Jyoti Kakatkar [Senior Legal Counsel at Eight Roads Ventures]
India has been facing one of the darkest eras it has experienced in modern history. The pandemic has wreaked havoc as countless lay gasping for air. In this dire situation I at times wonder- is the SHA I am negotiating truly important? Then I recall an important lesson I have learnt through my decade long caregiving journey - work gives meaning to continue.
Early on in life I knew I wanted a career which empowered me and equipped me to help others. My mother was a staunch advocate of self-dependence and justice. She taught me that my opinions mattered and that I should never shy away from standing up for the right. Law was an easy choice. I worked hard through law school and secured a job through campus placement with a prestigious Indian law firm. My mother could not have been prouder. Unfortunately, it was around this time that my mother’s health took a downward turn. She was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis (a side-effect of diabetes) and had begun suffering from various health complications. My family grappled with the unknowns of this disorder and were forced to run helter-skelter amongst countless doctors and hospitals. Given that my father is a heart patient, and my sister differently abled, I was required to take care of the physical aspect of my mother’s caregiving. There is little awareness in India about family caregivers and their hardships. We faced numerous challenges through the years - right from finding the correct doctors, receiving incorrect advice, unnecessary surgeries, financial crunch, emergency hospitalizations, hiring professional caregivers to help us and so forth.
Law firms can be tough, and the first few years are the most crucial for your career. The work hours are long, clients often demanding and stressed seniors mostly unforgiving. Suddenly, I found myself face to face with a heap of medical files alongside diligence documents. My browser history displayed research on indemnity clauses and alternates to liver transplants. While my contemporaries had the luxury of being fully immersed in billing hours and wooing clients, I found myself living a dual life- a corporate lawyer negotiating mergers while simultaneously pleading doctors to save my mother. I was emotionally stressed, physically tired, sad that my once strong mother was becoming weaker by the day, worried about her recovery, and bitter at the unfairness of my situation. Quitting my job was never an option given how expensive good medical care is in India. Besides, I was ambitious and needed a part of my life to be under my control.
Lee Iacocca has aptly said - “In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive.”, and plow I did. Very few colleagues were ever told about how dire my mother’s medical condition was and all my caregiving leaves were taken under the garb of personal sick leaves. I was lucky that a lot of corporate legal work can be performed remotely, and seamless connectivity became my best friend. Most of my work was done besides my mother’s hospital bed while she underwent blood transfusions. Many a conference call was taken in the privacy of empty operation theatres and all my anger was channeled into protecting my clients’ positions. As my mother’s situation worsened and hospitalizations became even more frequent, I switched to an in-house role with challenging legal work to do justice to both my roles. Nevertheless, the work momentum continued, and even in her last comatose weeks I visited office few hours a day to divert my mind. While there was nothing normal about mothering my mother in my 20s, I let the exhilarating feeling of closing deals and office politics wash over me to provide me a sense of the ordinary. Balancing work and caregiving duties was extremely difficult, but it was always easier for me to grumble about a difficult opponent as opposed to talking about my mother’s impending doom. My promotions and accolades were small victories in my strained personal life.
Two years after my mother’s passing, I still often suffer from caregiver’s guilt. Should I have spent more time with my mother instead of drafting ROFR clauses? While there is no correct answer, deep down I know that law, while stressful, provided me with a sense of normalcy during arduous times. My mother would not have wanted it any other way. Through her agony, she understood, encouraged and endorsed my need to continue working. It was important to her that I continue living and be my own person. I was indeed lucky to have a strong woman role model in my life. I now navigate through the pain of my mother’s loss by directing it towards my work, providing legal aid to non-profits and spreading awareness on the issues of caregivers and grief.
Today the pandemic has unapologetically created many caregivers and grievers, and many women are taking on the caregiver role. A lot is spoken about the need for women to shatter glass ceilings and achieve high levels of perceived success. I believe that women shatter glass ceilings every single time they endeavor hard and seamlessly juggle their careers and personal traumas- a task a man would be hailed for. With the rising awareness in India on healthcare and related issues, my hope is that Indian laws will be amended to take into consideration the needs of family caregivers, mental health issues and bereavement. It has been encouraging to see some Indian organizations implement friendlier policies on the aforesaid subjects and hopefully more will follow. I realize that not everyone is presented with the same job opportunities, and while hard work does help us through many challenges, it is always easier to navigate through adversities when you have an empathetic society and the law on your side.