Her father fell off his bed in the middle of the night while trying to walk a few steps to drink some water. Her mother, who is as old as he, helped him up, despite being frail and ridiculously smaller-made and lighter than him. Thankfully he got away with just a scrape on his knee, or so we think so far. The couple who have been together for more than 40 years, reassured each other, said sorry they weren’t able to be of more help to one another, returned to bed and tried to sleep.

Their daughter works a full-time, highly coveted, back-breaking job as a news correspondent for a well-regarded national daily nearly 3000 km from them. She is an example of courage, simplicity, integrity and hard-work. She worries constantly about her parents but doesn’t speak much about it knowing she can’t possibly do what a lot of people would ask her to — throw up her job and shift closer to them.

We are close, but we tend to not talk about difficult things as we know we come at them from different ends of the spectrum. And I certainly want to spare her the humiliation of having to listen to gratuitous advice that wouldn’t resonate with who she is and how she deals with difficulties. And yet whenever I think of them, my elderly uncle and beloved aunt, on their own, in a beautiful, spacious villa they have built themselves as a retirement home, I wonder what we could do to make their daily life less difficult.

Twenty-five years after agreeing to an arranged match with a woman who he found out later had intellectual disabilities, SM is a picture of patience, grace, tolerance, and acceptance. I remember seeing him seething with rage early on in his marriage, feeling let down by a matrimonial arrangement not of his doing. Now, with a son in his early 20s, who has grown into a moody, silent, self-conscious young man, SM has left all the anger and bitterness far behind. He focuses instead on providing for his family uncomplainingly, supports his son with all his professional and educational ambitions and does nearly all the work inside and outside the house without batting an eyelid. Having been self-conscious much of his early life for being in his own eyes less charismatic than his two older brothers, he is a new man now: on the ‘wrong side’ of his 50s but with a sparkle in his eyes, a big mop of graying hair, an easy laugh, a welcoming presence, a big heart.

My doctor friend
A medical crisis last year has acquainted us with a group of people we never knew before — including my kind, generous and attentive doctor friend, A. Because she knows us well I am able to mine her for more information and analysis than I am allowed with professional doctors and because we know her, she is careful in what she tells us when she looks at the same file of reports that may have alarmed us in other doctors’ hands. Something she said recently struck me as remarkable: that no matter how bad an investigative report may be and no matter how critical it says the health of a particular organ is, what actually matters more is how the living, moving, talking, feeling human being is– which is why all reports come with a rider – ‘please correlate the findings clinically’.

The strength of the mind
Twenty five years ago, my father’s cardiologist gave him an ultimatum, ‘quit smoking now or else…’ It had an electrifying impact. He stopped cigarettes overnight, moved to cigars and then pipes and one fine day just gave it all up. Several cups of coffee became a replacement and a crutch but it was incredible how he made up his mind to give up a habit that was part of his entire adult life. Ten years before his passing, cardiologists who examined him would deliberately not tell him how wasted his heart and lungs were. He used to try to ask one of them, one of the sternest, and most competent of his time, how many years he had left, and the doctor would just wave him and the question away and say ‘Mr. R please focus on living. The rest is up to the Heavens above.’

After his passing a decade ago, doctors we have known for years and some in the family told us slowly that they were incredulous how he managed as long as he did. One said that ‘for all we think we know as practitioners of medicine, we still don’t know enough about the mind or the will and its effect on health’.

The other day I nearly passed out when a kind, alternative medicine practitioner took a look at my mother’s reports and said two of her vital organs were on the cusp of an emergency. She asked my mother for symptoms typically associated with her condition and instructed her firmly to not keep the slightest sign of unease to herself because that would just further complicate intervention and treatment.

On our way back home, I kept mulling over the wide divergence between what the doctor suspected my mum should feel, and what she says she does and the only explanation I can think of is the very same force that explained my father’s life – the strength of her mind or will or consciousness. My mother is able to look and be and do what she does because she is not self-pitying, not afraid and not self-indulgent. And yet it was useful to have a person of authority tell her gently and persuasively that she owed it to herself to take things more slowly, allow herself more and more frequent periods of rest and to keep herself away as far as possible from undue stress, worry and anxiety.

