An year ago, on 27th of June, I experienced a life incident that I believe has changed me permanently as a person (pray to God and hope that it has changed me to become a better human :P). It has significantly impacted how I view, understand and experience life as a woman, higher education professional and as a person advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities in India.
While the incident in itself is not positive enough to be narrated on my blog, it is important for you all to know that I persisted and I made it through that day and many days after that day.
During the last 365 days of my life, I have for a number of hours experienced a plethora of emotions and struggles just to be able to stick to the plans I and others have made for me to succeed personally and professionally. And there was one day a few months later (after June 2017) when I could turn the tide over things to gather some control on my situation.
I was sitting in the middle seat of a long flight and on my left side sat a middle aged American woman. She was impeccably dressed. I had cried for over two hours by then and by the time the flight began to take off, she had already given me her handkerchief and was trying to find a way to calm me as I sat and cried uncontrollably. My tears and nasal secretions were all over her hands as she held my left hand in a clasp and didn’t let go (And let me tell you, in the US it is a huge beeping deal for someone to actually be ‘that’ human. For example, when you sneeze twice and people around you will already be almost thinking of masks to protect themselves – it is that bad in some places. On a funny side, there are people like us Indians who are like ahh! I don’t care). Let me tell you by then she didn’t know my name or my problem. Initially I sat in my seat, wore my eye mask and was crying quietly. After I could stop crying she continued holding my hand and said, “What ever is running in your mind right now or your brain is telling you right now, trust me it will not feel desirable tomorrow. The pain gets lesser as more days pass between the incident and your present!” Then she continued to narrate to me about her own situation that led her to walk away from something that she was associated with for 17 productive years! But in telling me her story, she shared two precious lessons with me.
It is okay to walk away from something even if it turns all odds against you if you have to preserve yourself!
Not often times in life ‘walking away’ is presented as an option. But when you look at an excruciating situation in life, sometimes, not fighting and bowing out is an excellent option. By closing one door through which you are trying to survive a painful experience, you may be preserving yourself to walk through another door that needs to be held open for others to follow you. This is not spoken of as a practical and relevant skill. Especially in the Indian context, walking away from anything is like you are hanging out your family’s pride out to dry and die in scorching heat (yes, I also understand at times, walking away is not an option for some people and my heart goes out for them!). I was privileged to have parents whose arms I could run into and say, “Take me home, I cannot do this anymore!” I have come to identify that as a person of many privileges compared to my peers, I have to utilise my privilege as a power to stay put in a situation that pushes me towards failing.
No matter what the external help sources are, there is a point of time when you have to push yourself the hardest to get out of a quicksand or quagmire that you are stuck in.
While she was telling me her story, she told me what helped her. And she asked me to try it for myself. She said, “I want you to get up every morning and say to yourself loudly, – I am taking away from you the power of affecting me any more as I recognise that you hurt me with your actions and behaviours! You say this sentence everyday like every other ritual you do. Say it loudly and watch yourself say it” – Being the person that I am, despite the grief I was feeling, I still found it in my heart to think it was a very lame sounding suggestion. I nodded my head blankly but the lines stayed in my mind.
A couple of weeks later, after yet another triggering incident, I was angry and looked at myself in my car’s mirror and said the lines out loud (without a pause of thought and of course in Telugu!) and suddenly felt a sense of relief crawl through the back of my neck muscles (which I had been trying to release through yoga, manual therapy and you name what!). The woman’s words were imprinted in my mind and I wasn’t even conscious of them until another wave of hurt and pain came over me and I was sitting my car thinking, “What next?” And suddenly I felt capable to make a plan B.
Did the lines solve the problem I was facing? No
They solved nothing except that they helped me hear my own voice saying that I was not to continue blaming myself for everything that was happening. Most of the situations of discord that we experience in our life come from situations when one/one group of the humans in that interaction are rendered fully powerless. Her lines gave me a voice. In a powerless situation where I felt muted, her lines made me realise that I still had my voice to talk to myself and push myself ahead towards success.
When any human being succeeds personally or professionally, we must remember to look beyond them and see who are the people nudging these humans forward. In respect for every person who nudged me forward every time I took a back-step in fear or failure, I want to tell you about TheVillage that raised me. TheVillage that lives beyond country borders where I lived and continue to live.
TheVillage that stays put to propagate human values which continue to diminish within our communities because we are all in a blind race towards success.
And my first TheVillage story starts with this anonymous lady who was brave to share her life story with me and tell me that, “We live to fight another day!”
