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Twenty-nine years with NI

Mari Marcel Thekaekara
Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

I couldn’t have imagined that I’d be writing my first blog of the year on the last day of January 2018.

The new year arrived and the day passed in a blur because I ended up in Bangalore having a bypass surgery on New Year’s day to sort out a major block in my heart. Something else you never really imagine will actually happen to you.

This blog is more personal than the ones I normally write. Because while I was waiting to be wheeled into the operating theatre, myriad thoughts raced through my mind. My very caring, loving family who dropped everything to be with me on that day. The friends who rallied around to support us. The network of doctor friends who advised and stayed close constantly, monitoring my progress, despite the fact that I am a terrible diabetic who never listened to sound advice.

We were overwhelmed by the emails and phone calls, mostly still unanswered, because I was warned to stay away from my laptop. I also had a flashback of all the things I was glad I’d managed to do. And regret about unfinished tasks.

Not many people who’ve been part of my life working with Adivasis in south India, know that I spent eight years as a flight attendant. Unless you were born filthy rich, there was little scope for a 21-year-old in 1975 to fly around the world. A visitor talked about her glamorous ‘air hostess’ daughter and suggested I try for the job. ‘Over my dead body’, snorted my father.

Sadly, his death barely a month later, was what made me take the very unlikely plunge. Quite simply, I needed a job. But I have no regrets whatsoever. My international Catholic student and womens’ network ensured that I met extraordinary people during this time, in places as far flung as Moscow, Cairo, Accra, Nairobi, Brazil, Hong Kong, Rome, West Virginia and Greenwich Village. I also did bits of writing throughout my flying career.

Clearing dirty dinner trays was a small price to pay for that time.

Then came marriage. My husband Stan and I met at a student camp where we were challenged – some would say brainwashed – into pledging to use our education as the 1 per cent of Indian kids who made it to university, to work for the 99 per cent who dropped out. ‘You rode on their backs!’ the statistics thundered accusingly. And so we moved to the Nilgiris to work with the adivasis.

It was a radically different experience from my middle class childhood and youth. One which changed me totally, brought me back to earth with a thud. I saw malnutrition and maternal mortality for the first time. Up close and very personally.

Loads of guilt of course, with Air India’s caviar and champagne menus and five star hotel rooms receding to the back of my mind. Yet a part of me was glad I’d been there, done that. It was behind me. I entered the new life with no regrets. With a definite, conscious choice.

It was not easy for a totally urban woman to live in the back of beyond, without running water and erratic electricity. There were some frustrating days. Then I walked into the offices of The Hindu newspaper in Chennai. N.Ram, the brilliant, eccentric editor of Frontline barely glanced at me. But he scanned my story quickly, called his editor and said ‘Good story here. We can use it.’

I was stunned. So in January 1989 I re-entered the world of serious journalism once again. The New Internationalist was my second major milestone, journalistically speaking. I’d shot off a long winded, angry, stream of consciousness piece about development which long-time editor Chris Brazier decided was exactly what he wanted. And then he asked me if I’d like to try out for a column. So from remote Gudalur I was writing for the New Internationalist, Oxford.

My readers have been an important part of my life. It’s lovely to meet people who say, ‘I read you’, or ‘I enjoyed that piece’. So thank-you all.

Later, I got a break with the Guardian. And recently, when I was really fed up with editors who don’t even bother to send you a rejection, I’ve been writing for The Wire, probably the gutsiest Indian paper currently, speaking truth to power, at pretty great risk. As they wheeled me in to the hospital, I thought: I certainly have been lucky.

I also thought, I need to survive. Some unfinished business still. I need to complete my half written novel. And I must be there to hold my about to arrive new grandchild.

Miles to go apparently, before I sleep.

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