“‘Har Waqt Shukran’ – Gratitude is the password to Happiness!”

‘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!”

There is great joy in living dangerously

Don’t ever fear living dangerously. Simply focus on the living, for you can do nothing about the danger!
Neerja Malik
Picture Courtesy: Facebook
The other day we were at an event to launch a book based on the Life of Neerja Malik, a two-time cancer survivor. Titled ‘I Inspire’ (Jaico, written by Megha Bajaj), the book tells Neerja’s story – of grit, of letting go, of acceptance and of being happy despite the circumstances. At the launch, Neerja, just as the way she always is, was beaming and radiating abundance. She personified being joyful! Without any prior notice, finding me and Vaani in the audience, Nina Reddy, of Savera Hotels, who was the chief guest at the event, invited me to share some perspective (perhaps given our own experience with dealing with a Life-changing crisis) on how “it is possible turn a crisis into an opportunity”.
I talked about how ancient Chinese philosophy and literature support this belief that the word “crisis”, when written in the Chinese language, is actually the sum of two other words. One meaning ‘danger’ and the other meaning ‘opportunity’. So to the Chinese, crisis always means danger + opportunity. The import for us is this – whenever you see crisis, don’t get overwhelmed by its inherent dangerous nature. See the opportunity. To be sure, there is opportunity all around, everywhere, and every step of the way.
Osho, the Master, takes the Chinese argument one step further. He says Life is intrinsically fraught with dangers. Each moment is an encounter with the unknown. He says our academic education, social conditioning and the availability of economic resources makes us believe, actually kids us, that we know what outcomes can occur each time all necessary and sufficient conditions are fulfilled. But every now and then – when an MH 370 disappears into thin air, when you are faced with a debilitating ailment with no cure, when a close relationship sours irrevocably because you have stopped relating to that person – you realize that you are controlling nothing. That only Life was, is, and will be, in control. You discover then that you are a mere pawn. So, when this realization strikes you it can be very unsettling. You thought you were the boss, the king. But now, Life’s telling you are that you are just a cog in the wheel, a nobody who controls nothing. Osho says that instead of feeling depressed and powerless, celebrate the joy of living dangerously. Since you can’t do anything about what happens to you in Life, since you have no idea or control over what dangers lie on your journey ahead, simply let go and be happy!
Neerja epitomizes that spirit. It’s her joie de vivre that’s helped her conquer cancer not once – but twice! It’s her zest to live that spreads so much positivity and cheer among all those she touches. She doesn’t make living this way seem easy. Living this way iseasy because she lives each moment fully – with awareness, with joy! There’s indeed great joy in living dangerously. If you can find some time from your worrying and fearing and fretting and fuming about the ‘dangers’ you are currently dealing with, believe me, you too can feel – and be – that joy! 

On why hopelessness is not a bad thing

To be hopeless about a situation in Life is, after all, not a bad thing. It helps you gain great clarity about living Life – fully, in the now!  
I recently read the story of a lady who was diagnosed with last-stage cancer. She talks about how, when she first heard the diagnosis, she went from one specialist to another, hoping fervently that she would hear a different diagnosis and the prognosis would be positive. She continued to work at her job – and the stresses of both her health situation and a demanding job began to take their toll on her. Finally, when she met a very eminent oncologist, he told her that she had “only six months more”. The lady recalls that she was shaken awake from her “hope-filled reverie”. She says she had been hoping badly, madly, that she would be told that she would live longer. But when she was told of her possible expiry date, coming up in just the next few months, she decided to “live” fully – in the time that she had left with her! She quit her job, made a list of all the people and places she wanted to visit, took to painting (something she loved doing but never found the time when she was working) every day and chose to be happy over feeling mournful about her health. She explained that “as long as she was hopeful of being cured she was clinging on to a Life which she was hardly enjoying, but the moment she realized her health situation was beyond hope, she began to live her Life – intensely, joyfully!”

This lady’s experience teaches us something invaluable. It helps us understand that while hope is a good thing, in certain situations in Life, it may hold us hostage and blind us from seeing reality. Reality, however, cannot be escaped. So, while you live through certain unchangeable phases with unalterable realities in Life, being hopeful in a hopeless situation can indeed make you feel miserable. Your intelligence will tell you what the reality is. But hope will make you delusional – vainly wishing that the reality did not exist. This conflict will cause you to suffer – day in and day out. There’s a way to break this jinx. And that way is to simply accept a situation to be hopeless – when it really is so. For instance, if you lose someone to death – it’s pointless to hope for that person to come alive. Or if someone loses their limbs or eyesight or hearing or speech – it is futile to hope that it will be restored without a specialist medical intervention or, perhaps, a cosmic miracle!

