This was written some years ago – when I was neck deep in fear. Am finally ready to share it. Part of my resolve to grow into a writer who will not hold back her truth – be it embarrassing or painful.
It is the call that most women dread. The one from their doctor. The one where a clinical yet sincere voice tells you, “We have found a lump.” The regret in the voice is genuine and sincere. But the doctor had just got started. “Actually three. In your left breast. And there are six nodules on your thyroid glands.”
As you see the matrix of life rotating clearly around you for a second you’d happily swap all the sincerity spilling over the mobile, for a guffaw and a gotcha! from the other end. No such luck! This is not a prank call. It is real. And you feel yourself grow cold.
It is amazing how calm one can be when one is told that you could be staring down the barrel of a gun that may be loaded with those dreaded cancer cells.
I was at work when I got the call.
I remember calmly agreeing with the doctor that most probably they are just benign growths.
I had three lumps in my left breast and a few nodules on my thyroid. What are the chances that all of them were benign? She did not say it, but we both knew – minimal. You have to be bloody lucky.
I remember standing up and saying to nobody in particular that I needed to stretch my legs. I remember walking to the corridor that ran outside my office and resting my head against the glass panels, near the elevators, that looked out at the outside world. No one else’s world seemed to have come to a crashing halt. People were busy rushing to their meetings, talking on their phones. Maybe some of them carried extra cells, and did not even know it!
The glass panel felt cool against my forehead. But I was burning with a strange fever and fervor now.
I have never believed that very deeply in detailed prayers and rituals. My prayers have always been simple – ‘Thank you.” That’s it. I have never wanted much in or from life.
Yet as I stood there resting my head against the glass, trying to absorb the cool of the glass into my being, I started negotiating with God. She is only 4. Keep me alive till she turns 18. No… 18 is not enough. I have to teach her about life, self-worth, love, strength and belief in oneself. I need time till she is at least 25. Keep me alive long enough to teach her all that is important. Keep me alive till I have hugged her and loved her enough number of times that she will have the memory of it seared into her soul. Keep me alive; take my breasts, lymph nodes, glands and whatever. I don’t mind. Just keep me alive till she is old enough to manage life without me.
That was five years ago.
The three lumps and the six nodules?
All of them were benign! I was the bloody lucky one.
I cleaned up my act for a bit. Ate healthy and exercised a lot more. I quit a stressful job and took on a less stressful one.
Two of those lumps disappeared. So did five of those nodules. No treatment. No surgery. Nothing!
Yesterday I got another call.
The remaining lump in my left breast and the thyroid nodule have grown. A sudden unexplained leap in growth. More tests. More procedures. More negotiations with you-know-who.
April 30, 2016
It has been two years since the second scare and I turned out to be bloody lucky the second time round too. This time round I have heeded the lessons better. I have worked towards clearing the stables – emotional, physical and spiritual.
There are some of us who grow without too much of a struggle. Then there are people like me who have to be dragged through life’s classrooms to understand the lessons on offer. It is amazing how despite being aware of time being in short supply we squander it with such impudence. We should know better! And yet… we let it slip through our hands. Oh sure, we are busy. We all are busy. But how many of us are busy doing what we love… at least for a few hours in a week?
2016 has somehow been the year when I grew up. It has been a year of reckoning. Not because I hit a milestone birthday – that was three years ago. Somehow this has been the year when I have become more aware of the unrelenting passage of time. This has been the year when I stopped making excuses for not chasing my most closely cherished dreams.
This has involved going for my walks regularly, going on treks (and scaling some inner walls and mountains), making plans for my eventual move to the Himalayan foothills (even if it involves dragging a reluctant husband and daughter uphill), working (and I mean working, not dabbling) on my novel, and speaking my truth and learning to say ‘Yes’ to all the things that I am dying to do but, which scare the living daylights out of me, and finally, saying ‘No’ a bit more often to things that don’t reflect me.
Maybe it will just save me from further negotiations with God.
Ever since I returned from my trek, I have been boring the ‘eyeballs off’ the people I know with my ongoing chatter about the trek. However, this is not about the trek per se. Well… there may be a reference or two.
This post is about perceptions and reality; with specific reference to travelling in India. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone at night.
We have all heard about how unsafe it is for single women to travel in India. Rapists, murderers, and kidnappers seem to prowl the streets of India. This is not to say that women haven’t been kidnapped, raped or murdered in India. They have been. Too many of them.
However, I would be doing a disservice to the people I met and the Indian Railways if I don’t record my experiences.
When I signed up for the trek, I was to tie up with a friend in Delhi and we were to travel to Haridwar by the Nanda Devi Express. A train that is nocturnal in nature as far as the Delhi-Haridwar stretch goes. It arrives in Delhi just before midnight and reaches Haridwar at 3.55am. Similarly, on the return journey, it reaches Haridwar at around 12.45am and reaches Delhi at 5am.
