Indian men, cooking and kitchen chores – Covid-19 and beyond

In May this year, I put forth a question in a food group on Facebook. The group, which has over 155,900 members worldwide, a majority of them Indians, is a space for people to connect over ‘food talk’ but it is not just about food or recipes. As the pinned post about the group’s guidelines informs, this is a place to connect, mingle and share. Very often, you would find that the discussions on the group range from a number of things – from seeking suggestions and ideas on baby names, to sharing decor and festive tips, and sometimes, women would post in a lighter vein – how their spouses had failed to follow the simplest of instructions when it came to buying groceries or cooking rice in the rice cooker.

In my post, I asked if the men did any cooking – participating, and playing an active part in the kitchen. I wanted to hear from men and women both. I asked, because I was curious. On one hand, the pandemic had led to a surge in baking and making all kinds of tasty treats in the home kitchen, and there had been a lot of focus on cooking, trying out new recipes and rediscovering heirloom ones. On the other, I had also heard a lot of women complain that they were caught in a draining routine – cooking meals three times a day, juggling working from home and many other duties, with often little to no help from family members. I wanted to know if there had been a shift in attitudes when it came to Indian men and cooking duties, not just because of the pandemic but also beyond that.

You can see a man's hands holding an Indian device to make string hoppers and in the back are various things - slightly blurred images of a bottle of oil and egg holder

Several comments started appearing on my post in quick succession, and most of them were from women. It appeared to me that I had touched a raw nerve.

Before the post was deleted (since it was deemed off-topic according to the rules of the group), I tried getting back to all the comments on my posts. I asked further questions and sought approval for quoting their answers for this article.

A woman quickly wrote back to me saying that I could quote her and I was so glad that she did so. Sheela Sharon’s comment on my post stood out because of its honesty, and it found resonance with many women, quickly gathering many Facebook likes and loves.

Sharon, who is based in the US, wrote: “My partner never helped me in the kitchen nor household chores for the last 10 years. He was pampered, spoilt and completely unaware. Covid-19 quarantine has been a blessing. [With] work from home, he realized how much I do at home which was unnoticed. Now he is the one who does dishwashing, kitchen cleaning, laundry which has made it so easy for me to cook and manage the house better. He only makes coffee and fried egg. You need passion to cook, and I don’t think he has it or will try to cook. My husband is not proud of himself for not helping me all these years. Better late than never.”

Sharon credited the pandemic for the shift in her husband’s perspective towards household chores and duties, including the ones in the kitchen. Many other women chimed in, some saying that their husbands didn’t even know how to cook rice and were not even interesting in learning how to do so. One comment simply read, “I have given up. He is just not interested.”

This reminded me of two incidents. During my post graduate studies in journalism and mass communication, I had gone for an overnight stay at my friend’s place. In the evening, a neighborhood aunty had come visiting. Suddenly as the clock struck six, she jumped up with a start and exclaimed, “Akshay (name changed) will be home any minute now and I need to make a glass of warm milk with Bournvita for him.”

“Aunty,” I asked, “Would Akshay be back home from cricket or tuition at this time?”

“Why no!,” she said, her eyes widening in surprise. “He is an officer with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited. He will be back from work, and he always likes to relax with a warm glass of milk when home.” And with that, she bade a hasty goodbye.

I remember being genuinely befuddled. Why would an adult man need his mother to warm up a glass of milk?

However, I knew fairly too well that it was a reality of many Indian households. Men depending on their mothers, sisters, and wives to do even the simplest of cooking tasks for them – be it boiling an egg or making tea.

Indeed, some mothers even took pride in the fact that their sons did not enter the kitchen at all. As one of my mother’s friends had once said, “My son doesn’t even know how to make a cup of tea. Or Maggi. And why should he? I am here, and when he has a wife, she will take over.”

While it is not fair or even accurate to make sweeping generalizations, many women did comment on the post saying that their men never learnt how to help their mothers with cooking and carried on with that attitude after they had families of their own.

However, a lot of women also chimed in with how the men in their families had set an example, and what they were doing as mothers to make sure that their children, irrespective of their gender, learnt cooking as an essential life skill.

Preeti Babji’s comment on the post was in a way, a tribute to her dad. She wrote, “I proudly say I learned cooking from my dad. I remember dad used to help mum in the kitchen 40 years back and [is] still trying new dishes. He is 70 now and during Covid he called me and asked for banana bread recipe, which he had when he visited us.” Another member, Nagashree Manwatkar wrote, “My husband and I share cooking [duties] almost equally. He comes from a traditional business family where men never cook. He is our breakfast guy, can roll parathas and make French toast and pancakes. I love to cook more elaborate food wherein he helps with prep and clean up. He also does our grocery for the week. He has also recently taken to looking up recipes and making brand new recipes. We have a good partnership going.”

Rasana Atreya has ensured that both her children learnt how to cook. She shared in the comments section: “I have a 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. My son will be moving into an apartment in August (at school). I’ve made sure both can cook. My husband can cook, but we all think that his dishwashing skills are more useful for us.”

Many women also pointed out that when their husbands took an equal and earnest role in the kitchen, it had a positive effect on their children. As Divya Mani wrote: “My husband cooks everyday. In fact he cooks more than me. It’s by choice and sometimes circumstantial. And looking at this, my son has also starting showing an interest in cooking and he is only four years old!

It was also important to hear from the men themselves. That is, if they hadn’t ventured into their kitchens so far, what would motivate them to do so and if they were indeed a regular at cooking, what or who was their inspiration?

Dhrumit Sheth, an IT professional currently based in Canada shares, “I have always been a foodie since childhood, and very particular about what I want to eat and how it should taste. While growing up, both my parents went out to work and I have seen my dad cook and help my mother in the kitchen. Also, even as a kid, whenever my sister and I felt hungry in our parents’ absence, we used to make snacks and other food rather than wait for them to return and then eat. So that made me interested in cooking as well, and I strongly believe it’s a life skill everyone should have.”

Sheth, who grew up in India before shifting base to Canada in the recent years, says that there have been some rare occasions when friends or relatives have asked him why he is so active in the kitchen. “If someone asks me why my wife doesn’t cook [as much], I just say that she is not that fond of cooking (which is true) and takes care of other things, while I am interested and fussy about food, so I take care of that part of our life.”

What are Sheth’s favourite things to cook? “I love to make, eat and offer lasagna, veg kurma (a Kerala curry) and shahi paneer,” replies Sheth.

Sometimes, it is also a change in circumstances that leads men to alter their childhood habits .

Shailin Nath (name changed) confides, “I wasn’t very good in the kitchen and to be honest, if I did do something after marriage, my mother wasn’t very pleased with it. She would say – you work full time, leave the kitchen to your wife. My mother always attended to, and still does to this day – every little thing in the kitchen. She doesn’t think it is a man’s job to contribute or even take part in any of these chores. I grew up that way, and amongst that kind of attitudes.”

So, what changed? Nath says, “This was way before the pandemic. When we were expecting our first child, neither my parents nor my wife’s parents could come and stay with us in the United Kingdom. My wife’s aunt came after delivery, but how long could she stay and help? The doctor had suggested that my wife eat a lot of green leafy vegetables and a nutritive diet to get her strength back. After my wife’s aunt left, I started looking up recipes. I realised that it was just the two of us and if I did not help, my wife would not get any respite at all. If the baby was sleeping, I would ask her to get some sleep too, and I would quickly make something for us – mixed lentils khichdi, palak paneer, or even an egg curry. I learnt so much in those months and if I hadn’t, I would have carried a lot of guilt. Because I helped her in the cooking, she was able to look after herself and in turn, our baby’s health and wellbeing.”

Another quote from a father of two, again with a request to let it remain anonymous, was on similar lines. “When we had our daughter, we had decided that we would feed her good, homemade food. The sort of food we had access to when we were growing up. And since we both worked, it was important that I learnt to cook as well. How could I say to my daughter that in order to be fed hot and nutritive food, she had to wait till her mother came home? And that even if I was home earlier, I couldn’t give her a hot roti with ghee (her favourite) because I did not know how to roll one?”

“Even if my initial rotis were misshapen, they were still homemade, made from fresh dough and layered with ghee and a sprinkling of sugar. Just the way she liked it. I learnt how to cook because feeding my daughter was not just my wife’s duty. A hungry child needs food – and hunger can’t wait till mummy comes home.”

Perhaps there is hope. The great Indian kitchen as depicted in the movie of the same name, is changing. One little recipe and baby step at a time. From a father who makes a hot roti for his daughter, a husband who learns how to wash dishes and cut onions after a decade of being spoilt and pampered by his mother, a brother who brushes up his batata poha skills during the pandemic. To a mother who insists that the kitchen and its many duties belongs to, and should be claimed by everyone, and not just by the women in the household. A mother who vows to raise her children differently, ensuring that cooking is not a skill dictated by one’s gender.

And then, there’s always humour. What we cannot conquer by change, we do so with humour.

Like a friend who responded to this potential match who had written to her ‘I want to marry a good cooker.” By which, he meant, a woman who was a good cook.

“Maybe you should try Hawkins or Prestige,” she had emailed back.

Perhaps ten years to that email-exchange, I am hoping the man got a cooker and also acquired some cooking skills. It’s about time. Really.

“A Jain temple sent us lunch and dinner for a month, free of cost. No questions asked”

says Rishabh Lalani, who revisits the numerous acts of generosity and kindness he received when his entire family, including his younger brother, mother, and father tested positive for Covid-19. For Lalani (second from right in the photograph accompanying the story), who works as an independent consultant to the not-for-profit sector, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on why people are inspired to offer unconditional support and help in a time of great distress. This story, is a part of our series on Covid-19 and compassion. This particular series invited people to share any experiences of goodness and kindness that they had come across as the pandemic raged in India, especially those that they had encountered first-hand.

As I start writing this piece, I remember going to back to a question one of my friends asked on social media – Is there a Hindi word for kindness? As we chew on this question, I am transported to the months of May, June and July 2021. I live and work in Bangalore, but during these months, I was in Kolkata where the rest of my family resides. On 21st May, my younger brother tested positive for Covid-19. Subsequently, on 27th May, my father tested positive and on 29th May, my mother also tested positive. Suddenly, my whole world had unraveled. My entire support system was at stake; my mind was struggling to make sense of what had happened, and life had come to a standstill.

A few calls to some of the doctors, who had treated us over the years resulted in no responses. My brother called up the mother of one of his students. She was a general physician and she agreed to do regular consultations for him. While she was treating him, my father was next in line, and she took up his case as well. She would enquire with us every day and check up on both my brother and father periodically. Sometimes she would scold me for my absent mindedness but was always alert to our needs. When my mother’s infection took a turn for the worse, she stepped up to the occasion, helped us access a critical care specialist and kept checking in on her as well. Her reassurances kept me going. At the end of it all, when we offered her fees for all her trouble, she refused. She said it meant the world to her that she could help. I don’t know yet how to thank her.

Throughout the 30-odd days of this ordeal, nutritious food could have been a challenge. I can’t cook much and my parents, who manage the kitchen jointly, were down with fever. My elderly grandmother needed to be fed as well. Through sheer coincidence, we figured out that one of the Jain temples nearby was sending food for families affected by Covid-19, free of cost. They sent lunch and dinner for our entire family for one whole month. No questions asked. In fact, when they were winding down their kitchen, they called us, checked-in on our situation and continued sending food for three more days so that we had enough time to figure out an alternative. Given the fragile nature of everyone’s health during Covid-19, we also needed breakfast. My mother’s best friend kept sending breakfast for a full two weeks so that all of us had enough energy to power through the day. Every morning at 8.30 am, I would get a call asking me to send someone to pick up the food packet. No questions asked, no thank-yous and no frills. Just pure love.

With the events unfolding as they were, my friends kept me steady. It’s hard to write without taking names, but let’s say that one beautiful soul was there with me throughout the whole episode – making calls to hospitals, checking in on ambulances, helping me decide on backup plans and connecting me to her doctor friend for seeking second opinions and advice. All my friends were available to me – some helped me cry, others gave me alternative suggestions, discussed pros and cons of decisions, connected me to doctors…  All of them were present to me in any way or form that I needed them. Without them, I would have sunk without a trace.

And finally, I want to talk about family. My brother-in-law, my sisters, my maami (the Indian term commonly used for your maternal uncle’s wife) – all of them were constantly giving me strength. My sisters arranged for fruits, and daily consumables that I needed, while my brother-in-law helped me decipher medical advice and kept constant vigil on everyone through WhatsApp. My sister in the UK spoke to us every day even though she was down with fever herself.

Which brings me back to the original question – is there a Hindi word for kindness? Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. It doesn’t matter. From the doctor who treated my family for free to the folks in the Jain mandir who gave us nutritious meals – it is our common humanity, our innate kindness that held us together. There was no reason for people to open their hearts at a time when all of us were stretched, but everyone still did. Why? One final story may have the answer.

Every night, I would go to the dumpster near our home to dispose off of our daily household garbage, that is, to empty our bins. For the first couple of nights that I did so, I noticed a few homeless people in the vicinity. One day, I resolved to be more mindful in how I was serving my family their food. I knew exactly how much they needed for a meal at a time and would carefully put in the required portions in their plates. The rest of the food, I saved and packed in clean containers, taking utmost care to follow the Covid-19 protocols.

From that day onwards, every night, I would go down and distribute the food that I had saved and hygienically packed and preserved to the people who seemed to be hungry and homeless. I realised that we had plenty of food, the portions sent out to us were generous, and we were in a position to offer food to others as well. One of them happened to be a diabetic and he sought my help to buy some medicines. I agreed and bought him a month’s worth of supplies. Every night with my heart heavy with thoughts about what the next day would bring, this was the one thing that gave me peace. I asked myself why? My heart’s answer was “Acha lagta hai (It feels good).”

Maybe that is the answer to why kindness exists. Maybe it’s about acha lagta hai.

About the author: Rishabh Lalani loves connecting with people, is a great believer in the power of connection and is learning to live in the moment. He tells stories and contributes to people’s well-being through fundraising.

You can read the previous stories in this series here: Hyderabad-based Ayanti Guha’s experience of finding a sense of community during Covid and Bangalore-based Lakshmi Ajay’s experience of receiving kindness from complete strangers during the pandemic.

If you have a story to share, please get in touch with us and we will be happy to publish your account in your own words.

“Handwritten notes expressing concern, personal follow-ups asking for individual food preferences were some of the other kindnesses shown”

Says Ayanti Guha as she recounts how her gated community in Hyderabad rose to the challenges of Covid-19, with a group of over 60 women coming together to provide home-made, healthy and delicious meals to those affected by the virus. This story, is a part of our series on Covid-19 and compassion. This particular series invited people to share any experiences of goodness and kindness that they had come across as the pandemic raged in India, especially those that they had encountered first-hand.

A year and a half ago our lives changed. It’s definitely not been for the better in toto, but I cannot honestly say it’s been entirely downhill either.

