Saturday, October 7, 2023

El is

Viji Venkatesh, Region Head (India & South Asia), The Max Foundation I Managing Trustee - Friends of Max Trustee, Being Human The Salman Khan Foundation.




Wednesday, November 4, 2020

100% Love - Remembering Samantha

Samantha Wexler had become so much a part of my life . 

Ever since we met at the Vienna New Horizons years and years ago we had just hit it off . She had a rare cancer . Wild-type GIST an even rarer type of GIST . What I thought then was how she was so very young.  We became close because every time I visited Montreal to see my son and family we would meet . I became a part of her charmed circle - her sweet husband and dog and her life as a student in Concordia and I also saw her become a powerful voice in her community of GIST patients. 

She was pursuing her doctorate in the Dept of Art History with so much passion and dedication . Her subject was the role and presence of and reference to the mythical Unicorn in various forms of art and literature. 

You could not think Sam and not think of those elegant, beautiful creatures and vice versa . There was something so ethereal about her too . So gentle , so waif like , so sensitive . But she was pure steel inside . 

Her GIST became aggressive . Her treatment too , equally aggressive and toxic . Her disease progressed and became metastatic and she had to stop school . But she wasn’t ready to sit and do nothing . She began to do stuff online . She became her own model and started a Make Up Show & Tell page on Facebook . She sold exciting stuff demonstrating it all herself - I would be amazed at her strength and courage as day after day there would be live demonstrations- her chemo ravaged face would glow , her eyes shine with fierce determination and her lips pout tellingly in the brightest red lipstick . Her lost to chemo hair began growing in wisps , then they shaved it off for her craniotomy but she was out there . And she looked so beautiful . So powerfully beautiful . All you saw was how she kept herself engaged and making the most of what resources she had. 

It broke her heart to stop going to University.  I’ve seen her with all her Unicorn research paraphernalia. So much joy it gave her . Such a purpose in life . 

In the midst of all of this , she and Richard hosted a Chai for Cancer Adda at their warm and cosy little pad in Montreal . Richard ! What do you say about a boy friend , a husband and a care giver like him ? I have no words . His whole world and life revolved around Sam . 

And then it all became too much . On Instagram she opened a window for us to look at the view from her hospital room that she was in more frequently now . To also look into the window of her own mind and soul. 

And then it became worse . They had to open up and look at what was happening inside her brain . She let them do all of it . 

Hers was a rare disease and her version even rarer . We will learn about it together she said. Today she’s gone but left her body to medical science so we continue to learn more about how and why it did what it did to her . 


I had breakfast with Sam and Richard in June . That’s the last time I saw her. That stolen weekend in Montreal end June this year , the beginning of summer . The sun streaming in and enveloping us in its lovely golden glow . I had taken her a shawl , a cream confection with little red hearts woven all over it . Richard had laid out a table fit for two queens. 


We bit into the warm, crisp , buttery croissants and talked and laughed . I knew I would not see her again . You know that . It was hard to miss . 


What I will miss is our annual meeting at the Second Cup at St Catherine’s - sometimes the more than once a year rendezvous when after my mandatory Montreal hair cut at Zap I would pose and preen to get Sam’s approval. Over steaming cups of chai ! Whether it was winter or summer. 


She loved my cropped hair . Ah she said, maybe we will grow our hair back together ...


From The 100 Saree Pact



An unusual blue green weave with a really dramatic Pallu in bright blue  . This is not a blue I would generally wear but the shaded blue green of the body of the Saree enticed me and I bought it from FabIndia  a few years ago . I never found a proper blouse for it so it was rarely worn till I found this one from yes, Bijouri . 

It is still so hot in Bombay , one cannot dream of wearing anything but cotton . The conflict is that the humidity  makes the Saree so limp even before you're half way through the day . 

I usually prefer a Saree to work especially if I have a hospital visit planned or am meeting a patient for the first time and the treating physicians too. It's just a code I've had for years so since today I had to go to Tata Hospital , a Saree it was . 

Tata Hospital : I realise that in all these months of Saree parting , this remarkable institution has not featured in my Saree stories at all . That's rather strange for I go there almost every other day and I wear a Saree too almost every other day and I have just told you that I always wear a Saree when I go to the hospital to meet the doctors ...well , let me go figure that out .

 I went to meet a little girl who is undergoing treatment for a rare kind of acute Leukemia and the family is in need of some support . Her father , who looks like her older brother I swear , a charming and smiling young man works as a spot boy in one of the film studios and yes you guessed right , Salman Khan wanted me to see how he could help. Like I always say, we can all learn a thing or two and even more from these children who are so unquestioningly accepting of their condition and who factor it into their lives and go on with the business of their uncomplicated living . The Pediatric OPD today reminded me all over again of this .

Tata Hospital to me is nothing less than a temple or should I say so much more than a temple. It is where I learned everything about what I know now about cancer . The three years i spent here in the late 80s / early 90s when I was deputed to help set up the Department of Preventive Oncology was enough for me to understand and accept that this was what doing something worthwhile was all about . Working with those two young, eager and dedicated surgeons and their teams, day after day impressing upon the minds of asymptomatic but high risk individuals the importance of early detection. The very same surgeons who today are the Directors of this hallowed institution . The technicians in the Labs, the guys in the Records Dept., Accounts section, the lift men and the OPD and ICU ward boys and orderlies , the Sisters and the Matrons , the Admin personnel : each one knew what it was that they give to a patient and what it meant to them and the family ,when they attend to them . And it is the same today, the same dedication and commitment in the doctors and the same commitment to serve, in the staff. They teach one what is really meant by work is worship . I wasn't there in the Pediatric OPD for even 30 minutes before Dr Brijesh Arora ( whom I have known since he was a resident in AIIMS in 2001?) stopped by with reassurances that the little girl was in the best hands. 

