It was 9 PM when the phone rang.
"Hi daddy", I said, wassup?
"Where are you darling?"
"Still in the office dad. Came in at 7 this morning and still got stuff to wrap up."
I heard a split second hesitation, and then the words, which ring in my ears even today, 22 years later...
Dad was a Tata man through and through. Worked with the company for over 30 years and legend has it that all TAS (Tata Administrative Service) personnel were sent to him as part of their final internship - if you survived Jal Master, you were ready for the battles ahead. So went the folklore. I know that IIM-B students looked forward to his guest lecture visits there - he brought insights straight from the markets to the classroom.
There was an element of truth in what he had said, I had to grudgingly admit. But I found it difficult to break away from the cycle I had created for myself. It had been 5 years and I hadn't taken a day off - except when I had the measles.
It's Hard to Break That Cycle You've Created
Ten years after that phone call, things hadn't changed much. Except now, I was the boss. And I made sure of one thing - I expected people to come in on time and I expected them to finish their work and leave at a decent hour. Everyone except myself.
I thought I needed to be on call seven days a week and because a large part of my media career was managing news channels, I was, for the most part, on call 24 hours a day.
Come home...He's Not Looking Good
Until the day my mother called. "He's not looking good," she said. "Come home." I was Senior VP at National Geographic Channel at that time, and I'd already given in my papers and agreed on a 6-month notice period. My replacement had been hired, it was the handover period. I asked my boss to let me go a month earlier. He agreed without hesitation. I spent 4 months at home with my dying father - trying to make up for all those days, months, years I had had "no time" to go home. And I learnt four key lessons in those four months:
1. You're Not That Important
Don't be afraid to take those 21 days of holidays that is your due. No one is that important. The skies will still hold and you'll be surprised how little has changed when you return. Same shit, different day - as the media adage goes.
2. Be The Best You Can Be
If you're good at what you do, no one dares to hang around waiting to take your place. So just be bloody good at what you do.
3. Build A Good Team
Focus on building a good team around you - one that is able to function without you around. While heading STAR TV Ops, I was once told by a colleague: "You're making a mistake teaching your assistants everything you know. They'll just replace you someday, and at a lesser salary." If you're afraid that your organization will replace your decades of experience with a tyro just learning the tricks, you need to quit in any case.
4. You're Not Indispensable
No one's indispensable. No one. Not even you. The organization will find someone to fill in your shoes. Perhaps they will need two or three people to manage what you did single-handedly (think about that for just a minute), but you WILL be replaced, AND soon.
Conquer Your FOMO
Of course you have "no time". You have to "make time." For yourself, for your family, for your soul. Stop saying "I wish I could come on that trek with you." Actually, you can. It's just that, you won't. What's really holding you back? Fear? Of what? Of losing your job? Of not being missed at that man-com meeting? Of not getting that project you were hankering for? Conquer that fear.
Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Step out into the high mountains, with just your trusty feet powering you on and intermittent mobile signals. And you will realize that there's a whole world out there. A world beyond the four walls of your cabin, in that towering building overlooking nothing, on that 14th floor where you can't even open the windows. And that's when your soul will thank you, for taking the time - to make time.
I must have seemed like the cruelest mom in the mall...
My 3-year-old little girl slipped smack down on the shiny marble floors wailing, while I waited on the side lines for Act 2. As a standard routine, she'd lift her nose off the floor, look up, realize mommy and daddy weren't going to come to her aid, pick herself up and start scampering again. But this time, the script took a slight detour. New actors stepped in. Helpful strangers who didn't know better, tried to help her up. On cue, I roared from the sidelines, "Leave her alone! She'll get up on her own. Thank you!"
Rearing A Little Warrior
It's not easy bringing up a little girl these days - in the times we live in, even the tiniest of them are not spared. My husband and I decided to bring up a little warrior. So, little tiny scratches are to be dismissed and the bigger wounds are medals to be worn proudly; a fight in the garden with her best buddy has to be sorted out between the two gladiators; a nip by the family pooch usually means you've either been teasing her or not reading the signals she's giving out.
