There is no defined time or age to start anew. And Cheelu Chandran, the Founder of DeBox, shows that if you have the will and the courage to face your situation, and accept yourself, then you can overcome anything in life.
“I never looked in the mirror properly. I hated the very ground that I walked on and decided that I was the biggest burden to mother earth because I was worthless and incapable of doing anything good. I blamed myself for every bad thing that happened to me and thought that I deserved it. For the good things that happened to me, I credited someone else or just put it down to sheer luck,” says Cheelu.
Cheelu’s story needs to be told as many women across the globe may find that it resonates with their lives. HerStory spoke to Cheelu and here are some excerpts from her journey of self-acceptance and self-discovery.
“My father was at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai ardently praying for a daughter on the day that I was born.”
She was born in December of 1963 into a non-typical but average middle-class Tamil Brahmin family and was the much sought after girl child born as she was three and a half years after her brother.
Her parents were conservative yet forward looking for their times. Her mother was a house wife who later became a pioneer in the field of alternative healing. Her dad had a transferable job, so she was educated in Bangalore and Chennai, and then finally moved to Mumbai in 1985.
“While my first marriage was physically and sexually abusive, my second one was not just sexually abusive but also emotionally and mentally crippling.”
Physical abuse leaves temporary and permanent scars on the body. Emotional and mental abuse pushes you into a feeling of nothingness; a big zero. Mental abuse, if handled smoothly, is hard to recognise. It took me years and intense self-searching to figure it out. To this day, I remain confused as to which of the two is worse.
While Cheelu had wanted to pursue an offbeat career but succumbed to her parents idea of marriage after graduation. Her husband, a teetotaller, was physically abusive in the four years of marriage and even maligned her reputation at her work place.
Abused even through her pregnancy, she gave birth to a daughter who died 72 hours after birth. The
second time she got pregnant, her husband threatened to kill her if she did not abort. Things continued in the same vein as Cheelu was too petrified to share her plight. Until, on a particularly bad night, she ran away. “I finally got divorced. I was free but a bit of me had chipped away.”A year after her divorce, she met another man through a common friend, appeared to be everything that her first husband was not. She fell in love, and remarried: “I was, by this time eager to get married because I measured my success and feelings of worthiness with having a husband. To top that, I was already carrying the tag of divorcee. What would the world think of me?”
This time round her husband turned out to be a control freak who determined everything in her life – what she wore, who she spoke to, and how she lived. She was supposed to dress sloppily so as to not attract male attention.
Cheelu lived in utter dread of him for ten years. She did not dare to stand up for herself with a divorce behind her. She felt compelled to adjust and stay married.
The silver lining in this were her two children. But one day she took her kids and walked out of her second marriage to save what was left of her sanity and be a source of strength to her children. “I wanted to teach them by example that they should stand up for their abilities and believe in themselves. Also, I didn’t want to be the mother who sacrificed everything and then nag them about it in the future.”
“I came to accept my name and celebrate its uniqueness only recently.”
Cheelu’s own name has been a thorn in her flesh since childhood; it has been a constant source of mockery: “Once in school a teacher asked me in front of my class as to the kind of name, I had and what had been going through my parents’ mind to name me so. Everyone laughed.”
During her first marriage, her in-laws couldn’t digest the name Cheelu and so they re-christened her Rajalakshmi, abbreviated to Laxmi. At the time of her second marriage, again the name Cheelu was frowned upon, and according to the North Indian marriage tradition, she was renamed Shalini. “It was an act in vain because everyone still called me Cheelu. I have come to accept my name and celebrate its uniqueness only recently.”
“I wanted to be up and about for my son who was a little over two years at that time, even if I lost the baby I was carrying.”
When she was pregnant with her third child, her second daughter, she slipped a disc in her lower back and lost sensation from waist down. The only option was surgery — which could improve her chances of a full recovery by 50 per cent but put the child at risk. Cheelu took the chance. Fortunately, the baby survived. But it took her a year and a half of dedicated effort to walk again. After that, she had a paralysis attack of the mouth and neck, and was bed-ridden for two weeks.
