In today’s Podcast, I talk about why families must bond and come together in times of crisis. I share from my own experience, while relating to a Malayalam film “#JSR” I watched recently. If there ever is a “Kingdom of Heaven”, then your family holds the key to it!
Listen time: 6:52 minutes
You can choose to be in a state of equanimity – anytime, in any context!
In response to my blogpost of yesterday, a reader wrote to me saying, “An employee who is rejected by an employer can perhaps move on and seek employment elsewhere. But what does someone do when your family rejects you?”
From personal experience I can tell you that it is not as difficult as it sounds to move on in the context of family or very close personal relationships. The opportunity to be free, liberated and live happily is available to anyone in any situation, regardless of whether the context is personal or professional. You grieve, and therefore you suffer, only because you are clinging on to what has happened. Someone has rejected you, someone has an opinion of you which is not fully based on facts, they have delivered their judgment. If you examine the situation closely, they have moved on. You are the one who is clinging on, pining and suffering, wondering why things are the way they are. But the truth is things already are – they have come to a pass; the words have been spilled, you have been hurt, now what is the point in going on lamenting about it?
When my family called me a cheat and accused me and Vaani of faking a bankruptcy, for the longest time I grieved. I could not accept my new reality that I have been judged by my own mother and siblings. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal.) I felt devastated that I could not prove to them why their perceptions were wrong. But then, I realized, if they had genuinely wanted to understand us, they would never have doubted our integrity, no matter what perceptional evidence was stacked up against me and Vaani. Soon I saw the futility in trying to convince them of my integrity. I concluded that they don’t trust me – that’s their choice. So, I simply moved on. While I remain accountable to them on the monies I owe them, just as I am with all our other creditors, I have no inclination to discuss or settle any other matters with them. I don’t see it as necessary. And I have no angst, no hurt, no grief in me. Not anymore.
I am not saying my way is the only way of doing things in close relationships when, unfortunately, mistrust, judgment, opinion and rejection come into play. All I can tell you is that I am anchored, I am at peace – because I don’t expect anything anymore from my family. If anything, in fact, on a material plane, I feel responsible towards them.
No situation is difficult to deal with or complex enough to handle as long as you have clarity on what you want. If inner peace is what you want, then some clear, tough calls have to be taken. If you want to wallow in self-pity and flaunt your suffering, then of course, you have a different choice to make. I, for one, believe this state of equanimity is possible for anyone, anytime, in any context – you just have to choose to be non-suffering. Anything – or anyone – that causes your suffering, just weed them out!
Live your Life your way, when you still have the time!
I was asked by a lady recently if it is possible for someone like her, who comes from a conservative family, to go do what she loves doing and find happiness. “I have been raised to always believe that my husband, my in-laws, my children, my extended family comes first. I somehow feel guilty every time I think of doing something for myself,” she said. I asked her if she is happy being the way she is. “No. I am very unhappy. My husband and I have a huge distance between us. Everything I do is only a chore. My children give me solace but they are young adults now and have gone their ways. Despite all my education and talent, I feel lost, wasted and useless,” she confessed. I advised the lady to decide what she wanted to do basis only one parameter – her happiness: “A large part of your Life is over and done with. You can’t live brooding over the past. Recognize that you only have so much time left. Do whatever makes you happy.”
Actually, this perspective applies not only to this lady’s context, but is true for each of us. Sometimes, we get so caught up in serving our circle of influence that we miss attending to ourselves. Respecting the needs of your family and living by family values and culture is undoubtedly important. But if it is going to leave you drained, miserable and unhappy, what is the point? We must understand that being happy, doing what you love doing, is not being selfish or irresponsible. Only when you are happy can you live a more productive Life. Simple.
Let me clarify further. I am not saying that looking after elderly parents or serving an extended family is wrong. Of course not. But if doing so is going to ruin your inner peace, and cause you (and others) suffering, you may as well choose to do what makes you happy. Because you live only once; this is the only Life you have. And being happy is the only way you can live meaningfully.
