Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I think I was in the second standard when I first had malaria. I was a sickly child in my early years, and bouts of fever, a runny nose and sore throat were nothing out of the ordinary. Yet it's funny how my earliest recollection of being unwell dates back to the time when malaria got to me. I still remember lying in bed, almost delirious, trying to catch a glimpse of the sun through the window, scanning faces anxiously, waiting for Baba to come back from work, a bar of Five Star in hand, my salvation after all the bitter pills through the day.

If the days still had their moments of deliverance, it was the nights I used to be terrified of. As the fever wracked my body, I would desperately try and put my mind to other things, people I loved, books I'd been reading, my bundles of Enid Blyton and Shukhalata Rao, Abon Thakur and E Nesbit. I was reading What Katy Did at that time, poised at the juncture when Katy had just suffered a stupendous fall from the swing and doctors didn't know if she would ever be able to walk again. I felt an odd kinship with her, devouring the book, whenever I was slightly better. Ma says she had to nudge me awake in the middle of the night, because I would be talking to Katy in my sleep, urging her to please ask for her poor aunt, because she was dying, and oh, she really was a good soul, even though she thought she was too strict for words! Death, at that age, was still a mystery, but of course, you knew, with the instinct of a child, it was inscrutable and irreversible.

So, why am I talking of morbid things which are long in the past? Because everytime illness strikes, as it has been with pretty severe regularity of late, I am back to being that terrified kid waiting for morning to come. I lust for all the sounds, the colours, the chaos, the people who make up my everyday life, and when I don't get it, for whatever reason, I behave like that five-and-a-half-year-old again, terrified of further suffering, terrified that this condition, which I had presumed to be temporary to begin with, might indeed become my life.

It wasn't like this in the intervening years but. Youth has its own mechanism of dealing with fears, or rather, death does not feature in their agenda at all. There's impatience, yes, and just a plenitude of life that sees you through even your darkest hour. I am young still, but hardly an youth, and suddenly illness and death have far more profound implications for me. I don't always react sensibly to it. Like I told you, I am more prone to tears and fear if it lasts for anything beyond the ordinary.

But when those moments pass and sanity returns, it makes me think of a whole lot of people who have suffered more and with greater fortitude-- my Thamma, otherwise given to hyperboles, never complained of pain ever in the near-three years she was laid up in bed, needing dyalisis four times a day, dependent on the mercy of others for even the most basic of human needs. At the most, if you probed her again and again, she would say, there was a mild discomfort, my same old grandmother, who was the mistress of the house till illness felled her, for whom nothing but the best would do. It was only the night time that used to scare her. She couldn't get used to the darkness outside and the stillness within. She would keep asking the attendants the time, keep waking them up to get her a cup of tea, not because she would drink it, but because it meant, even in that state, that the familiarity of her world was still there. My grandfather too had never flinched, not when he suffered the first heart attack when I was in Class III, not when he landed up with a fractured skull while trying to avoid a speeding car, and least of all, during that final year, when the callousness of hospital authorities left him battling with pneumonia and a multiple organ injury.

There are so many others to this list. An aunt who recently gave up the battle against cancer, a cousin, to the same. Each fought with grace and courage. What gave them the strength, I wonder? Why did they not chafe and cry and lose hope like I do? When each day is actually better than the previous? Why am I suddenly such a poor learner?

It's just been five days so far...



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