The Gaya Nalanda trip

July 2019, exactly a year after Deuta passed away; we decided to visit Gaya for his pind daan rituals. Deuta always had a wish to perform his father’s pind daan at Gaya. Eventually it didn’t shape up for him. Naturally when the time came we also decided on the same place. The Vishnupad temple by the river Falgu is believed to be the most sacred place for Pind daan as it leads the departed soul towards salvation. Gaya is one of the most desired spiritual destinations in India and it is also the place of enlightenment of Lord Budhdha as we all know. Gaya got its name from the Demon Gayasura . As the story goes, Gayasura went into severe penance and was blessed by Lord Vishnu. He thus became pious and his body got transformed into rocky mountains that forms the landscape of Gaya.

Our holidays started with an interesting twist to our original plan. We had planned to take a flight to Kolkata and from there a connecting flight to Patna. But our original flight from Guwahati got cancelled due to some technical problem and our journey got delayed by a day. Naturally we all were disheartened. However, we were booked into a nearby hotel by the airline for the night and we decided to start our holiday from there on. We reached Patna a day later and from there had to travel by road for another 3.5 hrs to reach BodhGaya where we had booked our accommodation.

Next morning we set early for the temple, to finish with the rituals first. The Falgu River that flows by the Vishnupad temple was almost dry, and the river bed visible at places even during the ongoing monsoons, which was unanticipated. As stated in History, Falgu was one of the major rivers in India, but it got into this dry state because it was bieng cursed by Sita, wife of Lord Rama, when he came there for Pind Daan of his father Dusharath. We hired the help of a priest to guide us through the conventional procedures and the entire ritual was done with by lunch time. Deuta’s desires being accomplished finally brought a feeling of triumph and fulfillment to all of us.

The Falgu river

And we realized that we are all starving by now. Our chauffeur cum guide Iqbal drove us to a quaint little place for the palate of North Indian Thali. Sitting over lunch we started planning our next destination when our driver suggested that it is possible to make a quick trip to Nalanda, if we can finish with our lunch a bit fast. We were more than happy to know that as almost half the day was over and we need to travel another 77 kms. 

Rajgir Hills

It was a pleasant drive of two hours through the farmlands to Nalanda in the cool Monsoon weather. The wide road with vast green pasture spread out on both sides was a scene to be captured and saved for posterity in our mind. Cattles grazing on the meadows were sights of pleasure. The Rajgir Hills stand beautifully tall on both sides of the road on approach to Nalanda. Modern Rajgir city got its name from Rajagriha the capital of the Magadh. Rajgir also runs India’s oldest single person rope way, which connects to the Vishwashanti Sutpa, a must visit tourist destination.

We were restricted by time therefore had to prioritize our choice of places to visit at Nalanda. We started with the obvious choice of Nalanda University, the archeological complex. The Excavated site is of an area of around 1600 ft in length and 800ft in width. The origin of the Nalanda Mahavihar (the Great Buddhist monastery) dates back to the 3rd Century, and one of the oldest universities in the world. Eleven monasteries and six great temples were excavated at the site .A 100ft wide passage runs between them from North to South.  Most structures show evidence of multiple periods of construction with new buildings being raised atop the ruins of old ones. Many of the buildings also display signs of damage by fire.

Constructions on top of older ruins
Dormitory of scholars

 Nalanda is believed to be a completely residential university. The ability to blend different discourses and embrace knowledge in its entirety made Nalanda attractive for all seekers of knowledge. The archeological components suggest a seamless coexistence between human and nature. The profound knowledge of Nalanda’s teachers attracted scholars from places as distant as China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and South East Asia. These scholars have left records about the ambience, architecture, and learning at this unique university. The most detailed accounts have come from Chinese scholars and the best known of these is Xuan Zang who carried back many hundred scriptures which were later translated into Chinese. Buddhism started losing popularity steadily during the time of the Palas, which resulted to the decline of Nalanda. And the final blow came with the Muslim invasion of the Northern India during the 17th Century.

A classroom layout of the Mahavihar

Walking around the excavated ruins was an amazing sight with feelings of gratitude. An unusual intellectual ferment was a characteristic of the Ancient Magadha which left it traces behind on the remains of Nalanda. It is heartening to know that efforts were being initiated by former President APJ Abdul Kalam to revive the university and In September 2014, the University opened its doors for the first batch of students, after a gap of nearly eight hundred years.

Stupa of Sariputra, the favourite disciple of Lord Buddha, who attained salvaltion.

 The Archeological Museum of Nalanda our next destination lies across the road from the Nalanda ruins, and charges an entry fee of Rs 5 per head. The museum is maintained by the Archeological society of India and it gives an insight to the art and sculptures of the Gupta and Pala eras. It protects and display the antiquities that have been excavated from the ruins. The Museum has rare and beautiful collection of Buddha’s bronze statues, copper plates, manuscripts, stone inscriptions, pottery, coins and images of various Gods & Goddesses. Majority of the sculptures excavated from Nalanda have been carved on Basalt stone but some are made of stone, bronzes, stucco, terracotta etc.  The existence of this Museum immortalizes the richness of Ancient Nalanda culture.