I have always led a protected life. I have travelled alone, but on flights. I have explored a few European cities on my own during the daylight hours while my husband attended to his work. That is about it. I have never stayed alone… not until I was in my 30s and that too when my husband would go away on duty travel for a couple of weeks. And I have definitely never travelled through the length and breadth of India alone by car, bus or train. Someone, a family member or a friend, has always accompanied me.
In itself, it is not a big deal. In fact, in a way it reflects how much my family loves me. But it has always rankled. I have never been out there on my own. Would I be able to manage if I had to figure it out all alone in a place that mixes chaos and calm, with as much ease as India does?
Two days before I arrived in Delhi, my friend messaged me and told me that she had been diagnosed as suffering from whooping cough, and therefore her physician had advised her against the trek. I was disappointed, as I was really looking forward to enjoying the trek with her and another friend.
It was another moment before I realized that the real problem (or challenge) for me, however, was not going to be the trek. It would be the train journey.
The plan had been for us to meet up in Delhi at my brother-in-law’s place and then proceed to the railway station and travel on to Haridwar. Since there were two of us, it would be an adventure. Nothing to worry about. But alone! Alone in a train from Delhi (Delhi for Pete’s sake people!) to Haridwar, at an ungodly hour! For a moment I did reconsider, changing my travel plans and maybe flying into Chandigarh and making it to Haridwar with the third member of my party. However, that plan did not work out.
It was at this point that I realized that this was my chance. I had always wanted to travel on my own. Here was my opportunity. Sure it was only for a few hours, to be followed by a 10-hour drive with a fellow group of trekkers who I would be meeting for the very first time. Pretty much everyone in the trek team was travelling in groups of 3 to 5. I would be the only one travelling solo. But hey! Perfect recipe to strike up new friendships.
This is not to say that a lifetime’s habits of being risk averse and cautious just disappeared in a flash. No. The doubts were there. So was the fear. Most of us non-Delhi-ites have heard such nightmarish stories about Delhi that we are worried about even going to CP in the daytime. What we forget is that the only stories that make it to prime time and headlines are the nightmarish ones. We forget that for every negative story out there, there must be at least a few dozen positive stories. Stories and people that we never get to hear about.
It was 11.20 pm or so when I was dropped off at the Delhi railway station. A sea of people, most of them asleep on make-shift beds on the station floor, greeted me. The train arrived on the dot. I got settled into my first class AC compartment. (Before you wonder, I did my bookings at the nth moment and no other tickets were available.) This compartment had two berths. I had not had time to cancel my friend’s ticket… so technically the compartment was all mine. However, my brother-in-law cautioned me saying that if the TT (Travelling Ticket Examiner) sees the empty berth, he is within his rights to allocate it to someone else.
After I got settled in, my brother-in-law and his wife left. I locked the door and wondered what I should tell the TT. I did not want anyone else in the compartment. Maybe I could lie and say that my friend was in the bathroom. That way there would be no probability of my having to share the compartment with a stranger.
Now here is something you need to know about me – I was 9 or 10 when I decided to avoid telling lies… as much as I can. (White lies don’t count by the way. Those are the rules! :)) Not for any ethical or moral reasons. But purely for reasons of convenience. When you lie, it never stops with one. You have to utter a few more lies to keep that original lie going. Something that always gets me tied up in a knot, because I invariably slip up, speak the truth at some point or don’t hide the damning evidence well enough, and get caught.
Just then there was a knock on the compartment door. It was the TT. He checked my ticket (which had my friend’s and my name) and then asked me where my co-passenger was. I opened my mouth to say ‘bathroom,’ and instead said, “She could not make it.” Bugger!
I now had no choice but to tell him the whole truth. So then I requested him that he not allocate anyone else to the compartment as I was travelling alone. And if he had to allocate it, to please, please make sure it was to a lady. My head was already abuzz with thoughts of how if I screamed for help in an AC compartment, no one would be able to hear me. The TT smiled and said, “Don’t worry Madam! Aap darwaaza lock kar do. Aap akeli lady hai, issiliye, hum kissi ko nahi bhejenge.” [Translation – You lock the door. We will not send anyone else to share the compartment since you are travelling alone.]
Needless to say, I did not sleep like a baby. Not because I did not feel safe. But because I did not want to miss the station. How I envy those seasoned traveller types who can comfortably nod off anywhere, anytime! Eventually, I did arrive at Haridwar.
