twins had been diagnosed with a type of brain damage and I was frustrated – there was a feeling of stagnation at work. My memories of those days are washed in grays – dark and gloomy. Some part of my brain told me I needed to get out of this. I needed change – to re-energise and bring out the real me. The real me was not used to living in grief, frustration and without any enthusiasm whatsoever.

In that state of mind, I started to look for jobs and ended up applying to a position, outside of India. I don’t know how I did that. I didn’t think of the fact that my husband couldn’t move with me, I didn’t think of the fact that I had infant twins and there was no way I could take them with me, I was not sure what I would do with my seven year old, and I didn’t think whether or not my parents would or could move with me. I didn’t think of any of the potential problems. I just applied. I took the leap.

A month down the line, I got the interview call. This time I did think – and I wasn’t at all sure how we would manage, if I ended up getting the job. I asked my husband. I asked my parents (they lived with me.). They all had just one thing to say. You go ahead – we will find a way.

A few months later, I got the offer. But by then, life had changed again. My dad, my pillar of support, had passed away. How could I move leavings three kids on my husband and mum? How would we manage? But my mum and husband reiterated – you go ahead, we will manage.

So I accepted, and as I moved step by step, things started to fall in place.

  • My boss and I worked out an arrangement where I was able to work in both India and Central Asia while being based in Delhi for the first 8-9 months. This helped me set up domestic help and systems at home and see how things worked while I traveled for 10-14 days together.
  • When my husband and I visited Almaty for the first time, we chanced upon a well-knit group of Indian expats and for the first time I felt I could move my mum and kids with me – and there would be a support system to fall back on.
  • When I finally had to move, my husband could not come with me. A colleague offered to drive all the way from Bishkek to help me settle in the first few days. Her presence gave the much-needed cheer during those first few days of separation from the family.
  • Back home, my husband, mum and in-laws formed a solid wall of support. When nani wasn’t there, dadi and baba left everything back home and rushed to take care of the children.
  • A supportive office, new Indian friends, all helped me settle quickly and moreover gave me further confidence that I could think about moving family with me. We decided to move our 9-year-old to Almaty.
  • And finally, when almost two weeks of back to back travel came up and I wasn’t too keen on leaving my son alone on a nanny – a friend and colleague offered to host my son at her place.

The change has not been easy – but solutions have emerged, whenever I needed them. Every big or little problem ultimately came with its solution. Maybe not always perfect, but enough that helped me operate. Today we are all in different places – but we meet often, my son loves his new school, I feel like a new person, my husband, mum, twins, in-laws, all have come and visited me and really enjoyed the new place. This change was huge and has not been without its teething pains, but we are all better for it. Our lives are fuller, richer.

The short point I am trying to make is that change is not necessarily something to fear. This experience has taught me a lot. I still plan, but somewhere along the way, I have learnt to trust life a little more. I have started to believe that as we forge our way ahead, different doors start to open, we only need to be vigilant enough to notice them.

The internet is full of stories of people, who decided enough is enough and made the plunge. Some stories for you here and here. Who Moved My Cheese is a simple story of the inevitability of change in our lives and the ways in which we can choose to respond to them.

So if you do want to make a change – make it now. If not now, then when? Embrace the change – invite the change. Grab that opportunity, take that tough decision, overcome those doubts. Get over that inertia.

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Decide what you want to change. Your habits? Your job? Your body? Your spouse? A relationship? The current government? Your country? Why not? Go ahead and take that first step, don’t worry, the net will appear. “Leap and the net will appear – John Burroughs”

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If you liked what you read, please share and comment. I would be thrilled if you follow my blog and invite your friends too 🙂

 

 

 

#inspiringwomen “I just want to hear him say mumma once more”

It was the same time of the year, four years ago. A slight chill had seeped into the air and the festive fervour was building up. Diwali was around the corner and most people across India were gearing up for the festival. We had a Diwali party planned in office and our colleagues in Bombay had planned for a puja. Later that day we received an email that the puja had been cancelled since a colleague’s child was critically ill.

At that time, I didn’t know the colleague well, but the news terrified me, and I prayed hard for her child. By evening it was all over. My colleague Joyce had lost her only son Brendan. He was 15. I cried for days after that. Perhaps because I also had an only son and losing him was one my biggest fears. Just the thought would turn me cold, and here was someone going through this unimaginable pain.

