To You (yes, you),
I always feared that someday my little world will sprout wheels and flee when I am looking the other way. And exactly a month ago, I realized that there is nothing half so distressing in the world than having your worst fear come true. My father was diagnosed with cancer. The shock of it unsettled and scared me more than I could ever express to anyone. There was no time for sadness, anger, denial. Actions and decisions-prompt, deliberate-was the priority. The next 48 hours were the busiest I had ever been; running necessary medical investigations, researching probable hospitals for treatment, talking to oncologists, making travel arrangements, sorting out finances, applying for leave at work, haphazardly packing a slice of my life into a brown suitcase and backpack (completely unaware that I won’t be coming back for at least a year), and flying to Delhi. In an instant, an ordinary instant, the giant hand of fate scooped me up from my carefree, pampered existence and landed me with a thud with the entire responsibility of my family on me. No longer could I go on being taken care of, and banking on the security of having parents who will make everything alright. I had moments of indecisiveness and worry about whether I was making the right choices, but there wasn’t anyone I could share my anxiety with. I realized that the concern of relatives and friends will be restricted to well-meaning queries and minor tasks. Mostly, I am on my own. And will always be. This sky-rocketing of responsibility and worries about what the future held kept me up many nights, and I desperately wanted to talk to you; but that would have been preposterous and unduly imposing of me. So, I wrote you letters that never left the drafts folder. A week into the sudden upheaval in my life, my father’s treatment started and the next chaos followed.
I got a post-graduate seat in a town in Gujarat that is on the diametrically opposite corner of the country from my home. In the past, I would have been ecstatic at the opportunity to study in an institute renowned for its pathology curriculum and expertise. But torn between the desire to take care of my father and the allure of further studies in a good institute, the circumstances resembled a cruel joke. I decided to give up the seat and try again the next year, but my family and certain other people whose opinions I valued and respected repeatedly encouraged me to work out the dilemma by joining the college and monitor my father’s treatment details over phone, and if possible plan short trips to see him frequently. When I weighed my options, I realized that any further delay of a valuable academic year would have far-reaching implications on my career, finances, my plans to look after my family, and certain social obligations that come with being a female on the wrong side of her twenties. So, I had lengthy talks with my father’s doctors, taking re-assurances from them about the pace and quality of the treatment, booked travel tickets, packed my bags again and was off again after less than a week’s stay in Delhi.
The flight to Ahmedabad was frightfully early. The last thing I saw through the blur of my tears, as I entered the Terminal 3 airport, was my father and sister waving at me. I am a quick learner, and by then I had learnt not to dwell on the sickening pangs of sadness that welled up inside me at times. Soon, I was lost in the queues of fellow travelers. I sat next to an elderly NRI who watched me gingerly take a bite of the sandwich that we were served during the flight and piped up, “Don’t worry. In Gujarat, they serve only vegetarian food.” I was to realize soon enough that it in fact was an agonizing truth for even ones like me, who don’t eat meat but thrive on eggs and prawns and fish fried in mustard sauce. I reached Ahmedabad just as the sun flushed the early morning sky a mellow orange.
By then the jolly, old man had regaled me with anecdotes about his son’s perpetual confusion in amalgamating the suave yet detached lifestyle of the west and the slightly clingy yet familiar comfort of his Indian roots. His monologue didn’t cease even as we drove through Ahmedabad to the bus stand in the taxi we shared and left me with little time to soak in the sights and sounds on my first moments in Gujarat. I took a bus to Rajkot where I had some work at the university. The conversation around me was a vague, alien blur of ‘su’ and ‘che’ sounds. A lone well amidst a vast green field; languid stares of the cattle on the road; heavily wrinkled old women sitting in a huddle to soak up the sunshine; rows of giggling school girls with pig-tails, riding their bicycles were sights reminiscent of the ones I had encountered during my rural posting a year ago. Rajkot is an emerging city, with a splatter of high-rises, multiplexes, expensive cars; and yet homely and familiar to someone like me who has travelled from a similar town. By five in the evening, my work at the university was over and my shoulders drooped under the weight of the heavy backpack. But I slugged on to the nearest bus stand to catch a bus to the town that would be my home for the next few years. Having been chauffeured around town all throughout school and college, my experience of commuting on public transport is zilch apart from the occasional autorickshaw rides. As the next day was Raksha Bandhan (the enthusiasm of celebrating which is nearly comparable to Durga Puja in Assam), none of the private buses were available; and I found myself in a restless crowd of unfamiliar faces waiting for the one or two free seats in each of the public buses plying on the highway. On my left stood a hefty man with a bush for a moustache, and sitting dangerously close on my right was a cow with horns capable of tearing open a man into two neat halves without any effort. I wasn’t street-savvy enough to push my way through the crowd and hop onto any of the buses. I felt zillions of miles out of my comfort zone. I managed to get into a bus at last, paid the fare and waited for the conductor to miraculously produce my seat in the jam-packed bus. But he grinned at me, showing his paan-stained teeth, and said, “Uppa uppa”. After a few seconds of confused silence, I realized that I was supposed to hang onto the bus rail and stand all the way up to my destination, with the agonizing burden of the backpack that weighed more than all the rocks on earth (or so it seemed). I reached my destination just as it was bathed in the soft blue light of dusk. I took an auto to the nearest hotel and checked in. Having never stayed alone in a hotel, that too one with gaudy pink bed-sheets and eerily quiet at night, I was bit apprehensive and was overwhelmed about adding yet another experience to the ‘firsts’ in my life, all in the span of a day. My paranoia of the unknown made me push a heavy chair against the locked door of my hotel room. But after a refreshing shower and pushing some dinner down the gullet, sleep overpowered my fears; and as I woke up the next day and watched the bustling town through the window, my irrelevant fears dissipated.
