Follow by Email

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Topic of Cancer

I felt an odd sense of emptiness when my parents broke the news. It was December 2001 and my father had been diagnosed with colon cancer. We lived in London at the time and I was all of 11 years old. Naturally, I was rather naive; my perception of western-medicine was that it could cure anything, anywhere, anytime. Perhaps my parents were counting on this, so my sister and I would remain calm in the face of grave events. At an age so tender, my father’s condition was just another illness that white-winged doctors could cure with the divine swoosh of a scalpel.

Only when I look back, do I realise the sheer naiveté of my judgement, as many “what if” questions start bouncing inside my head. What if the cancer had been widespread? What if the surgery had only a 50% chance of success? Alas, what if there wasn’t anything that could be done? What if even those angelic surgeons had no solutions but to pray? Though my perception was cloudy, I am surprised at my own demeanour. I did not panic, I did not cry, I did not fear. I simply prayed and knew that the best would happen. My lack of emotion at the time was something Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be proud of, yet now I see why I did not shout or scream with futile agony. Somehow, I had faith that the Universe would right itself. And it did. The surgery, which took place on my birthday (the best present I ever received!), went off without a hitch and since then, my father made a full recovery with the help of Chinese medicine and western wisdom. However, it wasn’t the end of his health trials.

While he cut back on his high-travel, stress-filled job, he still had many challenges to face. We moved from London to Hong Kong. Here, work continued to occupy a big chunk of his time and patience. Something had to give. In a rather bizarre series of events, my father swallowed a fish-bone that apparently tore a hole in his small intestine. He was rushed to another hospital, where another Gabriel performed another perfect surgery. After this episode though, my parents decided to make some fundamental changes, because it was now clear that my father’s corporate responsibilities and the accompanying life-style were taking a heavy toll on his health.

I’m not a firm believer in destiny, only in the balance of things. In the summer of 2004, this balance was corrected and we moved back to India after 9 years living in different parts of the world. I didn’t know what to expect; some balance at last? Indeed, it was balance that my parents found. My father gave up his full-time job and set up Roots and Wings, a small consultancy firm. Instead of making expensive advertisements for high-profile clients, my father now helps people overcome multi-faceted life problems like divorce and illness, as well as working part-time in the corporate arena.

My own life has also been dramatically altered since we moved back to India. My initial year felt as if I was a foreigner in my own country. However, this has changed significantly over the past three years as I have recognized India as home. While I feel comfortable in any country, I feel a calling to return to India after my higher education. It is a time of incredible opportunity and I know that India will require global citizens that have firm roots here. I feel that our country will need strong leaders that understand a multicultural environment, but are also uniquely Indian. My father’s own path back home has really made me realize the strength of one’s past in determining and cultivating one’s future.

I think he has grown as a person and a father, after his cancer experience. Moreover, I think my own perception and emotional response have also grown. Cancer was a catalyst of positive change for the whole family. I have learnt that if something looks impossible, it calls for another perspective, which may open up totally new possibilities. I have opened myself to change and I have learnt to go with the flow. To me, openness also means questioning my assumptions while making the necessary choices. Inevitably, this will bring about positive change.

My father’s cancer changed my outlook on life as a whole. I hope to grow from my transitions, the way he has.

What do pictures want?

It is a simple family portrait that you will find in the home of every single descendant of our ancestral clan: the Khambadkone’s, who trace their origin to the tiny village of the same name in North Kanara District of Karnataka on India’s west coast. Probably taken by one of the few cameras around at that time, it is a black and white (now sepia-toned) photograph taken in the front yard of my great-grandmothers home, in 1935. There are 25 people of varying ages and trades, all members of the same extended family. I remember being surprised by its ubiquity because whenever we visited our relatives, I noticed this same photo displayed; sometimes prominently and sometimes tucked-away in a corner, but nonetheless ever-present. It is as if that moment in time needed to be frozen in black and white, for posterity.

