An Unassuming Hero

Before I joined medicine, I had a romantic notion of death.

Death for me was the girl in Erich Segal’s ‘Love Story’. I longed to be her, loved and revered , preserved in my lover’s memory like a hard-pressed dry rose in the pages of his mind.

Death for me was the image of the doomed star crossed lovers of ‘Ek Duje ke Liye’ caught in a Rigor Mortis like embrace till eternity.

Death was Rajesh Khanna’s disembodied voice speaking from the whirring record player . “Ae Babu Moshai, Zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai. Usse na aap badal sakte hain na main”

By the end of my MBBS course, the rose tinted glasses were thrown off.

For more frightening than Death, was Life itself.

Life with bed sores.

Life with pain that cut through like a searing knife into the bone.

Life with no sensation below the neck downwards.

Life with a sick child and financial burdens.

Life with the sheer helplessness of chronic, endless pain.

An incident etched into my mind , is an encounter with one of our Prof’s at Calicut Railway station. We were both waiting for the Kannur expresss which was one hour late. Professor M R Rajagopal, the then Head of Anaesthesia was travelling to Trivandrum to visit his parents. I was on my way to spend the weekend with my grandfather at Kottayam. We were already well acquainted as I was one of the compere’s for an Anaesthesia conference on Palliative Care held the previous year. (I was invariably selected for such jobs as I was one among the few Malayali’s who could pronounce memento as memento , and not mOmento.) We soon got chatting and I asked sir what made him take up Anaesthesia. Wouldn’t Surgery or Medicine have been a more aspirational choice? He smiled and said, “ Well , back in my days there was no choosing a speciality. I was attending an interview for provisional lecturer post in Calicut medical college , when the Principal asked me which speciality I was interested in. I eagerly told him I was ready to take up any clinical speciality , except Anaesthesia .

I asked, “ And then?”

In a deadpan voice he said, “ The Principal, immediately assigned me Anaesthesia.”

“But why did he do that?”

“Well Priya, he was that kind of a man”,he said with a dry chuckle.

I digested this piece of information with a smile. For Sir is one of the stalwarts in the field of Anaesthesia , a pioneer in setting up Pain & Palliative care in Kerala. The trilingual announcement came booming up. The train was another 15 minutes late. So I continued with my questioning, and asked him what made him foray into Palliative medicine. He told me an incident of a college professor aged 42 with cancer of the tongue who had been referred to him by an oncologist. The man was in severe pain and sir, the anaesthetist, was asked if he could help. He injected a numbing substance into the man’s mandibular nerve, located in the jaw, in a procedure known as a “nerve block,” and told the patient to return in 24 hours. The next day, the pain had almost completely subsided and sir was pleased with his work.

“He asked me when he should come back. I told him there was no need to come back, unless the pain returned. I thought he would be happy I had cured the pain.

Instead, he went home and killed himself that night.”

I looked at him, stunned with dismay. It turned out that the oncologist had avoided explaining to the college professor that his cancer was terminal. Instead, he had said he was referring him to the anaesthetist for further treatment.

“It was only when I told him there was no need to come back that he realized his cancer was incurable. He went home and told his family it was all over.” Sir adjusted his spectacles back into the crook of his nose and quietly said, “I had not bothered to find out about the human being, about his feelings… The incident triggered me to look outside of pain, to look at the person as a whole.”

The train soon came chugging into the station and we went our separate ways to find our respective bogies. My next interaction with Sir was during housesurgeoncy. We had a one week posting in Palliative care as part of our curriculum. During our classes, Sir narrated another incident. He was looking after a patient with a gangrenous toe who was in excruciating pain. “I asked my head of department if I could try a nerve block. He refused – it was not part of routine care and there was a shortage of anesthetists.” He paused and said, “I had to tell the man there was nothing I could do. I still remember the look of hopelessness on his face.” Later, when he became head of department at Calicut, there was no one to tell him what he could and couldn’t do. That is how he came to treat the college professor. But his patient’s suicide showed him that treating the pain was not enough. “I realized that thinking about nerve blocks was too narrow. Pain is just the visible part of the iceberg of suffering. What is ignored is the part below the surface – feelings of hopelessness and despair, worries about money, about children. That is what palliative care is about. That man gave up his life to help me understand it.”

In 1993, after he had attended a course run by an English nurse, Gilly Burns ,he with his colleagues Dr Suresh Kumar and Mr Ashok Kumar, established the Pain and Palliative Care Society in Calicut . “Six of us put in 250 rupees each. We found two volunteers, Meena and Lissy, young women with children at school, to register patients and sit and talk to them. Then I would come after work to see them. It very quickly got attention. In the hospital, we were working in a sea of suffering. But in the clinic, you could see people smiling, talking, finding comfort.”

