We all have at least one story within us waiting to be told. 87-year-old Reena Varma, a resident of Pune, is one such person who has many interesting stories and fond memories to share with us. Who is Reena Varma? A regular senior citizen who proves that age is most certainly just a number and never a deterrent to pursuing one’s dreams.
In this exclusive interview with The Better India (TBI), Varma speaks about her enthusiasm for life, her memories of participating in India’s first Republic Day parade, and meeting dignitaries like Pandit Nehru, Queen Elizabeth, and The King of Nepal.
Having seen the many ups and downs of life, she also shares with us three valuable tips—her mantra for a happy life.
Growing up years
Born in 1932 in Rawalpindi (now Pakistan), Varma says that the atmosphere then was very different from what it has become today.
“I cannot remember there being any communal discord during the years I spent in Rawalpindi. It was all very cordial, and we all lived peacefully,” she recalls.
“My parents were very forward-looking even in that era. In the ’30s my eldest sister completed her graduation staying in a hostel away from all of us. My father was a firm believer of educating his girls,” she adds.
With her father posted in Murree, a hill station in the outskirts of Rawalpindi region, Varma grew up amongst many British families. “We were brought up in a very open atmosphere,” she says. “Those days were different,” she muses, “I never knew I would end up doing all the things I did.”
First Republic Day parade
Recounting her experience of being a part of India’s first ever Republic Day parade, Varma says, “I was in college in Delhi. I remember some Punjabi theatre artists looking for performers for a particular part of the programme, and I was very keen on participating.”
Varma soon joined the Punjab float and performed on a song titled ‘Nikka Mota Bajra.’ The charm of participating in the parade was high, “I was thrilled that I got to be a part of that performance.”
“I have always enjoyed singing and dancing and saw that as a perfect opportunity.”
Music played a vital part in Varma’s life, and she says that her earliest memories revolve around the records playing on the gramophone at home. When asked if she has a favourite song, she quickly breaks into music maestro K L Saigal’s. . .babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye.
Meeting the King of Nepal
Varma got married and moved to Bengaluru after completing her college education. She started working in the Cauvery Emporium – retailer of locally handcrafted artefacts. The emporium attracted—and still does—the who’s who of the city as well as tourists looking for ethnic artisan merchandise.
Narrating an incident while meeting the King of Nepal, she says, “Since the King was visiting the emporium it was shut down for the general public.”
“I remember the King coming to my counter and inquiring about some of the items on display, and that gave me the chance to interact with him even.”
“It is a memory that I cherish and will always remember.”
Memories of Pandit Nehru
“I somehow had the chance to meet Pandit Nehru not once, but almost on five different occasions,” she says. The first time she met him was in Rawalpindi as a child. “He was there to deliver a speech, and I happened to meet him. However, the next time I met him was when my brother was in the National Defence Academy (NDA).”
She goes on to say, “Pandit Nehru was present at the passing out dinner. While I spoke very little to him, I remember my father speaking a lot and the memory of meeting him at such close quarters is still very vivid.”
At another function, Varma saw Pandit Nehru shed tears at Lata Mangeshkar’s soulful rendition of Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo at a gathering after the 1962 war with China. “I was sitting right behind Nehru and remember seeing him cry. He stood up clapping. These are memories that I will never forget,” she says.
Her struggles in life
While there were several high points in Varma’s life while growing up, she witnessed many lows too.
Just before her husband’s retirement from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bengaluru, he had a paralytic stroke affecting the family adversely. “There was a time when there was a huge financial strain on the family. My husband’s job was not pensionable, and the paralytic attack before retirement put us in a difficult situation. I had two young children and their education to support,” she says.
When asked about what kept her going, she is quick to respond, “I have immense inner strength, and I have never wanted to ever ask anyone for anything in life.”
“I attribute this to the upbringing and values my parents instilled in me.”
Unfortunately for Varma, the troubles did not end there. Her son turned to substance abuse, and after a trying period, he succumbed to it. “That was a huge shock to me. At least my husband’s situation was one in which he could not have done anything, but it was not the same with my son,” she says.
The years since her son’s demise were painful, yet the lady with the indomitable spirit persevered.
Trek at 75
“I am a fighter. I do not give up, and am almost always ready to take on whatever comes my way,” says the fiery 87-year-old Varma.
It was the fascination for the hills that prompted Varma to plan a trek across the Nathula Pass. “I was in Siliguri, and since no one had the time to come along with me, I decided to go on the adventure by myself. I took a bus and off I went,” she recalls fondly.
The trek to the top was not a strain on Varma.
“It was when people started congratulating me that I realised that the height I had scaled was rather high.”
“It was my love for the hills and the sense of adventure that it brought along that pushed me to do that.”
Even today at 87 years of age, Varma actively participates in walkathons. “I won the last three walkathons I participated in,” she says with immense pride.
Reena Varma’s mantra for a happy life
1. Be self-reliant
Try as much and for however long as possible to be self-reliant. You will see how much happiness such independence brings to you.
2. Take up a hobby
Ensure that you stay busy with doing something that you enjoy; be it a hobby or a job. It is essential that you find that ‘something’ for yourself. If you are busy with that, it will give you the energy to keep going.
3. Look after your health
Prioritise your health before everything else. If nothing else then at least walk every day which will not only take care of your physical health but also your mental well-being.
In speaking to her, I am yet again convinced that the power of one’s belief in self and the determination to succeed go a long way to ensure a life well-lived.
Do watch this video of Varma celebrating her 87th birthday dancing away.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)