By Harsaran Bir Kaur Pandey
A personal account of a man whose life and death enriched and transformed the writer
In some ways I feel that the two key persons in my life, my father, and my husband, were both preparing me to face life after the sudden loss of a loved one. My father, one of the country’s top psychiatrists, was also a deeply religious man. Many of our discussions since my teens, were around the power of God, the issue of free will, and the way to live life.
And then Ishwar Pandey, my husband, came into my life. This six-foot-two-inch ‘gentle giant’ loved people. He could easily empathise with another’s plight, and stop to share their experience. Squatting on the floor of a roadside dhaba, he would talk to the villagers about their lives, sharing a smoke and a chai. But he was equally at home in the first world capitals, raising a toast to life with film-makers and intellectuals in London, Zurich, Paris, or wherever his career as a documentary film-maker took him.
On his sudden death, the renowned scholar, Professor S Mukherjee, said, “Ishwar Chandra Pandey was head and shoulders above the rest of us on the media campus. He was taller and more impressive than any here, but much loftier were the qualities of his head and heart…”
To know Ishwar was to love him. He was my husband, soulmate, and a touchstone for all.
In today’s rushed world, Ishwar, or IC, as he was fondly called, always had time to stop and smell the roses. Sitting under the chikoo tree, he befriended the squirrels and birds whose antics he watched with delight as he sketched or filmed them. He was concerned that rapid urbanisation was robbing them of their habitat.
Ishwar was a raconteur, a katha vachak par excellence. He observed life minutely, and friends would sit late into the night, listening to stories of his adventures. Some stories were hilarious, some touching, but all were endearingly about the human condition.
Ishwar had been on the path of spiritual search since his college days. Born into a traditional Brahmin family, and having lived in Kenya till his college years, he had an independent mind. He was never confined by constraints of formal religion. When he needed divine solace, he would stop at a favourite roadside Hanuman mandir.
At home, we had a common prayer room. Since I come from a Sikh family, I had established the Guru Granth Sahab, and felt the blessings of the Guru’s presence. Each year at Diwali, Ishwar placed a new set of beautifully carved statues of Laxmi and Ganesh. The first Diwali after we got married, I imagined that the ‘pooja’ would be a formal event. The prayer was short but came from the heart. It went something like: “Dear God, we seek your blessings. Hey, man, we have tried to live life doing well. Please help us to be better humans, and to help others, and never hurt anyone.”
Religion was never an issue between us. I visited Bangla Sahab Gurudwara frequently, accompanied by our two sons, Sidharth and Arjun. I urged Ishwar to also take them to a temple so that they would imbibe the best of both religions.
The boys and Ishwar often talked together about life, people, and aspirations. Ishwar taught them the pleasure of working with their hands. He believed that each person we encounter could teach us something, and we must learn from each other. There was always a sense of joy and laughter in the house. In retrospect, both sons have grown to be fine human beings. Untrammelled by any doctrine or prescribed religion, they live by the principles of being good humans – with a healthy regard for all life, and a belief in an Almighty power.
Ishwar had practised a Buddhist form of meditation for many years. His years at the Benaras Hindu University in the late ’60s-early ’70s, coincided with the heady years of ‘flower power’, when hippies flocked to India for instant salvation. Living among the holiest Hindu traditions, while studying Science and Geology, enabled Ishwar to search for nirvana while leading the life of an enlightened scientist.
As media persons, we were once privileged to film some siddhi and meditation sessions at the Rishikesh ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, renowned as the guru of the Beatles in the ’70s. We watched spellbound when, in a room lined with thick mattresses, people, sitting cross-legged, would suddenly rise in the air, and in what can be described as ‘long hops’, would move forward many feet, still in a deep meditation.
What really impressed was the Maharishi’s discourse on TM – Transcendental Meditation. Maharishi taught that the ego held each human being as a separate entity. TM helped to quiet the inner dialogue, and took us deep within ourselves to a point where there was immense peace. The soul connected to the universe, and received an immense power-surge, what he called ‘nature support’. All of nature, thereafter, conspired to support our individual beings. Both Ishwar and I received initiation from the Maharishi, and for many years we continued to meditate.
In the ’80s, before Pranic healing and Reiki became so popular, my friend Hope, Ishwar, and I learnt Pranic healing, and later, Reiki. We all continued using Reiki and Pranic healing on ourselves, and on those who needed it.
Both of us were drawn to a number of books on healing and on the purpose of our lives. Gary Zukov’s The Seat of the Soul said so many things that we had understood intuitively. I understood that while each human is at a different place in their spiritual development in this life, all will get there eventually. Ishwar and I would read aloud interesting parts to each other.
More and more wonderful books just appeared in our lives, like Shakti Gawain’s Living in the Light, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Mitch Album’s Tuesdays with Morrie, Brian Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters, and Deepak Chopra’s many books. They reminded us that this life is but a small journey between one place and another and that each life is for learning specific lessons which our souls had chosen prior to birth.
