Punctuate Life

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Walking into the Unknown

It’s a scary place to be. The vast openness in front of you. Myriad intertwining paths stretching across the horizon as far as the eye can see. Fear immobilizes you. One wrong step and you think all will be lost. How sad it is sweet child that you have forgotten where you have come from. Squeezed out of a dark and snug chamber through a narrow canal, forced to breathe that air which was alien to you a second ago. Deprived of your continuous supply of nourishment, you had to latch on and suckle to survive. From simply being you were pushed into doing. You had to learn the tricks of this brand new world. Cry to get attention so your needs could be met – needs that did not exist before your birth. And isn’t it a wonder that you did incredibly well, although you had no idea what to expect.

Yet you falter when faced with the unknown. When uncertainty looms large, you fret and fume, cemented to your narrow path, unable to make a choice. Until you are pushed own the rabbit hole, forced to take a plunge and fill your hearts with courage. Why must you be afraid? The same force that birthed you and made you take in that first breath of fresh air, will nudge you along the right direction. If only you are patient and quieten your mind to listen to its guidance. For it is always there. It is like the background noise of a dripping faucet that you learn to tune out. But if you tune out  everything else, the noise becomes ominously loud – too loud to ignore. Follow that guidance and it will never fail you. It will in time take you where you are meant to go.

When I made my appearance into this world, my hip was dislocated and I wasn’t breathing. I could have made an exit without my first breath of air, without ever being held in my mother’s arms, without ever crying. Miraculously I survived but I was not out of the doghouse yet. Was my brain damaged because I was deprived of oxygen? Would my hip fix itself and would I ever walk normally? These were not questions that ran through my head. I was too small to know or even remember any of this. My parents didn’t know either. But when I visited my pediatrician, she would give thanks for every milestone I crossed. For she was the one who saved me from the jaws of death as I lay lifeless in her arms. She was witness to the miraculous power that let me live and thrive.

I don’t doubt for a second that help is always available for those who ask. But we must have the courage to follow through even in the face of imminent disapproval. Only we can hear our inner voice. We cannot let the voices of others drown it. Nor can we allow the noise of the world obliterate it. We cannot let fear dictate our actions. We have to trudge forward in full faith that the force that birthed us will take us home.


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Coming Full Circle

“Almost all your blogs talk about work,” my daughter declared a few weeks ago. I mildly protested but then it struck me that she was right. The years since I started blogging have been devoted to finding work, finding my passion, quitting jobs, moving and trying to find work again. At times I was under employed, stressed out at work or totally unprepared for the job. I persevered because for me it was work (with all its problems) or no work at all. It wasn’t exactly raining interviews and offer letters.

When we moved, Seattle definitely had more opportunities than Florida but that didn’t equate to a job for me. Frustrated, I applied for a substitute position at the school district. Several months of subbing did not fetch me a regular job. The new year came and went with the promise of regular writing work that pays. It lasted a month and then I heard nothing. The first few weeks of February saw me grappling with issues of self-worth and it all came out in my blog – In the Brink of a Mid-life Crisis.

The very next day after I published my blog, a long term subbing job became available. I decided to take it up. It was a full day assignment and the work was challenging at first, but I fell into a rhythm. The people I interacted with were wonderful. It was perfect. So when the assignment ended, they wanted to extend it and they wanted me back. All the years I struggled with feelings of worthlessness melted away. I did amount to something. Of course I knew that and I had learned that lesson sometime ago. But to finally have the outer world reflect that was like a resounding YES!

When you know your own worth you stop putting yourself last and you stop putting yourself down. You value everything you do even if the rest of the world doesn’t. I stopped being invisible and stopped hiding in the house thinking I had nothing to offer. I started loving myself more and making time for things I loved to do. Instead of always serving everybody else’s needs, I started serving my needs.

In the beginning it all seemed like a farce. It was as if I was putting on a show pretending to know what I was doing. When actually I was scared as hell, just waiting for someone to call out my bluff. I was a nobody strutting around all confident and knowledgeable. But that was just the ego in me that hated being pushed out of its comfort zone. My comfort zone was a bundle of low self-esteem that kept me stuck in a rut without the courage to chase my dreams. So I ignored that little voice and showed up and did the best I could. And it paid off. Time and again people acknowledged my presence or appreciated what I did. The tiny voice stopped trying to discourage me and I got bolder and bolder.

Once you step out of your comfort zone, you create another comfort zone where you can stay stuck unless you push yourself again. For me it was this feeling of discontent that kept pushing me. Some need inside that wanted to be filled. It just wouldn’t go away. No matter what I did. I volunteered – it didn’t go away. I blogged – it didn’t go away. I subbed – it didn’t go away. I wrote every day in January and got paid – and it didn’t go away.

This job I have now somehow filled that empty space inside of me. A space that had been aching from within. A space that marked the years of giving and giving of oneself till one became broke. A space that was open to receiving a kind word, appreciation or gratitude.