Over the years, I got to know Joyce a little. I admired how she managed to come back to work and how she still had her brilliant smile ready for you. But I never dared ask her about Brendan. I was afraid I might break down in front of her! But when I decided to write about #Inspiringwomen earlier this year, she came to mind. It took me weeks to get the courage to ask her and then when she agreed it took a few more weeks for me to get the courage to talk to her. And now it has taken me months to finally pen down her story. Its not been easy.

Early days

“I come from a simple, hardworking family.”  Joyce and her husband Larson have known each other from a very young age. They started seeing each other in late teens and got married in their mid-twenties. She lived in a joint family with her mother in law and brother in law and his family. It was a one-bedroom-kitchen house and the loft was divided into two parts for the brothers. “wasn’t it inconvenient”, I asked. “everything has its pros and cons, the physical closeness also meant a kind of close bonding.”, she replied. They had a small family business. Larson and his brother made statues, moulded and painted them. Their mum handed them monthly salaries.

Life was simple and happy. In September 2000, their first baby was born. They named him Brendan Henry Fernandez.

Life was beautiful….

“life was beautiful when he came into my life”, reminisces Joyce. “We were so close. We laughed at jokes his dad couldn’t understand.” “even at 15 he was so simple, so childlike. He never asked me for anything – “whatever you bring mumma, will be good. I will eat whatever you make””. “but sometimes I would get angry with him, and now I cry bitterly”, she broke down as she remembered her only child.

“He was the head boy in class IV” ……“he was so smart and tall – he towered above both his dad and me”. “in class X he was chosen to be in the angel squad – he was taller than the rest and it looked like he stood guard over his friends”. His principal later said they never realised they had an angel in their midst.

….. “you know he was a foodie….he loved burgers….i would pick him up every Saturday from class and we would go to Mc Donald’s”

“I took him to Washington DC in 2014. He really liked the country and wanted to live there. He started planning for it before he passed”

Memories are never ending and memories are all Joyce has. She shared them with me. We cried together.

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…. And then everything went horribly wrong

“Brendan and I celebrated our birthdays together on 22nd October and on 24th we brought Mother Mary’s statue home. Next day he went to school. He had complained of a headache but I told him to go as he had his practicals. But soon after, a call came from school saying he was unwell. That night he had slight fever.”

By the 28th Brendan’s fever had climbed up. Joyce requested the doctor to do some blood tests. Dengue was spreading in the city. Both the doctor and her husband said a test wasn’t required, Brendan would be fine. She still went ahead and did the test. The test came positive but his platelets were 130,000 so the doctor again assured her that all will be fine.

Assured by the doctor, Joyce came to office on the 29th. But she was sent back by her boss when he found out her child was sick. She came home and he seemed better. What she didn’t realise was that he was turning for the worse. By the time they took him back to the hospital on the morning of 30th, it was too late. Doctors started to blame them. They spent all day in the hospital and even then Brendan looked fine. He just said, “mumma I want to sleep”.

“it was so difficult seeing him pricked with all those tubes. Seeing my distress, a nurse told me that all patients on that bed get better.”

“but the last time I went to see him, they had changed his bed….he never came back.”

I question God everyday…But still have faith in Him

“do you know that when I was eight months pregnant with Brendan, I fell off a moving bus? And then on his first birthday he was hospitalised with pneumonia. But then he grew into a hale and hearty child. I question God every day why he did this, when he saved him twice before, why didn’t he save him then?. There are no answers.”

I ask Joyce how she can continue to believe in a God that took her only child away.

“you know Sakshi, in 2006, I had climbed one of the local trains that had a bomb in it – I was the last person to climb that train. But seeing the crowd I got down. Even then I asked why me? How did I get saved?”

“A year before that – in the July floods – I was working in Bandra. For some reason that day, I stayed back in office – left office at 2.30 a.m. and reached home safe and sound after 7to8 hours. I walked in water up to my neck but I survived.”

“in 1996, minutes after my friend and I stepped out for lunch, my office building collapsed. I survived.” “So yes, I have many reasons to keep my faith even though I will never find answers to my questions”, she said simply.

And I think I understand. After what she has gone through, perhaps faith is the only thing that gives her some semblance of normality.

“I am not strong ….  I am lonely”

“It has been 5 years, but even today I haven’t been able to accept. I haven’t moved on. People call me strong – but I am not. I miss him everyday. I want to hear him say mumma once more.”

“My husband has not been able to break down. He can’t because he doesn’t want to see me cry.” Larson cannot cry because he does not want his wife to be burdened anymore. And anyway men have never been encouraged to cry. He has kept his grief within and it is taking its toll on his health. He falls sick often.

