Made up of
Scans & scars
A big bottle of
Pain, left ajar
A spoon full of
A field-full of sour
Grasping at straws
Gasping for air
Inching toward the light
Cautiously, I dare…
Once it is done and dusted
All fixed, all busted
Sufferers become ‘Survivors’
Albeit bruised & battered, a touch rusted!
They begin a journey afresh
A reinvention, a rebirth, a rush
Outlooks, attitudes, purposes, readjust!
Mine though, isn’t a war won
Tis a battle on….
A twisted ‘present’…continuous
A perennially prickly thorn…acrimonious
The first to deplete… courage
The second… faith
A lengthy grocery-store bill’s worth
Adjectives I knew for positivity & strength
Banished, far away, sent
Hows, whys and whens
An unrelenting stench
Pause. Deep breath. Lament.
It happened. It will therefore end.
One way or other
Enemy or Ally
Friend or Foe
Black or White
Dark or Glow
Him or I
Time, shall I invest you in my sorrow?
Shall I bury you in my grief?
Shall I consume you in my wasteful feast?
Life awaits as life passes me by
My mother looks worried, doesn’t say why
My wife hides her anguish, her tears run…but dry
My child reaches out, even touches…but is now shy!!!
Shall I choose cancer? Or shall I choose a lie???
On a balmy Delhi afternoon in 1998, in the heart of tony Defence Colony market, a life-altering transaction was in progress, in plain sight. With a nervous twitch I concealed the contents of my purchase and returned to my first-floor apartment, to my bedroom, most specifically, to my bathroom, for even my help shouldn’t have spotted this clandestine guest I’d brought back with me. Seated, on the pot with my drawers on, I peeled off the cellophanesque wrapper. It emitted a sound of satisfaction, akin to one we’d learn years on as the familiar aural delight of an ‘unboxing’. I had no idea at the time, that THIS would become an unboxing I’d ritualistically, yet without thought, be performing for the coming two decades! One last tug at a partial shimmery half-cover and I was in! As I drew out my virgin stalk of nicotine, there was guilt mixed in with excitement, mirroring perhaps, the pleasure and poison the contraband itself encompassed. The flame emerged from a single click, the stalk resting cautiously between my school-boy fresh lips, and the tip turned a golden orange. The illicit affair, had begun!
Eons hence, on an unsuspecting, routine examination at an ENT’s clinic in Jaipur, as recently as the 17th of October, upon my wife’s insistence that the doctor pay heed to my very dull but persistent ache at the base of my neck, a sonography revealed, at 7:30pm, that there were small but multiple tumors, albeit unconfirmed for malignancy, strongly suspected to be Thyroid Cancer. The cigarette I had smoked earlier that evening at 5:30pm, as it turned out, would be, my last! And though it was later confirmed to me that smoking and thyroid papillary carcinoma (the type of cancer I have) had no proven connection, the sheer shock had made me end the ‘illicit’ affair. From 1998 to 2019, a shade over two decades in!
One can’t categorize a month and a half’s break-up as ‘long’ after a toxic relationship that endured half my life. Having said that, in the weeks following that ill-fated revelation of yet another life-altering day, the 17th October 2019, aside from my cancer being confirmed, undergoing a major total Thyroidectomy surgery (removal of Thyroid gland), prepping for something called RAI Ablation (that is removal of residual cancer cells by ingesting radio-active-iodine) and a stint of quarantine before and after my Iodine Uptake Test (to determine in the first place, if the body is absorbing iodine and what dosage of the actual RAI will be required bases residual papillary carcinoma around the neck); I have also had a significant amount of time to reflect. To introspect. To question. To seek answers, justification, explanation. Not ironically as much to why I have got cancer but rather for why I ever became addicted to smoking! What have I come to realize?
There are no straight answers. That human beings are complex, inexplicable, fallible creatures that are victims of their own demons and deficiencies. That on the one hand we can seem and behave confident, in control, while simultaneously be internally unraveling like an unstoppable row of dominos! How have I come to realize this? Because despite the fact that I had, until just prior to college starting in Delhi (and hence the smoking), been a reasonably self-assured and accomplished boy at school, having won accolades and responsibility alike; when confronted with the prospect of an alien, unprotected world away from my cocoon of celebration that was boarding school, I crumbled, came undone. Gone was that House Captain leading the young men of my house and school on to various victories, and in its place was a tentative, uncertain young adult who did not know if and how to fit in at university. Vanished, the school Music captain who performed fearlessly on stage, to packed audiences and won laurels individual and collective; replaced by an apprehensive, somewhat afraid college student who was entirely overwhelmed by the thought of this new present and a wholly unsure future.
