I still recall we had entered our third month in DC and were ecstatic to see the very famous Cherry Blossom Festival. The beautiful tidal basin just few meters away from my house, with the magnifique Potomac river has the most captivating view of the thousands of Cherry Blossom Trees. On March 2020, the cherry blossoms did bloom, but with the curse of COVID. Nature emerged powerful than human beings, the festival was cancelled, and the trees had a peak bloom rather than a continuing one. Despite the restrictions, few people including myself did manage to see the blossoms, beautifully popped up, untouched nature with the white puffed trail was a one of the most cherished experiences I have ever seen. This dichotomous period continued with a sense of crisis and simultaneously tested our inner strength to its ultimate end – we could either give up, be negative or like the cherry blossoms, bloom to its fullest.

Concern from India to Compassion in DC

I am living in DC and we never had to undergo a lock down unlike other countries such as India. My last work assignment in India was with a group of safety professionals in the pharma sector. As essential services they had to continue to work in the plant facing everyday risk. For me, these ground level workers are one of the bravest people as they continue to work, placing their lives at risk, with families and children back home. At that time, the cases in US  were at its peak, and increasing in India too, however two of my friends ensured on regular basis asking me about my whereabouts, “How are you doing Radhika”, “Hope you are staying indoors”, once I shared a photo of mine outside and he immediately stated “where is your mask”. To these Indian friends at work, your everyday concern gave me a sense of care and a sense of belonging at home while being in this new, unknown territory.

Yes, COVID did shatter my entire plans of travel, of exploring new city, people, etc., but it also offered me a period of self-reflection.  For the first time in my life, I am in a shared, mixed gender housing, of housemates comprising from different countries, (Jordan, Armenia) and cultures,  the fellowship is proving to be one of the most unique and thrilling experiences. Most importantly, it has let the OCD fanatic in me, completely out of my own comfort zone, testing my resilience each day.

Compassion and concern coming from the most unexpected people, reinforces my faith in the human among the beings. The every day act of caring for each other being extended by my housemates – “Are you hungry”, “Shall I cook something for you”, “Here is your coffee”, “You are feeling upset so I will bake a cake for you”, “Don’t eat outside I am cooking for you”. This happened in COVID times when people cared for each other over food, we all were virtual working from home and ensured we gave comfort to one another. And remember, we all are working professionals on a professional leadership program, so again you do make friends at work and cherish them for the rest of your life.

Crushing News of Cancer to Continued Courage

In the month of April 2020, I still recall that my very dear friend had organized the Rethink Series and requested that I be one of the key panellists. On the day of the event, I came to know that my dad was diagnosed with an advanced level pancreatic cancer. I could not believe that 2019 was being repeated when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a few minutes ago from entering the virtual event, when I had to deal with this heart breaking news, yet it was my Dad’s spirit of always working, remaining active that gave me strength in completing the event and keeping a promise to my dear friend. The news of Cancer has been devastating for me, I thought we overcome it last year 2019, but the crisis was not over yet, with no repatriation flights, a sort of helplessness emerged which I thought was even worse.

Yet it was my Dad, who continued to impart courage, he told me do not focus on things that are beyond your control, focus on the very purpose for which you were selected on this fellowship. The work that will be meaningful for others, and I ensured that I put his words into practice, this period saw me doing good work, forming collaborations, and doing impact led programs. I also channelized my energy on working on myself which I realised that I had ignored for a long time. We talked every day, about clothes, food and his relentless fight and never giving up attitude.  I was living in a hope probably hoping against hope that things will be better.

Ironically, more than anyone else, I truly realised the power of virtual technology, probably thankful to the virtual medium, as I witnessed my dad’s last moments and taking his last breath. He was a fighter as even in his last days he was ready to go to work. I lost him this July 2020.

The day he died, I was shattered, I cried in my room, but to others I was showing a brave face. My housemate never left me alone and was there, I still feel it was her strong emotional support that gave me immense strength. My other housemates did come to me and said you are taking it very easy, however, I was piling up a series of emotions, turmoil within myself. My other fellows paid a visit to me in the night, I wanted to be surrounded with people that day. I even decided to go to work the next day and during the second half I had an emotional breakdown. I had to take some time off to grieve, and to heal,  my Atlas fellows organized a prayer meet, we had an Armenian Christian, Islamic and Hindu prayer meet, with Armenian food and tea and all my fellow community stood besides me like a family. My fellow from Palestine recited a healing Azan which is one of the best odes to my father.  

Prayer meet an Ode from all Religions: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism
Atlas Fellows : People with Compassion and Resilience

I was always of the belief that crying is a sign of weakness, I never cry in front of people. This is what this period of Crisis – Covid or Cancer taught me that to be compassionate to others, we first need to be self-compassionate. This does not mean to treat oneself with pity but to ensure that since you are going through a trauma, you first need to be kind to yourself. At present, I am using the blog as a journal documenting each experience that I lived during this period of crisis, it is as good as confiding in a friend.

Setting A New Story

I extend gratitude to this new family from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, India, Palestine, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Armenia, Bulgaria, you name it and they are there. I thank each one of them as true social leaders showcasing the strength for standing with and for each other. Also, a deep sense of thanks to those lovely Indian friends who have always been there, my college friend who has been a pillar of support always and has been a party of all my craziness and unreasonable demands. I extend my gratitude to you for just being there for me.  My Algerian friend who always mentored me when I am doing some off beat radical stuff then advices a sense of caution in me of instilling balance.

As for me, I am a firm believer that bold steps are required to stand out when you are at a critical threshold of your life. With this blog, for some my vulnerability is being disclosed, but for me it is my courage that is being revealed. The courage and determination to explore a meaningful goal that moves beyond my professional identity.

I am called the radical Radhika, and therefore, I defy the new normal where everything is virtual. As someone once told me that the story or the narrative needs to be changed, I therefore sign off from all these virtual platforms, to explore the new story that will define me in the coming time.  

Signing off with a gratitude to all those who are with me not virtually but in reality.