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Joyce and Larson are bound by their grief – a grief no one can understand. Life has moved on for others. Everyone has their priorities. For Joyce, time has stopped. “I am unable to attend family functions – it is difficult to see everyone with their families, their children. I feel deprived of this happiness. No one comes and talks to me. They are afraid because I always cry. Only my mom visits us sometimes.”

It is difficult to describe how helpless I felt at that moment. Nothing we can ever do, can fill the void in Joyce’s life, but can we not even take some time out and spend time with her? Or with any other Joyce we may know? Are we so afraid of facing someone else’s grief?

Losing a child is the worst nightmare possible. Nothing can be more devastating. This is one wound, time will never be able to heal. The most important thing you can do to help a friend or loved one who is grieving the death of a child is be available, understanding, and non-judgemental. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.

I am reminded of a recent incident of female orca (killer whale) who lost her calf. Many mother orcas are known to carry their dead calf for a day or two but this orca (Tahlequah) carried her calf for 17 days. Such grief had never been seen before and it moved millions around the world. After a few days, other female orcas started taking turns carrying the 400 pound baby so that the mother could eat and rest in between. The orcas surrounded this mother, literally helping her carry the weight of her grief. We need more human orcas like this.

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And if there is another Joyce/ Larson reading this, please know that I am sending you my love. Your journey of grief is your own…. But find someone to share it with. Unburden yourself. Please reach out.

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“My son has no friends” Inclusion is not so difficult – all that one needs is intent

“My son has no friends except for my cousins”, related a colleague recently. “He is having problems at school, but I am worried if I tell them about his special needs, the school may create even more issues”. She confided in me after she read my blog and found out that I have a special needs child.

Even though my baby is still small for school, I could relate to what she was saying. My special needs parenting journey has been less than three years, but I can already see how the special needs tag immediately sets the child apart. The fact that he is just a child like any other, a person first before being disabled, somehow gets lost.

My first brush with this ‘discrimination/ differential treatment’ was when my twins Abeer and Anvay were less than a year old. A relative visited us and when she was about to leave, she handed a toy to me saying it was for Abeer. I was quite taken aback but did not ask her why there was nothing for Anvay. Or why didn’t she say this toy is for both of them? The incident still bothers me. Another relative sent toys for Abeer, he didn’t forget Anvay, but felt unable to choose something for him.  But I don’t understand why. Anvay is a toddler and any nice bright toy would do. Why the hesitation or confusion?

We have relatives who call us regularly, but they only ask about Abeer. I have to constantly remind their grandfather, that he has three grandsons – but he keeps going back to asking only about Abeer. I know he is working on it, but I feel bad that this is something that has to be worked on. At parties, lunches, dinners, Abeer runs around making friends with everyone. Anvay, ends up getting largely ignored. Few, if any, people come by to talk to him. If they did, they would see he has a beautiful smile and will give you a high five if you ask.

And these are not just my individual experiences. I am not writing this blog to vent. This is a widespread phenomenon. Every single parent of a child with special needs would have gone through a similar or worse experience regardless of countries or cultures. And this number is not small. If you do a google search, you will see that around 10% of the world’s population has some disability. It is the world’s largest minority group. And I didn’t even need these statistics to figure this out. Until I started writing about Anvay, I had no idea just how many people in my immediate circle had children with special needs. They reached out to me after reading my blog.

around 10% of the world's population, live with a disability.

I have a young cousin who is visually impaired. His mother, my aunt, says that social exclusion is the hardest. While he is provided with basic rights like the opportunity to go to school, relevant materials, a special educator, but what breaks her heart is how he gets left out of social groups. How often he ends up eating lunch alone or does not get enough invites to birthday parties. She even says she has released expectations from the children in her family – when they know he can’t see, she wonders why they don’t come to him, talk to him and tell him what is happening. She is now teaching him to deal with rejection and avoidance at all levels, to help him become strong.

Being a member of many special needs support groups on Facebook, I keep coming across agonized parents, hurt or angry at how their children get treated. They could be invisible or for that matter ignored. Or even persecuted. Recently a mother of a teenage girl lamented that she did not know what to do for her daughter’s birthday. She couldn’t have a party, because no one would come and that would hurt her daughter’s feelings. Another mother once wrote about how hurt she was when her best friend invited her younger son for her child’s party but expressed her inability to invite the older, special needs child. Another parent talked about how her family was not being invited for an all family getaway and she suspected it was probably because of her special needs child. Another parent received an anonymous letter requesting her to keep her special needs daughter away from their children.