Time seems to be zipping by and we are yet to visit the Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall. This memorial, built in memory of the Chinese traveller, is an architectural masterpiece. The memorial is located 2 km from the Nalanda Archeological ruins, and we took an e-Rickshaw to travel faster on the narrow road. This memorial is a distinct reminder of the Chinese architectural style. One will find multiple writings of Tsang preserved here. He was warmly welcomed in Nalanda where he received the Indian name of Mokshadeva and studied under the guidance of Shilabhadra. Besides Buddhist studies, Hiuen Tsang also attended courses in grammar, logic, and Sanskrit, and later also lectured at the Mahavihara.

Hiuen Tsang Memorial
Inside the Memorial

Tibet too inherited and preserved the vast wealth of Indian Buddhism almost in its entirety, encompassing the three main “vehicles” of teaching, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The Dalai Lama refers to himself as a follower of the lineage of the seventeen Nalanda masters.

Sunset approaching, it was time to head back. It was indeed a tight trip around but we returned satisfied with our accomplishments and looking forward to our compulsory final destination the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya, hoping to make it on time before the gate closes for the day. The Temple is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick; still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.This property is considered the cradle of Buddhism in the history of mankind.  Mahabodhi Temple Complex is of great relevance as it marks the most important event in the life of Lord Buddha, the moment when Prince Siddhartha attained Enlightenment and became Buddha, an event that shaped human thought and belief.

Entrance to the MahaBodhi Temple

From the east, a flight of steps leads down through a long central path to the main temple and the surrounding area. The temple faces east and consists of a small forecourt in the east with niches on either side containing statues of the Buddha. A doorway leads into a small hall, beyond which contains a gilded statue of the seated Buddha (over 5ft high) holding earth as witness to his achieved Enlightenment.

The gilded statue of Lord Buddha

The Giant Bodhi Tree, to the west of the main temple, is supposed to be a direct descendant of the original Bodhi Tree under which Buddha attained enlightment. Next to the Bodhi Tree is the Vajrasana, a platform attached to the main temple made of polished sandstone to mark the spot where Buddha sat and meditated There are six other sacred sites of Buddha’s enlightenment, in the Temple complex and numerous ancient Votive stupas, The Lotus Pond, located outside the enclosure to the south, is considered sacred as well. Both the temple area and the Lotus Pond are surrounded by circulating passages at two or three levels and the ensemble area is 5 m below the level of the surrounding land.

The Bodhi Tree and the Vajrasana

After completing a round of the premises we sat down under the Giant Bodhi quietly for sometime experiencing the stillness and calmness of the surroundings. People sitting together into meditation in pin drop silence, under the sacred tree was a heavenly moment to experience. I quietly sent a prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for this wondrous day in my life.

Visiting BodhGaya is not only about an immense feeling to pray and feel the inner peace at Mahabodhi Temple but it is also a great occasion to go around  and visit the different monasteries built by the countries of Japan, China, Bhutan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, Myanmar and Nepal. There are monasteries built by SIkkim and Tibet as well. Each monastery reflects the diverse Buddhist culture of the region and their architectural styles. They also reveal how far Buddhism has expanded from the place of its conception.

It was quite late in the evening and we had to get back for dinner at the hotel. By the time we reached back to our rooms all of us were thoroughly exhausted by the rollercoaster day. Next morning was departure to Patna to catch our flights back home. Bodhagaya too has an International Airport which is about 5 kms from the Temple city. The airport can handle 250 incoming and 250 outgoing passengers at a time. This airport is mainly seasonal and primarily caters to Buddhist tourists coming from South East Asian countries.

Finally while switching off the lights for the day, I sent a big Thank You to Deuta for the incredibly delightful trip and the moments that would linger on with us for a very long time ,of which he was also a part from far.

The e-Rickshaw ride.

.

 

Revisiting Kashi

             Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together- Mark Twain

My revisit to Kashi or Varanasi as it is known today, happened precisely ten years ago in the year 2010, when I was invited as a Guest Speaker in one of the National Geriatric Conferences which was being held at Banaras Hindu University. It was an opportunity that I was more than inclined to take, as I was getting a chance to revisit this Holy City after twenty-eight long years. It was between 1982 and 1983, that we had spent a year in Benares as it was then called, thanks to my father, who was posted there as a Sr. Divisional Manager of Life Insurance Corporation of India. It was here, in one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, that I did my XIth Standard, from one of the oldest premier Institutes of girls’ education, the Central Hindu Girls’ School.

Kashi is also known as the winter abode of Lord Shiva, and is often referred to as the “City of Light”.  It is not merely a city, but has a magnetic attraction which appears to link it to the larger cosmic phenomenon. They say that the vibrations of the city of Kashi is like the pulse of the Universe. Lying on the Western banks of the holy river Ganges, this city has its own unique magic and is tagged as one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Life exists here in all its stark reality. It is a melting pot of life and death itself. Kashi is a place where death stares at your face and one is reminded of the mortal nature of human beings. My distinct memories of Benares almost 38 years ago, reminds me of my first reactions of moving to the spiritual capital of India. At seventeen years of age, when life was just beginning to get exuberant and unraveling its colourful plethora of the new consumerism era, we were moving to this ancient, legendary city. Frankly, it didn’t create much of a flutter in me, and I was sceptical about this move, without having much of a choice though. In fact, I was the first one to move in there with my Dad, due to my school admission issues, while the rest of the family would follow.  I had a very unique and different experience during this brief period, where I was to stay with another North Indian family for about a fortnight, within the LIC Colony, until my Dad would return again with the family. Needless to say, they ushered me all their love and hospitality, and this was one of my first practical lessons of assimilating in any circumstances or situations, irrespective of barriers of culture, language, food and tradition.