I left the hospital knowing very well that between the hospital and Bhaijaan and I, the little girl would indeed be fine and her parents get all the support they needed.

For obvious reasons, pictures only outside the hospital ...and this I think is the first and only picture I have of the institution that has given me so much. Here's to so many of the amazing people who make this place what it is . I haven't taken their names . They know who they are. 

After this, the day at work passed in a blur of , well, work day issues and at 5:30 I decided to go to the library to catch up with some research I need to do to make my presentations for a couple of upcoming workshops .  

The David Sassoon Library in Kala Ghoda , is one well kept secret I swear.  Except  for the few regulars like me who haunt it , bringing our work and deadlines to its gleaming but worn desks and cane chairs , there's no one around. The sound of the whirring fans almost drowning that of the traffic outside the grand arches and balustrades and the late evening light making the green glassed doorways glow with a magical warmth , it is so , so conducive to good, hard work . Tempted as I was to collapse on the planters' chairs invitingly laid out in the verandah ( a favourite with some Uncles and their newspapers ) I managed to put in a good coupLe of hours work .

On a whim I decided to see if old friend , Dr Nitin Salian would have finished his evening consulting at his Colaba clinic. And bully him into my Saree pact story of the day . Busy schedules and the crazy topography of Bombay keeps the best of friends apart and it is rare I am around this part of town when Nitin is free, 

Nitin is a general surgeon and he and I have known each other now for over 27 years  or more. He was part of my Early Diagnosis team that would go from to Mill to Mill and Factory to Factory on weekday afternoon Cancer Detection camps . His lovely wife and two young children would spare him during those precious afternoons in between morning surgery and evening consulting to come with us on these medical camps throughout the length and breadth of the city and its suburbs as did a few other committed physicians . 

Oh what a tough task to make Nitin pose for the Saree pact pictures and get his 6' 5" frame into the other frame as well . But not at all difficult to get him to talk about his own brush with the Big C. Nitin is now on maintenance chemotherapy after 6 vigorous rounds of curative chemo and 25 sittings of Radiation for his Non Hodgkins Lymphoma that surfaced one fine day about two years ago.  

He smiles wryly as he recounts ( not for the first time ) how he was doing his crunches and suddenly from nowhere felt this coconut sized lump in the region of his abdomen and hey then and there it was Hello Cancer .  Amazing grit and an almost stoic acceptance that the treatment has to be borne and believe me not one day of work missed in between all of it. 

Looking awesome you are Nitin these days. That head of silver hair looks gorgeous and here's to hard work and taking it on the chin.


Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Ummachi Diaries


The Ummachi Diaries :


All made up for the first shot of the day 

October 2019

Because I promised Maiji I’m going to put this down so here goes - 

Yes that’s me: no makeup no lipstick no eyeliner no mascara no kaajal no trademark big nose ring and no silver bangles too but you anyway can’t see them. 

Say Hello to Akhil Sathyan’s  Ummachi . 

It all began with one message on my Instagram page from casting director Gayathri Smitha and almost ended with it because I never saw it . 

It was very brief . She was casting for a Malayalam feature film and would I be interested? More importantly, did I speak Malayalam? Of course I hadn't seen the message. But the lady was persistent and she had a young colleague follow up with a message on Facebook. This too I missed but eventually I did see it. The only reason I check messages from “non” friends or followers on various platforms is because occasionally it is possible a patient may be trying to connect with me. 

Young Ankit from the Casting Director’s office was persuasive and managed to talk to me on phone and the first thing I told him was I had a full time job and I spoke very little and that too very bad Malayalam . 

Notwithstanding this confession somehow the young man persuaded me to send a few photos and then a one minute video in which I was asked to introduce myself in Malayalam. 

I will never look at that video again - it was so bad. 


The Look Test - styled by Uthara Menon  

November 3rd 2019

Then I got a call from Gayathri Smitha . I still hadn’t seen her message. She told me the Director was coming to Bombay and could I have Lunch with him Sunday afternoon? Please? And please no silver bangles no earrings no makeup. Please? 

I went on like a stuck record - I have a full time job & I speak very bad Malayalam. It’s Sunday she said. And Akhil Sathyan speaks great English. 

I went. I walked into that Bandra restaurant  minus my bangles, my earrings, my makeup and one look at the young man who got up to greet me with the most brilliant uncomplicated smile I’ve ever seen I wanted to be in his film . Never mind the full time job and the bad Malayalam. 

Over grilled fish and mashed potatoes he narrated the story of Ummachi and I was her. Or rather determined to be her. Eyes closed, literally, I said Yes ! 

It was much later that I saw Gayatri Smita’s unread message on Instagram... but it did not matter by then.


I was signed up !!! 

The burning question was of course: 

How did you find me ? I mean what brought a cancer care professional like me into your orbit, I asked Akhil (by this time I knew he was the son of the well-known Malayalam filmmaker Sathyan Anthikkad. Oh ! our casting Director Gayathri Smitha found you for us . He showed me the Instagram photo that had clinched it ! The Look he was looking for . It was the makeover Sreenanda Shankar had given me ... the peach lipstick one . And apparently the casting director had seen me in Bangalore’s Sly Granny one time and stashed me away in her mind somewhere. Anju and Ketyav Kadam the only time I’ve been there is with you and the old man ! 

Story session over and lunch done then that Sunday morning in Bandra we made plans to meet again and Akhil says Please can you wear a saree and maybe bring in the same look ? The Instagram look? And then we’ll talk some more. But no makeup please he added . 




The elegant Stylist Uthara Menon 


November 6th 2019

 So we met a couple of days later and it was over breakfast at my favourite haunt The Taj Mahal Tea House and we talked some more and before I knew it my screen test was done- quietly and at my desk at work if you please, and on his phone camera and ( I guess ) approved too . That bit of dialogue I had to learn and emote will remain my favourite in the film. 

