November 30, 1982. Our Delhi-Haridwar bus, with wife Tripta, daughters Aparna and Shachi and me, reached Haridwar around 4, in the afternoon. Though the city is located on the banks of the glacier cold Ganges it felt much warmer compared to the weather we had left in Vancouver.
As quickly as I could climb the roof top of the bus, I unloaded our luggage off and made a run home leaving Tripta and the girls walking behind slowly, getting acquainted with their new environment and absorbing its cultural shocks.
As I reached closer to my familiar turf, I spotted mom standing alone at the door, without dad, focussed on every passing bicycle rickshaw and three wheeler, screening for familiar faces of her family.
That’s strange! Where is dad? Usually it is he who announces the new arrivals to mom, “Come, look, who is here?’ I increased my pace; climbed the steps up the front door and touched her feet, gave her a big hug and asked, “Where is dad?”
“He is in bed. He hasn’t been feeling well,” she responded. I grabbed her arm and rushed her to his room.
“How are you dad?” not waiting for a response, I threw myself on him taking him in my arms.
“Ishwar ki daya hai, God is merciful,” and anxiously asked, “Where is Tripta? Where are the little ones?” Perhaps he was afraid lest I might have left them behind in Vancouver.
“They are coming,” I assured him.
“How long will you be with us this time? There is very little time left.”
“Very little time left for what?” I asked with curiousity.
“Time for me to go.” dad responded.
“Go where? If you wait a while I could accompany you,” I said.
“No, there I go alone,” dad replied.
“But where are you going?” I asked again. “To be with my God,” he answered without hesitation.
Lord! It didn’t take him five minutes to break into his philosophical conversation. “Mom, what is he talking about?” I turned around and asked her, who was trying to leave his room for the kitchen to make tea.
“You know your dad? He is always fishing for attention,” she responded waiving her hands in the air.
In the mean time, Tripta and girls arrived and entered his room. When Tripta saw dad lying in bed, she hesitated touching his feet. Touching a person’s feet, who is not sitting or standing up, but lying in bed, is considered inauspicious, unless the person is dead. But then, she leaned forward and touched them anyway and instructed the children to do the same.
Dad blessed them with his customary pronouncement, “Live long. Live happily.” Then he started chatting with them. Their Hindi-English-pidgin opened a door for me to sneak out to the kitchen for tea. But as soon as I returned, dad asked me again, “How long will you be with me this time?”
I noted his change from plural ‘us’ to singular ‘me’ and replied, “We are here until January 5th.”
“That will be before January 15th; before my birthday. I won’t make it anyway. I had been waiting for you. My time is up,” he spoke confidently, not sounding like he was fishing for my attention, as mom suggested.
After that prophecy, I could not keep standing. I sat down on the edge of his bed to talk to him, but all I could say was, “Dad,” and burst into tears.
“Don’t cry. We have time. We will talk,” he attempted to comfort me by touching my arm, and suggested that we should go visit aunty Kunti. She must be waiting for us.
Aunty Kunti lived a block down dad’s place. Widowed at age sixteen, within six months of her marriage, aunty Kunti was mom’s younger sister. We called her, “masi” as in ma (mother) with the suffix -si, (like), meaning someone like a mother.
I tried to stand up, but wobbled and sat down. All that surge of energy that I experienced, just an hour ago, when I climbed the bus to get of luggage down, seemed to have left. I managed to drag myself to masi’s home, somehow.
As soon as masi heard the knock, she came running. Masi looked much thinner and a bit darker. She always did in winters. Winters could be very hard in India. But then what is soft in India? I questioned myself, and the answer was resounding nothing. After a brief conversation masi looked anxious to leave. “If you are thinking of going to make tea, please don’t. We already had it,” I told her. She heard me and sat down to detail our sleeping arrangements.
Since the passing of our grandmother and grandfather, and Ram, my elder brother, whom she raised, leaving for Nigeria, masi had been living by herself, though mom was always around to support her and sleep at her place every night for company. We also always stayed at her place whenever we returned home. After a short visit, we left to mom for meals, but soon moved back to masi’s house for the night.
Exhausted after that long plane journey from Vancouver to New Delhi and followed by a six hour of bus ride to Haridwar, everyone was yawning and looking ready to hit the floor; literally, as there were not enough cots for everyone. We were a grand total of eight; four of us and four of Ram, including him, bhabhi–my sister-in-law and two of their children: Shuchita and Sudhanshus, plus masi. Coincidently, the time we arrived to visit the family, Ram and his family were already there from Nigeria. They were there to finish the construction of their house for an eventual return from Nigeria.