Apart from the endless number of temples,   one of the first things I had noticed in this city amidst all the chaos and the hustle, were of the open cremation grounds which take place at its famous Ghats. It is said that the funeral pyre never ever ceases to burn out in Manikarnika Ghat as someone or the other is always being cremated. At that time my paternal grandmother used to stay with us and I remember how delighted she was about the prospect of shifting to Benares. For her it was the ultimate resting place, as people would often go and spend their remaining years, to ultimately die in Kashi. That of course didn’t happen for her, but she did feel a sense of gratification to have spent some time there and visit the holy shrines, as her memory was also beginning to dwindle away, with Alzheimer’s Disease setting in. Probably for her, in her fading memory, Kashi was indeed her last resting place.

Although our stay in the city of Benares was one of the shortest stints, it was packed with a bundle of diverse experiences. I remember the visits to Vishwanath temple at the Dashaswamedha Ghat, and at that time, as a young teenager, I really couldn’t figure out what was it that attracted such a huge crowd, from the humble  Indian pilgrims to the international tourists from world over, who often eventually made Banares their permanent residence. So intense was the pulse of the city.

  I remember looking forward to the trips to the BHU campus and the Viswanath Temple in its premises which was quieter and cleaner, not to forget the stopover for the famous Benarasi Kulfi and Rabri on our way back. I also vividly remember my XIth Standard to be a pretty challenging year for me, as I was trying to adapt to the Science Stream in a city where the medium of instruction often slipped to Hindi, as it was more familiar for the teachers as well as the local students. So, there was little time for distractions. Over and above, my father ensured that I completed my Visharad in Indian Classical Vocal Music from the Prayag Samiti University, and hence that entailed intense ‘Riyaz’ or practice alongside academics.

28 years later, in the year 2010, life took a full circle taking me back once again to this familiar city, albeit on work. But, apart from the Conference, I had a mission, to visit my old school and if possible search for the house where we once lived.

In between the conference, I along with two of my colleagues from Chandigarh, decided to visit Sarnath, the seat of Buddhism where Gautama Buddha first taught Dharma or “Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma”  where he gave his first sermon. Silence has its own vibrations and this is what we experienced in Sarnath. Although this was my second visit to this place, this time it evoked a sense of peace and tranquility which I probably hadn’t experienced earlier. It was overwhelming to just sit and appreciate the stillness of the environment. To be in the moment in the same spot as Lord Buddha, was indeed a divine blessing.

Sounds of Silence at Sarnath
At the Excavation Site at Sarnath

Revisiting the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the BHU campus and a trip to the Dashaswamedha Ghat rekindled my memories in a flash. Though the name of the city had now changed to Varanasi,  it still carried the same old world charm. It’s vibrance is a snapshot of life in all its adversities. Not much seemed to have changed in all these years. Tourists in colourful pyjamas, chunnis and beads, thronged the streets in very much the same way. Sadhus and Yogis found solace here. The city embraced everyone who came its way.

A revisit to the Vishwanath Temple, BHU
Dashashwamedha Ghat

The last day of my trip was devoted to exploring my old school and house. I took a rickshaw ride and headed for Bhelupur where my school was located. I was once again in awe of the journey I had made to stand in the front gates of the school which had contributed in shaping me, after 28 years. Central Hindu Girls’ School was started by none other than Dr. Annie Besant in 1904, and this was one of the pioneer institutes in women’s education in our country.  I walked in to meet the Principal, introducing myself and it was a pleasant interaction. It was a poignant moment to remember some of my old teachers, many of whom had left this world. Although it was an unannounced visit on a working school day, I was grateful to the Principal for the time that I was given, and also the opportunity to interact with some of the students and teachers.

My XIth Standard was in Central Hindu Girls’ School under BHU, founded by Dr. Annie Besant in 1904
Meeting a XIth Standard student in CHGS…I was in her shoes in 1982

I was now in the last lag of my trip and once again took a bumpy rickshaw ride through the bustling streets of Varanasi, to the Life Insurance Office. I sought for an appointment with the current Divisional Manager, and as I waited outside the room, my eyes caught a plaque where my father’s name was engraved along with the others who had held the chair of Divisional Manager. I was wondering if there would be anyone in the office who may have worked with my father, but all I could see were young faces around. Many of the young officers were introduced to me by the Divisional Manager, and they said that although they had not met my father, they had heard phenomenal stories about his work ethics and dedication in serving the Corporation.  It was not just a mere coincidence, but part of a larger cosmic plan that I was told about Mr. Vohra, one of my father’s closest confidant and friend who was still in service. It was a tearful reunion with Vohra Uncle. He found it unbelievable that I took this journey after 28 years. I had very little time in hand as I had an evening flight, but Uncle took me on a brief nostalgic journey to the adjacent LIC Colony, to show me the old house where we lived. It was exactly the way I had imagined it to be. The little kitchen window facing the front yard, brought back memories of the whiff of dal and curry which my mother would cook,  as we would return from school. We slowly took a walk across the colony and sat for a moment at the little kid’s park ( fondly called Panghat), and were immersed in our conversation about the years that went by . Time stood still for a moment and everything was just like the way it was.

With Vohra Uncle, my father’s colleague
This was the house that we lived in, and the little kitchen window

With a sense of deep satisfaction, I felt that I had completed a very important journey of my life. The end of this trip was the beginning of revived bonds. My reconnection with Vohra Uncle remains as strong as ever, and he continues to shower his blessings on me and my family, specially my children. As I pen down this piece, I realize how several decades of our lives unfold just like chapters of a book.

