A few days back someone I don’t know passed away from cancer. Someone I have heard of, whose illness and struggle I have followed from a distance. She was a much-loved person. A strong girl. A determined girl. And she was merely 26-years-old.

Youth can move us into the arms of a frightfully beautiful mirage — of immortality. Nothing can touch us. Nothing is impossible. Nothing out of reach. Our energy, vitality, sexuality, beauty, youth always seem impossibly long-lived — far into the future we cannot see but believe we can comprehend. The reminder of how fleeting life really is, is then humbling, and empowering.

The infidelity of time doesn’t leave you with the luxury of pretences and laboured fears.

From what I have read, the girl who passed away, for no lack of strength or fight, was just 26 — three years younger than me. I feel inexplicably fortunate that I have lived this long, had these many more days with those I love. And immeasurably ashamed that I have nothing much to show for it.

A loss of life, such a precious life, is a travesty. Rest in peace, dear girl. I have much to learn from you.

Not such a hair-raising story

It has been a while since I last updated this rather hesitant journal – going against my earlier resolve to be regular. I wonder who is reading this. But if you are one of those few who have logged on to read I can only apologise profusely. Getting back to life after a long pause sometimes takes more work than I’d imagined.

This time last year I resembled, pretty closely, the grim unsmiling smiley, albeit a brown one, that we use unabashedly in our favourite mode of human interaction – instant messages.

Do you recall that clichéd clumps-of-hair in the shower scene in horror movies of a certain kind? I am willing to bet that a cancer patient came up with that.

The sight of a bald head is possibly one most associated with cancer. The loss of hair, then, isn’t just about losing that symbol of vanity – it is about the fear of being perceived in a certain way by others.

Three weeks or so after the start of her chemotherapy a friend I met online on a cancer support group sent a distraught message – “I don’t want to continue the treatment.”

While she knew about the impending hair loss, and felt she was ready (like most of us), the reality of a scalp permanently in pain, of leaving trails of hair around the house like Hansels bread crumbs, the well-meant advice on how to deal with the loss (shave versus don’t shave camps), were all too much for her. The emotional impact of this cosmetic after-effect is often, unfortunately, ignored.

Going bald – I mean actually taking a razor to my head to shave it all off without waiting for them to go in due course of time, was about asserting some control at a time when nothing else was. The relief from the scalp pain was just an added bonus.

But really, in a way it was liberating. I liked being bald (at least until I lost my eyebrows!). If you think about it it’s a tick on the bad-girl list – such as having a tattoo, getting piercings, et al.

However, of all the agonies of cancer, losing my eyebrows was probably the most heart-wrenching and the only one I still remember clearly. Really, I am quite convinced we underestimate the vast importance of eyebrows.

It’s all that holds our face together and keeps us from looking like a ‘Kree’. Forget eyes as the windows to our soul – it’s the eyebrows that truly matter.  Pictures illustrating  the point will soon be updated, I promise.

If you have a friend or family member about to go through chemo, let them handle it the way they want. If they want to have a ‘bald and beautiful’ party, make sure you get the cake. It is possibly the only way they get to assert some control at a time when one feels like their body has been invaded. Get them a wig if they want. If they don’t, take them out for dinner in their fabulous new no-hair-do.

At the end of it watching them grow back when you are better kind of makes up for it. And if, like me, you are living in a tropical land of sweaty horror sometimes you even miss the feeling of the wind on your gloriously bare scalp.

The C word: Mutations galore

I have always imagined what it would be like to be a superhero. I have weighed and re-thought a number of super powers that I’d like to have. I’ve argued that maybe, just maybe there really are some mutants in our midst. And that maybe my mutations are simply showing a late growth spurt and one day would flourish. Yes, laugh all you will but it’s true, even today at the ripe old age of 28.

The thing is I was right! I do have a mutation after all. My mother (who laughed so much about by love for superpower-causing mutations. Ha!), one of my two sisters and I have a mutation – that of the gene MSH2.

