I have lots to do before I sleep.

I picked the line from the only poem I probably remember from my school days. Robert Frost’s “The road not taken”. The last weekend of this year! Most people are planning new year parties and resolutions for the next year (which as a rule, are made to be broken). Looking back, this year has been super hectic, both professionally and personally. And so, when as a routine,I was thinking about my new year resolutions, the only coherent one was to try and stay alive and healthy till I got really really old and accomplish  whatever I wanted to do, in this life time.Never mind the difficulties of walking around with a cane, a bag of meds and a diary full of ambulance numbers,if that is what it takes. Going through the days of life as fast as I used to flip around pages of a novel, I failed to realize that old age, legally, is not very far off into the horizon for me. Its only thirty odd years away. And will descend on me faster than a bullet train, if I do not stop to think where I am going and what I want to do.

I do want my geriatric life(for want of a better word) to be a really enjoyable phase. Most of us work to earn, realize our responsibilities and to do justice to the career that we have chosen. Passion in one’s work and the idea of working to the point of never wanting to take a vacation is acceptable to me, but not in myself. I was unfortunately born with a huge hoard of interests , most of which fascinate me into a point of mad frenzy. When I see a good movie, I fantasize about how it would be to make one,listening to music makes me want to learn the guitar (there have also been a few aborted attempts here), when I read the autobiography of an entrepreneur, I immediately want to turn one, trekking through Ladakh is my dream,organic farming excites me, visiting the ruins of Hampi awakens the historian in me book covers are enough to stoke dreams of becoming an author! That officially makes me hypomanic, but its too late to change.

One of my professors who really enjoys reading had once told me that if God had given him a wish, he would ask for another lifetime meant only for reading! As I am not so sure of being able to hold on to a penance that long for divine grace, I have the near impossible task of making it all happen one life time. And what better time than say 60? When enough dough has been generated to sustain the dreams and medical bills, children settled and no more maths homework to teach and definitely not too old.

The average life expectancy of an Indian is currently about 69 years. There are about 16 percent of Indians beyond the age of 60. Unfortunately, not much has been done for them apart from building retirement homes and gated communities! As any of us, they too have their share of problems which are mostly left unaddressed and conveniently brushed under the carpet.

To most of our elder generation, growing old meant a sense of giving up. Of depending on their children for their sustenance. Of wanting to define their identity by the amount of dependence their grand children had on them. Of waiting for their junior generation to revere them and not undermine their authority. Of worrying about ill health and how much they could rely on us to help them out. Missing their children settled abroad, but having difficulties to adjust to a new atmosphere when they visit them. Of facing the empty nest syndrome. Of becoming soft targets to goons and losing their life prematurely. Of having regular, but boring days. Waiting unconsciously, but willingly for death to come and descend upon them. And feeling almost guilty when someone younger dies.And making decidedly depressing statements like” I wish I can die when I’m healthy” or “ I wonder why God does not decide to take me away fast”. I wondered why it had to be so.

This was the time when I heard a lecture on productive aging and went bingo! If the Government of India has decided that we must retire by 60, and why deny ourselves this pleasure? Around me,I am also seeing a new evolving breed of senior citizens who are changing our perceptions about how old age should be.

Retirement need not necessarily mean sitting and home and doing nothing. New initiatives like the :

  1. Teach India campaign where you teach kids from under privileged back ground for free exist aplenty. I recently read an article about a senior citizen called Rajani Paranjpe, who decided to teach children wherever they were, even on roads and in tea stalls. If they do not come to school, you go to them, being her motto.
  2. One of my close acquaintances who had the knack of parenting and loved kids, started a play school recently.
  3. I read an article in a newspaper which showed a curve of how many famous companies were started by people on the other side of their forties. The examples include Charles Darwin who wrote ‘The origin of the species’ at at 50, Henry Ford, who made his first car model at 45, Rac Kroc who built the Mac Donalds at age 52 and finally Colonel Sanders of the KFC fame, who started at 62! Closer home, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the founder of ISKON which now provides free mid day meals to well over 11 crore    children in over 12 lakh schools through the Akshaya patra scheme, started ISKON at age 69! So, entrepreneurship is not only for people in their twenties!
  4. We had a senior citizen in our hometown, who started a home for destitute after he retired.
  5. In the remote village of Baswani in rural malnad, there was a lady called Savitramma,who used to run a unique home for teenage mothers, destitute pregnant women and women with no social or economic support to rely on during pregnancy. Basically anyone pregnant and helpless!She delivers them for free, gives them training as to how to take care of their children and supports them in her home for six to eight months when they can realign their lives. All that they need to do is help is in the chores of household in return for so much!
  6. I read about a couple from India well into their sixties whose love of football has made them travel all over the globe for all world cups!