 I may have left Benares almost four decades back, but a part of my soul will always remain connected to Kashi.  

No time like the present

Over the past three decades, she would give me a call when she passed through my city and I would make it a point to go meet her wherever she was staying. We would spend a few hours catching up, speaking heart to heart so that even though the meetings were infrequent, the bond remained strong. That was till the last time. The last time she passed through my city, she called me and I promised to meet her later in the evening but I got caught up in something and it was not till five days later that I remembered that I was supposed to meet her. I had missed the opportunity. How was I to know that it would totally and finally be the last time? Soon after, she started her battle with a life threatening condition and our paths did not meet. The shock, grief and lack of closure I felt when I got the news of her passing away left me paralyzed.

Just ten days before her passing away, my dear brother passed under the veil. Though we were very close to each other, we had not met in over a year despite living in the same city. When I did finally meet him, he was barely conscious but he reached out for my hand from under the hospital blanket and we held on to each other for what seemed like an eternity, communicating through the medium of touch. When I saw him a week later, he was fighting for life and in another week it was all over for him.

Losing these two dear ones in quick succession, both leaving a tinge of regret about not meeting enough, I realise how much for granted we take that there is enough time. How we believe that we can make it up some other time. Now, like at no other time, I’m feeling that, no, there’s no time like the present. No time like the present to reach out to loved ones, pick up the phone and make that phone call. If there’s an opportunity to connect, don’t miss the opportunity because who knows what tomorrow will bring. Let us cherish and nurture the bonds because it is these bonds that make life meaningful.

A Visit to Daman, and a little known place called Dahanu

            

It was the beginning of 2018 and my quest for exploring life was just unravelling it’s magic. Every new day was a novel page in a new chapter of my life. January 2018 unfolded with a two-week official tour to Mumbai. The purpose of this trip was to give us an exposure and understanding, about how some of the largest and best cancer hospitals of the country were functioning. We were to have an insight to the workings of one of the topmost Institutes in the country, Tata Memorial Hospital. This was going to be a tremendous exposure for us, to learn and observe how large comprehensive cancer care set ups cater to the needs of large volumes of patients from all over the country and even abroad.

The weeks turned out to be hectic and challenging with opportunities to learn from the best in the field. In between our busy schedule, we had one weekend to ourselves. Choosing to make the most of it, we decided to make a trip to Daman and to a remote seaside village called Dahanu. I have always been enamored by the ocean and looked forward to this new destination which was recommended to us by another top Oncologist friend from Mumbai. He told us that Dahanu was a place he often chose to unwind when he wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city of Mumbai which is known to never sleep. The idea was an exciting proposal for us and we got things organized quickly.

Coastal Police Cabin at Port Daman…The Portuguese touch

It was an awesome drive from Mumbai to Daman and I was captivated by the scenic beauty. We were at Daman in less than two hours. Although Daman & Diu is a separate Union Territory, it has its own unique charm.The quiet, peaceful and tranquil atmosphere lifted our spirits instantly. Our first halt was at the Daman Fort area, which is in Moti Daman. This impressive structure was built by the Portuguese who fortified their territory from the Mughals.  We then stepped into the famous Bom Jesus Church which was built in 1603. Bom Jesus is another name for infant Jesus, and this particular Catholic Church has a Portuguese touch to its magnificent architecture. The intricate wooden carvings of the Church left us spellbound. A statue of Fatima inside the church particularly captured my eyes and mesmerised me. She was soft, gentle and almost real. We then visited the port area,to watching the calm sea and the ships docking at the port. This was followed by a visit to the Jampore beach in Nani Daman, a peaceful beach, known for its royal black sandy beach.

Fatima
Bom Jesus Church, Daman, consecrated in 1603 AD
The intricate woodwork inside Bom Jesus Church

It was time to drive down along the Western Coastline and head to Dahanu as we wanted to catch the sunset there. Dahanu is a sleepy little seaside village very near to Daman, and we were eager to spend the evening at its beaches. Sure enough, we happened to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets that evening. The memory of the spectacular setting sun over the Western horizon, displaying a myriad of colors ranging from crimson to orange, is still deeply etched in my mind. It was a glorious evening indeed. At this point in time, I was indeed fortunate to get through a video call with my mother-in-law, as I felt like sharing this unique moment with her. Later, walking barefoot on the quiet sandy beach, picking up sea shells and playing with the gentle waves on my feet, mesmerized by the breathtaking hues of the sky, I was in awe of the Universe and ever so grateful to be in the moment. It is in solitude that we often introspect and realize how privileged we are to have this brief, amazing gift of life. Time stood still. I kept my gaze fixed on the horizon, watching the huge orange ball dip rapidly under the horizon, bringing another night on my side, at the same time conceptualizing how it was bringing a sunrise somewhere in another part of the world. The cycle of life flashed in front of me.