I live in a gated community of 400+ units. That’s rather small in a place like Hyderabad where massive gated communities with apartment units in four digits have been popping up like mushrooms. 

But when one thinks about it, there are about 2000 people living and using the same amenities 24/7, 365 days of the year and this has led to our butting heads over issues – big and small and I have contemplated whether being in a villa would be a better option for us as a family because we would get the benefit of a community and yet have more privacy for ourselves and maintain a greater sense of space between our neighbors.

At the start of the pandemic, I exited a few WhatsApp groups that were community-based. It seemed to me that rumor mongering, blind faith and paranoia was gradually taking over and clear and concise thought, empathy was getting relegated to the back burner by most.

All that started to change when Covid visited our doorsteps. Till then we were quite happy to sit back and be armchair critics about the state of the world, what the politicians ought to do better, and it was an unending list.

Once the afflictions came into our homes, it was in a no-holds barred manner. We were ill-prepared for the fear, the anxiety and the sheer helplessness that spread- whether we were affected or not. We were all impacted.

When my son tested positive for Covid last year (something he skated through with the abandon only a child is capable of) we saw the generosity of spirit of the community shine through. There was not only concern for his welfare but for ours as well. People would call, message and just reach out in case any of us wanted to vent or express our angst. And that often meant more than medical help did at times.

Over time the helping mechanism became a well-oiled machine! A group of ladies (about 60 and counting) got together and formed a group that would cater to the dietary needs of the Covid+ individuals and their families who would be under quarantine. The plan was simple – instead of running a communal kitchen, each one would make a bit extra of the meals that day in their own home and put that information on a WhatsApp group created expressly for that purpose. Each day this information would be shared with the families who were under quarantine or in need of this dabba service. They in turn would indicate what they would want for their meals, and it would be shared with them at the time specified. The only requirements would be that the food be fresh, in tune with the taste buds and food habits a particular family is used to and voila, a dynamic, healthy and fresh food service cropped up in no time at all.

Bringing together a plethora of pan-Indian cuisine and often going the extra mile in making food in special shape for kids or giving them something that appealed to their taste buds as well as sense of fun; this group became a mainstay for those who were wondering how they would navigate these tough times till the all-clear was sounded.

Soon there seemed to be a seamless way of functioning. There were no differences between the different parts of the country we came from. A South Indian breakfast one day combined with a North Indian lunch and a dinner with Eastern Indian elements was just one of the things we experienced. Handwritten notes expressing concern, personal follow-ups asking for individual food preferences were some of the other kindnesses shown. And shown freely.

This endeavor not only served to bring comfort and solace to over 80 families but it also brought these women closer together as they partook in the act of reaching out and taking care of their neighbours; many of them they had nary shared a passing glance with earlier.

One person handing out a netted bag to another, it contains aubergine, apple, celery and what appears like a pear.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

As the Covid cases decreased in the community, many of the women in the food group felt a void because cooking up something for a person in need had often been the high point in their day. In fact, a sense of confidence and positivity has also crept in – that this is possibly the best place we could hope to be in during a time of crisis.

Covid will eventually become one of the crosses we will need to bear as a community. Over time, we might even become habituated to it and these harrowing days will be a thing of the past (knock wood) but the way a group of people banded together to bring some solace, peace and healing is something that will stay with us forever.

About the author: Ayanti Guha, describes herself as “a total bookworm. Semi-sloth. Part-time author, full-time mom. An occasional insomniac and dabbler in amateur clicks. Also podcasts when she runs out of people who will listen to her.

You can read also Lakshmi Ajay’s story here. In Ajay’s experience of kindness during the pandemic, food has played a central part as well.

If you have a story to share, please get in touch with us and we will be happy to publish your account in your own words.

We are focusing on ‘Covid Kindness’

As India battles the deadly second wave of Covid-19, almost everyone who tests positive is struggling to find lifesaving medicines, oxygen cylinders and hospital beds – and this holds especially true for those who require immediate medical intervention. Families are trying to hold on to their health and wellbeing.

But some of us have also encountered help and kindness in the midst of all the mayhem. From individuals and organisations. It is this kindness which has helped many of us stay afloat.

We want to hear these stories.

However, these stories are not about whitewashing the breakdown of governance or about toxic positivity. It is also not about attempting to put a positive spin on a distressing situation. There is little doubt that most government bodies and leaders have failed India and its citizens. It is also true that there are black markets and dishonest profiteering – of essential medicines, oxygen cylinders and scams of various kinds. These include trafficking rackets involving vulnerable children orphaned by Covid-19 to people charging exorbitant amounts for simple services. And if you have faced a complete breakdown of the system or have lost a loved one because medical help wasn’t available on time – it is criminal to ask you to focus on the ‘positive news.’

So, this isn’t about trying to generate a forced sense of positivity in the midst of a pandemic.

This is about recording acts of kindness that you have encountered and the impact it has had on you.

This is about remembering to be a kinder person and to help those around us – not just as the pandemic rages, but even afterwards because the journey ahead is long and arduous.

An entire nation will need help and infrastructure of multiple kinds to cope with grief, loss, mental health and finances.

We hope that by reading these stories, we will be able to reinforce the impact that one person’s goodness or a single act of kindness and empathy can create and how we all have the capacity to do more for those around us.

Write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

“Kindness is a panacea for the pandemic”

says Lakshmi Ajay, who writes about experiencing it in its purest form in the past few weeks. Ajay, a former journalist and a communications professional based in Bangalore, and her husband fell sick with Covid-19 as the second wave encompassed India in its deadly grip. As they battled its manifold symptoms and sought help – the one thing that really made a difference came from strangers.

“…To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living

A smooth brown pebble is placed on a larger rock formation in the midst of green bushes and shrubs. On the round pebble are the following words (painted in white) - Stay Safe Be Kind. There is a star painted on the top of these words
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

From the time I was a child, the one thing that never ceased to amaze me was the kindness of strangers. As children we are constantly taught not to trust strangers, but I have always felt the need to subvert this theory all my life!

My earliest memory of encountering this phenomenon was – as a fifth grader during the floods that took place in my hometown Gandhidham located in Kutch, Gujarat – in the 90s. I still vividly recall that school day when my mother (a teacher) and I were slowly wading through the rising floodwaters and trying to get home from our bus stop. As we gingerly trudged up the 1.5 kms home, people in the locality, especially women watched as we held onto walls and gates and tried to cross the flood waters that were now nearly three to four feet high. At various points, I remember being so afraid to go on that I would tell my mother that I just didn’t want to take another step even as the rains beat down on us constantly. I remember the last 300 meters were particularly tough for me as a child and I was frozen with fright at the sight of gushing waters.  

As my mother tried to cajole me to move forward, suddenly I remember being lifted high onto the shoulders of a relative stranger. He lived in our locality and had been watching us until he stopped and promptly came to my mother’s aid and carried me home. For a few years after that I recall my mother always remembering this kindness and sending me to tie him a Rakhi (an Indian custom symbolic of a brother’s unwavering promise to help a sister whenever she was in crisis) on his hand and exchange some sweets on the eve of Rakshabandan – an Indian festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and a sister.

Countless other memories flash before my eyes now as I recollect how various people showed me extraordinary kindness at different points of time. Whilst travelling as a single woman in India, I found kindness in the unlikeliest of places. From a near deserted hotel at a tiger sanctuary in Assam where a local reporter and his sister kept me company to the kindness of a Kashmiri student who helped me find a hotel in the dead of the night in Jammu and connect me to a local cop so I would feel safe in his state – I found truckloads of kindness in serendipitous ways that feel almost impossible or improbable if I think of it now.

As a journalist traipsing through rural Gujarat for stories, many strangers evaded me but many more helped me. But these past few years, it feels as if this India that I had known and experienced had rapidly changed. As the great Indian middle class grew in aspiration and heft, kindness was increasingly missing from our collective discourse. More distance and antipathy was created by a hateful ideology that seemed to pervade our reason, so much so that lynchings, atrocities on Dalits and young women, minorities, couples, and students became so mainstream that somewhere we stopped caring.  

Today, I write from Bengaluru, India, a city where the pandemic is unleashing all its fury, and the administration and citizens are barely able to keep up. A government mobile application has just informed me that 473 people around me in the 1 km vicinity are Covid positive at the moment.

Just as we were getting a grip on the second wave and staying home in April, my husband and I tested positive for Covid-19. As shock gave way to practical considerations like food and medicines – a relative stranger we were supposed to work with for a project volunteered and fed us home cooked meals for the first two weeks of our illness. As we both battled fever, tiredness, aches, and pains – her food became the only uplifting thing that we looked forward to in our days.

Another stranger who responded to my enquiry for meals on Facebook would go on to send us meal boxes with short handwritten notes stuck on them reminding us to eat healthy and get better while we recovered from the Covid-19 virus. She did this even after providing meals to 25 odd people who worked as security and support staff in and around her locality every day.

Lakshmi received these lunch packets every day, and they came with a handwritten note

The simplicity of these gestures, the generosity, and the notes she sent put more wind in my sails than the eight tablets (mostly multivitamins) I was putting into my body every day to fight the virus.  I was lucky enough to recover at home without hospitalization even as hundreds of people (2.7 lakh) in India have succumbed to the pandemic as of May 17.

As a nation, all our fault lines now lay completely exposed. Entire families are testing positive and struggling with managing their recovery from Covid-19, mental health concerns are rising for many with pre-existing conditions, young kids are managing by themselves at home as parents recoup in hospitals, multiple lives have been lost in a single family – and the worst of human suffering is still unfolding in front of us.

And yet, each day we read and hear of countless kindnesses that are also part of the “India story” as we brave this pandemic. Everyday scores of home chefs, homemakers, NGO’s, youth, and volunteers are busy providing meals and other services to thousands of Covid-19 affected patients and their families. Countless calls and tweets are being made by strangers as they help out patients in need of oxygen cylinders or ventilators and many are volunteering to cremate the dead. We read of police officers driving for hours to find a hospital bed for a patient or arrange a ventilator. Even as the economy teeters, corporate India is backing its people with paid leaves, jobs, loans, and financial support for bereaved families. What this tells me is that somewhere our collective conscience as a nation and the syncretic culture of India is not yet lost. 

So where do we begin the work of healing? We begin first with ourselves and then with others who need our support to heal themselves. Ask simple questions and offer help as these are the only elements that we control in present times. This second wave of Coronavirus reminded me of simpler times and simple gestures like sending over food to an unwell neighbor or doing seva (service) by feeding the sick or vulnerable which was such a core middle class Indian value. I wonder when we became a society that began thinking in terms of us versus them.

To put things in perspective, we have all lost something and someone during this pandemic. As a nation we are lost, in grief, in denial and need direction. Unfortunately, many more of us will be lost before we recoup from this pandemic. My only take away from my own illness and recovery is to keep looking across the aisle and care. Simple things like checking up on people who may not be as privileged as we are or building communities or families wherever we are.

As news headlines rain blows on us day after day, telling us of numerous tragedies unfolding all around us and an unresponsive government which refuses to step up to the task of providing direction- we can only count on each other. And like I was telling a friend – India is literally currently running on kindness these days – the kindness of strangers.

About the author: Lakshmi Ajay is a minstrel at large, looking at life and that zany moment in between. She describes herself as a lifeist, dance-demon, newshound, Bollywood fanatic/ au fait, outwitter, contrarian, dusk gatherer, who is always hunting for the best Chaat on the streets of Bangalore with a filter Kaapi in hand. 

“Before I became an adoptive parent myself, I theoretically knew that each child deserves a family who passionately loves and protects them”

Says Smriti Gupta, who is a child rights campaigner, and a partnerships and marketing professional. She is working to drive awareness and find lasting solutions for India’s most vulnerable children. In this interview with PRERNA SHAH, she talks about creating a Facebook group that supports Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPs), how a family can prepare themselves prior to bringing home a child, as well as her campaign on Safe Surrender. Gupta also addresses several pertinent issues regarding adoption in India, including the lack of maternity leave for parents who bring home an older child.

You run a Facebook group that helps PAPs who are interested in adopting older children, siblings and children with special needs. How did that group come about and what sort of help are PAPs looking for when they sign up?

When I started engaging with Facebook groups related to adoption within India, I realised that the conversations is these groups were mostly geared towards adoption of younger children in the normal category. I wanted to create a space for PAPs to be able to discuss adoption of children with special needs (any age), normal category children above six years of age, and sibling groups. That’s how the Facebook group (India Adoption – Children with special needs, older children and siblings) came about.

PAPs in this group are looking for similar things that I have seen in other groups; only the children’s profiles are different. For example, PAPs are looking to understand how to care for a child with a certain special need, or how to prepare themselves for an older child adoption, or how to help siblings adjust, etc. Having an exclusive group really helps because you are getting answers from adoptive parents who have had similar experiences.

Are Indian PAPs opening up to adopting older children? Do you see a significant increase in parents opting for or considering adopting older children and children with special needs?

Yes, Indian PAPs are opening up to adopting older children, sibling groups, and children with special needs. I can’t say how significant the increase is since I don’t have the statistics around it but it’s very heartening to see PAPs opening up to a wide profile of children. International adoptions do play a significant role in the adoption of these children, and I am very thankful for that because every child deserves a family.

How does one define older children and what are the particular challenges that parents face when they bring home an older child? Or when they bring home siblings?

I think the definition varies on who you ask. There was a time when Indian government didn’t allow adoption of children over six years of age, so many people consider that as the cut off for defining older children. (By the way, now children can be adopted up to 18 years of age – a positive change in how India views adoption). I would personally define pre-teens and teens as an older child adoption, so over 10 years of age.

I don’t like the word ‘challenges’ when it comes to adoption. I would rather say what type of ‘preparation’ do PAPs need when they bring home an older child and an older group of siblings. I think the biggest preparation is accepting that it will take time to adjust and bond for the child as well as the parent. Also the child may require catch up time to match with his/her peer group both educationally and emotionally. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t rush things. Every child and every relationship has its own path.

If an adoptive parent and the (adopted) child face a challenge in bonding with each other, who can the parents seek help from? Are there enough resources for adoptive parents in India?

In such a scenario, I would encourage parents to talk to other adoptive parents to get some tips and also a reality check around expectations. I remember telling a PAP that it took one of my daughters two years to really start hugging me on a consistent basis. She had bonded with me in other ways; it’s just that hugging wasn’t her thing in the initial years. I think the PAP was quite surprised but I also hope it gave them some perspective on how every child is different.

For more formal counselling, the adoptive parents can reach out to therapists, though I am not sure how many therapists in India today are well versed with adoption. So try both formal and informal help.

Disruptive adoptions are also on the rise. What happens when an adoptive parent and a child decide that they do not or no longer function as a family?

I want to step back and bring a bit of a perspective to this since it’s an important topic. My understanding is that until few years ago, people only adopted babies or very young children. Now people are becoming open to adopting kids of all ages, a positive development which needs to be supported with more preparation and more counselling. I wonder whether disruptive adoptions happen due to lack of such counselling.

