By Reena Dutta Gupta
From the depths of anguish and extreme negativity, the protagonist of I Am Radha climbs onto the crest of life in all its joyous splendour as she defeats her terminal disease with the power of love. Its author, Reeta Dutta Gupta
Imagine a situation when you are faced with a life-threatening illness. What are you most likely to do? Delve into chronic depression and lose the zest for living? But when author Reeta Dutta Gupta heard she had cancer, she took up her pen and let it flow, while still in bed.
No, she wasn’t writing her personal diary pouring out her miseries or an autobiographical account of her illness. She wrote an inspiring novel I Am Radha, in which the protagonist Nishta, a patient of breast cancer, overcomes the anguish related to the disease with the healing power of love.
Says Reeta: “On the onset of my illness I had a realisation that love was the most significant experience of one’s life. I’m not referring to romantic love, which is exciting but may be short-lived. My novel focuses on the greater love that makes you appreciate the whole of creation. I was listening to a tape of Osho which said you’re love and I believe that this feeling of love helps one to attain peace.”
Nishta of the novel gets a breast severed, loses hair to chemotherapy and separates from her husband during the illness. But her sufferings finally make her stronger and she rediscovers a new meaning in love and life. Reeta confesses that previously even an earache or backache would awaken fear that she would never recover from it.
Interestingly, when she had cancer, she overcame the fear of death. She took up meditation and adopted a healthier lifestyle, cleansing herself of negative emotions in the process.
“During my illness my whole vision of life changed. The beauties of this earth enchanted me like never before. Before a tourist leaves a lovely holiday destination, she takes a last look at it, trying to absorb its awesome beauty. I felt like a traveller to this world whose purpose was to appreciate life and God’s creation.”
Unlike in the novel, Reeta was lucky to have a supportive family. And though she was unable to contact any cancer support group like the one mentioned in her novel, her sister did take her to a professional counsellor.
At a time when the incidence of cancer is on the increase worldwide, her book is very informative on how it may be prevented, controlled and cured. She specially focuses on psycho-neuroimmunology, how the mind and body are connected and that cultivating a happy state of mind helps to alleviate physical illness.
The book should be able to infuse hope in patients with life-threatening diseases and make them understand that their illness is not necessarily a death sentence. As her book reveals, many people have lived many enjoyable years after having been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
On a broader perspective I Am Radha should attract readers in general and not only the ailing, as it provides interesting reading with a deep spiritual insight. The epilogue beautifully sums up the theme of the novel that whether one is ill or healthy, one should be ready to accept death, whenever it comes, without losing the joy of living.
The truth that lies deep in us can be terrifying. But we know that truth only when slowly we learn to look within and see ourselves naked, stripped of the frills and trappings of learned behaviour that we normally hide behind. It is then that we can confront our true essence-often violent, self-destructive, self-tormented and afflicted. But all too often we choose to see ourselves only as we want to, either as flawless or helpless, or as wronged victims.
We are afraid of facing ourselves. And so we run from it, for as long as we can-until it bursts upon us, taking us unaware as it did me, when cancer threatened to take my life away.
My truth was that I had ceased to love life, or to seek joy. Instead, I had stashed away so much anger and, such deep, shattering grief in my cells that I had become malignant within. I can hardly describe the degree and nature of the corrosive violence that I allowed to accumulate within me, not knowing that someday my body would have to pay the price… you see, furious sorrow must manifest somehow, somewhere, in some dark, deadly form.
Like Hamlet, I had hoped that this flesh of mine would melt; my life would be dissolved, and in eternal sleep I had wished to rest. Like Sita, in a fit of rage, I had desired not to be and had hoped that the earth would swallow me up as it had swallowed her when Rama’s distrust broke her heart.
Finally, Asha Pillai spoke. She had such a warm and charming smile that I couldn’t help liking her. “We are from Positive Existence, a cancer support group. We visit cancer wards and talk to patients, especially the women and children.”
I pointed to my bedside chair.
“Mrs. Das, now that you’ve had your surgery, we’re here to wish you a speedy recovery,” she started, somewhat formally.
“Thank you,” I answered.
“I’m sure you want to get well soon and recover completely,” said Asha.
“Yes, of course.” I said, though I felt ill at ease with this conversation. What was she getting at?
“How long do you want to live?” asked Asha enigmatically. And I wondered what kind of question that was.
“How long…Why do you ask?” I responded.
“Well, tell me,” Asha persisted.
“A decade, or more if I’m lucky.” I replied hesitatingly. “I don’t know.”