Between Vaani and me, interestingly, we have had contrasting experiences on this front. Her father lived with us for 14 years, after my mother-in-law passed away, till he died last year. Vaani served him and cared for him till the very end. In the last five years of his Life he became entirely dependent on her and this meant that a lot of her time was invested in looking after him. This did come in the way of her aspirations. But Vaani served him happily. She was always at great peace with herself – never did she complain, never did she shirk whatever she had to do for him. Now, I, on the other hand, have made a conscious choice not to have my parents live with me. The singular reason for this is that my mother and I cannot co-exist – there is no chemistry between us. In the wake of our bankruptcy my siblings accused me of being selfish, opportunistic and irresponsible because a. I had lost all the family wealth to my failed business and b. I refused to have my parents stay with me. I talk about this choice I made in my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal too. People often bring up this point in conversations with me. What would I have done if my siblings had not offered to support my parents? Am I not failing in my duty as a son, as a brother? And I always reply that I made my decision with a singular focus – I cannot be happy while engaging with my mother. Strange, but that is the way it is! So, unfortunately, we both can never stay together. I have no regrets about the decision I have made and I have the greatest respect and admiration for my siblings for doing what they are doing. If we had had the means, I would have provided for them with a separate premises and support staff. But since we ourselves have been living for the longest time on a grant and on the generosity of my sister-in-law and her husband, I am presently not volunteering any support. Now, my stance may appear to be cold-blooded to some. And a difficult or tough choice to others. But I sincerely don’t care about what others think of me. I know that unless I am at peace with myself, I can’t do what I must do – which is, claw my way out of the financial mess we have been in for years now. I clearly don’t want to be fighting internecine battles with my mother that will leave me drained and depressed every single day.
Yes, it may be the case in some instances that, when you are the only one in a family available to serve another member, you don’t have a choice. Then one has to accept the reality and stop complaining about Life. In such choice-less situations, happiness and inner peace comes from total acceptance of what is.
I share Vaani’s story and my story here only so that we all appreciate that each of our lives is unique. This so-called social norm of “family values + culture comes ahead of individual happiness and inner peace” is all humbug. Each of us has to do what we want to do, what we love doing and what we have to do. Your Life is yours. Period. As long as you are true to yourself, as long as you can face the person in the mirror, always do what you must do to be happy and at peace with yourself. Blaming others won’t cut ice when your number is called and it is time for you to depart. What will stare you in your face then is the brutal awakening that you may have perhaps lived your Life differently. What will be the point of brooding over an unlived, unhappy Life then? So, stop kidding yourself. Go live your Life happily, your way, when you still have the time!
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Any home or family that alienates its women is regressive.
I was shocked to read a friend’s post on Facebook yesterday. She was attending a wedding in the family. And she was disallowed by a family elder, ironically a lady, from participating in the ‘mehendi’ ceremony, because she (my friend) had lost her husband a couple of years ago. In another episode, a friend who is pregnant and is due to deliver in a month, said her family wants her to postpone her ‘maike’ visit (to her maternal home) because a distant relative had passed away on her husband’s side – so until the period of mourning was over, she could not ‘carry the stigma/shadow of grief and death’ into her own home. In another horror story we have heard, a woman was disallowed from inviting her divorced sister home, by her mother-in-law, because a young, divorced woman was “capable of corrupting the minds of the men” in the house.
For heaven’s sake, we are in 2016! Well into the 21st century! And we still have such cruel, crude, primitive, biased thinking that is prevalent?