Hopelessness is not about giving up. It need not only be about feeling desperate or despondent. It can, if you allow it to, help you see the reality as it is and can teach you how to face it. For, whenever you are hopeless about some situation, you can always ask yourself “what does this mean” and “what must I do now”. The answers you get for these questions can inspire to move on, in acceptance, and in peace.

You can’t be happy while choosing to remain unhappy about Life

Happiness does not need conditions to be met for it to flower within you. It just requires you to stop complaining about Life and stop being unhappy.
ANR – Picture Courtesy G.Ramakrishna, The Hindu
A couple of days back, The Hindureports from Hyderabad, famous Telugu actor and thespian, Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), called for a media conference on the sets of his forthcoming Telugu film, Manam. The entire Akkineni family comprising stars of three generations, including Nagarjuna, Amala, Nagachaitanya, Supriya, Sushant and his mother Susheela, were present alongside ANR. But only ANR spoke. He informed the shell-shocked media gathering that he was diagnosed with cancer. He said that his decision to go public with his condition was taken because somehow extended family and friends had got wind of his ailment! Soon people started calling him, making enquiries out of concern naturally. “But I don’t want to be reminded of it. I have lived my Life to the fullest and will continue to do so…the best way of looking at Life is with a smile….In cinema of yester-years, we have dramatized cancer and associated it with death. However, that is not the case now. Many people are wishing I will live to be a 100 years. With a lot of cheer, I hope to do so,” said ANR, now 90. ANR, who has already had an unparalleled 71-year career in films, having acted in 280 of them, said he hopes to continue to choose good roles that befit him. His family said that they had been advised by him to stop brooding, or wear sullen looks, over his illness and to create an atmosphere of happiness and cheer around him!
ANR’s spirit is both unputdownable and inspiring. This is theway to be happy. Which is to just be in acceptance of whatever is happening to you and to remove all those conditions that make you unhappy.
But many people don’t get this simple way. They only want to be happy. But refuse to simply be. It is like someone who goes to a doctor and wants to become well and healthy. But what if the person takes the prescription and refuses to take the medicines? How can his or her health improve? It is so simple. If you have been living in a way which has made you feel miserable, to feel different, to be happy, you have to stop living the old way. You can’t be happy while choosing to remain unhappy about Life.
ANR’s situation is a cancer. To be sure, each of us has a different situation or circumstance to deal with. But all of us can be happy despite our circumstances if we choose to accept the Life that is happening to us now and stop being unhappy about it!

Choose not to remain stuck with pain

You have two options in your Life and with it! Either to learn from your suffering and move on, finding in the process the true essence and meaning of Life, or you live your Life remaining stuck with your pain and misery.

Think about it this way. Just as you cannot control the seasons, or the sunrises and sunsets, or the rain, or the rainbow, you cannot control Life. Nor can you control what happens to you through your lifetime. So, pain and pleasure are both inevitable. Pleasure you never have a problem with. Because who will say no to pleasure? But when pain arrives, you have a huge problem. You wish it weren’t there. Whenever and wherever there is a wishing, an expectation, agony and suffering is assured. So, in effect, nobody can escape suffering the first time you are afflicted by pain. But surely you can learn not to suffer when pain strikes the next time!

Intelligent living is to learn, appreciate and accept the nature of Life as being so uncontrollable and to understand its essence. It is to know that if you are born, you will be subject to some pain, some time or the other, in Life. It is also to know that you have the choice to learn from Life’s painful episodes and moments, and move on, by choosing, therefore, not to suffer. On the other hand, if you cling on to your pain, or the sources that cause you pain, you will be stuck with it. You will then be wallowing in a cesspool of suffering, misery, agony, accompanied often by low self-esteem and self-sympathy!

Only those who know that freedom from suffering, and peace, comes only when you stop fighting Life, will be able to move on. And unless you discover this truth about Life, you will remain stuck.

Ramana Maharishi by Henri Cartier-Bresson April 1950
The great Indian guru Ramana Maharshi (1879~1950) eventually died of cancer. It was a very painful end. There was no way even a seer like the great Ramana could escape it. Many doctors came, and they were very puzzled because while body seemed to be writhing in pain, there was no sign of any pain in his eyes. His eyes remained the same – as serene as ever. Through his eyes only the witnessing Self arose; it was the witnessing Self that looked, that observed, reported people close to him at that time. The doctors would ask, “You must be in great pain?” Ramana would reply, “Yes there is great pain, but it is not happening to me. I am aware that there is great pain happening to the body; I know that there is great pain happening. I am seeing it, but it is not happening to me.

Again, the fickle human mind will argue one of two ways. How is it that a sage like Ramana Maharishi can be afflicted by cancer? And when he himself could not avert any pain, what is the point of all this – how can you or I, lesser mortals, escape pain then? The answers lie in the questions themselves. Nobody can avoid or evade pain. None can. Your awareness, like Ramana Maharishi’s, can, however, help you understand that whatever is happening is not happening to you, the real you, but to the body or to a world that you are only visiting! That understanding is the way out of suffering. This is the truth! The other truth, though paradoxical, is also profound – without suffering you cannot understand Life!

