[Sanskrit] This is an ode to the mother goddess, that most of us in India learn when we are children. I learned it when I was four at my mother's knee. That year she introduced me to dance, and thus began my tryst with classical dance. Since then — it's been four decades now — I've trained with the best in the field, performed across the globe, taught young and old alike, created, collaborated, choreographed, and wove a rich tapestry of artistry, achievement and awards. The crowning glory was in 2007, when I received this country's fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, for my contribution to art.
But nothing, nothing prepared me for what I was to hear on the first of July 2008. I heard the word "carcinoma." Yes, breast cancer. As I sat dumbstruck in my doctor's office, I heard other words: "cancer," "stage," "grade." Until then, Cancer was the zodiac sign of my friend, stage was what I performed on, and grades were what I got in school. That day, I realized I had an unwelcome, uninvited, new life partner. As a dancer, I know the nine rasas or the navarasas: anger, valor, disgust, humor and fear. I thought I knew what fear was. That day, I learned what fear was.
Overcome with the enormity of it all and the complete feeling of loss of control, I shed copious tears and asked my dear husband, Jayant. I said, "Is this it? Is this the end of the road? Is this the end of my dance?" And he, the positive soul that he is, said, "No, this is just a hiatus, a hiatus during the treatment, and you'll get back to doing what you do best."
I realized then that I, who thought I had complete control of my life, had control of only three things: My thought, my mind — the images that these thoughts created — and the action that derived from it. So here I was wallowing in a vortex of emotions and depression and what have you, with the enormity of the situation, wanting to go to a place of healing, health and happiness. I wanted to go from where I was to where I wanted to be, for which I needed something. I needed something that would pull me out of all this. So I dried my tears, and I declared to the world at large ... I said, "Cancer's only one page in my life, and I will not allow this page to impact the rest of my life."
I also declared to the world at large that I would ride it out, and I would not allow cancer to ride me. But to go from where I was to where I wanted to be, I needed something. I needed an anchor, an image, a peg to peg this process on, so that I could go from there. And I found that in my dance, my dance, my strength, my energy, my passion, my very life breath. But it wasn't easy. Believe me, it definitely wasn't easy. How do you keep cheer when you go from beautiful to bald in three days? How do you not despair when, with the body ravaged by chemotherapy, climbing a mere flight of stairs was sheer torture, that to someone like me who could dance for three hours? How do you not get overwhelmed by the despair and the misery of it all? All I wanted to do was curl up and weep. But I kept telling myself fear and tears are options I did not have.
So I would drag myself into my dance studio — body, mind and spirit — every day into my dance studio, and learn everything I learned when I was four, all over again, reworked, relearned, regrouped. It was excruciatingly painful, but I did it. Difficult. I focused on my mudras, on the imagery of my dance, on the poetry and the metaphor and the philosophy of the dance itself. And slowly, I moved out of that miserable state of mind.
But I needed something else. I needed something to go that extra mile, and I found it in that metaphor which I had learned from my mother when I was four. The metaphor of Mahishasura Mardhini, of Durga. Durga, the mother goddess, the fearless one, created by the pantheon of Hindu gods. Durga, resplendent, bedecked, beautiful, her 18 arms ready for warfare, as she rode astride her lion into the battlefield to destroy Mahishasur. Durga, the epitome of creative feminine energy, or shakti. Durga, the fearless one. I made that image of Durga and her every attribute, her every nuance, my very own.
Powered by the symbology of a myth and the passion of my training, I brought laser-sharp focus into my dance, laser-sharp focus to such an extent that I danced a few weeks after surgery. I danced through chemo and radiation cycles, much to the dismay of my oncologist. I danced between chemo and radiation cycles and badgered him to fit it to my performing dance schedule. What I had done is I had tuned out of cancer and tuned into my dance. Yes, cancer has just been one page in my life.
My story is a story of overcoming setbacks, obstacles and challenges that life throws at you. My story is the power of thought. My story is the power of choice. It's the power of focus. It's the power of bringing ourselves to the attention of something that so animates you, so moves you, that something even like cancer becomes insignificant. My story is the power of a metaphor. It's the power of an image. Mine was that of Durga, Durga the fearless one. She was also called Simhanandini, the one who rode the lion.
As I ride out, as I ride my own inner strength, my own inner resilience, armed as I am with what medication can provide and continue treatment, as I ride out into the battlefield of cancer, asking my rogue cells to behave, I want to be known not as a cancer survivor, but as a cancer conqueror.
I present to you an excerpt of that work "Simhanandini."