One of the adoptive families in India recently adopted a 12-year old child. I had long conversations with them perhaps four to six times before the adoption, and about four to five times post adoption. The family is obviously very open-minded and warm. Still I could see how talking through the process was useful for them. I believe this type of a support network should be in place for all adoptions.

There is a process for adoption dissolution when the adoption does not work out. But let’s try and make sure we never get there. Let’s prepare the families upfront.

If an older adoptive child displays behavioural issues that may include violent behaviour, what can an adoptive parent do to help the child and also themselves?

First and foremost, let’s remember we are talking about a child, irrespective of whether the child came into the family via reproduction or adoption. Seek out relevant resources and support. Find good therapists and child counsellors. It’s not easy but it’s doable. Make sure the child knows that his/her acceptance in the family is not dependent on his/her behaviour.

You also run a campaign regarding safe surrender. Can you tell us something about it?

Indian law allows parents or guardians to legally surrender a child at an adoption agency, if they are unable or unwilling to raise a child. This is a hugely important law to protect children but public awareness about it is non-existent. Almost weekly we see news stories about children being unsafely abandoned or killed. Which is why we are running the safe surrender campaign, which you can read more about here:

https://waic.in/safesurrender/. We also have an ongoing petition to the Indian media about it: http://change.org/SafeSurrender and we are currently training Anganwadi workers in one of Telangana’s district about this law.

I believe building Safe Surrender awareness requires much more attention and resources. So I am hoping that at some point the government would highlight Safe Surrender just like they are running campaigns such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.

You can see the backs of women in pretty blouses and saris, and a woman in green sari in the front. She is explaining things, there is a laptop and on the wall, at TV, on which the contents of the slides from the laptop are shared
A workshop on Safe Surrender being conducted in Telangana

Can you share a couple of stories or case studies from the Facebook group that you run, in which the adoptive parent was helped with advice, resources or support that helped them go ahead with a successful adoption or helped provide a solution to an issue or a problem.

There are many small stories, one of which I mentioned above – the family who adopted the 12-year old child reached out to me through this Facebook group. Another anecdote I can share is about another family in India who adopted siblings and used the group to talk about getting prepared for the adoption, and some everyday things post-adoption such as helping the kids learn English etc.

What made you choose to work in the adoption ecosystem?

Before I became an adoptive parent myself, I theoretically knew that each child deserves a family who passionately loves and protects them, how important it is for children to feel secure in a safe family, and how vulnerable children are in many shelters and other less than ideal scenarios. After my daughters’ adoptions, the reality of it hit home. They had been impacted terribly by previous lack of care, but as soon as they came home, they started thriving very quickly and beautifully. It was magical to see their personalities transform and them becoming their own person. The idea that any child anywhere is in a vulnerable position is not acceptable. So I work in this ecosystem to hopefully make a tiny contribution towards ensuring a safe family for every child.

Recently, an adoptive mother shared her experience on a professional network. She said that the company she worked for, refused to give her maternity leave since the child she had adopted was not an infant. Do you think there can be a greater sense of awareness and possible solution seeking exercises on an issue like the one above?


I had faced the same issue a few years ago. I had even started a petition about it. I think this is one of those issues which is so solvable that it’s ridiculous that it exists in the first place. All the government has to do is say we don’t differentiate between maternity leave for reproduction and adoption. Both get the same leave. Done. There are less than 4000 adoptions versus millions of births annually in India. So parity in maternity leave is a very minor thing from a human resource perspective, but an extremely important thing for the mental welfare of every child who has just been adopted into a family and needs time to bond and adjust.

Interested in reading more stories about adoption? You can read Sangitha Krishnamurthi piece on how certain issues in adoption are often pushed under the carpet here. You may also like to read a piece by Anjali Fahnline,14, who talks about her journey as an adoptee here.

“When a five-year-old boy called my three-year-old son his enemy”

recalls Eisha Sarkar, a communications professional, and in this piece, she reflects on her journey as a parent and describes incidents, books and literature that helped her chart her own journey through motherhood.

This photograph, used for representative purposes is by William Fortunato from Pexels.com

“You said Ronnie is your enemy,” eight-year-old Rahul shouted to five-year-old Siddharth in Gujarati who was plucking mulberries for my three-year-old son, Ronnie. Siddharth handed over a ripe, black mulberry fruit to my toddler and then sat next to Rahul outside a bungalow’s gate. “Ronnie is my enemy, but his mother is standing here so I decided to help her get mulberries from the tree,” Siddharth told him. I opened my mouth to say something but then my little boy came running towards me giggling and we walked away from the two boys.

Three days before this particular exchange between Siddharth and Rahul, I watched in disbelief as Rahul pinned Ronnie to himself by grabbing his hands and Siddharth scared him by making monster faces. My son was getting very disturbed. I asked the boys to stop and let him go. They obeyed immediately. Why did kids as little as eight and five think curious toddlers were their enemies who needed to be punished or scared away just because they ran amok and touched or smiled at everyone? Did I attempt to explain to them that it was Ronnie’s way of getting to know people? No.

Usually, I don’t intervene when the children play. We don’t live in a gated colony in Vadodara but in a loosely formed society where there are more senior citizens than young children. With Covid 19 restrictions in place, schools, nurseries and playcentres shut, this is the only form of socialization I can offer to a curious toddler who wants to know the world around him. I want him to interact with children of all ages and different backgrounds. For most part of the half-hour of play, I am a bystander, watching him make his way through the pecking order. The older girls are very welcoming. The boys not so much. Some occasions require me to get in the middle of their play. When my toddler disrupts a game of cricket or badminton by running onto the ‘pitch’, I have to carry him off with him wailing and writhing in my arms or I have to step in when the kids play rough.

When I narrated these incidents to my mother, who has over a decade of experience as a schoolteacher in Mumbai, she warned me. “Don’t let the older children bully Ronnie. You must come to his rescue. Don’t stand there and wait until they push him or something. The moment you see them behave in a way that is disturbing him, act. Be involved. That’s what parenting is about.”

Parenting hasn’t been easy. During my child’s first eight months, I suffered from post-natal depression. Instead of counselling what I ended up with was streams of visitors, relatives and friends who would drop in to see my baby at any time of the day or night, often without asking me if I was okay with it. It drained my energy, along with long breastfeeding sessions and sleepless nights, to such an extent that I didn’t want to spend an hour a week talking to a therapist. Many people gifted and suggested books, right from Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You Are Expecting during my pregnancy to Time Life’s Your Baby’s First Year to Skinny Bitch Bun in The Oven by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin to old copies of Reader’s Digest which had articles about babies and Tarla Dalal’s cookbooks. A zillion links to blogs and articles about parenting and babies were WhatsApped to me.

I read some of them and they did help me deal with issues of diapering, feeding, cleaning, nutrition, sickness, and exercise but I also needed a book that would guide me through the day-to-day conflicts of raising a multicultural child in a multicultural household. I am agnostic and Bengali by birth. I have no direct connection with Bengal, having lived my life in New Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, Brisbane, and Vadodara. I studied in Christian schools and colleges and have friends from diverse communities. My husband and his family are traditional, religious Nagar Brahmin Gujarati with roots that run deep in Saurashtra and Vadodara. Often, the conflicts at home revolved around food, language or how a sick child should be treated.

Thankfully, now a book like that is available. In Raising a Humanist, authors Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia write, “Accepting something that is ‘different’ is not always easy. We often look with suspicion at people who seem different, who (have) a different lifestyle or culture or who have a different way of seeing the world. Realizing that we – parents, teachers, family members, and other adults – are responsible for sowing seeds of bias and prejudice in the minds of young people can be unsettling, especially when we love them and care for them. As a result, most of us refuse to evaluate our stake in the process of raising children who are biased, intolerant, and scared of interacting with others who are different from themselves. Also, many of us are unaware of our own personal bias towards other individuals, belief systems, practices and processes.” While I believed that I was more secular and liberal than the Gujarati part of my family, after reading the book, I realised how haughty and prejudiced that assumption is. In order to bring up a child who accepts both cultures, I need to be less biased towards the other culture in my own household.

While leafing through the pages of the book, I revisited the play scenes in my head and discovered that, as the authoritative figure, I had left the field without telling two young children what they had done wrong, that they should have been gentler when they played with my toddler. The next day when Ronnie saw the boys coming towards him, he first got scared and then aggressive. I calmed him down by laughing and telling him that they were making monkey faces. Humour cuts where anger doesn’t. The word, ‘monkey’ did the trick. The boys stopped at once. Then Rahul tried to grab both Ronnie’s hands and pin him down. Gently, I asked him, “How would you feel if someone were to do that to you?” He immediately let Ronnie go. “Good!” He smiled at me and took Ronnie’s hand. For the next forty-five minutes, the three boys played with each other as if nothing had happened. That’s the beauty of childhood.

This incident also says something about the power and potential of books; of finding voices and approaches that help you in your journey as a parent. Sometimes, it could be just a line, other times, an entire book.  

If I were to leave you with some of my personal favourites – books that resonated with me, and continue to do so as I grow as a mother, I would suggest looking up:

·     Time Life’s Your Baby’s First Year, which is the most no-nonsense practical book you can find

·     Becoming by Michelle Obama, if you want to learn how to strike work-life balance as a mother

·      Tongue in Cheek – The Funny Side of Life by Khyrunnisa A., if humour is the antidote you need to alleviate your anxiety

Everyone approaches parenting differently and there is so much to learn and unlearn, and if you have curated a reading list on this topic, please feel free to write back to us with your thoughts.

(Names of all the children have been changed to protect their identity.)

Eisha Sarkar is a writer, educator, designer and peacebuilder based in Vadodara, Gujarat and has worked extensively in the fields of journalism, education, peacebuilding, design, documentation and international relations. She became a mother in 2018 and currently has the toughest job on her hands – trying to get her toddler to obey her instructions.

While the piece has been edited to suit our format, the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account are Sarkar’s own.

Why write about grief? Why an ode to loss?

Why should one do a series on loss and grief? For one, these experiences are central to our lives. There’s not a single person who hasn’t experienced loss (via death of a loved one) or wouldn’t do so in his/her lifetime.

Who we lose and how … the situations differ and yet, it is rare to come across someone who has never grieved. Sometimes the loss is unexpected, or traumatic or takes place in circumstances that change us forever. It takes time for us to acknowledge and process the impact of that loss, and how it has shaped us.

There are no tailor-made solutions or one singular way to cope with loss. Sometimes writing it down helps, sometimes sharing helps, and at other times, all that we need is for someone to listen without judgement and with empathy.

Swati and I wanted to do this series for years now, but how do you ask people to share some of their most intimate, vulnerable experiences? We have both been moved to tears while reading some of the experiences that people have shared with us, and one in particular.

As it so happens, much before The Good Story Project came to be, one of us had reached out to this person two years ago and asked if she was willing to be interviewed or write a piece on her loss. That piece finally came to us this year, and once it was in, we realized it had been such a big ask from her. Writing about such a life-altering loss is always difficult and more so when you are going to share it with someone else and open it up for so many other people to read.

I should know this. It took me several years to write about losing my father and how it affected me, and even though I could write about many things under the sun, every time I tried to put in words my father’s last moments and the last hour leading to his death, I would end up staring endlessly at a blank screen. Though my father was calm and dignified when it was his time to go, his death and the aftermath affected me deeply and writing about it has also been one way to honour his memory as well as acknowledge my grief.

So we would like to thank each and every one of you who has shared or is in the process of sharing your deeply personal experiences with us.

And we cannot take without giving. Therefore, I am sharing links for a piece that I had written in 2019 and also for one that I wrote in 2020. These pieces are deeply personal and deal with my own sense of grief; having written them for my personal blog.

You can find the 2019 one here and the one I wrote more recently here.

In the first part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’, read Mumbai-based sports journalist Nitin Naik’s story here. Naik lost his wife to cancer in 2015.

In the second part, read Lakshmi Kaul’s story here. Kaul lost her only daughter to a freak allergy incident in 2017.

In the third part, read Darshana Shukul’s story here. Shukul lost her mother when she was a child.

Continue reading the fourth part and fifth part of the series. These stories deal with the grief of losing a parent.

The sixth and seventh stories are about losing a loved one to Covid-19 and mourning a loss during the 2020 pandemic.

The last story in our series is on loss and what it feels like – 19 years from when it first happened and what one can do help someone who is grieving.

“When I think of our daughter and how both of them missed getting to know each other, I feel a lump in my throat”

Says artist and sculptor Zaida Jacob whose daughter was only a year and half when she lost her husband.

Moving beyond labels

The labels I see on myself keep changing. In early days I used to feel people pasted a ‘fragile’ label on me. Then I felt ‘bold.’ I mean they think I am bold. But I am not. I just cope because one has to.

I find myself feeling tentative. Like the ground under my feet is still moving. It has been 19 years since we lost Mihir. That assured feeling of ‘belonging’ has never come back.

Having said that, the flip side is the world has opened up. The feeling that everybody has a universal spread. A kind of package of life – like a buffet or pantry of sorts – sometimes with a cold storage section too.

What is in your plate or dish at any given moment may vary. But life’s kitchen has similar ingredients for all. It completely depends on how creatively you cook your dish. I may laugh at what I have just said a few moments later but for now will let it go.

What grief feels like

There is a canopy of trees. A man with spectacles and a beard and a mustache holds a little baby girl who wears a cap on her head. She has jet black hair popping out of the cap and is cherubic looking.
Photo courtesy: Zaida Jacob. In this photograph, Mihir holds Aruvi.

Well, the way I see it, ‘grief’ is when you are in the midst of it, it does not feel. You just do what needs to be done. 

When you have had an accident or a limb has been cut… you are so busy coping with the hurt or the absence of it, that there is no time to think of feeling. (You need to adjust to the new life without a limb…. or with a big wound.)

In my case I was fortunate. He was popular (liked by lots of people) and so the absence was shared. I found myself comforting other people sometimes when they came to condole. Plus, I have a huge support mattress in my friends. It’s like falling on the bed wherever you fall. I was looked after… all along. And so was our daughter. I am not sure whether I can take credit for this but in losing my husband I allowed lots of other friends to share the role of parent for my daughter. And so, our daughter became like a child brought up in a huge joint family. To live by their ways and terms while she was with them was followed. She had six families where she had a sense of ‘home.’

Talking of grief and pain getting smoother with time, I can say that when you look back and see the marks of the dried-up wounds suddenly it hurts sometimes. I can feel pain physically somewhere in the middle of my stomach or someplace within. When I think of our daughter and how both of them missed getting to know each other, I feel a lump in my throat and a horrible feeling of loss and of how unfair it is. 

However, it does get bearable with time if you allow it. Plus, you have to keep being real and asking real questions to yourself. 

“Am I really so unfortunate?” “What did I come here to do?” “Is there something larger than the things I do that I am meant to do?”

Look for the things that engage your love. In my case I had my daughter so the demands of being in the ‘now’ doesn’t leave much space for grieving.

