When I first heard Datta was unwell and suffering from the big C, no less, I thought I must go and meet him. Then I was told he was much better. So I happily put that off, till I could club it conveniently with the next visit from the friend who gave me the news in the first place.
Weeks after that, I get the call.
Someone who has been your colleague for so long has just been admitted to the palliative care centre. He is struggling to breathe. Prognosis is grim.
I feel guilty. I request the caller to please let me know his condition and I would visit him the next morning. Late at night, I get another call. It may be a good idea to visit him as early in the morning as possible. I agree.
The sun is out nice and bright but the nip lingers. Traffic is easy and I am there a little before time. My doctor friend I was hoping to shelter behind is missing. I walk to the ward to find Datta. The nurse directs me to a corner room.
First thing I notice is the huge oxygen cylinder. Then there is a black man, eyes closed, struggling to breathe. Is he awake? Unconscious? Do I wake him up? Will he recognize me at all?
The lady who was talking to the nurse walks in. I introduce myself. She calls out to him. He opens his eyes. He is alive!
He looks at me and speaks my name. Just like that! He is happy. He reaches for my hand. Kisses it. I feel the dry lips, the oxygen tube. And I travel back in time.
Hair always combed clean. Shy smile. Nice set of teeth. The invisible timekeeper. You hardly heard him. He had to know everybody. He handled everyone’s records. Visiting him in his office once in a while made him happy. He shuffled through leave cards and made small conversation. Small opinions, expressed respectfully. You had to strain to hear him. He was docile Datta. Pleasant. Hardly any show of emotion.
The same man just kissed my hand. And he rattles off my employee number from memory. From 27 years ago. Is this man dying? Should he be dying?
Why has Datta turned black? He shows me the darker splotches of chemotherapy on his darkened skin. He rues that they have damaged his body so much. I suggest perhaps he could try some fairness cream. Bad joke. Any attempt to laugh or even a social smile makes it harder for him to breathe. Anything can trigger a fatal spasm, my doctor friend had warned me.
I see him munching down some breakfast. For him and his wife, after months of forced liquid diet, this is an achievement—two spoons of poha, one chapati.
He wants to talk. About those days. About doctors who have put him in this condition. About one doctor who insisted on pumping him full of chemicals till the last possible moment before curtly telling the family that he could be taken home. Nothing more could be done. She charged them every time she passed by. She charged them every time she looked at a report.
They know he has cancer. He knows he has cancer. They know he will die. He knows he will die. Soon.
But he hardly mentions the disease. He is angry at the doctors. Why are they so confident? Why do they make a wrong diagnosis and then stick to it? Why did they just let me deteriorate? They did this and they did that but my condition never improved. Then why did they keep doing this and that? Four lakh rupees in seven months!
He needs help even to breathe. Using the bed pan has made him breathless. He needs help to deal with his helplessness.
His family is well settled. At least financially, they may not miss him.
But his daughter, grown up and married, is seething. She believes the doctors, that doctor, killed him.
Her grief will pass. Will her anger stop festering? Will it grow from her mind to her body? Take root as another cancer?
And will another doctor make money out of that? And then leave her with another seed of anger to pass on?
Datta is dead. His anger lives.