One of Father’s pet passions was to read out aloud to us the choicest news printed in the Deccan Herald; that was where he worked as sub editor and film critic. He particularly focused on murders, robberies, and kidnappings. It was his way of warning us children about the dangers that existed outside our home. He also read out reports about negligent doctors--doctors who operated on the good eye instead of the bad, or left behind cotton swabs in the patient’s body after surgery, or transfused the wrong type of blood. In short, he was telling us that not every doctor could be trusted. I think it got to him more than it got to us. When he himself developed cataract in one eye he refused to get it operated even by my cousin, a well known ophthalmologist who lived in nearby Mysore city. No amount of coaxing by us and other relatives could change his mind.
The second ailment that crept upon him was a little more serious – high blood pressure. By that time we children were in college and knew something about the heart and its working. We egged him to go for a medical check up. Again he refused. “Nothing wrong, I say,” he said. “These things happen as you age.” He was in his fifties then.
Born in Masti, a village about a hundred miles from Bangalore, he was of average height but strong of build: meaty arms, meatier legs, a broad chest, and shoulders that felt like iron to the touch. His squat neck I reckoned would require at least four hands to strangle. In my childhood, it was a delight to accompany him to the market or the restaurant. A path automatically cleaved before us even in the busiest street.
He had his flashy habits. After all what was a journalist without them? He smoked evil smelling cigars, Planter’s Special it was called, which I regularly fetched from a corner shop in our neighborhood. On weekends he trotted off to the Turf Club, and after the racing events, whose results often didn’t agree with his forecasts, his next stop was the pub. A bottle or two of chilled beer (Kingfisher Lager was his favorite), never the hard liquors. Not once did I see him drunk.
At home, he turned the phrase ‘eat to live’ on its head. Besides the usual meals, he loved to prepare snacks in the evenings and on Sundays. Oily stuff like bajjis and bondas (potato and onion slices dipped in chick-pea batter and deep fried) and pungent dishes like upma (semolina boiled and seasoned with vegetables and spices) and masala dosas (rice pancakes with spicy potato and onion stuffing). But that wasn’t all. The many restaurants in our neighborhood attracted him like fly paper. We were in total awe with how much he could consume. “My stomach is a concrete mixer!” he would say as if it were another printed item in the Deccan Herald. “Everything just gets annihilated.” Indeed I could imagine a large machine in his stomach, rotating and grinding, emptying its blended paste into the intestines below, and swiveling up, ready to receive more.
Things got more serious when he retired from the newspaper job. He couldn’t lift his right arm over his shoulder. His knees started to ache and there was something wrong with one ankle. His walk deteriorated into a rasping shuffle, and cataract ate up his second eye as well. But worst was the pronounced wheezing, especially when he exerted himself even a little. This time, unknown to us, he went to a government health care center and got his blood checked. High BP and diabetes, they told him. He started taking little pills. But he continued to wheeze, and tire easily. We told him to go for a comprehensive check up in a reputed hospital. We would accompany him, we said, we would pay for the check up, but he refused. We eventually realized that he was afraid that medications would kill him quicker than the ailments. Even the tiny tablets he took for his blood pressure and diabetes, he did so with utter loathing.
As the years passed, my sisters gave up on advising him. Married and with children, they were busy running their own households. And Mother had long ago stopped saying anything about his health. “When has he ever listened to me?” she said. As for me, I was embroiled in a marriage that was sinking like a cracked boat.
It was around this time that I traveled to Chennai on the east coast to look for a job there. I thought that a change of scene would help my marriage. The trip was unsuccessful. When I returned, there was bad news.
Mother phoned to say that Father suddenly fell from his chair while watching TV. “He was unconscious for an hour. The neighbors helped us take him to the hospital. He’s all right now. Resting. When are you coming to see him?”
He was out in the garden stretched all the way back in his easy chair. He had on a woolen cap and a sweater. Despite all that wool he appeared thinner than I saw him last and that was only the previous week. Dr Sunil, our family physician, had remarked that it was fortunate Father was brought to the hospital quickly. If there had been a delay…Dr Sunil was like that, spoke just the minimum words to get his message across.
Mother showed me the medical reports. There was an electrocardiogram – a paper strip of tiny red squares through which a blue line went up and down like a volatile stock market. There was also a folder titled Echo Doppler Study. It contained nine black and white photographs of a patchy cone in incomprehensible phases: the heartbeat in various phases. Only the summary made some sense to me: calcified aortic valve. Below that, underlined twice and in capitals: severe aortic stenosis.
The aortic valve regulates blood from the lungs to the heart; I remembered that from zoology classes in college. Calcified of course meant insoluble deposits of calcium. So, the valve wasn’t flexing properly. Which in turn meant that Father’s heart wasn’t filling with enough oxygenated blood for distribution to the rest of the body. A third paper prescribed five tablets and capsules.