There was a limitation, however. It was exposed early on when a young man came begging for help for his mother, who was in severe pain. She lived in a remote spot where there was no road and could not be moved. When the man was told that the doctors could not prescribe without seeing the patient, he broke down in tears. Mr Ashok told him , “ We shall come to your home”, and made that trip happen. That trip was the first home visit. Gradually demand increased. Then someone donated a vehicle. It soon developed into a full fledged home visit programme with trained doctors making their way to bed-ridden patients, often in far-flung rural areas and sometimes in neighbourhoods in their own cities. It wasn’t only for terminally ill cancer patients. It extended help to diabetics, stroke patients, paralysed accident victims. “We help people live at home and die at home. Most want that,” said Rajagopal sir.

Another hurdle he had to face was the availability of Morphine- the opioid drug notorious for its addictive properties, but the strongest and most effective medicine for pain relief. As a drug , Morphine was easy and cheap to produce. Back then it was not the cost that restricted access, but the law. Morphine had been highly restricted in India since 1985. As a result, of this archaic law two generations of doctors and nurses had grown up without even seeing a morphine tablet. Misplaced fears about drug abuse had condemned millions of terminally ill patients to an unnecessarily painful death. The social taboo was so strong, you had patients begging you not to give them morphine, for fear of addiction, he explained. In this respect, Kerala had again proved more enlightened than other Indian states and since 1998, palliative care centres in Kerala had been permitted to administer the drug orally. It took 19 long years, but in 2014, the Indian Parliament finally changed the law. Sir and his team’s current efforts are to get the new law implemented by India’s 29 states and 6 union territories. The new national health policy of government of India announced in 2017 has included palliative care; but it will require a huge effort to ensure strategy planning, budget allocation and implementation.

He says, “ We have been striving to ensure inclusion of palliative care in undergraduate Medical and Nursing curriculum; but have not had much success with Medical and Nursing Councils as yet. We have successfully persuaded the Kerala University of Health Sciences ( KUHS) to include it in 2016. We are now struggling to find a way to implement it.”

Dignity in death is another thing Sir stresses on . “Every human being deserves a dignified death” he says in this talk. It’s worth hearing it once. Only 10% of us stand a chance of a sudden death. The rest of us (‘us’ with money in our pockets) are likely to end up in a bed bound state in a hospital with state of the art facilities. In this he tells you that the richer you are (big, fat medical Insurance packet? NRI son?), the more important you are (President? Chief minister?), the more likely you are to face an agonizing death. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJDP73wqwRg

It’s important to have these conversations with your loved ones and plan in advance for a painless, dignified exit.

Sir has been an inspiration. His life’s work has been made into a movie, ’Hippocratic:18 experiments in Gently Shaking the World.’ http://hippocraticfilm.com/ It gives me great happiness to see his humble presence in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. His nomination for the 2018 Nobel Prize is exciting for the entire doctor community in Kerala and the world Palliative care movement .

He is a simple man with a big vision. An India free from pain is his goal.

Our world needs more unassuming heroes like him.

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In the driver’s seat

I don’t think I would have counted the days so fervently if it were my own leg which had got fractured. The hubby’s fracture cast ( a snazzy , robotic looking pneumatic cast) is on for 5 weeks and not even 1 week had passed. The reason for this disquietitude was my sudden promotion to the full time drivers seat. I kind of had it easy till now as we both worked in the same place with similar timings. The tragedy was not exactly having to drive , because I do drive around a bit , but having someone sitting right next to you giving exasperated sighs and grunts.

“Why are you going so slow?”

I toy with the idea of telling him that driving is like a subconscious activity for me and that I sometimes go slow when I follow a train of thought, but then I drop the idea. For he is a down to earth man, not a foot in the clouds soul. He wouldn’t take too kindly to the explanation.

My sojourn in my new role is anything but uneventful. Once while driving back from a late night icecream treat , a young guy jumps in front of my car and he manages to jump out of harms way just in time, like a hare on the run. Instead of rebuking him, the hubby shouts out to him. “ Jeevaninu kothi undengil oddirekshapeddada”. ( If you want to live , you’d better run for your life, bro ! ). Another incident, this was on the way back from a friends place at night. I was driving towards the middle of the road with a scooter on my left when a speeding ambulance came with it’s siren screaming in. I increased my speed so that I could overtake the scooter on my left and give way to the ambulance. He roars, “ Are you trying to RACE the ambulance?!!! You are supposed to slow down , not go faster !!” I begin to explain, but he is way too angry. So I decide to sulk in silence and give him the big ignore. As it happens every single time in such situations , he sleeps peacefully through the night while I toss and turn ,sleeping fitfully. The next morning he awakens as fresh and crisp as the morning newspaper with an amazingly zero recollection of the previous nights tornado. I float around like an angry grey cloud for a while ,then seeing his sunny countenance decide to just forget about it . Some advice an elder cousin sister had given me, regarding marriage comes to mind. “ Girl, you know what’s the secret to a successful marriage?” I give a few weak tries and then shake my head. She leans over and whispers into my ear with a chuckle ,“Amnesia!”