I couldn’t believe this was happening! 

And now what I wondered but my young Director had it all planned out . 

I will send you your scenes he said and you look out for a Malayalam tutor ? 

Also , could we have a smaller mookuthi he asked ... this is , motioning to the gorgeous one I was sporting , too “ Patthathi” for Ummachi ? And oh please he added with another shy smile - maybe you could , you know , not have a haircut now and mm you know do nothing to those eyebrows too ? I think this was when I felt it was all getting real ... I was being asked to get into prep mode for a role in a film!!! 

The day ended with a quick trip to Maa Hajiani Dargah . I mean I had to take him there na ? Something told me Akhil would love it and he did and swore he would shoot there. More about that maybe in my next?


The endearing Vineeth Radhakrishnan 

The Director gives the thumbs up to the look 


December 2019 


All of December went in work and trying to fit in the Physio appointments for my bum knee and Malayalam classes with Mrs Rajam - bless the lady. She’d greet me with her sweet smile and have my hot chai ready sometimes with a nice Kerala delicacy for tiffin - but she was a hard task master our Rajam Aunty. She helped me transcribe the script / dialogue notes Akhil had sent into English and I would read them out scene by scene. No matter it had been a long day at work, no excuse for not getting into Ummachi mode - but always with that patient smile that reached her kind eyes. A rare reward was an appreciative nod from her husband who was our quiet and discerning audience. 

When I wasn’t reading out my dialogues and getting the accent right I was listening to the voice notes Akhil had painstakingly recorded and sent to me on my phone. Ummachi’s words were literally ringing in my ears during any free time I had especially during my long commute. The day I got it all right and Rajam Aunty gave me 9/10 she decided a thanksgiving visit to the Ambalam was due and took me to the Guruvayur Temple nearby proudly introducing me as her actor student. 

The truth was, except for my family and a couple of close friends I hadn’t spoken about the offer and ensuing activities to anyone ... 

Makeup artist Sapna 

On the steps of Maa Hajjiani Dargah 

Akhil and his crew 


January 3rd 2020


By now I was totally consumed by Ummachi’s character , her lines , her moods and her thoughts . I was spouting her dialogues day in and day out - whenever I had a minute to spare; eating , breathing and dreaming just those dialogues. 

Then it was time for Akhil to come over once again to Bombay and this time to check on my Malayalam and my accent and we met again at my favourite Adda . This time it was for Lunch and he was so late it became high tea instead! It was lovely seeing him and welcoming him to Bombay again.  We then headed once again to the peace & calm of afterhours at my office where he heard my dialogue delivery . How proud I was when he put me at 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 !  

It was late evening and we managed to catch the sun go down ... and took some photos of my favourite vista in the golden light. It was all still very, very surreal. Even when as he took leave of me and said he’ll put the “Stylist” in touch with me to work out my Look Test ... he was off to do some location recce and meet his Music Director. 

I was spinning ... had I been “signed on”? 

On way home via Malayalam class I saw his post on Instagram- “Hello world. Meet her.” 

I knew I was IN then ... the glow I felt as the sun set in a golden haze beyond Haji Ali and the Maa Hajiani still hasn’t left me ... 


That night I dreamt about meeting the Stylist and the Look she would conjure up for me . But more about that in my next ... 


All set ... after High Tea ... I'm high 

January 11th 2020

The Look Test 

I did not even know such a term existed ... and when Akhil said he’d put well known stylist Uthara Menon in touch with me it was only becoming more and more real and exciting. 

The first call I got from Uthara was to coordinate time and place with the young man who was to make the wig for the “younger Ummachi” . I was going to be traveling on work all of that week and if Nikhil the perruquier had to have the wig ready by when the Look Test was going to fixed for, then  he and I needed to rendezvous very soon . Given the distances in Bombay and the traffic snarls it seemed best I call him to meet me at work ( by now my office seemed to have become the film’s first location ) and that left me with just one day - Saturday. There was a patient meeting scheduled and I would be available all through the day I told the young man over the phone. Don’t even ask me how I managed to exitricate myself from the sessions and give the poor guy the time he needed. And that too without letting on who he was and what i was upto . Nikhil to his credit was the perfect profession and within minutes had all the measurements he needed of my (not yet swollen ) head !


And oh what a challenge getting everyone’s times to match now for the Look Test . For me it had to be after working hours and thank God “working hours”for the film industry was outside of my working hours which is quite a mean feat to achieve considering mine go on for hours and hours...but coordinate we did and rendezvoused at a studio in the Western Suburbs where for the first time I met some of the members of Akhil Sathyan’s unit. And a delightful bunch of people. What impressed me so much was how Uthara had with her every single item of clothing and accessories and a tailor who whipped out a sewing machine for last minute adjustments and someone handy with an iron as well . I surrendered without any struggle to the ministrations of the whole team. The look of approval on the Director’s face was reward to all . 

PS - the glamour quotient of the stylist Uthara Menon is something else indeed! 


28th January 2020

And then the Dates were fixed and we began shooting ... The first schedules set for end Jan . 

I was at Mayo College Ajmer on a speaking assignment and drove down that early cold winter morning to Delhi to take the flight to Kochi . The previous day I had completed a long cherished mannath - offering prayers at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. I was told so many actors came there to receive blessings before beginning a shoot !!! 

Cannot describe the myriad thoughts going through my mind . While passing some lovely mustard fields in bloom I thought it quite fitting to stop and do a filmy thing right there ...after all I was going to act in a film . So why not some drama baazi! Neeraj , my trusted Sarathy when I’m in and around Delhi was only too happy to do the honours . It was a lovely drive and we kept stopping to take photos and for one whopping breakfast of Aaloo Paranthas with makkhan and lassi too . I know I wouldn’t be hungry till after I reached Kochi. 