Ellen Stumbo, an active blogger talks about how her daughter with Down’s Syndrome was turned away from a dance class. Or Carissa from the United States talks about how her son Isaac, who is severely intellectually disabled becomes a tag along with his cousins, how his birthdays are forgotten or how he gets pushed to the sidelines in extra curricular activities. Another mother, Caiti is nervous before the start of every school year – wondering how her son will be treated in the new class.

Then of course there are strangers who stare, come across and ask weird questions. There are those who may treat you like the plague and ask their children to stay away.

Sometimes, this could even work the other way around, trying to be over protective could actually backfire. I have a friend whose son is unable to walk. He attended a regular school but got really mollycoddled by his teachers being the only disabled child in his school.  This is love – but the reason he was given all this love was because of his disability. The child figured that and like any other child used this to his benefit and the teachers could not be strict with him. By the end of the academic year, his parents were asked to withdraw him from the school as they felt unable to discipline and teach him. But this is another case of disability coming before ability. Had they looked beyond his disability, they would have disciplined him as they did the other children.

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I can carry on with many more examples, but the question is how do we address this exclusion? Are people even aware that their behaviour is discriminating? Or do they not care? My friend analyses this very well, “I have understood that there are three categories of people – the first, those who are naturally sensitive, second, those who have not been exposed to disability and do not know how to react and the third, who probably just don’t care or have a very negative notion of disability.”

I think she is bang on and hope that perhaps most people fall in the second category. I mentioned my family above – I know they all love us and I love them back. They would never do anything intentionally to hurt me or my family. Perhaps they just need to realise. And be willing to make that extra effort to overcome their awkwardness.

As a parent, I know I am my child’s best advocate, and it is my job to make people understand. It is my job to create awareness and sensitivity. It is my job to fight for his rights.

Being inclusive is simple. You just need the right intent. Remember to –

  • Accept – the first step to being inclusive is to accept. Accept people of different abilities in your attitude, speech, and actions. Talk respectfully and behave respectfully.
  • Understand – people with special needs are humans too – their disability should not come before their ability. They are complex individuals with emotions, needs and wants. Just like us.
  • Communicate – someone who is different, is just that – different. Like you and I are from each other. Their difference should not set us apart – you can communicate with them with your eyes, words and hands.
  • Empathise – understand how a special needs person may feel. Don’t sympathise, do not pity. No one needs that. Share and connect.
  • Educate yourself – have a special needs person or parent around you? Don’t make your assumptions about them – talk and understand. Ask questions. Do not feel awkward – everyone can tell the difference between genuine concern and general curiosity.
  • Raise an inclusive child – teach your child to be accepting of differences and diversity. They will be a better person for it.

BEING INCLUSIVE IS SIMPLE

Being inclusive is not difficult. Despite the challenges, there are some bright days. When Carissa’s older son Aidan, asked her to let Isaac be part of his school band, she hesitated, having seen him sidelined so many times. She went to the performance expecting Isaac to be the runner boy, but literally bawled to see him play the percussion with the rest of the team, having a GREAT time!

Inclusion is easy. As my young cousin Arijeet points out. “Inclusion means treating someone very different from you, just like any other human on earth (that’s what we all have in common). Talking with them, showing what you do, the games you play or the books your read are things that you can do to make a slightly different friend welcome and the same as you!”. He is happy to have found his set of friends who understand him and stand by him.

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I will use Arijeet’s words as my parting shot. “My message would be to break the iceberg of difference between you and any peer, disabled or not, smart or dumb, short and thin or tall and fat with abs or not and make them melt into your warm friendship like water!”

Remember, just like you and me, special needs people deserve love, friendship and kindness. Let’s make this world a little more inclusive, a little more happy.

Please share this message and I look forward to your thoughts.

I Am Very Sorry – I Gave It My All. The Tough Path of Entrepreneurship.

“I have failed as an entrepreneur”. “I gave it my all – I am very sorry.” It was gut wrenching to read these words in the last letter V.G. Siddhartha wrote to his Board and employees before taking the decision to end his life. It was unbelievable that the creator of one of India’s most famous coffee brands considered himself a failure.

This letter and his consequent suicide resonated deep inside me – perhaps because I was brought up by two entrepreneurs and also married one. I grew up seeing and observing my parents’ struggles and stand right behind my husband during his tough times.