A spectacular, unforgettable sunset at Dahanu

Dahanu has a significant Zoroastrian population and we were fortunate to stay at a place called Sea Crest just overlooking the ocean which was run by a Parsi couple, Micky and Bina Irani. One of the loveliest couples I have come across, they went all out to ensure we had a pleasant and comfortable stay. What interested me most was the restaurant which was named “Crazy Crabs”. This was enough to tickle our tastebuds. I have always been a ‘sea’ person, and memories of crab delicacies were ingrained in me since my childhood as I had spent my formative years in Fiji Islands amidst the sea, sun and sands. Prawns and crabs were an integral part of my childhood and even today I am clean bowled by a crab dish! ‘Crazy Crab’ was just as expected or even better. With the gentle sounds of the waves lapping the seashore, playing as a background music, in this open air restaurant, this was one of the most happening places in Dahanu. It was the perfect setting for a memorable evening with golden fried tiger prawns and steamed rice with Indian styled Crab masala, as we gazed at the starry sky, felt the gentle sea breeze with a tinge of salty aroma and heard the gentle splashing waves in the backdrop. Our senses were indeed heightened. A beautiful and memorable day concluded.

Crazy Masala Crab at Crazy Crab!

The next morning, I stepped out early from my room to explore the resort on my own. The tingling salty aroma of the ocean and the gentle sea breeze was intoxicating. I discovered an interesting large wooden boathouse which was fully furnished. After a luxurious breakfast in the company of the Mr. & Mrs. Irani, we bade goodbye with a promise to return again someday. We then headed for the Save Chikoo Farm nearby. Here again, we were delightfully greeted by Mr. Prabhakar, who was the owner of the place. The eco friendly environment and the natural process of Chikoo farming and agriculture was a huge learning experience for us, as we trailed across the entire farm on a golf cart. The Save Farm is an extremely popular destination specially for students and those who want to spend some quality time in the lap of nature while learning a few farming tips in the process. Also added it were some adventure sports too, and I took a chance to climb the Burmese Rope bridge and swing across a ropeway, also called ziplining, giving me some extra adrenaline rush! With all this excitement, our appetite was at its peak and it was a delightful and hearty Maharashtrian lunch. I thoroughly relished their sweet paratha also called Puran Poli ( a sweet Indian flatbread made of chickpea, wholewheat and jaggery) and this was a taste I had acquired when I was a child when we used to live in Mumbai. Food has a strange way of rekindling past experiences as memories of my childhood days in “Bombay” flashed across my mind.

The fully furnished wooden boathouse
Crossing the Burmese Bridge at Save Farm

A little known place called Dahanu and the historic city of Daman left a lasting impression in my mind. The short but sweet weekend getaway rejuvenated our souls as we returned back to Mumbai with everlasting memories and renewed friendships. Food, travel, friendship, ocean, sunsets, church, forts, port, nature trails, adventure sports, organic farms, fruit orchards and crabs, all packed in a weekend was more than what I could have asked for, as I silently payed my humble gratitude to the Universe. Our planet is indeed beautiful and and every moment spent, is a gift to cherish it’s abundance. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Bhabesh Das, Senior Surgical Oncologist and Dr. Gautam Sharma, Radiation Oncologist, for sharing this brief, memorable journey with me.

With the Iranis at Crazy Crab, Dahanu

It is indeed the journey of life that is more important than the destination itself.

A humble tribute to Mrs. Joan Manuel

Five years ago, I made a decisive journey, which became a turning point not just in my professional life as a doctor, but also in my personal growth when I began looking at life from a totally different perspective altogether. It was the beginning of a phenomenal unraveling of a myriad of life-changing experiences.

I was heading down South to Chennai for a period of 6 months to train myself in the field of Oncology from one of the premier institutions in the country, Adyar Cancer Institute. Although as a child, I grew up in different parts of India and abroad, which had hugely broadened my horizons, the last 32 years of my life were spent in the comfort of my home state of Assam.A new city, a different environment, new people and a novel speciality subject were the challenges ahead of me.

Amidst these surroundings, I came across the magnificent Mrs. Joan Manuel (alias “Mary” as she was fondly called by her husband and her close friends & relatives), an iron lady in her late eighties who embraced me just like a daughter. A mother of eight children, and a grandmother and great grandmother to a host of grandchildren and great grandchildren, Mrs. Joan lived mostly in Chennai, while her children and their families were scattered in different parts of the globe. A devout Catholic, she found her peace and solace in her prayers, and it was through her that I got the opportunity of having a better understanding of the teachings of Christ to a large extent. When she learnt that my own daughter Rhea, has already visited Jerusalem,  the Church of Sepulchre, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, while she was training during a Fellowship Programme in Israel, she said that my daughter was indeed blessed, as people often dreamt and desired to visit these places at least once in their lifetime, and she herself had eventually visited the Holy Land of Israel at a much later age.

During those few months in Chennai, I would often visit her and spend time with her, listening to little snippets of her life’s amazing stories. She showered all her love and blessings upon me and would look forward to my visits. Sometimes, when I was caught up with my work and academics she would call me and enquire why I hadn’t visited her for a while.

Time and again, her children would take turns to visit her and spend time with her and that’s how I got introduced to the larger family. As Mrs. Joan was close to ninety, and had multiple health issues, I was often consulted for guiding the family for her optimal geriatric management. She was one of the few persons who inspired me to reach out to people for guidance on holistic Geriatric Care and create awareness on Cancer, as both these areas were crucial health needs of the society. With increasing number of older people living alone and managing their lives on their own, it was pertinent to train Caregivers in the field and encourage people to follow healthy aging practices. Her words instilled a sense of confidence in me. She used to say “ It doesn’t matter how big or small your work is. What matters is a desire to do it, and derive a sense of satisfaction even if you can help one person”. Her voice would be firm and powerful, but behind the wrinkles and greying hair, I saw a soft hearted woman whose wisdom was profound. I felt immense power in her blessings.