I wish of course that we were all younger. And I wish my mum had nothing at all to worry about. But contrary to the ideas that one has had as a teenager and as a young adult about the undesirability of difficulty, it seems to me that it is exactly when life becomes crushingly difficult and nearly hopeless that we are compelled to whip out of her deepest being our latent resources of strength, adaptability and resilience.

Being driven to the point of despair seems to suddenly bring into focus all the precious love and care that is here – now – and one is overcome with wonder for how much a human being does and is willing to do for another and left with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness for being elected to be in their gracious, giving presence.

The magic books can do

When its late in the night to call up a friend to rant about a cussed, difficult day, and equally late to wake up those at home who would have a sympathetic ear to lend, I have found unexpected comfort in reading. Not anything that professes to help, but any thoughtful, sincere piece of fiction or non-fiction, by nearly anyone, on nearly anything!

The other night I went through three pieces by three different authors on three quite unrelated things. One by Amitav Ghosh ( on the deep influence of his stay in Egypt in his 20s on all his subsequent writing; another an excerpt of a new book about Gandhi’s last day and a third a short piece by a widely regarded spiritual leader whom I’ve usually felt no affinity with.

By the time I was halfway through the first piece, I was already feeling better, less bogged down by the various complaints I had had about the day and the part I had played in making it insufferable. And it wasn’t only a sense of distancing from the acute unease I was feeling about nearly everything that had transpired but a kind of illumination on the experience itself.

Ghosh’s piece made me marvel at how self-reflective and thoughtful his younger 24 year old self was in having decided to lose himself in a new but culturally familiar country for the reasons he mentions; the book excerpt made me think of how liberating it is to consider death the way Gandhi seemed to have as a final, celebratory release and ‘return’ and the short piece by the guru made me think of how nearly everyone who has committed herself to a life of mindful reflection has something vital to say to those of us toiling away in samsara.

And yet none of this discounts the intense feeling of defeat and loss that can engulf us some days — triggered by in hindsight some of the most banal complaints against the world. But picking up something to read on such days does something special — it pats down big feelings and puts them in place without a trace of condescension and reassures us the way good friends do that this too shall pass.

Getting Away

If you have been struggling with a debilitating condition (“isn’t growing older debilitating enough??!!”), if the best doctors around have attended to you and put you thoughtfully on a course of medicines, diet and exercise to help counter the damage that a set of inter-linked ailments are doing to your body (mind and spirit) then the single most therapeutic thing you can do for yourself is get away.

It takes time, effort, planning, money and some amount of understandable anxiety but if you stick to your guns and follow through, you will find that just the act of getting away for a short period from the tedium of the everyday in all its exhausting minutiae will rejuvenate you like nothing else can.

Being in other spaces, in the company of people – strangers even – one doesn’t get to meet usually, seeing different sights and living in weather other than the one you have come from, all help in ‘unsettling’ you in all the right ways.

And as a bonus, when you return to home ground, you will have new found appreciation for all the little things that make your home, your home — the familiar colors, smells and shapes you navigate around nearly unconsciously everyday, the various nick-knacks you have chosen to adorn your walls with, the steady hum of your refrigerator, the comfort of falling asleep on your bedclothes in your own bed.

Hurrah to rejuvenating breaks!

Being a bully is not cool

A dear friend has been struggling with envy. From a close family person. Who one has supposed in being older and a parent and from a generation that is known to have been inclusive should have been at the very least a neutral presence.

The friend in her wisdom and compassion decided to be the ‘bigger person’ — finding reason to either excuse or overlook the older relative’s foolhardy, provocative and hostile behaviour and expressions — written and spoken.

A couple of days ago, when the older relative decided, unilaterally, presumptuously and inconsiderately to heap some more unwanted responsibility on my friend’s head without once checking with her, my friend decided, appropriately that enough was enough.

And she confronted the relative with plain speak about the series of unfair and unkind decisions that had been made over her head, requiring her work, involvement, time and energy. That she in her civility and maturity she had so far put her head down and just got done. For her own sanity for the sanity and safety of her children.

And she said, ‘no more’. And somehow, the newness of it — her changing tack, the unexpectedness of it, and the obvious injustice of the situation so far, together made the relative ‘turn a new leaf’. Or so it seems. The relative acknowledged, by not saying anything in response, that what had happened so far was indeed unjust and that the way she had conducted herself was, to put it mildly, a shame.