Entrepreneurship is a very hyped word today – with many governments and development institutions putting their might behind supporting entrepreneurs. But by no means is this an easy road. The road may have unexpected twists and turns, dead ends and roadblocks. The funding you need may never come through or the customer may take too long to pay. Government policies may change unannounced or the economy may start to slide just as your business has started picking up. Labour or employees may be looking for a raise when there is already a downward pressure on your margins. Or perhaps the sales projections you had made were too ambitious and now you have sunk in a lot of borrowed funds with no way to repay them. And your investors are tired of waiting for their returns. Sounds like a scary scenario, doesn’t it? Scary but highly likely that an entrepreneur will face at least one or more of these on his/her road to building (or not) a viable business.

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More than institutional support and funding, an entrepreneur needs an unbreakable spirit and a tough make of mind. “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” As Talish, Lawyer and partner at her own law firm puts it, “Forget the glamour and the fun stories, this is a journey not for the faint hearted. The highs are high, the lows heart stopping and the burden back breaking.”

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I decided to speak to some of my entrepreneur friends and see what they have learnt through the years – the mistakes they made and the challenges they faced. I didn’t realise I was in for a surprise. Despite speaking to entrepreneurs from fields as diverse as financial services consulting to event management to water proofing solutions, the key learnings that came out of them were strikingly similar. Sharing their insights, in the hope that this would encourage anyone who might be in need of encouragement today. Here goes:

Be ready to be the founder director and the peon of your company: I remember my mum always used to say that when you are running your own ship, you may have to do everything starting with sweeping your own floor. Architect Stuti echoes the same thought. She remembers the time she and her husband Vibhor were setting up their office and couldn’t afford a fully staffed office. They were the copier, the admin, the accountant and the HR. “Managing so many roles at the same time and then doing your actual work can be exhausting and is not an easy task.”

Getting the first few clients is not easy: This goes without saying. And is even more relevant if you are young and as Stuti says “without enough grey in your hair!”. Age is often equated with experience and therefore quality too. The first few assignments are key, and it is important to do the job right. Design entrepreneur Kapil agrees – “our first client was one of the biggest in the industry and once we proved our worth to them, it was much easier building relationships with other buyers.”

Sales do NOT mean profits: I know it is the sales figures that really pump up our adrenaline. But in the joy of increasing your sales – do NOT forget that your objective is profits and not sales. If your sales are growing by 10% every year but the costs by 15% – perhaps you need to look at your costs. And right when you start out – it is important to decide how long you will give your business to make profit. In most businesses a three-year horizon is good enough – and if you are not making money even after three years, you need to take a hard look at your business model and see where you are going wrong.

Debt is a double-edged sword: Liquidity crunch is a constant companion for most entrepreneurs. Even if sales are good and so are profits, you may face cash crunch in your peak season. Debt is the easy answer but how much you borrow and from where becomes very important. Too much debt in a loss scenario or a low growth scenario worsens the problem. A lesson that event manager Varun learnt the hard way. He had already set up two successful businesses in jewelry and event management, when a friend suggested they invest in a property for weddings and provide end to end solutions. They each put in significant funds and Varun ended up borrowing 3 times his net worth. The business did well in its first year, but they were stopped in their tracks when a govt drive sealed their property and they had to close their business. To pay off his debts, Varun had to sell of one of his other properties and take a loan on another. His tip, “Know your limits – do not go beyond what you can reasonably service. Also have a proper plan for managing your risks.”

Shobhit, founder Tallbird Employment Innovations, seconds this. He was just out of college when he started his business. He had his own education loans to repay and had also taken loans for his start up. When his start up failed to take off, he struggled financially and took loans from friends. He defaulted on his education loans and had to appear in court. Finally, when the personal and financial stress became too much to handle, he reached out to his family and funders and told them it is not working, and he will eventually pay them back slowly. His advice would be to borrow from the right places initially and keep investors fully informed of the risks of failure. And if there are prior liabilities and loans to pay, have a plan in place and do not compromise on that.

Act FAST in an impending slowdown: As an entrepreneur it is extremely important to spot a slowdown when it is coming. Be prepared for there is a slew of hard decisions you may have to take. Many entrepreneurs hesitate to cut down on costs (read staff and assets) in the beginning of a slowdown. They go on as normal, hoping that things would pick up. In small set ups, workforce is like your family and laying off is never an easy decision. However, a delay in taking such decisions only makes the situation worse.