It is one of the many mutations that cause…cancer. Oh no! Really. I mean, truly, really, seriously! It is a mutation that can cause HNPCC or Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancers. All my belief in mutations and mutants and I get gifted with a potential bomb in the poop-pipe? Blaaargh! What-an-anti-climax.

And it gets better. The name, which implicates my colon, is misleading. I mean, it stores crap, a shit-storm there would just be ironic. But no, in another woman’s words “my baby box set me up!”. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, it has truly been a year of learning. (Much of it has to do with the absolute, eternal and unquestionable importance of eyebrows. But more on that later.)


Coming back to serious issues, such as, you know, not dying. I have been part of a group on  Facebook of women suffering ovarian cancer. And the shocking fact is most were diagnosed late. Have been suffering for years.


There is a shocking lack of awareness about this insidious disease as compared to our other more ‘glamorous’ sister — breast cancer.

Figures available publicly with the American Cancer Society show that as of August 2015, 198 grants were made for research involving breast cancer, with total funded amount standing at over $110 million. The total grants for ovarian cancer, however, were at a relatively lower 46, with total funded amount standing at $26 million.

It is estimated that in the US more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, and over 14,000 will succumb to it in the year. That’s a strike rate of over 63 per cent.

On the other hand, over 246,000 breast cancer cases are likely to be diagnosed and more than 40,000 women may lose their lives to it. That’s about 16 per cent.

Now, I am not trying to minimise the suffering of any cancer patient. Just a few sentences earlier I called breast cancer our more “glamorous” sister, just for the high amount of coverage it gets, and justly so. The sheer numbers makes it more visible, more troublesome and as a result also gains more research interest.

But just going by numbers ovarian cancer is more deadly. Its fatality is linked to the fact that it is an unusually silent disease with symptoms as vague as ‘exhaustion’. So, ladies, be alert if you feel a loss of appetite, feeling bloated, are suffering abdominal pains that are masquerading as gastritis, and start needing to pee too often.

And, just in case anyone was wondering, I am waiting on my invisibility to kick in. A little bit of the ability to teleport too, you know. And a touch of telepathy wouldn’t hurt… just because.

Don’t pit depression against cancer

Just now I saw this video on Upworthy about how one would never put down a person with cancer. Never say they were dragging others down. Never call a cancer patient’s problems an unending series of “pity parties”. Then why do people do that with a person suffering depression.

A beautiful, meaningful video dealing with an important subject. Yet, somehow, it left me slightly agitated. You see, I was diagnosed with cancer around this time last year. And I have spent months weighing every word I said, sometimes even actions and gestures, afraid someone would think I was making everything about me.

The fact is anyone suffering any long-term disease probably suffers such anxiety, may be because in some ways or the other our society lacks time and space for such people.

But more than that there is an odd sense of guilt associated with getting cancer.

A well-meaning acquaintance on meeting me during the course of my treatment told me, “When I heard you got cancer I thought it must be lung cancer. After all, you smoked.” Yes, I did. And no I didn’t get lung cancer. Further, my cancer had nothing to do with smoking. It was found to be caused by a genetic mutation.

Another acquaintance, on being told about the mutation, which comes down from my mother, a woman who has led an excruciatingly simple life, said, “Cancer doesn’t work like that. It is not a hereditary disease.” I found myself shrinking a little from the lady’s tone and tenor.

I count myself among one of the most blessed people, given the completely beautiful people who surround me. A boyfriend who stood by me like a rock, made me feel beautiful at a time when I avoided looking at the mirror as much as possible. A mother who pulled herself out of depression to take care of me. Two sisters whose strength I could feel through the miles shortened by Skype. A father who was just there, simply there for anything and everything. Friends who would pop up ‘just because’.

Yet, I know of others who weren’t as fortunate. Whose boyfriends left them in the middle of chemo because ‘it was too stressful’. Whose friends avoided them. Whose husbands and wives left them because ‘they weren’t attracted to them anymore’. Parents who felt they couldn’t live their lives around cancer patients. Siblings who thought they were taking up al; the attention.