I believe we have an urgent need in each family to examine how our women are treated. I think more than in workplaces, we need a policy in our homes to ensure that women are not harassed in the name of God, religion, rituals, tradition and culture. And as in the case of all three women, whose stories I have shared here, it is often, unfortunately, women who either directly try to alienate other women or partner in such alienation. When I was much younger, I rabidly fought a lot of this discrimination against Vaani (and her family) by my own mother – but I lost out every single time. This is one of the principal reasons why I choose to remain detached and distant from my side of the family – to protect our own inner peace and sanity. I wish I had been stronger then. But at least over the past decade or so, I have been championing this thought that any home or family that does not give equal opportunity and respect to its women has to be condemned unequivocally.
Last year when my father-in-law Venks passed on, and we were readying his body for cremation, the priest asked me if any of Venks’ grandsons were around. This, as I understood it, was to light the source fire from which, notionally, the funeral pyre would be lit. I told the priest that two of Venks’ grandsons were on their way from different Indian cities and they planned to reach the crematorium directly. Since the source fire (in an earthern pot) had to be lit at home, I suggested that my daughter, Venks’ granddaughter, be allowed to light it. But the priest would just not agree. We got into a dignified but vocal debate on gender equality that lasted several minutes. Finally, I backed off, because I didn’t want to hold up the proceedings that were being led by the priest in partnership with Venks’ son, my brother-in-law. However, when it came to bid the body goodbye, all of us were asked to notionally ‘feed the body’ (vai-ikku arisi). I invited my daughter too to do it. The elders in the family and the priest didn’t quite appreciate this. For, per them, unmarried girls must neither feed the body nor see it off. Not only did Aanchal take my cue and ‘feed Venks’ body’, she and Vaani accompanied the cortege to the crematorium and literally saw Venks off. I am very proud of the choices my wife and my daughter made. After all they were close to Venks too.
I must confess here that although social norms, banal traditions and dogmatic rituals are all stacked up always to favor men, it is the women who are more resilient that us men. I say this from my own experience of fighting our crisis – without Vaani on my side, I would never have made it this far. And in almost every story around us, whenever I have met sensible, sensitive, compassionate men, I have always found them acknowledging this truth. The other day I was chatting with Gregory Jacob from Dubai (his family’s story of surviving a traumatic phase of bankruptcy is now a famous motion picture in Malayalam – Jacobinte Swargarajyam – in which Nivin Pauly plays Gregory’s role). And Jacob had this to say: “Amma is the backbone of our family, she is the warrior queen, she has been the pillar of strength for all of us. I guess we men aren’t really fireproof after all!” I can’t agree with him more.
I don’t want to preach. I just want to make a plea. Let’s be the change we want see around us. Let’s get rid of any thought, practice, ritual, tradition or custom that alienates a woman. And let’s start from our own homes!
If you can’t relate to someone, you can surely excuse yourself from the relationship.
My brother and I spoke to each other after several years this morning. He called me over phone to invite me for a lunch to celebrate a milestone in his family. I wished him well. So did he. I thanked him for his invitation. But I told him that I would like to be excused because I certainly did not feel like visiting him or the rest of the family. I clarified additionally that there was no rancor, no anger, no grief – just that I didn’t feel like being there. He said he appreciated my stand. And we hung up wishing each other well.
Over the years, a lot of water has flown under the bridge as far as my family is concerned. And some part of it has been stirred, owing to my lack of evolution then perhaps, by me too. I wish I had been as clear and resolute in my thinking even then when I was provoked by both people and circumstance. In a way, I believe this morning’s conversation is progressive though, at least I could say what I felt and I got the sense that I was respected – and not judged – for what I said. Even if it wasn’t the way I thought it was, I am glad I spoke my mind.