It is as if I have come full circle from a bedraggled housewife who spent her days serving her family while ignoring her own needs to a woman who is perfectly balanced and perfectly at ease at her workplace and perfectly at ease doing dishes (who am I kidding!). But jokes apart, I have come a long way. I know when and how much to give of my time and resources and when to receive. I know when to stop giving before I reach rock bottom and burn myself out. I have learned to honor myself as much as I honor others.

It is always tempting to do too much, give too much or take too much. And we are all walking a tightrope, flitting between balancing everything and falling flat on our faces. At some point we get it and our inner compass leads us to balance and happiness.

I would love to tell you that my work saga that started in 2012 has concluded, but such is not the case. Then again that is fodder for another blog.


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Unleash the Goddess Within

Whenever I think of Goddesses incarnating on earth I fondly remember my grandma. She was a powerful matriarch with an iron staff (or should I say sword?) She was fearless and stood up to most anyone – die-hard patriarchs included – who saw her as a hapless widow. She owned her power. She was kind, generous, loving and very shrewd. She saw through facades and flagrant unctuousness although she appeared to revel in it. She was like a fierce lioness with a brood of cubs that she guarded vehemently. She was definitely a Durga. There is this picture of her taken on her birthday. She is dressed immaculately in white, brandishing a sword (thanks to her indulgent brother) while sitting on her bed with her dogs languishing in the background. On her nightstand she had a picture of the Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura with his decapitated buffalo’s head and body lying under the goddess astride a lion. The lion is mauling the remains of the demon while blood drips off her trident.

I was reading the book, “Awakening Shakti” by Sally Kempton and it was all about the different goddesses and their powers. It even had a fun quiz at the end – Which Goddess are You? The author didn’t want the readers to take it too seriously and just wanted everyone to have some fun. I took the quiz in that very same spirit but slowly it took on a serious turn. I related to different Goddesses with very contrasting qualities. Of course everyone is a mix of qualities and it’s not always possible to fit in one particular category. In my case however, I saw how I was dominated by one Goddess during one part of my life and others during other parts of my life.

Every woman goes through a phase in her life when she feels like a goddess, oozes charisma and a dizzying fragrance that others find irresistible. In fact some men fear the power of such a woman and demonize her as the femme fatale. The evil one that seduces one and all. Some patriarchal societies don’t encourage women to flaunt their beauty. They want it kept under wraps and want women to feel ugly about their bodies. In extreme cases they mutilate women as a way of punishing them for embodying the beauty of a Goddess. Look around you and notice how people make you feel ugly or unworthy or encourage you to hide your inner beauty because they are afraid of it. To be a goddess you must see beauty within you and appreciate beauty around you.

At one time widows were expected to shave their heads and wear drab or white robes and no jewelry so they would not tempt other men into entering into a liaison with them. Which brings me back to my grandma. She wore white saris but was the epitome of style. Probably the years she spent in England made her realize that not everywhere are widows treated as outcastes. But she did not discard all of her Indian upbringing. She somehow molded the two and made white her fashion statement. How empowering is that?

Remember Sita? The beautiful goddess who married the handsome Prince Rama. The divine couple were a dazzling sight and people could barely take their eyes off the two of them. But later on in the story the beautiful Sita follows her husband to the forest, suffers untold miseries and then gets abducted by a demon king. She waits for her husband to come rescue her while ugly demons taunt and torture her. Ravana, the demon king waits for her to join his harem. She refuses until one day he can take it no more and attacks her with the intention of molesting her. Only then does the timid Sita take on a fiery persona and forbids Ravana from touching her lest he gets burnt by the intensity of her Shakti or power. Ravana backs off, sensing the intensity of her power and not wanting to risk his life.

To cut a long story short, Rama kills Ravana and rescues Sita but refuses to accept her since she has lived with another man (Sita suffered the changing seasons and was at the mercy of the elements in the Ashoka garden. She never stepped into Ravana’s palace nor did she wear any of the silks and jewels that he offered her.) She had to pass the test of fire to prove that she was chaste. Only then did Rama accept her as his queen.

So many women I know fall into the Sita category. They sacrifice their joys, ambitions and dreams in order to support their spouse and always put themselves last. Why even I am guilty of being a Sita during the early days of my married life. Isn’t that what every mother teaches her daughter consciously or unconsciously? I was reading my journal from many years ago and one of the entries struck me. I was told to “act submissive” during the wedding ceremony. It incensed me now, but my 23 year old self was willing to comply with that absurd request!

We are all taught to be Sitas. To be docile, in the shadows, ever serving our Lord (husband!) Made sense in Sita’s case because Rama was really the Divine incarnate. Now how many husbands treat you the way Rama treated Sita. And even Rama wasn’t perfect!