Mother said that Dr Sunil wanted to do an angiogram, to see the condition of Father’s blood circulation. “Bhanu discussed it with him.” Bhanu was the eldest of my four sisters.
Now as I sat across him, I realized I had never seen him so forlorn, so weak. He was no more the Iron Man of my childhood.
“If you want to do something about my heart, do it yourself,” he said. “Don’t depend on your sisters. They don’t care about me.”
I wasn’t shocked. He’d been saying such things for some time now because my sisters had begun to ignore him. I won’t go into the reasons; they are too private to write about here. But suffice to say that whenever they visited, they avoided him, and only chatted with Mother or helped her with the laundry or dishwashing.
Suddenly Father coughed and clutched his chest. His eyes screwed shut and his face turned red. Mother and I simply watched. Panic built up inside me; I had to do something. I called up Bhanu and found out that the angiogram was essential for Dr Sunil to determine whether an operation could be performed. An operation to insert an artificial valve.
That night I didn’t sleep well. How much would the angiogram cost? How much would the valve operation cost? I had very little money in the bank and I wasn’t sure whether my sisters would contribute anything. The following morning things became worse.
Mother called to say that Father was extremely breathless. She feared he would become unconscious again. I almost crashed into a bus as I sped on a motorcycle to my parents’ house. Father was in the living room, splayed in his easy chair. Mother was trying to feed him water, the glass following his lips from side to side because he was shaking his head. Suddenly he kicked out with one leg and screamed. “Ramesh! What’s going on?” he shouted. I ran out to fetch a taxi.
Dr Sunil immediately put Father on oxygen, and said, “It will take a few hours before we know whether he will...er...be all right.”
Mother and I went out to sit in the lobby. Bhanu joined us afterwards. The others didn’t turn up. Two hours later we are allowed, one at a time, into the Intensive Care Unit. Bhanu went in first and came out smiling, as if Father had given her some unexpected compliments. “He is all right. He is sitting up and joking!”
Mother went in next. She took a while and when she emerged, her face looked serene. It was as though Father had told her several things he hadn’t told her in all their married life.
I went in. Father was resting against the upturned half of the bed. A needle was taped to the back of his right hand. There was an oxygen cylinder, tall and rusty behind him. To the right was a heartbeat monitor machine. All the wires and tubes were bundled up, as though their job was over. I pulled up a chair and started to press his feet. “No need,” he grunted but I kept pressing. His soles felt like old leather. “How did I become so sick?” he said, as if he couldn’t believe it himself.
I just continued pressing. These are my father’s feet, I told myself.
“Look at our Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” he went on. “He’s so fit even at 85. He is ruling the entire country, isn’t he?”
What could I say?
“I want that operation,” he continued. “Dr Sunil said it would take just two hours. Once they put that synthetic valve, I’ll be all right. For another ten years.”
I switched to his right calf. It felt like an overripe mango.
“Don’t worry about money,” he went on. “Madhavan and Kumar will help you out.”
Madhavan and Kumar were his old friends from Deccan Herald. They met every Sunday at the Bangalore Press Club for beer and lunch. “Phone them now. Tell them I have been admitted to hospital. They’ll come running.” He tried to shift his feet.
“Enough,” he said and put a hand to his eye to wipe something. We were silent for sometime and then he asked me how my marriage was faring. I didn’t want to discuss the topic, so I kept quiet. Then his needle laden hand moved little by little to come on to mine. “Let me get well, Ramesh. I will sort out everything. You must listen to me. I am your father, I say.” I was all too choked up to speak. Here he lay, almost dying, and he was concerned about my welfare.
On the third day, Madhavan and Kumar visited. They were only a few years younger than Father, but they brought an effervescent cheer to the sickly room. He laughed at their jokes about the politics going on in the Bangalore Press Club. It struck me then that he’d never once laughed like that with us. I wondered: What is it that makes one open up so freely with friends and not with one’s own family?
“Have courage,” Madhavan said to me. “If you want money, just phone us.” Kumar nodded agreement and then the two left, waving a goodbye to Father.
After two days Dr Sunil told us we could take Father home. “We will do the angiogram next week. After that, the operation. I am calling one of the best heart surgeons in Bangalore, Dr Srinivas.” He told me what it would cost to operate, to insert an American made synthetic aortic valve.