Adarsh from the Unit was waiting for me at Kochi airport and boy did it feel strange being received and chaperoned into a city I’d been to so many times on my own . Looking up at some point I spotted the huge bill board of Anoop Sathyan’s film which was releasing in a couple of days . Anoop and Akhil are the twin sons of well known film maker Sathyan Anthikkad . Like the first family of Malayalam cinema. 

At the hotel it was nice to put a face to the voice of young Assistant Director Vandana who took care of everything and warned me that there might be a late night Look Test where the Director and Make Up Team might want to do some final adjustments. 

They were as good as their word and finally that one long day came to an end with Akhil’s Good Night ringing in my ears - Reporting Time tomorrow morning 6:30 Ma’am . 

And I was there with the sun to be met by Akhil and my costar Vineeth Radhakrishnan. The humility with which the actor came and introduced himself is something I can never get over . I couldn’t believe this was indeed the well known actor dancer who’s been acting since he was a young boy and won so many accolades . And we were doing the first scene to be shot together ... 


With Vineeth and the Sathyan twins 

Pandian Sir at work 

Kochi Jan 29th 2020

And so it began , my first day of shooting . It was such a surreal feeling - my own make up van and the make up and costume team taking total charge. I was completely at their mercy. I will never forget Pandian Sir’s sweet but firm cajoling as he removed all traces of eye makeup I had on. Look amma , your role is of  old lady. No makeup . We have to make you look old . But I did win a small victory when he allowed some Kaajal to remain in my eyes . 

I loved the look eventually and it seemed effortless after his ministrations to become the Ummachi Akhil Sathyan wanted. 


The first shot was with Vineeth Radhakrishnan who went out of his way to make me feel so much at ease and if this was how simple it was I said to myself! But then that was before Day 2 Shot 1 which was a Big One ! Just Vineeth and I and some of the longest and most emotional dialogues. Take after re take and I’m only wanting to hear Akhil say Niiiice in that drawl of his to know I had done ok . But no ... it now seemed I would not even need the glycerin because I was almost in tears myself. If I got the expression right in one I got the pronunciation wrong. If I got both right I muffed the lines . And so on it went ... How patient everyone was with me and how gently Vineeth made it seem perfectly ok that I was making him do take after take with me. 

I was envious of my little co-star Jesse who would confidently run up to see the shot on the Director’s little monitor screen after every take. I was petrified to go take a close look myself. Till today I haven’t seen any of the footage shot. But what I saw of the team and my lovely co stars I knew I was in great company . The kind eyes of the DOP Sharan Velayudhan , the ever ready to help with my lines AD Rajiv Rajendran and AD Aaron Mathew who would keep throwing me encouraging smiles , the lovely Dilna and her hugs and most of all my Director who when he did say Niiiice OK gave me his most beaming smile . As for the sarees Uthara Menon had chosen for Ummachi to wear each one was a winner. I wanted to bring them all back with me. You should have seen how shocked the young costume team was when I said that !!!


Overwhelmed is how I felt on Day One of the shoot of Akhil Sathyan’s film...and not just because it was the first day of my first ever film. 

Asked to light the lamp before the first shot it still hadn’t all sunk in. This was a unit with some top notch technical names like Sharan Velayudhan, Prabhakaran Justin and Anil Radhakrishnan besides well known actors like Fahad Faasil and the charming Vineeth Radhakrishnan whom I had already met. I was introduced to the producer Sethu Mannarkkad of Full Moon Cinema - such a sweet, humble young man. 

Akhil himself was now totally immersed in getting the shots ready and the film was on the floors. 

The moment of the morning however was this: 

In between shots while Vineeth and I were taking a short break the director walked upto us with a clipboard in hand and began to tell us how there were going to be a few changes ...something made me look up as he bent forward - maybe my subconscious registered that Akhil’s white shirt had turned into a pink one when it hit me that this was not Akhil but Anoop his brother pulling his famous “Know The Twin” prank. Anoop Sathyan you had me there for all of 3 seconds I admit!!! 


Feb1st to 3rd 2020

Shooting in Kochi ... who would have ever imagined. And what joy it was having family & friends dropping in on the sets . Beena Narayanan, Amit Vaidya , Ravi and Vijaya - thank you ❤️ And as for Sapna Babu thank you for making me look so good ❤️


6th February 2020


A dream I never even dreamt of comes true . 

Akhil  brings his unit to Bombay and the first schedule is at Maa Hajjan Dargah 

6.30am call and we are at the shoot location bright and early. 

For me it is like getting to work early as we take the right at Lotus signal and Haji Ali and the fishing boats dotting the placid sea come into view. 

But now, this is very special , more than very special . It is the Universe conspiring in its own magical way. My first schedule in Bombay for my first ever film and it is at “my” no, now it is “our Dargah” ... 

On his first visit to meet with me and discuss the film I had taken him to Maa Hajiani ... this heavenly spot I have a special relationship with. Now we have come back with his crew to shoot our first scenes in Bombay here . The sun was golden and the sky blue. One of the most beautiful mornings ever . The whole unit had breakfast together and then Pandian Sir & Sapna Babu took charge in the Vanity (what a thrill to see my name next to Vineeth) 

My heart was so full. As I knelt down inside after the shoot to offer my own prayers it was the most indescribable of all feelings. I will not even try to describe them. 



Maybe my favourite shot 


February 7th /8th 2020 

And then we did two more days of shooting in Bombay ... it just felt so amazing to see Bombay through the eyes of Director Akhil Sathyan.

It was a Bombay I know very well - the same Bombay I had trudged the length and breadth of all of these last three decades and more as a working woman . The city where I’d found my feet - the city that gave me wings to fly like a bird, free and unfettered . Then what was this city I was seeing? Ah the power of a camera and the eyes and mind behind it . The hearts behind it ... Akhil and DOP Sharan Velayudhan showed me another Marine Drive , another Ballard Estate , another Chawl altogether and yet another Juhu . You see I was not me but Ummachi . This was Ummachi’s Bombay . 

