The Cancer in Water

These doctors don’t know anything. I am perfectly fine, they just want my kidneys.

-Munshi Ram (1926-2017)


What’s the worst alarm tone you’ve ever heard? The typical beep? Maybe your favourite song or perhaps if you’re old school then the rooster. But nothing, absolutely nothing beats a 50-year-old lady barging into your room bawling and yelling “BABA MARR GAYE” (grandpa is dead). Like any other average individual who had lost faith and love a long time back when they peaked at 13, Gautam didn’t know how to react to that news initially. I mean how do you elicit care and consideration for a human you hid from as they would keep bothering you with their deluded sense of world. This one time his grandfather told him that his mother had given him cancer contaminated water. Don’t even bother getting into the reasoning there; Gautam never did. He just nodded yes to everything his grandfather said and occasionally agreed. When Gautam was 12 and his grandfather still old as Morgan Freeman, he got into a heated argument with him over Subhash Chandra Bose’s meeting with Hitler. Gautam told him that Bose had met Hitler but his grandfather was adamant about Hitler’s demise when Bose was just 14; then how could he possibly meet Hitler? They argued and argued for an hour and eventually Gautam gave up. His grandfather had no expression of victory on his face. He just took another hit from his hookah and started talking about how the cows hadn’t been giving enough milk because of Gautam’s mother’s careless feeding. “A cow is like a child, it’s a mute animal. It doesn’t know when to stop eating and when to start. It just eats whatever whenever it wants. We should take care of her diet only then will she give us milk. But your mother doesn’t understand this. She feeds a cow like an elephant.”, his grandfather had said.

When he could garner some civil sense of how to react in such a situation Gautam jumped out of his bed and ran to his grandfather’s room. And there like always his grandfather laid motionless on his cot. The room was dirty as usual, the hookah was drained, the ac working but not cooling and the TV switched on with its volume up to 90. His grandfather lost his hearing about a year back and it had begun fading sometime after he turned 50. Thereafter it kept getting harder to work. Not for his grandfather but for everyone else. Ever been in an argument with your girlfriend or boyfriend where they make their point and walk out on you? Yeah so basically that was every conversation with Gautam’s grandfather. He would just say whatever he had to say and then look blankly at your face as you made your point and understood nothing. Every conversation was like a mic drop.

Gautam held his grandfather by his wrist and checked for pulse. There was none. But then he remembered how as a 9-year-old he had declared his grandfather dead while he was asleep as Gautam didn’t know how to take the pulse. His mother had bawled the same way that day and later slapped the snot out of him. So Gautam thought it best to check his breathing. And this time his diagnosis had been correct. Ch. Munshi Ram was gone forever. And right then when there was not a single speck of oxygen in his grandfather’s body, Gautam felt a sudden wave of emotion in his belly. It was confusion mostly as there were way too many things to think and believe in that moment. Emotions he hadn’t felt in a long time stood at some distance with open arms waiting to hug him. He wanted to kiss the corpse’s forehead but he didn’t know if that was something he was allowed to do. There’s a lot of things that can offend Hindus. He thought it best not to show his love through any intimate bodily contact. So instead he chose to hold his hand and just sit next to him for a while. And that’s when he saw his grandfather’s face from a straight angle and realised this is what a dead man looks like. Mouth wide open and hands cold like ice. Belly trying to abandon the body and eyes rolled back into the skull. He overcame his fascination with some gloominess and held his grandfather’s hand a little tighter. He doesn’t know why but he just did. There was going to be a lot of crying and a lot of formalities. There was going to be a feast in his grandfather’s honour and a lot of people were going to say a lot of nice things about him they did not mean.

At some distance Gautam’s father stood with his eyes bloodshot and swollen. But there were no tears to be found. I guess people run out of them after a point of time. The strongest members of the family looked weak that day. His father had officially become the eldest member and hence the head of the family. Roles had been switched in a second. Gautam’s elder brother had replaced his father and their father had replaced his father. All these things were going through his head as he held the cold hands of this 91-year-old. No one had thought he could die. He had outlived everyone from his generation and now he lay there dead. Maybe that’s why everyone who came to see him was personally ensuring that he was dead. You could never be too sure. Or maybe you can as it’d be a pretty imbecile move to hold your breath for an hour without informing the Guinness Book of World Record.

Gautam showered and thought about the last few hours. How does a son feel who just lost his father? How does a grandson feel? How does a great grandson feel? How does the dog feel? How do the strangers feel? His mind hadn’t functioned continually for this long in a long time. Functioned and not gotten tired. There were herds of people walking in and out of his house and he stood blank looking into the open fields and seeing nothing but the golden of grains. It’s going to be a good harvest he thought. His grandfather would have liked it and not shown any appreciation as usual. “No need to pride yourself on a good harvest. Bishan Gujjar still has a better harvest and he doesn’t even own a tractor. You’re all useless. You and your mother and your father. ”, he would have said and then pretended to hear Gautam as he would argue with him over Bishan’s harvest. His presence really hurt Gautam; but that day his absence hurt more.


Love Always