The next morning, when my bhabhi tried to wake me up for tea, I was in the middle of a dream. Actually calling my dream a nightmare would be more appropriate–
I was sitting on the stairs outside facing the main street and watching different species of vehicles passing by. I saw dad coming towards me. He was dressed in my white kurta, a collarless shirt, looked very young and handsome. A few years ago, I had that white shirt tailored to wear at one of my nephews, Shekhar’s, first head shaving mundan ceremony. Since then, I had made it a point to bring this ceremonial shirt back every time I returned from Canada.
“What’s up dad? Where have you been?” I asked. “I had a doctor’s appointment,” he responded casually, like that was not a big deal.
“Did you say a doctor’s appointment? Well, what did the doctor say?” I asked anxiously. I knew dad was not the type who would go to see an allopathic doctor. They were much too western for his Indian taste. He was Vaidya and Hakeem kind of a person.
“He has given me thirty days.”
“Thirty days! Thirty days for what?” I asked.
“Thirty days to live,” he responded.
I did a quick calculation; 30 days to live means December 31, and then I woke me up with a loud outburst of, “Oh my God.”
Ram, who was sitting not far from me sipping tea, asked, “What are you ‘Oh Godding’ about?”
“How long has he been sick?”
“How long who has been sick?” he asked.
“I am asking about dad?”
“For about ten days.”
“Yes,” he repeated.
I went speechless. His health concerns continued to churn my inside. Yesterday, he told me that there was very little time left. His time has come. He would not make his birthday. Last night, he told me that he has only 30 days to live.
“What is going on?” I wondered. “How come he never wrote to me about his health? In the past, he had always kept me informed of every little minutia; who was getting married, who had a baby, who found a new job, how the next-door neighbour Brijlal swindled his younger brother, who died, and certainly who attended whose funeral and who did not or could not. He even wrote to me when Chandra Kiran, our next door neighbour passed away. Munia, his middle son arrived from Pilani right away, but Omi, the Amrikawala, the one who lives in Syracuse, did not.”
I knew my elders were philosophical about life. But dad’s exclusive details about life’s gloomy details were his warning bells to me that he too could slip away anytime, and I might not be around during his last hours. Many times he had compared me to a lone peacock dancing in a distant green forest, where there was no one to admire its performance or its lovely feathers, except the peacock itself.
And mom, well, I knew mom’s pain was mom’s very personal property, not to be shared even with her Ration Baby, her youngest son. Several times I had heard her quoting saint Rahim, “Rahiman nij man ki vyatha manahi rakhiyo goy, suni ithlai log sab baant na le hai koy”: Hide your pain within your heart. When people hear it, they only draw a pleasure out of it. It seems that either she does not trust me any longer or thinks that our physical distance—she being in India and I in Canada — has de-sensitized me to her pain. Who can blame her? Once bitter, twice shy.
“Who is the doctor?” I asked Ram.
“Right now he has been receiving Ayurvedic treatment. But I am going to bring Dr. Chauhan today,” he said.
“Who is he? Do you know him well? I asked.
“Dr. Chuhan was my classmate. He has a family practice. The trouble with him is that he is hard to get hold of. He is a devotee of Kali. He leaves home first thing in the morning for her Chandi mountain temple and does not return until noon.”
Dr. Chauhan being my brother’s classmate did not make him a good doctor, at least in my books. “Then how will you get hold of him?”
“I will leave a message with his housekeeper. Your nephew, Sudhanshu can do that.” As far as I knew, Sudhanshu did go to the doctor’s residence and did leave a message with his housekeeper, but he did not bother to make a house call. After waiting the entire day, we went to his clinic in the evening. The clinic was a disgrace, a hangout; there was nothing professional looking about that place.
Ram reported dad’s condition. The doctor hummed and hawed and scribbled a prescription on a scrap paper, but I was not satisfied with his diagnosis; actually I was pissed. When I invited him to come home and examine the patient in person, his response was a flat no. “There is no need to see the patient. My friend Ram has already given me all the details of his condition. They sound pretty accurate.”
For the next four or five days, the quack continued to treat dad, neither did he make a house call, nor did dad make any progress. On the contrary, he got worse having difficulty passing water, stool and keeping food down.
My situation being the youngest son was precarious. I could not say much about my elders’ choice of treatment. I had no experience with Ayurvedic or Homeopathic medicines, whereas, Ram grew up with our grandfather, who was a practicing Homeopath and versed in Ayurvedic medicines. Elder brother Shashi claimed to know quite a bit about Ayurveda, because he could pretty well interpret Nighantoo, the encyclopaedia of Ayurvedic medicines. Who the hell was I to question their expertise, especially when I had been out of dad’s life for so many years?
