My affinity for the state of Kerala began in 2016. The admiration that began then has since blossomed into a full-fledged love affair. The last five years have healed me in a way I didn’t think it was possible and after many struggles, to be in a place where I feel both safe and content — I couldn’t ask for more. Let’s take a step back. It has been eight glorious years since I came to India thinking my life was going to end before even landing from the United States. I ended up getting the gift of a second life after cancer, and my time has been spent seemingly all over this great country from the largest of cities like Mumbai and Delhi to the most remote rural of areas in Gujarat and Karnataka. So how and why did I end up choosing Kerala then, a state I’d never visited till I moved there, knew very little about, I couldn’t speak the language and more than anything else, had literally no ties to it at all? It’s actually a very simple answer. Just like I had educated myself about my medical journey and the ins and outs of every decision regarding my cancer treatment, finding the right place for me to now “live” was paramount to my health.
Over the course of my healing journey, I’ve developed a routine, a way of life that suits me and my needs. I enforce it with discipline as I know the importance of being in control of my health. While it isn’t always fail-safe and doesn’t guarantee me complete smooth sailing, it has helped me achieve a level of preparedness and confidence that my body can combat any unforeseen issue, medical or otherwise, without letting the fear or frustration hinder my being. In many ways, I’ve created a wellness bunker for myself, and I just needed the right place to offer me the right environment to nourish that lifestyle. For me, upon coming to Kerala, there were instantly some connect-the-dots realisations that perfectly combined the many elements I enjoyed while living in so many other locations across India, but without the other concerns that were often derailing my health. From the marked improvement in the air quality and a significant drop in the noise pollution to superior medical care and its cost/value ratio actually being affordable — I was literally able to exhale.
I’ll be honest, I was never very well versed with Kerala politics. I knew there was a Marxist tint to the state, but I didn’t really understand how that played into the way of life. I was shocked by the sheer number of friends and well-wishers who flat out warned me about moving to Kerala. I didn’t understand why they were painting such a cynical and critical picture about this state only. On one side they agreed to the state’s slogan “God’s Own Country”, but then they’d add “watch your back and your cows too”. Sure, the state’s 97 per cent non-vegetarian rate concerned me, being a lifelong vegetarian, in terms of availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, but was my life or my cow’s life at risk simply by moving to Kerala? I brushed off most of these comments and instead, focused on the right place for me in Kerala. I knew I wanted to live by the beach. The sea has always been an important part of my life but more so after the loss of both my parents. It might sound strange, but having spread both my parent’s ashes in the ocean, I felt like being at the sea wasn’t just calming because it’s the sea but also because it connected me to them. Having amazing daily sunsets on the sea being on the western coast of the country was an addictive bonus. I now wonder how I ever lived without them in the first place.
I saw between my father’s death at a specialty hospital that was so ill-prepared that they didn’t even have a morgue to store his deceased body and my quick decision to take my mother to the larger, slightly farther away hospital upon her brain tumor diagnosis — it literally saved her eyesight and probably bought us one added year to her life. When I decided I needed to find a more permanent home in India, I wanted to make sure I was nearby to not just any hospital but care where I’d be comfortable no matter what complication arose in my health. Kerala, specifically Kochi, offered me that. Not only does the state have a robust primary health network, it is also dotted with world class medical facilities and hospitals, with the best of personnel manning them. I know this because I have seen the best of the US hospitals over the years. Beyond this, I also rely heavily on access to high quality produce and given my very specific #foodismedicine diet — I needed to be able to eat what I know keeps me alive and healthy. Upon discovering how much of what I used as core ingredients were readily available to me, I was elated. Having access directly to farms and gardens where I could get fresh spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits, it gave me a sense of solace, not having to run around to countless places trying to simply source my basics.