We took Father home. I met Bhanu and told her that it would cost a hundred thousand rupees for the valve operation. She immediately offered to contribute ten thousand. She then rang up Radha who agreed to give a similar amount. I’d already decided to pool in fifteen thousand, all my savings. An aunt from Mysore, Father’s younger sister, contributed a few thousands. And although Kumar and Madhavan promised to help, I knew I couldn’t ask more than ten thousand from each of them. That meant a total of about sixty thousand. Of which ten thousand would go for the angiogram. We were short by fifty thousand for the operation.
Bhanu suggested that we should get the angiogram done first and later admit Father into a government hospital. “The valve operation would be cheaper there.” Hearing that, Mother appeared distressed but didn’t say anything. She was like that, never imposed her views on anyone. But I could imagine what was going on in her mind: fine children we were, unable to muster up even a hundred thousand for the one person who’d done so much for us all our lives.
That evening I drove over to meet Father. He was outside in the garden in his usual chair. Mother was plucking out some weeds that had grown around the spider lilies and jasmine shrubs. She glanced at the bag on my shoulder. “What have you got there?” she said.
“Some beer and potato wafers.”
Father shifted in his chair. “Beer!” he said.
Mother pulled out some more weeds. “You are not thinking of giving him, are you?” she asked me.
“What can a glass do?” snapped Father. “Ramesh, get two glasses from my room. Wash them properly.” Then turning to Mother, “If you can slice some cucumber?”
We sat there sipping beer. Mother joined us later with a cup of coffee. “You shouldn’t eat potato wafers,” she said. Father just waved his hand. He felt good; I could see that on his face. His eyes looked less rheumy, his jaw line seemed firmer. We were silent for sometime and then he asked, “Ramesh, should I undergo the operation?”
“Yes.” I meant it.
He picked up a cucumber slice. “I can understand why you and the girls can’t come up with the money. All of you have your own problems.” His voice trailed off and he looked at the spider lilies as if he shared something with them. “I should have worked harder, done something more with my life,” he murmured.
Mother let out a sigh. “What more could you have done? In those days where were the opportunities?”
Father snorted. “Look at all my friends. Their children are all big shots, living in London, New York, minting money.”
“Our children are well settled too.”
“What about Ramesh?”
Mother didn’t look at me. “He will establish himself. Only luck is not favoring him right now.”
“I should have done more, much more…” he murmured again. He became still and then he arched his arm and threw the glass over the wall, out on the road. Mother winced but didn’t say anything. She gulped her coffee and walked away. Father closed his eyes. Out on the road a few boys sprinted past, shouting, laughing. I wished that I could somehow hurtle back to my childhood of carefree days.
Later that night I was nursing a glass of whisky. My wife was still at her mother’s house; we’d had a nasty argument. Suddenly the phone rang. It was Mother. “He has fainted!” she screamed. I reached there in five minutes. He was on the floor near the main door, blinking at the pale yellow light bulb of the portico. Mother had managed to make him conscious by sprinkling chilled water on his face, but he couldn’t rise. I tried to lift him by the shoulders. How had he become so heavy? Or was it the beer and whisky still sloshing in my head? Mother urged him softly, softer than I had ever heard her speak to him. “Get up…you can do it.”
We were able to make him sit. We struggled some more and then he was on his feet. He kept looking down, his eye glazed. We dragged him towards the door. As we crossed the threshold he farted. We carried him in and as we approached his room, he defecated. He moaned his embarrassment. Outside the toilet, Mother tried to remove his veshti, the traditional wrap around cloth for the lower half of the body, but he held on to it with both his hands. “You have to let go,” Mother said. “He is your son, isn’t he?”
In the toilet, with all of us squeezing in, he closed his eyes and shook his head in utter shame. After he was done, Mother cleaned him up. We took him to his bed and made him sit there. Mother went away to change her sari. I held on to him. He looked up at me and it was clear he was trying to apologize. I held his head and brought it close to my stomach. Strangely, he’d once again become the Iron Man. His head felt so solid and big against my stomach.
“We love you, Daddy,” I said. “You…you should never doubt that. You have been a good father. You have done so much for us.”
That’s when he started to cry, the choking bursting cry of a man who’d suffered the terrible uncertainty of whether his children really loved him. I realized how late, so horribly late, I was with the assurance. Mother appeared at the door and stood there watching us. There was more envy than tenderness on her gaunt features.
Together we settled him on the bed. Mother asked him if he wanted anything. He took an eternity to mouth the simple word: water. Mother bid me go home, to change and return quickly. I wanted to stay, to hold him, to talk to him, to assure him in many more ways, although at that moment I didn’t know how, but inside my soiled clothes I felt my skin shrinking. I went home and then, when I was ready to leave, the phone rang. I look at the number, expecting it to be my wife, but it was Mother. “Ra…Ramesh,” she began but I already knew what had happened. To this day I regret I wasn’t there with him when he took his last breaths. I could have assuaged his troubled heart some more.