Selfie time!

I particularly remember with fond memories, the Christmas Day of 2016, when my tenure in Chennai was almost coming to an end. On this particular Christmas, Mrs. Joan was by herself. As it was a holiday for me, I decided that I would spend the day with her and if possible, I planned to take her to Church. For some reason, I was very excited about spending this day with her. On the previous day, I bought a small Christmas tree along with the accessories to decorate the tree. This little endeavour, took me back to my own childhood for a while.   Christmas Day also happens to be the day when I lost my own mother. Perhaps the thought of devoting this special day to Mrs. Joan Manuel gave me a sense of satisfaction. The day turned out to be indeed special. She was delighted to see me and looked forward to the visit to the Divine Mercy Shrine Church, for the services.

25th December 2016

Mrs. Joan was a highly revered lady and everyone in Church came forward to pay their respect to her. After this beautiful morning, as we headed back home, we dropped by at a Chinese restaurant to pack some food for lunch. It was indeed an irony that my own mother had a huge fondness for Chinese cuisine too. I shall  never forget this particular special day of my life.

Mrs. Joan always told me that I was like a daughter to her. With a big beaming smile she would quietly gift me little trinkets like a keyring or a purse. She once gifted me with a bookmark in memory of her husband which also has a special scroll of Jesus Christ on it. Now and then she would share with with me stories from her earlier life and how she raised her eight children back in those days.

After my successful training tenure in Chennai, I did make subsequent visits for conferences and work, and I made it a point to visit her. In the process , I met many other members of her large family who always made it a point to be with her for her care and support, although they lived in different parts of the world. As time rolled by, she became frail and needed assistance for her daily activities with supervised nursing care.

January 2019
Always happy for a selfie!

Just a few months back , in the month of January 2020,  I got the sad news that Mrs. Joan Manuel is no more. Incidentally, I was visiting Chennai the very next day on some other work. But it almost appeared to be a part of a cosmic plan of the Universe, to make me also attend her funeral service. It was a poignant moment at the St. Luke’s Church, and also my first time of attending such a Service. I am grateful to the entire Manuel family for making me feel a part of the process, as they acknowledged me personally in their speeches in Church. I was destined to be a part of this moment, to pray for her Eternal Peace. I remember her words which she often expressed, “ I have finished all my tasks in this world. Now Jesus Christ should take me to Him” and I would tell her with a smile, “ You can’t decide your time. That is in His hands” . Perhaps her time had come and she was liberated from this world after living a full life. On this month, she would have turned 93 years. We share the same sun sign, with just a day in between our birthdays.  I dedicate this piece in her memory, and I will always cherish those special moments spent with her, as our paths were destined to cross in this world. Some relationships have no names, and this was one of them. May her soul rest in Everlasting Eternal Peace. Amen.

At Divine Mercy Shrine

“I will never be enough” – Lockdown Truths

The biggest truth which dawned during the lockdown time while living with an entire family of six grown up adults – 24×7 within four walls of our home – was that a “ happy family” is nothing but a fool’s paradise. Three generations of relationships with different ebb and flow of lifestyle and work was more like a roller coaster ride. It’s almost like a war zone of odd habits, timings and alien buzz of domestic activities. Perhaps before the lockdown, even if it existed, we were engrossed and too tied up with many other issues/activities to realise or rather just ignored it.

The cross dimensional roles of a wife, daughter-in-law and a mother to two young adults was at times becoming being unreasonable and complaining. These intersectionality of roles and duties were so uprooting that the cocoon of my peaceful world vanished. Usual conduct of life had already gone for a toss. Suddenly, domestic chores like cooking, washing, etc., with addition of repeated cleaning and sanitizing seemed like daunting tasks. Each of us were facing our own personal challenges, so patience was always running the last lap. In a typical patriarchal Indian family, men are never expected to do household chores. This pandemic, too some extend, broke the social shackles as who helped in doing simple household chores became a big deal to reflect on. No wonder, Indian social media were flooded with such jokes & videos of such domestic torture.

Besides, accepting a new culture of work from home in pyjamas to attend zoom meetings, webinars, online learning, etc. Or the youngsters killing time watching Netflix till late hours or being hooked to internet games drew taunts from the older generation as being indiscipline. Each of us were trying to live in the same time frame of 24 hours but with different pace and space.

Over so many years, while adding up our social or family circle, we all must have felt a feeling of being a contributor – with respect to our relationships – to the family, in work or in society. We are engaged in constant battles with our present mostly for receiving love or out of the fear of the uncertain future. Based on the conditionings of our beliefs, morals, desires or even acquired attitude or egos, we make a series of choices which turns out to be either good or bad; cause and effect of our karma . We expect people and situations around to give us the best of themselves, and vice versa. After all, as social beings we value and try to establish a good impact on others, while expecting the same in return. In trying times – such as this pandemic – this values system should be at its peak. Maybe we will reminisce about these lockdown days more fondly than it’s today.

This pandemic lockdown gave enough time and opportunity to assess both past, present and future to work on a new way forward to live life and accept new challenges. It takes such honest confrontation with time and mirrors to find that all imaginations based on multiplexes of our pride, sense of success and desires had in fact kept me trapped for something unreal and unimaginable perfections in ourselves , situations or people around.