The next couple of days were spent in a whirlwind of settling down in this new place- setting out early in the morning to college to compete the admission paperwork, orienting myself to the department and getting introduced to the seniors and the faculty, utilizing the hectic lunch hour to get a local phone connection and transfer bank accounts, getting scared by the tornado that is duty at the blood bank, shopping in the local bazaar, returning back to the hotel with arms laden with buckets and clothes clips, eating Gujarati thali or greasy ‘kadhai paneer’ dinners, updating myself on my father’s treatment, and drifting off into a dreamless sleep. I filled the hostel form for temporary accommodation and the warden directed me to the girl’s common room (a dormitory reserved for freshers). So, at seven in the morning of the next day, I checked out of the hotel and dragged my luggage into the first floor of the hostel I was supposed to stay for the next ten days. A boy answered it, sleepily rubbing remnants of sleep from his eyes with his knuckles and looking just as confused as I felt. Turned out that all the girls who were allotted the common room were either staying out of campus or shifted into rooms of senior residents. A frantic few phone calls later, I found a senior’s room to store my luggage and attend my classes meanwhile. The college was set up in 1955, five years before our college was built. The architecture is Gothic, with high ceilings and ragged stone walls and pigeons roosting in every possible corner you can name. The campus is huge and I still haven’t seen it all. The hospital, medical college, trauma centre, faculty quarters, the innumerable hostels, 24 hour canteens and library, wide grounds, tree-lined roads, archways; all in one campus, and not separated by a long road uphill like ours was. It is slightly shabby but nice. I like it.
The Pathology department is on the first floor of the medical college, and the long flight of stairs leading up to it has an old world charm. There are five sub-sections in it- Central Clinical Laboratory (CCL), Histopathology, Cytology, OPD and the (dreaded) Blood Bank. The intensity of duties of a pathology resident here is comparable to that of pediatrics or orthopedics residents back home, with 36 hour shifts at least once a week and 15-hour shifts on most days. My hope of it being a soft option (so that I could concentrate on writing) was brutally shattered in the first week itself. But being a creature of habit, I am used to resent things that I am secretly glad to have chosen. This academic course is one of them. The seniors were cordial and co-operative and a bunch of them went out of their way to make the hapless first year residents feel at home. I teamed up with two girls from Punjab and at midnight, after duty at the blood bank and a dinner of Marie biscuits, we shifted into a vacant room in the PG hostel for a couple of days, arranging a cot and mattress and light-bulb from seniors. We planned to live out of our suitcases till permanent quarters were allotted. Then we were in for the next shock. It was a co-ed hostel. First jolt, but we tried to mask our discomfort and awkwardness. The second jolt came at seven in the next morning when I came out of the shower cubicle to find a guy, wearing nothing but a towel and brushing his teeth on the sink in the same bathroom. As I relayed this news to my room-mates, it dawned on us why the hostel accommodation was free. It had common bathrooms, no maintenance, and lack of water in the washrooms at times of dire need. That was it. We vowed to find off-campus living quarters that very evening. And we did. Two days later, I shifted into a quaint little house, a half an hour walk away from college. There is a single room with an attached bath atop the wide terrace.
I love my room. It doesn’t contain a single piece of essential furniture. Clothes are in the suitcase, the mattress is on the floor, the groceries and toiletries are on two tiny plastic shelves, books are stacked in two high piles on the floor, clothes and bags hang on the wall hooks. The walls are bare, but thankfully the bathroom is spotlessly clean. Even with the negligible furnishings and bare possessions in my room, it feels like home every time I stride in tired late at night and flop down on my bed. Finally I am living alone; doing my own laundry, keeping stock of groceries, dusting and cleaning, and God forbid, even encountering my nemesis, cooking! I don’t own a gas stove, and am forced to experiment every dish on the electric cooker. I can eat only so much of North Indian food or Gujarati thalis at the college canteen or hostel mess on a regular basis. So, despite my non-existent cooking skills, I am experimenting, devouring and surviving on my own cooking. The joy of rice hitting my palate! I have a new found respect for the time-saving boons of the hot tiffincase; and most of all, my mother, whose cooking I miss terribly.