Sometimes it seems that the only thing bullies respect is just this — a loud refusal to cow down to their bullying. For people like my friend who are mild-mannered, peace-loving and not interested in contests, the need to have to do so seems an unnecessary drain on their energies, time and grace. But this episode to me proves better than anything else that sometimes we need to reach outside our propensities and fight the good fight to say no to bullies, no to habitually presumptuous behaviour and no to arrogant entitlements from those who profess to being close without a clue about the responsibilities that accompany it.

A love for words; a love for song

One of my earliest adult memories of my father is about how deeply moved he was by an extraordinary turn of phrase, or a soaring song. In my teenage years I used to be puzzled by how his eyes welled up and then at times embarrassed that there seemed no immediate or evident cause for his momentarily altered state.

As I grew older, I understood more and more how receptive he was to the beauty of words and sound and how easily he was able to relate to the most distant and unfamiliar pieces of work irrespective of their place of origin and sometimes irrespective of the language that the eclectic music he gradually collected over the years and had us unconsciously partake of.

I cannot be gladder to have grown up in a home that every Sunday woke up to the scratch of a needle finding its groove on an LP – often classical vocal music from both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions but also a lot of instrumental music and a fair bit of western classical and an equally fair bit of folk music from what was then called the Eastern Bloc, from some parts of Africa apart from silly favorites of mine including an LP from the children’s film Annie.

Now when I read to my little girl at night and sometimes insist on choosing my favorite stories (including right now the fabulous Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale) I find myself morphing into my old man, throwing my voice to suit the rhyming lines, terribly involved in what they portray and unabashedly moved by the perfection and beauty of the story it tells. And I think to myself it’s no wonder I can already see my little girl looking at me with a mix of concern and puzzlement wondering why her mum seems to tear up about a story so distant and unrelated to our lives – and yet internalizing in her own way, a love for words and a love for song.

Becoming a parent: Nothing goes to plan

If there’s one thing you can be certain of, ahead of becoming a parent, it is that nearly nothing will go to plan. The perfect, compassionate, smart, supportive, baby and mamma loving mid-wife will have a personal crisis the very night you go into labour. She will call and half feign an apology and say you’re going to be fine, that its going to be an awesome delivery, and you’re going to do swell without her by your side.

You would have certainly not slept as much and as well as you would have hoped as all the well-meaning nursing staff and mamma and papa friends had advised you to do before the marathon that labour usually is — and I’m not even going into the birthing itself. (Who ever told you the pain is natural needs to go take a walk.)

When labour starts, you will not be the picture of serenity, sitting criss cross apple sauce, breathing in and breathing out, calmly, rhythmically, shallowly, as your friendly neighbourhood pre-natal expert had so lovingly taught you to do the moment labour starts.

You will be by turn taken aback and too soon horrified at the intensity of the jabs, how they/it/whatever is in command, NOT, no not for a moment, you. You will have no shame in crawling the walls of your room, or whichever room you find yourself in when the jabs return, stifling a little cry, contorting your body in the most amazing ways to find some position of moderate comfort or escape from this incredible experience.

And no, you will almost not remember that all of this is about a little creature inside who is preparing to come out.

When you get on the phone to speak to the hospital you have selected for their emphasis on empathy, natural birth and mamma-baby centricity, you will not take too kindly to the trained, flat voice that you are met with which says the pain you are feeling is not yet good enough to come in with.

‘Jeez, lady, what do YOU know???!!!’ is what you will want to scream at the voice but instead, you will be caught mid-way in this primordial, involuntary convulsion that will make you feel infantile and make you do your breathing on the phone while the voice on the other end holds politely and encourages you to do your good work as though you were a young, anxious school-girl.

A couple of minutes or many minutes later when you are able to impress them with your raspy breath and they finally say what you’ve been dying to hear — ‘yes, you can come now’ — you will be suddenly aware that this is last time you are going to leave home as a woman with large tummy that has baby inside. And you will almost laugh and choke that your mind is able to think about this while being caught up in said primordial drama.

For all the tedious and loving preparations you and your partner may have made in reading up about, scouring for and investing in water birthing paraphernalia, you will not be flooded with images of how sublime the birthing is going to be. You will be consumed as you descend the stairs from your first floor flat (if that’s where you happen to live) or as you go down in a clunky lift while holding on tightly to your mum’s or partner’s hand/arm/wrist about how long anyone can possibly stay alive feeling the convulsions you are feeling and what if anything can make it stop.

