In the Autumn of her Life – Part 1

I am Jenny Thomas, a journalist working for a local newspaper in Zurich. I have been with it for the last eight years, and I love my job. My job requires me to meet and interact with women from different walks of life who have risen from the ordinary to do meaningful and inspirational stuff in their lives. These are women who have made a name for themselves in their chosen fields, women who have led exciting lives which can inspire and motivate others. I write about them in my weekly column,’ Wonderful Women’. These women are not celebrities or very well known, but their lives have been full of courage, fortitude and grit. They have all had to go through their share of struggle but have never lost the zest for life. Dynamic women with touching stories.

This column was started by me three years ago when my editor was looking to do something new and different.  She wanted something that could offer a change to the reader from the usual news items dealing with politics, world affairs, sports and other routine stuff. A column that could give them some food for thought and reflection and which they would look forward to reading every Sunday morning. It was to be a column that would have the ability to inspire and encourage people to take bold and courageous decisions in life. She had shared her thoughts with me, and the two of us had brainstormed for quite sometime before we hit upon the idea of doing this. And though a little sceptical about it initially I too gradually took to the idea and now just love what I am doing. Apart from giving me valuable insights into the lives of my women celebrities [as I would like to call them] this column has helped in other ways too. It has allowed me to meet and befriend several interesting women, some of whom have now become friends for life and have influenced my life in several ways.

This story is not the story of my life but about the life of one such woman who I had the fortune of meeting and interacting with. She has had a fascinating life, and I was so taken in by her and her life that I felt that one small article would not be able to do justice to her. It would not be able to reflect the totality, the completeness of her life and its various shades. Her life deserved much more !! So although I did feature her in the column, later on, I decided to write a book on the story of her life. It wasn’t easy to do that as Diana  Smith, the heroine of my book is extraordinarily publicity-shy and hates attracting attention. She had much rather do than talk. But she misses the fact that she doesn’t need to talk, she doesn’t need to attract attention. It is the attention that gets drawn to her. She, with her arresting good looks even at the age of seventy, can walk into a room and have all eyes on her. The way she carries herself draws people’s attention to her, and when they hear the story of her life, they don’t want to let her go.

When I  visited her about a year ago, I was struck by the beauty of her house and its charming character. The house on a hilltop had a narrow winding road leading up to it. There was a small wicker gate which opened into a lovely garden with the house standing in the middle. I still remember how on opening the gate I was completely mesmerized by the profusion of colours in the garden. It was a beautiful patch of green with all kinds of flowers and these two cute chairs sitting in the middle with a table in between.

  I  walked up to the front door with every intention of knocking on it. But, stopped once again, this time to admire the door. It was a green door in a white setting. The exterior of the house was white stone, and the green wooden door with a brass knocker just stood out looking incredibly beautiful. It seemed as though I was about to walk into a house just out of a fairy tale.

And then the lady of the house, Diana wearing a pretty pink skirt and a white top exuding serenity and a calm demeanour opened the door  [ obviously after I had finally managed to knock on it!!!}

 She showed me in and made me comfortable. The interior was as pretty as the exterior. I figured that she had good taste. There was nothing opulent or flashy about the house. It was all understated and very, very classy.

Musing over the house and its occupant I completely forgot why I had come there.  Snapping out of it, I  quickly went on to explain the purpose behind my visit. Though a private person and not too keen on being covered by any form of media the moment she understood the reason why my editor and I wanted to cover her, she relented and agreed to share the details of her life. A story that turned out to be as compelling as the house.

I have different reasons for choosing different women as the subjects for my column. The reason why I chose Diana was that as I was told she was a woman who had had multiple and diverse experiences in her life. To me, it seemed they were far too many to be fitted into one lifetime, but she had managed that. And though not a native of the country, she had still managed to make a place for herself in the local community. That part about her intrigued me and drew me towards her.

Her life as she revealed had been through many ups and downs; there had been happy times, sad ones too but the twists and turns and the way she had coped up with them made it fascinating and very moving too. I felt that it needed more than just an article to be truly inspiring, and therefore I thought about writing the book. Though it wasn’t easy to convince her, eventually she came around, and today I am on my way to pick her up for the book launch.

