Friday, June 2, 2017

The world is your oyster - find your place in it

Like all young girls who grew up in the 60s I think I too wanted to become an Air Hostess . There was such an aura of glamour around those very words and visions of flying the skies in a Saree was very exciting . Then at some time I wanted to become a doctor , a newsreader , an IAS officer and later on even advertising . Of course , growing up in a very traditional Iyer household put paid to some of these aspirations and somehow I never really pushed for a career that may have maybe just received a nod of approval from the parents . Like the Doctor / IAS one .
I completed my Bcahelor's Degree and must confess felt no urge to continue and go in for a Master's . I was happy to continue with my music classes and took up a job in a neighbourhood school which was a respectable option. 
A degree in English Literature and Nursery School teacher , I guess, looked good as an accompanying note to the Horoscope of a good, Tamil , Iyer girl . I wasn't complaining and in due course , a matching Horoscope of a good Tamil Iyer boy found its way into my parents' delighted and maybe even relieved hands and I was married off. 

I loved the direction my life took. Married to a fine young man and mistress of a very smart little apartment in the housing colony of the Refinery he worked in , I was every inch my mother's daughter and took great pride in keeping a nice home . It was a welcome challenge to do so with just enough resources to make it fun but not a chore . I had grown up seeing my mother create such a happy and beautiful home for us with just basic necessities . Never had she allowed any kind of want ( and there were quite a few of those ) to come in the way of making sure we five children and our father and our grandparents and the assortment of young aunts and uncles and older cousins who were a permanent feature of our household had all we wanted to make life feel good . I began my family life with the perfect blueprint that was my mother's legacy . A happy and diligent home maker and when the children came along , a devoted mother too. My home was my world . Books and music , the inherited love interests from my family were my support systems . 
House proud and home bound - that was me ; even when we followed my husband for a few years to Venezuela and then to the U.S. 
Waxing and polishing the floors , making sure every door knob and artefact in the house was Brassoed to perfection , sewing curtains and casual clothes for the guys in my life , making all kinds of possible pickles and sweat meats and celebrating festivals and what have you . 

Housewife , homemaker , a mother  . Working all day , but not a working woman . 
Today , when I look back at those days , I realise they were full and fulfilling days . 
And then I became  " the " working woman . Circumstances decreed that I find some work that would help me help my husband shoulder some of the responsibilities of the household as we found ourselves in a rather challenging situation . Our sojourn in Venezuela ended when the economy collapsed there and saw us lose quite a bit of our savings . And back home things were not very welcoming either . A dear friend urged me to teach my young sons to make a sandwich for themselves when they came home from school and leave me free to go out and find a job . 

It was 1987 and I was 35 years old . I had no qualifications . No job experience except some baby sitting and selling Avon Cosmetics in the U.S.  I thought back to my teaching days before I was married and in all innocence applied for a job at the local school . I was in for a rude shock . They wanted a B Ed degree. So I applied for admission into the B Ed programme only to find they needed teaching experience . My pre marriage job did not qualify . 

For the first time in my life I began to rue the fact that I had not attempted to study further ; I had not pursued a Master's nor had acquired any super speciality skills . 
I remembered with some regret those fleeting ambitions I had once nurtured . It was I think one of the most difficult times in my life . But I did not have the luxury of too many options and had to be out there doing my bit . It became some kind of an inner demon I had to deal with . I knew I had it in me and I needed to show it to myself more than to the world or anyone around me. 

I must also share that it had been a difficult period post our return and thanks to the usual family and " in laws " shenanigans quite a bit of my confidence in myself had been eroded . So that was impetus enough . 

Today when I look back at the three decades over which I have built my career in cancer care I realise there is a bit of everything in it ...all the career options I had once dreamt about . I travel extensively and yes, in my Saree ; I talk on radio and other audio visual media often , I could not get closer to the field of medicine than I am now and yes , I work very hard at promoting my cause and enjoy finding the best copy to promote and brand my outfit . My administration skills have been honed to perfection and I can hold my own in any corporate environment . I conduct various training and therapy workshops all over the world , I run a full fledged office in the Mecca of business in India , Mumbai and find tremendous satisfaction in what I do . 

To be honest , I did not choose Cancer as my field . Cancer chose me. Like I said , with my limited skills and experience and talent , there really was no luxury of choice . I had to accept what was offered - a tough and taxing assignment raising funds for a cancer non profit . And once I took the plunge , believe me there was no looking back . Like I said I had to prove myself . To myself . And in the founder of that non profit I found a great mentor and a teacher . His greatest gift to me was that he created a job for me around what he saw in me . 

So I got myself a monthly local train pass and did the Vashi to VT commute every day . Mind you this was 30 years ago when there was no train or BEST service from the new , developing New Bombay . I was totally dependant upon the State Transport bus service and the Harbour Line local railway service . If you are Bombay bred you know what that means . 

But I was determined to make this work . I realised and recognised a certain hunger in me that pushed me to find a place for myself in the arena that had opened out in front of me . I climbed up countless stairs and knocked on many doors in all those cold and unfriendly high rises in the richest of cities to ask for money for cancer patients . You don't know how difficult it is to ask for money till you go out there and do so . And yes , even selling Avon Cosmetics to American housewives was easier . I went to mills and factories to talk to the workers and their union leaders about the hazards of tobacco chewing . I discovered I had public speaking skills. I found out my Delhi Hindi made me stand apart and people heard me . I found out it was worth braving the fisher women's loaded , wet baskets in the trains in my starched cotton sprees as it gave me  style and dignity . Tools I used to convince Labour Officers and CEOs alike to take me seriously . 

I brought home all the books on cancer I found in the British Council library . I haunted the corridors of Tata Hospital and when I was deputed to help set up up their Preventive Oncology Department I knew I had arrived at an important turning point in my , yes , I say it boldly , my career . Tata Hospital , the seat of ultimate learning in cancer care also brought me into the orbit of Palliative Care . 

And then came some testing times in that career . Maybe it was burn out . Perhaps , after 15 years I had reached a plateau with no more peaks to scale . I moved on . And away from cancer . To my passion , books . I became Store Manager of one of the iconic bookstores in Bombay . I began learning all over again . At 50 years of age . I learnt about Retail and running a tight ship , I learnt Back Office work , I faced  a computer and understood what Reconciliation was all about . All I had when I took up that job was what you would call Product Knowledge . I was an avid reader . I loved going to the store everyday and meeting my readers and selling them books . Recommending the best , making them best sellers , reading to the children , welcoming the authors . I was hiding from cancer and some of the hurt it had brought me . 

Then I moved on again , and took up an offer to work with a dear journalist friend who needed someone to help him with a show he was presenting on Doordarshan . 
I did everything possible ...from interviewing guests on the show to voice overs to editing to what have you . What an experience that was. More honing of skills . And then cancer called me again . And I could not refuse . And I began all over again . Set up an office , peopled it with the best , trained them and we were ready to offer the best to thousands of patients who were our responsibility . 

Today , another fifteen years on , at 65 I am still learning . Support Groups and Patient Workshops , setting up a Trust , working with the Government departments to obtain tax benefits ; it is never ending - and so rewarding . 

Never lose the the desire to learn . Do not be afraid of what lies ahead . Never stop being hungry for more .  I guess this mantra has kept me going .  

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