He soon realises that I am quite useless in reverse parking. The thing is, I do manage to do it , but take my own time. I first turn the wheel left ,look back, then turn the wheel to the right, then left again. This again,happens instinctively . There is no scientific method involved. But I do get it right eventually. So after giving me a earful, he sets about ghost driving it in for me. Seeing all this tamasha, my 10 year old declares one fine morning that she never wants to learn how to drive. The hubby feels a stab of guilt and rushes in to explain. After hearing his explanation she too switches camps and joins him in criticizing me. I wearily stop fiddling with the hard kadala pods on my plate and tell her in the manner of one who has seen it all, “ One day , my dear girl, you too will get married.”

Two weeks later, the frequency of angry grunts and exasperated sighs come down. The air is thick with resignation. He has given in to his karma and tries to fake nonchalance by tapping away busily at his mobile. When an ambulance siren blares in the next lane , he looks up with an innocent expression on his face and asks me gently, “Aren’t you going to race it?” I decide to leave that unanswered. One can’t stoop to road rage while driving. An occasion arises where he and Appa (my father in law) have to go to a place on the outskirts of town to check on something. I volunteer to drive both of them up there, as it’s a Sunday, exams are over and the kids have been packed away to grandparent-land. He looks at me in the eye, “Do you really want Appa to join us in this suicide mission?”

Things come to a boil when while having coffee at 3pm with my friend (during our pd- paradooshanam break at work) , the lady with the toothy grin at the Cafe day counter tells me she will bring some ‘thaillam’ for me on Saturday, for you-know-who. She is a simple old lady who is fond of me too. I ask her in a mock aggrieved manner, “ Who’s going to apply it for him?” She clucks like a mother hen and tells me how I should go about doing it. I am relentless. “What about my bedsheets?” She is startled and gives me a what-kind-of-a-wife-are-you look. I grin cheekily and walk away before she regains her composure and gives me a lecture on how to go about washing them too.

It’s 4 weeks down and I think my driving has improved a bit as he is less jumpy now. He has taken to giving instructions at every step. Turn left , go fast, go slow, give way, honk. I feel a bit like a robot controlled driver, but still, this seems to work. He tells me in a moment of ‘ joie de vivre’ , “You know, you would make a really good motor rally driver.” I look at him suspiciously. Knowing him , it’s unlikely to be a compliment. “ Why is that? “ , I ask. “Well, in these motor rallies there are two people in the car, one is the Driver and the other is the Navigator . The Driver isn’t supposed to think for himself, he just has to follow the Navigator’s instructions to the T.” I respond to that with a “Humph!” I need to vent so I ask him whether I can blog about this. He says I can do anything I want once his cast is off and he starts driving. I ask him, “Why?” He replies, tongue in cheek, “We need to be sure that this has a happy ending,no? “

It’s the fag end of a month of my driving and the air of resignation has given way to black humour. He starts singing this song in a funereal tone from the Mohanlal starrer, ’Spirit’.

“Maranamethunna Nerathu Nee ende Arikil ithiri Neram Irikkane….”

The joke is on me, but I can’t help laughing. I protest at the implication and forbid him from singing morose Malayalam songs. As I drive, he seamlessly changes track to English and softly sings along in a quavering voice , these lines from an old favourite , “ … And it seems to me , you lived your life. Like a Candle in the Wind. Never knowing whom to cling to , when the rain set in….. “

The Portrait in Puthupally house

The two birdbrain chatterboxes were standing right in the way of the ongoing Australia-South Africa test match unfolding on the TV screen. They had been pontificating in front of my yellow tinged portrait for quite sometime now. The one with the ponytail was my great great granddaughter , 6.3.1.1 and the one with the snazzy shades was another great great granddaughter ,6.2.2.2. Being an orderly and systematic man I preferred to recall the descendants of my 9 children in this fashion. 6.3.1.1 meant she was my 6th child’s, third child’s, first child’s , first daughter. I squinted my eyes, trying to see what was going on in the TV screen. Something was seriously amiss. Play was held up and some replays were being shown on repeat. I could catch words like “ ball tampering” … “yellow tape” …floating in the air waves. I glared at my two descendants from behind my round horn rimmed glasses and felt like giving them a piece of my mind. You aren’t made of glass , girls ! I need to see how they caught him. And then finally 2.2 ( my lawyer grandson ) has the good sense to call them for his mother’s tea and freshly baked ‘poo’ cakes from the next door bakery. I finally get to figure out the nitty gritties of the ball tampering scandal. It was exposed thanks to that amazing contraption they called a spider cam. It sure looked like a big spider hiding in the sky who had trapped the unsuspecting fly. A clear case of being caught red handed with their hands in the cookie jar.