It was bound to happen then wasn’t it? A crutch. A bolster. A brace. A cane. But one that provided respite on the inside, on the outside, symbolized, to the foolish (and we all are, that too not just in youth), power, coolness, personality, panache, pizazz. How terribly ironic, though true. The cigarette was the perfect antidote to my growing trophies of insecurities. It became like that adult version of a child’s favorite childhood blanket, with a minor difference. While the extent of one addiction’s damage was a bit of dust, the other’s was, death!
When I look back on these twenty-some years and analyze my addiction in a more nuanced manner, more insights come to light. I had begun to lead a ‘dual’ life. Whenever I was in these ‘public’ situations that made me anxious and I thought, arguably only in my own head, that I must seem ‘cool’, I’d smoke like a proud fireworks display. So, to my college friends and contemporaries, then to my post-graduate friends and contemporaries in Bombay, subsequently and similarly, through my Advertising years in Bombay, right across stints of more studying in the UK and the US, back to working in Films & Television in Bombay. It was increasingly and relentless. All this while though, the duality I briefly suggested earlier, was maintained. Almost no one in my family, close or extended, even knew of this chronic addiction of mine. I had, and would continue to conceal my heavy-smoking, like a state-secret. I was, as I painfully realized, obviously ashamed of it – duality hence proven!
Yet another agonizing recognition of myself that came to me was my own hypocrisy. You might be surprised to note that through my younger years and tenure at boarding school, I was the staunchest advocate of no-smoking, vehemently lecturing and reprimanding smoker-family-members and friends, and viciously chastising students I caught smoking at school, especially during my house-captaincy! But so hideous is human duplicity that on my first visit back to school after graduating, over a Founder’s Day, I promptly stooged a cigarette from a student I had hauled-up when I had caught him smoking while at school!
Ultimately however, in this labyrinth of regrettable consciousness that I have actively sought in the weeks since the discovery of my cancer and having FINALLY quit smoking; what I have lost the most, more than self-respect, confidence, pride, self-concept, is TIME. Time with myself. Time on this planet. Time with friends and family. The hours upon hours spent either physically in bathrooms or on balconies smoking, or the cumulative time invested in worrying about, bothering with, and strategizing how, when and where to smoke – it seems like an irreparable, irreplaceable, and absolutely colossal loss. And though I dismiss the suggestion that being an Educator, smoking somehow made me unfit, and disqualified me from being an appropriate mentor, with the fact even being held against me on occasion – I do believe that even with my students, although the classroom was one place I NEVER once craved a cigarette; I ought to have been more honest.
The cigarette and my two-decade addiction then, have come to manifest a metaphor that I feel is the ONLY way of describing this illicit affair – that she was a greedy mistress whom I, the weak, fell prey to, brought into my home, invited into my bed, and then cheated on the entire world, with her, and for her. On her part, nothing was enough for her. She wanted to be hers alone, to be the singularly worshipping, devoted, dedicated, loyal, consummate subject, and she, my absolute ruler, conqueror, empress.
During innumerable points through these twenty-two years, I, either by myself, or in coerced conjunction with friends or family, tried to quit. Girlfriends past issued me warnings, they didn’t yield any results. My wife, whom I made, most unfairly, solely responsible for helping me quit, did everything and more, and I kept frustrating her, disappointing her, deceiving her, letting her down. Patches, chewing gums, reducing intake, cold-turkey, every trick, every method, every recommendation, I tried, tested and failed at, miserably, repeatedly. Even the birth of my own daughter, and other marital milestones that had solicited promises of quitting, couldn’t give me the courage to see it through. Ultimately, after incredible, unimaginable anguish that I caused to my nearest family, it was, the shock of Cancer, that made me QUIT! It was ONLY earth-shattering news that thrashed me out of my addictive-stupor, my absentee-life, my unconscious-existence, and made the cigarette and I, part ways.
Have my insecurities also faded along with the smoke from my balcony? Of course not. Have my urges to have a last fling with my recent temptress ceased? Hardly. Would I rather be healthier, stronger, more present, and simply AROUND? Without question!
As an engaged, invested and student-centric educator, I always try and provide a Constructive Critique and Detailed Individual Feedback to learners who have been with me for a short or long-term program. I thought it might be a good idea to share with you all, other educators, students, parents and institutes, a sample of the kind/type of specific feedback/letter I share with them at the end of our ‘formal’ interaction/program.