For the longest time, the only toys she had were hand-me-down Legos or stuffed toys, they were her best playmates - Georgie the giraffe, Leo the lion, and Ballu the black bear. Until Barbie came along. That twitty, airhead Barbie with blonde hair, a tiny nonexistent waistline, and no personality to speak of. And it was hard. We'd avoid the Disney section of Hamley's just in case we bumped into Barbie, but she was there to stay. My little warrior wanted a Barbie doll for her fourth birthday. We refused. She protested. We stood firm. A kindly 'aunty' came laden with gifts on B-day, and what do you know, there was Barbie in all her pink shining glory! I shuddered and looked at my friend accusingly. "I knew you'd never buy it for her, so I got one" said the traitor. "Every little girl must have a Barbie." This was, I realized, going to be one long fight.
The Little Mountain Goat
We're a family that lives, eats, and breathes adventure. It's our work and our passion and when the little warrior was turning five, we decided it was time for her first trek in the mountains. She was a month short of five years and my mom thought we were crazy. "How can you expect a kid to walk long hours! Take a doctor's advice; it's not good for their bones; are you sure she's ready?" "Well", I said, "we'll soon find out won't we?" We chose a trekking circuit in Kashmir that was just a four-day trek and less than two hours away from Srinagar and emergency medical attention if required. We really shouldn't have worried. The little warrior charged up the mountain side and across the meadows like a mountain goat and while the 10 KM uphill hike on the second day left all the adults breathless, she reached before everyone else, slipped into her shorts, jumped into the icy cold fresh water stream flowing past our campsite and decided she was going to spend the rest of the evening with the ponies who'd come to cool off there. The husband beamed with pride. I just sighed with relief. The fear that we may have to carry a 15 kg package on our backs up the mountains was totally unfounded.
Let The Creativity Unfold
I came home the other day to find the whole drawing room overturned. The cushions were missing, as were the chairs. Curious, I entered the bedroom to find all the missing furniture pieces lined up in a row and the pillows and cushions all neatly lined up on top. Saira was in the tunnel below with the glazen-eyed Barbie alongside her. "What are you doing" I asked. "Making a spaceship" was the prompt reply. "Really?" I asked, "and who's the pilot?" My little warrior looked up at me like most little ones do, with that gosh-what-a-dumb-question roll of the eyeballs and corrected me, "Astronaut. Me!" "And Barbie?" I asked, "what is she doing in your spaceship?" "Nothing. She does nothing. She just sits there. So I'm going to leave her on Mars and come back." I may have lost the Barbie battle, but I certainly won the Barbie war!
The Day I'm Better Than Daddy
Her best buddy Z has got a new addition to the family - the cutest, fluffiest kitten ever. Of course, my warrior princess wants one too. So there’s a bet on between her and the dad. If she gets better than him in skiing and roller-blading, she can get a kitten home. Even before the “deal” could be cemented with a handshake, she donned her roller blades and helmet and turned around to look at the beleaguered father: “Come on then, teach me!”
She’s been skiing since she was three-and-a-half, taking the family tradition a generation further. She’s good but nowhere close to being as good as the dad, but that doesn’t stop her from dreaming about that kitten cuddling up to her at night. “You did say that if you threw a message out into the universe, the universe would give you what you want, right mama?” Umm…yes, I did, in a totally different context of course, but I did. And I’m guessing it will not be long before we have another 4-legged fur child gamboling around the house.
She's a girly girl all the way. She wants long hair "all the way up to my knees" and throws a fit even if you so much as mention a trim. Elsa was her favorite Disney character until she was five and now it is DC Comic’s Wonder Woman. The pink flowery frocks have given way to shorts and jumpsuits. She still wants "pretend makeup" (whatever that is) for her 8th birthday, but the little warrior in her rises to the fore at the best (and worst) of times. The churlish little boy who tries to push his way down the slide is roundly told off to "stand in line and wait." The little kid with the tube wrapped around her waist at the pool gets unwanted advice: "how will you learn to swim with that? Do fishes use tubes?" Until recently she was the only little girl in her Kung fu class and is always made to spar with boys two inches taller and three years older. Often, she beats them off the mat and thinks that's perfectly natural. No conflict in her head at all.