The airwaves were crackling with discussions on cheating. How the Pakistani’s had done it all along. How the Australians had just been just plain unlucky to get caught. In my opinion, the more you justify a cheat, the more you buy in to normalising cheating and in due course legitimising dishonesty. Give them their due and don’t make heroes out of them, I say . The cheating scandal reminded me of an incident , an allegation of cheating, way back in 1930. It was a day before my last day in office. I had received a letter from the schoolmaster regarding my son, my 8th child. For his Sixth form exams he had written Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I [The quality of mercy is not strained], verbatim. Letter for letter. Apostrophe for apostrophe. The letter went on to explain that it was quite impossible for a boy of his caliber to remember it perfectly without having cheated. And for this he was being summoned by the Board , this Tuesday of the last week of Lent. I knew he was innocent because Portia’s speech was one of my favourites from Shakespeare and I would frequently quote it around the house. The boy had literally grown up hearing it being quoted often , by yours truly. In her speech to Shylock, Portia, disguised as the learned young lawyer Balthasar who is sent in lieu of an ailing Doctor Bellario, tries to caution the usurer against his thirst for revenge against Antonio. She argues for the Christian virtue of mercy.In her speech Portia tells Shylock that mercy is something that is not shown because it is necessary (strained); rather, a person extends mercy to another out of the generosity of his heart. She argues further that showing mercy does benefit the giver:

It becomes

The thronèd monarch better than his crown. (4.1.176-177)

Seated before the board which comprised of schoolmaster and other officials who all looked liked a bunch of stuffed rabbits I sternly asked my son if he had indeed , cheated. He replied in the negative. He had studied it well and knew it by heart. The school master leaned forward and showed me his answer sheet. My heart swelled up with pride on seeing his beautiful cursive handwriting with the speech written out so perfectly in royal blue ink. It was indeed perfect. He had a point. This was too good to be true. So I turned to my son. “These gentlemen feel it is impossible for a little boy to remember these lines so well. So here is my pen. Write it out now in our presence so that we can settle this matter once and for all“. The boy gratefully set to work and wrote it out again in his exquisite handwriting. Letter for letter. Apostrophe for apostrophe. The Board was appeased and my boy was thrilled beyond words. As I walked back through the paddy fields with my son , he asked me, “ How did you know that I had not cheated the first time round?”. I smiled at him. “ It’s Portia’s speech. You must have heard me quoting it even in your mother’s womb.”

The eloquent words from Portia’s speech hung heavy in the air as the next morning was officially my last day in court. It was a murder case . The accused , a native from Chengannur had hacked his pregnant wife to death. The hearing had been going on for months together and both sides had presented their arguments. I got up that morning with a heavy sense of foreboding. Being my last day in court the expectation was that I would grant him a lighter sentence. A hush had settled over the hall as i unhappily glanced at the accused before reading out the judgement . There was a flicker of hope in his eyes and it would be blown away with what I was to unleash on him next. With a racing heart and my hands trembling I read out his sentence. “To be hanged by the neck till death”.

It was hailed as a merciless decision, by some , and a fair ruling that showed my strength of character, by others. As was the custom then, I threw the pen I had used to write the judgement on the table, breaking it. We judges used to destroy the pen used by us to write the judgement handing over capital punishment , by banging it on the table with the hope that we would not be forced to deliver yet other one.

Little did anyone in the court back then know how helpless I was and how difficult a judgement it was for me . Even now, when I see news channels showing the agonising last moments of condemned convicts it disturbs me immensely. In my defence, the year back then was 1930. In those days death penalty was the normal punishment for murder. If a session’s judge was to depart from it, he was bound to set out explicit reasons for not awarding it to a man convicted for murder. In other words , I had no other choice. My hands were tied by the law.

In due course of time, much after my lifetime, Cr. P.C. was amended in 1973 by which it was directed that the normal punishment for murder is life imprisonment and death penalty was the exception. This time round , it was not because of any legislative exercise, but by the pronouncement of the majority judgment by the Supreme Court of India in what is known as the Bachan Singh case. There a majority of judges declared that death penalty could be imposed only in “rarest of rare cases in which the alternative sentence of life is unquestionably foreclosed”.

6.3.1.1 and 6.3.2.2 were back after their tea break , and had plonked themselves in front of my framed photograph again , effectively blocking my view of the repentant Captain Smith’s press conference. Now you must be wondering what these two whippersnappers were so avidly discussing before my portrait. Don’t be fooled. The scene from far may look like the younger generation paying respects to their ancestors. But in fact, the topic of raging debate between them was centred around the pride of my face. My famous clipped moustache.

Did it resemble Charlie Chaplin’s or Hitler’s?

I wish one of them would just concede one way or the other so that I could catch what Captain Steve Smith had to say in his defence. The clipped moustache had became rather popular pre-WWI. My opting for it had nothing to do with either of them. It was simply considered in vogue at that time. And I, Justice Itty, was a fashionable man.