There is an unsaid pressure on cancer patients to be “normal”. If anyone could tell me what normal is I would be grateful. I have seen colleagues ho and hum about how ill they were with flu. And here I was trying to make puns about being two-paet (stomach) after the first mid-line surgery gave me a scar right down the centre of my abdomen; about starting my ‘bald chronicles’; about taking stairs like an old person. Laughing about living with cancer seemed to be the only defense mechanism I had. But, by jove, none of should feel the need to be defensive. It is hard enough otherwise.

Depression is real. It is scary. I have seen someone very close suffering and spiraling into that abyss. It was perhaps the most helpless I have ever felt. But don’t compare it to another disease in the misguided idea that ‘one doesn’t talk like that to a cancer patient’. Because they do. Don’t belittle the struggles faced by everyone else, because truth is while most people are just wonderful, the ones who aren’t don’t step down their game for anyone.

Renee Zellweger? Is it possible?

Last night a star re-emerged. Renee  Zellweger. Looking a tad, alright, to be honest way different. “Is it possible?” a friend asked. Unfortunately, his timing was off.

Let’s recap. A few minutes prior to that a link appeared at the bottom of a news article I was reading online — “21 pictures of celebrities with cellulite that you would wish you hadn’t seen.”

Curious about what this horrid cellulite was I clicked on the link. You know what it is? Maybe not? Well, I have been informed. It is a disease. It is not just ‘A’ disease, it is the worst disease a person woman could ever have.

You see, while we were growing up there were a few make or break beauty factors. Fat or thin? Thin? You got that one right. Good skin, bad skin (with acne, possibly scars and some uneven skin colour). Good skin? Well done. And oh yes, good hair. The rest was moot.

But turns out you can never have enough wrong with the human female body. You can’t  be too short. Tall. That’s what you have to go for. But, hey, not too tall…you won’t find a guy who’d want to date you.

You have to be thin but again not too thin, you need curves see? But hey, hey, hey that thing in the middle? Your belly? That isn’t a curve, God damn it! That is fat. Get that flat. NOW. You hear me? And now you have done it! It is too flat, woman!! Now it looks ripped! Look, some of the muscles show. Make that feminine right this instant! Same goes for your back. we don’t want to see any of those soft layers of adipose tissues! Toned, get them toned! But no knotted muscles! Na ah…that’s not feminine.

And, oh, those bums. Nice melons, girl. Now let’s see if they are firm too! Which melons, you ask? Oh, both the top and bottom. *snigger* Uh huh. We like them perky and firm, not saggy and ummm wobbly(?) Gravity shouldn’t have any meaning for you. Physics? Don’t bother about that. You are God’s best creation. Beat physics already. Good girl.

Let’s move down, now shall we? Ah. Those legs. Now that you’re the right height (not too short not too tall, remember?) let’s get those lovely long (not too long) legs fixed, shall we? Those legs they are supposed to touch and not touch just at the right places. Let’s have a gap at the top of those delicious thighs, where the legs meet. Then let them fill out. Hey! Wait alright? Go easy on the pizza already! It is supposed to thin down again. and leave a gap just above the point where the knees meet and then below them too!

Calves…nice and firm. Not too tight like sportsmen…very good. And…further down…na ah! Those cankles just won’t do. (Cankles being the term where your ankles are simply not adequately and acceptably bony and thin.)

Feet pedicured. Nail paints freshly done today and those hands nicely manicured. Even coloured skin all over the body. Very good.

You think that’s the end? You forgot cellulite, didn’t you? Ah, now cellulite.  That is the mystery I stepped out to solve today. You see cellulite is apparently the little dimples you sometimes see in your skin. Look  at your thighs maybe? Can’t see them? Stand in front of the mirror, turn around, lift that skirt high over the now firm bums and look again at the back of your thighs? Still don’t see it? Adjust the light in your room (this is so exasperating. Sigh.). Ah…see that? Yup. That’s  the latest criminal in your body. Dimples for the cheeks, not your thighs or stomach. Yuck! That’s disgusting, really. Get that sorted, will you?