Death seemed to have lost its sting. I don’t have any particular faith in soothsayers but like most Indians, if I meet someone who claims to read hands, I enthusiastically hold up my hand to have my future told. Two different soothsayers had implied that I would only live till my early 50s. My main concern was that my wonderful husband was so totally unworldly, how would he manage after me? I would remind my sons to look after him when I wasn’t around anymore.
From his earnings from making documentary films, Ishwar happily shared with anyone who needed support – like the time when he replaced his old Peugeot car. Akhtar, who often repaired the Peugeot, is a wonderful, principled man who sought perfection in his work. One day Ishwar decided to ‘give’ the car to Mr Akhtar, as a gesture of gratitude for looking after it so well. There was no question of selling it. Ishwar just handed it over!
The year 2000 was to be momentous in more ways than I could have imagined. As the world stepped into the new millennium, our family took its first proper holiday abroad. Ishwar was uneasy about taking long holidays, because when working on a project he really gave it more than his 100 per cent. He was a perfectionist and clients loved his films. Most were surprised at the high quality that he provided, despite the rather small budgets for documentary and educational films. For this BHU gold-medallist, making films was his love, and giving his best, his duty.
We spent memorable days in Bangkok and in Koh Samui. Ishwar loved the rest, the beaches, the Thai people, and the food – even the shopping. On our return to India, I heard my three men giggling, and making plans to go back to Thailand again in December for another holiday. However, that was not to be.
The government commissioned Ishwar to make a film advocating the use of iodised salt. Ishwar and his crew were driving to Gujarat to meet the Salt Commissioner and to film the process. That morning when I said goodbye, Ishwar appeared preoccupied.
Later, at office, my son, Arjun, called and said, “Mom have you heard about the accident?” My heart stopped. What accident? He told me that Ishwar had met with an accident, and that his brother Mike had been informed, but that he was all right.
My head spun. I held on to the table. My legs did not belong to me. My voice came from a place far away, as I informed my office about the accident. The journey home, to Gurgaon, took about 40 minutes. I planned to leave immediately for Jaipur. Arjun again called to reassure me that Ishwar was stable, and on his way to a trauma centre. I was rapidly contacting my near ones on phone.
I was anxious, but the worst scenario my brain played out was of an injured Ishwar. He was driving a Land Cruiser, and you do not get a sturdier car. Ishwar loved driving, and loved his Land Cruiser. As I drove to the house, both my sons were standing outside. They hugged me and then, to my horror, I realised what they were saying, “Mom, papa is no more”. My bag and papers fell to the ground as we held each other tight. I think I wailed out aloud. All I could say was, “What are you saying? This can’t happen. I was the one slated to go first.”
I actually do not remember what happened in the next hour or so. People started to fill the house, neighbours, my father, and friends. I was in a daze. This was my soulmate, my husband. I wanted to look over my shoulder to see who they were consoling – surely this was not happening to me!
My office thoughtfully sent across my Japanese colleague, AK, to accompany the family to Jaipur and fetch Ishwar. Suddenly, on the way to Jaipur, AK started to cough. He apologized, and said, “Sorry, but this is not a cold, it is Mr Pandey. He is here. I have the ability to see and hear spirits, since I was a child.” We were stunned! What did he see?
AK said he saw Ishwar standing near the accident site looking at his injured body. He was very puzzled and confused, and could not understand that he was dead. AK told us that people who have a sudden end take time to realise that they are dead. A little later AK said that Ishwar knew we were coming, and was waiting impatiently. Throughout the journey as we progressed nearer to Jaipur, AK provided a commentary on the state of Ishwar’s soul. He was impatient, confused, wanting us to get there quickly.
The family waited in Jaipur while my nephew Ashok, and some boys from the studio brought Ishwar’s body from Dudhu, the accident site. The place has a bad reputation as every day, at that very stretch, there were numerous accidents and deaths. We were told the Land Cruiser had been hit head-on by a truck, and Ishwar had received a grievous wound to his head. He had passed away very soon after the impact.
On the return journey, I sat near Ishwar holding him, and saying again and again, “This is not the Ishwar I knew. This is only his body.”
In the next few days, friends, colleagues and relatives, including my sister Sukhbir and brother Inder – enfolded us in a blanket of love – a protection against grief. Mattresses were laid out in the drawing room, and all the family members stayed there, together, night and day. Just the fact of all of us being together, was healing.
One afternoon for a few moments, I went up to our bedroom and lay down. Suddenly, my aloneness hit me, and I was engulfed with fear, loneliness, and a terror for the future. My best friend and support was gone! What on earth was I going to do with my life, and with myself? Sobbing, I came down the steps, and just sat there weeping. All I know is that I wanted to get out of my own skin, so that this would not be happening to me. The only comparison I can make is to childbirth. When the childbirth pain hits you, you want to be somewhere else, or someone else.