A Warrior, Not A Fighter Be
How do you teach your little girl not to turn the other cheek anymore and yet not encourage violence? How do I get her not to trust strangers and yet be friendly with everyone she meets? How do we teach her to stand up for herself, not take everything and everyone at face value and yet "respect your elders?" For any parent, it's a complex world now. What we learnt from our parents no longer holds good - what we impart to our daughters is often in conflict with how we were raised. But our little girls seem totally comfortable with the dichotomy of it all. They're fine being both - a warrior and a lady. Perhaps that's our cue. Perhaps it's time for us to unlearn what we were taught when we were little girls and turn to them for guidance on how to bring them up!
I never did understand why they called it the bunny slopes...
...until I saw the kids scamper up and down with ease. I stood on top and looked down at this "ski slope for beginners", my heart skipping a beat. "Come on!" yelled Akshay - my husband and instructor. He was standing at the bottom madly waiving his arms urging me to come down. I could barely hear him, the wind and the chatter of the kids (or was that my teeth?) making it hard to hear what was, I hoped, his words of encouragement.
I stood on top, literally frozen in the snow. There was no freakin' way I was reaching down there in a single piece. While I stood there imagining broken limbs and an injured ego, a little three feet nothing runt whizzed past me yelling "Cluck! Cluck! Cluck! Mama is a chicken!" She waved her elbows up a down imitating a mother hen and reached the end of the slope before I could get a word in. My loving daughter. She began skiing at three-and-half and was already two years ahead of my non-existent experience.
I had little choice. It was now or never. Like a puttering motorbike that's got dirt in its carburetor, I stumbled my way down, until the slope decided to do its job and slid me down at a pace I didn't appreciate. I landed in an ungainly heap at the bottom, the pride more hurt than any part of my body. "Brilliant !" beamed the husband, "now let's get you on the ski lift."
My nemesis - the darn ski lift
The ski lift was my nemesis. It's basically a constantly moving bar that you need to hold on to while it takes you gliding up the slope. Only with me, I never glided up anywhere. I fell within the first three seconds. I had been falling for the last five years. I would fall 50 - 60 times in a day, the left side of my body bruised blue, but I still never managed to master the bar lift.
"No!" I shuddered, "can't do that." "Can't mama?" squeaked the runt, "you said there's no word like can't." She was right. There wasn't. And so I picked myself up, stood in the lift line for the thousandth time, ready to take another beating. "Just make sure your shins touch your ski boots at all times and don't sit on the bar!" Last minute instructions I had heard 999 times. I grabbed the bar, mumbling under my breath "shins to boots...shins to boots...shins to boots. Sai help me do this."
I guess He heard me. I didn't fall. I was up on top of the slope within 30 seconds. It was a miracle!
You can do it
And that's how I learnt to ski. I was 50 and my daughter was 5. Today, I ski down Phase 1 of the Kongdori station at Gulmarg and manage the Blue and Red runs in the Italian Dolomites.
And my adventures again taught me some lessons. It's never too late to do something for the first time. It's never too late to learn a new skill. And it's definitely never too late to achieve the impossible!
The Everest Base Camp Trek Was a Dream I had Lived With For 11 Years
I did this trek back in May 2014, almost exactly two years after surviving cancer and going through three major surgeries - the last one, just eight weeks before my trek was to start. So what you read here, is me at my unfit worst. Three years later, I did this trek again - in fact it's tougher cousin EBC-Gokyo Lakes, in May 2017. And my experience was quite different. Firstly, it wasn't as physically hard as I expected, and secondly, since I was the trekking leader, it was I pushing, urging, egging people along! The tables had turned - in just three years!
Everest Base Camp is still about 45 minutes away at my trekking pace, and I have this strong urge to simply turn back. I am so tired, I don't think I can make that 45 minute walk across the ridge and the downhill trudge - the altitude isn't making it any easier. "Eleven years, Dilshad" I tell myself, "I've waited for this for 11 years!"
Everest Base Camp (EBC) was always my dream, ever since I came up with this crazy docu-reality show when I was with National Geographic Channel which sent five ordinary Indians to EBC with the Indian Army.
