I was told that she didn’t mince her words, that what you saw was what you got. I was told that she was straightforward and honest, sometimes brutally so. I like people who wear no masks. I was looking forward to meeting her. As the editor of a women’s magazine then, there had been some interaction with her through one of my colleagues. We had also featured interviews of two women, who credited her with saving their lives and who were deeply grateful to her. One had battled severe diabetes and the other was a breast cancer survivor. Both had given up hope, and so had their doctors, when they decided to consult her. Under her guidance, not only had they survived but they were also glowing with good health.
So, when I was diagnosed with GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disorder) brought on by a diet of junk food and late nights while attending a demanding theatre workshop, a friend advised me to consult Dr Vijaya Venkat. It all started with a severe throat-ache, which a local ENT surgeon diagnosed as a throat infection and prescribed antibiotics. The three-day course only worsened my condition and I was sicker than I had ever been before. I took a second opinion and was diagnosed with GERD. Now, there were other medicines to take and antacids to dunk into my system. These left a thick coating on my tongue and made me queasy. It was as if my whole system was on fire. I was a dishrag. I had no appetite for food or work. Just lifting my head from my pillow required such effort that I thought I had contracted something incurable. I approached Dr Venkat with great hope in my heart. Many were the people I knew who had turned to her in despair and returned with a life-giving blueprint in hand.
When I met her at The Health Awareness Centre (THAC) at Elphinstone Road, in Mumbai, she was sitting on a low cane stool, a diminutive figure, her fingers interlaced. The large bindi on her forehead and the stunning coral necklace with a striking Devi pendant that she wore with panache caught my eye. She beckoned me to sit, her printed silk sari making a swishing sound as her hands moved. Before I could open my mouth, she said, “Go off wheat and wheat products. All the redness on your face will go away.” I had been brought up on a diet of roti-sabzi. Bread, sooji and other derivatives of wheat were regular fare on our dining table. Wheat was staple. How could I give it up? As for my skin, I had attributed the redness to sensitivity and a tendency to break out. Not even remotely had I associated it with the wheat in my diet. I nodded meekly. As we went through my history, she paused and looked me directly in the eye. “You are an editor, aren’t you?” I nodded, not knowing what I had done wrong. “You should be more responsible. You drink three litres of water every day? Whatever for? Are you a bathroom? Are you a labourer working on the road in the hot sun? You work in air-conditioned environments. Why are you overloading your kidneys?” she chided, as a mother would her errant child. I could see the anguish in her eyes about what she perceived as unthinkable. ‘How could people do this to their bodies?’
I thought of all the articles I had read and even edited, where some expert or the other had recommended drinking 2-4 litres of water every day. I thought of all the times when I drank water even when I wasn’t thirsty just to complete the recommended quota, and moved around uncomfortably with a full bladder, often thinking that at this rate I would probably have to carry a portable toilet with me. One size didn’t fit all. How could I not have seen that? How could we subject our bodies to these excesses so blindly? I cringed, and listened intently. Dr Venkat was imparting new life lessons and I was an eager learner. Every word she said made so much sense. By the time my session with her ended, I was ready to “throw the antacids out of the window” and with it all the tinned and canned food in my larder. I was all set to review and renew my life–my food habits, my rest periods, my time out, my sleep patterns, my interaction with my loved ones, my exercise routine, my relationship with nature, the way I looked at my body, and the way I breathed.
Innocuous-looking lemon shots doused the acid in my body, like no antacid had done. With her recommended life changes, I was back on my feet in days. “Listen to your body. Pay attention to its signals,” she said, emphasising time and again not to undermine the body’s intelligence to heal itself and to rely on nature to provide us with whatever we need. “Eat local, eat seasonal,” she insisted, opening my eyes to nature’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. “Nature never looks back,” she pointed out, reminding me that when we cling to the past, we stagnate, not allowing the forces of nature to take us forward. She was refreshingly different from the dietitians and weight management consultants I had met. She was a woman with a vision. She believed that self-care was earth care. She wouldn’t tire of stressing upon the fact that we were all connected, that our every action could create harmony or discord and impact the environment.
She cared. For every person who sought her counsel, and returned with a loving hug, a broad smile, an invitation to have lunch with her, some caring, maternal scolding, a blanket open-door welcome to her centre whenever one felt like visiting and a new, vibrant outlook towards health. She was committed to wellness, not as we see it–the absence of disease-but as a state of high energy, vitality and happiness. In a world, where the cosmetic industry goes blue in the face recommending sunscreens, she taught me to befriend the sun, to meet its gaze through a green leaf. She taught me to look at my body as a whole entity and not in parts. She taught me to switch off every two hours, to let go. She taught me to stand and stare when I was struggling to achieve work-life balance. She taught me to simplify my life, to declutter my mind, to make peace with my hormones. “Hormones are for harmony,” she said. She put me in touch with my own self, a magic machine I had never paid much attention to. “There’s a Universe in us,” I remember her saying. “Follow your heart.”
As she familiarised me with the natural way of living, she also insisted I relax and not be too rigid. “God has made things for our enjoyment. Don’t feel guilty if you eat junk once in a way. Life is all about balancing,” she said. It was the most practical philosophy of life I could adhere to. Today, I’ve come a long way from the days when acid corroded my body. My life is simpler. I listened to my heart and decided to slow down. Now, I have the time to gaze at the stars, to listen to the call of the cuckoo, to watch my breath. I live with far more awareness and can’t stop wondering at the miracle that my body is. I’ve moved from curing to caring. It’s been a challenge at times, but worth every little change I made. I do go off kilter, but I always return home. I know the way back now. Today, I can enjoy a spicy vada pav without beating myself up about faltering, but I’m aware that I can’t follow it up with an orgy of fried food.
The last time I met Dr Venkat, she was at her Worli centre for a short time–Earth Mother, crusader, visionary, Amma–engaging her brood in a friendly chat. She had traversed a long journey. She had transformed innumerable lives with her healing touch. I could see that it was her turn to have some time out. Little did I know that she was listening closely to her body and that she would leave it soon. Dr Venkat leaves behind a valuable legacy, a treasure house of wisdom. It is there for whoever wants to explore life to the fullest. All it takes is an open mind, a free spirit, some discipline and commitment, and a heart full of love.