The person Sonia most wanted to tell the news to was Baboo.
He had been so scared, so apprehensive when he had first heard.
He had called up all his friends in a state of panic.
Baboo was what Sonia called her father. He had been a doctor, a well- known and prominent one in his own field. After retiring far from the city to revel in Himalayan grandeur for the rest of his life, he became a widower. That is when Sonia first started interacting with Baboo on a daily basis. Everyday she would call up and they would talk.
“ How are you Baboo?”
“ Today my blood pressure was normal. I had coffee and Sita made me some mushroom soup with oats in it.”
Sita was his housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned, looked after him. In fact, her whole family who lived in the outhouse helped take care of him. They were a hill family, from Nepal. They had no identification or money when they had come to Baboo and his wife for work. Sita and her husband were illiterates. Their children started school as they worked in Baboo’s house. Their children learnt to read. Eventually, Baboo had them register for an adhar card (identity card in India) and had seen to it that they had a bank account when the prime minister initiated the bank wave for the downtrodden.
“The papayas have ripened in the garden. And the mali (gardener) harvested a few kilos of litchi… I will give some to Jaya Das and Captain Singh,” he would go on to say.
Jaya Das and Captain Singh were his friends.
Sonia would just listen.
Another day would be full of complaints.
“ I do not want to live. I feel very alone… very lonely without your mother.”
Sonia would listen with a wringing, helpless heart.
“Do you want to move back to Delhi like Saurabh suggested?” Sonya would ask. Saurabh was her cousin in Delhi and the person she felt closest to in India.
“ I cannot afford it. And physically it is impossible you know. I cannot walk.” Baboo was fiercely and proudly independent. He would not allow anyone else to spend on him, not even his daughter and son-in-law or his nephew.
Sonia would say, “We can organize everything for you.”
“ How? While sitting in Singapore?”
Sonia lived in Singapore with her husband and two children. She had moved back from Bangkok two years after her mother died. Sonia and her husband had been out of India for more than two decades, shuttling from one country to another.
“Saurabh said he would do everything…”
“Impossible! Impossible!” Baboo would shout into the phone. “I came here for spiritual succor. I do not want to move. You will not understand because you do not read Ramakrishna or any of the scriptures…”
Yet at some other times, he would complain of high blood pressure, dizziness and sometimes, he even said he fell down.
Sonia was worried. She did not know what to do…
She spoke to his doctor friends. They recommended scans. But he refused to go for scans and tests. He would say: “I just want to die.”
One Sunday, Sonia had acute pain in the stomach. Her husband rushed her to the hospital. They found a growth in her kidney. Probably cancerous, the doctor said. They did not want to do a biopsy for the fear of infecting other parts with the deadly cells.
Baboo had to be consulted because the urologist spoke of removing the affected kidney. Baboo agreed that was the best option. But he was scared. He did not want to outlive his daughter. He did not want her to die.
In five days, the surgery was performed. Sonia’s brother- in- law, her husband’s younger brother, flew in from Nigeria to be by their side. Friends poured in. At a point, the nurses grumbled because there were ten people in Sonia’s room the evening after her surgery.
But Baboo, he struggled with his emotions alone. He wanted to be by his daughter. Physically, it was impossible. He could not walk because of the huge fibroid on his spine. He felt shattered and helpless. He had called up his grandson during the surgery. His son-in-law had spoken to him later to reassure him. But not his daughter!
At last she spoke to him. He wanted her to rest and recover.
Sonia felt she was doing well.
Two days after her surgery, Sonia sent birthday wishes to an old school friend. They had all crossed fifty. He too was a cancer survivor. And the next day, she discovered, the announcement of his death on Facebook.
That stunned her a bit! She sent her condolences.
She still remembered the date 18 th August.
Sonya had drifted into nostalgia… recalling how in high school, they had all travelled to Almora and had a whale of a time during their school trip… and suddenly, he was gone. She had a surgery but he died. Strange were the ways of God!
A few days later, she heard her one of closest friends from University had died of breast cancer. She had been so out of touch with her friends that the news came to her as a shock. Whenever she went to India, she was visiting Baboo or her mother-in-law who was a widow. She had no time for friends. She spoke to her mother-in- law too every other day. She did not tell the old folks about her friends’ deaths. They would just get upset!
When Sonia returned after the surgery, Baboo spoke to her for long.
“ It may not be cancer you know. After all, you had no symptoms till the pain. And cancer is normally not painful…”
Two weeks later, the doctor met Sonia and her husband. He confirmed the tests had shown the growth to be cancerous, “T2 stage with a focus on T3” read her report. However, the cancer had not spread anywhere else by all parameters tested. The doctor urged her to send the report to her father so that he would not worry anymore. Of course, she would have to do PET scans for the next five years. The pain had been from another intestinal infection which had been treated by antibiotics during her hospital stay.