“That’s all? Surely you’ll still be too young to die!” she said. “You don’t seem to have a very strong will to live! I’d like to hear you say that you want to live to be a hundred!”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Now that I have cancer, who can say what will happen tomorrow?” I said, hoping to put the matter at rest.
But Asha was tenacious. “Don’t you want to put the cancer behind you? Don’t you want to fight for your life?”
I looked into Asha’s eyes, luminous and warm. What was she trying to tell me?
“Is it really in my hands?” I retorted.
“Do you know that if you are determined to live, you can fight a disease that threatens to take your life? Many people have fought their cancers even when they had been told that they had only a few months to live. We don’t always realise how much is in our hands.” Asha reiterated. “We believe that it is possible to fight cancer. One must fight for life with the power of one’s mind. It’s far better to fight than to whimper and succumb. This is the philosophy that we take from patient to patient and from ward to ward.”
“How can I fight the illness?” I asked, my eyes lighting up with new hope.
“First of all you have to make up your mind to live a longer and healthier life, and then, once you have understood the nature of the disease, you need to think of all the possible things that might have contributed to your illness, so that you can change your lifestyle and your attitude in a way that is conducive to speedy recovery and good health. Cancer has a lot to do with lifestyles and mental conditions. At least that’s what the research says. Remember that while there is no dearth of external factors for malignancy-genes, hormones, carcinogens-unhealthy lifestyles and the mind can also be responsible.” I burst out laughing: “You mean, that just by wanting to live a longer and healthier life, I could end up doing that?”
“Well, yes, perhaps,” Asha said, her eyes emphasising her words. “One must at least try. Have you heard of psycho-neuroimmunology? It studies the connection between the mind, the nervous and endocrine systems and the immune system.
“In simple terms it suggests that our emotions and thoughts generate charges that travel through our nerves to the immune system. As I understand it, there are actual physical contact points between our minds and our bodies.
“Our thoughts and emotions influence the production of hormones and affect the immune system. Depression and stress are known to alter normal body chemistry and bring about negative biochemical changes, just as positive emotions like love have a positive effect on body chemistry.
“It’s really quite simple: a positive mental attitude enhances biochemistry, while stress and negative emotions weaken the immune system. As someone has said, ‘Negative emotion is toxin; positive emotion, tonic.’ And to get well you must want to be well. And believe me, this is not just an abstract philosophy.”
I looked at Asha with increasing interest as she carried on: “It’s part of our survival instinct to want to be healthy, and remain healthy. But everyday, the body faces innumerable challenges like our constant exposure to various agents of illness.”
“Are you saying that medical intervention is not essential?” I interrupted, trying to get her into an argument. “Be positive! Be happy, and you are cured!”
“Goodness, I’m not suggesting at all that medical intervention is unnecessary,” Asha added emphatically, but with a gentleness in her voice that was soothing, seductive. “A sage once said, ‘Peace and stillness are the great remedy for disease.’ When we can stash peace in our cells, we are healed.”
Asha smiled, and paused, as her purple dupatta slipped from her shoulder and fell upon my bed. Gathering it lightly, she said: “What I’m saying is that every patient needs to understand that the mind affects body tissues. This is not something that I, Asha, am saying but what medical research is pointing to. Cases of patients with a crippling, irreversible illness overcoming their condition with sheer will power have been recorded. Some of them have even used laughter as a technique for reducing physical pain.
Norman Cousins in his book, Anatomy of an Illness, has documented this. And believe me cancer is not a death sentence any longer. Learning to find peace in the midst of chaos heals the spirit and when the spirit is healed, one can expect good health,” Asha paused reflectively. Then, looking at me excitedly, she said: “Haven’t you noticed how emotional trauma, anxiety, or fear can trigger off a stomachache? Or how sometimes for no reason, you can experience severe pain in some part of your body, which of its own accord also subsides? Often, such pain results from emotional trauma, stress…”
“Think about the way your body feels when you are in love. It opens out and one feels as if one has expanded, become vast! The reverse is equally true. Negative feelings send negative messages to the body so that if you are feeling very helpless, very tired of life, the body can respond by simply beginning to give up…”
My throat began to feel choked.
“You need first to love yourself,” Asha Pillai said earnestly. And with a laugh, she said, “I adore myself. If you learn to love yourself, you will begin to care about your health. You’ll care about your mind and your body. You’ll eat nutritious food, exercise regularly and you’ll do all the things necessary to make yourself happy and content, no matter what your circumstances may be. You’ll try to establish peace in the depths of your mind. Sometimes, people who develop a life-threatening illness have lived with a sense of emptiness, of being unloved or neglected for years and done little to overcome these feelings. Now instead of depending on others to care for you, take responsibility for yourself.”