Of course, given that the majority of my work and my loved ones were spread across the country and the world, I wanted to be within an hour’s distance to an international airport that allowed me to literally pick up and go if need be. Additionally, it would make it far easier for others to reach me too. With the reality of me being alone, I wanted to make sure if I ever did say I needed help, I would be as little an imposition and frankly, I know I could get help much faster. With my medical, food and travel concerns sorted, I was blessed to find an island off the coast of Kochi city that has now ended up becoming my home. It’s not fancy, it’s not overthe-top, it’s humble. It’s a fisherman’s village and I love the fact that every day for a few hours, the view from my house gets obstructed by hanging sarees and lungis of the locals. While my communication with the community is mostly cordial given that I don’t speak Malayalam and they don’t speak English or Hindi, there is mutual respect. There’s no cost to smile, laugh, play with kids, barter fruits and veggies with one another. In many ways, the simple life I wanted with the luxuries I needed came together, to create the right world for me.
But then no survivor has an easy road. After completing my tour for my memoir Holy Cancer, there was a perception that I was not only cured, but also that I returned “back to normal”. Having done the amount of treatments, therapies and lived past every data point that exists, I’ve had a complicated ride. Despite such an effort to stay healthy, if I got sick, it was worse than others and I took longer to recover. The word “immunocompromised” became my way of life. While protected in my island surroundings, I was already used to hand sanitisers and protective masks and gloves when going out. But given my issues, my essentials at home included steamers and nebulisers. In many ways, to stay safe and sane, I became obssessive about my lifestyle, and unapologetic about my quirks. Still, no matter how prepared you are, you need a community. There were a few occasions where I suffered different health setbacks. I’d simply open the door and gesture out and within 30 seconds, I had the local fishermen helping me to get to the hospital. They treated me like their own, they had my back. While the first time it felt like good luck, over the years now it’s become much more like a protective family.
We had to care for one another. We had to come together for tsunami warnings as well as power cuts where we’d lose electricity for days as a result. Be it demonetisation or a domestic dispute, people got involved and even I started to contribute however I could, even managing to convince a fisherman from not killing himself because of financial troubles. Having said that, I was fortunate to experience this way of life before in Karnataka. But while the village there felt safe, it was quite remote. I didn’t feel any connection to any city, to any part of my first life and yes, to any social responsibility beyond that community. What has amazed me in all this time now that I’ve lived in Kerala is that despite the fact that I’m in far more remote area of the city, or even the state, you are always connected. We have access to everything the city man would have be, it sanitation, electricity and high speed Wi-Fi connectivity. There is easy access to and from the city and people in general do value their surroundings a little more, it’s not just trash piling up everywhere.
In most cases, I hear and can now see this is the work of the state government. Certain measures have been put in place to ensure that Keralites have an elevated basic quality of life that often is lacking in other parts of India. To their credit, Kerala does have the highest literacy rate in India. It feels like almost every Keralite has at least one family member working overseas. As a result of this, there feels like an increased exposure to different ways of life. The multitude of religions also feels far more “American” as despite differences and clashes in the past, people do sit harmoniously with one another (for the most part) and do not let it define them politically.
One of the most comforting things about living here has been the transparency with which things are done. Keralites know what is there, what is not there, and they will strike (albeit way too much) until justice is not served, but at least discussed. It always surprises me when I have educated friends across the country ask me this question after they read something in a newspaper or see something on the television — as though having access to what’s going in Kerala is a bad thing. Yes, there were devastating floods, virus attacks and religious unrest, but wasn’t that also happening elsewhere? And why aren’t any stories about the unity of the people, their compliance of the government, their trust in the authorities? Why is none of this also on your news? I probably wouldn’t have been this passionate about this had I not just been here over the last 30 days, witnessing what I believe to be the first and the best response the country and an individual state has had to the pandemic affecting the entire world right now — the coronavirus.
Each day, I get messages asking how I’m doing. Part of it is because friends are concerned about my health. But the other part is this unending, non-stop, miscalculated judgment that exists about Kerala and the fact that because the state and its government have opted to share all of their data both to the central government as well as to international organisations leading the charge on the efforts, the assumption is that the state is the most affected, most vulnerable and worst place to live. The truth couldn’t be farther from this. I had gone to Hyderabad for a few days in February and already upon landing at the Kochi domestic airport, they were checking my temperature before coming home. The next day, I visited my local grocery store, where already the supermarket had taken the precautions and one employee wearing a mask was personally sanitising each cart before letting us go in. Hand sanitiser, soap, toilet paper, all were available. There was no chaos, no fear, people were using their own judgment and practicing social distancing before it really became a verb.