Wise men always said “ change is constant”. It’s time to change the entire perspective of life, it’s goals and our role. It’s not about role playing an avatar to take charge to decide what is best for me or others but it’s more about accepting a change in the script written in our minds “I will never be enough ” to bring change in home dynamics and fit each of us well for times to come.

HUMANITY AND COVID19

Suffocating nature

Wuhan or Covid whatever you are
For all Humans you are definitely an eye-opener
You invaded them as no other pandemic has
Softly, gradually, invisibly yet brash.
A tiny soul like you has forced upon the meaning of existence
To Humanity, who were so confident of their sustenance
Your guardian and nurturer refuse to own you
Coz you don’t follow any commandments or punctilio
Your existence may be very trivial and minute
Yet Humankind cannot Passover but salute
Introspections ensued from your silent appearance
Purpose of life, almost faded to ignorance
Nature has its way of overhauling the environs
Clearly you are the vehicle to fulfill that concern
Preparing to Begin Again, Humanity need to be committed
To leave Nature to itself, coz it is always self regulated.

An Ode to Papa…. Sri. J. C. Mahanta

It was thirty-five years ago when I first heard about my to be father-in-law, an alumni of the prestigious IIT Kharagpur in those days. Back in the eighties, things were quite different, and the prospect of marriage into a family steeped in traditions, where Papa was revered as the patriarchal head, did create some amount of anxiety within me. Having grown up largely outside Assam, I wondered how I would be able to mould myself into this new role. But after I walked into the household as the elder daughter-in-law, I soon realised that behind Papa’s unmatched towering personality, he had an amazing softness which was often camouflaged by his steel exterior and powerful persona. In the initial years, I was in awe of him, as Papa was a man of few words. But I vividly remember his sheer joy when he became a grandfather to my two children, and with that, the ice started melting.

Papa was extremely proud to have a daughter-in-law who was a doctor. He often told me the importance of having a doctor in the family. ” A doctor in the Family can take care of three generations”, he used to say. But things weren’t easy on me! Papa being an avid reader who went into meticulous details, I was often put to test about various medical ailments. Papa would get to the root of a problem and wanted a detailed and satisfactory explanation about everything. This was good for me in a way, to be thoroughly prepared for Papa’s queries, and it kept me updated about all ongoing medical researches in the field which I could share with him.

The most striking characteristic of Papa’s personality was his disciplined lifestyle. His life worked with clockwork precision. Whether it was the timings of his meals, his diet, his prayers or his physical activities, there was an absolute discipline to his life. Another thing which amazed me was his erect posture. From the day I first met him, until the day he left us, Papa walked with a straight back, albeit with a walking stick in his later years. Just a few days before passing away, to our immense surprise, Papa came upstairs visiting us, going to each and every room of the home he had so lovingly built. Perhaps it gave him a sense of satisfaction to see the family together.

As the years rolled by, age caught up with Papa, along with a basket of chronic medical problems. I could understand that it was difficult for an active, disciplined person to come to terms with his physical vulnerability. However, as a doctor, it was my duty to show him how to navigate his way through the myriad of health issues. Gradually, Papa could adapt to the subtle changes in his lifestyle, and although it did take a while, he soon reached a stage of acceptance and equanimity. In the last few years of his life, the rigid steel persona started dissolving and Papa revealed a child-like innocence from within. He was flexible and adaptable to anything and everything.

I am particularly reminded of Papa’s 88th birthday just 3 months ago. We decided to take him for an outing to a resort on the banks of the Brahmaputra. We were a little uncertain if Papa would agree to such a proposition, because often his health didn’t permit him to make a choice of going out. He would rather choose to be at home. However, we were pleasantly surprised when Papa agreed on it, without questioning anything. The plan was to leave home at 4PM and return at 7PM. I was supposed to return a little early from hospital to go with them. But things didn’t turn out as planned and a heavy storm started brewing up in the afternoon taking us by surprise. As I was returning from hospital around 3:30 PM, the sky suddenly turned a blackish grey and a heavy hailstorm started. Big chunks of ice fell on my windshield as I carefully drove back home. As I reached home safely, I was almost sure the birthday outing wasn’t happening. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Papa was all ready, quite oblivious to the weather conditions. Ma left it upon us to decide. As I looked out, the hailstorm had suddenly stopped and the sky brightened up. There was no looking back now. In 15 minutes we were out of the house and drove all the way to the resort in Chandrapur. Papa quietly observed everything on the way, the streets, the traffic, the heavy water-logging and the weather, and didn’t question anything. He accepted everything the way it was. Eventually, it turned out to be a most delightful evening at Isle Natura Resort where we had a small cake cutting ceremony and enjoyed hot cups of tea, pakoras and babycorns while gazing at the mighty river in it’s full magnificence, as dusk was setting in. The little pleasures of life were lived in the truest sense.

On his 88th birthday, at Isle Natura

Over the years, Papa laid his full trust on me to monitor his medications. I gave him some simple tools to monitor some of his parameters on a regular basis which he religiously followed and showed me from time to time. His meticulous precision in maintaining his health records was unmatched.

In spite of all this, Papa did have a couple of major issues for which he required hospitalisation. However, he was happiest on the days of his discharge, to be back home in his own familiar space. For him, I might have been his health advisor, but Ma was his ultimate caregiver and he always was most comfortable in his familiar surroundings at home, with Ma by his side.