We shot all day and one day all through the night till the day became the next morning. I am writing all this down more so I will never forget than share with you reader this once in a lifetime experience. 

The Pandemic has brought an Intermission outside of the screen for now but Inshallah Ummachi will bring to you more from her diaries ... real soon! 



The last Adieu


Something I wrote a few years ago ... and as we observed the anniversary I felt it should be in my blog 

Oct 13th 2015 

My husband's uncle died a couple of days ago and was cremated this morning after his only son , our cousin flew in from Houston. Babu Mama as we affectionately called him was not just our Uncle . He was , as most younger brothers of our mothers are, a friend and a mentor and someone who loved us unconditionally . Especially to my husband, this dear, caring man was like a brother and a role model. So much so that he followed in his footsteps and became an "oil " man himself ; and like him worked for years in the Refineries. Mama to me, was the epitome of what a man should be . Kind and loving and charming and caring with the most amazing sense of humour . And passionate about his work . And he was so proud of me and my work . That meant so much to me. In his home I was treated like a princess . His wife Mami was my friend and confidante and his young son and daughter , even younger than what my grandchildren are today, became my most ardent fans and till today I treasure and cherish their love for me above everything else. So much so, that I even forgot he was my husband's uncle and the family his, not mine . I kind of appropriated them . We could do no wrong in their eyes ; they loved us so much . And because of that we made certain we never made a wrong move . Love does that . It makes you good . Mama loved Bombay . Especially the beautiful bit of the city where it's two  most famous icons the Mahalakshmi  temple and the Haji Ali Dargah sit cheek by jowl on the waters of the Arabian Sea. And our cousin decided that's where he would immerse his father's ashes. As the sun set and the city decked itself in its evening glitter , he went into the waters that were receding already because of the low tide, holding the hand of young Wasim , my little friend from the fishing village who guided him like the expert navigator he was . They reached the waters and gently let the mortal remains of Mama float away into the last light of the evening . You can see them if you look carefully at the photograph . Wasim led our cousin back and we sat for a while in a wondrous silence thinking of what we had achieved . And I said to myself , Mama will never really be far from us .

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

For my brothers ... from the unabashed MSD fan in the family

Writing this for my older brother at the behest of my younger brother . The latter used to be a sports writer / journalist . I use the past tense because that’s how he looks at himself though I think he still remains one of the finest voices in sports ( Indian and international ) Which is why our older brother asked him to comment on M S Dhoni’s retirement . And of course citing his  past tense sports journalist status he told our older brother maybe he should ask me , the unabashed Dhoni fan in the family to say something . 
So, here’s that something : 

Ever since he burst upon the firmament of Indian cricket Dhoni for me shone like the star he is . I have grown up in a household that was totally into cricket. Despite the fact that three of the four female members ( our mother and my two sisters ) were not into it , the other four ( father , brothers and moi) were enough and made for a formidable family of aficionados. Now I have five more guys in my family to add to that . The old man , our sons and the grandson .
 I grew up when the names that shone were Richie Benaud, Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Lance Gibbs ,Wes Hall, Gary Sobers, Salim Durrani, Budhi Kundheran , ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig and MAK Pataudi . Till Dhoni came on the scene no one else made an impact that came even close to the ones these legends had made on me . Ok Imran Khan and David Gower maybe and I must confess I pinned a scribbled note once to Shane Warne on the board in the team dressing room on a visit to the MCG in 1995. 
Whereas I adored these players ( given I was a young girl then and young girls were quite given to adorin) with Dhoni it was admiration from the word Go ! His demeanour , his game , his stance , his unorthodox style ( and hair) and the aura around him elicited admiration and respect. 
He exuded power ; power that came from the confidence of someone extremely comfortable in his skin . His keen and unwavering gaze , his easy smile and the sheer passion he put into his game only added to the aura . I can still remember seeing him atop the BEST bus on the post T20 World Cup win ride through the streets of Bombay . Yes , my team and I came out on the roads to watch that parade !!! 
Most of all I loved and admired his leadership skills . He led by example and he made his team work for him and then he walked away from the limelight leaving his team to bask in the glow of the victories he made for them . He worked hard . To me that said it all . Nothing comes easy to anyone . He knew that and single mindedly worked towards what he wanted . For himself , his team and the country . I don’t think he ever consciously made references of having come up the hard way or from a smaller town. People made a big deal of it . 
He concentrated on his game and on his team. And when the rewards came he took that as a natural outcome of his and his team’s efforts . As I put this down I realise how close this is to how I see myself as a leader of my team . Cancer care is as different from cricket as the proverbial chalk is from cheese but a leader’s responsibilities aren’t too different no matter in which field . 
And talking of fields what a joy the man was to watch on the cricket ground . Fit , head held high , agile , eyes scanning every inch of the ground and the calm composure which when gave way to the occasional burst of exuberance was a delight to watch.
I don’t know when this man turned into the legend ; the icon that he eventually went on to become . 
All I know is if he wasn’t playing in a particular match that game lost its charm for me and became a lacklustre one . 
I can watch reruns of his games again and again . His shots , his wicket keeping , his controlled glee as he sends the ball over the stadium or whips the bails down , his behind the stumps instructions and gentle chiding to the bowler and above all the perfect control he had over himself . Unflappable, cool and dignified.
So I met the man once . And he did not disappoint . Witty and clever and ever so humble the man I was introduced to turned out to be .  He heard with great attention when a common friend spoke to him about my work and we went on to have a great conversation on the perils and rewards of being in the public eye. That the common friend was Salman Khan (the occasion being the latter’s birthday) was serendipitous indeed . Two men I admire , respect and like very deeply . Two men who quietly care for those in their orbit and make no big deal of it . It is what they have to do . 