I was startled, but I said nothing. For the first time I was gaining an insight into the mind and body connection.
No one can weep forever. Nor can tears flow endlessly. How long can one groan and moan? And what do we do with the bruises and the disappointments of life, except to allow them to heal? Both suffering and joy are like the seasons of life that come and go. Every dark night is followed by a magnificent dawn.
And so I wished that my misery would end and the wound in my heart stop to smart. I prayed that my thoughts of Madhav would cease to torture me; that the pain, which had pierced my heart like a sharp thorn, would be removed by my longing to heal. I prayed for help: “Liberate me, liberate me. Set me free from grief and sorrow forever.” One hundred times, I said: “Liberate me from the afflictions that torture my soul.”
And then I confronted the pain of my loss, and was ready to part with it. And as I had wished, the past now went eons away. At last I was set free and I rejoiced at my liberation. I wept for myself one last time. Then, I wiped my tears. And as I had willed it, the dark night of my life came to an end.
Never again did I mourn the fact that Madhav had ceased to love me. And I him. In the empty space within my heart I welcomed peace. I felt as though holy peace now suffused each of the seventy-five trillion or so cells that make up the human body. And for days I thought of nothing, but of being drenched in the merciful rain of peace and love. As sorrow fled, my mind became silent, still.
And so it was during my illness when I was face to face with death, that I began to marvel at matter, my body, which was a manifestation just like the stars and the trees and flowers and the wafting clouds. As I embarked upon a journey deep, deep into the inner core of my being to seek the strength and the wisdom I required in order to accept the truth and to surrender to the will of the Universe, I learnt to rejoice in all existence, all matter that was life.
Never before had I thanked Providence for the gift that was my body. Never before had I held sacred my body-all matter-till death came knocking on my door. What an error. But, as I watched the pained faces of patients in hospital corridors, their sad eyes filled with a longing for life, I became acutely aware of the sanctity of body and mind and life.
The morning when I returned home from hospital with a part of me severed, and sat upon my bed alone in my room, I looked into the mirror on my dresser, and exclaimed: “My body is divine. Matter is divine.” And for the first time in my life, I thanked my body and touched and felt it with a new awareness.
For the first time, in the privacy of my room, I hugged myself and invoked happiness, joy and peace to fill up my cells. For the first time, I let my hands caress my body, touch and feel my legs and feet, my arms, my face and my abdomen.
I felt my spine and I marvelled at it too-my spine that supported me and enabled me to stand erect. How many millions of evolutionary years had life taken to give us an erect spine. I stood up before my mirror, stripped off my clothes and observed the stark naked beauty of the feminine form. How lovely was the human body. What a marvellous piece of sculpture. How graceful and supple were the arms.
And as I let myself into my own body, I found myself in communion with every tiny cell to which I paid respect knowing that each of these had the power to heal or to go awry.
“Treat an illness by making conscious, positive mental suggestions to the body which counteract the obscure, secret suggestions of illness in the veiled, unconscious part of the mind,” so counselled a wise sage.
And so, I made affirmations to my body saying that I willed it to live and be happy and healthy. That I wished to live for myself and for all those who were dear to me and I to them. I visualised that I was full of health and day-by-day I became stronger and stronger.
With my mind, I touched and soothed and blessed every aspect of my being and requested the cells of my body to rejoice, to celebrate existence, and to vibrate with love and light.
And slowly, as days passed, I learnt to live in constant touch with every part of my being, with my thoughts and emotions, with my inner self. I watched within my body the constant rising and passing away of thoughts, sensations and emotions.
The pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral all arose this moment, and then were gone. The pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral became alike to me, and with that a supreme equanimity descended into my soul. Every atom of my body became filled with peace and self-awareness.
Whoever said the mind alone was supreme? That matter was secondary? That substance was subordinate to the idea? What a fallacy that was! Matter too was supreme-all matter that has manifested on the earth in manifold forms-the wondrous hordes of flying, swimming, crawling and walking creatures, the countless shrubs and tress, mosses and grass, ferns and flowers and the human form. Matter is as divine as the spirit. It was matter that held our thoughts, our love and our spirit.
The mind and matter were not separate. The mind is all over the body. Mind and matter functioned with the same dynamism. They came from the same source and were two sides of one coin. The body was the temple in which the spirit dwelt. In the universe nothing is subordinate. Everything together plays a symphony. It is only our thoughts and acts that can be vile or base-our negativity that is subordinate to that which is the ideal.
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