‘An Illicit Affair’ – My Two Decade Battle With Addiction!

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!

The Last Time I’ll Be 39!

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!

Politically Correct!

The country is in the firm grip of election fever. Homes, streets, offices, are abuzz with election-talk, with people offering their individual perspectives on who will win, loose, and form the new government. It also seems like one of the most unpredictable elections to call. In this kind of politically charged atmosphere, there is a huge part of our young Indian society, missing. Absent from the general discourse, absent also from having their own opinions on the matter.

I am referring to middle to high school students of India. Although they may not be in a position to cast their vote, does that mean they shouldn’t have an opinion? I feel it is vital that they do. Having said that, are they really knowledgeable, invested, aware, enough to have an opinion?

Students in India are made to study how our political establishment works. By middle school, most students gain an insight and understanding, at least of the basic fundamentals of the Indian Democratic & Parliamentary systems. How elections take place, representation, voting, constituencies and the like. But perhaps this theoretical knowledge is too rudimentary, and doesn’t evolve into a more reality-based understanding of anything that is politically current. Our students, especially those attending ‘good schools’ in metropolitan areas, go to great lengths to hone their debating skills and participate passionately in a forum such as the MUN (Model United Nations), debating furiously, international problems and seeking possible solutions. While this is a worthy pursuit, should there not be a platform such as the MUN for our own, native politics? A regular and prestigious event that will compel tomorrow’s voters to research, gain different perspectives, and form their own opinions on national political history, issues, parties, states, regions, problems. It will familiarize them with the current political landscape of the country and engage them in a manner that will best prepare them to make informed decisions when it comes time to cast their own votes in the real world.

This kind of grounding and base-formation will also prevent young Indians from blindly adopting a political ideology that they seem to presently either inherit from their parents and families, or imbibe from their suddenly politically charged college environment – there is an argument here that when a young Indian voter does start thinking about his or her politics, it is too late already to really form one’s own, personal, well thought out perspective.

I remember my own experiences as a child, in most quarters of my family, there was this overwhelming loyalty towards the Congress Party with senior members of my family entirely dedicated to Indira Gandhi. I just accepted this bias towards the Congress to be the gospel truth because I had no other alternative. No forum to debate, explore, or historical perspective on which to base, and come to my own conclusions and opinions. I suspect the influence family holds over young students today isn’t vastly different. And it is time that we, as parents, educators, and responsible adults bringing up a new generation of Indians, thought about this, and provided an opportunity to young India, to decide what’s politically correct for them, themselves!

Back To School!

Over the weekend of 3rd May ’19, my own alma mater, The Doon School, invited me to conduct a Writing Workshop with boys from middle-school grades. Needless to mention, I was delighted to be back at school.

Wonderful as it was to return to my old stomping-grounds, it wasn’t ONLY nostalgia that made the visit and the interaction with the students exciting; that I have now been actively teaching for nearly six years, have poured tremendous hard work and passion into this pursuit – it was a huge validation of my work and efforts to be called by Doon.

I must share that my observations of the boys currently studying at the school filled me with pride and immense hope. That here is a school that is clearly doing many things right, because in a long time, I haven’t had the chance to communicate with kids that are as sharp, perceptive, intuitive and enthusiastic, as this bunch. It is almost a given for old/ex students of an institution to say, “It was much better in our time.” I am happy to report that Doon seems to have changed dramatically, though, for the better. The systems, infrastructure, facilities, the standards of boarding and lodging, it all seems exponentially better than it was when I was a student there. And let me make one thing perfectly clear – there is NO romance in enduring bad food, and poor living conditions. The vastly improved pastoral care and general environment is palpable, most noticeably in how happy and content, even kids who have recently joined, seem to be. This is most heartening.

Of course, to return to the institution that instigated my own journey of self-discovery, to now aid, in some small way, the potential discovery of a new generation of Doscos, is deeply fulfilling. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, I think I’d decided that I’d return to school only if and when I had a compelling reason, a meaningful contribution to make. This workshop has proved to be that ideal reintroduction.

It has been a moving and exciting weekend, Back to School! 🙂

Two Years On…

When my daughter Krisha was born, I was nervous, yet overjoyed. At the time, I had written extensively about becoming a father. Many of you read those posts, even reached out to me. It was an exciting time, a new phase, uncharted territory, an unknown path. Now, nearly two years on, I thought I should write an update-piece. Share what the past two years of brining up and interacting with my daughter have been like. So here goes!