I have seen people who have opted to stay independently so that they could lead life without obligations. To follow their dreams which were impossible when they were young, because the responsibilities and obligations were many and time and money were short.

reproduced from google
reproduced from google

If initiatives like these become the order of the day, I would feel that old age would be something to live for and look forward to!. A change in the thinking like this may make us face and accept old age with the grace it deserves.Productivity is sure to rise, and when you get up in the day with a purpose, you get up healthy and with a burst of energy.May more of our seniors  embrace such independent, useful and happening lifestyles and show us the way. And may we continue to dream big dreams and plan projects and careers even as we get our senior citizens ID! This new year, lets turn the sixties into the new twenties! There are miles to go and lots to do before we sleep..

Of death and discomfort..

My nephew is undergoing  a small surgery. My logic understands that the surgery is very small with a hundred percent success rate. We know the surgeon and that he is very reliable and we have already planned his homecoming. But there is this strange feeling the whole day. And it bothers me. There’s a  tingling inside of my tummy, alongside a few mandatory butterflies, some strain in my shoulders, a sudden missed heart beat when I am in my OPD, a squeeze in the heart and a strange shiver along my spine when I think of tomorrow. Just the fact that he is undergoing something which is unnatural, increases my level of discomfort. How much ever my logical brain tries to convince itself, my emotions refuse to obey and remain subdued. It irritates me, makes me scared and wants me to delete the whole day and wake up tomorrow morning to find that it is all a dream.

In these terms,December this year, has been a month of such discomforts. Eventful, scary and sad. In the span of one month, I heard of about ten accidents back to back and lost quite a few near and dear ones in the process. Those who survived, are right now still in bad shape. A surgery scheduled in the midst of all this. And just when the dust seemed to have settled, the news of the senseless terrorist attacks in Peshawar!It sort of shook me and dragged the rug from right under my feet!

Here I am, trying to plan my future, our children’s education,my son’s birthday party and what to read this weekend when boom! You are no longer living! It sure is a scary thought. I know I am being morbid, which I should not be, as it is close to Christmas, and new year is just round the corner,blah, blah — but this whole week, thoughts of death and sickness have enveloped me. It was weird writing about this. I had never imagined in the wildest of my dreams that I would one day write about death and the like, but the more I thought, the more there seemed to be things which were queer about how we face death and sickness.

The first thought was: what exactly is it that makes you feel bad when someone suffers or dies?

Well, when you open the newspapers early in the morning, it is quite likely that you hear about at least four to five deaths. Murders, suicides, accidents, sometimes old age and ill health; the reasons are many, but a lot of them attain in death probably what they did not achieve in their lifetime- a mention! But have you ever wondered why it is that we feel bad only for a few people, and not for the rest? The answer, it seems, is a word called empathy. Empathy literally means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. I recently read an article in “The Week” about empathy which said that we end up feeling some sort of emotion only towards people who are similar to us in race, ethnicity, religion,education or situation! I was denying this fiercely in my mind, when I realized that I was actually doing what the article said! When I read, hear or see something bad happening to Indians, women, children, mothers, doctors etc.. I end up feeling a little more sadness and a state of understanding, than I do for everything and everyone else. I tried telling myself that I had felt really sad about Philip Hughes death, and so I am empathetic towards all! But when I rationalized, the sadness was more for his parents because they had lost a child and that loss was irreplaceable(this I can understand, because I am a mother!). I felt sad about the Malaysian Airlines tragedy a few months ago, but that was more distanced compassion and sympathy than an acute sense of grief! So you see, the article seemed to be right after all. Maybe to preserve our sanity and a sense of calm, our mind processes only what is similar to our lives and leaves the rest to a mild apathy! Try it on yourself. It is strange, but true.