P.S: Many well-wishers from India continue to tell me that I should not write about life lessons so openly as it may affect my future in many ways (Multiple words: first word starts with J and last word ends with E! *Facepalm*).
My response: The first problem with current human societies is the illusion of aspiring to live an error and shortcoming free human life to achieve success. And I’m not a subscriber to that style of life. While I was not raised in an environment where there was supreme emphasis on being the ‘perfect kid’ who was always the over achiever ( I have many Indian friends who are victims of such parenting), I was in a learning environment where being less than perfect was not welcome. Yet here I am today doing what I can do. While I understand the advise to not speak about my weaknesses or challenges comes from a good place, I cannot accept to follow it. In writing openly about the ‘imperfections’ that are woven into my being, I am able to accept my failures more positively than ever before. And I owe this lesson to that woman who spend two hours of her life talking sense into my hurt mind that day in 2017.
My Uber driver today (from the hotel to airport) was a former professional boxer who proudly told me he was a first-generation immigrant and he loves coaching young kids. There are times in life when you start talking to strangers (in buses and airports) and realize you agree with some of their opinions about life. J is one of those people from my life. J kept talking and I suddenly felt an incomplete circle of thoughts in my brain complete itself.
Today it is 31 years since I was blessed to be born into this beautiful world. As I sit and type these words out thousands of feet from above the earth, I remember J and another conversation from earlier today that pushed me out of my slumber as a NIDIA. Also here I want to tell you why this post is very important for me to write. For several weeks now, battling through a personal crisis, I have stayed away from talking to every good friend I had (like literally. If you know me, and then I tell you I have become a silent person, that can tell you volumes I guess). I showed up for family events because family is one thing that grounds me and gives me the hope to keep moving ahead in life. Sometimes it is blood related, sometimes it is not. And it is hard to stay sad for a really long time when you have a family that will not quit until they see you laugh a lot. You take advantage of that blessing and hang in there so that you can preserve that humane side in you to pay it forward. It has now come to a point where I am overwhelmed by the concerned messages I receive from people everywhere and all that I do is flip through them not knowing what to say. So this communication is very important for me to tell you all that I am okay and am recovering.
Several weeks back, at work, I was assigned the task to read a book that one of the professors I work for had authored. I was to help create supporting imagery for a research project presentation. Click here if you wonder what I do at work. I remember that week of the assignment. I had walked into my work supervisor’s room several times that week expressing my disbelief on how much that book’s content was making me uncomfortable and unhappy. What no one knew was that assignment made me sick in my stomach. It was hard to be reading the book and not connecting with it multiple times. What no on knows is that I cried multiple times that week because of everything I read in it. You may be wondering, “Well wait, you call yourself a non-immigrant Padmini, this book is on immigrants! Not adding up?!”
When you live thousands of miles away from the home in a place where every day, apart from studying, working, staying healthy, a considerable amount of effort also goes into ‘fitting in’, you have to be careful. Careful to not let the process get to your nerves. Careful to not let someone tell you that you are not good enough to be among them. Reading Dr. Stewart’s book made me realize that no matter how much I want to deny it, I have lived some parts of those lives described in that book. I have struggled through some of those challenges. I have undergone similar micro-traumas like those immigrant students did in their lives. And over the time, they have only accumulated onto my mind. And my struggle was to keep going no matter what – to not let the dream die. There are some people in my life currently who are championing for me to gather my strength and nerves to move forward in my life. But mental health is complicated. In a common man’s language, broken spirit is hard to heal. No matter how best it can be restored, will a broken porcelain dish pieced together by the best expert in the world be the same as the one that has never been broken? Or as some may argue, will the viewer’s perspective decide if the patches make the mended one even more beautiful? Regardless of the point of view whatsoever, the key questions to ask for me are:
Do we have those best technicians available to us for mental health?
What is the best glue to piece a broken spirit together?
C, I know you told this to me before. But today, when I heard the same analogy from another woman, I felt a sense of calm in my heart.
Would just one average intensity poke on someone’s shoulder hurt the same as hundreds of pokes at the same spot on the shoulder for a really long period of time? If a person with Spinal Cord Injury came to you, what would you say to them? Would you talk to them the way you are talking to yourself? Think about it, would you be so unkind to them as you are being to yourself? Oh, or is it because their pain is visible and yours is not visible to the eye?