I think it was the third or fourth day after the accident. I was still in a daze. I stepped into my little kitchen garden and sat on the wall. It was one of those perfect winter days. The sun shone brightly, and the air was crisp and fresh. I heard the bird song, and the morning sun shone from behind the fruit trees. Each leaf was back lit, and individually etched out. The sun on my skin softly warmed every cell. Suddenly, time stopped. There was a deep silence. My senses seemed to expand, and in that moment every cell in me understood a wonderful glorious truth!
Ishwar was here with me, and he was a part of all that I was experiencing and was touching me, the sun, the warmth, the trees, the breeze, the leaves, the bird song, everything! I was so totally filled with this knowing, that I sat there spellbound for several minutes. At that moment, I knew I would be all right. My Ishwar would never be with me in the shape I knew him. I would never touch him, and I would never have a conversation with him. But he would always be with me because he was now a part of the bigger, wider space. He would always be there.
I came in and said to Sukhbir, “Don’t worry about me. I will be all right.” This was the turning point.
Subconsciously I also took a decision that I was not going to play the victim role. Part of me repeated that if I felt myself to be a victim, then I would indeed be a victim. Therefore, I had to accept the loss but learn to live with it.
My sanctioned year-end leave was upon me, but this year I was terrified of what to do with myself. A friend had told me that the Art of Living course had helped her overcome her grief. Miraculously, there was a course over exactly those days, and I joined it. This helped to carry me over the next 40 days while I faithfully practised Sudarshan Kriya. The pranayama and the pumping in of oxygen filled me with positivity and slowly, I began living something like a real life.
Earlier in 2000, Ishwar had done a Core Empowerment course with Paula Horan, whom he called “Guruviyan” (female guru). This had helped to settle many of his internal demons. A month after the accident, Paula was in Delhi, and spoke at the special memorial event for Ishwar.
After the event all of us went to meet Paula. We were all hurting so badly, and wanted Paula to explain the death, and to help rationalise the pain of not being able to communicate with him. Paula told me that I could always talk to Ishwar and that my quiet mind would hear his response. She said, “Ishwar had completed what he had come to accomplish, and so it was his time to go.” She added, “You know, you are very lucky.”
My head reeled – did she say “lucky”? I had just lost my husband and soul-mate – how lucky was that? Paula said, “Most people live through their entire life, living day after day, almost asleep – thinking that the daily business of life is why they are here. Many go through many lives believing that this is all there. You have had an early wake-up call. So wake up! Think about what this life is about, and live accordingly.”
I think I did wake up with a bang. After Ishwar’s death, I realised that nothing in life is accidental; there is a grand plan to every event in our lives as everything is meant to teach us something. I started to watch each day, each event, and conversation with the question: So what was I supposed to learn from this?
When I looked back after the first year of Ishwar’s passing, I was amazed that I had survived. I realised that I was surrounded by love from so many, as if my Maker had personally carried me gently through that period. Interestingly, I do not recall being bitter about Ishwar’s death. Very sad and very alone sometimes, but as I look back at our lives together, there was a sense of immense gratitude to God for having given me this wonderful man as a friend and a husband. In the 26 years we had been married, we had lived so many rich lifetimes of experience. And the best gift was the love shared by all of us. Today, Ishwar is a reference point for all our lives– his jokes and stories are told and retold with joy and love.
I went on to do two Core Empowerment workshops with Paula. These sessions are geared to help you live in the moment. They have helped me to understand that I am a soul living a bodily experience, and that the ego has a strong hold to define life through itself.
I also found the power of positive goal-making and of moving towards the goal, and the power of goodness and love. I can’t say I live up to these every time, but I certainly try to do so. I see that the search for the spiritual path magnetises the intent and brings people, books, learnings, and experiences across your path – all to help your spiritual journey.
Has Ishwar’s death made me a better person? I think it has. It has certainly given me an insight of experience, enabling me to offer a helping hand to others who have suffered grievous losses.
A Buddhist text I read on life and death says that we must prepare for death every night. Considering that so many people go to sleep at night, and never ever wake up, it is important to be prepared. Therefore, each night before sleeping ask yourself, did I hurt anyone? Was I unkind? If so, recall that episode and ask your Maker’s forgiveness. Also, ask was I able to reach out to someone? Think of the good you did do, of the virtue that you have, and offer the outcome of the good to all humanity, as we are all a part of that humanity.
I certainly have not found all the answers, but I have understood that life is a huge adventure, and that one is obliged to live it fully and with confidence, love, and forgiveness. It is most important that we first learn to love our selves, and hence we need to be able to forgive our own trespasses, and not be too hard on ourselves. We owe it to ourselves not to get stuck in a rut of yesterday’s failings and shortcomings – ours or other peoples’, and to move forward. We need to realise that life is a miracle, and each day is a bonus that has been given to us, and it is up to us to make the most of it!
(Excerpted from Harsaran Pandey’s forthcoming book: Living the adventure called life)
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