The second is the aptness of reaction.

Quite a lot of times, professionally and personally, I have been in a slightly uncomfortable position of dealing with the aftermath of death. The consoling of the survivors. Sometimes, I have to go with the oft repeated ‘ It was for the best. He was suffering so badly. At least now he rests in peace’ to ‘ This was so unexpected. I can understand how you must be feeling’ and finally, when I feel most inadequate, just ‘I am so sorry’. But what ever it is that I say, I feel a sense of inadequacy, that I have somehow failed to do my job as a consoler well. I immediately end up thinking of the next few days – how dependent the survivor was on the deceased or vice versa, how their home will seem empty from now on, how photographs or familiar places will bring forth a barrage of memories and emotions –so on until I make myself miserable, and the discomfort becomes mine!

The worst was when I read about the terrorist attacks in Peshawar. I have never blanked out so badly. I really did not know how to react. Any of the dialogues I’m so used to made any sense in that situation. I crossed out emotions in my mind. Anger- no use; shame- I don’t know; sadness-woefully inadequate; fear- but for how long and where?. Basically, empathy failed me. But this horrible discomfort stayed. I could not be myself for the next three days. Then, time slowly eased me back into normalcy. Day by day, the weight on my shoulders and the tightness in my chest when I woke up in the morning eased. I started laughing more normally and became calmer about my children going to school. I used to feel that by consoling the relatives, I was helping them ease their suffering a little bit. But I realized that grieving often is a very lonely process. Kind words help, but do not lessen the grief. As time passes, and life goes on, we learn to live with it and start taking it for granted. That is when it stops hurting, but yet, it does not go away! So, a tight hug and holding on to a bad feeling inside of me,is probably the best way to react! It makes me feel that I am partly bearing the burden of their grief. It is not necessarily an overt, over the top reaction, but one that makes me feel that I have actually done my best.

I have finally made peace with the butterflies in my stomach and my nephew’s surgery. I accept the  discomfort and will hopefully understand it better.

Caught between the old and the new.

working woman

I had been to my in laws recently. They stay in a small town near my place. Just a shift of 70 kms or so changes my life quite a lot for the short while that I am there. Back in the city, I am a working mother, living a busy life with children, work and a lot of other assignments. I can make or break my own rules, with not much affecting my life style. I can go out buy a magazine late at night all alone, feed my kids cereal when I feel lazy to cook, talk about individuality and feminism as if they grew in my backyard and be as boisterous as I like. Yes, my work commitments and the pace of life do tire me out, and I often want a break from it. Sometimes, the meandering life, the slow passing of time and the quiet life of a small town attract and tempt me to give it all up and run. But, there is a catch. There, I see around me women who follow traditional gender roles optimally, and I definitely fall short. So, I am confused how I need to be happy.

I have grown up in a generation where education, occupation, freedom and individuality for women(to a certain extent at least) were just becoming commonplace and penetrating into the small towns of India like slow seeping of lava after a volcanic eruption. It made the landscape look different, but only some embraced it while others lived uncomfortably with it. Most, though still kept adjusting. A way of thinking where women/girls were given ‘freedom’ to study according to their will and wish, allowed to make choices regarding their careers, the first few batches of girls for whom higher education was a given rather than a doubt or choice, the first few to be given a chance at a semblance of a courtship after our marriages were already decided upon and arranged (and a lucky few whose choices of spouse were first made by them and later accepted well by the elders) and definitely the first few for whom choice of deciding when to conceive and after how long was decided by work and educational commitments rather than number of years post the marriage and irritating queries from relatives regarding the ‘good news’!

When I was growing up, I took most of these liberties for granted. I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood and college days, read about progress which was much huger than this and felt that this was the way of the world and felt lucky to be born at a time where I could do what I wanted, when I wanted to and that everyone would be accepting and appreciating of this fact.

Off late, I have started being thankful for the privileges that I have got, and definitely do not take them for granted. This is because, I see a lot of my friends, acquaintances and sometimes me leading a life which is not quite there nor here. We seem like the sandwich generation, who are caught between what the old world expects out of us, and the urge to break free of all those shackles without hurting anyone in the process. And, believe me it is exhausting.