How people helped, how I helped myself

I lost my mother-in-law in 2000, just after that earthquake in Kutch took place. And when I missed her and thought of how the centre of our family had suddenly just gone away, I was reminded of those many, many children who lost their parents, their homes. Some lost spouses, some lost their children and yet others their everything. How big was my loss? 

Somehow, we humans have a strange way of comforting ourselves in finding other people who are worse off. And so, I lost my husband in 2002 and in a few months, I kept seeing images of innocent people who lost loved ones because of the riots in Gujarat. So much loss, so much grief and so universal was this feeling of loss. What was I being asked to learn? What was I being told to do?  I had a child of one and a half and she had me. The immediate task in hand was to give her security, to hold her close. To do all that I needed to keep the feeling of family intact. So, I took up a job in Mumbai since I needed to be close to my parents but resolved to come back and give our daughter the rest of the ground beneath her feet.

My neighbours for example adopted her out of love as their granddaughter, our close friends became immediate family. She had a nani in my friend whom we called bhabhi so she called her ‘bhabhi nani‘ and her children were like elder cousins to her. Till she was seven or eight she didn’t know the difference between blood relatives and friends. She believed all these were hers and she belonged to them. 

She even wrote essays in school enlisting a huge family of members and dogs as her own family – who actually didn’t exist in her blood relations or in her home. 

I let her do it. Sometimes I informed the teacher to be kind and not question her. She had an amazing principal and teachers at her school. They too gave her love and created a feeling a co-parenting for me. 

To date these angels, stand close to me in my heart. I wish I can always be there for them as they have been for us.

Therapy is good too

I did see a therapist, because I was unable to get back to my artwork or to get back my confidence in my life. They were helpful and I do believe one should see one even if it feels like they tell you what you think you already know. Sometimes they are smarter, and it helps to surrender to them. 

Helping a person who is grieving

Give the person the assurance that life is unfair, but he/she can cope and will eventually come to terms with it. Tell them they can do it. 

Life is unfair but quitting is not a choice. Not to be a victim and lamenting is not a choice. But the thrill of staying afloat, of keeping your head above water till the rescue team arrives is wonderful. If a rescue boat doesn’t arrive you will have learnt to swim by then. Just hold on and let it pass.

Take each day as it comes. Break the day’s tasks into smaller pieces and focus on the priority of tasks to be done. Keep yourself busy in doing something for yourself and others at all times. Engage yourself open-mindedly into occupying yourself till you can tide through. 

The person you lost had just that much in his share of life and it is utterly painful that you got to know him/her just at the time he was leaving but be glad you got that time. How horrible it would have been if you would never have met?

You too have a set of days with you to live through. Make the most of those. Turn back and feel proud for having coped.

On a poster, I once read, ‘It all turns out ok in the end. If it doesn’t it’s not the end.’

Remembering Mihir and his memories

I remember him so fondly. The memories flash in front of my eyes like movie slides sometimes. Sometimes they are blurred. I feel sorry for him having lost out on his life. I feel sorry for him missing to be the father of a daughter and a lovely one at that. And I miss him for the many lives he touched. He could be there for so many people. I feel inadequate to reach out. I didn’t have him all to myself ever. He was always somebody’s Mihir.

He came and left in intense moments even in his living life. And that is how I was with him. So most often I feel it’s those moments when he has gone for something larger than me and is needed more than I need him and someday he will come home to me. But now over time, I know he isn’t ever coming back and the most real parts of him are in my memory if I refresh and preserve them. Some of them evaporate. Some return.

How do I describe Mihir to someone who has never met him?

He was a personified version of life. Intense moments, phases, one different from the other, courageous, could take risks, impulsive apparently, but real and practical, full of zest till he had fuel in his body…rested only when he slept. Reached out to anyone who looked for him – always. Could never say no. Selfless. No attachments. Yet full of passion. Sensitive. Compassionate. Very hard working and perseverant. A year was more than 365 days, and a day and night were more than 24 hours. He went miles before he slept but yet had promises he may have wanted to keep.

Loss shapes us in many ways

I think I saw life differently after he left. He was a people’s person and he made me see the universality of humankind. How similar we all are and yet how different. How small in the bigger picture. And how if the compassionate being in us remains at the front it cannot only be my pain, it’s pain that everybody feels or has felt or will feel someday. So, I am not unique.

I really don’t know how I would have been had he been around. But most of the time I am glad for the world has become a larger place for us.

Irrevocable is part of the passage of time too. I’ve grown and also lost myself in time. The girl I was. So, I don’t know how time can bring back anything? 

I’d like to meet a new me instead. As long as she knows how to laugh at stupid jokes and gets up and does things that need to get done, I’d like her to not change. She’s built with a lot of minute details – like a fabric.

Zaida Jacob’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing.’ Read Pooja Ganju Adlakha’s story here, in which she talks about losing her mother to Covid-19.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case, it being Zaida Jacob’s and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“I pay tribute to pain, as life is born out of pain”

Says Lakshmi Kaul, who lost her only daughter, aged nine, to a freak allergic incident in 2017.

My name is Lakshmi Kaul, and I am Nainika’s mum.

In fact, a lot of you already know me as Nainika’s mum and have come to know of my late daughter through my Facebook posts, blogs, and letters to her.

And yet it took a long time for me to write this. Prerna Shah had written to me first in November 2019, a couple of years after I had lost my daughter to a freak allergy incident. In an email, she had sent me a set of questions and had quoted an excerpt from my blog as well.

Even though I have written and spoken about Nainika and my pain so openly, in a piecemeal, I struggled to put in words, my full story on Prerna’s request for the blog. I guess I was scared, not ready and unsure. I read and re-read her email many times, since she first wrote to me. Recently, in 2020, when she reached out to me again, having read them before, the words somehow came alive:

“Our idea behind this series was that everyone, at some point in life undergoes loss, and accompanying grief. And while there are no tailormade solutions or responses to how one approaches loss – be it of a friend, colleague, parent, grandparent, child, spouse, or a family member – the experiences have a commonality, an almost universal element to them. And in telling of these stories, we share with each other, a deep understanding, empathy, as well as our strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Loss and bereavement is something common to all of us, yet it surprises and consumes us.

Passively, we watch the world go by, get on with our day-to-day mundane, though seemingly perfect lives as we slip into darkness where nothing seems to make sense. We put on a brave façade, even smile but really, inside you want to scream, shut out the world and just sleep, never having to wake up, ever again. Everyone calls you ‘brave’ and ‘strong,’ yet you know you are just ‘broken’, ‘helpless’ and ‘weak.’

I suppose I could pause here and share some nuggets of positivity on survival, on life and its possibilities, memories, on life and about moving on. But instead, I will pay tribute to pain. Life is borne out of pain. A mother hurts a long time, before giving birth. The earth breaks before a seed sprouts and the skies crack for the light to pass through at dawn.

“Nainika is here!”

These were my words when I first held her in my arms. I was ecstatic as I had silent faith it was always going to be Nainika. I watched her as she navigated her way to my breasts and suckled at them; the natural, first instinct of a new-born is a joy to experience! To fix the third degree tear I had had, while delivering her, I was taken to the operation theatre and I remember blabbering all the way to the operation theatre, how happy I was today and that I was a mother to a gorgeous little baby girl called Nainika. I told them proudly, Nainika means apple of our eyes.

When the coffin arrived home before the funeral service, someone came and said to me, “Nainika is here!”

I had created space for her to sit in her favourite spot, clearing the couch but placing her coffin exactly there, where she always fought with her father to claim that particular spot to watch the telly. There was forever a competition between them on who bags the remote control to the television. She won, even today! I had bought a beautiful Indian traditional outfit for her to wear at the Kheerbhawani Puja this year, that I was holding. They opened the coffin lid and I saw her again. I put her ‘Indian dress’ on her and kissed her goodbye.

How do I describe my child?

I am often asked by strangers what she was like? The closest I come to explaining is that as a person she was a miniature version of me though with much better brains and God-like patience. She set high standards for herself and nothing ever limited her, not even her age. If she wanted to learn something, she wouldn’t wait to enrol in a class but would start teaching herself; she always knew how to. She spent a lot of time in her room, exercising, listening to music, writing, doing craft, re-arranging her room, creating research projects and books, setting up a kids’ club or even writing a blog.

Nainika Tikoo arrived a week before her due date on 18 February 2008 in the City Hospital, Nottingham. She left four days after she was medically declared dead on 22 May 2017. I had to turn off her ventilator on 26 May 2017 after having sat through the excruciating stem cell death tests to ascertain if she was alive on 22 May.

Photograph courtesy : Lakshmi Kaul

At what point does grief begin? Where does it end?

So, in sharing my journey of pain, grief, I wonder at what point did it begin? Was it on 20th May when I received a distress call from her father, begging me to save her from this allergic reaction and to come home urgently? For the sake of simplicity, I will use this as a starting point.

I walked into a scene of shock and a row of ambulances outside our newly bought home in Harrow. She lay there on the floor of our living room, stripped naked, with just one sock on – pink and blue in her left foot (I still have this sock with me). At the point, I had no idea what had happened, and all I could guess was that it was an allergic reaction from the panic call I received earlier.

From that moment when I walked into our home, I was numb. Only responding to what was needed of me. The paramedics asked me to pack to go to the hospital and bring her stuff. I ran up, grabbed her hospital bag (we were used to going to the hospital owing to her asthma and allergies), put the car keys in my satchel lest her Dad decided to drive in that state and requested the paramedics to take him in the ambulance as he couldn’t be left alone. I would follow in a taxi I said but they insisted I travel with them instead so they could speak to me. I couldn’t have left him behind in that state with nobody to take care of him, so they agreed to take us both.

The journey to the hospital was only 15 minutes but it felt like 15 hours.

They asked me what had happened, and I couldn’t tell them. They asked me various questions about her allergies etc that I responded to. As soon as we got to the hospital, I messaged a couple of close friends to come to the hospital and take care of my husband as I was busy focussing on Nainika in the emergency ward. This was enough to summon them all to the hospital and within an hour they were all there – nine of them, most of them doctors! 

“There is irreversible damage to the brain”, the consultant said to me. They would need to shift her to the Intensive Care ward in another hospital and they said this could be anywhere in the country. I said, “Do what you must do to get her better.”

At best, paralysis for a few days and then recovery is what I thought to myself. She is a strong girl, and she will bounce back. It was already over an hour and a half since leaving home and finally she started breathing again. If you understand human physiology, you’d know that if your heart stops breathing it disconnects the oxygen supply to the brain and even moments of this is dangerous. Nainika’s brain was bereft of oxygen supply for over an hour and this meant her survival chances were next to none. The doctors were trying to tell me this all the way through, but they kept trying, hoping for a miracle.

Photograph courtesy: Lakshmi Kaul

A living nightmare.

Nainika’s father could barely get up and he clung to me, crying like a baby, apologising to me continuously. I calmed him down and said it’s not his fault. It was just an accident. I handed him to the nurse for I had to attend to Nainika and prepare for her to be moved to the paediatric intensive care ward at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington. There was hope I thought. Her heart was beating, and she was breathing. She will of course get better, just in time for her first residential camp with her new school friends. And she had a gymnastics competition too that she had been preparing for. Oh, and then her dance stagecoach performance, dance show and her first time performing with the school choir in the new school!

We got to St Mary’s hospital and though the consultant there told me, “there was irreversible damage to the brain,” I requested her to at least give Nainika 24 hours. On 22nd May they declared her medically dead and asked us to let them know when we wanted to switch off her ventilator. The hospital staff were kind and very considerate. They let her stay till Thursday. On Wednesday, her family from India arrived to say goodbye one last time, hundreds of visitors, friends, acquaintances, strangers came to see her, pray for her and then on Thursday, I switched off her ventilator, alone. I never wanted to do it, but I had to.

The days at the hospital and afterwards felt unreal.

All those visitors – I met each one, calmed them down and told them that Nainika’s journey here was over and that she must now travel. I saw shocked faces, their eyes stealing glances at me, wondering how I could be this calm? They thought I had lost my senses and hence wasn’t crying.

The days until her funeral and beyond, we had visitors who expected us to cry as they hugged and offered condolences. But I stayed away. I was hardly home and each morning I got ready, left for work, and stayed there till late evening. At night, I would sob into my pillow silently, my eyes burning in the morning when I caught a wink of sleep.

Since Nainika died because of an allergic reaction, I ran a dedicated campaign to create awareness around allergies, and journalists, documentary film makers and a camera crew started filming and interviewing us. Nainika’s father refused to do it so this responsibility fell upon me, even without me volunteering to do it. I made this a mission in honour of her memory and a sense of urgency to do something before another child meets this tragic fate pushed me to carry on.

What is normal?

Weeks after her funeral, people began leading a somewhat normal life. For me, a part of me died. Everyone thought I was incredibly strong in how I dealt with loss but inside, I was wilting away. Often it is who we think are our own, who hurt us the most and I heard remarks such as “you were careless during your pregnancy and carried on working so Nainika was born with allergies.”

“You should have never given birth abroad and instead stayed in India – we told you to deliver the baby in India where she would be born as a normal child,” “had you been a caring mother, Nainika would never have had the accident.” The comments felt like daggers and I began avoiding dinner table altogether.

Then came the pressure to ‘have another baby’ so ‘you may bring Nainika back.’ Since they couldn’t have this conversation with me directly, they propped up her father to bring this up with me. I remember how angry I got at this proposal and snapped back: “I would choose to never have a baby if it were to replace her. Nothing, nobody would ever replace her. And I would anyways never do this to her younger sibling – for them to grow up in the shadow of her memory.” This was unacceptable a response and I was established as a heartless, uncaring woman who didn’t like children.

In December 2017, I walked out of our home and marriage, never to return.

The divorce was filed by her father and the marriage was dissolved in 2019 a few days after her birthday. A few months later, I realised that a part of her ashes had remained at the crematorium, forgotten by her father and without my knowledge. I brought her home in that box. Put her in her favourite T-shirt and hugged her all night, as I would when she was alive. Every day, for three months I slept with her ashes and for days I had no energy to get out of bed. There were clear signs of depression and people at work noticed though according to myself, I was putting up a brave face, working harder than before.

In November 2017, I started a new job as the Head of Confederation of Indian Industry in UK; a completely different role from my previous political positions. It wasn’t just a new job but a different life as well, and this was soon after Nainika’s passing away. It was almost a reset of my life itself and I couldn’t make sense of it. I accepted it all as fait accompli and carried on.

Today as I write this down, the memory is already patchy of the years gone by.

There is hesitation as to how much I open up – what wounds do I share with you? These aren’t just scars from her passing, but from before too. When my husband left me and his daughter as he got distracted for a few years, then returned to be a good father but forgot he was also a husband. Perhaps my own shortcomings as a wife too in response? A couple of years later, the fateful day that a loving breakfast father and daughter cooked together, ended up taking her life! As soon as she left, I realised how lonely I was all these years and the only companion I had was my child. A few months later, I was all alone, scared and broken, but nobody saw my tears or wiped them. Each night I died, and then gathered myself up to face the world, making an impression in my new role at work.