After eleven days of our arrival in India, Ram, who had already been home for almost seven months, had to return to Nigeria. So, after finishing the construction of his house, he left with his family. Unfortunately, shortly after they departed, Shashi fell off the attic and broke his leg. In the beginning, he did not pay much attention to his injuries, kept treating them with Ayurvedic remedies, but to no improvement. Every time, I asked him to have his foot X-rayed he downplayed his pain and my concerns. Finally, when his pain became unbearable, his wife took him to the hospital. She told me the doctor literally scolded him for taking so long to see him. X-ray confirmed a fracture.
Ravi, our eldest brother, the son, who might have received the most parental love and attention as he had arrived after the birth of three daughters, should have assumed the responsibility of his father’s treatment. But even dad’s sickness did not thaw his perm-frost bitterness towards him. So, with Ram gone, Shashi limping around on crutches and Ravi having an unbecoming filial relationship, I was the one to take over dad’s treatment responsibilities.
The first thing I did was to check around for a good doctor. Shashi recommended Dr. Taneja. He measured Dr. Taneja medical knowledge, his diagnostic expertise and experience, on the number of patients he used to see waiting in his clinic every day on the way to his store. When I arrived at Dr. Taneja’s clinic, I noticed there were at least six patients ahead of me, but he decided to come with me right away.
After examining dad, Dr. Taneja quietly handed me a long list of medicines and instructed me to start the treatment without any delay. However, before he left he touched dad’s forehead gently and assured him that he would visit him the next day. His parting gesture made dad so happy that he showered him with blessings and called him “God.”
Then, before driving back to his clinic, he asked me to walk him to his car. “Your dad has been suffering from pancreatic cancer. You took too long to start a cancer treatment. Now, do not waste any time. Start the medicines right away. I will come tomorrow, same time.” Inside, mom, masi and Shashi were waiting to hear what the doctor had to say, but I chose to keep his diagnosis to myself and left to get the prescription filled right away.
Days went by, dad showed no signs of progress. Watching him decay was heart breaking. I began to suspect my ability to care for him at home. I considered putting him in a hospital for a close supervision and care of doctors and nurses. I shared my thought with the family, assuming they would support me. I was wrong. No one did, not even the patient. Actually, the patient raised the strongest objection; almost a verbal attack. “He is tired of looking after me. He wants to dump me amongst strangers.”
When I heard dad talking about me, in third person, I knew he was not only opposed to my suggestion, but he also found my suggestion deeply insulting. He did not say, “You are tired of looking after me. You want to dump me amongst stranger.” Dad used the third-person-pronoun, ‘He’. One thing very important that I have learned in life is that whenever, in a family situation, facts battle against emotions, facts usually lose. My suggestion to admit dad into a hospital was based on facts, but his and my family’s reaction were based on emotions. The writing was on the wall. I should have known could not win.
Thus feeling completely misunderstood and falsely accused, I decided to leave dad’s room and find some solace in the veranda, watching strangers go by. While sitting alone and feeling emotionally beaten, I had an epiphany. Once I recalled once dad had his horoscope charted by a Varanasi specialist. I must find it and take it to our family priest for a reading. It is not unusual for believers to combine dava (medicine) with dua (prayers).
The thought of showing dad’s horoscope to the priest suddenly performed a magic for my psyche and energy level. It birthed a new hope. I immediately stood up and launched a search for that chart. After spending almost an hour going through all the possible places where it could have been placed or stored, I found it up in the attic, stuffed in a round shaped tin container collecting dust.
Immediately, I decided to take it to Pundit Vishnu Das. I asked Tripta to come along for company and moral support. But I was not sure that we would find him at his residence. He could be anywhere performing ceremonies.
“Let’s go. We will take a chance. People always take a chance. They just show up at the door. Who makes appointments in India, especially in small towns like Haridwar? How many families have telephones here? Even our own family does not have one,” Tripta made a good point.
“Then, let’s take a chance. shubhasya sheeghram, ashubhasya kalaharanam. When you have a desire to do something auspicious and good, do it immediately (as later you might encounter barriers to it), and when you wish to commit something evil, you should delay it.” Ravana, the rival of Lord Rama had once given this wisdom to Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother, which I passed on to Tripta and left to hire a rickshaw.
[To be continued…]
Dr. Suresh Kurl is a former university professor; a retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board and a former Member of the National Parole Board.