Since times immemorial, women had to bear the brunt of everything bad that constitutes traditional. If the husband died, the wife had to be the sati and jump into the fire while the same rule did not apply to men if their spouse died. A boy child’s birth was always auspicious because some traditional text in the past claimed that being cremated by your son apparently led you to heaven (though I would say in recent times, the clamor for the boy child had a lot to do with how much dowry they would fetch!). Households were replete with stories of how mothers sacrificed their share of food or clothing or some such thing which was needed for the children. Women were depicted as being great only if were super sacrificing, always keeping others above their needs and had super human qualities of taking care of and feeding a large horde of relatives when they landed for festivals or functions. All in all, they were supposed to be always gracious and super tired if at all they had to be appreciated! Its okay if you have a personality to match, but I seriously doubt anyone’s ability to be on their best behavior at all times. I have no idea when these women did something to keep themselves happy, in between all this hoo haa.

Though we have changed with times, we still seem cling on to those role models to define ourselves. We want to live a life where we are appreciated for ourselves; both our good as well as not so great qualities which make us as human as the rest of the world. But the society we live in, our ingrained cultural values and well defined role identities make this difficult for us. In the bargain, we have ended up as a generation where we are professionals, but struggle and juggle our work and personal lives, try our best to be  loving wives, obedient daughters in law, daughters who try their best to fulfill their parents aspirations not only educationally but also by proving to them that even with double degrees and salaries to match, we still retained those obsolete qualities of maintaining our traditional roles and keeping everyone in the extended family happy! It is a tall order to meet. Even Indira Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsico could not escape these ideologies! In comparison, the men are seemingly oblivious to the turmoil we go through or choose to ignore it completely!

Hence, in my practice and around me, I see a lot of women, who are irritable, frustrated, tired and unhappy! And those, who depressingly believe that this is life and not much can change. We end up taking out our frustrations on our children and friends, coz those are the only ones who we can take for granted!

Sometimes, I feel an Indian woman’s addiction to soaps which show the wily and wicked usurping the limelight is a picturization of what we want to do in our minds, as opposed to what we are actually doing. A defense mechanism by proxy!

Indian soap operas, ruled by mothers-in-law.

I strongly believe that women have an innate strength which can work wonders if put to good use. But this can happen only if we treat ourselves as individuals first, and not ‘girls’. We need to understand that it is not a crime to occasionally take the first bite of ice cream or polish off a whole bar of chocolate before your kid does. We need to make clear rules about handling responsibilities post marriage rather than plan elaborate weddings. We need to learn to pamper ourselves, so we can be happy-and believe me, a happy wife and mother is definitely a better one than a grumpy, spiteful but self sacrificing one. We need to learn to be self sufficient bur accepting of our inadequacies. We should learn to be tradition bound, but only when the tradition seems to make sense to us.

And we need to instill these ideas in our children, so that they do not succumb to the same pressure that we did.

Five things Indian parents need to teach their kids.

snob 2

Recently I was reading an article in “The Week” about snob NRIs who wrinkle their nose in disgust at everything desi and uncouth.I have personally met and endured the whines of a few of that kind. I was wondering how perfectly sensible, apparently intelligent people suddenly change as soon as they land on foreign shores. But as I interact with children of this generation, my son’s friends, my extended family, my patients and students in schools, I have started to feel that the internet generation of kids do have an enormous propensity to end up being snoots of the first order. This alarmed me. I mean, when foreign travel was new, all things American would feel good. But, that was years ago. Now, most amenities available in the West are available to us,school trips offer foreign travel and opportunities to interact with anyone in the whole wide world were aplenty. Then why, why are we producing a generation of superficial, materialistic children??

Children when born, apparently have the ‘tabula rasa’– a ‘blank slate’of mind ,which means that there is no inbuilt mental content. Yes, we are born with certain personality traits which make us individual and unique, but on the whole, we learn through perception and experience. Hence,what we are taught in the first few years of our lives and what we imbibe from it generally forms the foundation of our personality.

And it is here that we, as parents (especially in India) may be making a big mistake. Over the past few years, young India has changed its way of living tremendously.Parents now earn double of their elders wages, at a much younger age. They also have the means to splurge what they earn to their hearts’ content—on weddings, world travel, children’s education, leisure, shopping and much more.This was unthinkable to our parent generation.