Then I read about Kaya, a little girl looking for stem cell donors as she battled a life-threatening condition. I signed up and tested to see if I could be a match alongside thousands of potential donors. The resilience of that child and her family encouraged me.

Someone wise said once, that if you think you are suffering, all you need to do is look around you and see others in more pain and misery than yourself. Kaya did that to me and I sent Nainika’s remaining ashes off whilst on a quiet visit to Kashmir, her motherland that she always longed to visit. I felt peace.

These months since her departure, I struggled to sleep alone or eat alone.

I always had Nainika to cuddle up to and to say “Mummy I love you” over and over again, even in her sleep. She would kiss me and hug me real tight. I missed this and a lot of other things. I missed arguing with her. I missed a lot of things and felt extremely uncomfortable eating alone. Slowly, I made peace with it all and learnt to enjoy my own company. A dear friend often reminds me, “those who can’t enjoy their own company, imagine how boring a company they might be for others?” It’s not always that you need to do something to keep busy. The day we learn to also do nothing and just relax in that sweet nothingness, we have learnt to truly be content. Happiness is really within us and it comes from very simple, little things in our daily life. 

You never get closure really and sometimes these things don’t even make sense, ever.

Life and its end is a continuous process. What is born will die. I do often wonder what she would look like as a teenager, and later as a university student and an adult? I sought comfort in watching her friends growing up healthy, doing extremely well in school and enjoying their progress. In these children I see a glimpse of my own Nainika, and feeling proud, I send them my silent blessings. There are friends and family who feel I must find a life partner, a companion and move on, settle down. Her father did that and has a loving life partner now. Each of our journeys are different and we eventually find our respective paths. The operative word being, ‘journey’.

About the author: Lakshmi Kaul is an Indian British resident of London. She is the Head & Representative of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) UK. Kaul is also a columnist with iGlobal News of the India Inc group and often writes on international policy, India UK relations, human rights, diversity & inclusion in The Daily Guardian, Sunday Guardian, Kreately, Asian Voice, New World Order and a number of others. Lakshmi continues to campaign on allergy safety since the passing of her late daughter, Nainika and writes an occasional blog #ForeverNainika on social media.

Lakshmi Kaul’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’, read Mumbai-based sports journalist Nitin Naik’s story here. Naik lost his wife to cancer in 2015.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case it being Lakshmi Kaul, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“One April afternoon, we left to meet our new mom”

says Anjali Fahnline,14, as she looks back and writes about her adoption journey. Fahnline and her two sisters were adopted in 2017, and she is our youngest ever contributor, bringing in the much-needed perspective as an adoptee, and an honest account of her experiences and feelings

When I found out that I’m getting adopted to another family, I didn’t understand what they meant. Few days later Amma, who was the head of the hostel, said that my sisters and I were going to meet our new mom. I understood then that I was getting a family. I wasn’t excited to meet my new family, but I just pretended to be because I didn’t want them to think that I was not happy to see them.

One April afternoon, we left to meet our new mom. I was nervous. When we arrived, I saw a woman wearing a beautiful saree. She came towards us and I said, “Hi Ma’am.” She smiled. Then I said “Mom?” She said yes. She introduced herself, “Namaste, I am Rama, your new mom.” She sounded friendly. However, because she was wearing glasses and had short hair, I was afraid that she may be strict. She reminded me of a woman I knew who was very mean to everyone in the first hostel we stayed at.

When we went to a separate room to talk, our new mom asked, “What do you like to do?” I said, “I like to play with the kitchen set.” I used to love to pretend play. It was so much fun to cook, pretend to be a parent and send kids to school. Our new mom got a delicious biscuit which we all shared and talked about other things for a while. She asked us about the things we don’t like, and I replied, “I don’t like it when adults fight.” I don’t think any kid likes it when their parents fight. They get scared and sometimes, it becomes traumatic and haunts them for the rest of their lives.

Sometime later, she showed us her husband’s photo. We were shocked! My sisters and I had never ever seen a white man or woman in our lives and there he was in the picture!

I imagined his whole family looking white, it was like he had put so much powder on his face; that’s what some people do in India. I asked our new mom, “When are we going with you?” I wanted to make sure how much time I had with my friends in the hostel. She answered, “As soon as the paperwork is done.”  We had a good time talking and sharing things about our lives. I felt happy because she wanted to know about my life, my likes, and dislikes.

I didn’t feel good about going and living a completely different life and leaving my birth mom. I thought what if she comes to my hostel and looks for us, and we are not there? It was very hard to think of living in a new world. That evening, at the hostel, everybody asked questions: “Are they rich? Are you going to America? Are they nice?” I didn’t answer because I didn’t know if they were rich or if I was going to live in America. America is a big and rich country to live, and I had never even dreamed of living there.

At the same time, there was something that made us happy. My sister and I were excited about getting beautiful dresses, living in a nice neighbourhood, and having things. We had been poor and faced many difficulties. The place we lived was not very safe, my birth dad had been violent, and we were not able to get a good education.  I was kind of excited about the new opportunities. But I still wondered if I was ever going to see my birth mother again. So far, I haven’t, but I know I will one day! I was scared too because some people in my hostel frightened us. “They’re your second parents, so they’ll be mean, and will hit you and your sisters.” I’ve heard a lot that second parents don’t treat you like their own kids. I was anxious about our safety.

From what I have experienced, I don’t think all second families are mean. To be honest, I do feel worried about my family getting rid of us or doing bad things to my sisters. Kids who are adopted have that kind of fear inside them. It takes time to trust everybody again and adjust to the new life. It took me and my sisters a lot of time, and I’m still working on trusting everybody again.

After few months, my new mom and dad came to pick us up; we were going to stay with them until the court hearing. It was so hard to leave my hostel. My sister and I cried. Everyone there kept us safe and happy for three years, and now I was leaving them. I gave a speech saying how much I loved them, I was so sad that I couldn’t even say anything properly. I distributed ladoos to everyone and took a final picture. I didn’t want to leave anyone, especially the woman who took special care of me, like a mother.  Before I left with my parents, she gave me some of her jewellery, and her photo. I still have them with me.

From top left to right: Anjali with her siblings, Anjali and her siblings earning how to drive a bicycle with the help of their father, Anjali’s youngest sister playing garba with their father, and Anjali and her siblings with their mother Rama

It rained heavily as we drove nearly three hours to get to our hotel. My sister and I were so tired that we fell asleep before we went inside the room. My sister wanted to use the toilet, but it was not the Indian style that we were used to. My mom helped her use the bathroom and my sister went back to sleep.

The next morning, my younger sister saw my new mom wearing a short skirt. And she called out to me and said, “Didi (elder sister) look, she’s wearing small skirt, doesn’t she feel shy?” I told her, “Shhh, she will hear you and then she’ll be upset. Be quiet.” But my mom already heard her and said, “It’s ok.” We never saw women wearing anything short. Then we went out for breakfast. There was nothing that we knew or liked except bananas. There were pancakes, waffles, and other things that we had never ever seen, not even in books or on TV!  We had bananas and omelette for breakfast, after which we went shopping for clothes. I was so surprised to see such a big store, then I found out that it was called a ‘mall.’ We bought some pretty dresses and night clothes and went back to the hotel.

We stayed in the hotel for few more days, then moved to an apartment in Thane. For my parents, it was hard because the bathroom was Indian and there was no furniture. We had to get a lot of things. We sisters feared the dark, so we kept the lights on the entire night. We all slept in the same room. One day I woke and didn’t see my mother. I started crying, worried about how to take my sisters back to the hostel. She came out – she was in the other room. After that night, my mom left a note beside me even if she went to the bathroom. We watched Hindi movies on the iPad. It was something familiar. Our parents sent us for classes so that we had a routine. People were friendly to us, and we learnt a lot of new things. My mom bought north Indian food from outside because that’s what we always ate. She didn’t cook north Indian food. Her cousin lived a few houses down, and we spent time with them. I learned to use a library, got pocket money, made choices on how to spend it, and ate out at restaurants.

Soon it was time for the court hearing. I asked my mom what will happen at the court hearing. She said, “They will ask you if you want to live with us or go back to the hostel.” I asked, “What if I said no, I want to go back?” She replied, “The judge will listen to your choice. You will go back to the hostel and I will go home.”

I had to make that decision for me and my sisters. I decided that I will say yes. I wanted to live with them because I liked the few days that I spent with them. I felt safe. I was also happy to give them the responsibility of caring for my sisters. I couldn’t accept her the same as my birth mom, but I felt comfortable with my new mom.

When the judge asked me if I was ready to go with my new parents I said “Yes, my sisters and I will go with our new family.”

(Anjali Fahnline enjoys designing clothes and henna, is an avid photographer and is excited to help other children in similar circumstances. You can read more of her writing at Anjali’s corner at www.forallourkids.com)

You may also want to read Sangitha’s piece on adoption.

What did The Good Story Project stories teach us?

“I always thought no one can ever understand me because my situation and my life experiences have been extraordinarily different. Not all in a good, extraordinarily different way though. But after reading Jerry Pinto’s interview here, I think he will definitely understand me. His words moved me to a place of quiet acceptance of all that I felt and experienced in life. Thank you for sharing this. I feel a wonderful sense of kinship with the author. Kindred souls of the same world. His words are so gentle and kind.”

Our first story was published in October 2020. We were concentrating on two series – one that presented voices and experiences of those living with spinal cord injuries, and another on those living with or caring for a person who had a diagnosis of a mental illness. (The mental health series also included interviews with a psychiatrist and a therapist as well as with journalist and author Karishma Upadhyay who has written a biopic on Bollywood actor Parveen Babi.)

While we were certain that we wanted to do these stories, what we did not realize was the impact that these stories would have on us, and the responses we would receive from readers.

In that sense, what did we learn from doing the stories that we did?

Honesty and candour are powerful

One of our most important lessons was that when people talk about their deeply personal and vulnerable issues with honesty and candour, it has a powerful impact on the readers. We were humbled when people trusted us, and were willing to share some of their very difficult moments and insights. Once we published these interviews and first-person accounts and subsequently shared them on social media, we got reactions like the quote this story starts with. The quote came from a woman who responded to the interview with author and novelist Jerry Pinto, in which he talked about among other things, growing up with a mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was just one of the many reactions that we received on some of our stories, especially those that focused on mental health and spinal cord injuries. The genuinely candid and straightforward first-person accounts and interviews helped other people in similar situations find a sense of community and gave them the comfort of being understood.

The beauty of bringing together diverse perspectives

The series on mental health also taught us a thing or two about the value of having different perspectives on board. Take for instance the interview with author Amandeep Sandhu in which he also presented a caregiver’s perspective and that touched a chord with a lot of our readers. As a reader wrote back after coming across Sandhu’s interview on social media: ‘Amazing work. My compliments to include the carer in the circle of care. It is true for any sufferer I think – no attention is paid to the mind or intent or situation or long term effects of suffering silently – and the patient is the only one that is allowed to voice any discomfort. Have watched a friend tend to his wife sick with cancer and her subsequent death – without a word… So many stories are here among us. Thanks for bringing this one out.

It also made us think about the unique challenges a caregiver faces, and how they could do with some acknowledgement and support. We wondered if employers in India would make provisions for some form of support for caregivers, something on the lines of caregivers leave perhaps?

Everyone has a story to tell

We also realised that we were right in our belief that ordinary people have some extraordinary stories to tell. And while successful, accomplished and famous people certainly have amazing stories to share with their audience, it is also important to give a voice and platform to people who are doing things in their own right and aren’t necessarily well-known or in the limelight. These are people who are doing something that makes an impact or are overcoming a challenge. It could be about how they manage a life-altering illness or diagnosis, find an alternative lifestyle, advocate for better education or awareness of an issue and are able to find whatever measure of success that they can in these endeavours. Challenges, successes and endeavours of ordinary people need to be celebrated because their stories are inspiring and make an impact like no other.

By telling you my story, I am trusting you to present it with balance and empathy

A series that we are working on, but is yet to be published is about loss and grief. That series has taught us a lot about trust — how people opened up about some of their most deepest and vulnerable moments and they trusted us and the platform as a safe space to be able to share their stories. Only after the entries came in, and some of our emails were answered, we realized the enormity of what people had shared with us, and how difficult it may have been to do so. It also brought home to us, the power of writing as one of the elements in processing our feelings, and the therapeutic value of putting it all down in words. And the fact that all stories must be presented with the respect, empathy and sensitivity that they so deserve.

Resilience and the need for inclusivity

The series on spinal cord injuries was also a lesson in resilience. Each of the individuals that we interviewed had undergone a great personal setback and had worked really hard to live life with a sense of purpose, integrity and positivity despite the many challenges they faced. Most of the interviewees talked about the lack of infrastructure and facilities, and some of them recounted how their mentors and workplaces had made changes in order to make the spaces comfortable and accessible for them. That brought home the importance and power of small steps that employers and organizations can take in order to make workplaces more inclusive.

Of course, these are just five of the many lessons we learnt while doing the stories that we did. Every story/interview/feature is an opportunity to learn something new. And we are interested in both – your stories as well as what it teaches us.

Thank you for the many opportunities — to our contributors for letting us tell your stories, to our readers for reading them and for getting back to us with feedback, comments, and ideas.

— The Good Story Project Team

Keep swiping right to read some of the feedback we have received so far

What kindness meant in 2020

The Good Story Project with the help of artist Vidya Vivek brings together a piece that talks about the role of compassion and kindness during Covid-19

The Good Story Project started in the midst of the pandemic. Many of the stories that it featured reflected in part, what was happening around us because of Covid-19. Now, as a new year has begun, we thought we could use this opportunity to reflect on the issues and things that really mattered, those that left an impact on us and will guide us in the years to come.

And that is why, we decided to focus on kindness. The reason is, that without acts of kindness this year would have been even more terrible than what it was. And whether pandemic or not, kindness needs to be in abundant supply.

This piece is on how kindness impacts us as people, and a few examples of how it mattered when nothing else seemed to work or make sense.

Cooking and feeding — an act of love and kindness like no other

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

A colleague’s mother recently received a voice message on WhatsApp. She had sent daily dabbas of home-cooked meals to her neighbour, who had caught Covid-19 and was too sick to get up and cook for herself. Every day, till her neighbour recovered, the colleague’s mother would place containers of simple, hot, nutritious meals outside her door. Once the neighbour was declared Covid negative, she sent a message. You can hear her voice, choking with emotions when she says she would never forget this kindness and that she would never be able to repay it back, but it meant so much to her. And that, out of all the neighbours and residents in the residential society where they lived, only the colleague’s mother had the foresight and the willingness to reach out and help.

Hearing the voice-note set us thinking. Imagine the power all of us have, the power to make a real difference by simply cooking in our kitchens and handing out meals to those who need it the most. It could be an elderly neighbour, a person living on his or her own, someone who is sick and exhausted or a family who has faced bereavement.