Therefore here’s one that I signed and presented (hand written) to a student who recently completed a Communications Program with me. Hope you like it, and more importantly, see the merit in undertaking this sometimes arduous but entirely favourable exercise.
Competition, a word that instinctively solicits little respect or reverence in me. To my mind, the only USE of competition, is to track one’s own progress. Having said that, when I met the few of you initially, and realized what you had already, and were capable of achieving, especially unaided, un-nudged, entirely voluntarily, you inspired me to get involved. And so, in this instance, this competition, the World Scholar’s Cup, has been an initiator of a most happy and fortuitous encounter.
Through our many sessions, I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with all six of you, getting to know you somewhat as individuals, more insightfully perhaps, as a self-motivated, potent, erudite, free-thinking & acting group of young leaders. It’s been fun, educational, enlightening.
That you have all shone at the finals at Yale might have to others, to me, been most unsurprising. You each has the definite capacity to change the world, never forget that. And for both therefore, for your individual accolades at Yale, much more so however, for each of your individualistic outlooks, your strength of character, and your resolve, and the life-potential you so clearly embody and palpably project, I congratulate you.
I, nor anyone else, has had nothing to do with your success. It is all your own. Relish it, but learn from it. Cherish it, but don’t stagnate on it. Be proud of it, but not arrogant because of it.
A last piece of unsolicited advice from the old man… communication skills, a certain flair and proficiency in them, isn’t limited to one specific competition. They will serve you well, through life, and help you be the leader you are, in every life sphere. To inform, influence, and impact change!
Aarnav, to you I want to say, stay curious and quirky. If sometimes you get the sense that people question your methods and choices, IGNORE them. You strike me as someone with a vision for a future life that is as much about you the individual, as it will be about your fellow humans. Chase that vision, without a care!
Much love & luck
My wife and I were sitting one day, quite recently, and commenting on how we hadn’t been to the theatre to watch a film in a long, long time. In fact, since our daughter was born two years earlier, we hadn’t ventured to watch a film. When we tried to recollect when, before Krisha’s birth we had been to the theatre, we couldn’t recollect that either! Perhaps our absence from cinema halls had nothing to do with being preoccupied with our child in the first place! We decided to delve further.
The more we thought about it and discussed it, the more it dawned on us that the entire cinema-going experience, at least for us, had been replaced by a number of alternatives that were more accessible, more affordable, more pleasing, more entertaining, and just more convenient. First amongst these was the slew of online content options – what is technically known as OTT Platforms – Over The Top content that is streamed using high-speed internet through applications such as Netflix and Prime. Not only do these great content-providers offer a slew of brilliant series & films of varying genres and nationalities, they are accessible all the time, anywhere, with viewing possible on the largest of home-theatre screens, or on the go on one’s mobile, laptop and tablet devices. With India’s smartphone base having increased to a sizeable 250 million people in 2017 itself, and internet users poised at between 450-600 million people, we are part of a larger mass who is starting to consume entertainment at home, not at the cinema halls!
Another reason for our long disappearance from cinema halls, we felt, was a result of not having a great experience at the theatre itself. For my wife and I, we felt that many cinema halls attracted unsavory, rowdy crowd that we did not want to be in such close proximity of. At the other end of the spectrum, if we went to a high-end cinema hall with fancy seats and other amenities, a single movie experience for the two of us could end up costing over fifteen-hundred rupees, an amount not necessarily large in itself but compared with annual subscription costs of OTT platforms, a lot to pay for a single film.
Ultimately though, we concluded that the chief reason for our growing disenchantment with the Indian cinema experience is just the quality of films. Most content on OTT platforms is simply of a much higher quality, at least to the two of us. I appreciate that taste is subjective, it changes from person to person; but even if there are Hindi movies that are interesting and well-made, they are available soon after theatrical-release, on one OTT platform or another. So unless one’s a die-hard fan of a specific actor or director and must absolutely watch a new release at the earliest, the cinema-going experience has become redundant.
It so happens that one of my best friends from boarding school is an old-school, single-screen theatre owner in Dehra Dun. At his theatre Prabhat Cinema, I have had some of my best childhood memories. He would organize special movie screenings for the entire school sometimes, and regularly for our smaller group of friends. Those shared viewing experiences were always special, they made us bond. To that end, I understand the allure of a theatrical experience, and miss it even. But with screening technology having come a long way since, with our homes being turned into mini-theatres now, that ‘shared viewing’ experience too, can be had, at the click of a button, without ever leaving one’s homely-comfort.
