‘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!
This Sunday I feature Neerja Malik, 60, who conquered cancer twice over using the only ‘weapon’ she has – ‘Happiness’!!!
|Photo Courtesy: Neerja Malik|
When you finish meeting Neerja Malik, you feel like you have just stepped off a trampoline – you are left feeling so buoyant in spirit, so bouncy in your tracks and feeling so high, well, from laughing! You feel you have met a Bhangra dancer, a Sumo wrestler, a stand-up comic and a six-year-old – all rolled into one, all at once – that’s so much energy her mere presence injects in you; it has to be experienced to be believed!
We met Neerja for the first time at the InKo Centre in Chennai in August last year when she attended an event – Heart of Matter-Happiness Conversations – that Vaani and I had curated. Later, we were also at the launch of her book ‘I Inspire’ (co-written with Megha Bajaj, Jaico 2015) at the Odyssey bookstore. Both times, Neerja personified an uncommon joie de vivre. Here was someone who had seen so many storms in her Life: broken bones, multiple miscarriages, a still-born baby after yet another prolonged conception process and two episodes of breast cancer within six years of each other! Anyone else may have well crumbled. But Neerja is, we reckoned, and most people who know her will agree, different! She’s not different because she is a fighter and she’s not different either because has had the strength, the resilience, to endure her storms. She’s different because she’s happy facing her Life, no matter what comes her way!
As soon as she settled down to chat with us at Chamiers Café, she exclaimed: “You know the best thing about having chemo(therapy)? No parlor visits – aha! Because no hair, you see! That’s happiness to me!”
|Photo Courtesy: Neerja Malik|
Neerja believes that the key to being happy in Life is in the way you look at it. If you keep thinking of it as a war where you have to soldier on, you will end up, at some point, feeling battle-weary. She encourages us to, instead, see Life the way her dad, who worked for the Indian Navy, has taught her to: “On the day I was leaving for my first chemo session, he saw me off, blessing me by touching my head, at the door. He said, ‘Beta, don’t fight Life. You can never win that fight. Instead, face it.’I took that advice to heart. Any situation, I have realized, when I look it in the eye, it doesn’t scare me anymore!”
Cancer, Neerja says, has to be faced, not feared. And facing cancer has to be treated as ‘work’. “See, as long as you are alive, you will have problems of one kind or the other. If you keep fearing your problems, you will never be able to live fully. So whatever you are faced with – just go to work on it. In my case it was cancer. It was something that had to be treated. And the process of treatment had to be undergone – even if it meant dealing with pain, chemo, hair-loss and uncertainty!” she explains.
It’s been 17 years since Neerja started counseling people to face cancer. And she feels she is doing ‘God’s work’: “Everything is so beautifully arranged in my Life,” she says, adding, “I can’t but connect the dots backward. Each experience that I have been through has culminated in me being who I am today. My greatest joy is in being able to touch another Life and to inspire people to never give up.” Neerja tells us the story of a young lady, diagnosed with cancer, who came to her for counselling. The lady had just got married and one of the fallouts of her ailment, she feared, was that she would never be able to conceive. Neerja taught the lady the art of staying strong and, over time, the lady was cured through medical intervention and she moved on. Recently the lady called Neerja to say that she had just delivered her third child. “To me, that moment was ‘happiness’ – the fact that I had been useful to someone! I just looked up at the sky and thanked God,” says Neerja.
|Photo Courtesy: Neerja Malik|
“Har Waqt Shukran”: “Be Grateful Each Moment” – this is Neerja’s mantra. She vows that gratitude is the password to happiness. “Count your blessings yaar, instead of looking only at the problems,” she exhorts! She says she’s grateful to God for the way her Life has been so far – she celebrates that she was created a ‘tomboy, a Quick Gun Murugan’, that she’s always retained the ability to be gregarious, that she studied social work in college, that she has such a supportive family, that she is married to Mandeep, her husband of 37 years, that she has beautiful twins – Shivani and Siddharth, even that she has had cancer not once, but twice! Her perspective is both simple and profound: “You have to accept Life for what it is. Acceptance is very, very important. Then the jadoo – the magic – will happen! See, with so much going for me, if I don’t not live it up, won’t it be sinful? So, I don’t complain. I don’t lament. I take it as it comes. I say, ‘Aan De! Jiyo Dilo Jaan Se! Ji Lo Zindagi Dil Se!’”
Vaani asks her what’s the one advice she has for people? She replies, “Never ask ‘Why?’ or ‘Why Me?’ Both questions are a waste of your time and emotions. It’s you because you are the chosen one. I believe that God is giving you some situation because you can handle it and also because you must learn that God can solve any problem. Simply, if there is a problem, a solution will emerge. So, I have learnt not to be ‘God-fearing’ but to be ‘God-loving’. I never ask ‘Why’ or ‘Why Me?’”
To me, the biggest takeaway from Neerja’s story, and from meeting her, is her personal, unputdownable, choice to be happy despitethe circumstances! Her parting line, as she hugs me and Vaani tight, sums up her spirit and echoes in my ears even now: “Hameesha Khush Raho! Mein Khush! Ranga Khush! Mogambo Khush! Sab Log Khush!” This is a variation of a Punjabi saying and basically means “Always be happy! For it really, really, pays to be happy!”