I met a school mate of mine today. We met for the first time since we passed out of school nearly three decades ago. We weren’t very close in those days. She was just another girl in class… as must I have been. She was a whiz at math and I was never on friendly terms with it. She was always ready to help us all with math and would show/ demonstrate/ teach for hours on end.
It is only today that I discovered what lay behind the math-whiz persona.
Her mom had severe health issue from the time Neela (name changed) was twelve. She’d wake up at 4.45 am and help with the cooking for the whole day. Her mom’s health challenges continued all through her years in school. With three younger siblings, I can say Neela more than had her hands full. And yet…
Neela was the only one from our batch who got admitted to engineering college in the very first attempt. She never went for coaching (private coaching was largely unheard of those days). Her mother’s health challenges continued to get more and more complicated leading to a need for open heart surgery when she was in the final year of her Bachelor of Engineering degree course.
Recalling her three week stay in Bombay’s Nanavati hospital, she simply said, “I forgot- literally forgot- everything but what I needed to do to take care of my mother. When I opened my books to study for my final exam, I felt as if I was a kindergarten student being asked to read post-grad books.”
Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.
~ Robertson Davies
Once she had graduated (with distinction), she had many job offers; one even from the very prestigious BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Center). She let all her professional opportunities go because she knew her parents wanted to see her married. She didn’t want to give them any anxiety of her account. She got married to a doctor.
Her challenges continued. Her parents-in-law were not in very good health at the time of her marriage. They became progressively weaker within the next one year. For the next decade and a half, while her three children were born and raised, she took care of them, waiting hand and foot. First her father-in-law and then her mother-in-law became bedridden. She took care of them in a way that defies retelling. I was moved to tears as I heard her tell me how she took care of her ailing parents-in-law.
By the time her parents-in-law passed away, one after another, she had been married for sixteen years. She told me there was a period when she hadn’t stepped out of her flat for four years; not even to buy vegetables! Fun, enjoyment and merriment hadn’t visited her for years. She hadn’t the time to lift her head from her life; she was so engrossed.
So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.
Her husband decided that they would go for a holiday to Goa. A family holiday to mark a renewal; to start their lives afresh. They decided to put the years of strife behind them; to begin life anew with replenished enthusiasm. But fate hadn’t done with her yet.
Barely a few hours into their holiday, her husband passed away!
He had never been sick in his life. He hadn’t even suffered a headache, she told me. He complained of uneasiness during their very first night. When the doctor came to check him up, all his vital signs were good. A few minutes later, while they were still debating whether to take him to the hospital or not, he gave one long breath and fell off his chair… quite dead.
Fate still had another terrible card to deal her.
When she reached the hospital, her husband was laid on a stretcher which was wheeled into a horribly dirty store-room. She was forbidden from seeing him. An FIR had been filed against her because he had died in a hotel room and they suspected foul play. The doctor who had attended on him had quietly disappeared before they reached the hospital.
“I had no time to cry”, she told me today. “I had left my children alone in the cottage we had rented. My daughters were sixteen and thirteen resp. and my son was only nine. As the morning dawned, I remembered that it was my son’s birthday. I hadn’t the courage to tell them that their father was no more. I just sat in that hospital, my mind frozen.”
An hour or so later, Neela realized that she would have to do something to locate the doctor who had attended on her husband. She finally located him through the very unhelpful hotel staff.
“I begged that doctor with folded hands to help me”, she said. “I implored upon him to tell the hospital/ police that he was with us when my husband had died. He agreed after a long time… and then very reluctantly. It took me the rest of the morning to have the FIR dealt with and my husband’s body released to me. I was free to take him back to Bombay.”
By the time she finished telling me this harrowing story- with perfect composure- I was sobbing. I don’t scare easy, but I was today. The thought that went hammering away inside me was: Why you? Why were you given so much pain? Why was He so cruel to you? I wish He had given me some of your pain. You didn’t deserve this!
“I remember me sitting with my children in the airport waiting room, waiting to board our flight back to Bombay. It was late afternoon. The kids hadn’t eaten anything. I asked them to eat some food but they said they couldn’t eat. I certainly could not think of food. Yet, I took a plate and heaped it full of the snacks available there. I ate until I was stuffed full. As they saw me eat, my children too ate. I was relieved.”
Even in its darkest passages, the heart is unconquerable. It is important that the body survives, but it is more meaningful that the human spirit prevails.
~ Dave Pelzer
Once back in Bombay, her struggle to find a source of earning began. Many people advised her to do this, that and the other. Some suggested she leave Bombay; some that she reconcile herself to the mercy of relatives. She didn’t do any of it. With remarkable poise and amazing pragmatism, she used her husband’s life insurance to pay off the loan on her flat and found part-time work. Always a wonderful teacher, she now teaches as a guest-faculty in five schools besides giving coaching to kids at home.
And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
~ Haruki Murakami
Neela’s story is not remarkable only because she went through terrible setbacks. I am certain there are those who have gone through worse challenges. What is remarkable is that she came out of debilitating adversity with a joyful countenance and a grateful heart. Her humility is untainted by bitterness; her resilience is unsullied by a betrayed sense of entitlement. Of all that she has accomplished, this purity of heart is surely her biggest victory.
It bears eloquent witness to the Wholesomeness Of her Spirit.
[Oh an in case you’ve been wondering if I’ve dropped dead, I assure you, I haven’t. I’ve been alive and kicking. And THIS is what I’ve been kicking off. Check it out… you’d love it I’m sure!]