Deepak, founder of M2i Consulting, recalls the year 2010 when the microfinance industry went through a major crisis. It took him and his partners Atul and Rahul to realise the full impact of the crisis and another few months to start laying off their staff. I asked him how they felt letting go of their staff. He conceded it was tough, but went on to say that they tried to find alternate employment for the staff and continue to remain in touch with most of them.

I remember talking to another entrepreneur years ago, who after his industry hit a crisis just could not scale down his operations, but after a while there was not choice for him but to let go. He had to bring in an outside investor who anyway scaled down and he ended up losing a lot of his equity in the company. Kapil also admits that it took him a year to realise that the slowdown in his industry is there to stay and finally started to scale down his operations.

Diversify if possible: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. An oft repeated phrase but always relevant. Deepak and his partners had just started to stabilize their business when their industry took a hit. As their clients felt the impact of the crisis, business started to dry up. Even committed assignments did not come through. They started exploring their contacts in Africa, also started providing services beyond the microfinance sector. By the time the microfinance industry picked up again, M2i had expanded to Africa and started different services catering other development sector clients.

Believe in yourself but also know your limits: A strong belief in one’s ability, one’s idea is required if you start on the path of entrepreneurship. However, at the same time, you need to be able to evaluate your own skills and shortcomings objectively. “You know what you can or cannot do – no one else can tell you that”, says Sandeep who has a water proofing business. After having established a strong business in 2003 – he found himself incurring a loss of 2crs in 2011. How? At the behest of a friend, he had decided to expand his business in 2011 and increased his workforce from 5 people to 28 in a matter of three months. However, within a few months he started losing money. He realized he couldn’t manage the larger workforce. But he also knew when to get out. Before the end of the year, he scaled back to his original size and is now happy with the steady flow of business and made a conscious choice to not grow too much.

Entrepreneurship is a lonely road, but keep your friends and mentors around you: Almost every entrepreneur I spoke to, talked about keeping a close circle of people around you. They are the safety net that catches you when you fall. As Talish says, “the most striking feature is the loneliness of being an entrepreneur – from the first landmark success to a silly error – each journey is unique and inevitably alone and self-driven. Self-care becomes the first casualty.” She goes on to say that she identified a group of people and sought them out to be her mentors. At the toughest times of her life, they have helped her reflect and think through issues; some have even walked with her to the finish line. When her 6 year old daughter was battling a rare disease in the hospital, it was a mentor who held her hand. And when she miraculously survived, another mentor helped her come out of the trauma.

Shobhit believes in having a support group that you can share your problems with. They can not only calm you down, but also provide the bird’s eye perspective that you may be missing, being in the middle of the action. Similarly, Deepak believes that having a group of close friends helps. Share with them your problems and feelings. You never know, you may chance upon and out of the box solution. He also advised against hiding your troubles from you family – because you simply cannot! They will find out anyhow! Despite what you may think, they will understand and become your pillars of support. Varun seconds that – after losing all his savings, he started getting into a depression. It was his family that stood by him and helped him restart. Kapil agrees wholeheartedly, “At my lowest points I have turned to my family and they have always been there to support.”

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Be passionate, but do not take failure personally: Last but not the least, be passionate about your work but not to the extent of losing your objectivity. It is important to realise the difference between, “My Business Failed” and “I Failed”. There may be a number of reasons your business did not succeed – internal and external but blaming yourself will not lead you anywhere. A failed business is an opportunity to learn. The best that we can do is to learn from our mistakes and start at the beginning – whether as an employee or an employer.

Shobhit decided to close his business and take up a job. According to him, “It is important to know when to quit – sometimes we get so emotionally involved in an idea, it works negatively for us.” However, the experience and network gained at his start up continues to help him and has helped him grow personally and professionally.

Varun on the other hand continues to be an entrepreneur. He reestablished his event management company and is busy rebuilding his network and relationships.

Both struggled and faced failures and are stronger people today.

Remember, the failure of a business is not the end – it is an opportunity for you to pick up yourself and start walking again – perhaps down a new road.

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And finally my thanks to all the entrepreneurs who shared their experiences, because:

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#inspiringwomen: She Never Lost Hope – Through Life’s Toughest Challenges

In a crisp saree, ramrod straight back, not a hair out of place and a graceful smile. That’s Ruby, easily the smartest lady in our office. Born and married into a defense family, she is a living example of the values of the armed forces – strength and integrity. Without these, perhaps, it would have been difficult for her to handle the challenges life threw her way.