I was happy to play the domestic goddess. To cook, clean and care for the kids while my husband worked for a pay check. After a few years my domestic goddess felt disempowered. I could no longer play the role of a supportive, self-sacrificing Sita. The Durga in me emerged – fierce and seated on a lion – ready to pounce on anyone who doubted my power. I had to find a balance between nurturing others and myself and that came only from knowing where to draw the line and having the power to defend it.

When I don’t take good care of my needs the Kali comes out in me. Now Kali is the shadow side of the goddess. Dark and menacing with a necklace of skulls and a thirst for blood. Some call it PMS  which to me stands for Protesting Matriarchal Suppression! No one wants to be around Kali. She strikes terror in the hearts of men. And yet she is needed every now and then to restore the balance when it is too far gone to humanly restore.

Is the female of the species deadlier than the male? Occasionally yes, if you push her buttons too hard and too often!  But in a balanced state she nurtures one and all, imparting beauty, knowledge, protection and creativity. So which Goddess are you or which Goddess do you aspire to be?


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Happiness, Trust and Uncertainty

I don’t want the fleeting happiness that comes from acquiring beautiful things. Nor the shallow mirth that comes from people who please you, praise you and bring you gifts. But I crave the satisfaction of one who need not try so hard to prove one self in a cruel world. One who without seeking has all the treasures of the world at one’s feet for the taking.

I no longer know what I want. After much striving and finally arriving at the place I wanted to be, I reveled in my success for a while before I realized all that I had strived for were worthy goals but in itself could not sustain my happiness. Husband – check. Kids – check. Home – check. Job – check. Sense of purpose – check.

Why can’t I enjoy the journey instead of fretting about the final destination? Especially since I have learnt many times over that there is no such thing as a final destination (even for a soul’s journey). Life does not stand still and idle. It seeks to go further and further to unseen lands.

The grey clouds outside reflect the gloom that has descended over me. A shroud of uncertainty that keeps the hopeful sun from lighting up my face. How many times will I falter and fumble knowing fully well that I am not in control. I never was. Led by an invisible hand to realms I had never dreamed of and experiences I never wished for. And yet all of it was necessary. All of it was beautiful. Even the cruel, dark places had their purpose. Uncertainty is not such a bad thing after all but it brings out the worst in us. The what-if questioning mind with its apocalyptic scenarios. But when I look back I see the paths that this hand led me down – sunny, shady, dark and gloomy. And I always emerged unscathed and stronger. So why can’t I trust that this hand will lead me down the best path yet. Down winding sun lit meadows and fragrant orchards. Up hillsides soaked in dew to mountain tops kissed by the clouds.

Trust is like plunging headlong into deep murky waters and suddenly bolting to the surface on invisible life vests. It is like falling backwards off the edge of a cliff placidly and getting caught in a safety net that happened to be there.

Why can’t I be like a child walking into the ocean holding its mother’s hand, trusting that when a big wave comes threatening to engulf him, she would clasp her arms around his little body and lift him up before the ocean could swallow him whole.

When you place your trust in something bigger than you then you can be certain that the right path will open up. When you trust, you give up anxiety about the future and are filled with peace and a deep inner knowing that it will turn out ok in the end. But to trust when you are in the eye of a storm and unraveling is the biggest challenge of all. After facing enough storms and upheavals I can assure you that those invisible arms held me tight and never let go – not once (although it felt like I was alone when it was all happening.)

So surrender and be at peace. Let the drama play out in your life and in the world and be no part of it. Know that it will all be over soon and you will be exactly where you are supposed to be.


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Tried and Tested Steps to Change

So the new year is here and you’ve written your resolutions and sworn to stick by them only to find yourself stuck. Stuck with the same old, same old. Many of you started making changes and then found that your enthusiasm fizzled out and some of you haven’t found enough strength to take that first step. Whatever your predicament, the following steps will ease you through the process of change. They have been tried and tested by yours truly.

Taking that first step

So now you have made up your mind to change but you have a big problem. Every cell in your body has turned to lead and it seems impossible to overcome the heaviness. It’s hard to take that first step. You want to just give in to the heaviness and slump down in a heap on the floor. It’s too hard or too scary to change. Fight it! Muster all your strength and make that all important first step.

Do it as long as it takes to form a habit

You took charge and started making changes but somewhere along the way life and its complexities got the better of you and slowly but surely you went back to the old ways. It takes time to form a good habit or make a positive change in your life. If you do it every single day for a month you end up making it a habit. Consistency is the key to success. Make time for what is important to you every single day and victory will be yours. Now you own the new behavior and you can work it like a pro.

Make a small change

Don’t try to change everything at once. It took years to get into the mess you are in so it will take time and a lot of WORK to get out of it. Don’t be discouraged. Take that first step and make a small change – no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. It will have a ripple effect and before you know it you are in a completely different place in your life.