And as usual, I am running late, and she must be ready constantly checking her watch and wondering as to what’s gone wrong. It is nothing new, I am always late, and she is always on time. And I have never been able to understand as to how this happens every time I have to see her. One reason could be my obsession with daydreaming, which makes me forget everything and lose track of time and purpose. And today is no exception. But today since she is the one I am going back and forth dreaming about, she should also be blamed. But thankfully, now I am on my way.

 From being born and brought up in India, in the city of Mumbai, Diana moved to Zurich when she was in her early forties to start a new life in a strange new land. Then from being a hotshot model with a glamorous lifestyle, she had chosen to become a teacher in a local school to a life where she wasn’t known to anyone, maybe just to her neighbours. And now she is pushing seventy, has stopped teaching though she still likes to visit the school to spend time with the children who love her. She lives by herself, her husband having died ten years ago. She has a son who lives in New York. So for all intents and purposes, she is alone and lonely, but actually, that is not the case. She is physically fit, looks after herself and the house, goes for walks, is part of a book club and has one close friend with whom she spends her evenings.

Diana revealed that she was the youngest child of her parents,  James and Jane, who had four other children besides her. All four, two brothers and two sisters were much older. Theirs was an Anglo Indian family living in Mumbai for as long as she could remember. They lived in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building in central Mumbai. Though there were far too many people living in that tiny place, there was a lot of love and affection between them. But since she was the youngest and her parents had been pretty old when her mother had given birth to her, she had been largely left to her own devices as she was growing up. Though everyone loved her, they had no time for her. She was the baby of the house who everyone treated like a plaything to be there for their amusement, and that’s it. There was a six-year age gap between her and her sister, who was the closest in age to her. Her mother had always been very busy running the house and pandering to the whims and fancies of its inhabitants which more often than not did not include her.

Her siblings, other than her eldest brother, Richard, had no time or patience for her. And her father was way too distant in the entire hierarchy of their household to be bothered by her or to bother her. Anyways Diana learnt at a young age that she had to make people notice her because on their own they would be happy to ignore her, other than Richard.

So her attempts to get attention included, among other things, the strategy to go completely against what she was told to do. So if her mother wanted her to sleep, she would make sure she didn’t, if she wanted her to eat she wouldn’t and if her siblings wanted her to stay quiet because they were studying or something like that she would choose that time to sing loudly or break something. She would call her friends to play with her at that very time, and no matter how upset they got with her, she would not listen to any of them.

By the time she was ten she had become quite a handful and by the time she turned sixteen she was pretty much unstoppable. She did what she wanted to, when she wanted to and how she wanted to.  The good thing was that the family value system had found its way in her, so she wasn’t a bad person. She was just defiant and loved to break the rules but for the fun of it. There was never any malice or mal intention in any of what she did. However, there was one trait that became very pronounced as she grew up, and that was her strong will and determination. Once she had set her mind to do something, nothing could come in the way, till she had done it. No amount of convincing or forcing could work on her to do otherwise. She was her own person with a mind of her own.

So this mind, at the age of sixteen, decided that she wanted to take up modelling as a career. This choice of profession wasn’t the done thing in her family where all her siblings had taken to professions like teaching, accounting and medicine. She was the lone one who had decided to do something completely different by choosing to enter the world of glamour. And so as expected, she had to face resistance, but she faced it and emerged as the winner.

The opportunity to enter this world had come about most unexpectedly. Diana had been spotted by the model coordinator of an ad agency who had been scouting around college campuses looking for a young and fresh face for an advertisement campaign. The moment his eyes had fallen on Diana, he knew she was the one. She had been sitting in the college cafeteria with some of her friends when he had walked in to grab a cup of coffee. She had been the loudest, the bubbliest and full of beans. He had heard her laugh at something and immediately got drawn to her. He had walked up to her and asked her if she would be interested in the modelling assignment. Ever ready to take on something new Diana had readily agreed and then accompanied by a friend she had gone for a test. She had been selected and then chosen to model for a newly launched brand of shampoo. All this she had done without telling anyone at home. But she knew that before signing the contract she would have to tell her parents about it which would not be easy.