The actual landscape of course, is anything but black and white. It is an expanse of lush rice plantations and abundant coconut groves, in every conceivable shade of green. The air is thick with humidity and the rich smell of red, fertile soil. Temple bells ring faintly in the background. The sea is never far, always in the hearts of the people who reap its fruits. The people here lead a simple life. The men are partially robed in a loose fitting sarong (called lungi), their bodies tanned and toned from the hard manual labour involved in farming or fishing. The women all wear sarees. Few outsiders have seen this part of India; foreign tourists pass it by, choosing other, more glamorous coastal resorts instead. I myself felt like a complete foreigner as we drove in, my father getting more excited with each new vista. Every nearby village shares a name with some relative or another. Every few minutes my father would point out, “Look, we’re passing this uncle or that cousins’ village!”

The initial feeling, of being an outsider was not shared by our relatives though. They included us in their stories and memories, even though we had not been there in person. They recounted the ups and downs of people’s lives that I knew nothing of. My father didn’t either, but he listened with concerned intent to each tale. Elderly aunts brought out small steel jars containing home-made savoury and sweet snacks, watching with indulgent delight as we enjoyed them. I was drawn to that mysterious picture in each home that we visited, and noticed new details with each viewing. I imagined what it must have been like on the day that photograph was taken.

My father tells me it was a wedding, when a young girl from the family married a doctor (a very respectable profession in the 1930’s, since higher education was so limited and so rare). People would have travelled by bullock-cart and horse-buggy, crossing several rivers by boat, to meet their relatives, tickle new babies and to tease the young boys and girls who had ‘grown up so fast’. Grand meals would have been prepared and enjoyed, the women gossiping as they cooked over wood-fires, while the men sat in the back garden discussing events big and small in each other’s lives. The children would have frolicked in the surrounding fields, or splashed about in the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, with no care in the world. After the wedding ceremony, the steaming, fragrant meal would be served, mostly comprising rice, spicy lentil curries, seasonal vegetables, pickles and if times were good, fish or meat. Humorous stories and quirky events would be shared, before everyone retired for a long afternoon nap. This was a time before telephones, television and email, when human contact prevailed, so people used such occasions to come together and celebrate the wonder of family.

Looking into the photo, I can see myself in all of these different people. How different my life would be, but at the same time, would I be that different? Their silver-powdered eyes reach out to mine and I realise with a jolt that I am connected to every one of them across time and space.

You can tell a lot from the photo. Even the way they sat, reveals the social hierarchy and ‘the way things were’ at the time. The children sit cross-legged on the floor. The elders, including the “prominent” men and “demure” ladies sit on a rough wooden bench. Tall, strapping young men stand behind them, cocky and confident, as if to say, “We will be the ones sitting down soon enough”. The groom is easy to spot with his crumpled but proudly worn Western suit, while the young bride’s jewelry hangs heavy around her neck. Some men wear a rather quizzical look, unsure of what the camera will capture. One woman sits meekly next to her burly, moustachioed husband. Here’s my direct connection to this photo: my grandmother, who was not even 2 years old then, is perched atop my great-grandmother’s lap. With the care-free innocence of a child, she is the only one smiling broadly. She is now in her mid-70’s, but 7 decades later, the smile is still the same.

The photo’s true purpose is to establish a bridge; a connection between me, home and family. An indestructible connection that I can cling to, in times most dire. This picture wants us to remember. It wants us to feel a sense of comfort, knowing there is a home for everyone, even if we haven’t found it yet. Where you are never an outsider or an intruder; where the people and the situation will always embrace you, no matter what. This picture wants us to never lose sight of our past, and it wants to be the anchor that holds our future steady. To me, this picture conveys beautifully, that our roots are just as important as our wings.

Having lived all over the world as a child and about to head off for university soon, this picture is my light-house. It is the beacon that guides me to an oasis of serenity: Home.