45 Days in a Cancer Hospital
Room No. 402
Niharika was looking blankly at the wall. It was a scorching summer night in Bombay, the humidity making the summer even more unbearable. Occasional smatterings of rain gave false hope of a downpour but the winds would just take the clouds away, keeping the city waiting for rain.
She recalled the words of the doctor, “The cancer has reached its last stage; you have four more months.” She wondered why she was taking the treatment if there was so little time left – to stretch four months to five or six? To extend the period of her pain and loneliness?
Although she was in her late forties, she looked much older; her hair had grown grey and her body limp. The dark circles around her sleepy eyes clearly portrayed her weakness. Some time back she had been diagnosed with bone cancer and was admitted to the hospital.
She was missing her son, Nishant, who worked in Bangalore as a software engineer. Having lost her husband to an accident, she was not willing to leave Bombay, attached as she was to his memories. “Why do I want to live any longer...maybe I want to see my son married and settled before I leave. I will be able to go peacefully then.” She counted the few months left with her as she tried hard to sleep, unaware that death was already on its way to meet her.
In the dark lobby outside, a shadow followed a mysterious figure. In the deep silence of night when even a pin drop would sound like a blast, he was expert at walking like a cat. He peeped into the room and when he was sure Niharika was in a deep sleep, he entered. His eyes were stony and merciless. He gave her a hard glance. “The stage is set, the theme is ready, now only the actors need to perform and I will watch like a spectator and then you will be free from all the worldly burdens,” he murmured with a strange smile. Stepping back he accidentally knocked against the glass kept on the table and it fell with a crash. He rushed out in less than a second with the same silent walk and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Niharika opened her eyes and as she glimpsed the mysterious departing figure, her heart skipped a beat.
“Who was he, what was he doing at the table, there is nothing precious except my tablets for him to take, what does he want from a dying woman?” she tried to shout but her weak voice and tired body revolted against her efforts.
Room No. 401
It was 8 am and the morning sun made its way through the glass window. Ashritha lazily woke up after switching her alarm to snooze not less than ten times. She stood at the window and looked at the beautiful view of the hospital.
The hospital was an eight-storey building, 2,00,000 square feet in area, with about 10 rooms on each floor. It was surrounded on all four sides by a huge garden. The peach-coloured walls gave it an air of calm. Inside, the light pink bedsheets made it different from typical hospitals with their standard green bedsheets. The interior of the hospital was designed to make patients feel at home. After taking in the beautiful view Ashritha sat on her bed and read the last lines she wrote the night before.
“Every day she is struggling and fighting her fears, she has lived her death many times in her life…Who’s there? What’s that sound?”
“What? What is this?” Ashritha exclaimed, “What have I written? ‘Who’s there?’ Sounds strange. Why did I write this?”
She wracked her memory. Last night she had been feeling very sleepy but she kept on writing; she didn’t realise when she fell asleep.
“’She has lived her death many times in her life’ this was the last sentence I wrote but what’s that ‘Who’s there?’ stuff. Did I write something I was dreaming about?” Then contradicting her own thoughts she argued with herself, “But that’s never happened before, I usually fall asleep while writing, but I never write my dreams, at least not that I remember. I don’t even remember when I slept yesterday, maybe it was 1.00am…” She was puzzled but decided to continue with her work, as she was already late.
Ashritha was a well-known novelist, who also wrote articles for newspapers and magazines. This time she was writing a book on cancer patients, 45 Days in a Cancer Hospital. She wanted to give words to the pain cancer patients felt, their physical and emotional struggle. To show a true-to-life image of their struggle, she was staying in a cancer hospital to write the book. She wanted to live every moment with them to feel like them.
She had selected the most well-known cancer hospital of Mumbai, Umeed, in Colaba. Each chapter of her book would tell the story of one cancer patient – the hopes they held, the pain they felt, their fears, their frustration, their loneliness - everything would find a place in her book. She would talk to the patients, try to understand how they coped with all these feelings, urge them to share their thoughts and then write about them. Through this book she wanted to connect different people suffering from this cruel disease and give them strength and courage to face it and fight it.
She remembered the struggle she went through to get entry to Umeed Hospital. The hospital management was unwilling, but she left no stone unturned. She constantly followed up with them for about 6 months until she finally got a nod, determined as she was to write her book in this hospital only or not at all. Now it was her fifth day in the hospital.
This was Ashritha’s strongest trait – her unwillingness to give up on anything. Her strong determination sometimes made people think she was stubborn but she knew she was not stubborn – just strong-minded.
At five feet four inches, with sharp eyes and impressive features, she stood out from the crowd. If not a writer, she would have become a detective because of her inquisitive nature and her sharp mind, which could smell anything at the slightest hint. