Monday, January 2, 2012

Fear & Hope

I’m writing this without knowing how I’ll conclude it. A question hangs over it and I’ll have the answer tomorrow.

It happens to most – or all – of us that we go about our daily lives in a routine way and we’re content to get on with it till we reach a tipping point when everything changes. You stumble upon a moment when everything else becomes immaterial and life as you knew it turns on its head. It might be listening to a song that touched your heart, it could be the death of a close one, or it could be the moment when you met your special person and fell head over heels in love. To me, the moment arrived day before yesterday, when I woke up, brushed my teeth, spat out and saw the basin turn red.
The initial horror left me in shock for a few seconds before I recovered and – in a state of denial – started searching for innocuous explanations. A cut in my tongue, weak gums, some blister hidden away somewhere and bleeding due to contact with the bristles, maybe a loose tooth… nothing. I swallow hard to see if my throat’s got some wound. Nothing. I was spitting blood. And it was coming up from somewhere deeper than my throat. At five on a freezing cold morning, two thousand miles away from my family and loved ones, I had to man up and face it: something was wrong. Very wrong. I was spitting BLOOD!

I stared at myself in the mirror, the fear and dissonance all too visible in my eyes. My mind was throwing up scenarios; and at such times, the worst always come up first. There’s a tumor in there. Throat, neck, lungs, it’s all in the firing line. No! I’ve just ruptured my sinuses and that’s what’s bleeding! I’ve been coughing for two weeks straight ‘cos of the cold and something’s bound to get sore and bleed. Relax! Yeah, that must be it… What if it’s a tumor? When a question like that grips you, two things happen. One, everything else that’s going on in your mind and around you comes to a screeching halt. Two, until it’s proved beyond a shade of doubt that it’s not what you’re afraid it is, the question just won’t get out of your head. It gets on top of everything else and dwarves them all. Life, comes to a standstill and your head goes into a fizz with a million thoughts all along the same tangent.

It was all about me and my grand plans for life. Family came later. My dream job that I had started off so well at and was looking forward to a great 2012. My book that was almost over and the hunt for a publisher all set to begin next week. The trip I had planned to tour Europe late next year. Love. Kids. Growing old. Parents and grandparents back at home. Plans to make up with Mom when I go home next month. In a moment, all of it seemed light years away. I was sick; possibly, terminally so. I’ve told people umpteenth times that life’s not fair; we just have to stop complaining about it and get on with our lives. But then it struck me. I’m just twenty three! That’s not fair and that hurts!

Trust me, it’s not easy having to cope up with this flood of thoughts in a few short seconds right after having seen your blood decorate the frothing wash basin in a grotesque way. I washed it away, wiped myself clean and made an effort to restore some normalcy by trying to setup my newly acquired hair-do when it struck again. It’s a tumor. And when you have chemo, your hair’s gonna fall off. Why bother setting it up now?  It was one of those moments when I couldn’t meet my own eyes in the mirror for a few seconds, before doing so loaded with self-pity.  Please!

I lead a messed up life. I eat like a pig. I don’t work out enough to burn the fat, I just make excuses by going for a bowl of cereals for breakfast. I’m obese. But does that mean life has to catch up with me in such a brutal way?? 

The immediate future gained immense significance as I slumped on the bed, my head as clear as the red slush I’d washed down the basin a minute ago. I was on my way to Jim Corbett for three days with my uncle’s family so no way of visiting a doctor till 31st. Can I make an excuse and stay back? No. I’ll have no answers to the million questions that would be thrown at me. Which hospital is trustworthy in this god forsaken place? I made up my mind. 31st, I’d return to Delhi, go to AIIMS with my colleague Ravi who knows all the doctors there and take every damn test in the book to find out what’s wrong with me. And what it if it’s a tumor?  I’ll quit my job, go back to Coimbatore, start treatments, write like crazy every day, look for a publisher and put my name in every Landmark and airport book shelf before it comes down to a straight shootout between me and The Bastard  (I couldn’t bring myself to say the C word; Still can’t.)

Once the uncertainty of what to do settled and the only uncertainty that remained was “Is it or isn’t it?” without any means of finding an answer for three days, it came down to the hardest and yet simplest and basic moment of truth that one can ever face. Fear of death versus the Hope of life. It was terrifying. It was humbling. It’s been three days but I haven’t let visions of the former enter my head though the prospect of it being a possibility has changed my life.

Perhaps the mess in my head would’ve been a bit less messy if something hadn’t happened a few days ago. Without any particular reason, I had ventured out to the market in the freezing cold, and devoid of any particular item to buy, randomly went to the book store and picked up a copy of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography It’s Not About The Bike. I’d read about half of it after a couple of nights when I received one of the most disturbing phone calls I ever have. It was from one of my best friends –married a couple of months ago to her childhood sweetheart- calling me back since I’d been trying to reach her for a couple of days to invite her and her husband over to my place for lunch (I’m a pro chef and hence the ‘eating like a pig’ bit). Her guy had suffered a seizure and had been in the hospital for a week now. He was diagnosed with a cyst in his brain and had been placed under severe medication and regular checkups. It was a shock. Came out of the blue. I was cursing life for what it had brought upon two of the nicest people I’ve ever met and was planning to give her my copy of Armstrong’s book so that she could draw inspiration from how Armstrong’s mom and his wife nursed him through the darkest days of his fight back from testicular cancer. But the guy looked pretty normal when I visited him so I decided against giving her the book, lest it should scare her. I continued reading and came to know in graphic detail, just how earth-shattering it is to be diagnosed with the C-thing and the horrors of chemo.

In the latter half of the three days, Armstrong’s book gave me enough strength and reason for hope but in the initial moments, it did enough and more to make me wet my pants. When fear of this magnitude grips you, everything around you seems to suggest something about it; and it’s all friggin’ negative. Sample this. My overzealous 12-year old cousin was packing some books to take with her to Corbett when she suddenly opened one towards the last few pages and said, “You know, I never got time to finish this book.”  In a few months, you might have to say the same about your book, Arun. God! This Is all about me!  I made up my mind.
“Divya, give me an unused notebook of yours and a pen please.”
“I don’t have any unused notebooks.” Kids!
“OK just give me some A4 sheets.” I took a dozen and stuffed them into my bag. Laptop might get discharged; so might my phone; but nothing – nothing – was gonna stop me from writing and finishing what was left of my book before… Fuck! Why me?

It was unnerving in a way I’ve never felt before. Hope was all pervasive but so were a million unanswered questions.What if… My eyes welled up. It was 530 on a freezing cold morning with dense fog reducing visibility to a couple of meters. And I was hidden behind my shades; afraid of what people might see behind them. I got into the car and before more waves of agony struck me, told myself the one thing that stood out from Armstrong’s book. I’m not gonna let this bastard get me. Are you listening in there? You made a big mistake when you chose me to hang out with. Big mistake. I’m gonna kick your ass so hard you’re gonna run yelping and not look back at me. It was a comforting thought that spread some warmth till the little kid piped up once again and asked, “How much time left ma?” How much time left, Arun?
I spent an hour plotting the next chapter in my book and even started writing down some basic stuff on my blackberry when Dad called. “Have you guys left? How much longer do you think you’ll be able to hear his voice Arun?  It was a sucker punch. I bent down, hid my face between my hands feigning an attempt at getting clearer reception, and broke down silently. It was too much to take. How much longer would I indeed get to hear his voice? I love my Dad. He’s like my best friend. We talk all the time and mostly, it’s just pointless banter. This was one of the most verbally meaningless and yet, emotionally priceless calls I’ve ever taken. I hung on for a few minutes, asking him random stuff, just to keep him on the line and hear him talk. And finally, he hung up. I fumbled around, found my shades, disappeared behind them and let it hit me. In a few months or a year, it could all be over. No amount of my other self telling me that there must be a perfectly harmless explanation to it could calm me down. I spat blood, for god’s sake!

Maybe it was the tears, or maybe it was the maelstrom of thoughts in my head, or maybe even the sheer vulnerability I was feeling; I slept. It was a dreamless siesta. After about a couple of hours, I woke up to the Sun shining in my face. The warmth it brought lasted a few seconds. The dried up tears and the dam opening up to release the flurry of thoughts brought me back to reality. But strangely, it was unnaturally quiet in my head. Somehow, in spite of having fallen asleep feeling more miserable than I can ever remember, I had woken up with a pretty simple thought in my head. I was going to war. And I would fight this. But if it isn’t to be, then I’m gonna make the remaining days count. Not once would I think of the fat lady singing, but I would treat every minute as if she was about to. It took me a day to realize I hadn’t stopped smiling since the moment this struck me.

I’ve heard from countless people and read on numerous occasions that just before you die, you’ll see a film reel of the most important moments of your life. I don’t know if that’s true but I know this much. When the fear of what lay in store gripped me, answers came aplenty. Answers to questions that had haunted me for long and answers to questions that had popped up a second ago. I could see an aura of simplicity hanging over everything. For a guy who starts griping internally when things veer even a bit off course, I couldn’t believe what was happening in my head.
The breakfast was bad. So what? I’ve seen worse. And it’s still edible.

We took the wrong road and spent an hour and a half on a bumpy mud road into the middle of nowhere in rural UP. I still got to see a lot of rural UP and I’ve never done that before!

We went on a safari hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive tiger. One made itself visible. But before I could look at it and click a pic, the people around us started buzzing and it ran away. So what? I was in the middle of a forest as I had dreamed to be when I was five.

Our car got stuck big time in the sand after some genius (My aunt or my driver. Neither would own up of course) decided it would be a great idea to drive across Ramganga’s dried up river bed. It took us four hours to get out of it and delayed the return trip. I still got to spend two hours sitting in peace by the unbelievably scenic river and even got to make friends with the guy who finally helped us pull our dead beat Innova out of the hole we had gotten ourselves in. Those of you looking to buy an SUV, here’s a quick tip. The Grand Vitara is an amazingly powerful 4 wheel drive. A monster of a vehicle. It pulled our ride out like it was going for a stroll. Unreal!

UP defined ‘bad roads’ and ‘mad drivers’ to us of the pompously named National Capital Region. I was in aam admi’s India! The land of Premchand and bedangi kavitas and some of the best homegrown literary greats of India. What could I possibly complain about? For the budding homegrown angreji lekhak in me, this was a pilgrimage.

In short, life refused to let me gripe about anything. Or rather, I refused to gripe about anything that life threw at me. That’s more like it. The war would be fought with a smile on my face. It could get to my body and maybe even beat it but I wasn’t about to let it beat my spirit. I stood up, eyeballed it from an inch away and smiled right back at it. Bring it on bitch! I remember one particular conversation which if it had happened at another time, would’ve gotten me fuming. On our way back to Delhi, still very much in the hinterlands of UP, we came upon a single lane bridge. Only one direction of traffic at any time. We almost squeezed in but the guy at the other end was too far in and we had to back off. Before we knew it, it was a steady procession of cars, gypsies, buses, trucks and some of the most monstrously overloaded tractors I’ve ever seen. And a bunch of vehicles had lined up behind us as well. We were trying to back off a bit to allow a truck to pass out of the bottleneck but we couldn’t. Everyone on the bridge and everyone behind us was stuck. This guy from behind us comes up and knocks on our window.

Aur bhaiya, jam karvaoge kya?” What’s the big idea?
My driver wasn’t one to back down. “Abe me jam kar raha hoon kya? Tu peeche jaega tab hi to sab niklenge!” Basically, your fault. Rear up.
“Saale Behen chod mujhe bol raha he! Teri gadi he sabke saamne. Tu ja kyun nahi raha he??” Some stuff about our driver’s sister and then, ‘Why aren’t you moving? You’re the guy up front!’

The long line of vehicles we were facing from the other side was evidently not his concern. There were people in vehicles behind him, shouting out for him to rear up so that we could do the same and let the guys from the opposite side go through. He just stood there, his face making it all too evident that he had fucked up. A proverbial pants down with the headlights on moment. And he continued to stare us down, cussing about my driver’s sister. Usually, in these situations, I’m not particularly averse to letting loose my own stream of Dravidian-Aryan-Anglo-Saxon influenced expletives but this time, it couldn’t even wipe the smile off my face! That’s what mental strength is all about, Naldo. The guy knows he’s in trouble and look how he’s standing his ground. You see the parallels? Watch and learn!

It wasn’t just answers that came to me. They all got together to paint me a picture of strength and incredible simplicity that I knew I would imbibe. There was no other way to go on. And it helped. In a heady state of fear and resilience, I stumbled upon the place where I would base the last act in my book. The flow and meanings came together in a second. It was perfect. I spent a few hours at the river’s edge every day playing out the scenes over and over in my head and finetuning them till they couldn’t get any better and got down to typing it all down. I got on calls with Dad just for the sake of it. I wanted to connect; and I was doing a good job of it. When I wasn’t thinking or writing, I got myself to immerse my mind in whatever was happening around me. Not for a moment did I let my head be with itself and get back to thinking up depressing possibilities. I couldn’t afford to. At these times, distractions are life-savers; especially so for me since my mind’s like a monkey and keeps hopping from one thought to another. It was indeed a stunningly beautiful place where we stayed but the situation I was in, made it look divine.  I fell in love with that place. When I left, I didn’t so much as turn my head towards the rear view mirror to look at it one last time. I’ll be back. I ain’t going anywhere.

You know how as kids, when our parents tell us that we’re going on a trip, we start planning out every small detail of it and form a utopian impression in our heads of how every step of the trip should go. And on the day of the trip, we wake up to see nothing’s as we wanted it to be, we start changing all and sundry around us and start pestering our parents to have even the smallest of things go our way. As kids, we might’ve thought we’re just being responsible and doing the best for everyone. Well, as adults, it’s just plain irritating when kids do that. Sorry Dad and Mum for all of it. I was a pro at it. My cousin was like Master Yoda. Size, voice et al.

Mamma, did you pack my pillow and sheets? I’m gonna sleep on the back seat.
Mamma, put this notepad in the bag, I’m gonna take notes when we go on the safari.
Mamma, get a flask of hot water, I’m gonna eat Cuppa Maggi on the way.
Mamma, get a matchbox, it’ll help with the bonfire.

Whew! I was bad but this was like sitting through Overcooked Childhood for Overzealous Kids 101. And unbelievably, through it all, the only thing that registered with me was the kid’s energy. She would do something silly. Her Mom would glare atom bombs at her and silence her. She would get right up and move on to the next annoyance. She was like an indomitable little whippet. If indeed things were as wrong as I feared them to be in my system, I would have to be a big friggin’ whippet that would get slapped down umpteenth times and I would have to get right back up and fight every time.
After three days of fear, hope and most of all, the amazing sense of positivity that I managed to bring out in myself, we returned to Delhi on 30th night. My head was still buzzing and I was still smiling ear to ear but one emotion was on top of it all. I had to put this all down on paper.  Just like Armstrong did. If the shit’s hit the fan and I’m sick, then he’s my hero. And I’m gonna do what he did. People took heart from his struggle and victory over the C-thing. Maybe they’ll be able to relate to my journey borne out of fear and uncertainty. And hence I got down to typing it all down.

31st December 2011 dawned on me and after saying hasty good byes to my uncle’s family, I got on the metro for Gurgaon. And I resumed typing. I called Ravi a few times but there was no answer. But it didn’t matter. AIIMS or no AIIMS, I was gonna clear my head and get the most important of all answers today.

Though I was immersed in typing away on the metro, I was surprisingly aware of all around me. Everything that I observed stayed with me. I remember every word of the conversation I had with my uncle’s driver on the way to the metro. I remember the 4 minute waiting time for the train to arrive. I remember most of the people who were standing near me in the train and what they were wearing. I even remember walking into the loo at Rajiv Chowk metro and the graffiti on the walls. One tacit but to-the-point note was on the door. Sunita. 9200455505. Rs. 500.  Enough said. It’s crazy but I even remember how many times the guy behind me tapped me on my back when I jumped the queue and forced my way into the train. I was impatient to get home and rush to the hospital. After three days of getting all the answers I wanted, this was one that I couldn’t wait for. This was the biggy. The train stopped for a few minutes midway to HUDA City Center metro and I started pacing impatiently inside the train. The world could wait. I couldn’t.  On my way out, I saw this guy jump up to try and touch the clock that was hung at the exit of the metro. I reached up and touched it with both my feet on the ground. Ha! I did it without the need to jump, sucker! 

I usually avoid going with the auto guys who come right up to the metro and start canvassing passengers but this time, I just went with the first guy who I set sight on and in a few minutes, I was home. My laptop was out of the bag and I was referring the phone numbers of local doctors in a jiffy. I silently thanked my Dad as I did so. A month ago, as I was at home, my back firmly rooted to the bed with a mixture of cough, cold, fever and throat infection having descended on me, my solution was to drink hot water, hot milk, honey and hope for the damn things to clear off in a week. My Dad, sitting the entire distance across the country, went online and got me the numbers of two homeopathic physicians who happened to live right next to my place. I got the numbers and my first call was to Dr. Archana Jain whose medicines had helped me immensely a month ago. It was a no go. She was not at home. I tried the other number, some Dr. Rajvedi. He wasn’t available either and asked me to come after a couple of hours. Then he said something that made sure I wouldn’t visit him. Ever.
“My son runs Hotel Coriander near your apartment. I’ll be there in the evening, why don’t we meet there?” Coriander!That place serves lousy chicken and the guy’s a total hack job. No way!

There was no one to give me an initial diagnosis. I had to go the whole hog. I grabbed the keys, rushed out and drove to Paras Hospitals, all along, telling myself to calm down. Philosophizing isn’t hard when you’re in such a weak state and it came to me too. I was driving along smoothly when this guy on a bike shot across from the other side of the divider and I almost ran over him. Even before the reflexes had saved the day, it came to me. If shit’s gonna happen in my life, I at least have a year’s warning. If shit had happened in that guy’s life, he would’ve been blown away to kingdom come by now without a moment’s notice. One moment, cruising on the highway. Next moment, it’s all over. Who’s unlucky now, Arun?

I pulled into Paras Hospitals and walked into the reception area. Since I’ve always taken homeopathic medicines, I don’t know a thing about going to a hospital and getting myself checked. There was something called OPD registration. Turns out it’s the registration counter for out-patients, the guys who don’t get admitted. I paused before I approached it. What if the lady at the counter asked me what’s wrong with me? Would I have to tell her in front of a dozen strangers that I spat out blood and am here to know whether it’s the C-thing or nothing?
“I need to see an ENT specialist.”

I registered, paid five hundred and fifty bucks to get a plain file and two sheets of paper in it and was shown to the ENT department. I told myself to be calm and not tell him anything about what I was afraid of. Give ‘em a hint and they’ll fleece you to the high heavens. Play it cool. Be a good sales guy. It was right next to the pediatric wing so I spent ten minutes playing with the kids waiting outside and finally, mercifully, the bearer of the answer I was here for arrived. I’ll never ever forget Dr. Amitabh Malik. I spent a grand total of ten minutes with him. I walked in knowing full well that in a few minutes time, I could be told that I’m fucked. For good. He asked me what’s wrong.

I gave him a background of the last month’s climate induced misery. Deep down, I was hoping against hope that it was indeed something to do with the constant coughing. “… So I woke up three days ago, brushed my teeth, spat out and found blood in it. Significant amounts. Over the last two days, the amount’s been much lesser but I still find blood.”
“You found lumps or streaks of blood?”
Have you heard guys talk about a heart-in-the-mouth moment? Well, this was it for me.
“Streaks. I can show you pictures.” I fished out my phone.
“Not necessary. Come closer. Any other complaints apart from this?”
“Nothing.” Just this one instance of finding blood oozing out of my mouth and splattering the basin in a way that nothing short of a lobotomy can wipe out of my memory.
He made me open my mouth, placed a gauze frame on my tongue, flashed a torch at my insides and said “Say eh”
“Say eh”. “Eh”. “Say eh”. “Eh”. This went on about a dozen times before he pulled the gauze out abruptly and pulled my nostril wide open with something that looked like a pair of tongs. “Any blood from your nose or ear?”
“Nope.” God no! I shuddered. That would’ve made me bolt from Antarctica to the nearest hospital for an MRI, CAT, ECG, EEG, ELISA and every damn test in the book.

Finally he was done. His next words were the reason why I’ll never forget him for the rest of my life. At around 1:30 PM on the 31st of December 2011, Dr. Amitabh Malik said these words to me. “The blood vessels in your throat are swollen. And they’ll bleed for a few days whenever you cough. Nothing to worry about. Just take some vitamin tablets. No cancer or anything.” He actually said it. Fear of the damn thing must’ve been writ large on my face.

I exhaled like I’ve seldom exhaled. “That’s exactly what I was worried about. It’s not a tumor? Should we run some tests to make sure of it? Are you absolutely sure?” There I was, basically giving him a blank cheque. Good sales guy, my arse!
But he was a good guy. “I’m sure. It’s just the coughing. Cover yourself up well and stay warm. You’re not wearing enough clothes for the winter.” And when I stayed silent. “There’s no tumor. Relax. Live life king size. Don’t worry about it.”

Three days after the damn thing first moved me to tears, I broke down again. There was nothing inside me. No war to fight. Nobody to kick out of my system. I was fine. It would strike me much later that thanks to these three and a half days, I was more than just fine. And the ear to ear grin stayed as I wiped off the tears, shook his hand, thanked him for having made my day, wished him a happy new year and walked out with a swagger that would make any tough guy proud. I was OK.

People go to hospitals ‘cos they’re sick. Hospitals make me sick. At that moment, Paras Hospitals and its dour interiors looked like Coimbatore. (To me, there’s no happier place than Coimbatore. Home) I walked out, got into my car and started a series of fist pumpings that made the security guy peer in curiously. I almost called Dad to share the news when I stopped. No friggin way! This would be my secret. One word about this and he’ll be on the next flight to Delhi. Madness.
I drove out, rolled the window down and gave out the loudest and longest “Yes” of my life. Everything was back to normal. And thanks to these three days, nothing would ever go back to being normal. Every move I was making, every thought crossing my head was telling me the same thing: There was a before and an after. And there was no comparing the two guys. For one, I still don’t know what will wipe this smile off my face. And for another, I don’t want it to be wiped off. I wanna live with it. I wanna go to sleep with it. I want it to greet everything and everyone around me.

I treated myself to KFC’s best, gave thirty bucks to a beggar, called up a friend of mine and bluntly told  her, “I’m fine and I don’t have the c-thing.”
“You don’t have to be so melodramatic and hypochondriac” Er… now I have to look up what hypochondriac means.

It was 10 degrees outside, the doctor had asked me to cover myself up well in this weather. I was running around in a shirt and a pair of jeans. Nothing mattered. I was fine. My book would go to the printers in a few months if all pans out well. It bloody will!  And I don’t have a cloud hanging over me. Life was beautiful.

I pulled up at the traffic light and when the lights turned green, gunned the engine. It gave in and turned off. As I turned it on again, the horn started blaring from behind me. “Relax dude! There’s enough and more time left in life!”

  *                             *                             *

(Inspired in equal parts by my plight over the last three and a half days and Lance Armstrong’s autobiography. The two just happened to walk into my life at the same time. )

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