As someone whose work has always been in front of the camera, I must admit that as the years went by, I expanded my horizons (and waist) to have my kids. I often felt the need to catch up backward. It was now time for me to find some much-needed inspiration from people whose stories inspire me for my future.
Dinesh Mohan, a 62-year-old male model, walks for India’s top designers. That’s enough of a stand-out story but there’s more to him, I realized, as he spoke to me about self-love and beauty standards. Dinesh Mohan recognizes that he is an exception in the fashion world – he went from being overweight and confined to his bed to becoming an actor and a model.
His journey of personal transformation began when most other models were well into their retirement. It started at 53.
“It is easy to change on the outside by wearing clothes and makeup but on the inside, if you are defeated, nothing can save you.” Says Dinesh who at 62 says he feels 26.
But it wasn’t always like this. Far from it.
I ask Dinesh why he described himself not long ago as‘ fat and sick’ – was he being unfairly harsh on himself?
“I indulge in no age shaming of any kind but in my case, I was eating to punish myself and the result was that for 5-7 years I needed assistance even to walk, and was fully bedridden for 10 months. So in my case, I was being brutally honest.”
How did he go from being unable to walk to walking runways, modeling, and then acting in movies as if to the role born?
“ It might sound like a cliché but it was spirituality that really helped and I told myself why not give myself a chance at life. I had given up in front of the negative circumstances around me, forced to retire from a comfortable government job. But then it was a choice between living like this for ever or giving life a chance. I started by going out with great courage, even though some people would look at me and laugh. Then I joined a gym and started swimming again. Doing all this while being seen by judgmental people made me very strong.”
With a local newspaper carrying his ‘before and after’ journey, Dinesh was spotted and soon appeared in some big ads including one for BMW, where while taking a break during the shoot, his signature look was captured and went viral. He is now also known for his own brand of insta-swag and a mass following.
“I live on social media,” says Dinesh. “I love observing people, stepping out, going out for coffee and watching the world go by. There was so much I couldn’t do that I can do now. The first step on the ramp and people went crazy. So yes, I guess I am an exception in the fashion world.”
The world is hungry for more exceptions. It’s the kind of inspiration everybody needs. Dinesh is both exception and inspiration with style and heart.
“I am so grateful to all the negative circumstances and people I met. It is because of them that I am where I am today.”
In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.
Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.
She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many.
For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones!
When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness.
Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life.
Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever.
A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase.
When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day.
The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.
Covid-19’s social distancing protocols have resurrected and increased social connections. It looks like we all have an uptick in the frequency of video calls, large chat groups, and increased social media activity. I know many of us are now in touch with college groups, school groups, family groups, cousin groups, children’s school groups, neighborhood groups and so much more. There really was no reason for any of these interactions to have not taken place earlier – the infrastructure, technology, and people were always there. Only one thing seems to have changed – the incessant demands of the clock on our time.
For some, caring for younger people or older people in their care, Covid-19 has been doubling difficult. But for several others, Covid-19 has presented us with a curious dilemma: Finding ways to spend time. Covid-19 has affected people in several ways, and in recent chats and calls, one trend seems to be emerging: What is your friend?
A few months ago, one of our aunts was visiting and the family had gathered around for a day of fun, and laughter which she invariably ensured was there around her.
“What is your day like Athai (Aunt)? How do you pass time?” I asked.
This is one of the questions that I pose to those of the older generation often. I know boredom and loneliness can be a big problem for some people. However, there are a few in the older generation who somehow manage to retain their vibrant joie-de-vivre as they age, so that they are not just occupied but keep themselves happily occupied and stimulated.
“I am occupied enough, “ she began. After she told us in loving detail of time spent with her family, particularly grandsons, she said with a smile, “I practice what I want to teach later in the day to my students, and I find the time flies past. Music is really a friend.“
It was true. I remember visiting this Aunt and heard her humming and practicing a particularly tricky song that she wanted to teach her students later that day. She was trying it as she cooked & cleaned and it made for a comforting background while we went about our day.
Many I know find it heavy-going after retiring from their busy lives. Some find solace in the demands of religion, others find themselves watching a lot of television. A few, though, find ways in which to keep themselves intellectually stimulated and happy. These people seem to be the kind of people who are not only in touch with their Eternal Selves, but also nourished and sustained it. They are the ones who quite unwittingly spread joy and happiness around them by virtue of being happy with their own state of being.
The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us.
The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor.
Then, there is the Eternal Self: the creative self, the dreamer, the wanderer.
The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. I completely identify with that. I am decades away from my childhood, but I can dip into it like I only just grew up. Everything felt keener and sharper as children, and that is part of the reason why The Child Self never really leaves us, I suppose. (Probably the reason why I forget the name of the person I met yesterday, but remember the names of my friends from when I was 5 years old)
The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor. The one, in short, that most of us find ourselves trapped in for the most part of our lives. This is “the smiler and the doorkeeper” as Mary Oliver so elegantly puts it. This self I am familiar with: metaphorically the whirlpool, the swift horses of time, the minute keeper.
“This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”
The social, attentive self’s surety is what makes the world go around as she says.
Then, there is the third self: The Creative Self, the dreamer, the wanderer.
“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary, it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”
The essay goes on to explain the regular, ordinary self in contrast to the creative self. The Creative Self – the one that is out of love with the ordinary, out of love with the demands of time or the regular routines of life, is concerned with something else, the extraordinary. This is the self, she says, that makes the world move forward.
“The extraordinary is what Art is about. No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures it is seldom seen, It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes its solitude.”
Finding something that makes us want to do something without tangible rewards is the most gratifying thing in the world. Not all of us can lead the life of an artist, but we each can devote small amounts of time consistently to find an artistic pursuit that sustains us. It may be in the creative process in things as varied as tinkering with wood or analyzing the ebb and flow of economic market conditions.
The essay ended on this note:
“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.” – Mary Oliver
The Aunt who said “Music is a friend!” gave to her creative spirit time and power. Covid-19 has given us the unique opportunity to pause and evaluate what we do with our time. Some have exceeded themselves on the culinary front, some others with photography, some have taken up gardening. I find it refreshing to see the Creative Self reviving in so many of us who have given in to the power of the time-bound social self for so long.
What is your friend?
Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.