As someone told me earlier this week, “Sri, you do you first!” Seldom will we have an opportunity to sit across the table from leaders who will look you in the eye and say that to you. You take care of yourself first and then worry about the rest. I remember them also telling me this. “Sri, if you take all the inner dialogue that you have and make it into a person and let them stand beside you, you wouldn’t be able to stand that person for one moment. We need to teach ourselves when to not hear to it.” This is the most profound sentence I have heard in the last sixty days of my life. This birthday, yet another blessed day when I got to be with my family, I made a decision to be kind and compassionate to myself first. And that also I will seek help as much as I need and won’t shame myself for asking help. I wrote this post for many reasons. Some of them are:
I am okay and I am keeping to myself. One of these days, I hope to find the glue that will fix the broken porcelain that I am today.
I have talked to many of my friends over the years who discussed with me the shaming that surrounds taking time to heal (I know everyone doesn’t have that option but for ones who have the privilege, don’t disregard it. Use it and help someone because it makes you stronger). Especially when you are on track to achieve a ‘goal’. I want to let everyone reading this to know that we cannot shame/silence the help seekers. Nor can we say that seeking the help of a psychologist is a sign of weakness. It is a science and like any profession, there are greatly knowledgeable people working in the field and then there are the others. So educating ourselves about it before shaming someone seeking help is important.
We cannot normalize a person’s suffering as a process of toughening them up for life. If I have a rupee every time I heard this sentence in my 8-full time years as a student, I would not have needed a humongous education loan from SBI.
We cannot negate or devalue a person’s human experience because they have put up a brave and dignified presence always. I write this point particularly because in the last sixty days I had people say to me things like, “Oh! You are so successful, you are so capable. You are such an achiever!” Some of them may have some truth to it. The fact is, I am not. Keeping in line with my desire to share only positive stories or life lessons on this blog, I never wrote about the experiences that have severely challenged me as a non-immigrant in this country. The experiences that made me feel very low and worthless. Disregarding the pain of being treated like that is what led me where I am today. Also I wrote this post because my mom says if in her younger days she had a way to express her views like this, she would have shared her life lessons with more people around her. She says when I can write my thoughts down, I should put them to good use.
Thousand miles away from where I call home, I found comfort in the questions that two women asked me about who I am ( I guess that is why I am drawn to qualitative research and interviews. The beauty of this form of research is: within its principles, every voice counts, every story matters). While there are many loved ones that care for me, pray for me and have positive thoughts for me everyday, meeting these champions made me realize that I lack compassion for myself. So as I turn 31 and am trying to bounce back from this crisis, I want to request all of you who read this to:
Be respectful of any pain you face in life. Don’t tell yourself it is okay to get a ‘little’ hurt in the process. No hurt/pain is little. It only keeps layering more pain onto itself. That is the complexity that surrounds our human minds.
No goal/desire in life should take you to the point of choosing between loved ones that care for you and success that may kill your inner joy (that success becomes pointless if you become a mean person in that process).
It is okay not to be able to fit in everywhere we go.
You do not know what great hope and joy meeting you brought to my life C & K! To keeping the promises and making every day count with self-care and compassion for myself. Thank you for the laughs and sharing your stories.
Note: To all the junglees of my life who will text me jokes about the porcelain dish comparisons, I will personally come to beat y’all up 🙂 Please don’t! Is emotional post pe kachra math karo kameeno *hugs*
Over the years, I have faced a lot of backlash for my thoughts and ideas that take me forward in life. From the day I could see how surgeons can revive a dying patient on an operating table to the day I saw a child with severe spastic cerebral palsy take ten steps during gait training without a break: one thing became clear to me. Individuals with disabilities and challenges that concern their everyday health have always been redefining how we relatively look at success and failure. Across all domains. They have forever now been challenging societal stereotypes about succeeding in a task or failing to succeed in a task. History is the witness to who were observing, listening or cheering.
Watching beautiful stories, countless of them from the sidelines, sometimes being a minute part of these efforts, it is a job satisfaction that can never be described in words.
My last physical therapy case as a physiotherapist was a young stroke victim (38 years old) with right side hemiplegia. He was originally from Rayalaseema. He was also undergoing other treatments during the same time. I particularly state this here because I want many of my non-rehabilitation profession friends and family to know a fact.
Recovering from an illness, rehabilitation after accidents, re-training to handle a sudden disability: all these processes are complex and need so much help. It is never just one service provider.
One of the very common things you will see happen in countries like India is, rehabilitation services that families strive to provide for their loved ones often times include a spiritual component. And he was a believer in the help his parents were bringing to him from a spiritual perspective. And I think that is why working with him has left an indelible impression of my mind. How he was motivated to heal and was willing to stay involved. Often times it is so much dependent on the individual.
In about 10 days I think:
He progressed from not being able to hold the pen to being able to hold the pen.