The Age of the Gallstone

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1st February , 2018

Many moons back , a few minutes past midnight, I was born. My grandfather was particular that I should be born on 1st as it was his father’s birthday. Being an obedient granddaughter I made my entry soon after the clock struck 12 at midnight. My brother used to tease me by quoting a line from an old Bollywood movie, where the villain Danny Denzongpa  says this line. “Raat ke baarah baje, shaitaan paida hota hai aur mai raat ke baarah baje paida hua tha.” ( The devil was born at 12’ o clock in the night and so was I). As I approach my 40th birthday an ominous feeling overcomes me. I can’t shake it off. There is this inescapable sense of gloom that half your life, ( the better half) is past you. When I joined for MBBS in Calicut in 1996 , we were the 40th batch to do so. And when we read the mnemonic for the classic candidate for gallstones in our Surgery textbook, “ Fatty fertile female of forty”, our class guys wouldn’t stop smirking. They had a new line to tease us. “ Fatty fertile females of the Fortieth”. Well, most of the 40th is turning 40 this year. In keeping with the spirit of pervading gloom at the sight of grey hairs popping up , the name suggested for our Batch reunion in Bangalore this December is ‘ 18 till I dye’.

As I’m wading through these sticky molasses of melancholy thoughts, the hubby asks me where I want to go for dinner tomorrow night to celebrate the big day. Now the dish I really want to have is Lobster Thermidor at Gaylords , Mumbai or Crab Malabari at Paragon in Calicut. But I have to be reasonable. It’s a weekday birthday and I’m in Thiruvananthapuram, so I settle for one of our regular go-to joints.

The thought of Crab is linked to an incident long back. My marriage was fixed during my housesurgeoncy to the hubby who was doing his MD in Manipal. So we both were to go to Trivandrum for our engagement. Though we had exchanged letters (300 from me and 3 from him to be precise) and would chat on the mobile till he declared broke, we were still strangers in a way as we were meeting in person for the third time.  We were supposed to be traveling to Trivandrum on the same train. He got in from Mangalore. I was to get in from Calicut at 11 pm. So I said I’ll bring dinner. What would I get for the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with? My favourite dish, of course!!  Crab Malabari with lacy Appams from Paragon. Now, when I got in and opened the packet, he looked a bit dazed as  he has never eaten crab before , while I was a distinguished expert of sorts. He was ravenously hungry , but totally confused. I felt sorry for him for a little while and then.. Ahem! proceeded to eat. I was happily cracking open the shell and all ,in the train at 11 o clock in the pitch darkness of the night with sleeping people in the berths around us. He finally ended up dabbing his appam with some gravy, while I finished the crab , much to his dismay. A thorough job as usual. He would later recall this incident with disbelief at my nyandu eating skills and total lack of concern for the surroundings.

As I’m musing over these foodie thoughts comes this urgent whatsapp message in my girls group.“ Today, there is a lunar eclipse from 5:00 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. The moon would be in mixed colour of Blue, Red and Yellow ….. So I please request that no one should eat or drink anything in that particular time . Not even water !”

Someone asks why.

But there is no explanation, just a frantic “ Plzzz” again. I solemnly inform her that I’ve just had a single scoop salted caramel icecream on waffles with molten butterscotch caramel sauce poured over it at Paul’s creamery. There is no response to that. I have this vague feeling of all pervading disquiet. With all these cosmic forces putting up such a celestial drama, i might just turn into a werewolf at midnight. I share my gloom with the man in my life. Of reaching the age of the gallstone, Of the Paul Coelhoeque way the universe was conspiring on the night of my birth, Of Danny Denzongpa’s famous dialogue.  He tells me something that cheers me up immediately, “ Did you realise that Paragon is opening up a branch just across the road to the entrance of our colony?”

“ When are they opening?”

“ Feb 2 . The milk boiling ceremony is a day after your 40th bday”.

I smile happily at the thought of Paragon following me from Calicut to Trivandrum as he gives this parting shot.

“ True love always finds a way”.

 

Veni. Natavi. Vici.

My biggest grouse about growing up in Raipur was that I had never learnt to swim. The nearest place where you could dip your feet in water was in Sirpur, the next town- which was famous as it housed the only Lakshman temple in India and that’s where every school picnic happened. So recently, there was an opportunity and I expressed my interest. The hubby promptly enrolled me for the evening batch 7 to 8 pm. “ Starting tomorrow “, he casually said.

“ Is it a ladies only batch?”

“ Oh , I didn’t ask”, he says breezily.

“ Is it a female coach?”

“ Unlikely”, comes the noncommittal reply.

I walk back to the bedroom and dig out my swimsuit and string it on a hanger. I critically look at it through the eyes of the lecherous male gaze. It kind of passes the test. No self respecting ogler would give it a second glance.

It’s day one and I’m standing in my Taliban swimsuit ( the hubby’s sarcastic description of my all covering attire) with 6 other guys and the coach. I’m drowning in embarrassment even before I enter the pool .I take a sneak peek at my comrades. They look distinctly more uneasy than me , and in a strange way their embarrassment is reassuring. At the very last second, like an answer to my prayer, an angel comes sweeping in by the poolside. She unhitches her wings and gets into the pool. “Sorry I’m late” , she breathlessly declares. I can’t help smiling in relief. It was so nice to have atleast one woman for company.