Getting down at Haridwar, in the middle of the pilgrimage season (or is it always the pilgrimage season here!) I found myself surrounded by the hinterland experience and ambience. I decided to hunker down in the waiting room till 6.30am when the trek team vehicles were to pick us up. The waiting room was everything that movies make these waiting rooms out to be. Crowded. Dirty.
There were families and individuals who had come for their pilgrimages. Guys who had just arrived from wherever, walking around with a towel wrapped around their protruding bellies, after taking a shower in those dirty-as-hell waiting room bathrooms! Two little babies who could not settle down comfortably. Families who had taken up those uncomfortable metal seats en masse – like a package deal.
As I settled in I realised that I needed to use the bathroom. Dirty, wet messy affairs, there was no way I could carry my day bag with my tickets, money and mobile into it. And forget the rucksack. For a while, I decided to just grit my teeth and bear it. No way I could carry bags into those bathrooms! But when nature calls, she calls.
So I asked this lady sitting next to me to watch my stuff and went away. I came back, half expecting her to have decamped with my goods. But she was still there. So was my stuff.
Later, I wanted to charge my mobile but the only plug point I could fix my charger with its square pins into was in one corner. I was seated in the other. In Dubai, I would not have thought twice. The notion of safety and security is so ingrained into us that most of us would casually leave our mobiles charging on an unattended restaurant table if we had to. But in India! I plugged in my mobile. The railway employee who sits in the waiting room (presumably to help the passengers) bolstered my mobile with a few blankets so that it could charge smoothly and without any interruption. As I went back to my seat, a lifetime of being told to be careful and not to trust anyone, especially if you are alone, was pushing against the need to close my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, sleep won. When I opened my eyes, my mobile was still there. So were my bags.
A week and a lifetime later, when I returned to the Haridwar station for my return trip to Delhi, it was again an ungodly hour. I had managed to cancel my friend’s ticket. The train arrived and I walked up to the TT and asked him about my seat number. I was about to go into the spiel about how I am travelling alone blah blah…! Before I could say anything, he checked my ID and said, “Aap akeli lady travel kar rahi hai na? Aapke saath ek family travel kar rahi hai.” [You are a lady travelling alone, right? Your co-passengers are a husband-wife team.]
I don’t know if the Indian Railways have a system whereby they try to accommodate single female travellers and ensure their safety the best they can. Some may even think that I received this treatment because I had tickets booked in the first class AC compartment.
I, however, don’t think that is the case. Four of my friends who too were returning on the same train (different compartments), also found the railway authorities helpful. Two of them had confirmed tickets and the other two were on the waiting list. However, they had flights to catch the next day. Again the authorities helped them out.
We hear the negative stories of rude officials, corruption and lack of safety on a daily basis. I wish the stories of helpful officials, kindness, and a supportive system would also be spread with the same alacrity.
This experience also made me realise how many fears I have been lugging around with me since childhood. Most of us growing up in the 70s to 80s grew up with a litany of ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘that’s not safe’, ‘don’t even think of it’, ‘don’t go there’, ‘are you mad!’, ‘come back before it’s dark’.
Messages that encourage a safer lifestyle for sure. But these very same messages also ingrain in us a deep-rooted sense of caution intermingled with fear… denying us a shot at adventure. The differences between adventure, and risky behaviour get blurred. We were taught to not just be risk averse but also adventure-averse. Now as I slowly stretch out and deliberately do things that scare me, I realise that most of the fears that I have held on to are as ephemeral as the mist on the mountains. They melt away and let you see a few meters further as you walk towards and through them.
A 17-year-old from New Delhi, a 16-year-old swimming champion in the making from Ghaziabad, nursing students, IIT students, medical students, engineering students, students who went through the grind of SAT and GRE and GMATS to get admission in the premier educational establishments of the world – what do these young people have in common?
They have a similar sounding suicide note in common.
Invariably these deaths, result in the usual cacophony about a system that is failing all of us. Which I am sure it is. However, to place these deaths at the unheeding doorstep of the system is extremely short-sighted in my opinion.
In an interview to The Telegraph (http://rense.com/general67/sdui.htm) P. V. Sankaranarayanan, of Sneha, a charity that runs a helpline for students in Madras spoke about the questions that haunt these children. “The pressures are manifold,” Sankaranarayanan said. “Will I gain my required marks? Will I satisfy my parents? Will I get on my preferred course? And if they don’t, often the feeling is of overwhelming shame and guilt.”
It is the beautiful Indian middle-class dream. Get an education and make something of yourself and help improve your own life and that of your family. This has been a dream that has survived with very few changes over the years. Sure, medicine and engineering are no longer the only way out of the daily mind-numbing grind of existence that life can be for a lot of people. (And, no you don’t have to be poor to be desperate to get out of your situation in life.) However, the dream lives on, fuelled by the midnight light being burnt by our kids and paid for by us.