The pandemic has brought into clear focus the role food plays in our life, and also the disparity that exists in the world around us — so many people have full pantries and so many struggle to place three square meals on the table. And perhaps that is why, feeding people — those who were sick and unable to cook, those who needed help with their meals because they were elderly or homeless, or simply just unable to fend for themselves — was so important and impactful during the pandemic.

We could all do more of it in 2021.

If we know someone who could do with a home-cooked meal once in a while, all we have to do is to cook a little bit extra from what we are cooking for ourselves. Like Anthony O’Shaughnessy who cooked for his elderly neighbour during the lockdown in England or the way Rohit Suri, cooked meals for his tenant Kaushik Barua, a 30-year-old critical care doctor at a private hospital in Delhi.

Can we get you something?

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

Sometimes, we wonder how we can help someone else, bound as we are with our own unique personal challenges and limitations.

Here’s an example that might inspire you. My mother is blind, and she lives on her own with the help of two helpers. During the lockdown, her electrician called her up and said, to her, “Baa (grandmother), do not venture out of your house. My nephew lives in a society near to you, and so give me a call and he will deliver anything that you need and leave it outside your door.” And true to his word, his nephew helped my mother at a time when she and her caretakers were fearful of stepping outside the home. (The mother in reference here is the mother of one of the founders of The Good Story Project — Prerna Shah).

In a similar way, kindness was also brought home during the pandemic when countless people across the world thought about other people — people who may need help, and came up with innovative ideas and solutions. For instance, there were community groups, like My Block, My Hood, My City, (in Chicago, United States), which helped arrange for and deliver groceries and care packages for elderly neighbours.

It is empowering to realize that even with our personal limitations, we can help someone by doing something as simple as fetching their groceries while we fetch ours.

Every little counts, give what you can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

So many people fundraised. People who had fundraised before, people who were novices. Fundraised for PPE gear, food packages for the poor, ventilators and other life-saving equipment for hospitals — and all of that made a difference. We found it incredibly inspiring and comforting to come across news reports and stories of people who campaigned and fundraised and then made these funds available to those who needed it the most — in the form of services, food, resources, medicines and a variety of other essential items.

On a personal level, we knew and were able to interview (for other publications) some very lovely individuals who stepped up to the many challenges of the pandemic and decided to fundraise so that funds could quickly reach people and organisations. One of the very moving accounts we heard was from a lady in Bangalore who had ventured out of her house to feed the stray dogs in her area during one of the lockdowns. When she was feeding the strays, several children came up to her, and asked her for the food she was placing on the pavement. She explained, that this was food for the dogs, and but they replied that they were so hungry that it did not matter. She rushed home and cooked a huge pot of khichdi and went back to the kids. From that day onwards, she started fundraising and working with like-minded individuals to run a kitchen that would feed hungry children living off the streets.

I am here to help, in any way that I can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

We cannot even begin to count the ways people were able to be there for others — even despite the many restrictions that the pandemic imposed.

Sometimes, it was by taking up work and duties that most of us would be very hesitant to do. Like the duties that Abdul Rehman Malbari performed. Malbari, is the president of Ekta Trust, a Surat-based NGO, which has been providing funeral services for abandoned and unclaimed bodies for the past three decades. However, during the pandemic, he and his team went above and beyond the call of duty. During the months of April and May, they were ferrying 150 patients daily. Their job was to transport the deceased from the hospitals and homes and take them to crematoriums. Malbari and his team did not go home for weeks, and albeit they had PPE kits and safety precautions in place, it does warrant a question — how many of us would be willing to do what he and his team of volunteers did?

There were also goodwill gestures and simple acts of thoughtfulness. Remember the teary-eyed face of Karan Puri from Panchkula, Haryana? He turned 71 amid the lockdown. Puri was on his own as his children live abroad. One of his relatives contacted the Panchkula police via Twitter requesting to celebrate his birthday as he was alone at home. When the Panchkula police reached his home with a cake, Puri got very emotional and broke down in tears.

Some of these acts of kindness have been captured in words, or in videos or photographs and some are between the doer and the receiver. But what matters in the end is that these acts made a difference.

We need to continue with kindness, we need to do more

If there’s anything that we need more of, not just for 2021 but for the years to follow as well, it is kindness and compassion. In any way, or shape or form that we can.

The World Bank has said that Covid-19 was responsible for 71 million to 100 million additional people falling into extreme poverty in 2020. And the figures are getting updated.

People are hungry. People are unemployed. Lonely, grieving, anxious.

Let us just do what we can. Keep in touch with a friend who we know is feeling isolated or low; give what we can to a fundraiser, help someone with a referral or assignment if they are facing unemployment or a loss of income, listen with empathy when someone shares their troubles and simply remember the power that each of us carry within ourselves.

All of us can do something. And it matters.

On that note, we would be delighted if you are able to share any acts of kindness that you have encountered during the pandemic and if you are in turn inspired to pass it on in 2021. As they say, goodness must travel.

Do write in.

The voices among us – a series of interviews on mental health

Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and what followed thereafter gave an immediate impetus to do this series of interviews. We wanted to share real, lived experiences of people as well as mental health professionals.

The conversations that followed the actor’s death were certainly shocking, especially ones on the lines of ‘A person who has everything, how can he or she be depressed?’ But I did not have to look far, I had to only look within. Just a decade or so ago I had met a man on a date, and he had revealed in the course of that evening that he was bipolar. My own knowledge or the lack of it on what it means to be bipolar, was embarrassing to say the least.

I asked him – ‘You mean, you wear bifocal lenses?’ I do not know, how, after reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, I could have been so ignorant. What I found helpful at that point in time, were blogs, books (memoirs and first-person narratives) that told the story of what it meant to have a mental illness with honesty, without judgement and with empathy.

I loved reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, and followed it up with A Book of Light, The Bell Jar, Prozac Nation, Mind on Fire, I’ve Never Been (Un) Happier. I kept adding blogs and books to my to-do reading list and with every book that I read, I found my understanding of mental health issues and sense of empathy growing several inches.

I also learned a lot from my relationship with the young man and from what he so honestly shared with me.

So think of these interviews as a pool of resources. Come to these interviews as and how you like — to hear voices that speak to you, to find shared, common ground, out of curiosity, to explore your own self, or to broaden your horizons. There’s no judgement here or an attempt to preach.

The voices are so clear, brilliant, and brimming with the poetry of life — I found myself richer for having had these conversations with each person I interviewed.

In the series, you can read the following stories and interviews:

Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuShampa SenguptaShyam MithiyaAnjana DeshpandeTanika GodboleKarishma Upadhyay and Kiranjit Kaur

Prerna Shah

Do I look like a person with mental illness in this photo?

I have been working for more than three decades in the disability sector in India. There are many issues in the sector which are very close to my heart. However, the invisibility of mental health issue is something that hurts me the most. Misinformation on mental illnesses and psychosocial disabilities are galore in our country. Reasons may be manifold. One of them might be that one cannot ‘see’ a mental illness?

Shampa Sengupta raised a very pertinent point by posting this image on her Facebook page

I lost my mind (pun intended) and became furious when in the month of August I saw that there were thousands of tweets showing a photo of Sushant Singh Rajput, saying he cannot be mentally ill as he is smiling in the photo and along with that photographs of another actor who was wearing flamboyant clothes, (some not-so-typical outfits for men) and with captions that said ‘this is mental illness.’ Basically, implying that a person who is smiling or good humored cannot have a mental illness and the people who do have a mental illness look a certain way.

This article is not about whether Sushant Singh Rajput was ill or not, the highest investigation agencies in the country are trying to find reasons behind his tragic death and we, ordinary citizens, should not get involved in presumptions on the same.

I got angry and took a selfie ( smiling at the phone) and posted in social media saying “Do I look mentally ill” and elaborated how even with my mental health conditions, I am working and smiling – one can never see a photo and judge the person’s mental conditions. This is not the first time I had to assert my health issue; this has become routine for me.

I work in the cross-disability field, advocacy is my area of work. Unfortunately, even my colleagues from this sector do not understand my kind of disability. So, every time, there is a press-meet or open public meeting, they will say, “We will have someone with a disability as a speaker and make a list of possible speakers.” This list would obviously include those with a ‘visible’ disability, and they would conveniently forget to add my name. Another colleague once told me after I failed to attend a workshop, “Shampa is unpredictable, we should not recommend her name to any seminar workshops anymore.” This happened even though I had texted her in the morning of the workshop saying my depression is in terrible stage today. But she did not take it seriously and called me unpredictable in an office meeting. Would she have said same if another colleague with mobility impairments had said that he could not attend a workshop because his wheelchair broke down? Or a hearing-impaired person said that her Sign Language Interpreter was not available, so her attending workshop is futile? If this is the level of understanding within disability movement, what do you expect from the general public?

For most people, ‘mad’ people are those who roam in the streets, with untidy clothes and matted hair. Some avoid their path, some others throw stones at them, children are taught to laugh at them calling them ‘pagla,’ and very few really understand their pain. The media also uses this image of ‘madness’ very cleverly and reinforces the stereotype. How many movies can one recall where a person with mental illness is shown as studying in college or working in an office? Once, a journalist, after, I mentioned in a meeting that I have a mental illness, asked me “Why did you say that? I have never seen you talking irrationally, so you can’t be mentally ill.” I told him, “You might call me tomorrow 50 times and get no response, because the days I am more depressed, I cannot find strength to take a phone call.” He looked and smiled. Did he believe me? I am not sure. Interestingly, he was there to talk to primary stakeholders in a disability advocacy meeting. So, he interviewed my blind friend and wrote about his journey in the next day’s paper.

My journey within the disability sector itself is quite interesting.  I started working as a professional in early 1990s. I became a caregiver of a person with schizophrenia after my marriage. Though professionally I knew how to deal with different kinds of disabilities, I was not aware of how to take care of my own self in this new role. This is an area where most caregivers fail. Our health system, and government does not provide the necessary insights, training, or financial support to the caregivers. Balancing professional life, taking care of a person with a mental illness took a toll on me. I did not even realize at which point in time, I became the primary stakeholder in this ‘disability sector.’

I do not want to discuss my diagnosis or medical history here. For me, the medical part of my disability does not consist of a lot of space. What I believe is the social acceptance which would have made things easier for me. When I talk about mildest physical discomfort, there will be relatives or friends asking me next day how I am feeling. When I talk about my mood swings or depression, there’s complete silence. I do hope by continuously talking about same, I will be able to bring some change. And in future, people will not say “If he is smiling, he can’t be mentally ill.”

Shampa Sengupta is an activist working on gender and disability rights. She is the Founder-Director of Kolkata based advocacy group named Sruti Disability Rights Centre and is working as Joint Secretary of India’s largest membership based cross disability network National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). 

(This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.)

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhya, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole.

“Disrupted adoptions have gone from being very rare to over 1,000 children in the past five years”

Says Sangitha Krishnamurthi, a special educator and adoptive parent. In this essay, she talks about some of the aspects that are often pushed under the carpet when talking about adoption and the need to move beyond a simplistic understanding of adoption to help avoid some of these disruptions.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Adoption is everywhere and it is nowhere, at the same time. The fairy tale of a child finding her family results in an ‘aww’ leading into a happily ever after. 

The perception is that once a child is placed with his/her family, the job is done, and everyone lived happily ever after.  In reality, the movie is just starting.

November is Adoption Awareness Month and I write this to talk about the lesser spoken aspects of adoption that we should be aware of. 

And what are these? First, adoption is not charity, it is parenting.  With that, this concept of being the same or different just dissolves.  No two children are the same and that’s the whole point.  Second, different isn’t a bad thing.  Third, children know, and the body remembers, even when the mind is just developing. With these foundational principles, I wish we would all talk more about the following.

Parent preparation – it’s vital and it’s missing

In India, parent preparation is next to nil.  It is not mandated by the government and even when it exists, the material is far from adequate.  The approach usually is one of ‘not scaring away parents’ in order to ensure placement.  Anyone who is going to get scared might not be a good family is a point to be considered. 

Unfortunately, many parents who end up being ambassadors for adoption only speak from one point of view – the one they have seen parenting their one or two children. Many minimize the differences so that parents ‘won’t get scared.’ Professionals who are adoption-informed are few and far in between. 

It would be good for aspiring parents to seek out resources on their own, read books like The Family of Adoption by Dr Joyce Maguire Pavao to learn about the adoption triad and speak to as many adoptive families and adoptees as they can so that they can learn and inform themselves. 

Adoptive parenting has some twists and turns that anyone aspiring to adopt should be aware of.  This starts from when the child comes home, taken away, yet again from everything they know.  Adoption begins with grief and loss. 

A mother and father lost out on parenting and a child was wrenched from his/her biological connection.  The adoptive family stands on this foundation.  This isn’t a question of good or bad, positive or negative. This start comes with several consequences that the adoptive family will have to recognize, accept, and accommodate in their parenting.

Photo by Parij Borgohain on Pexels.com

Other questions to consider include using positive language to talk about adoption, how to tell the child the facts of their adoption, how to handle societal stigma, what to share about the child and where, how to get ourselves to a point that we accept that the child is adopted, how to be secure as a parent so that one can take the teenage years with this added facet on top of expected turbulent times, what it means to not have even one biological relative (those of us who can trace back to our great-grandfathers will never know what this feels like!) and how to put our needs aside with the child in the center, however much that hurts at times.

Understanding birth trauma, attachment, and core issues in adoption

It is important for adoptive parents to be conversant with these concepts. Children born of well fed, middle to upper class families, with access to good health care at all times, start off with the advantage of the birth lottery.  A large number of children who are placed in adoption start off premature and/or with low birth weight or ‘failure to thrive’ written in their medical records.  This may impact parenting, schooling, and independence as an adult.  None of these are likely to be major issues, if supported from a young age. 

Children whose first attachment has been disrupted need that much more support when attaching another time with the adoptive family.  In between, the child is in institutions, sometimes in foster care.  At every point, when a bond is being formed or has formed, something changes, and the child is with a stranger yet again.  A child is likely to be moved three times at a minimum and more times than that, in some cases.  Science now tells us that secure attachment is critical to healthy development.  When attachment is ambivalent, children internalize that change is bad, that they need to be on guard.  This shows up in many ways and needs supportive parenting.

Research has found seven specific core issues that adoptees deal with through life.  These are a sense of rejection, loss, grief, guilt/shame, control, identity, and intimacy.  These are recurring strands through their lives and many adoptees have spoken of how it is only possible to mitigate the impact, never eliminate it.

The good news is that our brains are plastic and any changes that have been caused from traumatic incidents can also be significantly compensated for by a loving, caring and knowledgeable environment. As with everything, that first step of informing ourselves in order to understand and then adapt our parenting is critical.

Managing societal expectations and tackling biases and prejudices

Our society is strange.  At the beginning, parents are idolized as heroes who ‘rescued’ a child who is ‘lucky’ to have found a family.  Then, as issues surface from early childhood nutritional differences, the same family is blamed for not being strict enough or too strict. 

With the whitewashing of the differences comes no understanding and support for the parents at the center.  Our schools and teachers often have no idea and many times, mental health professionals have no clue.

