Being strong is a state of mind. Its enough to know that no matter how large your current crisis seems, life will take over and things will improve. You just ‘Be Strong’
By Manjulaa Shirodkar
Not so long ago, when the second wave of the dreaded COVID 19 swept our country, we saw the collapse of not just systems but individuals too. Beyond the systemic loss, it was people who watched their loved ones go and found themselves helpless. They suffered. The trauma of losing a loved one spawned immeasurable pain and stress.It was unbearable to see so much suffering all round – made worse by an uncertain future.
Unfortunate as it may sound, COVID turned out to be the catalyst which ended up exposing en masse the vulnerability of all those who had hitherto believed that they were ‘strong’ and ‘courageous’. People who appeared to be mentally stable and calm on the surface were deeply affected by negativity and depression during this time. The uncertainty of future, the suddenness of death revealed extreme human frailty in the face of adversity.
Each one was affected. If you hadn’t lost someone of your own, you knew someone who had. There were many who suffered huge losses financially, went bankrupt. Some among them were supposedly those who could not be touched. The well-healed;those with strong family backing; great education; a social circle to boast ofand six-figure salaries. They had the money and the influence to keep the disease at bay. But COVID spared none.
As I observed friends, relatives and acquaintances deal with loss, irrespective of its nature – whether financial, materialordeath it forced me to do a rethink.And I realised that none of it matters if you aren’t made of sterner stuff – in your head.
It was at this time that a phrase my Guru often used, came back to haunt me. ‘Be Strong’ he had repeated ever so often – sometimes in context, other times just as a passing remark.
Simple words, simply said. But what had he meant really? Was he referring to ‘mental strength’? How could one remain strong in the face of this immense, untold misery? Would being ‘mentally strong’ be enough? Did he mean to say ‘be courageous’? Is that enough?
Speaking of courage. Courage isn’t something you inculcate. It isn’t something that is external. Its an instinct. Of course,some of you may disagree and say courage comes through training. You can teach a child to be fearlessby training him but courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it is a desire to conceal your inability to handle fearful or difficult situations.
To that extent, courage springs to the fore when your innate survival instinct kicks in, in the face of a situation you have hitherto not encountered. You can either cave in or stand firm – and that too is a primal, sub-conscious thought. In hindsight, it may appear to be an act of bravery but largely its your subconscious desire to survive that drives you in that instant.
When I look back at my life – often forced to do so by ‘fascinated’ people who have found me ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ over the years, I realize I was all of those but not by design! I just was. Never mind the mental turmoil, the internal quaking, the goosebumps and cold sweats which could have given away my actual state.Regardless of all these and more I just stood and did what needed to be done, in that moment. If that appeared ‘courageous’,if that was being strong –well, that’s okay.
But mostly it was to do with the fact that I thought of nothing but the action of that moment.
When I was in my early 20s my father passed on,following a massive cardiac arrest. There had been no history of a heart ailment. Even though I was still continuing my education, I began earning for the family because the government pensions that my mother received (my father’s family pension and her own) were just not enough.
I held two-part time jobs (pre and post lunch 3 hours each, in different offices)apart from giving English tuitions beginning 5.30 – 8 am, and then after work from 9-10.30 pm while trying to complete my Masters in English. I pushed this routine for close to three years, making a living and supporting my mother and more, because that was the need of the hour.
There were times when giving up seemed a way out but I hung on. People called me ‘strong’ but I cried nights. And then got up and faced the days again. I bucked, I fell, I howled, I detested my responsibilities but I stuck it out. I had to shoulder my part. Was that being strong?
About a year-and-a-half after my father’s demise, my elder sister lost her husband in a car accident. Post dad, he had been the father figure to me. We all were shattered once more. The man I was married to at the time (under duress after my father’s demise) decided this was the best time to give me an ultimatum – it was him or my family. I was miserable in that debt-ridden, credit-is-all marriage where domestic violence seemed the order of the day. But I hung on. Why, I am not sure. And I kept up with family responsibilities too. Was I being strong?
Then my mother was involved in hit-and-run accidents. Yes, you read that right – not one but two accidents. She survived both but it left us both shaken and badly traumatized. She lost her confidence to walk on the streets; later developed cataract in one eye and glaucoma in the other, and turned a diabetic with all the stress in her body. Apart from hiring a full time servant, who I could not afford at the time, I was also responsible for ensuring that she was taken care of emotionally. All the while, my marriage sucked and sibling moved to another continent to take care of herself and her children. Life intervened and I carried on. Was that courage? Was I being strong?
But then one day, I walked out of the marriage. I had had enough. Was that courage? People called me brave because they never really scratched the surface. But they didn’t know what I was going through. Mom supported me but I wanted to prove a point to myself. So I chose to stay in a rented room, while continuing to support her financially. Life was very tough but became bearable. I had a job – it didn’t pay enough but it was there.
Friends meanwhile judged me. Some believed that staying put in a bad marriage would preferable to being ‘alone’. Others in our society don’t take kindly to ‘separated-women-headed-for-a divorce’. So they stopped meeting me. ‘We don’t visit broken homes,’ they said. I was suddenly not part of the social circuits or parties –meant only for couples and families. But I stuck it out. Was that being strong?
When ‘friends’ mocked and curiosity got the better of my so-called ‘well wishers’; when false sympathy came my way; when rattling off my ongoing woes sent people away; when men made overtures because I was no longer in the ‘respectably off-limits category of being married’, ‘Be Strong’ stayed steadfast and unwavering. It has stuck in my head like a mantra.
And one that has turned out to be an all weather friend like ‘All iz Well’ from Raju Hirani’s 3 Idiots. It seems to fit in any given situation, in any given conversation, in all seasons. It has helped me stay on course when a relationship was going through a storm; when loved ones have walked away; when I have felt all alone; when tears threatened but crying was not an option; when the last week of the month looked rather bleak because there was not enough money to last till the first of next month…. Be Strong held my hand and kept me going.
Today things are steadier, better and more settled. Now, I want to pass on the good word to those who are facing their storms today. To those who feel that loss of a family member, loss of business, loss of job, loss of home and hearth is the end. All I say to you is ‘Be Strong’. Start from there. You can always grasp and interpret its meaning later. Life is, life will continue to be.
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Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.