The sequences of a dream flashing through my brain in rapid succession woke me up at 4 am one morning. I remember some of the details, though, not all. There was a little Indian girl eating strawberries in a forest somewhere in Russia; then I saw the great Khushwant Singh stooping to kiss a lady on the cheek; then the little girl was swimming in the Black Sea; then a lady with breast cancer was undergoing chemotherapy; then another lady was making a motivational speech at a convention; yet another lady was chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (Nichiren Buddhist chant); and, and…that’s when I woke up! That’s also when I realized that I had been chewing on and digesting the incredible story of Neelam Kumar for – far too long. And that’s when I wrote this piece….Tuesday morning at 4 am last week.
The ‘Strawberry Years’
Neelam spent a fairy-tale like childhood in Russia. She attended primary school (along with her sister Poonam) in Moscow. She calls them her ‘strawberry years’: there were no books to read in the classroom in the Russian school, and frequently the students were taken into the nearby forest to pluck and eat juicy strawberries! Read the rest in Neelam’s words, “In summer, for three months, we were taken to an idyllic summer resort called Anaapa. Our days were spent in diving into the Black Sea to pick up coloured sea shells; learning to swim and to sunbathe. In the six years of schooling we did there, we were not taught from books but from Nature.” (Incidentally, both her parents were great writers: Mr O.N. Panchalar and Mrs Urmila Panchalar were two of the three Indians selected from India to the Indian Embassy of Moscow for translating ‘great’ Russian works into Hindi and English!)
Subsequently, Neelam had to return to India and was sent to an English medium school. She had to start from scratch: her English teacher found her to be dull and remarked that she was like ‘wood sitting on wood’! She even predicted that Neelam would never be able to learn the English language. But this perhaps proved inspirational for Neelam and she says, “I spent my entire life trying to prove her wrong. I went on to write five books—all in English.” Not only that, she went on to do a Bachelors in English Literature, a Bachelors in Education, a PG in Public Relations and Advertising; and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA!
The difficult years
Life changed for Neelam in 1996. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says, “With no tools in my armoury to handle it, I became a bitter, cynical woman, wallowing in the ‘why me?’ mode.” She had to go through what was perhaps the most difficult phase in her life after that. She had even lost her husband, who was her greatest influence, and motivator as well, in 1993. She now had to face the challenges of widowhood, single-parenting, financial hardships, relationship breakdowns and communication deadlocks. The strong person that she is saw her through all of this, albeit with a lot of help from her children (Rajneel and Abhilasha), her siblings and their spouses, her grandmother; her friends, and the doctors who cared for her during her treatment and convalescence. She is all praise for her doctors: “I was also fortunate to get the right doctors with the right attitude in Mumbai itself – Dr Rajendra Badwe of Tata Memorial Hospital, Dr Muzzamil Sheikh and Dr Vinay Anand of P D Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai. They encouraged me to get well. They did so with a lot of compassion.”
She recovered completely but her travails did not end. She contracted breast cancer once again in 2013. This time around though, she was better prepared she says: “When I got my second Cancer in 2013, I decided to approach it differently. I had already embraced the powerful philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism and decided to mesh the microcosm of my life with the macrocosm of the universe. Everything fell into rhythm after that. It was amazing how chanting the simple words—Nam Myoho Renge Kyo empowered me. My illness became a joyous journey and I could prove the power of chanting through my life.”
Neelam likes to call herself a ‘cancer beater’ instead of the conventional moniker – ‘cancer survivor’. She is an extremely positive person and this quote from her is a testament to her attitude toward life: “What could be more wonderful than getting Cancer twice? Just look at the gifts I got – curly hair (earlier it was poker straight), new cells, a perspective as vast as the ocean, a compassion as deep as the sea and a whacky sense of humour. If we do some sincere ‘inner gardening’ and what we call ‘human revolution’, we will be surprised at the amazing resources that exist within our mortal flesh.”
Neelam met Khushwant Singh in 1996 at a Rotary Club conference in Jamshedpur. Neelam was asked to introduce him to the audience and she took the opportunity to ‘drive home a few truths’ about women’s reactions to his descriptions of them in his writings. However, Khushwant, who deliberately cultivated a less-than-likeable image in his public life came up to her and kissed her on the cheek in appreciation! This story was reported in the local media and Khushwant, too, used the incident to write a piece called ‘Unforgettable Neelam’ in his inimitable popular column – With Malice Towards One and All – wherein he even praised Neelam’s writing and speaking skills!
That’s how a friendship between the families of Khushwant Singh’s and Neelam’s developed; which was later to reward us readers with a best-selling book. This co-authored book is called ‘Our Favourite Indian Stories’ and it required her to travel extensively throughout India. She had to do most of the research, writing and rewriting (and Khushwant’s approval was not always easily forthcoming). Neelam, of course, does not begrudge him for being a hard task-master; after all she got the opportunity to learn the art of writing in English from one of India’s best.
The inspiration for writing her personal story, To Cancer, With Love – My Journey of Joy came about, surprisingly, from her own readings. During her second brush with Cancer she had picked up some best-selling classics to cheer herself up. To her horror, Neelam says, “In The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch the hero dies; in Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom the hero dies; in Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber the heroine dies. After reading all this, I thought there is too much grimness associated with the word Cancer. I wanted a happily-ever-after ending for myself. I had determined to live. So, to inspire myself, I wrote, the book.”
Neelam has gone on to write five books. Besides the bestselling Our Favourite Indian Stories (JAICO, 2002), To Cancer, With Love – My Journey of Joy (Hayhouse Publishers, 2015 – Distributors Penguin) is doing really well. The other books are:
Legendary Lovers – 21 Tales of Unending Love (JAICO, 2004)
Myra – Love…Soulsong… Death (Image India, 2011)
I, A Woman (A Writers Workshop Redbird Book, 1991)
With her success as a writer Neelam is an extremely busy person today. She multitasks and wears many hats at the same time. She is a Life Skills Coach at the R N Podar School in Mumbai. She is also a successful Corporate Trainer, teaching soft skills and communication skills at top corporates. You can reach her through her website: www.thetraininghub.co.
She also gets a lot of invitations for speaking engagements. Two of the events that stand out in her experience are: Survivors Meet of 200 Breast Cancer Survivors organised by Women’s Cancer Initiative from Tata Memorial Hospital; and Survivors Meet of Rare Cancers organised by MAX Foundation. Neelam’s positivity is on display again: “I enter as motivational speaker; exit as motivated human.” She was also a speaker at the 6th Tata Literature Live Fest at Mumbai.
Hopes and Aspirations
Speaking about Cancer treatment and its appurtenant costs Neelam says, “I wish Cancer treatment would become more affordable. I wish to spread the message of Cancer awareness; particularly the importance of early detection. I wish to go to as many cities as possible to interact with as many survivors as possible – to give them hope and courage through my own example. Unfortunately, I will need sponsors for that – and that is not easily forthcoming.”
There is a lot that all of us can learn from Neelam. Most of us have a tendency to complain about the despondency in our lives – though most of it is of our own device! I will leave Neelam to deliver a message that is full of positivity for all of us: “I think life always gives you a choice. You can either feel depressed and make people around you miserable or meet any situation head-on with courage. Also, there is always a lighter side to any grim situation. You just have to look out for it. I sincerely feel life is an attitude. To enjoy it, we just need to make that little shift in our perception of it. I truly feel we have been placed on planet earth to be happy and spread happiness to others. If we are not doing that, we are not living right!”