This learning though has come by the hard way. I have understood that people, especially the ones who you deem are the closest to you, often judge you. Or they are influenced by the judgements and pronouncements of others around you. Either way, if anyone exercises the right to say what they feel about you to you, it is only human that you want to retort, to defend, to clarify and to insist that they understand you. But what if they don’t understand you or don’t want – for their own reasons – to understand you? When such a thing happens, the relating between people goes out of the relationship. But in our craving to be understood, we cling on to the relationship which is not just strained, it is actually dead. This is how we end up suffering people and meaningless relationships. How can there be a relationship when there is no relating? I have now learnt to let such people and relationships just be. Nobody is right or wrong when two people cannot relate to each other. Lack of chemistry is just that – a lack of compatibility, a lack of shared perspective and a lack of empathy between each other. Trying to accommodate someone in your Life when you don’t relate to that person anymore causes unnecessary stress in your Life and theirs! You often adjust and accommodate in such situations because you don’t want to be seen as unforgiving, unrelenting or unfamilial – especially when it involves immediate blood relations. But I have learnt that how you feel is more important than what others expect you to do.
Of course, you may choose to disagree with me. You may say that it is just one Life, that we must drop the ego, bury hatchets, build bridges and move on. I don’t disagree either. Except that when you have stopped relating to some people in your Life, you just prefer to drop the ego, bury all the hatchets, forgive yourself and them, but build bridges to newer folks, newer places and move on. Whatever you do, never compromise on your inner peace. For that’s really the only thing that you have that’s within your control and which you can call your own!
A family’s greatest test comes in times of crisis. How it rallies together and faces any challenge entirely depends on how well the values of compassion, trust and togetherness have been nurtured in it.
Yesterday, we watched a beautiful Malayalam film ‘Jacobinte Swargarajyam’ (JSR/‘Jacob’s Kingdom of Heaven’; starring Nivin Pauly, Renji Panicker and Lakshmy Ramakrishnan) made by Vineeth Sreenivasan. For much of the movie, Vaani and I felt it was our own story – of my Book ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ (Westland). The film tells the story of a Malayali family in Dubai that gets into a grave, business-led debt situation. We later discovered, when the end credits rolled, that the film is Vineeth’s way of celebrating the resilience and bonding of his friend Gregory Jacob’s family’s true story.
Words cannot describe what we experienced while watching the film. Almost every scene, situation, and even some dialogues, resonated with our story. Except that the Jacob family’s crisis happened in Dubai and ours is happening in Chennai. And while the Jacob family may have repaid much of their debt and rebuilt their business, Vaani and I are still enduring our bankruptcy; we still have to repay our 179 creditors, who I call Angels in my Book. I often tell people this: Life happens to all of us differently but the lessons we learn from Life are pretty similar. Watching JSR I was even more convinced of this truth about Life.
What Vaani and I have learnt from our experience is that no matter what, Life has to be faced. And a family must face it together. Indeed, as Vineeth portrays in JSR too, there will be moments when family members will go through self-doubt, depression, frustration, anger, grief or guilt. This is when leadership comes into play. Someone will have to step in for the other and extend a hand to haul up the dispirited.
I remember an episode from our ongoing saga from a few years back vividly. I was facing arrest in a criminal case (relating to a defaulted payment) in another state. And I had to prepare our children Aashirwad and Aanchal for what was to follow. Aash had just got out of college and was in the US. Aanch was in second year college here. We set up a Skype call bringing in Aash from Denver, Colorado. And, with Vaani by my side, I briefed the two of them on what possibly lay ahead of us. I encouraged everyone to stay strong and prepared them for the fact that since we did not have the money (both for legal costs and for bail-related guarantees) to seek bail, if arrested, it could take me some time to come out. It was a difficult conversation – emotionally charged and I broke down at the end, crying inconsolably. I was overcome by grief and guilt: I was thinking, this is hardly what young people must have to face. And for a brief while I was consumed by the guilt that I had failed them as a father and let down Vaani as a soulmate. That’s when Vaani spoke. She said: “I don’t want any of us to be feeling sad or guilty here. Let’s take it as it comes. You be strong dad, where you are. And we will all be strong, where we are, while working on how to deal with the impending situation legally.” For all the strength I was trying to summon while talking to Aash and Aanch, Vaani’s stoic, practical perspective boosted everyone’s morale completely. And this is what I mean when I say a family’s resilience is really a function of how people hold up each other. (To complete that story, my creditor withdrew the complaint he had filed against me, at the nth minute, in court when he realized that we indeed did not have any money to pay him.)