Don’t listen to that negative little voice in your head

Your worst enemy is your mind especially if it is constantly playing negative events and saying negative things about you. You say you want to change and it says you can’t. Shut the voice out for long enough and it won’t have any power over you.

Be your own cheerleader

If you can get that little voice to cheer you on, you will be unstoppable. Replace all the negative mind chatter with positive stuff. Keep repeating it like a mantra and soon your mind will catch on. Fake it till you make it baby!

Be strong in the face of opposition

Not only do you have to deal with that inner voice in your head (like that isn’t enough!) but you also have to deal with the voices of your loved ones. They are guaranteed to react adversely every time you try to change something in your life. It’s just a test. They (or their ego) wants to figure out if you really want to do this because it means they cannot continue behaving the same way. They feel threatened. Ultimately your change will transform those around you. So they better co-operate or bail out.

Remember your victories

This is important when you are afraid to take the next step. Remember how far you have come and step boldly to face the next challenge you have decided to take on. Usually what is most scary to change is the one thing you will really benefit from. It is your most important lesson. Once you cross that hurdle, all else will be easy.

Persistence

If something doesn’t work or doesn’t give you the desired result try something different. But don’t give up. Persistence has its rewards.

The buddy system

This works if you find it hard to motivate yourself or are not clear on what steps to take to reach your goals. Friends help you work through your fears and insecurities and also help put things in perspective. It goes without saying that it is fun to have someone share your journey with you. When you are slacking they will give you the much needed push to get up and get going.

A word of caution before you embark on this glorious and extremely fulfilling quest. Don’t try to fix your spouse, your boss, your mother or your kids. I guarantee you that you will fail and end up right where you started. Your job is you and that in itself is a daunting task. Be clear about your motives for change. Do it for yourself and know what you want and why you want it. Doing it for others only gets you so far, doing it for yourself is what keeps you flying high.

 

 

 

 


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The Rose that Couldn’t Bloom

     rose

  In our small balcony we have several flowering plants. Some have been with us for years and others we have collected during our travels and here in Florida. Amongst them is a rose plant that blooms bountifully, yielding sometimes 15 blossoms. Cold weather in my part of the world has stymied this proliferous plant. It has one lone rose bud and knowing how tender they can be I half expected it to shrivel up and die. Not this bud! It stands there stolidly pointing its head up.

The bud seems to be saying – I’ll be patient for as long as it takes. I will fulfil my purpose as a bud. I will blossom one day to reveal the deepest and most beautiful part of me. So every morning I wake up and look outside to see the bud as it was – big and rosy, waiting to burst into bloom. I don’t want to rush it. I don’t want to push it. I know that could have a disastrous effect. So I wait with it.

I remember going to a temple once and getting a lotus bud. It is a sacred symbol in many religions and spiritual practices. So I hold onto it reverently until I get home. I put it in a tall vase filled with water. I watch it every day, waiting for it to open up. But it simply refuses to bloom. Me in my impatience (so characteristic of youth) tried to pry it open. I pull the petals apart but the result is not pretty. It ended up being neither a bud nor a flower. I discard it with a heavy heart.

When I look at my brave little rose bud outside, I marvel at its quiet strength. I would wish that kind of strength on my former self. The young 20 something, full of potential and raring to go only to be stalled by less than optimum circumstances.  Circumstances over which I had no control whatsoever. But for which I took all the blame. Unlike the rose I felt crushed, defeated and hung my head in shame. I even forgot that inside of me was this radiance that would never dim. Unlike the rose I forgot to put on a brave face, stand tall and wait it out until the heavens smiled down on me.

So valiant bud I bow to thee. Ever so silently you have shown me a lesson worthy of emulation. As things get tough as they are wont to, let me remember you, your graceful beauty and strength to stand up against all odds and triumph. I see today that you have bloomed and fulfilled your destiny as a perfect flower in perfect weather.


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Celebrating You

As January 20th approaches my thoughts are with my grandma (Dadima) and I fondly remember the way she celebrated her birthday every year. She didn’t have it easy. Widowed at the age of 36 and sickly most of her life, she had to fend for herself and reinvent herself several times over. From a village girl to a high flying socialite. From someone who had never worked a single day of her life to the first woman LPG distributor. From someone who never stepped outside of the village of Kollengode to an expat.

She had a million reasons to be unhappy and slouch in a corner depressed and uninterested with life. Believe me if I were in her shoes I would have done just that! But not her. She took life by the horns and joyfully went on the ride even if it meant being thrashed around. But somehow she always found reasons to celebrate. Not just festivals and birthdays but herself. Every year on January 20th she threw a big party and invited her close family and all of her workers. She cut a cake as we all sang happy birthday. Her manager would make a speech praising her while she stood by grinning ear to ear. There was nothing vain about it. She simply loved herself and wasn’t afraid to show it. It is what made her so large hearted. For all love starts with self love.

