“Of course, you overcame. It’s in your genes. We are the ones to overcome challenges and yet never dim our passionate spirits! We are survivors” said my mother, raising her cup of tea in the air.
I just smiled at her; we are in midst of our morning tête-à-tête, and it is here that my mother and I have our most heartfelt and real conversations over our morning chaai. Today, the story was about how during my stint as a grad student, I overcame immense challenges, physical and mental, professional and personal to be exactly where I am.
I often wonder if one’s qualities of resilience or courage are genetic? I don’t know. Psychologists term these traits as ‘learnt’ behaviours; but even then why are some people more courageous than others?
Talking of courage, we visited Nani (my maternal grandmother) in the veteran home the other day. I’ve always been very close to my grandparents, and even though while growing up I couldn’t meet my maternal grandparents as much as I could meet and in fact live with my paternal ones (owing to my father’s transferable job and also my grandparents’ health that led them to move in with us), I share a very special relationship with each of them.
Nani is a fierce feminist, academically brilliant and a loving person. Bespectacled, feisty and always welcoming with a warm smile, my earliest memories with Nani are about chatting away with her and my mother over some chaai and biscuits. Just like how my mother and I do now. A scholar in Sanskrit and Hindi, she has seen great strife and struggle as her family was a refugee from Myanmar back in 40s during the World War II. It is always an experience to listen to her stories from her childhood (she was 6) from the time Japan attacked Burma and the kids (she and her brother, who was a couple of years older to her) along with their parents and paternal grandparents left everything familiar to come to India. You can say they were the non resident Indians of that era.
Younger Nani at her desk, always penning down something meaningful
Like all refugees, nani and her family learnt early and rather harsh lessons in survival tactics - the value of saving money and of course hunger. During the attack by Japanese, Nani’s father was separated from his wife, my great grandmother and his own parents. Later they found out that he passed away in the forest (from where they were making their way to India) due to cholera.
My great grandmother, who my Nani calls Maa, was barely 24 at that time and had little education of her own to be able to survive and take care of her children and her ageing in-laws. But in the face of survival, many women have risen up to the challenge through centuries and did what was needed- get the skills, work and be the breadwinners.
My eyes always well up when nani tells us about her Maa, who was barely 15 when she got married, and had barely any education before coming to India. She completed her school and college education once they were in India, but as refugees they faced crushing hardship. “Maa made sure we were always well fed while growing up. Even though we hardly had any money, we somehow almost magically had access to the food we wanted!” Nani recounts happily.
It’s heartbreaking to hear and read what wars do to individuals and families, but then life belongs to survivors and those who fight back to survive, isn’t it? And Nani is exactly that. The only female graduate and then also Masters graduate in her village, she became a professor in a college in the 50s. Courage is inherited or learnt, we still don’t know.
But I like how the universe has its own beautiful cosmic justice. My grandmother was a refugee, but today I’m in a job that enables refugees to access nutritious food (I work at United Nations World Food Programme).
I draw so much strength from my ancestors, that perhaps even my grandparents don’t know. Whenever I’ve felt low, or worthless, I’ve thought of my great grandmother amongst many other ancestors who’ve overcome so much to triumphantly raise themselves out of economic and social hardship. If they could, why can’t I?
On that note, I think courage is learnt or rather drawn. What do you think?