I guess families often miss the opportunity to bond and come closer when a crisis strikes. This is perhaps because the values of compassion and togetherness may not have been nurtured continuously among their members. The other reason could also be that people in a family expect everyone to toe one line or point of view – this is not just impractical, it is also unreal. A family is where emotions and opinions will often be divergent and yet they must all be welcomed. If someone’s not feeling up to doing something at some time, you must just let them be. Don’t punish them by being judgmental. This is what JSR brings out beautifully. And this is what Vaani and I have felt time and again leading our small, precious family, through this prolonged season of turbulence.
JSR or ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ are not unique experiences. Please don’t view them as bankruptcy or debt-related stories alone. A crisis is a crisis; and the qualities needed to face a crisis are pretty much the same – no matter what context it appears in or what shape it takes. To be sure, there’s a crisis that every home has faced, is facing or will face at some time. The key to your own ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, to survive to be able to tell the tale, is for your family to be there for each other, no matter what, and to weather the storm together. Families that face a crisis together grow more compassionate, stronger and closer with the experience.
Mutual trust, respect, space and brutally honest conversations make a family a home that people can come back to!
We watched Shakun Batra’s very sensitive, brutally honest, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) yesterday. It had more than fifty shades of what some families witness – imperfection – written all over it: everyday squabbles emerging from a lack of trust, absence of honest conversations and an incessant tendency to interpret rather than understand each other. Most important, three of the four members of the Kapoor family were living a lie. The only one, Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra), who was honest with himself and with rest of the world, was suffering from a huge inferiority complex, having been constantly ‘branded’ ‘the imperfect one’.
I come from a dysfunctional family. And I have always been ‘the imperfect one’ – son and brother. The reason why I was branded so was, as I perhaps realize now, because I was always calling everyone’s bluff. So, I can relate to the big message that Batra so matter-of-factly, unpreachingly, delivers through the film: if people in a family are living a lie it makes them a ‘familie’ – dysfunctional, fractious, unhappy!
Fundamentally, we must review our understanding of what a family must be. A family is not just a congregation of people – which, in fact, it physically is. A family is an opportunity for this congregation to be home to its people. It is where people must disagree, agree to co-exist, come back to each other, be there for each other, hold up mirrors to each other, fight, break-up, make-up and move on. It is where people must be allowed to be who they are. And where they must be invited to be true to themselves and to each other. So, conceptually, a family is never going to be perfect. It will have its share of upheavals. And these upheavals do not happen because of one person or the other. Upheavals are a part of Life – of the passage of time – and are inevitable when people live together. Just as they happen in – and to – communities, they happen in – and to – families too. Yet, a family becomes dysfunctional when its people cease to have honest, brutally honest, conversations and choose to always interpret, than understand, each other. Mutual trust, respect and space are integral to nurture a family. If people in a family cannot offer each other the space to be who they are – and sort out themselves whenever they feel lost, while being available for each other no matter what – then the very idea of family becomes irrelevant. Then people may as well live in a ghetto or in isolation! But the unkindest cut of all that a family can ever be subjected to is when people are dishonest with each other to the extent that they live in denial, live a Life of lies and, worse, imagine they are the perfect family – because all families are imperfect; imperfection is the new perfection, you see!
Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is unpretentious even in its last scene when it makes a very fervent appeal – do not squander away the time you have together in pettiness, for we are all speeding towards our death, albeit at different speeds! In my opinion, since I come from one, dysfunctional families are beyond redemption especially if people continue to be dishonest and manipulative. But if an honest conversation can salvage your family please go ahead and attempt having one – now! But if you try and don’t succeed, at least step out of such a ‘familie’ – so you are not living a lie anymore and so that you exercise your opportunity to live happily ever after!