Desi groups keep culture alive in foreign land

HT 2016
It has been nearly six years since I moved abroad and in these years my desire to learn more about India’s heritage, traditions and culture and celebrate them have only deepened. My discussions with friends reveal that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, there are Indian community groups across the UK that bring people of the Indian diaspora together through cultural celebrations and meet-ups and provide them with a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.

Apparently, there are hundreds of such local groups across the country and these are either run voluntarily by members of the community, or as a charity. Some charge a membership fee while most collect a small amount only for attending events. Almost all major festivals, from Durga Puja to Holi are celebrated by community groups with great zeal in the same way as cultural fairs are celebrated in India, complete with stalls selling Indian food, jewellery, dresses and handicrafts. Chants, Indian music and dances complete the show.

Connecting with your roots
Most of these groups were formed several years ago with the simple aim of bringing together Indians living in their local areas. Where I live, a voluntary group of local residents aptly named Prabashi to symbolise an Indian living outside his country, recently organised its seventh annual saraswati puja (a ceremony to worship Goddess Saraswati who symbolises knowledge and learning).

In the run up to the event, one of the members kindly hosted Bollywood dance practice sessions for children at her home. This reminded me of my growing up years in India where one of my mother’s friends in the neighbourhood would teach us kids to perform at local cultural gatherings.

The actual event saw participation from hundreds of Indians living in my locality and surrounding towns and made me feel festive and connected with my Indian roots. With a priest performing the religious ceremonies, women decked up in sarees and children performing saraswati  vandana, dancing on Bollywood songs and playing Jan Gan Man (India’s national anthem) in front of an audience, I forgot for a moment that I was in London.

By organising cultural events, community groups such as Prabashi play a pivotal role in passing on the knowledge of Indian culture to the children of first generation migrants.

Recreating India’s communities
Several groups go beyond celebrating festivals and serve a larger role in the community. For instance, there are groups that organise meetings for the elderly where passages from the Bhagvad Gita (Hindu scripture) are read and language related assistance is provided in filling forms. There are others that host monthly gatherings for women. Activities like yoga and meditation workshops are fairly common too.

To my mind, such initiatives help one feel at home in a new country. The greatest pleasure is simply in knowing that there is a familiar community that understands your culture, your yearning and will always be your home away from home.

(First published in Hindustan Times on 19 Feb 2016)


Living with uncertainty as a cancer carer

breast-cancerIn the summer of 2015, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember that day very clearly.

It was a Monday morning, and right there in front of my eyes on the computer screen was a biopsy report that confirmed malignancy.

The previous Saturday, my mother had got a needle biopsy done for a breast lump she had for nearly two years. My mother did not complain of any symptoms but recently she was worried that her lump had started to grow in size. She had continued to have routine mammograms done and her recent one was borderline suspicious. The mammogram screening coincided with a random (or rather god sent) visit from a doctor cousin who upon examining the report and the lump literally pressed for mother for having a biopsy the very next day.

I spent the next two days searching online for causes of breast lumps and kept telling myself and my parents that my mother’s lump wouldn’t be cancer. My mother, a very religious lady, had complete faith that her lump would be just a piece of fat.

I was in complete denial, my mother couldn’t be suffering from cancer. I quickly emailed the report to my doctor cousins in India who suggested that my mother was in need of urgent treatment. I was still not ready to believe it, perhaps there was a sampling error. But there was no getting away from it.

The hardest part was to break the news to my parents. I called up my parents and calmly told them that some cells in the biopsy didn’t quite look alright and further investigations were needed. I didn’t want to highlight the cancer word a lot.

The next two days then seemed the hardest days of my life, I couldn’t sleep at night as the thought that it was our neglect that caused this haunted me. Being far away from my parents at this time didn’t help. Thankfully, I was able to find a lot of information, contact numbers and emails of oncologists in Delhi and most of them were quick to respond to emails. Treatment depended upon the stage of the cancer and more tests were required. I was on the plane to Delhi a day later.

My mother’s illness restored my faith in the doctors. Cancer treatment across hospitals in Delhi follows international protocols and it is reassuring when different doctors do not vary a lot in their opinions. We met a couple of oncologists and finally decided to proceed with the one who made my parents most comfortable. Many more diagnostic tests followed in the next week to plan for the extent of surgery but even then the onco-surgeon maintained that it all depended on what they discover during the operation.

The uncertainty made us anxious but this was just the beginning. There were question marks all along, and one could only tackle it step by step during the course of the treatment. There was no way to know it all. Had the disease had spread? How curable was it? How likely were the chances of having a disease-free survival?

It made my insecurities about career and future etc seem trivial in comparison. I remember once asking the oncologist if my mother would be totally cancer free after the recommended treatment and he smiled and said, “With cancer, you can never be 100% sure.”

That’s the thing with cancer treatment, it teaches you to learn to live with doubt and be grateful for what you have.

I am thankful that my doctor cousin visited when he did, I am glad that my mother’s disease could be treated and I am grateful to everyone who supported us with their uplifting words along the way.

Being a cancer patient or even a carer can also teaches you to deal with your demons yourself. I had the full support of my husband, extended family and friends every step of the way but the stress I went through while awaiting scan or biopsy results, or the sheer helplessness of watching my previously active mother now weeping in bed due to radiotherapy induced burns was only mine to deal with.

World Cancer Day was on February 4 and Geneva based Union for International Cancer Control that works towards preventing cancer is running a three year long campaign under the theme “We Can. I Can” to promote cancer awareness. I am no doctor but as someone who has experienced cancer closely I can say that don’t take yourself too seriously in life but when it comes to health, one shouldn’t take themselves too casually either.

Finally, I do hope and pray that my mother remains cancer free and healthy for the years to come.

(published on the Huffington Post