The first day the coach makes us simply walk up and down inside the pool, to get over our fear of water. The 6 men are fast! They are halfway and back when we have just reached the other end. No wonder they have men and women events separate in the Olympics. These guys have a natural advantage. We are then taught to breathe out underwater generating a cloud of bubbles. At the end of the first class, the coach explains that we have 16 classes a month ( 4 classes a week) and repeat classes will not be taken if you miss any. As the boys troop out, I and the angel explain to the coach that for 4 days in a month we women can’t get into a pool. He wants to know which 4 days? We tell him we can’t be very sure. It could be any 4 continuous days. He still wants to know why it is 4 continuous days and how come both our 4 day breaks don’t coincide. I suspect that it’s because he is a Trivandrum male , he can’t  possibly figure out why. I tell him it’s a peculiar condition to women and just when I am on the verge of giving him a class on the dynamics of the  menstrual cycle, he sees the light. 💡

Day 2, my guardian angel is not to be seen. And and so are two of the guys. So , it’s me and 4 guys. By now, I’m quite comfortable as these guys are much more shy than me. Today the coach demonstrates how to glide and tells us to emulate him. One by one, starting from the guy furthest from me. I’m so glad to be last. The first two guys, glide effortlessly forward, just like prize fish in the water. I know there is no way I can do this. It’s the third guy’s turn now and he stumbles and splutters in the water, drinking it up . He simply can’t get the glide right. His misadventures seem comforting in a way as the pressure to get it right in the first go is off me now. I manage it correctly in the second shot.

Day 3, two new characters troop in. I will refer to them from now on as ‘ the husband’ and ‘ the wife’. The husband already knows a bit of swimming. He has joined with us beginners only as a moral support for his wife. The wife is terrified of the water. For every 3 instructions the coach gives her, the husband has 9 more. She gets more confused and refuses to attempt the glide. The coach leaves her side and swims away. The husband is sulking. “You don’t have faith in me. That is the problem here!” The wife retorts, “Make no mistake. I don’t trust you one bit ” . After a few more hot exchanges which ends with the wife fixing a steely glare on the husband , he finally decides to lay off instructions and wades to the other end of the pool. He now decides to mentor the guys instead, who are more welcoming of him, in a big brotherly manner. The coach is by her side and she soon masters the glide.

We now start to learn how to kick and as I’m struggling to get my coordination right, the angel kind of amazes all of us by doing it effortlessly. The guys start clapping and call her ‘the motorboat’. I am just about getting my act together, when tragedy strikes. My periods start. And I miss an entire week of classes. When I join back I’m totally lost. Everyone has progressed to arm movements and I’m yet to master the kick. ‘The wife’ is now a much better swimmer than ‘the husband’. A week or two passes. We learn to dive and swim in the deep end, but I never manage to catch up with the rest, so I rejoin with the next batch of students the coming month. This time my periods happen at the start of the sessions, so I don’t miss much. The new students view me with suspicion as I already know the glide and the kick. The coach calls me to demonstrate the jump and the dive in the deep end of the pool. There is a stunned silence as I perfectly execute it. It feels great to be star pupil after being a straggler in the last batch. I explain that I’m not exactly New. I’m an ‘Additional ‘ from the previous batch. That kind of breaks the ice and I make new friends here.

We now progress to freestyle arm movements and learning to breathe. That’s when the coach announces he is leaving and tomorrow it’s a new coach. I’m devastated as he was a everything a great coach should be. Patient and kind and encouraging. We get chatting and he tells me his story. He is a National level swimmer. Has participated 7 times in National games , winning gold a couple of times. He couldn’t go for International games as he had no sponsor. The Army would have been a great option but he had failed the mandatory eye test where you had to read a chart with lines of alphabets in different sizes . So he took to coaching , which is essentially a temporary job . He had qualified for a permanent job as lifeguard at KTDC so now he was leaving. Not something he exactly looks forward to. But it’s a permanent job till the age of 60.

I tell the story of our coach to a friend of mine, and he tells me an anecdote in return. He had met a doctor who had trained in the Army, and was surprised to see him wearing such thick ‘soda kuppi’ glasses . “There’s no way you could have passed the mandatory eye test with those glasses”, he quipped. The fellow turned back, merrily thumped him on the back and said, “Arre yaar, I just by- hearted the alphabets on that eye chart.”

We continue classes with the new coach, but things aren’t the same as before. There are only three classes left and I am yet to master breathing and perfect the different types of strokes. I decide to rejoin with the next batch too. Two girls from this batch will be with me. It’s their second month and mine third. I am in danger of becoming a ‘ Chronic Additional‘,  but I don’t care. I have to get this right. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can confidently say ,( with due apologies to Julius Caesar ) , “ I came. I swam. I conquered.”

“Veni. Natavi. Vici.”

Letter to my grandfather

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19th January , 2018

Dear Appachen,
If you were alive today you would be a hundred years old. It feels odd writing to you on the keyboard of my laptop. From the time I could write in sentences I’ve been writing letters to you, first with pencil and later with fountain pen. One letter every week from Raipur .You would wait impatiently in the verandah for the postman to deliver them and berate him if it hadn’t come on the expected day. My letters would carry detailed descriptions of all my latest exploits, while yours would be succinct with a few insightful observations on my adventures.