When the cabbie comes, in the dead of the night (why is it always the dead of the night?) to fetch you and your attendants and the attending bags and said paraphernalia to the hospital, you will not be in the least interested in the small talk he will try his hand at. Although somewhere in your head you will wonder whether he understands the significance of his current undertaking, whether he has done it before and whether if the need should so arise, would he help with an emergency birth en route?

When you get through the gates of the tucked away entrance to the maternity ward, you will not be in a mood for wall-mounted phones with speakers attached. You will want someone to usher you in, show you your room, and leave you be.

If you’re lucky the room will not be chock a block with machines, artificial breathing equipment for an emergency, sterile trays, bright white light or anything at all that reminds you this is not home or a friend’s home or a hotel.

At which point I have to say, I managed in the middle of all this, to have a moment of epiphany. When all the ushering in rituals had died down, when a young, attractive, Greek mid wife had done her thing of poking me (why oh why is it necessary?) to make sure the baby was alright and at the same time inserted quickly a monitor on her head (while telling me the pain was worth it and gushing with pride on my behalf that the baby had a head full of hair, unheard of in the Nordic!), when I was happy to see my tired and spent attendants take a nap in their respective corners, I found myself marvelling at the quiet night outside, the geometic beauty of the street lights on the highway twinkling below, the reassuring and familiar sound of the rocking chair I was sitting on, rocking rhythmically to the dance of my body, and even if only for a few, brief moments, content and calm by myself with this creature inside me, on the cusp of being born, bewildered, moved and entirely accepting of whatever was going to come.

Profiles in courage and grace: two fathers

My father was a wonderful storyteller. Although we used to tire of some of the stories that got repeated the older he got, we still relished the passion and flourish with which he used to recreate past events with a twinkle in his eye and his beautiful hands flaying around for dramatic effect.

One of the stories I find myself remembering especially today is his recounting of meeting my maternal grandmother in her native town in Kerala a year after marrying my mother in Delhi in the early 70s. She was in her 60s then, sprightly, small but athletically built and neat and pristine in her white thortha and mundu. She didn’t speak much English and he didn’t know any Malayalam. But he said he would never forget the way she strode to the gates of the compound upon seeing him arrive with her daughter in tow, the way she confidently took his hand, patted and kissed it, patted his cheek and beckoned him with a wide sweep of her hand to come in.

He used to always get a tear in his eye when he told me this while saying that was the warmest welcome he had ever received by someone who was meeting him for the first time and who held no grudge for his having married her daughter without inviting her to the ceremony or asking for her consent.

Ten years ago, I was given the same warm and unquestioned welcome by my little girl’s paternal granddad on a rainy day in Stockholm despite his own very rational and considered reservations on behalf of his son for bringing in to the family’s fold a much younger ‘girl’ as he used to say, from a faraway land unaccustomed to the ways of his country and not adequately familiar with his son’s life, inclinations and disposition.

I remember being a bit nervous meeting him and his wife for the first time but from the moment they walked in to the restaurant near Stockholm’s scenic Slussen, I just knew I was home with them. He chided his son for not having been more mindful of the weather and for having let me get wet, asked after my parents, and spoke openly and freely about his tough childhood, his admiration and gratitude for his sisters who raised him after their mum’s early passing, and the way he went around setting up a successful business.

There was a lot that reminded me of my father — even though they had nothing in common professionally and probably held widely divergent political views — the decency, chivalry and generosity that comes from having seen and lived a tough life — and the effortless insights and wisdom about people, relationships and the world at large that comes from having made it through hard knocks without once losing one’s civility or grace.

We went on to share a special and close friendship and I remember how proud he was when I gave him news of my first proper job in Stockholm with a communications company — it was almost as though my own father was there — expressing happiness and pride in my joy and relief.

So while today marks nine days to my father’s passing, I am drawn to also celebrate this other father, who is now undergoing care and treatment for cancer in Stockholm and who turned a year older yesterday. Both of them are proof for the proverb attributed to Pippi, a much-loved children’s character in Sweden, that ‘those who are strong MUST also be kind’.