Sonia returned home jubilant that she was going to be fine. But Baboo could not let go of his apprehension… what if… his child died? His mother had died. His wife had died and now his daughter…
Sonia tried to convince him on Skype.
“Baboo, I am not going to die. I have been cleared off cancer. I sent you the report. You yourself have seen I will be fine. Many people live for years with one kidney. I am a survivor.”
Two months after the surgery, the ‘survivor’ went for a walk at night with her husband, she again had an acute pain. This time, she noticed a lump near the wound. The next day the doctor sent her for a scan and a hernia was confirmed. It seems there had been a rupture in the mucus membrane when the doctors moved her intestine to pull out the bagged kidney during the partial laparoscopy. She would need another surgery four months later. They needed to give six months time for the wound to heal.
Baboo was furious. “All this would not have happened if they did an open surgery. I had told you to tell the doctor not to do a partial laparoscopy. It is entirely the doctor’s fault…”
Sonia had no choice but to agree to go through the surgery. She could not fight medical decisions. She was at the mercy of the doctor’s scalpel. She did not even want to get into the blame game. The doctor put her state down to her obesity. Sonia had more than doubled as had her chin in the last almost three decades of happily married life.
This whole medical journey had been stressful for her whole family. But she was proud of the way her children and husband had handled it, making her feel cherished and wanted at every point, yet not weighing her down with a sense of helplessness or fatality.
Sonia just wanted to get well and be out of the hospital.
“I just want to get well doctor as fast as possible,” said Sonia during her pre-surgical visits. “I have no time to die.” The doctor was amused.
Baboo continued inconsolable. He felt he was being punished for not having stayed by his mother as she breathed her last. It was retribution, he said. He still remembered her crying and begging him to stay back. But he had to take his wife back to Dehradun. He had always chosen his wife above all others, but he had not attained moksha (freedom from cycle of birth, a Hindu belief) and now, he had the additional burden of worrying about his daughter. He wanted to die, to die before his daughter… He was scared that cancer would creep through her entrails to snatch her away from him. She was all he had!
Baboo wanted to die but most feared death.
He always worried about what would happen after death. He tried giving detailed instructions to his daughter when she exclaimed in exasperation, “In my current condition, I am more likely to die than you!”
That day Baboo was very sad and worried.
Sonia insisted Baboo come to her every year for a couple of months so that she could look after him in her own home ever since he had become a widower. It was impossible to move him out of India at eighty permanently, given all the health issues and his attitudes. (He liked to tell the doctors what medicines to give him without conducting any tests and hated to be crossed!) This was the best she could do. Baboo had his passport renewed and tickets in his pocket when he flew to Delhi.
Sonia’s surgery was done and she would be back home in a couple of days. It was a big surgery with thirty per cent of her guts sticking to the wound. Two hours is what it took for her to be out of the surgery, which was still lesser than the five hours that she faced during her last surgery.
Baboo had reached Delhi. He was fine.
Sonia had asked her Indonesian housekeeper to buy three kilos of fish as Baboo loved fish and would be with her in a couple of days. She felt elated. She was being released from the hospital that day. She was going to get well! Her father would be with her as she recuperated and all would be well soon!
And then, a call came from her uncle. Her father had collapsed!
Sonia’s happiness collapsed!
Baboo was staying in the hospital he had made in Delhi to get his medical check up done. The night after he reached Delhi, he was found senseless on the floor by a senior matron. The doctors said severe septicemia. They tried to revive him. He spoke to his daughter when he could. His family, largely in Delhi, cooked his favorite foods for him. They stayed at his bedside as did his friends and staff. Everyone loved him, adored him and cherished him… He spoke to Sonia… she said she would come… as soon as she could.
Baboo collapsed again. And then he was in the ICCU. Sonia flew down with her husband, three weeks into her surgery… there he was. She had been given three days by her doctor — three days to see her father.
She tried to talk to him, to wake him up. But he just lay there with all the pipes sticking out of him — once he opened his blue grey eyes but there was no acknowledgement in them. The doctors said that it was a reflex. Sonia felt she saw a glimmer.
Did the pipes hurt him, especially after they drilled a hole into his neck to pump out the phlegm? Was such a procedure necessary… the desecration of his body? Would he want it? Sonia wondered.
After those three days, Sonia had to fly back to care for herself. She did not know how much longer he would linger… or maybe, recover… If he were well enough to come back to his senses, what would they do to the hole in his neck, the pipe inserted by tracheostomy? Could he live with that? How would he talk to her on the phone? Or talk to anyone?
As the airport staff in Singapore, wheeled Sonia on the wheelchair, she checked her what’s ap. There was a message from her cousin, “ Baboo has passed on peacefully.”
Had the cycle come full?
Sonia was not there when he died as he was not there when his mother had died. Had he been scared? Did he know he was dying after the last collapse?
Three months after the second surgery, the doctor announced Sonia cancer free following a PET scan. She still had four more scans to go… but she was sure she was a survivor.
But where was Baboo the person who should have been jubilating her cancer – free results?