Are you one of those people who think they are too old or too insignificant to celebrate their own birthday? Forget birthdays, do you fail to acknowledge how wonderful you are? When someone compliments you, do you shrug it off or put down yourself? Think about it. You are pushing away the very things every human being craves for – appreciation, validation and love.

Do you look in the mirror and smile at what you see or do you groan and mentally list everything that is wrong with your face, figure, hair and skin? For years I watched my grandma get dressed for work. After she was done fixing her hair in a bun, she had this look of satisfaction and an inner smile if you will. She clearly loved what she saw in the mirror. She oozed confidence out of every pore of her body and people picked up on that and ended up admiring her. It was no mean task running a business with absolutely no training or experience and she did it with style and panache. I’m not saying she didn’t ever make mistakes. She did. But she somehow didn’t dwell on them and beat herself about it.

I have always been hard on myself and never give myself credit where it is due. People always picked up on that and saw me with all my imperfections. I was afraid of everything. Of driving. Of working. Of getting fired because I’m not good enough. Of being a horrible mother. I was my own worst enemy. Even if other people thought I was capable of stepping up and meeting challenges I didn’t believe I had it in me. So life was one disappointment after another. A tiny door of opportunity would open and I would slam it shut with my self-doubt and lack of faith.

Even when people tell you something about yourself that is a roaring lie, you believe it. I guess at some point I was sick of it all and made a conscious effort to befriend life and make peace with myself. To celebrate myself and life like my grandma did. When I saw the beauty and wonder in me, life opened up and everything I wished for just fell from the heavens into my open arms.

I secretly (not anymore!) try to be like my grandma and although I have a long way to go, I think I’m getting there.  I wish for my grandma’s fiery spirit, her zest and total commitment to life. She did not stand in the sidelines and watch her life slipping by. She took charge, took on challenges and celebrated herself, her family and her work. She kept giving and life gave her back thousand fold. Looking back at all the challenges (mostly self-imposed) that I have overcome, I know she is proud of me and celebrating every victory of mine.  She is and will always be my greatest cheerleader. And I will always celebrate her.

 

 


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The Charge of the Pink Brigade

  Tucked away in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh, India, is a firebrand of a woman. Her name is Sampat Pal, leader of the Pink Gang (Gulabi Gang). The word gang conjures up images of mobs of unruly thugs out to create chaos. But believe me this gang is a far cry from that. Donned in pink saris, wielding lathis or sticks, these women show up at courts and police stations when justice turns a blind eye to crimes committed by powerful politicians or wealthy landlords.

So who are these powerful women? Usually victims of abuse or violence who had no one to turn to and got justice through the Pink Gang. They in turn joined the gang to help other women. Sampat empowers these women – usually illiterate, tied down by housework and children and financially dependent on their husbands. She teaches them to speak up, seek help from other women and also stresses the importance of education. Learn to ride a bike so you can get to the meetings by yourself  says Sampat. She even encourages them to learn a skill that can help them earn money.

To understand how much she has accomplished, one has to get an idea of the Bundlekhand region. There are no sewers, no running water ( in certain villages), no roads even. The caste system is alive and well and inter-caste marriages are frowned upon. Many cases of honor killings have also been reported. Dowry deaths and abuse of women and girls is rampant. Where are the police you ask? The police pay the politicians to get them a job. The politicians are mostly criminals with several pending cases and criminal charges against them. The police end up being sidekicks to these lawless netas (leaders). The poor don’t stand a chance here where money can make the scales of justice sway its way.

From the gutters of Bundlekhand rose a lone Dalit woman. She simply decided to take a stand. To not be afraid anymore. To fight instead of cower in fright. Her grassroots movement has given a voice to the voiceless, faceless victims of Goonda Raj (thugs ruling over the state of Uttar Pradesh). Her fearless spirit wreaks terror in the hearts of anyone on the wrong side of the law.

Sampat’s life was not easy to start with. She was married off at the age of 12 and was a mother by the age of 15. The little she knows to read and write (she didn’t go to school) she learnt by watching the teachers and with some help from local boys. She taught herself how to sew, bought a machine ( by selling grain that the family stored!) and made money by stitching garments. She also knew how to ride a bicycle. One day she gathered a group of women from her village and accosted a neighbor who was battering his wife every day. After they threatened him, he stopped beating his wife. This marked the beginning of her activism.

Sampat believes that in unity there is strength and women should help other women. She also felt that wearing the same color sari gave them an identity and that is how they came to be known as the Pink Gang. She has an office and people show up asking for her help when the corrupt police turn their cheek. She then organizes rallies and sit-outs, outside the police stations and the court houses. She even gets the media to inform the public about the case. Invariably she wins and justice is served. Now the Pink Gang operates in other towns as well and she has women (trained by her) who deal with simple cases on their own. As of today they have twenty thousand members.