I’m not entirely sure how cinema-halls are going to reinvent themselves in the face of such growing competition and with people going less and less to the theatres. I suppose a section of society will still want that as their familial weekend experience and activity. But to my mind, the cinema experience today has become irrelevant in the face of too many luring alternatives.
Everywhere I look, each place I visit, and most any conversation I have these days, ends up becoming a discussion or a debate about which school to choose for one’s children! Agreed, there is a paradigm shift in education, as is the case with a younger, more aware, hyper-restless generation of learners. To become obsessive about what school to send them to, or to place all but the entire onus of an education on the school, seems like a stretch.
A child’s first point of contact, and the most constant influence remains the people at home. Parents, grandparents, staff, family friends, friends. This the world that the child inhabits for a vast majority of his or her life, at least in India, for an overwhelming majority, until the child is an adult and college-ready. Shouldn’t it follow then by sheer logic, that a lot of the child’s ‘education’ will come from their immediate and perennial familial observations, interactions and circumstances?
Why then do parents place increasing stock in schools, worse still, blaming the educational institutions for any/all behavioural, learning, developmental shortfalls!
I’m the first person to understand and appreciate the vital role a good schools plays. In my own case, I think my schooling had a profound impact on the person I turned into. Having said that, equally influential was my home-environment, good, and bad. I tend to think that somehow as parents today, we’re a tad escapist. For reasons that range from a genuine lack of time, to a more disingenuous lack of parenting skill and interest; we have found a ready scapegoat in the child’s school. What’s arguably even more reprehensible is that is a child falters, the school is to blame. If he shines, the parents are to be credited!
I can only hope that we as young parents (or parents of young kids) take a little more initiative on our own with regard to our children’s upbringing and education. Make time, spend time, set right examples for them to follow. We are equal, if not greater stakeholders in our kids’ education, and we ought to pull our socks up and accept the task!
I am delighted to share the link to my first Ted Talk
I can be pretty
I can be pretty disturbing
I can be momentous
I can be somewhat unnerving
I can comment
I can cement
Be an embellishment
Or a strong statement
I can be moving
I can be captivating
I can be repulsive, revolting
I can be limited
Or be immense
I can be shallow
Or reach into uncharted depths
I can be loved
Or be despised
Or be maligned
I can be social
Or be aloof
I can be political
Serve as proof
I can nudge lightly
Or shake provocatively
I can be subtle
Or dance emphatically
I am, who you are, and what you want to say!
In a couple of days I’ll turn 39. The last year I’ll be in my 30’s! Society dictates that it is one’s 30’s in which career heights are reached, milestones attained, landmarks achieved. If I judge my own life through the lens of this established status quo, I tend to feel like a bit of a loser. At a time when an individual is seizing their place in the ‘career’ sun, breaking free from the quicksand-like clutches of middle management and moving UP, I decided to chuck it all. Relocated, shifted careers, started, effectively from scratch! If I evaluate my life from this factual standpoint, of having made a new beginning in my mid 30’s, my work in education through teaching & writing, its wide acknowledgement and patronage, individual & institutional; I have lots to be immensely proud of. So why then, am I still a tad unsure? Why, when I am being invited by the most premier institutions of the country to lecture, when I have just been asked to deliver a Ted Talk, when I have created a sizeable repertoire of intellectual property across publications pan-India, when I have positively impacted the lives of hundreds if not thousands of students, why, am I still grappling with a not-entirely-conscious yet always-present feeling of inadequacy? Why do I, for example, even in this article, feel the need to keep listing my various achievements, of proving my worth, of justifying my very existence?
When I dig deep and ask myself why this slight discomfort still persists inside of me, there are two answers that come to mind. First, I feel that my own appraisal of my station in life is inextricably linked to money. This might be a result of societal outlook, or something I have inherited from family, I can’t be entirely sure. But I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit it. That most of my contemporaries earn significantly more than I do (educators & writers aren’t paid very much at all) doesn’t make me in the least bit jealous – it does however bother me that I don’t, myself!
The second cause of this inner angst continues to be a barrage of unresolved familial issues. I have a vault full of feelings that I need to communicate to certain people in my family; the tragedy is that things are, rather than getting untangled, only becoming messier with each passing day. I may consciously try my hardest to disassociate myself from the legal upheaval and degradation within my family, deny any investment in the everyday grind of this seemingly insurmountable battle; truth is, I am a part of it, an integral, inescapable part of it. The goings on within the home and family impact me, affect me, influence me, profoundly.