Now going back north. Clear skin, check. Even colour, check. But what about those cheek bones? Get them higher! Do it! You know you can. Those lips don’t pout enough. How on earth are you going to get your boyfriend to give you that diamond necklace you want? Pout, pout, pout. All  the time. Yes. Pout. That chin is too big, yours eyes too narrow…no no…for you…the other lady…yes, you in the black shirt… Your eyes are just way too droopy. Also, pull those eyebrows up. Make that nose smaller. Get that skin stretched. Lose that flesh. Where you ask? Everywhere! But no, no, no. Not in your lips! Pout, remember? Fill those cheekbones out. No, your cheeks are way too round, girl, lose some of that flesh. Also, look like you are constantly sucking a really really sour lemon. Or that you are so hungry you need to constantly bite the inner flesh of your bottom lip.

And what the hell are you…yes, you in the white top, doing here? You are over 30 and have at least 5 of these points unchecked…just in your face. GET OUT! No. You aren’t  allowed to age. Nope. Nope. You get to age, when I tell you you get to age. Capiche?

Change yourself, look different. Change till I can’t tell the difference between you and the person next to you. That’s when you would have achieved perfect beauty.

And, now I am slightly out of breath. Maybe we’ll continue this lesson another day.

But, for now, what do you think? Is it possible? Renee Zellweger?

PS: I was asked which criteria I have checked. Ummm…well, I kinda lost the battle at tall.

Pran: The ‘Life’ of Hindi Cinema

Pran - Zanjeer

Pran – Zanjeer (Photo credit: Kaddele)

Sherkhan khud aaya tha, khud chala jayega.” And so he did. Pran Kishan Sikand, the gentleman villian, is no more. He epitomised villainous characters without making them inhuman. Who else could add little touches of comedy to the character of a villian, like he did in Half Ticket? I think we laughed as much at and with Kishore Kumar during the film as we did when Pran decided to jiggy with the cross-dressed genius (Kumar) during Aake Seedhi Lagi Dil Pe Jaise Nazariya.

The news of Pran’s death left a deep sadness among many of us – even for those of us who were born after his active years of 1940 to mid-1980s.

Till date villian means Pran (at the top of the list), followed by Amjad Khan, Prem Chopra, Ajit, Mac Mohan and a few others. Later villians, like Shakti Kapoor and even Gulshan Grover came across more like caricatures when compared to Pran’s quiet wickedness or Amjad Khan’s madness.

But how many of us don’t remember Sherkhan? Or Mangal Chacha in Upkar? Can you forget that man and the pain during the song Kasme Vaade Pyaar Wafa Sab Batein Hain?

Pran was a legend. Truly. If he played villainous roles with so much conviction that generation after generation parents refused to name their children ‘Pran,’ he also made us laugh in Victoria No. 203. He made our hearts melt in Zanjeer as Sherkhan, the benevolent brave-heart who was ready to lay down his own life to protect a friend; and as the stern grandfather, conflicted with his own pride and love for his rebellious grandchildren in Parichay he also made us weep silently.

Pran, the artiste is no more. And, unfortunately, we never did appreciate the man enough while he was alive. He got the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour in the country, in 2001 – at the age of 81. He was selected for the Dadasaheb Phalke Award only this year – just a few months before he left the world. The man never got the National Film Award for Best Actor. I am sure many of you will remember some of the recent, younger awardees.

But, maybe, Pran Saheb, as he was known in the industry, didn’t need any of these awards. His fans would remember the man for everything he was, for years. The void left by Pran Saheb in the film industry could not be filled by anyone. It is yet to be filled.

(This blog first appeared in The Hindu Business LinePran: The ‘Life’ of Hindi Cinema | Business Line.)

Grand Slam on Inverdale

My faith in humanity’s intelligence took a huge beating on Saturday. While a very senior journalist (sports commentator), incidentally male, from the holy cow BBC decided it was pertinent to note that the new Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was not a “looker” (read a hot woman capable of eliciting extreme lust among spectators); many twitteratis also decided she was far too “ugly” to be the new face of the grand slam. But of course!