In the past four decades the number of reported rapes has gone up by 792 percent. Sadly, the conviction rates are dropping. Domestic violence on the other hand has risen by 30 percent. We can no longer wring our hands in despair and say – what can we do? If someone with Sampat’s background can make such an impact, we have no excuse. We have to form our own gangs and demand justice. This can’t go on. We have to deal with it. We can’t allow our daughters to deal with it in the future.

I encourage you to read the book “Pink Sari Revolution” by Amana Fontanella-Khan and I would also like to thank my friend V for thrusting the book into my hands at the library. After reading this book, I’m filled with hope. I know we will leave a safer and much more empowered India to our daughters and sons.

 

 


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Short Story 4 – Break Free

Jamal sat quietly in the last bench with his buddies Ganga, Vipul and Ketan. They  all wore  uniforms too large for their skinny frames. They all had books in front of them that did not belong to them. The rest of the class was chatting  happily, oblivious to the four intruders in the last bench.

The bell rang and a great hush fell over the classroom. Chairs were dragged and books and pencils, slates and chalks came tumbling out of bags. Master Madanlal  walked into the room, brandishing a cane in his right hand and a thin book tucked under his arm. Everyone rose.

“Good morning Master,” the class droned in unison and the four boys in the back bench joined in.

Master Madanlal cleared his throat, “Good Morning! Sit down. Sit down.”  He paused, waiting for the children to settle down.

“Before we start our lessons, I have to remind you to be in your best behavior, because some inspectors are coming to see our school.” He turned around to write something on the blackboard.

He turned back and his eyes swept over the class and stopped at the four unfamiliar faces. He hustled up to them. “What are you doing here?”

“Our boss sent us here,” Jamal spoke up. He was the oldest of the four, with bold black eyes and a tuft of brown unruly hair.

“Hmph,” said Master, “how convenient!” He strode back to the front of the class. The kids were all murmuring amongst themselves.

“Silence. Let’s proceed with the lesson…” he said turning to the board and then turning back abruptly.

“Well all right. Let’s get it over with. You want to know why they are here?” He pointed to the backbenchers.

“Yes sir!” came the loud response.

“They work at the glass factory. Their boss will get jailed for hiring them.”

“So they don’t have to go back to work anymore?” asked Madhu.

“No. They are here just for today. Till the labour inspectors leave,” said Madanlal, a certain sadness in his voice.

 

“Why don’t their parents send them to school like our parents do?”  That was Ramu the milkman’s son.

“Why don’t we ask them?” said Master Madanlal walking towards the last bench.

Jamal felt his stomach churn. What do they know? About being poor? About not having food on your plate if you did not get out and earn it yourself! About drunken fathers who squander away money on liquor? About mothers sick from too much work? About 10 mouths to feed?

He stood up. “We’re poor,” he said simply.

“How poor are you?” asked Chinku the shoemaker’s son.

Jamal blinked. So poor that if I didn’t work everyday my family would die of starvation, he thought.

“Poorer than you,” he said.

“My father says you got to have hope. He goes for days without a job and we think we’ll starve to death but he still sends me to school in the hope that I’ll end up better than him and will earn pocket loads of money. Of course we never starve. Some good soul comes along and gives him some work.”

Jamal blinked again. He hated the factory. It was hotter than hell and so smoky that his whole skin burned and his eyes were bloodshot all the time. What he wouldn’t do to be able to come to school everyday and play in its large grounds and sit in its well-lit, airy classrooms.

His mind wandered off to what had happened earlier this morning. His boss Hiralal, looked a mess. He was sweating profusely and his voice trembled with urgency and nervousness. He had hustled them off  saying, “Go  to school and spend the day there. Here are your wages.” Now if only labour officers turned up more often, say every week! The boys could get a day off without losing any wages!

He looked at Master Madanlal. He was busy drawing something on the blackboard. Vipul had fallen asleep on Ketan’s arm, who in turn was trying very hard to keep awake. Ganga was doodling away on the book in front of him. The rest of the class was busy copying whatever it was Madanlal had drawn on the board. Jamal tapped on a shoulder in front of him. “What’s that?” he asked rolling his eyes toward the blackboard.

“A map of Africa,” said the boy turning back to finish off his map.

Madanlal spoke for the rest of the hour about this wonderful place called Africa with a great desert called Sahara and lots of rain forests with  chimpanzees and lions and elephants with big fan like ears. And of tribes who lived in these forests. He spoke about their simple lives and also about something called exploitation. It was something people with lots of money and education did to illiterate, poor people. Somehow it all felt familiar to Jamal.

When the bell rang, everybody jumped out of their seats and ran outdoors to eat lunch in the sun soaked grounds. The four outcasts didn’t have any lunch with them, so they just wandered around looking lost.

“Hey!”  called Ramu from under a tamarind tree.

The boys continued their aimless walk.

“Hey Jamal, Vipul, Ganga, Ketan!” came the call again.

