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.
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.
When anyone tells me I can’t do anything, I’m just not listening anymore
-Florence Griffith Joyner
Five years back during a clinical rotation, one of my supervisors instructed me to mind my business in response to a question I asked her. I was an inquisitive undergraduate student who asked her, ” ******** ma’m, what does ***** (referring to the child with disability) do when he goes home after the therapy session?” And the title was her answer to my question also followed by, “Why does it bother you to think beyond what you are told to do?”. All this while she is rolling her eyes and exchanging looks with her colleagues.
Why did I ask her the question?
The child who was receiving therapy was a 14-year boy who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. His mother carried him to the department every time he came down for physiotherapy. He was taller than his mother yet she carried him every where they went. He went to a private school that denied his promotion to higher grades after a certain grade. They just couldn’t provide him with a lift to attend the classes on third floor and also refused to move the class. I asked my supervisor that question because everyday this boy went back to an almost nil physical activity situation at his house. He was beginning to gain weight and his mother struggled to carry him with each passing day. Lack of physical activity was also affecting his overall health (muscular and cardiovascular health). For my brain, the obvious thing to think was, “Is there a way for us to get him to move more every day? Can we arrange for assistance? “. I was told to shut up and not think beyond delivering physiotherapy interventions that were so archaic that it would make the relics in Salar Jung museum look new.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks back when Dr. Kalam passed away. I won’t lie. That week I almost went back to every Youtube speech that was available of Dr. Kalam. Many of which I never heard before. Of all the questions students asked Dr. Kalam, the ones that stood out for me where the ones that revolved around ‘education/scientific research system reform’ in our country. The above scene from my undergraduate days is exactly the reason why Indian education system is so messed up. It is because a majority of ‘faculty’ in educational institutions are ‘never’ trained to be teachers. They are trained to work as clinicians, law enforcement officers, so on and so forth. I will refrain from commenting about faculty in engineering or technology related fields. In fields that involve human beings as the clients for health related direct services, how many teachers are taught and trained to be teaching in classrooms?
What happened to me and what happens to a lot of students in classrooms across India is that we are told not to question. We are only supposed to follow instructions
Rewind back to my physics class in high school, I once asked my physics teacher why a particular reaction would give that particular result. I was told to shut up and just read what was in the textbook. I am sure I am not alone. This must have happened to many of us. Training to be a teacher does not end at earning a degree. It is a constant process. It is never ending. You are always working with your students and they are always training you to be the best teacher you can ever be. The teachers who have that attitude towards their jobs are the history makers.
What am I trying to say here?
Reviewing through pages legislation and policies for education in India, I understand that:
India’s education laws are archaic (almost)
Most of the Acts that guide the delivery of education services in our country are very vague
Where there are a few good and modern clauses in those Acts, there is a gap between enforcement and reviewing of the service delivery
Teacher training guidelines are very generic and lack clear instructions on addressing the needs of each specialization. There is a lot of ambiguity.
Guidelines still show a lack of connection to the real world
Use of technology is missing in the teacher training scene
Websites of most of these organizations need serious updating (I am thankful for the fact that the ministries have their websites updated)
How can we begin addressing this situation
Only when more urban Indians with financial and social security take up professions like teaching will we be able to start a change. Please I am not referring to Teach for India. I am talking full length walk of B. Ed, M. Ed, M. Phil, PhD that kind!
More students/parents should question the quality of education that is delivered in private institutions too.
Reading more about the legislation in our country is a great way to begin understanding the system.
Without spending time to read about the history of a problem and the legislation associated with it, we will be wasting our time every time we complain on social networking.
Like every student of science knows, if scientific questioning is not encouraged in the schools, we cannot produce citizens who will love their education.
And only students who will love the education they receive will be interested to become researchers. There is a severe need for more research and publication of data outlining social phenomena in our country. So before we start getting disheartened every time a negative news is reported, spend time to look up the research conducted in India on that specific topic. You never know what might ignite your mind.
A very few people know that I have a twin sibling. After all these years why should I write about the ‘twin’ factor. One of the first things people say when they know I have a twin is, “Wow! it must have been great growing up as twins right?” Record this now and remember it forever. That is one thing you never want to say to one of the twins or both the twins in any conversation with you. It was never easy growing up together as twins. We had our share of happy moments. We still laugh at the mischievous things we did and got ourselves into troubles. But to be in the same learning environment, always subject to constant comparison in performances and achievements was a pain. So we both went through our phases of running away from each other in two opposite directions. It is like this gap of years where there are barely any photographs of him and me in one frame. Even the sight of one another was unbearable to both of us. There were times we wanted the other person to vanish so that the pressure of comparison and constant performance analysis would cease to exist.
Moving to the United States gave us the space we badly needed to discover ourselves. Who we are. What was the purpose of our existence. After all the years of growing up in India moving to live in a country like US , was like a blessing in disguise right at the time when we beginning to get lost in the vicious cycle that was engulfing us. Living here allowed us the liberty to focus on ourselves about how to become better humans and professionals. Back home that space and liberty of thought to assess oneself was difficult to achieve without being judged by everyone around us. I always said it and will never forget the help that my family is providing me in pursuing education in a field like APE. Without the luxury of being provided housing and food along with a safe place to live, I would not be able to perform at even 1/10th of what I am able to accomplish now. My brother paid for me to go to graduate school and tells me that it is his way of contributing to the cause of education for children with disabilities. Some time ago I was trying to ‘brain wash’ him about how he should let me start paying him back in small amounts. He sternly said to me,
“Padmini, you should understand that I am inside a lab like place almost all my waking hours. I work with machines that do not show any human emotions or interaction. I always wanted to be directly involved in service to society at sometime in my life. If I had the money, I would have definitely invested it somewhere if the money didn’t go to your tuition. I am doing the same right now. I am investing in you and your future. So in future when you service individuals with disabilities I will begin to see the returns of my investment.”
Those were probably the best words anyone ever said to me with regards to me choosing this career.
Not everyone tells you I love you everyday. But one action or decision they take will just give you a faith in their love for you eternally. There are no doubts that we hated each other equally, shared extreme dosage of fights and disagreements while we were growing up. But when people you care about go out of their way to help you realize your dreams, you are humbled beyond any limits in a human’s life.
Thank you Nani. I dedicate my Masters Degree to you my brother. I love you.