The day starts early for me. I wake up at four-thirty and study for an hour or two. Then I brew myself some coffee and walk out into the terrace and up the rusty stairs leading up to the roof; soaking in the warm aroma of the coffee, the sunrise, the slow awakening of the town, the numerous birds of all shapes and sizes silhouetted against the orange sky, the magic wind, thoughts of what the day will bring, thoughts of home and my family and thoughts of you. It is the favorite time of my day, a quiet space to wonder about the new life and reminiscence the one that I had left behind. I can’t write though; the delightful chaos in my mind and the urge to sort it out in words has deserted me. I don’t want to linger on anything, just live from moment to moment. The herd of cows gathering in a nearby field and mooing in unison works as my alarm clock and I wake up from my stupor of thoughts and memories, and get ready for the day ahead. Sometimes I forget to tiptoe down the stairs and run into the landlady and get trapped for a good half an hour as a reluctant audience to her religious sermons and neighborhood gossip. She is a good woman, but the sort who would be blissfully unaware if her audience fell like dominoes and dropped dead at her feet.
I pack my lunch bag, try to tame my unruly hair in the miniscule mirror hanging on the wall, get dressed in less than five minutes, and walk out of home sometime before eight. The auto fares are ridiculously low here, a pittance compared to the ones we have back home, but I prefer to walk to college in the morning. I pass by a sign called ‘Department of Lighthouses’ on my way. It makes me smile; I find the solitude of lighthouses and the waves crashing all around it very romantic. I eat buttered toast and gulp down a cup of Bournvita at the college canteen for breakfast. Sometimes I have a fluffy, melt-in-the mouth omelette, and it feels like an oasis of non-vegetarian heaven in the midst of people who don’t even eat onions and garlic. I am still clueless about where to buy fish. The morning passes by in the rush of OPD or blood bank. And then comes the much looked forward to lunch hour, which can vary from two hours to half an hour. I eat my lunch in the dining section of the common room, nap for twenty minutes (in the library!), and then revise notes etc. On the days when my duty gets over at six in the evening, I explore the surrounding area. I have discovered tiny shops in nooks and corners that are treasure troves of reasonably-priced commodities. The local bazaar is teeming with vibrancy and colour. I love the energy and earnestness of the people here. I like the way people welcome outsiders into their lives so warmly. Within a week, like Barney Stinson, I had a guy for every possible chore. The only difference is that here we address them as ‘bhai’. My phonebook is peppered with a string of ‘bhais’ that includes the property broker, my landlord, the bottled water delivery guy, the milkman, the washer-man, the grocery store shopkeeper, the auto driver, the Xerox shop guy etc. I took time getting used to addressing people as bhai or ben. It sounded funny in my mouth. But now I use them with a confident and familiar drawl. I am perpetually scared that I’ll slip into my Assamese ways and address senior female residents as ba (elder sister in Assamese, but grandmother in Gujarati!)
It’s a relatively safe place for women; I don’t feel anxious to travel alone after work in an auto at midnight. We even travel to the city outskirts to watch the late night movie shows in groups of three to four girls, and it doesn’t intimidate us. There are ice cream parlours, bakeries and patisseries in every block. A big black dog with a lazy eye sits curled up o the first floor corridor of the hospital on most days. I have become friends with most of the residents from the other departments too. I haven’t found anyone from Assam though. But it is a good place to live, and I love it here.
Ten days after my arrival, my father’s chemotherapy started and he became severely nauseous and weak. I longed to be beside him. Talking over the phone with him, hearing my new friends exasperatedly but endearingly discuss their fathers, thinking of how carefree I was just a few days ago with no greater worries than a PG seat, all of these welled up embarrassing tears in my eyes. I had to visit him anyhow, even if for a day. A good friend booked my tickets and after fifteen long hours I was next to my father. He was coping well with the treatment but the radiotherapy induced mucositis in his throat caused excessive pain while swallowing food. He kept up his hour-long jogging routine six days a week. His stamina and determination to beat the disease astounds me. I spent four days with my family, and sooner than I had wanted it, I was back to work and my new life.
And here I am now, writing you this letter, that I know I will never send and you will never read. But I love writing these long letters, as in my mind you are always near and eagerly listening to my ramblings. I think of you at small pockets of time throughout the day. When I come back home each night, dead tired, I check if you are online. I won’t ever talk to you or cause you any unease, but it delights me that you are there, only a phone call away. It’s the modern equivalent of one taking comfort that the person he/she loves can see the same night sky and the same sliver of moon on it. It is a barely visible thread of connection and of naked, innocent hope; but a connection nonetheless. I will always hold onto it. It makes me forget my worries. Just the very fact that you are out there somewhere and that I love you is enough to sustain me through many a difficult day or mishaps.
I no longer wonder though if I ever cross your mind. It is laughable. And yet-yes, yet-in the middle of a busy day, you enter my thoughts and I get an inexplicable courage that eventually things will be alright. Why is it so is beyond me. The idea of you calms me down. And how I treasure it! My love for you is no longer restricted by hopes of reciprocation, it is just there…buoyant, carrying me away from everything that is wrong in my life for a precious few moments every day, and consuming me whole.