In this mega change, somewhere, our children are losing out certain things which can provide them with weapons to handle life with maturity, patience and kindness — Values. To help grow into a sensible adult. Like the proverbial ‘full vessel’ which makes no noise and contains more substance!

Here are a few things which I thought were a list of values which our kids need to imbibe urgently:

  1. The value of hard work: In India, for a middle class family, it is not uncommon to have a cook, a cleaning maid and a driver as a part of a routine house hold. These are even more common in families where both parents work. Hence, kids now have forgotten the art of taking care of themselves. There is a servant hand and foot to answer their every beck and call. I remember those times when we would help out in the kitchen, when kids were supposed to do the dishes, help out with cleaning and be sent out to buy chilli powder in between doing homework! My kids don’t do that, and in the process forget that there is no such thing in the world like a free lunch! No pain, no gain is just a proverb with no meaning. It is now no pain, all gain time. Demands increase and have to be met. New toys have to land in the house as soon as they enter the market. If they do not qualify for a certain course through hard work and good marks, there’s always a capitation seat!This kills a child’s resilience, resolve to work hard and lowers their frustration threshold in adulthood. They are basically unable to handle stress.
  2. The value of giving: “What do I give my friend for his birthday? He has everything!”A strange dilemma if one!The irony here being that our kids are now used to giving things to people who do not need much. And the needy, where are they?Parents of children in a certain school that I know, were upset with the authorities for having taken their kids to an orphanage and an old home. They felt that their kids would be traumatized by the problems they saw. Giving in ways other than monetary, is alien to this generation of kids. As a part of our schooling, I remember going to prison to distribute sweets for raksha bandhan(weird, I know to tie rakhis to prisoners, but, well, it was the spirit that mattered!), singing songs for mentally challenged children on gandhi jayanti and reading out for blind kids when we got the time. And, hand me downs were normal. It would be exciting to wear things that a big sister whom I idolized wore. In this, we learnt sharing, caring and including others in our circle,who were less fortunate. By not teaching our kids this, we are probably making them selfish, self centered and obnoxious adults.
  3. Compassion: I see its lack commonly at the hospital I work. Parents do not want to bring their kids for counseling, because they get scared of seeing mentally ill people! Strange, as I felt that when you see someone in trouble, the first emotion that you should be generating is compassion, not fear. I can see children passing by the ill, the old and frail and maimed beggars without a second glance. Its almost as if they were wearing blinkers.Less sympathy and even lesser acknowledgement! And unless, as parents we teach them to develop compassion and a willingness to help, we are cultivating a generation of potential psychopaths.
  4.  The value of cleanliness: What with ‘Swach Bharat’ and all, cleanliness has finally come to the forefront. Though the state of our roads and neighborhood are cleaner than before, we still have a long way in imbibing the clean culture ourselves and hence teaching it to our kids. We wax eloquent about the cleanliness in Singapore and the US of A, all the while chucking paper and plastic waste out of the car window! Peeing on the road is our birth right (exclusively, the men!). And, we do not allow our children to pick up others’ garbage to chuck in the bin because we worry that they will get dirty! Unless we realize the inclusiveness of being clean, and help keep our selves, homes, neighborhood, roads and cities  clean, we teach our children bad manners and narrow mindedness about caring for only what is ours and neglecting the rest.
  5. Dignity of labor: I am sure anyone who has whatsapp on their smartphone has seen a video of Japanese children and teachers cleaning toilets of the school as part of their curriculum. The basic idea behind this was to teach them that there was no job too low and demeaning. Each job required hard work,sincerity and integrity and was equally important! Unfortunately, our children lack this concept. We, as parents believe that our child’s social status rises based on the paypacket and acceptability of the job. Hence, we teach them look down upon others whose social profile does not match theirs. We want them to score high, so that they can get socially acceptable jobs. In the process, we are giving the world two groups of adults- the first group, who are too full of themselves and have a superiority complex and the second who have an inferiority complex,lose their self esteem and suffer in silence! Both in their own ways, unhealthy.


Parents are important in molding a child’s personality. Unless we imbibe the right values and cultivate it in our children, we may be homegrowing the future snob NRIs who reside in India!