The boys turned and saw Ramu waving to them. They walked slowly toward him unsure of what  to expect.

“Sit,” said Ramu . And the foursome stumbled to the ground without a second thought. One look at the schoolboys was enough to tell them that they would have to pay dearly for arrogance.

The schoolboys pushed their food towards the scraggly, emaciated kids. So accustomed were they to being pushed around and beaten up that it didn’t occur to them that the food was meant for them. They thought the boys were mocking them like Hiralal did. They just sat quietly and stared at the aloo parathas, the dal chawal and kheer in front of them. If they touched it, the boys would surely break their hands.

“Eat,” said the boys kindly. “It’s for you.”

The four boys looked at each other, the food and then at the schoolboys. They meant it! Their eyes had none of that wickedness or guile and their voices were not steeped in sarcasm. The boys dug into the food and devoted the next half hour to polishing the plates clean.

It did not occur to them to thank the schoolboys. And before they knew it, the bell rang and it was time to return to the classroom. Master Madanlal spent the rest of the afternoon asking each student to talk about his or her future.

Jamal sighed and wondered if he would ever grow up. His work at the factory made him sick. He had a horrible cough and sometimes his head hurt so much, he would beg his mother to let him stay home. His older brother used to work in the factory to repay a loan his father had taken from Hiralal. But he had died a year ago and now Jamal had to go to that miserable hell hole which was sure to take his life sometime soon.

“I want to be a computer engineer like my uncle in Mumbai,” Ramu said.

“But your father is a milkman Ramu,” said Lal

“So?” said Ramu turning red.

“But Bapu says I must take up pottery like him or there won’t be any potters in our village,” said Lal.

Master Madanlal laughed. “Nonsense. You can be whatever you want to be. It takes a lot of effort and guts to skirt the beaten path and chalk out your own destiny. But if you do what you love and are good at, it will give you the greatest satisfaction in life.”

The whole class fell silent as if absorbing the purport of their master’s words. The rest of the class spoke of their wild dreams and the foursome hemmed and hawed hoping their turn wouldn’t come. But it did. They all stood up and said, “Glass factory workers.” It’s all they ever knew and all they would ever know for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to change a poor child’s destiny.

That night sleep didn’t come easily to Jamal. He thought of school and what the master had said about chalking your own destiny. But his parents had always said don’t dream big, you can’t fight your own wretched destiny. But what if I ended up like Bhaiya he thought. What if I died puking blood? Jamal shuddered. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to go to that stinky factory.

Next morning he got up, drank some watery tea and headed off toward the factory. He passed by the school and the noisy children playing in the grounds. He stopped. His heart skipped a beat. He turned and ran straight to the school.

Ramu spotted him and came running to him. “Jamal, no work today? Labour officers are still here?” he said in a gush.

“No,” said Jamal. “I need to see Master Madanlal.”

Ramu took him to the master’s room. Jamal’s throat was dry. He clutched Ramu with his sweaty hands. “I don’t want to go to the factory. I don’t want to die!” Jamal said.

“You can come to school,” said Ramu.

“But Hiralal and my parents?” said Jamal, wincing at the thought of the hard cane landing on his back fifty times.

“I’m sure Master will find a way. You should talk to him. Tell him all. He can surely help you.”

Jamal mustered up his courage and walked toward the Master. The Master looked up from his newspaper. He looked surprised for a second and then broke into a smile.

“What can I do for you Jamal?” he asked

“I’m scared Master,” said Jamal, big tears welling up in his eyes.

Master walked up to him and squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll help you, if you promise to be brave and turn your back on your past forever.”

Jamal nodded.

“OK then. Let’s go to town and attend to some business, shall we?”  said Madanlal, picking up his bag and books from the table.

Jamal had no idea where they were going or what business they were going to attend to. But he felt he could trust someone for the first time in his life, especially this man with his big honest eyes and gentle voice.

Back in Jamal’s house, Hiralal was visiting, without any notice.

“Where is that boy? Sick again?” he thundered as he burst into the hut.

“No. He went to work this morning as usual. Why? Is he not at the factory?” asked Jamal’s mother.

“If he was, would I come here?” said Hiralal menacingly. “You better send your husband to fill in for him. Debts don’t get cleared if you and your son play games with me all the time.”

“Where could he be then?” said Jamal’s mother, another wrinkle appearing on her already creased forehead.

“Must be lying in some ditch for all I care,” said Hiralal stepping outside. “I’ll expect you or your husband there in ten minutes or no coolie for today!”

Later that evening, Jamal’s mother waited at the door for him but he didn’t return. When his father came home drunk she told him about Jamal.

“Good riddance. Only 9 mouths to feed. Get me my dinner. I’m hungry,” he drawled.

“You horrible man. All you do is drink and eat. While my children and I bear the burden of this family…” sobbed Jamal’s mother, running out of the house to avoid being battered by her drunken husband.