Friday, November 2, 2018

Grief is selfish

I lost a very dear friend to cancer a couple of weeks ago . Even though I knew the last time I saw her would be the very last time too , I have still not been able to process this loss ...

What I wrote a few years ago comes to my mind ...

Grief is selfish . 
And grieving for a loved one is a self serving process .
It is all about what the loss means to you and how your life changes and all that you will miss now that the person who meant so much to you is no longer there .
The process of grieving is left to you to work out in all its complexities . 
I don't think one can ever get over the shock of losing a loved one . It's like a gash on your arm that may heal (?) over a period of time with new tissues manufactured with one's own set of coping mechanisms but the damage is done . Your once flawless , smooth skin bears the unmistakable and indelible mark of the trauma .  It's ugly, painful and a constant reminder of the loss and of what once was .

In my line of work I lose people that I have grown to love and care for .  More than is good for me or for them ; or so the text books say. But what do those these text books know . I have revelled and blossomed in the love my patients have given me so unconditionally and I know for a fact so have they. We live in a very special world that allows this unconditional love . For I am no one to them . Not a lover , not a parent nor child ;  not a sibling not aunt or uncle or anything that can be defined . I am to each one of them only what they want me to be to them . But to me they are my life , my work and my whole world .  They may know it or they may not. It makes no difference for the love I have for them serves me in a way that helps me help them . When they want it .  And how they want it. 
It is a love that has allowed  me to give and in giving there is so much joy and such rewards . 
I call it Qualified Love . And that charmed circle is peopled with little toddlers I held in my arms who are happy teenagers today ; teenagers whom  I have seen growing up into awesome young adults ; young adults becoming householders and making a life with their loved ones , proud parents become happy grandparents and then I have held the hands of many as they move on to find meaning in their "senior years " so to say.  

And because I am no one to them in their established hierarchy of family and friends I become , like many of my ilk ( counselors, therapists, treating physician too) an anonymous safekeeper of many secrets , longings , confessions, fears and more.   And I ? I am like a sponge , that very anonymity allowing me to absorb and retain without losing my own dimensions . 

And then comes Death to take them away for ever . Life interrupted . For ever. 
And I am left the sole custodian of shared dreams and hopes and conversations . 

I am asked , by many , how do I cope with the loss of my patients ? When they die ? How do I indeed ? I honestly don't know . Each death , each loss hits me anew. 

Last week I woke up in DC just as India had already slipped into its late evening and found a message in WhatsApp from one of my young patients. It began as most messages do : Amma , ( to my dying day I will never be able to comprehend the kind of love and affection my patients have for me which makes them call me Amma )   And then as I read the message I felt this cold hand close itself around my heart. 
The message said , Amma , Bhaiyya nahi rahey ab. 
Mother , brother is no more.

Just over a couple of weeks ago this young man and I had chatted over that very WhatsApp when he had come to office and missed me and we had promised to meet up once I was back. I simply could not accept that I was not going to be able to do that. Not ever again . It dawned on me then how far away i was from him and everything that connected me to him. Waking up in another country and in another time zone whereas back home the day was almost done and the reality of the loss final and unchangeable . Even though i was yet to live that day that had already in another place in time , taken him away. 

This is not the first time that i have not been around when someone in my care has died. I realise that this huge chasm between myself and a dearly loved patient is not just caused by my physical absence separated as we are by the oceans. That  chasm exists even if I am right there in the midst of the grieving family . For, who was I to him or to the members of the family ? Not family and  not a friend in the real sense of the word . Take away the reason for my existence in that dear life and I ceased to exist . 

This harsh truth always prevents me from processing the loss , and therefore the process of grieving is a complicated one.  And closure ? Well nigh impossible ! 

Just as the bereaved parent or child or partner would balk at the painful process of taking down and putting away all visible signs of the loved one I too cannot bring myself to erase them from my mind . 

The phone numbers remain in my phone contacts . The photographs on my wall lull me into a false sense of continuity of the relationship and I  keep going to their pages on Face Book long as these signs exist I exist . 

For all that I gave them , what I got in return was immeasurable . A validation of my worth to them ; of my love for them .  Without them I cease. 

What do I do with all that I know and to whom do I share those shared confidences that might help in the grieving process . 

Respecting Patient Confidentiality  is of paramount importance and is sacrosanct in our line of work . In many cases , not all family members or friends are even aware of the situation .  Time and time again I have caught myself reaching out and then drawing back and keeping my overtures in check. 

So in answer to that question raised above , my grief is mine alone and I grieve alone . I grieve for the loss of what gave meaning to my act of giving . 

DC Sunday morning 5th July : I have just edited the above and given it a spell check and shared a few thoughts with this friend I am spending the holiday weekend with . Mostly about the young man who has died and my anguish at being so far away and how it anyway makes no difference for the reasons given above . 

We are having tea and reading the morning papers . And I come across the following in the Sunday New York Times ...

It is as though I am listening to myself 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Of Sheila , Reshma aur Shera ...a Delhi memoir of my jawaani