One thing was clear, and that was that she wanted to take up the assignment, but the problem was how to convince her parents. She thought about it and decided that the best way would be first to take Richard into confidence. The idea was to convince him and then take it forward.  Richard, when he heard about what she had done, was shocked and very angry. He told her that no way would their father allow her to go ahead. In those days, the modelling industry was frowned upon, and the general notion was that girls from good families did not become models. But Diana was very clear that she wanted to go ahead.

So she looked at her brother and said,’ Richard, I know it is not going to be easy. You have to help me find a way out because I have decided to go ahead.”

Richard, seeing the steely determination in his sister’s eyes, decided to rack his brains to find a way out. After a lot of thought, he decided to accompany their father on his morning walk the next day and talk to him. Mornings were the best time because at that time their father was at his peaceful best and away from home he would get his full attention. So the next morning, father and son left the house. Though their father was a little surprised to see Richard joining him, he let it be. He knew Richard was up to something but decided to wait and watch. But when after fifteen minutes of walking, Richard did not say anything, their father stopped and said, ‘Ok son tell me why the walk? What made you wake up so early in the morning? Is it a girl, is it your work, what is it?’

Richard looked at his father and said,’ It isn’t about me, but yes, I do need to talk to you.’

Having said that he took his father to the nearest bench in the park and told him about what Diana intended to do. As expected, the father was horrified and furious. He wanted to go back home immediately and give a piece of mind to Daina and forbid her for even thinking about getting into modelling. But Richard knew his sister very well and knew that any form of such a forbidding would make her do the opposite. So he advised his father not to react but to let Richard handle the situation. He further warned him that it might not to be possible to stop Diana, and therefore, he would have to be prepared for that as well.

As Richard had feared though he tried to discourage Diana from going ahead, she refused to listen. She had already made up her mind and her informing her family had just been a formality. Richard realized that there was no point in trying to stop her because she wouldn’t listen, so therefore he told her that he would want to meet the model coordinator before giving the go-ahead. Diana had no issues about that. She fixed up a meeting between the two of them. The coordinator whose name was Raghu assured Richard about the authenticity of his agency and showed him some of his previous work, all with reputed clients. He told him that if he so desired, he could accompany Diana on the day of the shoot to see for himself as to what she had to do. Realizing that there was nothing more that he could do, Richard gave the go-ahead to his sister but with the condition that he would accompany her on the day of the shoot.  And though not an easy task, he managed to convince their father too. The problem was that if Diana was stubborn, she had inherited this trait from her father. He could be equally stubborn if he wanted to. But in this situation, he realized that what Richard was suggesting made sense and he could rely on him to make the best decision. Though Diana was not too happy about being escorted by the elder brother like a schoolchild, she let it be.  For her going for the shoot was much more important than anything else.  And in any case, she trusted Richard and believed that he had her welfare at heart.

The day of the shoot dawned, bright and clear. Diana woke up at the crack of dawn. In fact, she had not been able to sleep at all. One part of her was nervous as hell, and the other part was raring to go. She was super excited about the whole thing. She got ready and then

at 10 in the morning the brother and sister left for the shoot. Though she hadn’t anticipated a fun day, the day when it unfolded itself turned out to be quite a drag.

First of all, she had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for anything to begin. Though for her, it was the most important event of her life, it wasn’t the case for the modelling agency. They had other stuff to do which was higher in the order of priority. They had other shoots, different models to attend to. But finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her turn came.  She was escorted to the set which resembled a park where she was to be seen as jogging in the early morning.  She was modelling for a shampoo, and so the focus had to be on her hair and face. She had to twirl around, and the cameraman had to capture that twirl and later on they would edit to include only the hair and face. But that twirl which seemed easy enough turned out to be not such an easy one. It took about ten takes for her to get it right.

And though she thought she had taken too long and may not be considered after that, she was wrong. Apparently, it was the freshness of her face and her beautiful mane that everyone loved. And contrary to her belief for a newcomer, she had been very confident. All this ensured that she got several more assignments after the first one. And after a few times, Richard also got convinced that modelling was serious business and it wasn’t all party and all play. There was a lot of hard work that went into it. The end product, those glossy ads in magazines was no indicator of what went into the making of an advertisement. Though their friends and family kept telling them that they had made a grave mistake by letting Diana enter the big bad world of modelling the family, thanks to Richard stood by her. And that support and encouragement ensured that Diana went onto become a very successful model. In her heyday, there weren’t many products that she didn’t model for from shampoos to creams to jewellery to sarees. You name it, and she had done it. She was in great demand, and many timed she had to refuse offers as there was far too much work for her to handle.  By the time she turned twenty-one, she was a celebrity, doing very well for herself. Her parents, her entire family were very proud of her achievements. Her determination had made her do what she had wanted to.

