‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
It will be easy to introduce Maneesha Ramakrishnan as “the lady who has seen death at close quarters.” But I prefer referring to her as the one who knows “the true meaning of Life and happiness”!
On 23rd February 2010, Maneesha was trapped on the 7th floor of Carlton Towers in Bangalore when the building caught fire. She survived the over-one-hour entrapment, but she had to go through nine surgeries over the next few years to be able to live on and tell her story. She has lost most of her voice, she breathes through a tracheotomy tube implanted in her larynx, and she has no sense of smell.
Before the Carlton Towers fire episode, her Life has not been exactly smooth either. She has had to deal with two relationships – that culminated in marriages which did not last; she has raised her two children, Akarsh and Dhruv, as a single parent. She has had to ‘stumble and struggle’ through various career options to ‘earn a living’. And then the Carlton Towers fire left her physically, financially and emotionally devastated when she was just 40!
Anyone in her position would have lost the will to live. But Maneesha has not just survived and soldiered on, she has learnt to be happy despite her circumstances!
Vaani and I know Maneesha through a common friend. We had invited her to receive a copy of my Book ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ when we launched it in Bangalore in August 2014. What she said back then, while receiving my Book, has stayed with us: “Value each breath. It is precious. I know what it means to be unable to breathe. When you value each breath, you will learn to appreciate the gift of this lifetime, and to be happy.”
On The Happiness Road Series this Sunday, I invited Maneesha to share her awakening, inspiring, perspectives on living and happiness! I have retained the Q & A format in which this conversation happened, because I find Maneesha’s thoughts simple and easy-to-hold and, above all, I feel adding on my views to them will mean diluting, or perhaps even adulterating, the essence of what she is saying! The green highlights in each of her answers are intentional – they are the key takeaways or learnings we can borrow from Maneesha’s beautiful, shaken-but-not-stirred Life!
Pictures Courtesy: Maneesha’s Personal Album
What does happiness mean to you?
The act of giving myself away before I need to or I am asked to. It is, well, a responsibility!
Has your idea of happiness evolved over the years?
Indeed it has.
As a child, I used to care for my two brothers – we three were born in consecutive years. My first idea of happiness was caring for them, caring for my cousins and making other people happy. My parents were caught up in their own struggles; their focus was not on us children. So, I found great warmth and joy in visiting my grandparents in Kerala for summer vacations. I used to be deliriously happy visiting them.
So, that was my early idea of happiness.
The Carlton Tower fire changed my idea of happiness, and of Life, forever. When I reflect back on how I was trapped in there on that fateful day, I realized that I was exposed to the “deepest form of human suffering – fighting for just a breath of fresh air”! I now know the value of each breath that I am breathing, that each of us is breathing. Ever since, I have been creating a lifetime in moments. And I am addicted to it. This addiction to live fully, moment by moment, to me now is happiness.
You have been through a couple of relationships – were you searching for something through them/in them?
Because I didn’t think my parents focused on me, I grew up becoming a rebel. I desperately wanted to get out of home and so, as soon as I was 18, I married my neighbor, who I was deeply in love with. But, to my horror, I realized that he was alcoholic and had no job. My husband’s mother was very kind to me, she loved me dearly with all her soul, she protected me and treasured me. But she sadly passed on soon after my first son was born. I tried to break away from the marriage but it ended up being messy – my father made things worse by launching a legal battle against my husband. In an effort to resolve the mess, I went back to my husband to try and make a new beginning. But after my second son was born, and when I did not see any point or hope in the relationship, I separated from him.
I carried on with my Life, raising my two boys, supporting them with money that I was earning from tuitions that I was offering to children in our neighborhood. This is when I met a counsellor, whose views on Life and happiness attracted me to him. He loved me deeply. More important, he taught me the value of loving myself. He made me feel special. I moved in with him. Over time, we married. It was a Christian wedding and I dressed in my dream dress. But he was 20 years older to me, and soon, he felt he needed to let me go. But as we separated, he told me, “Thank you for the best years of my Life that you have given me.”
Both these relationships taught me something very important. That Life just keeps on happening to us. We make some decisions based on how we feel about something, about someone, at a given time. When that circumstance, or person, or both change, we must be open to change too. Clinging on to a situation that you don’t want makes you unhappy. Letting go sets you free and allows you to invite happiness in your Life!
How did the Carlton Towers fire change your Life?
I think about the Carlton Towers fire every day.
But not the way I did on 23rd February 2010, the day when the fire happened. She(yes it’s a “she”:)!) crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of my eye: startling, luminous, lovely and she’s gone! The event of the fire and the tragedy is something that I’ve come to look at as a significant segment of the journey that I’ve been on in this lifetime. I have learnt from her over a long period of time. It is not about getting over it or healing. No. It’s about learning to live with this transformation. For the experience is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools.