On 14th May 2020, at 3:40 AM Papa made a peaceful transition to the other side amidst all of us, at home. His last words were my name which he uttered twice, probably hoping for a medical miracle one last time, before slipping into a gradual stillness. Ma was holding his hands in the last few moments, as she chanted the prayers. For Papa, I was always the doctor who could fix all his bodily problems. I wanted to tell him that “this too shall pass” but this time he chose to transcend from this abundant life to the infinite cosmos where the energy body was freed of all it’s entanglements from the gross body. Instead of hanging to this lifetime by a thread, he chose to take a giant leap to be truly liberated.

I grieve, as he becomes a memory from reality, but I choose to celebrate his full life, and live with responsibility, accepting this moment as it is. He has left behind a rich legacy which will live on to tell his stories and carry on his imprints.

May you rest in Eternal Peace, Papa.

Always happy to attend family weddings

61 years of togetherness
At eldest grandson’s wedding
Visiting us upstairs

I Left a Piece of Myself in Yogyakarta

The majestic ruins of Borobudur

On this day, exactly a year ago, I was living one of the most magical days of my life. Wrapping up a short but thoroughly enjoyable and memorable trip to Bali, my friend Anju and I had decided to take a detour to Yogyakarta in Central Java.

Taking a morning flight to Yogyakarta, the first wonder that revealed itself to us was the sight of a massive volcanic crater that we could see from our plane window. Reaching Yogyakarta at about 9 in the morning, we hired a car at the airport to show us the sights and drop us back to the airport for our flight back home in less than 24 hours. With very little time on our hands and an intention to make the best use of it, we chalked out an itinerary with our chauffeur Nuryanto.

The first stop was the massive and majestic ruins of Borobudur, known to be the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. As it was the holy month of Ramzan, there were hardly any tourirsts and we had the good fortune of having the whole place almost to ourselves. As our guide explained the philosophy behind the construction, I was struck by the sheer beauty and serenity of the 1200 year old monument. Through almost a millenia, Borobudur remained hidden from the world among dense forests and lava from eruptions of the nearby Gunung Merapi. The monument has 504 statues of the Buddha in different mudras but the tragedy is that most of their heads are now missing and, perhaps, adorning the collections of collectors and museums around the world. I will never again be able to look at a Buddha head and not think sadly of the destruction at Borobudur.

After a leisurely lunch at a wayside place, we headed to another ancient monument, this time a Hindu one, Prembanan. This was another fascinating complex where there were once 200 temples. Now only a few stood among a pile of rubble. The government has, however, undertaken to rebuild one temple every year. Again, quite poignant, as Indonesia is an Islamic country. We lingered here among the ruins well after sunset and then drove into the city of Yogyakarta.

After checking into our hotel, we were out immediately to enjoy the vibrant street life. The pavements were lined with food stalls selling the most delectable food at surprisingly cheap prices. We had our fill of eating, shopping and then on an impulse took a ride on the becak, a kind of motorized cycle rickshaw which I had seen for the first time. The ride turned out to be one which will be imprinted in our memories of being a time of gay abandon, a thoroughly enjoyable time in an unknown city at night, not for a moment wondering or worrying about where we were headed!

Early next morning Nuryanto picked us up to take us to the airport but we had a very important mission on the way to the airport. My cousin Moon had shown us an episode on the Netflix series Street Food and there was this lady Ba Satinem, on the show, a street food vendor who had an early morning stall in Yogyakarta, and we had to find her. And find her we did! At least we found her street corner but she was not there as she didn’t sell food during Ramzan. But that still didn’t take away from the experience. We spoke to her neighbour and tasted his gudeg, a delicious jackfruit gravy with chicken, eggs and rice. This at six in the morning!!

We finally departed with our hearts full, leaving behind a bit of ourselves in Yogyakarta. A memory to be cherished forever and the simple and friendly people remaining forever in our hearts.

At Prembanan

Of Mothers and Daughters – Part 2

When my daughter was younger and we lived in a small industrial town where almost all the adults worked in the same company and all the children went to the same school, a weekly feature was a film show at the club every Thursday. Not being a film buff myself and also because going for the movie would mean that my dinner and bedtime schedule would get delayed, I rarely ever went. What surprised me was that my daughter, then a precocious preteen, would never mention the movies or ask for permission to go. I silently wondered if she was not aware of what movies were being screened but that seemed highly improbable as all her friends in school would be talking about it. Be that as it may, we stayed home week after week and stuck to our schedule the way I liked it.

Several years later, I asked her how come she never mentioned the movies or asked to go? Was she not aware of them? Her answer shocked me! She said “Of course I knew! How could I not know? But I knew that you didn’t like to go and if I went with friends I’d be late coming home and you would be uncomfortable with that. So I kept quiet.” This level of empathy and understanding from a 10-11 year old floored me. I imagined myself in the same position. I would have thrown tantrums, been upset and sullenly given in and obeyed my mother resentfully. I was amazed at her level of emotional intelligence. It opened my eyes to the fact that our own children can be so different from us and if we keep our minds open there is so much we can learn from them.

As she blossomed into an accomplished, sensitive, caring, socially and politically aware young woman, I have learnt so much from her. She has called me out numerous times for insensitive, prejudiced or thoughtless remarks and actions. Over time, I believe, this has made me more aware and sensitive and, hopefully, a better human being. I believe I have become more accepting and open to ideas and ways of living that are different from what I am familiar with, life choices and situations diverse from my own.

So true what Khalil Gibran says about children:

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls live in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may try to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

So fly my arrow, find your place in this world. I am indeed privileged to have you as my daughter.