It was still a long way to recovery. Cheelu was physically active but her spine was still weak, and she would often end up in bed. But as time went by Cheelu refused to be bedridden and slowly began exercising. In a few years, she learnt various dance forms, and performed eight different dances at a show.
In the coming years, she joined a running group and ran her first Mumbai half marathon. Things were looking good when suddenly in 2013 her right side became paralysed: This one was the worst thing I had ever faced as it affected my brain. I lost movement in my right hand and my ability to see well through my right eye; my walk had turned into a shuffle; and I lost speech. I had to restart my life like a child. But she today Cheelu has got most of her movements back through sheer hard work.
“The only person you can and should change is you. The only person you need to change is you because if you change everything and everyone around you will change too”.
When she walked out of her second marriage Cheelu had no money, no proper job, and no support from her family. Often she did not even know where her next meal was coming from. She had settled for next to nothing in alimony for the sake of peace and couldn’t afford a court battle. She fell into severe depression, started smoking and drinking heavily, and became suicidal. She sent her children to boarding school so she could find herself.
One day she even went off to the 19th floor, of her building with the intention to end it all: “I was in a daze. As I stood on the parapet wall contemplating a jump, I felt as though a strong force pushed me backwards onto safe ground. I suddenly ‘woke up’ and realised that I am too strong to do such a cowardly thing. Bad or not, functional or not, I decided that I was going to change my life and live for my kids.”
From that point on things began to change for Cheelu: she read books and researched, went to spiritual gatherings, and took therapy sessions. She tried to understand her pain. She even began writing letters to herself.
Gradually Cheelu, developed life skills to cope and began questioning the conditioning by which we live:
Challenging the boxes in which we love, helped me overcome my depression. I felt I wasn’t a bad person and that I might be deserving of good things in life. I didn’t feel completely useless any more. My children’s unconditional love and trust enhanced my feelings of self-worth.
However, there were days when things still went downhill too. One such day, she tried drowning her worries in alcohol and looked to the window to end it all. Somehow Cheelu cried and laughed and talked herself to sleep. When she woke up the next morning, she felt that the answers she was seeking lay within her: “This realisation helped me derive strength from within myself and remain motivated.”
“We need to realise that we always have a choice and there is no exception to that rule.”
DeBox was started with a view to making a difference in this world. Cheelu’s illness had wiped out a lot of her memories and everything around her felt strange and new. “During my sharper moments, I asked what the message this whole episode has for me and the initial flash came in the form of a book, which I have written.” The book is pending publication.
The second flash she got was to start a venture which would enable people to think and act beyond their perceived limitations. There had to be a way to help people break from pre-conceived notions that have unnecessarily conditioned minds to live life in fear instead, of love. “We need to not just think and live out of the box but destroy the box. That was how DeBox got its name.” She gives credit to her friend who came up with the name at a brain-storming lunch session.
DeBox Training aims at making life easier for people going through a personal crisis through sharing, talks, and food that nourishes. The workshops and talks are based on The Theory of Abundance – to bring about an understanding about what abundance really means. Topics like why self-love, selfishness, and self-centredness are good qualities to have are discussed.
Another approach DeBox takes is through the medium of sharing one’s story. “Talking about their personal stories in smaller groups can be cathartic and create powerful changes”, says Cheelu. The third aspect is the range of food they offer that helps keep the body in good health. Cheelu has developed a range of nut and seed butters, and organic muesli. She plans to gradually develop an entire range.
“This is just the beginning,” says Cheelu. “It is time we focussed on health instead of disease, joy instead of sadness and love instead of fear. What we give is what we will get back. What we think about will become our reality. We can change our lives and live a fulfilled life and be a source of inspiration to everyone. All we need to do is believe and want to make the change within us.”