2011: I felt it exhilarating and liberating that I was free from the bondage of Life support systems. Even as I grappled with a loss of vitality, and impairment in physical functionality, I was happier being the way I was. My wind pipe and vocal cords have got constricted because of the amount of smoke I inhaled on that tragic day. Despite repeated surgeries they have refused to get back to normal. So I breathe with the help of a tracheotomy tube inserted in my larynx. When I must speak, I block the tube’s opening and that makes me audible – it restores normal functioning of the vocal cords because we do pause our breathing when we speak.
2012 & 2013: I resolved that I was going to work on myself. I began by moving away from self-pity. I stopped obsessing over the repeated trials and tribulations in my Life culminating in some way with this gruesome fire and tragedy. I began to nurture my children. This helped me repair and resurrect myself. I started to participate in the movement to bring justice and closure to those nine families whose loved ones did not survive the fire. This gave me a sense of purpose. It was not easy. But it kept me moving in a direction that I was very happy with. I stopped viewing myself as a helpless, hapless victim. I decided to call myself “The Queen of the Carlton Fire”. That change in perspective, in personal perception, opened me to the opportunity that all of us has in embracing abundance thinking. Happiness is really celebrating what you have, celebrating who you are!
2014: I relaunched my career as a “Chef on Hire”. It gave me a physical, practical, financial and blissful anchor. But Bangalore weather can play truant with someone who now as a permanent breathing impairment. After struggling with a couple of winters, I realized I have to stop looking at external reference points and circumstances to change for me to be happy, for me to be at peace. I simply went within and have found complete bliss.
2015: Finally, I am alive again. 🙂 Each day, each moment, I allow myself to just be! I feel all the more entitled to be living Life fully now.
Yes it’s taken five long years to get here! But I am happy I am here!
How has it been raising two boys – for most times as a single parent?
|Maneesha with her soulmates Akarsh & Dhruv|
Akarsh and Dhruv are my soulmates. They have grown up into young adults despite their entire childhood, their teenage years and young adulthood being ridden with chaos, uncertainty and stress. They have given me reason to love, live, laugh and they have loved me so unconditionally. They have taught me the value of compassion – they doted on me through my several stints in hospital; with Dhruv even refusing to leave my bedside. Ours is a great friendship – I have always been open, sharing with my boys and I am always willing to learn from them. I am so grateful to God that this area of my Life, as a parent, a single parent, has been so blissful, so blessed, so beautiful.
How do you cope with your practical lows – when there isn’t enough money for a medical procedure or when you want to do something for your boys?
We are so blessed. Yes, we have been pushed to edge several times but the Universe has never let us down! It is a very compassionate Universe. People who hardly know us have kept supporting us financially. Whenever I can I have provided what my two boys need. But when I have been unable to, I have always told them openly why I have been unable to give them what they want. This honesty has helped immensely. I have also never allowed the feeling of financial constraint to get to me. If I have not had money to give my maid or a helper at home, I have cooked them a meal. Such acts of serving, has always made me happy; and for them…I guess…they have felt loved and cared for. So, yes, there are practical everyday lows, but you overcome them with love!
How do you manage to walk the tightrope between living happily in the moment and earning a living?
Life is a tightrope walk. But you must not see only the tightrope. You must see how blessed you are to be on it, with all the love and compassion that holds you up there. I remind myself daily that I am “God’s favorite” – that I will never be let down, I will always be looked after. I have accepted the tightrope as an integral part of my Life. When you accept your Life for how it is in the present moment, you can be nothing but happy!
What is the message you would like to give to the world? To the millions out there who don’t know they are blessed and instead are taking their blessings for granted and are leading unhappy, miserable lives?
See your Life as a fantastic growth school! Everything that you experience, both good and challenging, has come to you to teach you the lesson that you need to learn for you to evolve as a person. Understand this truth. Keep asking yourself, ‘What opportunity does this person or situation represent in terms of your personal growth?’ This is a great source of inner peace. The best way to live Life is to live the authentic Life. Never betray yourself.
Have you ever thought of where you want to go in Life from here?
I want to share with the world this blessing I have, that of a capacity to temporarily put away all the
circumstances that surround me, that hold me hostage in a physical sense, to go within and find inner peace and true happiness. Post the Carlton fire, in 2012, when I was going through intense physical trauma, an epiphany occurred to me. I chose to let my pain be where it was and chose instead to look at the pain and suffering of another. I saw the families of those who were lost in the fire. I saw their grief. I gave them all my love. That was a huge healing process for me. I want people to learn from my experience. I want to share this awareness, this method too, with the whole world.
I visualize myself driving around in a food truck, with lots of balloons, giving away food and home remedies to people who need them the most. Not just to humans but to animals and birds. I believe that in living in the beauty of each moment, fully, with love and compassion, we can be eternally happy!