Two books about smiling through adversity

Two books, written two millennia apart, show how some women have the extraordinary ability to confront hardship with irony and wit

Rahul Jacob

Aisha Chaudhary lived with a double helping of life-threatening disease. She suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency, which impairs two kinds of infection-fighting cells. When Chaudhary was about six months old, a radio station called Sunrise in London launched an early version of crowd funding to make it possible for her to receive a bone marrow transplant at Great Ormond Street Hospital and treatment there. Even so, she was expected to live only a few years. Chaudhary died in January this year of pulmonary fibrosis, aged 18.

In her last couple of years, Chaudhary was wheel-chair bound and hooked up to a machine to help her breathe. She needed an injection every day. When the pain from her lungs became too intense in the months before she died, Chaudhary was administered child-sized doses of morphine. Somehow, in the midst of all of this, she wrote and drew doodles for My Little Epiphanies. One would expect hers to be a depressing book. It is actually uplifting.

The only explanation is that Chaudhary was blessed with an uncanny gift for self-deprecation and humour and possessed an appetite for life straight out of a myth. Her command of simile and metaphor suggests she might have been a novelist if she had lived longer. Consider her wonderful acronym for “DEATH — Drop Everything And Trust Him”. Even the occasional jottings of self-pity — and they are few and far between — are leavened with black humour. “I don’t want to jinx it, but I should be grateful that I haven’t had three life-threatening diseases” made me smile and tear up.  She writes with honesty: “Empathy is the hardest thing to give — when you think you are the one who needs it most.”

There is the same quality of self-awareness and equanimity in the face of the slingshots that fate hurls at us in Therigatha: Poems of the first Buddhist Women. These poems were written by Buddhist nuns in India 2300 years ago, but bizarrely some of them read as if they were written yesterday. (The anthology is one of the five books of the Murty Classical Library published earlier this year). One of the best poems is both a love song to the female body and an acceptance that we all age and lose our looks along the way — and that we can’t do much about it.

The hairs on my head were once curly
Black,like the color of bees,
Now because of old age
They are like jute
It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said,
Nothing different than that…
Once my breasts were beautiful,
Full, round, close together, high,
Now they sag down, like empty waterbags made of leather…
Once my thighs were beautiful,
Like the trunk of an elephant,
Now because of old age,
They are bamboo sticks.
It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said,
Nothing different than that.

These women — senior ones or “theri” — had renounced their families and given up on the life of a householder to seek alms and live as a religious order. Yet, instead of loneliness and deprivation, there is humour and a sense of camaraderie. “The community of women depicted in Therigatha is less a single monastic order governed by a single rule (vinaya) than a collocation of smaller groups of women bound together by shared experiences and relationships of care and intimacy with each other,” Charles Hallisey writes in a luminous introduction to the book. In other words, there is unexpectedly a celebration of companionship and love. This is a quality abundant also in My Little Epiphanies, whose very ink is the unconditional love of a sick child for her family. “I am blessed to have my ears, so I can listen to the sound of my mother’s laughter,” she writes.

In both books, written two millennia apart, there is a worldly irony that is so often missing in Indian writing. One of Chaudhary’s letters in this collection has the urgency and, like so much of her writing, the pithiness of a telegram:

Dear God,
I have some unfinished business here, so if it’s okay with you, I would like to stay as long as I possibly can.
Thank you.

The entry below that reads, “When it feels like you have lost all hope, remind yourself that in time, it always has a way of being found. That is what hope is after all.” Redundantly, I underline: this was written by a very wise teenager.

Here is a stanza, meanwhile, from a poem by one of the nuns that damns the ritualistic washing away of our sins in holy rivers.

Who told you that,
Like a know-nothing speaking to a know-nothing,
That one is freed from the fruits of an evil act
By washing off in water?
Is it that frogs and turtles,
Will all go to heaven,
And so will water monitors and crocodiles,
And anything that lives in water

There are also more conventional denunciations of the emptiness of lust, but here too, the direct use of language leaves one in awe.

Reading (and rereading) the books side by side made me feel that they could profitably add to the debate about whether women are capable of enduring more pain than men. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but Therigatha and My Little Epiphanies make you certain that some women have an otherworldly ability to smile even when the world is crashing down on them. Chaudhary had outsized ambition — among them to write and paint; her book was placed in her hands the day before she died — that soared beyond the constraints that fate imposed upon her. Most of her book is the counting of blessings of the richness of life, a meditation on sunrise, rather than on darkness. “I will do a cartwheel one day,” wrote this astonishing young woman, cheerfully overlooking her wheelchair and the machine to help her breathe, “and on that day I can say, ‘I’ve made it.’”

For talks by Aisha Chaudhary, see and

Poems of the first Buddhist women

Author: Charles Hallisey
(translator) & Sheldon Pollock (general editor)
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 290
Price: Rs 295

Author: Aisha Chaudhary
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Pages: 84
Price: Rs 250

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First Published: May 09 2015 | 12:28 AM IST

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