Life moved on, but as time went by and she grew older, she figured that with more and more young faces entering the modelling scene it wouldn’t be long before she would be edged out. Therefore it was vital for her to think of the next step. Though modelling had in its wake brought in movie offers for her she wasn’t interested in working in films. And although for a number of her modelling friends, movies had been a natural progression she decided to bypass them because she didn’t want to once again get into a profession where her survival would depend largely on her looks and age. She wanted something more long-lasting.

She racked her brains and eventually though of starting her modelling agency where she would train aspiring models and serve as a link between them and the various agencies that wanted models. She felt that every newcomer needed to be taught how to conduct themselves both on and off the ramp. There was no one there at that time who was actively involved in it, and so she decided to fill in the gap. Since she herself had been a model, she felt that she could give many useful tips to all newcomers. Needless to say, her agency being a pathbreaker in many ways, was very successful, and she was able to make the transition from being on stage to backstage smoothly and successfully.

Meanwhile, life was moving on. All her siblings were now married and had their own families. They had all moved out of the family home, and Diana was now the only one living with her parents, who were quite old now. But the good thing was that she was there to take care of them and provide them with a comfortable life. She made it a point to spend time with them every evening, no matter how busy she was. In fact, she had her evening tea with them and scheduled her work in a way that she could do that. It seemed that the three of them were trying to make up for all those times during her childhood when her parents did not have time for her. As was bound to be her parents were now anxious for her to find someone she could get married to. Her father, who was now in his sixties, was always telling her to do that. Diana had started seeing someone but wasn’t sure about the marriage bit. She had met  Tony at one of the parties which were a standard feature of the world to which she belonged. He was a pilot and had come for the party with his sister, who was a model whom Diana was training. As luck would have it, they got along at the first meeting itself, and though they could not spend a lot of time with each other at the party, they decided to remain in touch.

And the prompt guy that Tony was, he called Diana the next day and fixed up to meet for coffee. The two realized that they got along really well and had a lot in common. But because his work took him away pretty often their meetings, to begin with, were not very regular. However, gradually they realized that what they shared was something deep and intense, and they wanted to take it to the next stage. Once they had decided Diana took Tony to meet her parents who loved him. Her father sensed that Tony was deeply in love with his daughter and was willing to do anything for her. He came from a good family, was doing well professionally, which was all that mattered to the father. Once the two decided to tie the knot, Diana’s parents organized a lunch where he was introduced to the entire brood. Since there was a considerable age difference between Diana and her siblings, some of their children were closer in age to her than their parents. So, in fact, Tony got along very well with many of Diana’s nieces and nephews. Diana also went to meet his parents who lived in Bangalore, and they too liked her. While Tony’s dad was an Indian, his mother was Swiss. The two of them had met while studying in London, fallen in love and then had decided to get married.

As her parents wanted soon after the family lunch, the two of them decided to tie the knot. Diana was very clear that since her parents were old and lived alone, she would continue to live with them after getting married. Tony, understanding her sentiments agreed, and so all four of them started living together. And in fact, with them being together, Diana’s father was the happiest because as he said it very often, ‘Finally I have someone from my own tribe to share my life with.’

The early years of their married life were incredibly happy ones. And then two years into the marriage and Diana gave birth to their son who they named Mark. Life was happy and content. Though they had to contend with her father’s ill health issues, since they were all together, they were able to manage. But it didn’t continue for too long. Her father’s health continued to deteriorate and then one day while she was at work, her mother called to say that her father had fallen in the bathroom. She had been able to take him to the hospital with the help of some of their neighbours. Diana dropped everything and rushed to the hospital where the doctors told her that her father had suffered a massive heart attack and would not be able to survive for too long. She quickly informed her siblings, who also rushed to see him. But two days was all James; their father gave them. On the third day, he met everyone one last time and then died in his sleep. But he died a happy man. His children had all done well, all of them were settled, had their families, so there was nothing to worry. And as far as Jane, his wife was concerned he knew that she was in good hands. Diana would take care of her.