Medics would come by to check our temperature. Foreigners that remained were escorted with their own police escort to the next place they were visiting. In a fortnight, the state had managed to keep over a lakh and half people under observation, in their own homes, their movements and interactions traced, food available if they couldn’t prepare for themselves. Observing the actions of the stare, my community got involved too, setting up “Break The Chain” sanitiser stations every 200 meters along the beach to keep everyone safe and feeling secure. Today, if I need to get groceries or medicine, I go online, submit an application and the police get back to me if my trip is approved. I still have access to fresh fruits, vegetables (though a little compromised because Kerala relies a bit too heavily on this from neighbouring states) and whatever else I might need. If the single-digit numbers of new infections over the last fortnight or so does hold for more time, then Kerala has a high chance of becoming the first state in the country to flatten the infection curve. And there is a reason for this beyond the ones I have talked about above. More than the state’s efficient healthcare system, it is about the pace at which the government has responded over the last three months. Having successful beaten the Nipah virus threat three years ago by timely action, the government this time activated its COVID control centre very early, when the news of the mass pandemic first started coming out of China in late January.
Since the first infected patient was identified on January 30, it has been putting out a transparent daily news bulletin listing the number of tests done, number of people infected, number of tests done, and number of people under observation. It also mastered the art of contact tracing much like no other state did. If you go back and read the first daily bulletin the state put out on January 31, the day after the discovery of the first infection, you will see that they had nearly 1,500 people under observation even on that day. That number now runs into lakhs, as everyone that an infected person had been in physically touch with or was near, is systematically identified and brought under the active surveillance radar. And it is not just that, the state’s forward planning in case of community transmission has been of the kind that gives people like me the confidence of being safe.
I just read an interview with the state’s health minister where she talked about the government having 1.2 lakh hospital beds ready along with more than 5,000 ICU beds in preparation of the looming threat. Besides, hundreds of hostels and hotels across the state have also been requisitioned for emergency. It is also about the attitude. There is going to be some inherent fear (it’s a global pandemic) but there is also an eyes-wide-open trust. It’s not blind trust, relying on the rhetoric of the leaders, it’s based on data, reporting, and the visual cues every person can see. And while the disease still hasn’t manifested its most ugly self yet, I’m comfortable knowing that the state openly shares what are the next 10 steps planned by them. There is a creativity, an ingenuity and a willingness to take proactive steps to keep me safe, keep me fed, keep me economically okay and most importantly, keep me alive…no matter what.
I often talk about the ‘what if’s’ in life and for me, I think the greatest gift Kerala has given me is the way it’s stepped up for its residents the same way I did for my own health and wellness. Saying that you are setting up makeshift kitchens to feed everyone or that the numbers may reach lakhs and lakhs are not as hard to digest when you know contingency plans are in place. I’ve worked with thousands of patients over the years, and when I talking to many recently diagnosed cancer patients, I ask them a question — “are you okay to accept that this path may not work?” Many would balk upon hearing, thinking that I’m being negative or believe that they would not recover. I would then go on to explain that you need to believe that you’ll be better, but never exchange hope for delusion. The reality must always match up to the situation in front. As a result, do whatever you opt to do with faith, passion and determination, but don’t let that stop you from having other plans in place in case it doesn’t work. Wouldn’t it be far more peaceful and calming to know that no matter what, you are in control of what happens?
For me, Kerala has done this. From floods to viruses, the state has had my back. By doing their duty, I don’t have to think about the many additional ‘what ifs’ my mind immediately goes to as someone who’s been through his own share of drama. So the next time anyone wishes to ask me how I am and that they saw it’s bad here in Kerala, do know and understand that even when I’m bad here, I’m still good, and even when the state’s condition is bad, it’s still good. If I ever had a doubt, this virus has shown me why indeed I was meant to move to Kerala and make this my home, no matter what.