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Youngest of seven siblings, Ruby was born in a post partition India, twelve years after her parents crossed the border from Pakistan. She tells me that her mother was in a petticoat and the youngest child stark naked when they arrived in India. Her family, along with other Hindu/ Sikh families, managed to survive because their Muslim friends safeguarded their houses and helped them escape when the time was right.

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Born in Lucknow and raised across the country, Ruby grew up as a happy go lucky girl, interested in sports and taking life as it came. Married in her 20s, she moved to Jabalpur with Harjinder, her husband. The couple was soon expecting their first baby and excitement was palpable in the air. Everyone wanted a girl as the family had all boys. Her mother in law got busy making frocks. And girl it was! On January 21, 1980, Prabhdeep was born.

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While her pregnancy was uneventful, Ruby’s labour was over a day long. In the labour room, it had been a busy night and the doctors had birthed 9-10 babies already. By the time Prabdeep (lovingly known as Chhotu) was born, both Ruby and the doctors were exhausted. When the baby finally pushed her way out, lights went out. In the ensuing confusion, combined with a weary team of doctors, they forgot to make the baby cry. THEY FORGOT! Medical profession is one such profession where a normal human error can have a huge cost. In this case, it cost Chhotu her first breath and consequently damaged her brain. Permanently. Irreversibly.

But Ruby didn’t know. Nor did the doctors.

What’s wrong with my baby?

As months passed, it became evident that all was not well. Chhotu wouldn’t cry. Pediatricians told them crying was important for her lung development. They asked Ruby to slap her and make her cry. She did. Chhotu cried. Sequence repeated. Endlessly.

But even now no one suspected brain damage despite the tell-tale signs. This was the 1980s and perhaps knowledge of brain injuries was limited. Not only limited, I would say there were prejudices as well as denial. When Chhotu was 11 months old, they had an army doctor couple as neighbors who had a same age girl. Sensing Chhotu was “not normal”, they wouldn’t let their girl play with her. This, coming from a doctor couple. When Ruby consulted another pediatrician, he refused to believe anything was wrong with Chhotu and instead referred Ruby to a psychiatrist. Apparently Ruby was “imagining things”!

But Ruby refused to believe them. She knew something was wrong. On her way from Jalandhar to Bhatinda, Ruby took Chhotu to Christian Medical College in Ludhiana where they had been referred by a friend. The intern who examined her there immediately suspected cerebral palsy and sent her to a physiotherapist.

Finally, Ruby had a diagnosis. And understood the reason why. But bigger and more important challenges lay ahead. Helping Chhotu develop. Become independent. Making her financially secure. A long journey lay ahead.

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The road ahead

I asked Ruby how she felt at that time. After all, a diagnosis such as this is not easy on any parent. I know. I am parent to a special needs child too. But she says they had no time to feel anything. Going from one day to the next, handling daily pressures, left them no time to grieve. Her husband took a posting in Delhi on compassionate grounds so that they could get her the best treatment from AIIMS. Husband and wife took turns to take care of Chhotu on a daily basis. Harjinder would come home by 1.30 and give Ruby a break. And soon a routine was established. It is commendable is how both of them took the entire responsibility of care-giving for Chhotu – feeding, bathing, changing and still do. They never relied on any outside help.

When Chhotu was four, they admitted her to a school. Lady Irwin college – home science, Child Development department ran nursery classes for children including those with special needs. The school was a blessing for them. Chhotu was taught basic etiquettes, painting, playing and there was a lot of integration with ‘normal’, neurotypical children. Chhotu thrived there, slept well, ate well and was happy. Ruby remembers the first day she dropped Chhotu at school. She wanted to go in with her, worried how she would react, away from her mom for the first time. Not allowed to go in, Ruby sat on the pavement outside the school for three hours, waiting for Chhotu to come out. She need not have worried, Chhotu was happy and had had a great day!

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A series of horrors

By the time Chhotu was six, she had outgrown the nursery school and her parents started looking at options. And then began a series of horrors. Chhotu was sent to a famous school for special needs children. Started by someone with a special needs child herself. The school had good facilities, but teachers lacked compassion. They seemed to focus on children who showed faster improvement. And sort of ignored those who lagged! Ruby recounts, “once when I went to pick Chhotu, the teacher told me she has been punished for not counting from 1 -10. And what was the punishment? She wasn’t allowed to eat her tiffin and the little child remained hungry from 6.30 a.m. till 1 p.m.” “I just couldn’t send Chhotu there anymore.”, says Ruby.

