Of faith, hope, and courage
Navni Chawla talks to Indira Ahluwalia about her book and her turbulent life, which she has managed with great equanimity and a sense of purpose and gratitude
Fast Forward to Hope is the brave story of a very brave woman, Indira Ahluwalia. This book is a testament to a woman’s courage, hope, determination, and love. The reader is sure to take away the contagious spirit of the author and her fiery desire to live life and live it well and fully. Indira Ahluwalia is an ordinary woman living a normal life with a loving family, friends, and work until cancer strikes her, which later becomes severe and visceral. In her book, she intricately describes the minute details of her journey while treating cancer. Her writing makes the readers travel with her through the meandering pathways of her life and empathise with her situations. They feel as if they are with her on every page. We find how a lovely family and a close-knit circuit of friends provide Indira with a concrete support system.
Another important anchor and internal source of strength is her faith in the greater good of every life situation and her will to live and heal completely. What makes the reader feel for Indira is life throwing one difficult challenge after another at her—from cancer metastasising dangerously in her body, the discomfort of chemotherapy, the trauma of losing hair, and a bilateral mastectomy, to a difficult and painful separation from her then husband. But her determination to fight against all odds makes her highly proactive. Her preparing herself mentally for a medical procedure, reciting mantras on her prayer beads, doing constant positive self-talk, praying incessantly to Waheguruji, her willingness to cure herself of the illness, and battling other personal challenges is exemplary. Her commitment to living with grace and dignity makes her a woman of steel, in fact, a superwoman who not only survives the tough times but also emerges a winner and the author of this beautiful book.
She is the perfect example of how loss and hardships have the potential to make one wiser, more resilient, empathetic, compassionate, proactive, loving, and connected to the Divine intimately. That is exactly what Indira’s life stands for. Her book gently proclaims that living in surrender to the supreme power can emancipate one from their sufferings and agonies, and take them towards the fountain of joy and light.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with God throughout your journey? Was it the most revered one of all?
My relationship with Waheguru has been a constant in my life. As I say in Fast Forward to Hope, Waheguru has been my “invisible friend” from the time I was a child. Spirituality became a safe space for me a long time ago. Over the years, it is in the quiet of spirituality that I have tried to hear my deepest fears and greatest desires, and where I have asked and been given so much.
I have been very lucky. My father Jayant Singh Kalotra epitomised living life with faith. He wore his turban naturally and his faith intrinsically. My mother Amrit Kalotra incorporates truth and seva (selfless service) in her life. Our family has had a prayer room wherever we have lived, and we start and end our day with prayer. This has resulted in an almost palpable presence of goodness and faith in our day-to-day lives.
Q. Somewhere in the book, you mention ‘Chardi Kala,’ which is a Punjabi term for the mental state of eternal optimism and joy. Was it easy to be in that state most of the time? And how?
Challenges are the norm, and fear and doubt our natural reactions to them. If anything, I have learned to accept (not fight) fear and create greater space for hope. Chardi Kala is a powerful state of mind, and even if it is aspirational, it is still compelling. For me, it is the acceptance and trust in the will of Waheguru as much as a way of life which believes that He will carry me through. It is also about personal responsibility. I have to do my part. I can choose hope over fear, especially when fear can feel overwhelming.
Q. Life threw at you a barrage of challenges, one after the other, and sometimes all at once. It can be very overwhelming for anyone. Where did you draw your strength from? Was it inside or outside?
Strength flows from having a goal, desire, an aspiration, and obligation. You have to have a reason to want to fight the challenges, and to overcome them. The reason has to be so compelling that not achieving it is not a choice. The goal has to fuel you and drive you even when you are weary and feel alone. You have to have the will and the discipline to continue to fight consistently till you get to the other side. You can’t want something and not work towards it. You have to put in the work. There is no other way.
Was it easy? Is it easy? No. But is the alternative any better? When the crises of health, marriage, and income came together, my little children gave me unwavering purpose. I also trusted Waheguru. He gave me the responsibility of being a mother, and I was sure He would give me the capacity to fulfil my duty too. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law stood with me unconditionally. Friends and colleagues supported me with prayer and love. Random strangers gave me hope in the most unexpected ways. I was lucky. I had support. The fight, however, had to start within me. It started with faith and was carried on by the love of good people.
Q. Your book reminds us of how we would write our diary entries. We loved the fine details and nuances of your emotional palette during your tumultuous life journey. Was it a conscious choice to maintain a diary to be later converted into a book?
I started with a blank sheet of paper and with the prayer that the spirit should guide me and help me tell my truth. I hadn’t maintained a diary, and so the only way to write this book was to relive the experiences I had undergone while penning them down.
