Neelam Kumar, author and life coach, talks about her journey as a single mother of two, her struggles with breast cancer, how she fell in love with literature, and how she's using it to change the narrative around cancer in India.
Right off the bat, author and life coach Neelam Kumar is vibrant and warm – something of a surprise considering her long and arduous life journey. Neelam survived the death of her beloved husband, two bouts of cancer, and has gone on to write 10 books, not just to document her own life but also to provide an avenue for others struggling to find hope in dark times. So truly, she has striven to inspire us all to face adversities without backing down.
She recounts her story in an interview with The Better India.
‘My strawberry years’
“Both my parents had illustrious careers,” she recalls. “They were deputed by India’s Government to a non English-speaking country. They had to translate and write books from Hindi and English to Russian and from Russian to Hindi. My sister Poonam and I spent our primary school days in Moscow. For us, the experience was magical. There were no textbooks. Childhood was all about being close to nature while learning in a ‘no-stress environment. I call these my ‘Strawberry Years’.”
A few years later, Neelam’s parents returned to India with their daughters. She later pursued degrees in English literature and went on to win a full scholarship from the Rotary Foundation in Illinois, USA, to study journalism. Alongside, she had been writing articles in magazines and the Times of India regularly.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, and I graduated with a Masters in Journalism and a 4.00 GPA. I trained in investigative journalism and interned with top newspapers.”
Meanwhile, at the age of 19, she met and married Vishwamani Kumar. Neelam says theirs was a dream love story. Soon, she became a mother to two children. The family later returned to India, and Neelam decided not to pursue investigative journalism to care for her family. She continued writing columns for newspapers and wrote two books.
Years later, shortly before she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, the love of her life passed away due to an unexpected heart attack. He was only 40, and had maintained fitness throughout his life as an avid swimmer and tennis player. “He died suddenly on a perfect summer day in May, leaving me with two small children to care for,” she recalls.
Neelam was then introduced to the horrors of the real world. As a young widow, then posted as a Public Relations Manager in a steel company in Jharkhand, she found herself struggling to navigate a world full of judgmental people, con men, and red-tapism, for things as simple as getting a succession certificate.
“The challenges of single parenting and desertion by my brothers-and-sisters-in-law for our ancestral property in my time of need broke my spirit. My little son, Rajneel, brought me to Mumbai for treatment. I knew I had to be in a city that was more accepting. Admittedly, I’d fallen into a victim mindset. ‘Why me?’, I’d often wonder,” she says.
Neelam says, “Cancer claims the life of 1 Indian every 50 seconds. So why should the medicines, chemotherapy, radiation etc. be so expensive?”
“Entire families are wiped out trying to cure their loved ones,” she notes.
“Also, our education system has to target the eradication of social stigmas and evils. An elderly woman came to me to share that her husband had her thrown out of her village because she had ‘dared’ to be infected by cancer. He, of course, promptly got himself a younger bride,” she says.
“I would like to say that be careful about who visits you. Even the most well-meaning friends end up saying ridiculous things that can break a patient’s spirit even more. Don’t listen to them. If they narrate sob stories of their uncle’s niece’s friend’s relative who struggled as bravely as you but died in the end, just ask them politely to leave you alone.” she adds, as advice to others.
Neelam credits her humour, which she used as her weapon to fight and survive cancer, which helped her not collapse. “People often don’t know how to show sympathy. They either come to you and cry uncontrollably, or blame it on your past, karma, or something you can’t do anything about. I mean, for them, it’s like you have to die,” she says.
As she worked on her recovery, she continued pursuing her love for writing. “I was still at crossroads about my future niche. That’s when the legendary Mr Khushwant Singh offered to co-author a book with me. Besides being flattered, I was relieved that, finally, my career choice had become clear.”
In an era before Google, it took them four years to research and write the book. ‘Our Favourite Indian Stories, by Khushwant Singh and Neelam Kumar’ was published in 2002 and became a bestseller.
“We had picked up unread and untranslated gems from every regional language of India, added our own original stories in English, and put together an outstanding canvas of India’s immense literary wealth,” Neelam notes.
Of course, Neelam’s doubters have been silenced now that her 10 books, all written in English and bestsellers, are out.
A new perspective this time around
In 2017, Neelam’s cancer returned. However, this time, things were different. “I’d become a life-travelled veteran who had strengthened her inner core with the power of Nichiren Buddhism.”
Alongside came a deeper understanding of the need for adequate cancer literature in India. “This time, I’d decided to ‘live’. I just wanted to understand what my mission in life is. How would I live if there was nothing hopeful to read? In every classic I read on cancer — ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’, ‘Grit and Grace’, ‘The Last Lecture’ — and even in the classic film ‘Anand’, the protagonist dies. I didn’t find any happy literature on cancer, so I wrote one,” she explains.
Her most notable book has been ‘To Cancer, With Love — My Journey of Joy’, published by Hay House. It went on to become a bestseller and perhaps India’s first happy book on cancer.
“People started contacting me about how my little pink book was helping them handle not just cancer, but other adversities of life as well. I’d discovered my life’s mission,” she says.
For the last 16 years, Neelam has been a life coach. Her clients come from across various age groups, but her focus is on the youth. “I like to fire their young minds to become the best they can be by handling stress and growing up to give back to society. It has been a very enjoyable journey,” she notes.
‘To Cancer With Love’ was also adopted into a graphic novel. She also wrote ‘I Am A Sea Of Possibilities — A Personal Growth Colouring Workbook’, and Ratan Tata and Amitabh Bachchan funded these two. She also wrote Manisha Koirala’s biography ‘Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life’ (Penguin Random House), which became a blockbuster bestseller.
“My own experiences with cancer told me that while medicines work on the body, what about the mind? Why don’t we use its incredible power to heal the body? Thus came the idea of writing books that emotionally empower fighters and caregivers alike. My wish is for these books to be translated into various Indian languages to further their reach. I could not find translators from publishing houses who would approach Hay House and translate the books. Reaching out to those suffering is the need of the hour,” she says.
She adds, “I aim to change the narrative of cancer in India from grimness to hope. I’m happy to share that my vision was recognised and validated when I was given the Nargis Dutt Memorial Trophy.”
“So to all those fighting adversities, I want to say, decide to win this battle. Give it one hell of a fight, and trust the power of human spirit,” she says and quotes her mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, a Japanese-Buddhist philosopher, educator and author, “Hope is a decision. But it is the most important decision.”
‘Where are all the happy stories?’
Of all her literary work, Neelam highlights her new book, ‘I Am Invincible — Thirteen True Tales Of Courage, Grit, And Survival’ as her favourite.
Published by Fingerprint Publishers this year, she says it continues her mission of spreading positivity and hope through her books. “It has powerful stories including those of a young girl who survived gangrape to become a celebrity achiever, a man who decided to climb Mt Everest after he lost both his legs to double amputation, and a man who has survived 10 heart attacks and heart and kidney transplants to travel the world solo.”
To contact Neelam about her books, live sessions, or share your own story, you can visit her website, Instagram, Facebook, or email her at email@example.com. Her book, I Am Invincible, Thirteen True Tales of Courage, Grit, & Survival, is available to buy on Amazon.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)