From not remembering me to remembering every morning that I was his PT and that my name started with either P or B (even though he couldn’t yet write them down).
From needing full support to take a few independent steps to being able to stand up from a chair independently.
From tearing up every time I helped him hold a spoon to laughing out loud every time he dropped it down and I had to collect the glass beads back.
For someone like me who was trying very hard to heal from a terrible time in that college, working with him was the best thing to have happened to me then. I will never say he inspired me. I hate to apply that term to his situation or any other rehabilitation scenarios. His effort and the pain he battled everyday to make it through each session, they are indescribable. Nothing is inspiring when you see a person struggling every breath to take a step or to lift a small wooden block. For people who are really involved in their work as rehabilitation specialists, those are what I call the gut punch moments. The real moments when you are constantly reminded to not do a lousy job (because you had an annoying drive to work and for reasons like that) because someone’s ability to eat independently or self-care without dependence in future is solely relying on the chance that your care and training will be helpful to them.
Today I went through one of those evenings where you sit in open cold and you cry your heart out! You cry because that is the best thing you can do for yourself and that is only thing in your control. 15 minutes into the crying, face in my hands, palms wet with tears, I see his face when we last time said bye byes. I remember so well. He held my hands in both his hands and kept patting them while talking. He said to me, “You don’t know how much these few days will always mean for me in my life. You have the ability to be patient with people like me. You should continue to do the good work that you have learnt after all these years in college. Your problems will vanish someday. So choosing to leave the profession because of what people did to you because of politics is a wrong decision. And anytime you want to give up, remember my face and tell yourself that he will not appreciate it”
Why I wrote this today:
Social media was thrust upon our lives with no advance notice. It has now become a big part of our lives. For someone like me, I very carefully choose what I post on my social media (primarily because I don’t want to pain people with the challenges I have to face like everyone else). There have been several days like this in my #GradLife so far. When I have felt completely alone as the only Indian women ever to be here doing what I have done so far. So don’t ever assume that what I am trying to learn here has been easy so far. It is not as rosy as it looks on the social media. In extreme situations when possibilities for success look bleak, I remember his therapy days and ask myself.
Is it harder than the therapy days he persisted through for progress?
The obvious answer I hear my mind give me is NO.
The amount of kicking and screaming I have done to life every time I faced a challenge will blow everyone’s minds. Over the years the way I have been defining success and failure in my life have changed. The seeds for those thoughts though, were sowed during those therapy days when I worked with that young man from Rayalaseema.
The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Two days back, I was standing in the Portland Art Museum staring at a beautiful Quran which had illustrations made of gold and lapis lazuli. The beauty of the illustration caught my attention as I was walking away from a Native American Fashion exhibit. In a few seconds my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had with a best friend in college (I think it was in 2009). As the holy month of Ramadan begins, I want to share a part of that conversation here. Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, my best friend then told me something that helped her tide past tough times in her life. I do not know how accurate my understanding about this topic is. May be someone who is an expert on these topics can correct me if I am saying something wrong here. But why is it important for me to share this?
It was one of those rare occasions when someone from a different belief system helped me retain faith in God while not talking in the same language of faith I grew up around.
We were sitting in our college’s parking lot in the back of my dad’s car (Strangely, I have a photograph of both of us from that day which another friend clicked on my phone!!). By then I had cried for about 20 minutes when my friend said to me,
“Arre sun, tereko mein ek baath bolthi Padmini. Mereko nai maloom ki tereko yeh sab mein yakeen hai ki nai. Lekin mereko bolne ka mann karra, so bolri. Humaare mazhab mein ek baath sikaathe humko. Quran mein bhi likha hai. Jisne bhi apni zubaan se kabhi bhi ek bhi galat baath na kahi ho, woh zubaan se nikli dua hamesha Allah tak paunchthi hai. Aur ek aisa bhi hai ki ek bhi insaan nahi hoga jisne kabhi apni zubaan se galath baathein na ki ho. Lekin jo bhi galtiyaan hum karthein hai, woh sab hamaarein hi hai. Isliye, jab kisee aur keliye tu dua karegi, woh dua Allah manzoor karega kyun ki, doosre insaan ke hisaab mein tho tere zubaan ki galtiyaan maaf hai.”
[Listen, I will tell you one thing Padmini. I don’t know if you believe in all these things I am telling you. But I feel like telling you. So here it is. We are taught something in our religion. It is written in the Holy Quran also. A mouth(zubaan) that has never uttered a sinful word, a prayer spoken from that mouth always reaches Allah. And there is also this saying that there won’t be a single human who has not sinned ever by speaking bad words. However, a sinful word spoken from one’s mouth is their own and a prayer from that person for another human will always be a clean prayer. So praying for someone else will be the best way to make an honest prayer that the Allah will bless.]