The best times I had with you were my lazy summer holidays in Kottayam. You never let me sleep beyond 6 am and would prod me awake with your walking stick to accompany you for your morning walk. 25 rounds of the compound. Not one more, not one less. In the midst of walking and chatting you would monitor the filling up of the overhead water tank by keeping a ear cocked for the sound of overflowing water. After this you would wash your car. And soon at the exact stroke of 8, you would have your breakfast of steamed puttu , one boiled egg and one small banana along with your medicines. The rest of the day would be spent in reading books. You were a voracious reader , but somehow Ammachy never shared this enthusiasm. So you encouraged me to read books like ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’-Michaelangelo’s biography , which you would wait for me to finish so that we could discuss each character quirk in detail. You wanted me to take up Medicine. But with all this prolific reading, I was veering towards the Arts. At an impressionable age you gifted me Erich Segal’s ‘Doctors’. I read and re-read this book countless number of times and was swept into the glamorous world of white coats and stethoscopes. I had only one life and Laura Castellano I had to be.

When I cracked the MBBS entrance exam, I knew there was no one more happier than you. My All India rank was good enough to get a seat in Kottayam medical college. You promised me that you would send me every day in a chauffeur driven car to college. Many of the senior faculty were your cronies in the Rotary Club. They couldn’t wait to shape a fine physician out of me. My mother on the other hand was a bit skeptical of this development. She said, “ No one in our family has ever taken up Medicine. Law and Engineering, yes, but not Medicine. It’s a difficult 5 year course. You can take your own time. 7 or 8 years is just as fine.”
At the time of the All India Counseling, I chose Calicut over Kottayam.
A betrayal , I know.
But I wanted my freedom. And no pesky well-wishers to make a fine physician out of me.
I got busy with my life in the hostel. The rooms were pathetic. 6 of us in a matchbox sized room, with a cot that could accommodate only 3, if you slept coffin-straight with your arms by the side. The bathrooms were at the end of the corridor. One had a broken door. I was stunned at the ramifications of my decision . But pride quickly prevented me from admitting the same. I would come running home every second Saturday and you would eagerly wait for me at the railway station, at the newspaper stall near the staircase.

As far as your grandchildren went, you never hid your affection for me. I was your favourite. The one you loved the most. The one who was perfect. Once a relative happened to visit with a girl my age. She was fair like Snow White and stunningly beautiful. You made me stand next to her for a comparison and announced the verdict. “ She may be fairer , but my grand-daughter’s complexion is better”. Polite laughter from the guests. I cringed.
For guests you had no patience with, you knew how to chase off. You would get up from your armchair to look at the clock which was placed high up on the wall, just behind your chair. They would have to be brain-dead not to get the cue.

A few years into college , as my letters dwindled, you were worried that I might have developed some romantic attachment. “ You may not feel like telling your parents, but you can tell me”, you said one fine evening as we sat in the darkness of the 7pm load-shedding. I kept my silence. I had an uncanny knack of falling for the wrong kind of guy. You would probably shoot the unsuspecting fellow at gunpoint if I even mentioned a whisper of a name. A few months later, I got a letter from you. There was a self addressed blank inland letter inside the envelop. “ I know you are busy with your studies. You don’t have to write. Just seal it and drop this in the post-box.” I felt ashamed and wrote. And got scolded for not following instructions. You insisted that you would feel happy even with a blank inland letter. You had just got too used to waiting for them. So, I would now write, but my letters would be brief and to the point. Not overflowing with witticisms like the younger little me.

You were very particular that I should marry well. You were quite relieved to know that at the end of 5 years I had no young man hot in pursuit of me. “What kind of boy do you want?”, you had asked. Now this is a tricky one. For I knew you well,you would take whatever I said very seriously. So in a most casual manner, I said ,”Height. Atleast 6 feet tall.” You were pleased with my answer.I knew what you were thinking. You were thinking ,you had brought me up well. For in your rule-book of character assessment, besides the choice of fish one would choose to eat, height was an important factor. When the first proposal came, you wrote a letter to me. “ Ten reasons why you shouldn’t say No” . The tenth reason was of course, Height. He was 6 feet,one. So I had no reason to complain. I had made up my mind to say No. My mother hadn’t referred to me as a rebel without a pause, for nothing. But after I met him, I said Yes. Not because you wanted me to. But I let you think that it was because You wanted me to.

Soon after, you fell terminally ill. You were diagnosed with Lymphoma and you were hospitalized for nearly a year. I would spends nights with you , my feet propped up on the chair by your bed. You would never wake me up if you needed to get up. So the only way to know if you had got up, was to sleep on the chair in front of your bed. There were bad days when you would get really angry. “What are you doing here? You are now another man’s property.” Towards the end, you would get lost in the past, to 20 years back, when I was a baby. You kept asking my mother about events pertaining to that period of time. You didn’t recognize me. And when you died it didn’t feel as bad, as I had lost you already, a few months before.