The question here is not of sexism. The comments, some silly and others downright disgusting and puke-inducing, were, beyond doubts, sexist. The question really is about intelligence. How, in the name of God, is a tennis players’ oomph factor important? How?

She may have got the same prize money as Andy Murray (equality, you see!), but, man, did she pay for it! She was called all kinds of names on social media, including, a whore. One tweeter said she was so ugly that she would not even be raped! Another felt that because she does not look like the factory-produced tall, thin, blonde models (the epitome of beauty in the diversity-starved minds) she was a bloke (man). How else could this short(er), fatter, brunette beat Sabine Lisicki, who is, indeed, tall, slim and, yes, blonde? Bartoli should have remembered that cardinal rule: don’t look like a model, can’t win Wimbledon!

But, now, here is the clincher. The apology from BBC presenter John Inverdale, who commented on her looks and surmised that Bartoli’s father must have reminded her about the fact that she doesn’t look like the stunning Maria Sharapova and, hence, must fight it out. (Oh! You think if you don’t look as good you still have the capability to win a grand slam? Huh? Huh?).

You see, there are some people in this world who just can’t see the truth that is so evident to others like Inverdale. So, they criticise and raise a hue and cry and visionaries are then forced to apologise!

So, while saying how insensitive he was, Inverdale also, very sensitively, added, “She is an incredible role model for people who aren’t born with all the attributes of natural athletes.”

Now, now. Don’t ask silly questions! I think we all know what these “attributes of natural athletes” are. And, no, these attributes do not include the ability to win one of the biggest, toughest sporting events in the world.

(A version of this article first appeared in The Hindu Business Line.


The blood secret

Right at the onset let me post a disclaimer — this is about periods…menstruation…menses…chums… call it what you will. So, if a perfectly natural biological function makes you squeamish, you may want to skip this article. Next, I would like to welcome both men and women to air their views and opinions freely.

I, like most other women, had the most normal reaction to my first period…I thought I was dying. Ahem…yes yes, go on, snigger. I thought I had cancer and my uninformed brain suggested that the blood I noticed on my bed-sheet, the first thing in the morning, meant I was terminally ill and my time on this precious earth was limited.

I was all prepared to be heroic and tell my mother with a calm face that she shouldn’t cry. Yes. Quite the heroine.

Alas, my mother only reacted with a laugh. I probably looked aghast despite all my inner heroic turmoil. “It’s perfectly natural,” I was told. Ummm…maybe the information that one fine day I was suddenly going to wake up in a blood-soaked bed could have been given earlier?? No, mum?

I hit puberty earlier than most peers. The advantage was that in the next couple of years, when friends were hit on the head with the ‘bloody’ mess, I could behave like a wise old hen and look on with the been-there-done-that face.

But, while my mother, and sisters and father, were really cool about it, what surprised me was the fact that I was sworn to secrecy about it. Come on, I started bleeding from an orifice I didn’t even know existed, I was uncomfortable and cramping, had a strange thing strapped between my legs (aka sanitary napkin) which rubbed uncomfortably each time I walked and I couldn’t even tell my friends why I don’t want to climb up that mulberry tree?? Not fair. And, of course, while some discussions with girls could be understood, any chat with boys was completely and irrevocably off-bounds.

The secrecy continued well into middle school, when we were ushered off for special “period” classes. I found the whole thing confusing and more than a little funny. The precocious boys, of course, knew, albeit patchily, that it had something to do with “that time of the month.”

The embarrassed secrecy, of both teachers and students alike, meant that there was something totally “off” about the whole deal. And us poor girls, thrust into the perils of ‘womanhood’ without our permission, faced some teasing about the whole affair. That is until a guy one day decided to break the secrecy code and asked, point blank, what it was all about. Embarrassment, blushing female faces, etc apart, the discussion did take place.

We beat our education system to it. Think about it. They teach you about menstruation and hormones in Class 9 or 10, by which time half the class (the girls) has already been going through it for at least three years if not more and the other half has probably already inculcated the myths associated with it, and have begun to believe it is wrong and unclean/impure?