I don’t know how well I have written her words in English. But these words have been a guide for me since then. Since that day, I always found solace in praying for others more than myself (That doesn’t mean I am not kicking screaming and blowing my nose away on hurtful things. I do the whole drama also :). Well, I do pray for myself to ask for all the materialistic things that I want and to occasionally give Him my thanks for gifting me a wonderful life. Jokes apart, that conversation helped me come over a huge set back in 2009 and since then, I have always bounced back from so many situations that would have definetely broken my spirit if it was not for all the spiritual help I had around me. And the beauty of the life I experienced so far is that when I went through a time of questioning the belief system I grew up around, my best friends who were Muslim, Catholic and Sikhs helped me find my way back to believe in a power that was beyond the understanding of my small brain.
When I stared at the beautiful lapis lazuli and gold illustrated Quran pages that day, her words rang in my ears. The words that she said to me, how I constantly use them in my life to tide past tough times made my eyes well up. She was a great friend. She was always there for others despite having a tough life herself . I learnt to cook Palak curry from her (see there comes my food reference!), learnt a great deal about Islam from her(She taught me to wear a hijab which I still use today in the hot Texas sun. It is amazing how airy it is and how you can hide your face completely! :)), realized the value of having a cursive handwriting from her (she used to say, kaiku kharaab karri tera handwriting aisa waisa likkhe? howli hai tu!!), and learnt from her that staying strong in the face of adversity was a hidden untapped talent that women are naturally gifted with. We also often spoke comparing the good things and the not so good things we experienced for practicing our own religions (If I publish all that here, I will be removed from all the countries I ever lived in hahaha). We talked a great deal about the foods we cooked. Our discussions were so animated that, one night when we were both posted for a night duty, I went to sleep listening to her describing how they cooked chicken biryani and trust me, to this day, I can narrate to you all the steps that are followed in cooking chicken for biryani 🙂 It is hilarious when I look back at all those memories. I even did a fashion photo shoot for her in a burqa. I can never publish the photographs unless she would ask me to. I will wait for that day.
I don’t know where she is today. She just disappeared from all contact points after college. May be she wanted no part of that life we all struggled to make it through. This Ramadaan, seeing that Quran brought back all these memories to me. Ismat, where ever you are, I pray and wish all the best for your life. I never asked her if I could share her photo publicly. But today I want to. If I receive an objection or a note from her or her family, I will remove the image from here. But for now, I want the world to see the image of one of the best humans I knew growing up in my city, Hyderabad. She reminded me to keep faith in my Hindu gods and she was a staunch Muslim.
Yesterday morning, a friend I know from the Special Olympics Texas movement asked to meet me for an interview. She was doing a class project and needed to do an interview on cultural differences I experienced as a non-immigrant Indian in the United States. We met at a very nice coffee shop on the Square called Jupiter Coffee House. The hot chocolate here is to die for. For once I also tried a grilled bagel sandwich with pepper jack cheese and garlic cheese spread. It was super tasty.
While I cannot disclose what exactly I was interviewed on, I can say this. After several years, someone asked me to tell my life story. I am sure I blew her brains by telling her about so many things she could never guess about my life from just the look of it. For her all these years, I was an Indian Masters/Doctoral student volunteering to learn about Special Olympics or Adapted Sports. Nothing else about my life showed on my face ever when I was working (volunteering). Not sure if it is a gift or not. Still figuring it out.
After talking about who I am, in real words, vocally, I felt this sense of liberation to just go out and click some frames about what caught my eye. I don’t know after how many months I was actually able to do that without any regard to time or other pressures. It felt very liberating. I look back at my life back to the dark days and feel extremely thankful to the invention of photography. And then to Hyderabad Photography Club and its very early members. Extremely supportive and encouraging group of open mined men who supported my curiosity to learn. I am still not sure how much and what I have learnt in a true sense about photography :). This is yet another time again when I will shamelessly compliment the Indian men who backed my efforts to survive the dark days of my life. Will always be thankful to you all guys. Daddy, I can never thank you enough for going out of your way to buy me a camera that was going to be easy for me to learn with. I always remember what it meant to make that financial decision for you and Amma. And I can never forget the value it brought to my life right when I needed it.
Dedicating this to all of you for always letting me have my training wheels on. And for smiling with your hearts for every little accomplishment I make in my life.