After the funeral, I went looking for my letters. I knew where you kept them. In a big plastic packet, in the shelf below your drawer, in your rosewood desk, under lock and key. You would re-read them often and had preserved each and every one of them. Unlike me. I was not one for such sentiment. I hadn’t kept a single letter of yours. But when I opened it, the space was empty. I went and demanded of my mother ,my letters to you. How dare anyone shift it from here? That’s when my mother told me what you had asked her to do. You wanted it destroyed. It was only for your eyes to read. “But why not leave them for me? After all, I wrote them?”. She sighed and gently said, “He felt it was too precious for any one other than him to read.”
“Not even me?”
“Not even you.”

Yours affectionately,
Priyamol.

Electrolysis

Back in school, I remember having a crush on our football team captain. It was a natural thing to happen. We both hailed from Kerala. And had a mutual love for sport. I was the captain of the school hockey team and we were just back after defeating our toughest competition, in the Raipur District Interschool hockey championship – the Dani girls school in a closely fought 5:4 match. He was there in the police grounds along with our Hockey Coach clapping madly as I stepped forward to receive the rolling trophy on behalf of my team. After the function, the trophy was then carefully placed on his bike and he drove back to school slowly balancing it , with me and the other hockey players furiously pedalling by his side on our cycles to show it to our principal.The next few weeks I was in a daze of some sort. The thrill of winning. The newfound attention I was getting from Mr Gleaming Muscles . It made me dizzy with happiness. He had a friend , a guy who had a crush on my best friend. So these two senior boys, used to at times come up and talk to us two , in the playground .My best friend, for the record, was the prettiest girl in school. Every single guy in school, ( senior to junior batch ) had a crush on her. But not the football team captain. I could see it in his awkward glance. In the shadow of his shy smile. In the way his eyes followed me. He never said it. But I knew it. And the knowledge made me happy.

Whole day long , my best friend and I used to excitedly talk about these guys and the moment we reached home and finished with necessities like food and a bath we would be stuck to our new toy. The telephone landline. Most of the conversation would be muffled giggling and hysterical laughter. We had our own intricate coding system in place. Cathodes referred to boys. And Anodes to girls. Love was obviously electrolysis. The term ‘ CIC’ meant Coast is Clear. ( There was no snooping sibling around to overhear our chitchat ). Whether the boy in question even knew of this , we didn’t even bother to ascertain.

This new hush-hush , whisper-chuckle , nudge- grin development did not go entirely unnoticed . My mother was a teacher in the same school. I suppose somebody had conveyed this news to her. That evening in the kitchen while rolling out the chapatis she casually remarked, “ You know something, if you have a crush during school, it isn’t exactly abnormal. But if you don’t have an crush in college, it is … abnormal.”

Her words made me wince. So she had come to know!! I silently continued tossing the chapatis on the tava. Uncannily enough, she was right in a way. I was in the Tenth. A crucial board year. Then two more years for the Medical entrance. This was not the time to swoon over gleaming muscles and the like. This was the time to focus and go for the kill. After all, college- the place where it was abnormal not to have a crush- was a stones throw away.

That evening, as I went to take my bicycle from the stand after hockey practice, he was there. This time, alone. “ Have you ….” He paused. I could feel the knot tightening in my stomach. Was this a run up to a comical proposal of sorts or what? He then completed the sentence. “….. seen where that fellow Neeraj is ? My football shoes are with him.”

I was stunned beyond relief. It wasn’t a proposal in the least . But he was in the 12th, with his board exams coming up in a few months time. And here he was, asking me this silly question. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. It was time to steer this chugging motorboat out of rough and choppy waters. To nip it in the bud, as mummy would have put it. I climbed onto my bicycle and cheekily replied before pedalling away, “Better forget about football. Have you thought of which college you are planning to join after 12th? ”

I wonder how i would have reacted if my mother had reprimanded me. Or if a teacher had hauled me up to the principals office for ‘chitchatting with a boy too often’. For a teacher, it’s not too difficult to handle things discreetly, if you consider the child as your own. Without being judgemental. Or making a hue and a cry about it. Back in our days, at the best you would be indirectly told that this was the time to focus on studies . At the worst you would get a long lecture on morals. Whatever happened was dealt with in a manner that the particular teacher , according to her personal views on this matter, her own mores of social conduct, thought right. Some handled it tactfully , some a little less so. The contention that the teacher is wrong in confronting a student never came into the picture. The schoolteacher is after all ‘loco parentis’. In the place of the parent. And if the parent has a right to correct a child, before they turn 18, so has the teacher.

Such delicate issues rarely reached the ears of the principal , let alone the school management. What was brushed under the carpet, remained under the carpet.This was way back in the year 1992.

Have sensibilities changed much since then? 25 years hence, one would assume that with the shifting sands of morality , we will progress and things will naturally change for the better. And not reach catastrophic proportions as is evidenced at present. Where let alone sweeping anything under it, the same carpet is pulled from under one’s feet .