Examine your Life. Refuse to remain stuck with pain. Use whatever is causing you pain__and suffering__as a means, a channel, to understand Life. And liberate yourself through that understanding.

Guts and Glory don’t matter: Experience and Learning do!

Guts and Glory are mere perceptions. The reality is in experiences and in learning from them. It’s through the experiencing and the learning that the soul is enriched.


When we watch a movie and admire a hero for the way he or she has fought for justice, against perpetrators of evil or crime or injustice, we come back feeling good. We loved the movie. But don’t really think any of it is real. Because it’s just a story enacted for our entertainment. In real Life when we meet the actor, we do say we admire him or her and their ‘acting’. We know little about who they really are for us to be able to see the person behind the actor.


So it is with real Life heroism. Often people look at others around them and call them courageous and celebrate their valor or the stance they have taken in Life on fighting injustice or simply meeting a challenge head on. Someone who has found a deadly disease like cancer is often seen as a champion. Someone who has lived on despite the passing away of a loved one is believed to be very bold. Someone who fights injustice is seen as a ‘fearless’ crusader. And someone who refuses to run away from a seemingly impossible situation is believed to be incredibly resilient.


To be sure, everyone who has ever lived has had to encounter fear. Fear spares no one. Interestingly enough though all of us have the ability to be courageous. Because courage is NOT the absence of fear. Courage is what fear delivers when you face up to the fear. Because only when you face up to something, will you realize that it cannot harm you. Only what you run away from chases you, haunts you.



In a health challenge like cancer, you can feel fearful of death. But as long as you run scared of death, it will torment you. But the moment you discover that death is a non-negotiable eventuality that all of us who are born have to confront, you will no longer fear death. Then you start living. And despite your speeding to death, owning to your personal situation,  you begin to feel blessed that at least you reasonably know how much time you have left to live. And you start investing in the living than obsess with the dying. Fear of death has delivered to you the ability__courage__to live simply because you stopped running away from death.



So, it is with every Life situation. The more you run away from a problem, the more fearful you will be. When you face it, the problem, even if it doesn’t go away, will at least stop tormenting you. When you stop feeling intimidated by the problem you face, with courage playing a catalyst, faith is born. Faith is the light that drives away the darkness of fear. Remember, darkness cannot drive away light. Only light can eradicate darkness. You cannot project darkness on to anyone or anything. But you can light up a Life, including your own. And faith is that light!


Where there is faith, fundamentally in yourself, triumph is certain. You will ultimately prevail. Even if you die, while attempting to get on top of your Life situation, it is a triumph. Because you are now free, liberated from bondage to this world and its worldly attachments, responsibilities, consequences. But often times, the triumph happens again in the real world. And the world will glorify you. The world will see you as successful. True wisdom though lies in knowing that the fans of your success don’t see your struggle or don’t want to see it. They only see the finished product (at least for the moment): the successful you. And that glory can be humbling, relieving, gratifying and, often, heady. Beware of this tricky moment. And stay grounded reminding yourself that all this glory is a mere perception. A perception of the world. The truth is that the experience of getting here has been the reward. Not the material reward that all this glory brought you.


Jayakumar, an autorickshaw driver, with his topper daughter Prema! Pic Courtesy: Mid-Day


Yesterday India celebrated Prema Jayakumar, daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver from Mumbai,  for topping the national Chartered Accountancy exam. Glory followed suit. Media attention, cash rewards, job offers. And suddenly, overnight, the young 24-year-old, who shares 280 sq-ft of living space with her dad, mom and younger brother (who also passed the same exam this year), is feeling on top of the world. She knows that in a matter of a few weeks or months, she will be able to hoist her family out of the difficult Life they lead and offer them a more comfortable one. In her story, instead of living fearful of the same difficult Life she has led for 24 years, she decided to face her fears, and had the guts, as we see it, to dream big. And her guts led her to her glory. But unless she realizes that what the world sees as her guts is actually her ability to have dreamt big despite her deprived circumstances, and that her glory is only momentary and will fade away once the newness of her story is dead in the public eye, she will get caught up in this perceptional game. (If she indeed does, that’s will be another experience, another learning for her and another story!) The reality for now, in the context we discuss, is that she met Life, faced up to it, and triumphed one phase of it. The entire experience has enriched her. And now, a new conquest, a new experience awaits her.

So, don’t let all this talk of guts and glory, of whatever you do in Life, ever kid you. It’s all hot air capable of blowing your ego bubble. Only so that it can be pricked by Life and circumstance again! Your greatest reward, and your ONLY wealth, is what you have experienced in Life and what you have learned from it! Live with this understanding and focus. And you will be both in bliss and unmoved!