"Come on!" I yell aloud to the winds. "I've survived cancer, radiotherapy and three major surgeries in the last two years, I can bloody do this!" Khudam Bir, my guide, suspects my desperation, turns around to look at me, and says: "Just 15 minutes, come on!" "15 Nepali minutes," I mumble under my breath. It takes us mere mortals three times as much!
In February 2012, cancer found me. Knowing my family history, I should have known the search wouldn’t be too hard, but we all live in this ridiculous bubble where we believe we’re immortal. I wasn’t any different. I sat at the hospital in a daze, the pathology report on my lap while I rapidly Googled the words on my cell phone: "Desmoplastic stroma", "neoplasm", "lobular hyperplasia"...nothing seemed to make sense. There must be some mistake, I thought. Maybe they mixed up the reports. "Conclusion: Invasive Tubular Carcinoma" - that, I understood. The rest of the report was all gobbledygook, but the word carcinoma, yes, that was one word I understood. My first surgery at one of Delhi's most over-rated hospitals, done by an incompetent and over-rated surgeon, led me to the doorsteps of Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. The surgeon stared at my case history for a while, looked up and said with the slightest trace of humour: "so, which part of 'family history' did you not get?" I loved him instantly. If he could deal with this dreaded disease and still make his patients smile, I was finally in the right place! "I'm sorry," he said, "your surgery is incomplete, we'll have to go in there again." Within three weeks of the first surgery, I was back on the operating table.
Two major surgeries and 30 sessions of radiotherapy later, I was sapped of all my energies. I didn’t just lose eight kilos, I lost the perpetual silver lining I always see in every dark cloud that gathers overhead. The “eternal optimist” is what my friends call me, a moniker I really didn’t deserve any longer. I felt like I was caught in a big giant wave, just trying to stick my nose out so I could breathe. My 9-month old baby and a loving husband were my oars in the Grade 5 rapid I found myself in. They pulled me out before I got caught in that big dark whirlpool that would have sucked me right in.
A year later, not only was I back on my feet, I was all set to achieve my dream. Eleven years was way too long and I wasn’t waiting any longer. Life was too short. That I had learnt already. I put a plan together to take a team of people to Everest Base Camp in May 2014 and began training for it in earnest. I was still on medications and injections to stave off any nasty cancer cells that were still floating around, medicines that caused insomnia, joint pain, and the worst of all, a 0.2% probability of getting another form of cancer. That was a chance I wasn’t willing to take. And so, just eight weeks before the trek was to start, I went in for another major surgery. The only promise I extracted from my surgeon – that she would get me back on my feet within six weeks. She kept her word, bless her. Two weeks before the trek, I started walking again, trying to build up my stamina for a trek I knew would be grueling for me.
“Can I do it?” I asked my father-in-law, Col. ‘Bull’ Kumar, India’s most decorated mountain climber and soldier. “Will I be able to make it there?” I will never forget his words: “At some point, my dear, your body will give way. And then, you will continue on with your mind. Eventually, that is what will get you there.” Prophetic words indeed.
It's just 2.5 KM back, I tell myself. How hard can it be? Very. Bloody. Hard. After a long tiring nine hour day at high altitude, this return journey is a bummer. The cold winds are picking up now. I dig my hands deep into my wind breaker, keep my eyes glued to my boots and start to walk...climb, trudge, scramble, slip. I really can't remember how I make it back. All I know is, I stumble into the little tea-lodge and collapse into my friend’s lap and start to howl.
All these years, every time I passed an Adidas billboard that read “Impossible is Nothing”, the words would whirl in my head. I’d try to create a complete sentence, I’d look at those words and create a mind map – trying to fit them into something more concrete. I always thought that was an ingeniously worded campaign, but somehow, their true meaning deserted me. Until now. I learnt how much my mind was capable of doing, when the body packs up.
My Everest Base Camp trek taught me that impossible really was nothing.
This article first appeared on the MHE Stories blog and was re-published on my LinkedIn page.
Dilshad is an inspirational speaker and is invited by corporates and institutions to speaks on topics closest to her heart. Being a cancer survivor, her talks focus on doing what you always thought was "impossible" and turning that into "I'm possible" (with due credit to the great Audrey Hepburn!)