By Deepti Rawat Paikray
Some decades ago there were two friends studying at Loreto Convent Lucknow, India. One of them suffered the loss of a loved one the moment she was born and learnt never to give wings to her thoughts . Destiny befriended the two friends and led them onto different paths. One grew up to gather the smiles and tears across the faces of her companions; in short, a storyteller, that’s me. The other grew up to walk the fiery path of tests, relying frequently on the lone self. This is her story, the story of my school friend Pallavi Bhargava who recently lost her husband to a harrowing fight with cancer on October 8, 2019.
Journalist Jill Smolowe , author of the memoir Four Funerals and A Wedding : resilience in a time of Grief who buried her husband, sister , mother and mother-in-law within 17 months writes “ when a loved one passes away (or receives a dire diagnosis) your life undergoes a seismic shift. As your old normal totters………. the “How are you’s” are more exhausting than comforting.” This profile on Pallavi is a little beyond the customary and hesitant, how are you? Fate had recently rewired our lives together. At the outset she asked me “what will you write about me? I am such an ordinary person.” I quipped “what you tell me and what you don’t the pauses in the conversation will.” She agreed for a brave heart is also a simple heart.
July 2019, while sipping my morning tea, I browse through the Loreto Convent school friends group on what’s up. A beautiful birthday greeting for a school friend made by Pallavi awaits my eyes and I marvel at the play of colors, the thought and care behind the words that sets off a chain of warm wishes from the other 88 members. Their birthday and anniversaries are celebrated too through a unique digital greeting crafted by Pallavi…..all this as she waits outside a radiation center in Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai as her husband of 27 years undergoes fierce chemotherapy sessions to combat widespread cancer of the tissues. It’s a long and fierce battle they have been fighting for two years and her tall, handsome husband (working for the Indian Navy) is now reduced to a sack of bones with eight surgeries behind him. He has lost his speech and sight and lives through Pallavi’s care. Pain mocks at their doorstep and life and hope hunker in memories of the past and their two grown up sons.
October 8, 2019 early morning the school pal group received a message from Pallavi that her husband Captain Amit Bhargava had passed away during brahma muhurat (dawn) on the auspicious day of Dussehra (festival celebrating the victory of truth over evil). A friend told me Pallavi was calm and composed during the rites but as messages of stay strong poured in, I felt dejected as we lit lamps of gaiety to celebrate Deepawali even as her life was plunged in a desperate loss. January 2020 I asked Pallavi if she was busy and she affirmed a yes. And I said the cards look a bit simple and she chortled as she admitted to getting back to work, teaching Shakespeare and Goethe to a horde of unwilling 9th graders.
As she narrates to me the story of her life, I can see that every turning point in her life was a preparation for the next uphill. When she married Amit in 1992, it was a drastic change from a conditioned business environment in Lucknow to a defense environment in Jamnagar that laid stress on order and refinement, a certain decorum that taught Pallavi to handle the peskiness in life. Meanwhile she became a mother at 21.The kairotic point came when Amit and Pallavi were transferred to Cochin where everything was an obstacle , the local language , staying in a mess for 2 years with the belongings of a nomad as they house hunted , Amit meeting with an accident that laid him up in hospital for two months . With a 2 year old boy, Pallavi learnt to drive the moped just to pick up the groceries and her courage, and managed to set up home. Laughingly she tells me the bus chasing to kill her was life itself goading her to become independent. The second turning point was getting a job in a computer education center in 2002 as a teacher. From a meek listener she found her inner and outer voice and as the world within her changed people began to look at her in a different light. Her second son was born too and Pallavi allowed life to sculpt her into a confident but compassionate human being.
The next fifteen years in Delhi was the best period of her life as she completed her teacher training and worked in the soul nourishing environment of Mother’s International school. The mother’s positive beliefs took root in the earth of her spirit. The affirmation that stayed with Pallavi and that would become the torch through the dark days ahead was “by our stumbling the world is perfected”. It would lead her to let go of all not meant for her and rely on the self when help did not come from quarters meant to, yet being specific about asking for assistance from the places it did come ……. mainly her extended family comprising of naval and school friends
As long as Pallavi lives the memory of the phone call on 17th November 2017 as she and Amit made preparations for their grand 25th wedding anniversary in Mumbai will haunt her. It was the phone call that shattered her domestic bliss, a call from the hospital, the prognosis of a biopsy: Amit had mouth cancer that needed immediate surgery. Disbelief, anger and frustration ripped through her days even as a God sent surgeon performed the surgery. For a few days it seemed Amit would get back on track but then came the news that the cancer had spread to the nerves and would need extensive radiation. The birthday cards for school pals became heartbreakingly more detailed as Amit’s treatments racked his body and their life together. He came down from a robust 80 kg to a skeletal 40 kg. His speech and eyesight was gone and two years later a pranic healer told Pallavi to let him go, that he would watch over her. Nothing had prepared her for this. Amit surrendered on the battlefield of life to go beyond the woods wearing the garb of dignity and light.
According to experts a grieving person oscillates between two ends: lost oriented and restoration oriented. Its natural and the person might not even realize it. Lost oriented is watching old photos with loved ones or thinking of times spent together. It triggers loneliness, sadness and anger. While talking to me Pallavi relives the time when Amit and she danced together on her brother in laws anniversary, of movie outings and tambola, of the special care she took to dress up for him alone. Teary eyed we both take a break. Restoration oriented is reconnecting to parts of life that are essential to take life forward. For Pallavi it’s the responsibility of her two adult sons, holding her job and just saying yes to life every day. The memory of her mother a very generous, giving soul helps Pallavi darn the fabric of her distress. Meanwhile she’s touched by the evening visits of her neighbors and drop ins of her school friends. Their presence serves to remind her of the present reality.
This circle of people attempt to nudge Pallavi towards selfcare. I relate to Pallavi about Melissa Pierce, author of Filled With Gold. Melissa went through a tremendous trial when she lost her husband after adopting two young boys, and the book is the story of her journey. She writes how massages, tap dancing and singing helped her move the grief stored in her body. In her words “Each step I took on my self-care quest built self- confidence and gave me courage to move forward in healing and processing my grief.” Pallavi is a gifted artist and creates stunning trays and bottles through decoupage. She admits the tangible process of cutting, gluing and varnishing images together helps to unlock and process the insecurity and sadness within her freeing her from disturbing emotions to become more accepting of the situation. It helps her gain clarity to forge the way ahead as she plans to move back to Delhi and buy a home for herself and her sons. The result is a beautifully crafted piece resonating the belief of therapists that the reward for attention is always healing.
Pallavi has always discovered a beautiful world by valuing human connections, giving her affection and then some more. I ask her, what is the shared legacy that she and Amit gave to their sons and she replies, “We are simple, good human beings. Our lives were uncluttered with undue material wants and so we never had difficulty making decisions. It’s this value of simplicity, of being good that we passed on to our sons.” I believe simple people are more resilient because their strongest virtue is to see things as they are and not how they would wish them to be. And it’s this that will tide Pallavi through the busy days and lonely nights to lead a life the frozen princesses Anna and Elsa would applaud to declare “she always does the next right thing.”