Periods are a strange thing. No, really! When my friends started going through it I heard strange stories, of how the first time was celebrated (yes, celebrated, with a party and the whole deal) and also of how they were not allowed to do certain things, such as, enter the kitchen. Many were told to sit quietly during “that time” and not play. Others asked me if I go to the temple when I am down because they have been forbidden from places of worship during that time.

I am ever so grateful that my parents were so simply cool about it (yes, despite my planned histrionics!). It was just another day. There was no celebration nor any ostracisation. No warning against physical activity (in fact, if I remember right, one day when I whined far too much about feeling unwell my mum just scolded me into going to play. And, yes, I felt much better after that). But the secrecy was still there, not because it was impure or wrong, but because my parents felt our society was not ready to talk about periods openly.

It was only as I grew up my belief that we need to stop treating periods like they don’t exist was strengthened. A headache always gets us sympathetic tut-tuts, offers of help and advice to take it easy. So, why is it that when women are bleeding, cramping and generally feeling like crazed, emotional wrecks, they are still expected to act cheerful?

It was, ironically, a man who got me thinking about it. On a particularly bad “first” day, cranky as hell and cramping up to top it all, I slouched in a corner to ease my discomfort just a bit when this friend asked, simply, “Are you down?” No embarrassment. Not a snigger. Not even excessive, disabling pity. Just, simply, “Are you down?” The affirmative answer let loose surprisingly sympathetic offers of help. Since then, I’ve noticed that the men in my life (besides those in my family) have consistently proven to be surprisingly understanding of the predicament of “those days.”

They are uninhibited in their concern and unencumbered with discomfort.

It is simple. Maybe the process of involving men and women in each other’s problems needs to start earlier. Way earlier. Like, in Class VI! We may find that women feel more comfortable about themselves and their bodies. We may also find that men are more respectful and understanding. The veils, which are regularly torn through half-baked information received from more than one source, perpetuate more myths than truths and it is time we do away with this silly ‘secret’.

The promise

The squeak and squawk of the falling dusk,
Orange gleams the skies,
My heart, once more, soars with the wind
With the feathered ones it flies.
It’s the promise no one made to me,
Troth of the last light.
The unfailing night.

A lesser pain?

The horrific events of last week clearly point to one thing — our forefathers (yes the very same who defined the rights of people depending on which home they were born into) got it right — there seem to be some lesser people in this world.

On Monday, April 15, two separate incidents took place on two different continents. People died. Families were left in shock. Yet, only one got the kind of coverage that both deserved.

The incidents relate to bombing in Boston, US (Big Brother), and Iraq, a Muslim nation somewhere in the Middle East, important only because it holds oil reserves deemed crucial by the ‘developed’ world.

On that fateful Monday, a bombing at the Boston marathon took three innocent lives, injuring at least 180. The same day a series of bombings across Iraq killed at least 30 people (one report even said 55) and injured many more.

Within hours of the Boston attack comments started trickling in on social media — of how a certain religious group was the bane of earth, how they are killing people, how cruel they are. Not surprisingly, most of these came from citizens of a particular nation, who were either blissfully ignorant of what happened outside the borders of their own country or just didn’t care. The second possibility is painfully scary, the first gut-wrenchingly sad.

The news, too, I am afraid, was skewed in the coverage it gave these human tragedies. Or maybe I was just watching the wrong channels.

Even the events, during which these lives were lost, seem to be like the set-up of a macabre. While on the one hand Bostonians were assembled for a celebratory marathon run, Iraqis were looking ahead at the local polls. One can only imagine the importance of such an event for the people of a country that had been reeling under the effects of dictatorship for a good part of the last century.

Within all the venomous attacks following the Boston bombing that I saw on Facebook, one picture tore my heart — two burqa-clad women holding a handwritten poster saying “To Boston from Kabul, with love.” They sent sympathies for an agony they know only too well. I saw much less sympathy from the other educated, well-developed beings.

Indeed, it looks like there are some lesser people in this world.

(This blog first appeared on Business Line Blogs.