The next morning when Hiralal opened the shutters to his factory he saw Jamal waiting outside.

“You! You think this is your father’s house for you to waltz in and out of as you desire. Let’s see how you’ll keep up your disappearing acts after I’ve flogged you 50 times with this.” Hiralal brandished a prickly cane.

Jamal smiled at Hiralal.  Hiralal stared at the boy. He charged at him intending to knock him to the ground. But before he could, two men appeared from the side of the building.  Hiralal froze and his face lost all its colour. These were the same men he’d seen a couple of days ago. The inspectors.

“Hiralal, you better come with us. Tell your workers to go home. We are shutting down this factory as of today,” said the thin tall inspector with a big moustache.

Jamal watched the two men lead Hiralal away, to their jeep parked behind some mango trees. Jamal ran home. He knew his mother would worry about him. When he got there she was weeping as she kneaded some dough. His little sisters were wailing but she couldn’t hear them. She was weeping the loss of her son. He probably ran away unable to bear the torture at work and the constant bickering at home, she thought. Jamal ran into the hut and put his arms around her neck. She dropped the pot of dough and turned to look at him.

“Jamal, you’re back!” she said, holding his face with her sticky white hands.

Jamal hugged her without saying a word.

His mother pushed him away and said, “You better go to the factory or that Hiralal will skin you. He was here yesterday and he’s very very upset…”

“Ma, I’m not going to the factory. I’m going to school,” said Jamal dancing around his mother. Even his sisters stopped their wailing to listen to him.

“Don’t be foolish Jamal…” started his mother.

“How can I go to the factory if it is closed Ma?” said Jamal, stopping his dance to face his mother and peer into her confused eyes.

“Closed? God be kind to us. But how?” said his mother searching Jamal’s face for an answer.

“It’s a long story Ma. But all you need to know is this. It involves me, Master Madanlal and a few labour inspectors from Lucknow.”

His mother stared.

“Now can I go to school or I’ll be late. Master Madanlal has kept a place for me in the first bench. He says smart kids hold their destinies in their hands!”


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Of Scars and Other Decorations…

The entire nation is abuzz with talks about gun rights and regulations and I’m not particularly interested in this debate. But one bit of news got my attention and it was about Gabby Giffords speaking up about the need for gun control. Her whole life was turned upside down by one gun shot by a deranged man. Her condition was critical but she survived only to live a half-life. One side of her body is paralyzed forcing her to quit her job in the Congress. She finds it hard to articulate but has decided to advocate gun regulations. And here is the beauty of it. She doesn’t have to say a word – her very presence in a gathering is thunderous. She has turned the worst experience in her life to her purpose. She probably never understood any of it until now.

I can’t quite compare myself to Gabby but I did have a close brush with death. I never quite understood why I had to go through depression at such a young age. Why me? And then years later I knew why. A person came into my life who was going through the exact same thing that I went through. I could be there for that person like nobody could ever be there for me. You see it takes a person who has experienced it first hand to be able to really empathize in the true sense of the word. Depression is not about being weak. It’s not something you can just snap out of by thinking happy thoughts. Nor is it a life sentence. And no way are you a failure. You can come out of it and go on to live a wonderful life. I knew that because I had been there and I had come out of it.

I had to figure it all out for myself and God knows I wished for someone who could understand what it was like. So it was liberating to help someone in the same limbo. I don’t think any of my ‘advice’ helped. But I’m sure the fact that I got through it was hope enough for my friend. For here I was, happily married, the mother of two kids and no one would have guessed that I almost died at the age of 21!

So are you hiding your scars? Ashamed of them? I know I was. I never spoke of my depression to anyone. It was my dark, ugly secret. I didn’t talk about it until I heard about my friend. It took me back to the place I was in my life many years ago. A great surge of empathy propelled me to share my struggles. I never realized that in doing so I was giving myself the greatest gift. In owning that part of me that I had denied for so long, I was whole again. My creativity which lay bottled up with all the pain and the shame came gushing out. Long story short, here I am writing this blog!

Embrace your scars and own every one of them. In doing so you are empowered and rise above being a mere victim. For the Universe makes no mistakes. In the dark and the ugly is the seed for greater purpose. And by the way, they are not scars but medals of honor. You survived those struggles and are here to tell your story so others may find hope through you.

Gabby Giffords was asked, “Isn’t it ironic that a strong spokesperson like you is struggling with her speech?”   A very harsh question if you ask me and I really thought she would break. But she smiled with one half of her face and said, “ It stinks!”  But I’m sure she is aware that her mere presence is enough for gun advocates to sit up and listen to the few words she has to say.

You and I are not Gabby Giffords and our struggles will probably never make it to the National News. But in a small way we do impact all the people we come in contact with. If you survived a testing phase in your life, you can offer support to people who are going through a similar crisis in their life. Turn the worst thing that happened to you to the greatest blessing ever for you and for others.