At another charity institution where Ruby sent Chhotu, she found out they were in the habit of hitting kids – Chhotu would come back with cane marks on her legs. And at yet another school, a Chinese Checkers peg that Chhotu stuffed up her nose went undiscovered for two days, till Ruby noticed her discomfort.

By this time, her parents also realized that while Chhotu was growing physically, development in other areas was slow. There was no speech till age 4 and even today at 39 years her speech is not very clear. Till age 7 she wore plastic panties and was still not fully toilet trained at 13. A bigger issue came when she hit puberty at 12 and had to be taught how to manage her periods. The last was perhaps the most difficult to manage. She had fibroids and would bleed heavily and more often. The doctor suggested hysterectomy. But Chhotu’s father would not hear of it. He took it as his personal task to help her manage. However, he had to give in when he realized that it was physically taking a huge toll on her. She would droop from the strain and pain of it. The family took a tough decision and decided to go for the operation. Chhotu took it in her stride and was up on her feet the day after the operation.

By this time, Ruby and Harjinder were sure their daughter needed greater support to become more independent and were unable to find it in Delhi. After much research they found out about Swayamkrushi based in Secunderabad, an institution for children and adults with special needs that aims to make them independent and become part of the mainstream society.

At age 14, Chhotu went to Swayamkrushi, to live away from her parents. Another tough decision was taken.

Today Chhotu is a happy young woman

Swayamkrushi was a blessing for Chhotu. She adjusted very well there and has made some very good friends. Today she is a happy and very loving person. Her smile is infectious and you cannot help but smile in her company. And like every young woman, she loves to dress up, shop and is interested in men!

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At Swayamkrushi she was trained to take care of herself. Soon after joining Chhotu became toilet trained. She was able to do small things for  herself. Now when she is at her house, she helps lay the table, put dirty dishes for washing and clothes in the washing machine. She also goes to a special school where she helps lay the table for children and gets to interact with them at a personal level.

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Ruby believes that peer learning, interaction and peer pressure helped Chhotu develop the most. And she has Swayamkrushi to thank for this. To see the work Swayamkrushi does, please see the coverage they received from NDTV, where Ruby also talks about the positive impact this institution had on their lives.

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Building a financially secure future for Chhotu

Early on, Ruby and Harjinder realized that it was important for Chhotu to be financially independent after they were gone. They were also clear that this couldn’t be done only on Harjinder’s income. So she started with small, temporary jobs. She was once selling cards made by special needs children at embassy when she was told about a temporary job at the World Bank. She approached them and got the position. She started with a two week job, which quickly became a month and soon she was filling in for anyone who was on leave. Slowly she got a 6 month tenure and then a one year and then another. By 1992, she had a full time job. And she never looked back after that.

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The hard work paid. They managed to build a house; move from a scooter to two cars and then to another house in Secunderabad. Ruby has also heavily insured herself in case of any eventuality and both Harjinder and she have prepared their wills. Chhotu is also a member of the national trust and two of her cousins (one from each side) are her guardians.

These days, Ruby is putting together a trust for Chhotu with 5 trustees – 2 cousins, a bank manager and a teacher from her school. This trust will ensure Chhotu has a regular income stream and funds available in case on unexpected needs.

Soldiered on like a true warrier – Hats Off

As Ruby and I spoke in length about her life, she revisited areas of her past buried deeply within her. She told me there was a second baby too. Chhotu was around six at the time and was very excited at the prospect of a little baby. Harjinder was posted at Kargil at the time. Her baby boy was born at 37 weeks with a punctured trachea that caused edema in his wind pipe. The child was kept on ventilation. His left cheek had a droop and he was unable to swallow. Even in this situation, the gynecologists and pediatricians were embroiled in a petty battle. Ruby’s gynecologist wanted to keep her in the hospital, but the pediatrician saw no need for it as she wasn’t feeding the baby. On the 10th day she was discharged.

That same evening when they came to see the baby, the incubator was empty. They went across to the pediatric ward to speak with the attending doctor, when they enquired about the baby – he said that the baby had passed away.  We wanted to know where the baby was – he said – “aur kahan hoga…. Mortuary mein” (“where else – in the mortuary”)………..

As she relives this horror, her tears flow for the first time. I am speechless. And at the same time in awe of this woman who has gone through so much, has weathered so much and still exudes so much positivity.

Her advice, “take each day as it comes, and let things happen at their own pace.”

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I hope you found Ruby’s story as inspiring as I did. Please do share – it may give courage to someone else who needs it. #thesewomendeserveit.

#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.