Of Sheila , Reshma aur Shera ...a Delhi memoir of my jawaani 

56 years old today , she was very much the new heart throb on the block then  , very stylish and so much the Delhi Diva. Hosted almost all the gorgeous Hollywood superstars who came to her city . We college students loved her chutzpah and were eager to be seen in her vicinity . Some of that style maybe rubbed off on us too. Not just Hollywood stars but those who later came to be known as Bollywood stars too , glowed in her glory . She changed the face of Paharganj with her svelte avatar . Her name was Sheila , and a couple of weeks ago she gracefully and quietly made her exit from the landscape of the city that for more than half a century had been her home and to which she had added so much panache and style . 
Sheila , of the 70 mm screen fame, recently brought down her last curtain , and screened her last film. Like Regal had, in Connaught Place , a few weeks earlier . 
Having grown up in the Delhi of the 60s , and left it in the 70s , it is unimaginable to think of the city without these landmarks . Regal , Plaza and Odeon in Connaught Place and then the lady come lately , Shiela , in Paharganj . Of course later there were other cinema houses, (couldn't give them the stately title of Theatre ) like Sapna , Archana , Priya and even Chanakya , but these grand ones were different . 
And Shiela was the one that stood out , even amongst those grand ones - the modern one . 
Those were the days when going to see a film was the highlight of the month . Even after joining college, a hard fought and won treat . I could never not tell Ma and go see a film . Because then after seeing it I couldn't tell her all about it right ? And that re telling and sharing was, for me , the most fun part of going to see a film . So in my home, one film a month was allowed . And so one also had to make sure it was a treat well chosen and well planned . And in those days going to see a film was such an orchestrated exercise in itself . Booking the tickets , hoping they were available of course and with the ' approved ' company / friends . Then the wait , counting the days and hours and praying no calamity would cause the plan to fall through . Like no public figure's passing that would send the city into mourning ( yes , cinemas would shut down for a week ) , no rain , no any other calamity , you know what I mean . Of course you don't , today's child . You who have Netflix on your finger tips and a multitude of multiplexes and devices at your disposal and maybe more indulgent mothers !!

Regal was where we would go to when we were very young for those very rare and occasional morning shows with parents and grandparents - Tamil and Malayalam films . Really GOOD ones or Mythologicals . And Regal was also where , as we grew a little older , we siblings would go watch films every once in a while . Anupama with my sister ( I was a little upset then that the B&W Anupama was my lot instead of the bright and colourful and more popularly promoted Milan-not now though ) Around the World in 8 Dollars with my brother ( he I am sure only accompanied me because of the West Indies Cricket segment in it ) There would also be the occasional films shown at the Sports Stadium cinema simply called The Stadium . I remember being enthralled by Cliff Richards' Summer Holiday and The Young Ones . And oh, Cantinflos' Pepe we had to forgo when Pandit Nehru passed away on the day of our show.

These were  'safe' locations . 

The only two times I have been to Old Delhi to see a film was under very careful chaperoning . The first was under our English teacher Mr Katyal who took the Drama Team to see Julius Caesar in preparation for the play we were putting up that year ( 1968 , and I was Julius Caesar) .  This was at Golcha and primarily to help us get our costumes and dialogue delivery right . 

The second was to Delite , at Asaf Ali Road I think and dear cousin Samban it was who put my younger brother Raja behind him as pillion rider and moi into the side car of his motorcycle. And we went to watch Jawani Diwani . Oh what a ride that was, both to the theatre and in the theatre !! 

No our glamorous Sheila was not a safe location for a theatre . I mean , West Kidwai Nagar to Paharganj ? No direct bus and not near the college and not even Connaught Place the farthest one could venture from home .  So it took all our combined persuasive skills , mine and Chandra's to get our respective mothers' Ok girls , you can go !!!

It was a hot summer June afternoon and we had won permission for the Matinee Show at Sheila - the film , Sunil Dutt's Reshma aur Shera . I adored Sunil Dutt and Rajasthan and everything about that part of our land fascinated me and called out to the incurable romantic in me and I was in love with the songs and the ' Radio Programme' of the film on air had me enthralled . The Radio Programme was the 15 minute Radio Trailer of a film . And in those days , listening to one was almost as good as seeing the film . Almost . There would be snatches of songs and scenes / dialogues and Amin Sayani's honeyed voice enticing you to go watch the film as he built up the suspense . 
Most of the time one made do with the vicarious listening. Some films you knew you would brave an arm and a leg and Ma's censure for . Reshma aur Shera was one of those and Paharganj was one mountain of an obstacle we said will scale and overcome .

And was it worth it all . What a canvas and what a production this film was . The grandeur and the scope , the casting and acting , the colours , the music , the power of the emotions - a powerful tale of love and revenge , family bonding and family feud . It had it all ! Till today I'm confounded that the film did not do well at the Box Office . But that's the Box Office . So fickle . So cruel . 

The film ends with this colossal dust storm that buries along with the ill fated Reshma and Shera all their dreams and hopes , all thoughts of love and forgiveness and leaves you exposed to the bigotry and hatred that still
seems to fuel the world we live in . Till today , sadly.  We got up from our seats, wet eyed and heavy hearted - a tragedy of epic dimensions had just unfolded before those eyes. And we were two shaken young girls who only wanted to get back to our safe homes , in the bosom of a loving family where no one wanted to kill and destroy each other . The film had been so very powerful . 

We stepped out of Sheila and it was like we had stepped right back into the film . Anyone who has lived thorough Delhi summers ( well, I don't know about now but then , yes ) will know what a summer Dust Storm is all about and there we had one swirling all around us right there. It was Reshma aur Shera Part 2 . Fine grains of sand flew about us fanned by the ferocious winds and finding their sharp, piercing way into our tightly shut eyes , into our clenched mouths and up our nostrils . We held on tight to each other and waited for the storm to ebb a bit . It did of course but only when the heavens opened up and the cool and cleansing rain began to beat down upon us. 

Rain or sand ? I guess it was rain because the sand had settled down . It was well past six in the evening and of course public transportation had taken a toss and we would have been happy to even find a camel to take us home that's how bad the scene was . 

DTC was notorious those days and the even more notorious ( as we have sadly come to know about them now) private buses were not yet unleashed on the Delhi streets then and we of course had bravely taken a scooter ( autos were called scooters those days ) to get to Sheila . There was nothing on the roads whatsoever that would take us South Delhi wards now. It was raining and the usually long and bright summer evening unusually struck short and oh so dark . 