Even very experienced psychiatrists and psychologists push back at adoptive parents, saying there is likely no impact from this aspect.  That there is no need to tell the child about his/her adoption because “he/she is now home and being given all the love”. 

Extended families may ask whether the child is of another religion and what we would do if ‘bad’ genes were to be in our child.

Many quasi-experts try to ‘normalize’ adoption.  Adoption is not and should not be our norm.  Making it normal in any way means accepting that we cannot support our families to stay and parent their kids.  While their intentions are good in trying to destigmatize adoption, their efforts end up doing more harm than good in perpetuating this image of the model adoptee, achiever adoptee, no-step-put-wrong adoptee and this fairy tale family which lives happily ever after.

Schooling and different needs

Schools and society are cut from the same fabric, one influencing the other.  So, we have teachers who will not intervene in bullying that tells an adoptee that his/her mother is probably a prostitute and that he/she was thrown in the garbage for being dark and ugly.  All bullying hurts and then this hurts right to the core of the primal wound, one that formed from the separation from the birth mother.

Nutrition early in life is the foundation to significant parts of a child’s development.  When this is hindered, one cannot know how these gaps in development will show up.  Many children with this background may end up with issues in academics, behaviour, etc. 

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

Children with trauma are overrepresented in several developmental differences including different learning needs.  Many, many adoptees emerge with invisible wounds from schooling.

Our teachers may not know about the impact of trauma. Our attitude to differences in learning and behaviour as a society is judgmental. We need to work on changing this.  

The point?

The point of this article is to say that despite all this, most adoptive parents would adopt again. And do.  The intention is to be more informed in ways that matter in order to support our children. 

We need to evolve beyond a simplistic understanding of adoption.  We have a long line of aspiring parents waiting on lists for their children to be matched.  We also have children being returned, based on policies that aren’t thought through.  Disrupted adoptions have gone from being very rare to over 1,000 children in the past five years. One main reason is ‘adjustment issues’ with older children. 

Experts tell us that we are looking at years to adjust and here, we have parents who entered into adoption thinking everything would sort itself out in weeks. Some children are placed again within a few months in another home, layering trauma upon existing trauma.

Adoption is a wonderful way of building a family.  At one level, the parent needs to know that it is parenting, no more, no less.  With attachment, separation trauma and core issues, the parent needs to embrace the difference and work with it.  When teenage and its angst comes along, the same parent needs to see the ‘sameness’ with all children and recognize the differentness of the adoption strands that twang with hurt.

All children are our children, it is our responsibility as a collective to support everyone who needs it. Adoptive families need a level of informed care and support in order to emerge on the other side of their parenting.

You can read more of Krishnamurthi writing at www.lifeandtimesinbangalore.wordpress.com where she has been blogging at for the past 11 years now.

‘Punctual, extremely courteous, with a photographic memory – Babi was all this and more’

Karishma Upadhyay is a veteran film journalist, a specialist on Bollywood. Parveen Babi – A Life, is her first book, for which, she interviewed the star’s former friends, lovers, and colleagues to build a portrait that is rich and multi-layered. Upadhyay spoke to Prerna Shah about the research that went into making the book, as well as about bringing to light several lesser-known facets of Babi’s life and personality.

Diving straight in – a project like no other

When a very dear friend at Hachette told me that her editor had a project that I might be interested in, and that it was about Parveen Babi, I was at first, taken aback. I had actually never thought I would write a book.

I knew truly little about Babi. One of the first few things that I did was to talk to a friend who is an encyclopaedia on Bollywood and knows so much about the early 70s and 80s. He told me that this was indeed a wonderful opportunity to take on.

And then like anyone else, I looked Babi up on Wikipedia and realised that they had gotten so much so wrong about her and that I could make an honest attempt to bring out the real her. What fascinated me was the fact that she had quit the industry twice and came back both the times, pretty much at the top. I have been writing on Bollywood for 20 years and this is rare.

Why did all the producers, directors and actors of her time wanted to work with her even if she had quit the industry twice? It piqued the interest of the reporter in me. I decided to jump straight into the project.

Finding Parveen Babi – one painstaking detail by another

I didn’t know where to start from. No one from her family was around, and even though I did not want to start from the big names, there wasn’t any other way. But once I did, one person led me to another, and I found out that there were so many people who retained so much respect and warmth for her even today.

Ved Sharma, her secretary was no more but his son Lalit Sharma and Xerxes Bhathena, who was Babi’s costume designer and friend –- they were incredibly kind and shared so much with me, helping me put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was Babi’s life, together.

I wanted to know about her life in Ahmedabad, where she studied at St Xavier’s for her Masters in English Literature. Donald Marks, (the son of a family friend and Babi’s close friend throughout her life) put me in touch with his ex-wife Jyotsna Odedra (who was Babi’s senior and roommate at St Xavier’s), who, in turn, put me in touch with Parizad who was married to the late Neville Damania (Parveen’s first boyfriend.) Slowly, but steadily, I was able to gain a clearer insight into Babi’s life and personality.

The one thing that I was steadfast about was that I would verify each and every piece of information and anecdotes pertaining to Babi with at least two other sources. There were so many things that I eventually did not put in the book because I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if it was true; as a researcher I tried to be a 1000 per cent true to her story.

Not just pretty, punctual to the core

Punctual, extremely courteous, with a photographic memory — Babi was all this and more. Discovering these facets of her personality became extremely important to me. I knew that what was written about her was so overshadowed by her mental illness, almost eclipsing everything else. But there was a reason why people were so keen on working with her.

Ravi Tandon who directed her, including in the film Majboor, reminisced that at 7 am, there used to be two other cars apart from his, that would arrive on the dot at the location. Babi’s and Amitabh Bachchan’s.

Manoj Kumar told me about how non-fussed she was. He spoke about an incident when they were shooting for the film Kranti. It so happened one day that by the time her scene was completed, there was almost nothing left of the lunch laid out for the cast and the crew. There were no plates left even. Babi simply put some subzi over a roti, using the roti as a plate, and had her lunch. No fuss, not a word of admonition for anyone. 

Ranjeet, who worked with Babi in many films, spoke of a scene with her, in which the script demanded that he assault her. In doing so, inadvertently, her clothes went haywire. Again, she wasn’t upset or furious, she simply readjusted her clothes and they went on with the scene.

Her driver Hamunan had the nicest of things to say about her too – how she took care of people around her. The cinematographer for Shaan, S M Anwar, revealed how Babi would always remember the names of spot boys and technicians on the set, courteous with everyone around her. 

There was also a magazine interview in which the late BR Ishara, director of Charitra, had described how Babi, (who must have been 16 or 17 at the time he had approached her for the movie), was keen to know what her character was really like and did not shy away from playing a character that would portray the role of a woman who would become an unwed mother. 

Adventures and anecdotes

This book took three years to research and write. It took me on different journeys. I went to Ahmedabad to research her university days, and after I had spent this afternoon with Odedra talking about Babi, I went back to my hotel. I found to my dismay that my Dictaphone had run out of battery and those conversations were not recorded! I had a flight back and couldn’t prolong my stay in Ahmedabad. This led to a wonderful weekend with Odedra at her farmhouse near the Maharashtra border and I had a lovely time besides rerecording all the anecdotes about Babi.

Getting Danny Denzongpa to agree to speak to me was also quite an adventure but so worth it. After the 70s and 80s, he did not talk to the press about his personal life a lot and he’s an intensely private person. When I finally got a call after six to nine months of corresponding with his secretary, I got on the next available flight to Gangtok. He was the loveliest, spoke candidly, with so much warmth and his insights about Babi were the highlights of the research for this book. At one point, while we were talking about Babi, his wife briefly came in, and remarked that she was so glad that there was going to be a book on Babi.

The missing pieces in the puzzle

There are these three years where she lived in Houston and not a lot is known about those years. I contacted the Indian consulate in Houston, expats, journalists but nothing much emerges of that period in her life, except for what Bhathena and Babi’s cousin’s son Javed could tell me.

I was also curious about how she paid for her three years there; she had only taken whatever little money was in her Bank of America account. So, if some more information comes out, I would love to add that to my book, update it.

However, in relation, more is known about her later years. Yes, she was mostly home bound, didn’t go out. But she did have her church group, I think it became a place of solace for her. She invited Reverend Dyvasirvadum and his family for meals, she celebrated her 50th birthday and had Ved Sharma’s family over for that.

Sense and sensibility – empathy and balance in reporting on mental illness

During Babi’s time, there was a certain lack of empathy in the way how the press reported on her. Calling her ‘mad’, ‘cracked up’ and such. Only a few interviews were done with sensitivity and I mention Rohit Khilnani’s interview in the book, which was one among the few that had balance and empathy.

Now it has been 30 years or so and not much has changed. The timing of the book, when it came out and the parallels with how the press reported on Sushant Singh Rajput’s case are uncanny. It’s not just the media, it’s how the audience, the industry folk, fans and alike reacted to the Rajput’s death that tells us that we seriously need to have these conversations (about mental health and illnesses) both in the media and the society at large.

Schizophrenia – a doctor speaks on record

When I started researching and writing on Babi, I had not previously written (in my capacity as a reporter) anything on mental illness. I wanted to approach this with awareness and understanding. I reached out to the psychiatrist (Dr Ashit Sheth) who had treated her once briefly and he told me what he had diagnosed back then and on record (that she was, at the time he saw her, psychotic, hallucinating, and feeling persecuted). I also wanted someone who lived with a mental illness, (so to speak), to read through my work and give me feedback but eventually there could be no time for that.  I couldn’t do it in detail – like getting a psychiatrist to read all of what I had researched and written but I tried to give the readers an insight into her whole personality, and not just focus on her illness.

A lot of people would say, oh she was so beautiful and talented, how could she have schizophrenia? Similar to the conversations about Rajput.

I did not put in any details that I couldn’t substantiate. Like if there was a talk about a genetic link, I didn’t put in who in the family was rumoured to have a mental illness if I had no means of double checking or authenticating it.

The end – a life and a dream

During the last years of her life, Babi allowed only a few people in her life. She had figured out a way of life that worked for her. It was not that she was deeply unhappy about her life. In 1997, she was baptized at the All Saints Church and you will find out in the book how she reached out to Reverend Dyvasirvadum.

You ask me if there are any paintings that she had painted and if these are preserved? All the material possessions were taken away by the cops and each item was photographed. From what I saw of the photographs, there were diaries, tapes and newspapers strewn about, broken glasses but no proper, finished paintings to speak of.

(A previous version of this interview had two mistakes which had crept in from our side. These have been corrected: the late BR Ishara quote about Babi has now been correctly attributed to a past interview, as also the bit about Jyotsna Odedra who connected Upadhyay with Parizad who was married to the late Neville Damania.)

Related interviews: Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta

“Growing up, I was called pagal ka bachcha (child of a mad woman)”

says Amandeep Sandhu, author of the novel Sepia Leaves (2007), Roll of Honour (2012), and Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines (2019). This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness and we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy, and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.

When did you first decide that you wanted to write about your mother’s illness (schizophrenia) and your own experience of it — and how easy or difficult it is do so in the Indian context?

As a child, when my parents used to fight, I used to hide behind the sofa and read comics. Somewhere at that time, I realised that books are safe, books are home. As an adolescent, I was in a military school, where, I used to hide in the library to escape corporal punishment. As I grew up, there was a pull to either go into the Army or become a doctor, but I am glad that I did neither.

When my parents joined me in Bangalore, where I was working in the IT industry as a technical writer, I knew I wanted to put down what I knew about my parents. All my earlier life, I was a holiday child in the sense that I only went home for holidays, and now before I was to live with them, I wanted to put down my memories, and thoughts, know my parents better.

This was early 2000. And there was really nothing in the Indian context or Indian writing in English on the subject that talked about the caregiving aspect of the mental health pyramid. A lot of reading that I did, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, to Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden to Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father, I couldn’t see the caregiver’s point of view. I wanted to read something else than madness as a spectacle, madness becoming ‘the other,’ madness as ‘coveted’ – as in, yes, the artist or the poet suffers but look at the beauty of the work they produced as a result of that suffering.

I wanted something which spoke to me about the everyday grime of living and caregiving, so vastly different from the beauty of painting and poetry of the world of ‘coveted’ madness. That was the beginning and making of Sepia Leaves.

And what was the response to your writing?

It has been 13 years since the book has been published. And I still get messages from readers. Some of them simply say ‘thank you.’ They say, thank you, we did not know that we had a story. In the triage of mental health, there’s the patient, the psychiatrist and the medical practitioner, and the caregiver. While the patient suffers, the power in the triage – to diagnose, label and prescribe medicines — rests with the psychiatrist. The caregiver often doesn’t have a voice in spite of the fact that he or she suffers as well for they do the caregiving out of love, affection, or a sense of duty. It happens many times that these care-givers’ lives revolve around the patient, and they don’t live their own lives.

What resources can one turn to as a caregiver? How have things changed from the time you wrote your book to now?

Growing up, I was called ‘pagal ka bachcha’ (child of a mad woman). Nobody wanted to do anything with my mother, it was like she is your problem, deal with it.

There is more sharing happening now. Recently, there are groups like the White Swan Foundation, the Banyan, SCARF, Sanjivni, Anjali and many more. Publishers are also more open to publishing books on this subject; Amazon recently commissioned ten essays, and one of them was about mental health during Covid (Bravado to Fear to Abandonment: Mental Health and the COVID-19 Lockdown). I did that essay, and, in a way, it speaks about a shift in the publishing mindset too.

Books and memoirs like mine give a reader tangible proof that there are others who suffer like them, and that they are not alone, and their voice and story matters.

There’s still a whole lot of things that need to be done. The new Mental Healthcare Act 2017 of India, which still doesn’t solve all the issues with the previous Act (1987), but the Indian Psychiatrist Association, made an estimate of how much money was needed in order to do all that the Act suggested. It estimates that about Rs 93,000 crore is needed to implement it, and in the last budget, we reduced the outlay from 50 to 40 crores (for mental health). So yes, we need to tap and act at various levels – from education, the voluntary sector, journalism, CSR partnerships.

How do mental health professionals benefit from a resource of Indian writing on mental health?

When I was writing my book, I showed it to three psychiatrists that I knew and respected. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting the illness. One of the psychiatrists wrote a review of my book in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry and recommended that colleagues read it.

I think every arm of medicine is based on care and affection and more so the one in psychiatry. Memoirs give the medical professionals an insight into what life really is like on a daily basis and changes the degree of kindness and compassion for the kind of work they do, and this, in turn, helps create kind and open spaces.

The recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed in its aftermath, was that an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health?

Any denial harms the larger narrative. When we accept things, we acknowledge that, yes it happens, we don’t know how to solve it, but this is what happened – it is honest, and it creates a space to remove some of the stigma. In the context of the actor’s death, there was one brief moment when there was hope that the narrative would focus on meaningful conversations. But it was lost. It became political and the media was also compromised in the way it reported on the issues and continues to do so.