I wrote the last part of the book, ‘the whys,’ first. I knew I had learned a lot subconsciously, and so I started by creating a list of what I could immediately recall as lessons. ‘Khalsa cells,’ ‘Amrit,’ ‘The decision,’ and going to the wedding right after the biopsy were stories that came to my mind right away, and as I wrote, they became the ‘lessons.’ I felt I had to write the ‘whys’ first. I knew that I had something of relevance to share from my journey of living through challenges.
Q. At the end of many chapters, there is mention of a lesson learnt. How would you sum up your entire journey into one major lesson learnt?
You have power even if you don’t have control, but you have to choose to exercise it. And yes, you can.
Q. How has your approach towards life, people, and circumstances changed after the experiences you have had?
I have understood the significance of hope. Hope enables reality.
I have created a more meaningful and balanced relationship with faith: it is not about what I want, it’s learning to trust the flow of life.
I have evidence of my belief that people are good.
I have become (more) fearless to be me.
Q. Did you use any formative tools like meditation, etc. to help you sail through the difficult times?
I hold my japa mala (prayer beads) very dear. Just holding it gives me comfort.
Like my father, I start and end my day with Ardas. I have tried to learn Gurumukhi (the script of the Punjabi language) on and off many times to be able to read the Guru Granth Sahib, but I am not well versed in our Sikh scriptures. So instead, I just talk to Waheguru. The prayers I do—Japji Sahib and Ardas—carry me.
Meditation and energy healing have helped me heal myself, fight my demons, and make friends with my weaknesses to build my strength. Acupuncture has helped ease my body. I love food too much to even pretend to try to work on nutrition even though I should! A core group of friends who have stood by me night and day through all of it have given me unconditional support.
The hugs from my children have uplifted me every time. My breathing just eases, and I get tremendous energy from their love.
Q. Any intrinsic habit or quality of yours that you’d like to share that probably made those very tough situations a tad bit easy?
When life itself felt uncertain in the early days of being diagnosed with Stage IV advanced breast cancer with widespread bone metastasis, my unwavering belief that Waheguruji would allow me to and help me raise my children gave me strength. If there was a habit, it was faith.
Q. How would you describe love? And self-love? And also the layering and deepening of it during your strong fight against cancer?
I love the concept of love—of giving love, sharing love, receiving love, of seeing love at play. Love is joy. Love is unconditional. Love is in the shape of the moon. Love is a magnificent tree standing proud through decades. Love is a soft breeze. Love is how you throw your arm out to protect the person sitting next to you when the driver suddenly applies the brakes. Love is in a look. Love is a son dancing with his mother. Love is hands intertwined, as a couple of many years walk slowly together.
It is so much easier to give love to another person than to treat yourself with the same care and respect. Self-love is hard-fought, and it has to be learned. Ultimately, it is inordinately liberating when you accept yourself as who you are rather than who you want to be or think you should be.
In writing Fast Forward to Hope, I squarely focussed my love on people and my faith that sustained me, and gave my appreciation to the science that enabled my well-being. I didn’t really comprehend or accept my own role and effort in this fight to survive till just a few days before the publication of the book.
I had been struggling to create the subtitle for the book, and I had been playing with the iterations of ‘gratitude’ and ‘optimism’ as much as ideas like ‘journey from fear to hope through cancer.’ All the options were in keeping with the themes I had written about in the book. However, none of them felt right. Slowly, after many discussions, I started hearing and accepting that it had something to do with my current level of stabilisation. And the subtitle evolved naturally from there: Choosing to Build the Power of Self.
Q. How would you describe your life now, post getting cancer, having lived with it, even now recovering from it, and all other parallel battles you were dealing with alongside? How do you see or look at challenges now?
I am grateful. I know how fortunate I am. And I remain fallible as I continue to take much for granted.
I remain in treatment for cancer. I get IV treatment every three weeks and am very closely monitored through multiple scans every four months. I recognise the privilege that I have.
I am living the life I wanted as a mother even as I am still trying to figure out how to be a good mother to children who are growing up too fast.
I enjoy my work. I am fortunate to do work that is deeply meaningful for me: advising on building equity and inclusion, strengthening authentic and strategic leadership, advising mission-driven organisations on growth, and building purposeful survivorship and stronger patient care.
I am living my life with purpose—in truth, with gratitude. Certainly, challenges haven’t taken a respite. So I keep walking, one foot at a time, one day at a time, doing my part as best I can, knowing there is much I must do before I can rest.
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