I for one knew we were going to be so late home , that is, if we reached at all , and no enthusiastic and emotive retelling of the tale of the doomed Reshma and Shera was going to save me from the wrath of Ma. 

We began walking. We got soaked in the first two minutes . We kept under the trees. Which was stupid because they deposited chunks of water on us from their sodden leaves every time one gust of wind shook them . Like a long haired banshee drying her tresses. 

We walked past known and unknown Delhi landmarks . I remember stopping at the beautifully columned entrance of the Max Mueller Bhavan taking for a while shelter from the storm ( no I had not heard the Bob Dylan gem then  , in fact not even heard of him , Heaven forgive me that trespass ) . We moved on fearing getting more delayed . Then Chandra had a brain wave . Her father was in the IFS , the Indian Foreign Service and she knew of the new Multi Storied ( as we called high rises those days in Delhi ) quarters where the External Affairs Officers were housed and she knew a  family there . Like a pair of drenched sparrows we finally got there and I remember we somehow dried up as best as we could and praise the Lord , called up our homes and assured respective Moms that we were safe and well, almost dry and in respectable shelter. No cell phones then , remember ? 

We eventually got home ...very late . Our mothers so relieved to have us there . I don't remember being chastised or being met with any anger . But this was one evening I will never forget . And the one film at Sheila I will always remember .  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The story of a survivor who did not survive

 Three weeks after I last met Hira at her home in the village in Pachubunder , she was diagnosed with a fast growing , deadly , metastatic adenocarcinoma and in another ten days she was gone . Just like that . The cancer that so cruelly took her away was totally unrelated to her CML which she had so bravely faced and factored into her life for over a dozen years.

So Hira did not survive but today on Cancer Survivor's Day I can only salute the beautiful , loving , kind , strong and generous human being she was . She's the stuff survivors are made of . 

Meet Hira Goma , a Koli fisherwomen from the seaside village of Pachubandar , which lies to the far North West of Mumbai and has been home to generations of Kolis who are  the city’s traditional fishing community. The Kolis, wiry and lithe fishermen , and strong and hardworking fisherwomen in their bright and colourful Sarees are the original inhabitants of this region and have lived here since Mumbai was nothing but a cluster of seven islands  strung together with lush palm trees, and surrounded by mangroves and reefs. 

Like many other women in the village , Hira's day also begins at the break of dawn as she rises even before the sun does. Morning chores include cooking for her large extended family after which she takes off to the wharf to get her fish . Hira can return home only after the heavy load on her head is sold. And this may take all morning and afternoon to accomplish. Once back home, innumerous chores still await her and one can see her with other women fixing the torn fishing nets or mending baskets and drying dozens of little bombil fish ; all this in the midst of  meeting other household and family demands . 

Hira Goma is deceptively dimmunitive. And her lined and smiling face can become a mask of grim determination if the situation demands it. 


Her working day starts with loading on to her basket the days's catch the menfolk bring in on their boat and taking it to the bazaar to sell. She has to deal not just with all sorts of customers there or those she seeks on her door to door sales route but also the competition ; her peers and neighbours in the village. She is outspoken and cheerful and freely interacts with everyone . It is she who alongside her husband and other menfolk in the family equally provides the economic stability her  family needs and therefore commands great respect. At 55 plus , Hira puts in a full day's work and lets nothing come in her way . Not even CML which she was diagnosed with more than a decade ago. 


Times were very tough for Hira and her family those days  . The reckless urban growth that spread well beyond the city limits had begun to ruin the sea and the coastline which was their only source of livelihood. 


Earlier, the fishing expeditions undertaken by the menfolk of her family would involve two or three boats bringing in many baskets of different kinds of fish. Now, just one boat went on maybe one or two trips and came back with fewer baskets and fish and that too, tiny fish. The sea had become full of pollution caused by oil slick and chemicals , bemoaned Hira's husband . There were no fish in the sea. The Kolis were facing a severe crisis already when cancer reared its ugly head in their midst. 

And it threatened to take away Hira , the mainstay of the family . 

Hira's mother was devastated . Why should my daughter be taken she cried , says Hira. Let me die in her place . I have lived long enough . The whole community was in shock . Her family shattered . Even though Hira was childless , she was mother to all her nephews and nieces . Would they be orphaned ? Her husband adored her and was determined to do all that was needed to save her. After all, he said , we battle the forces of nature when we go out to the sea. We are hardy people and we are ready to die earning our livelihood . What is cancer in the face of the dangers we face everyday . 


Harnessing whatever resources they could garner , no stone was left unturned in seeking medical advice in the little fishing village . It took time and great effort but step by step , seeking information and showing persistence , they managed to get the diagnosis confirmed and found their way to Tata Memorial Hospital . Once there , it was just another step to the referral to The Max Foundation and access to Glivec. 

In all these years , through all of the struggle and emotional upheaval , Hira has remained her active and busy self . Not for one day has she missed her routine of the wharf and the bazaar . Equally important , she has not let her work and routine come in the way of her treatment and CML management protocol ! 

She can never forget the first time she met everyone in the Max office she says . I met my Amma . It was like meeting another family . All the fear and worries disappeared when I met Max Foundation . Over the years this bond has only grown stronger and deeper . On every visit she will bring for us the best and freshest of the day's catch . Not only that , she will cook the most delicious of fish curries and bring it for us to have with our Lunch on that day. 

She never misses a dose , not one follow up visit is neglected or abandoned .  The distance between the city and her fishing village is not measured in kilometres but in the benefits she gets from her treatment . She knows the little orange capsule is what is keeping her alive and active . But she also says with a shy smile that lights up her face that even more important than the medicine is the love her husband has lavished upon her . He has stood by her throughout these years and encouraged her to do exactly what she wished . He has never let her feel that her cancer has diminished her in any way , affected her ability to work and live her life as normally as before . 

Hira Goma stands very tall and proud and wears hear cancer like a medal .