Logic dictates that in order to be happy and content in life, one must focus on the positives. The things in one’s life one must be grateful for, thankful for. And God knows there are many of those in my life. A mother who has sacrificed all but her life to be with us boys. A wife who has stood by me through thick and thin, and is truthfully the primary reason I have, in the past 5 to 6 years, had the courage to embrace my calling and effectively end my existential crisis. A daughter whom I dote on, who is the most loving, entertaining, and precious thing to me in the world. A brother who is loving in his own strange and unique ways, a source of great strength despite being a fair few years younger. Mentors and guides who have inspired, enlightened. Friends who don’t quite understand and are often times miffed at my blow hot-blow cold behaviour but continue to be by my side steadfastly. My animal-children, who love selflessly, delight endlessly.
39 years I have been on this planet. I feel that only recently, I have begun to contribute, to give back, to pay forward. I also feel that in life’s greater and final equation, if the scale were to be filled and tested, the positives in my life would far outweigh the negatives. And for these reasons it occurs to me, that to hell with it being my 39th year. To hell with my being a decade late to the party. It just doesn’t matter that it’s the last time I’ll be 39, because the best is really yet to come!
We are civilized people who live in a cultured society. The word culture represents a certain predisposition in the way we conduct ourselves personally, professionally, and in our general way of living and interacting with the world. Children too, naturally, are products of the ‘culture’ they are exposed to, both at home, and outside. However, in order to really understand in what ways ‘culture’ impacts and influences a child, we need to examine culture in its various forms.
Every home and household practices & follows a certain culture. A status quo of behavior and a belief system that is usually a result of what the child’s parents (in a nuclear family), or patriarch/matriarch (in an extended joint family household) have established over a period of time. And since a child’s earliest understanding and education is imbibed from observation of what goes on at home, the culture prevalent at home greatly influences how the child behaves, be it a positive or a negative manifestation. Let us take an example. If there is a home where the parents are quite emotionally reserved and unexpressive, and that is what the child has seen since the beginning, chances are that either the child will imbibe that ethos as is, or turn rebellious and go the other extreme. That is of course, a behavioral aspect of the culture at home. Let us take another example. If a child belongs to a very wealthy business family, and has seen that there is a culture (propensity) on the part of the elders to discuss money all the time, a leaning towards a show-of-wealth, again, chances are that the child too, will adopt a similar ‘culture’ (habit). As parents and guardians, we need to therefore be acutely aware of what kind of precedents we are setting for the child/children in our homes, because whatever that may be, it will be observed, digested, and put into practice.
Not too distant from familial culture is culture that is derived from the religious beliefs and practices of a specific family. If a child grows up seeing a lot of time and effort being devoted to religion, prayer, ceremonies; that is the culture he or she might also adopt. Similarly, communities and their peculiarities also form part of the cultural exposure and inheritance of a child. If we were to generalize and use a cliché, a Bengali family where there is omnipresence of the arts and other intellectual pursuits, a child in that environment will be obviously influenced by that kind of leaning. Similarly, a different community that might propagate a philosophy of austerity, it is likely to be inculcated in the children of that family too. Culture then, is really what kind of atmosphere the child grows up in.
A huge part of what influences children also includes the kind of culture they are exposed to, outside the home environment. Educational institutions, especially school (since those are very impressionable years), plays a significant role in shaping a culture that a child will adopt for the rest of his or her life. I can tell you having been to a very close-knit residential school myself, one that lay a lot of emphasis on pursuits outside of academics; that I am now, and will remain forever, a person who believes firmly in the merits and power of overall development, and this philosophy will find its way into every aspect of my life, including the way I approach parenting my own child. My point being, the kind of value system and beliefs that children are exposed to at school and during their formative years of learning will undoubtedly have a huge impact on how they turn out, negative, or positive.
Finally, of course, there is a culture and an identity to be inherited from one’s motherland. Even children, and subsequently adults, who may believe that they are global-citizens, will in some form or fashion, consciously or unconsciously, digest a culture that has been part of the place they were born in, and grew up in. While there are undeniable commonalities across the world’s citizens, it is this nationality-induced difference that makes us uniquely diverse, and that, is a cultural standpoint that children can-not escape. Without pronouncing any judgment; a simple example will demonstrate this. An Indian child, when he or she grows up, is less likely to put their parents into a care-home, choosing instead to keep them at home, and care for them personally, than say, an American. That is usually down to a cultural difference between these two nationalities.
Culture is then, a term that straddles and encapsulates a whole lot. It is a wide gamut of ideologies that children are privy to from various sources, and what children finally practice is an amalgam of all this varied assimilation. All we can do as parents and care givers is to try our best to ensure that our children are exposed to the ‘right’ kind of culture, at home, and outside!