With some trepidation life began with Pishu (as Krisha is fondly known at home). Not for any other reason except not wanting to make a misstep. Things soon settled down though. And it has been the most delightful time since. To watch your own flesh and blood, in many ways, an extension of yourself, grow, develop, evolve, is an indescribable feeling. It is an emotional rollercoaster. On the one hand, your heart swells with pride when the first-step is taken, at the same time, the mind fears that some harm might come to the child. While you want your child to engage, interact, and socialise with others, you are vary of her being mistreated, protective, paranoid even! And from the minute she is up to the second she FINALLY falls asleep, she is ACTIVE. Her increasing understanding of things, concepts, language, emotions is scary and fascinating in equal measure.  Her irreverence and abject lack of obedience are both attractive and annoying.

Most of all though, you have, as a parent, an opportunity to be a child once again. With your child, you rediscover the world through their eyes and innocent little hearts and minds, full of genuine surprise and wonder. They are amazed at the simplest facts, lured by the mundane, captivated by the ordinary, enchanted by the elementary. It is enviable, wonderfully refreshing, and always entertaining. Then you see reflections of yourself – physically, habitually, in their personalities, in their likes & dislikes, and in their several inherited traits. When Pishu dances to pallo latke by Asha Bhosle with gay abandon, I can’t help but notice her inherent sense of rhythm, and the fact that she instinctively prefers the ‘original’ to the modern version of the song. Just one example of the infinite list of adorable eccentricities!

Having said all of this, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to a certain amount of very real and palpable frustration. Of having to give up time, people, places, and pursuits. Time with my wife Anuja, for instance, is something that was crucially important to me – that has almost vanished, and it has caused me much anguish. Similarly, the pets have been, to some extent, deprioritised. Such is the crude reality where time and places are usurped by a new baby in the home.

In the larger scheme of things however, the overwhelming sense is that of immense joy and fulfilment. What a child brings to you isn’t selflessness. I dare say, it is terribly selfish. And that kind of love and joy, can not be replaced, traded, or compensated for, by anything else in the entire world. Two years on, I am proud as a potato and pleased as punch, that Pishu is in my life 🙂

‘KHOJ’

As I seek I find

Truth, meaning, the self, the divine

I sketch, I paint, I sculpt, I shine

I brush off layers of lies with turpentine

Hidden truths, some yours, a few mine

Some call it a symphony expressed, others malign

To me it doesn’t matter, neither derided, nor enshrined

I am a seeker, not of glory, of an ideal deeper

As you sip tea or nurse your wine

My calling is to keep relentlessly trying

To initiate

To instigate

To persuade

To stimulate

An inward epiphany

An outward inquiry

A Search, Perennial …..

Make Pudding, Make Merry!

Christmas is a time for familial bonding, love and cheer. It is a true celebration of all that we hold dear. It is also a time when we ought to reflect on all the great things we are blessed with and be deeply grateful.

I remember so vividly, when I was younger, my mum would have the gardener bring out the real-life Christmas Tree we had growing in our garden, plant it into a large, beautiful pot, and have it occupy pride of place in an alcove of our living room.

This was followed by the our joint ritual of tree-decoration. It was a fun project that we undertook together, each year. And the process of the tree’s ornamentation itself, symbolised to me, the true spirit and meaning of the festival. It brought us closer together. It made our bond even stronger. The fact that we ended up with a beautifully embellished Christmas Tree was the bonus. The real fun and festivity was in the act of doing-up the tree.

I must confess that some of this bonhomie and spirit of togetherness has been lost in recent years. I see a growing number of parents and children ‘celebrating’ Christmas yes, though the method has changed. It seems to have become more about being out-and-about, at fairs, festivals and carnivals where one shops, eats, and makes merry. And while that is a perfectly legitimate way of spending the holiday, it does tend to miss out on a personal essence.

My hope and prayer this Christmas then is for parents and children to return to a more innocent time. To do some activities at home, together. It could be anything. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate tree. You could play some games together. Make a New Year Card with the family. Or better still, make Pudding!

Merry Christmas & lots of love!

The ‘Write’ Fit

As many of you might know already, I am conducting one of my holiday-time workshops during this Christmas-New Year school-break. I thought I’d quickly explain in a few brief points, the key features of this Creative Writing Workshop.

  • The Workshops will be for children between 8-12 years of age
  • It will serve as an Introduction to Creative Writing
  • We will begin with absolute basics of Sentence Construction
  • I will introduce the basic concepts of Fiction Writing
  • We will watch Short Films to understand Fiction/Story Writing better
  • We will also learn about Non-Fiction Writing
  • Things such as Essays, Summary Writing which are needed at School
  • Each piece of Writing the students write will be Read Aloud on Stage
  • In addition to Writing Skills, this will give students practice in Public Speaking
  • Ultimately, the Workshops aims to build Writing as well as General Confidence

The workshop will span 6 sessions of an hour each starting 26th December till 31st December from 5:30 to 6:30pm at the Wonder Years Play School in Vaishali Nagar.