And that is what happened. After her father’s death, Diana and Tony decided to move to a bigger place, and Jane moved with them. Mark was five years old now and going to school. Life was good. Tony was doing well in his career; Diana’s business was also doing very well. And then lady luck decided to take leave from Diana’s life for a while.

One night when Tony was on his way back home from the airport, a truck hit his car, leaving him grievously injured. The driver died on the spot, but though Tony did not die, his life took a drastic turn. He was rushed to the hospital by some passerby, but he had been lying unattended for quite sometime before that happened. It was in the hospital based on his identity card that the authorities were able to inform Diana about the accident. Daina had known that he was on his way back and was getting worried when he hadn’t after almost three hours after the expected time. On getting the call, she rushed to the hospital where the doctors told her clearly that Tony had had a major head injury and it was difficult to say what could happen. He needed to be operated upon after which also things could go any way. Diana was shocked and completely dumbstruck. She didn’t know what had hit her. How could it have happened to them? She couldn’t comprehend most of what the doctors were telling her. The only thing she understood was that Tony needed to be operated upon. That was the only chance of survival. Though the surgery itself was fraught with danger, it was the only option. So she gave the go-ahead to the doctors.

Luckily the surgery went off well, but the doctors told her that there was still a lot of swelling in the brain, which could prove to be fatal. The surgery had lasted almost five hours, and Diana had been waiting outside the operation theatre. A few of their friends had rushed to be with her as soon as they had heard about the accident. By the end of the day, her siblings had also come to be with her. All this while Diana had been in a state of shock, but the moment she saw Richard something broke inside her and she started howling. She was crying like a child, and though Richard tried to comfort her, pacify her, she just couldn’t stop. It was as though the sight of him, her elder brother made her let go of the brave front that she had been putting up for the rest of the world.

Richard took charge of the situation and sent Diana home to rest. Meanwhile, he and his younger brother Paul went to speak to the doctor. The doctor was very candid and frank with them. He did not want to give them any false hopes and told them that the chances of recovery were very slim. Even if the swelling reduced, there was every possibility of Tony going into a coma. And after that, it could take him days or months or years to recover. There was always the possibility that he may not come out of the coma at all. He told them that in any case it was going to be a long haul for them and they needed to be mentally prepared for it. Richard was stunned!! He didn’t know how he would break the news to his sister. She was so young! How would she deal with this! And what about the expense part?

He quickly called up Tony’s office and was relieved to know that since he had been on duty, the airline would take care of his hospitalization and all expenses related to it. That was some relief. But now he had to tell Diana about what the doctor had told them.

He had been in the hospital all day, but because of that, Diana, who had been given a sedative, had managed to rest. She came back in the evening and wanted to know what the doctor had said. Richard did not see any point in hiding anything from her. He felt that the sooner she got to know about it, the better it would be. So he told her what he had learnt from the doctor.

But Diana was a brave heart. Though heartbroken and grief-stricken, she did not crumble as everyone had expected her to. She decided to take on the challenge and face whatever was in store. And so started the next phase of Diana’s life where her day began with a visit to the hospital to check on her husband. After that she went to work, which now was even more crucial than before. In the evening, she again visited the hospital, and then after sitting with Tony for a couple of hours, she would head back home bone tired. Her house and her child were in the care of her mother, who though pretty old by then, decided like her daughter to face up to the challenge. Putting all her ailments and health issues aside, she focused on her daughter and her life. Her mission in life was to make her daughter’s life as easy as possible. The little child though devastated by what had happened, also learnt to pull himself up and support his mother. The grandmother and the grandson made sure that they never gave Daina any reason to complain or worry.

In the meanwhile, everyone else had to go back and get on with their lives. Richard was the only who kept visiting every three weeks to be with them. Though Tony was getting the best possible medical care, there was no change in his condition. As the doctors had feared though the swelling in the brain had reduced, he had gone into a coma, and things were pretty much out of control. They told Daina that she could only pray for him to get better. And Diana did that every day without fail and so did little Mike. But to no avail. Gradually the hospital also lost interest in the case, and the doctors got busy with other patients.

[And then what happened? Wait for Part 2]

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