Even now, our public speakers use grave terms from the mental health terminology as jokes, as insults. The ‘pagal ka bacha’ might not be a refrain one hears very often, but there is still so much learning and work to do.

(The author spoke to Prerna Shah)

In case, you missed the first interview (of author and writer Jerry Pinto) in this series on mental health and awareness, you can read it here. You can also read Karishma Upadhyay’s interview in which she talks about the research that went on behind her book on Parveen Babi and how almost everything that was written about her previously was overshadowed by her mental illness, eclipsing everything else.

Related interviews: Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta

“As a child, I longed for a normal mother. I did not know what a normal mother was”

says journalist, writer and author Jerry Pinto. This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness and we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.

What role could memoirs and books written around the topic of mental health play in bringing about greater awareness and understanding of mental health in the Indian context? 

I think every book is a bridge. When we read a book, we choose to cross the bridge and we enter into another small world. We are now changed, slightly, ever so slightly but permanently, by the experience. We may forget the book, we may forget that we read it, but there will be a change somewhere. This is true of all books. It is true of all experiences. You may cross the bridge for your own reasons. Your crossing may be motivated by vulgar curiosity, your crossing may be larcenous in nature, your crossing may be a critical enterprise. It does not matter. The words will change you. There have been many ‘mad’ people in our popular storytelling. There have been lunatics and asylums aplenty in Hindi films, for instance. But there is now a genuine desire, I think, to understand what it is like to live with a different mind, to live with a person with a different mind. I think we are now beginning to understand that we may be deepened and widened even without ‘relatability’.

I understand that your debut novel (Em and the Big Hoom) touched a lot of readers. They could share with you their own stories and felt confident in sharing these stories with the world, and that is how A Book of Light came to be. Some of the contributors may have not shared these experiences ever before — in that sense, is storytelling an important tool in helping normalise and speak about mental illness, without sensationalising it or glossing over the realities of what it means to live with, or care for someone with a mental illness on a daily basis?

I do hope it worked that way. I offer you an image as an answer. Imagine that you are on a long trek and the backpack you are carrying is cutting into your shoulders. You stop for a moment and you take a sip of water and you ease your thumbs under the straps and you raise the backpack just a little. There is a great and beautiful sense of release, as the burden shifts and lifts. You savour that and then you let the backpack rest again, in a slightly different position. The old pain eases but soon a new pain begins.

Storytelling is one of the many things we can do to make things better for ourselves and others. But it is one of a menu and must not be fetishised. You have to choose to turn towards the light which means self-care, which means boundary building, which means healthy choices, which means … you get the idea. Depending only on the telling of your story to heal is to put too many expectations on a single act. It is one of many.

Would you say that by writing about a family member who had a mental illness, it also helps the greater narrative — from a sense of shame or outright denial — to one where you accept and understand it? (Like, my mother is blind and there is no way I can hide that or would want to do that, similarly if she had a mental illness, I don’t want to be in denial of that either.) 

We all deal with difference differently. So, I won’t answer in a general sense but in the specific sense of my own experience. As a child, I longed for a normal mother. I did not know what a normal mother was, I could not know since I did not have one but I wanted a mother who would cook meals for me, who would stitch costumes so I could take part in the school play, who would turn up and look like a mother. My mother did none of these things.

Epiphany comes in streaks of dawn light, not in any great sun storm, at least in my experience.

For me, it began when I was teaching mathematics to young children; I was a private tutor and began to see how many parents who were ‘normal’ — in that they had no diagnoses, no psychiatric conditions — could still be terrifying parents. The mother who threw open the door and wept because her son got 97 per cent in mathematics. ‘How will he manage to get into medical college?’ she moaned. ‘Sir, only you can save him.’ The father who told me that his daughters should not study too hard because they would never get husbands.

And so eventually, slowly, I came to the conclusion that parenthood is far too steep a slope to climb for most people. And if you have not climbed that slope yourself, you should not judge.

This applies to all our responses to what we do in the family. The space of the family is truly non-replicable. It is easy to slip into judgements about what we should or should not do. I try not to but it is very difficult

Do you think media houses, and journalists in training can benefit from trainings or by reading memoirs and books written in the Indian context, when it comes to reporting on, or writing about mental health and illnesses with balance, empathy and sensitivity?

Media training is very important but far more important is the notion of ethical media. I think most people would be able to do the right thing if they simply thought: How should I like to be treated in this situation? Instead of which they have their bosses telling them: How should you like it if we sacked you? Bring in the dirt. Do your best to raise the TRPs. Shout. Scream. Rant. Rave. It saddens me but each time I say to myself: You got lucky. You worked in the media when it was not like this. How do you know you would not be muckraking with the best of them if it were about keeping your job, paying your EMIs and keeping your children in that upscale school?

But what we can do is vote with the remote. Turn off the channel. Do not subscribe to the newspaper. Find an alternative. There is quietness out there. Seek it out.

(This interview was conducted via questions sent through an email.)

Related interviews: Amandeep Sandhu, Karishma Upadhyay, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta

“We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!”

says Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and sometime children’s writer. In this interview with Prerna Shah, she talks about how she made the shift to a rural, farm-based life and if, inspired by the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options, you want to consider a shift too, read on…

Harini, if you could tell us a little about yourself, also about your life in Bangalore before you moved to your farm?

I’m part of that bad generation, the baby boomers. Grew up in the 60s, came of age in the 70s, lived all over the country (my father was in a transferable central government job), and loved being rootless. The consumerist lifestyle crept up on us unawares in the late 80s, but within a decade I had its measure and began to make conscious decisions. I think of myself as primarily a homemaker. I taught briefly in a school, and edited for an academic journal for many years, but it was always part-time. I liked to reserve so much time for my family – usually including an animal or more. I also wrote a few books for children. That got squeezed into the busy schedule somehow, and I remember them as fun times with my daughters, who participated enthusiastically in whatever I was writing. Once they grew up and moved away, I lost the motivation and the momentum.

What motivated you to look for a piece of farmland and to then make the move from Bangalore to your farm?

I’d always dreamt of living on a farm, leading an outdoor life, having a lot of animals. My husband and I also love mountains and, for a long time, we thought we’d move to the Himalayas someday, live in an apple orchard with a view of snow-covered peaks. But ‘someday’ seemed far off, and by the time we were both in our fifties, we realised we wanted to live close to our daughters. So we decided to compromise — do what we could here and now. 

We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!

How did you find the land that you now call your own? How does one go about finding a piece of land to own and (then) farm or cultivate?

Each state has its own laws regarding agricultural land. Early on we realized we could not own farmland in our state, Karnataka. Fortunately, Tamil Nadu was within easy driving distance. We answered ads, talked to people, met brokers. We wanted land with a view. At last, we were lucky to meet a retired state government revenue officer, who was very knowledgeable and reliable. He helped us buy our land, and also became a good friend. We bought our land (in 2011) with three friends. (And built our house there by the end of 2013). That’s a nice thing, to have good friends for neighbours. Though only one of them so far has built a house there and visits regularly.

One piece of advice for anyone buying land: Make sure the papers are good, of course, but also make sure that the people around are friendly.

One piece of land we looked at was lovely – huge old trees, good soil, sloping down to a lake. But the minute we got there several scowling men turned up to say the land was under dispute. On enquiry, it turned out the people in that village were very quarrelsome. We’re glad we stayed away. Where we live, we are lucky to have generous and friendly people around and don’t have to waste our energies in protecting our property.

In your blog, you talk about keeping a lot of things in mind while designing your house, the well, and a number of other things around the farm. What were the thoughts and ideals that guided you to take these decisions?

We didn’t know a thing. If we had known half as much then as we do now, we’d have done many things very differently. We were scared to death and the house reflects that. We were told not to have glass windows as people would throw stones. So, we have wooden shutters. Our younger daughter insisted we should be able to make a quick getaway in case we were raided by elephants, and that was built into the design. Then we were sure leopards would eat our dogs, so we built a high-walled courtyard. Now we know: the villagers don’t throw stones, you can’t get away from a herd of elephants, and there are no leopards in the adjoining forest (at least for now).

The main thing we got right was deciding to be off-grid. We didn’t want electric wires going across our land and electrocuting elephants. And, of course, there was a kind of romance about the idea. Anyway, it makes us self-sufficient and not at the mercy of an unreliable power supply, especially as we are so isolated. Our house is built of stabilized mud blocks and has recycled windows from a demolished 100-year-old British-era school. It’s quite a small house, considerably basic. When people come to stay, which isn’t very often, it’s a bit of a crush. Fortunately, the two bedrooms and bathrooms are spacious, and we can be outdoors all day. We have a solar-powered water pump and a solar water heater, and we now have rainwater harvesting and a large tank to store the rainwater. These were all good decisions.

Can you also tell us a bit about your efforts in minimizing the use of plastics in your daily life — from food in plastic packaging to cleaning products that come housed in a plastic bottle or container.

This is such a long and boring story, I’m sure no one wants to hear it in detail! Suffice it to say that I have for many years now been dedicated to cutting out plastic – products as well as packaging. I buy groceries, fruits and vegetables in cloth bags for choice, and occasionally in paper bags. I use natural toiletries, laundry powder and housecleaners – things like shikakai, reetha, besan and neem-twig toothbrushes. Many are homemade or homegrown, and some bought from organic stores, almost all with no packaging. I’ll trudge miles to avoid a plastic bag, driving everyone around me nuts. My partner in crime is the Navadarshanam CSA.

What do you grow on your farm? And what grows wild and uncultivated that you find useful as well?

We grow the traditional crops in our area – ragi or finger millet, avare or bush beans, peanuts, and small quantities each year of different things like moong, urad, tuvar dal, til or sesame. We have 22 mango trees, about 10 papaya trees and a few guava and sapota trees that bear fruit. Not yet bearing, but tended lovingly, are several coconut trees, banana, custard apple, jackfruit, lemon, orange and sweet lime, gooseberry, avocado, breadfruit, mulberry, moringa, etc.

The main trees that grow wild in our farm are non-edible species – honge or pongamia, Malabar neem or melia dubia, palash, laburnum and a kind of thorny acacia. They provide much-needed shade, mulch, firewood, and food and habitat for non-human critters. They also add beauty to the land and, when they are flowering, the perfume is intoxicating.

The author with Punkin, her tomcat

Tell us about a typical day at your farm, a day in your life if you please.

Wake up at an unearthly hour, get breakfast and laundry out of the way, potter around looking at how the plants are doing. Once it’s light enough to see an elephant if one is lurking, we go for a long walk. The views are as nourishing as breakfast! From about 8 am to noon I slog – digging holes for saplings, making new beds, planting, watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, picking vegetables. propping up climbers, etc. In non-Covid times I also used to make breakfast for our farm hands and anyone else who was helping out. I have cut that out in the last couple of months. My work is easier for that, but I also miss the daily chats and the happiness of seeing them enjoy the snack. In non-Covid times, we also had friends dropping in for a chat, to exchange seeds, saplings and goodies like pickle or cake. Life is rather lonely at present. At noon we knock off. Bath, lunch, and a few hours of lazing. I spend a lot of time on a lounger under a tree, reading, snoozing, and watching the birds that flit to and fro. Then a couple of hours of light work before dinner. We are in bed by 9 pm with our books and music.

The author with her husband at their farm

Do you spend all your time, most months in a year at the farm or do you divide your time between Bangalore and your farm?

We planned on one week a month in the city to meet family and attend to business things, but it’s been pretty erratic, what with interstate passes and lockdowns.

Do you miss anything about city life at all? 

Not at all when we’re there. But when we come to the city, after the initial culture shock, everything is an exciting novelty – shops, restaurants, newspapers, and TV!

Are there any stereotypes that we may have about life on a farm, and about villages and village folk? Did you learn and unlearn a few things about the rural way of life when you moved to the farm?

Well, they are better informed than you might think, but as superstitious as you’d expect. What I found surprising was that they are all there by choice. Almost all of them have spent some time in the city learning a trade or doing odd jobs. And everyone will tell you how much they couldn’t stand city life, the noise, and traffic, the lack of food security, the commercialization of everything, the polluted air, and water. Here in the village, they say, no one starves. We’re always losing money, but there’s enough to eat, and people will help you out.

I know this is contrary to the reality of farmer distress and suicide elsewhere in the country, and I can’t explain it. Among the farmers of the current generation, the 30-50 group, there is an entrenched belief in the high risk-high return model. They invest large sums of money in a single crop for the market and, if that fails, they lose it all. I hope in time they’ll realize the value of the old model of subsistence agriculture, and grow enough of everything for their own needs.

Another thing that fascinates me is that their brains seem to work differently from city-bred brains. Is it that their spatial intelligence is greater? I love how local and rooted are their memories and stories, their excellent mental maps of places, and their instinctive understanding of natural processes and creatures, which is different from mine at any rate – so much of my knowledge of farming is from books. Of course they are sometimes wrong, but it’s still impressive!

In a blogpost you address this question about ‘after the honeymoon’ and I ask it here again. Has your commitment to the farm and the way of life sustained and grown? 

Yes and no. I love being close to nature and the idea of growing our own food. But I am 62, and Srini, my husband, is 68. I am beginning to realize that we can’t sustain this amount of work as we grow older. It’s deeply satisfying, but certainly not easy. I am committed to work at it until we can really live off our land. Then I shall sit back and let someone else do the maintenance.

‘Anilodharani’ – their home at the farmland

And what were some of the biggest challenges that you have overcome?

Ignorance, poor soil, an inhospitable microclimate. Being at the top of one valley and the foot of another hill, we get a wild raging wind most of the year, sun radiating from the rocks in summer, and not enough rain. We are working hard to improve our soil and capture rainwater. We read a lot, experiment a lot, and talk to the local farmers as well as permaculturists elsewhere. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is fascinating.

What piece of advice would you have for someone who is a novice but has a keen desire to move to rural India and try and live the way you do?

Just do it!

Have you found it useful to document your journey in your blog ‘The Long View’ and how does your writing (not just the blog but your work as a children’s author) come about or is helped by your life on the farm.

I haven’t written a thing since we moved more or less full time to the farm. I have neither the time nor the inclination right now. But that’s not to say I won’t sometime in the future.

And if you could tell us about a native tree or two that grows in your part of the farm or around it and the joy it brings you.

It’s amazing how many trees growing wild around us are NOT native! One beautiful tree that is, is the silk cotton, bombax ceiba. I was thrilled to find two growing on our farm a couple of years ago. The flowers are beautiful, and I love the softness of pillows and mattresses stuffed with its cotton. I’m eagerly watching them grow!

The villagers keep introducing me to interesting new trees. I’ve recently got to know the naarve, with citrussy, rough leaves that are traditionally used to scrub vessels; the jaalaari with scented flowers that, in the season, perfume the whole forest; and the taare (terminalia bellerica), which has nuts almost as good to eat as cashews, but which I later discovered has ‘mind-altering’ properties!

(You can read more about Srinivasan’s life on the farm at her WordPress blog)