As parents, almost every single one of us wants the best for our kids. A great career, a happy marriage, kids, success, a flat or two, a car or two in the garage, jewellery in the locker and money in the bank. That’s it. And we work for that. Boy, do we work hard for that dream!
So our kids grow up watching us chase the future – their future. Most never get to see their parents living in the present… except maybe when they are watching a TV serial or a cricket match… in which case, it is not even their lives they are living and celebrating! This is how it was when my parents were growing up. This was how it was when I was growing up. And shame on us, this is how it is when our kids are growing up. But the great middle-class dream is sacrosanct. It lives on.
And yet, too many of our kids are killing themselves, unable to bear the burden of our dreams.
I cannot begin to imagine what the family of a suicide victim must be going through. Truth be told, I don’t want to imagine or ever know those feelings. But the recent spike in student suicide rates reminded me of another death. A suicide, a few years ago, by a Grade 10 kid in a neighbouring emirate.
The parents realised something was amiss when the school called them up to find out why the boy had not appeared for his Grade 10 final board exam. The parents were shocked. He had left the house on time. But the kid had not gone to his school. He had gone to another building in the neighbourhood to hang himself. He took this final step because he was convinced he was going to fail his 10th math exam. You see, he didn’t even attempt to write the exam. He killed himself a few hours before he even appeared for the said math paper. It wasn’t failure, but the fear of failure that caused him to take such a drastic step.
It was a death that shook a lot of us parents and got many of us re-thinking our parenting style, our priorities and the lessons we were imparting to our children.
I honestly believe that the real malaise is not just with the education system – in that it insists on teaching fish to climb trees and birds to meow like a cat. The problem also lies in the fact that while we focus so much of our energy on teaching our kids how to succeed and keep reiterating how special they are; we don’t focus enough on teaching them how to handle failure.
Failure can be our best friend. It can teach us more than success ever will. It will also make us more capable of handling success when it comes our way. Our kids need to be taught that. Most of them grow up surrounded by stories of successful pop stars, sports stars and YouTubers. They may, quite often, believe that success is something that comes easily to everyone else. With age, we learn better.
The current generation has grown up with two things – depending on which side of the financial fence you are on. A sense of desperation and a sense of entitlement. Both demand success. For the child who has grown with a sense of entitlement, success is a habit – either because he or she never fought a battle that was not already rigged in their favour by a well-meaning society and/or lady luck, or because they have never met another who is equal to or better than them. These kids have no idea how to handle a setback in life.
For the child who is desperate, there is no other option but to succeed. Failure of any kind is not acceptable because they believe that they will not get another chance or shot at success. They may be right too! They may not get another shot at passing whatever exam it is they are appearing for… they may never get another shot at success within a limited canvas. But they are wrong in believing that this is the only way out. They are wrong in believing that success is only limited to what they imagined it to be.
We all need to know that oftentimes failure leads to greater successes, if not in the same field then in some other field. That proverb – “when one door closes, another opens” is true.
In a world that worships popularity, likes, hits and shares, we need to teach our kids that it is ok to be normal and ordinary. The definition of success has to extend beyond fame and acknowledgement by peers. In my 20s, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with world famous names. It was an opportunity that was a blessing. But it had another impact on me too. For a while, no matter how well I did in my life, I felt that my life was an ode to mediocrity. In my head, I had equated success with fame. It took me a while to get over that.
As we spend time carting our kids from one activity to another, as we drop them off to yet another tuition, as we motivate, encourage, nudge, push and chide our kids to greater accomplishments; maybe we need to spend a little time telling them that it is ok to trip and fall. They can always get back on their feet. Real failure is when we choose to stay down.
Maybe along with math, science, and an additional third or fourth language, we should teach them about grit – the quality that American researchers have identified as the prime quality and reason behind a well-balanced and successful life.
This does not mean that we don’t demand the best for, and out of our children. It just means that we teach them to handle the ups and downs of life. Life is not going to be a series of ‘best moments’ captured on Facebook. It is also going to involve fear, loneliness, anger, regret and guilt.
This is not a commentary on a particular suicide. No parent rears their kid for this act. Sometimes we can do everything right and yet things go wrong. But too many kids have been killing themselves off late. And while we can blame the systems – caste, education, politics – I think that is a simplistic outlook. We can try and change the world. But we may or may not be able to. I don’t know. What we can do is to try and equip our children to handle this world and its vagaries… its beauty and disappointments. And let us not depend on our educational institutions to do that for us.
*This post has nothing to do with Rohith Vemula’s death or the suicides caused by other trigger factors, like depression, mental illness, unresolved childhood abuse, emotional anorexia, racism and loneliness. The focus of this blog post is only on suicides in India triggered by the fear of failure suffered by students.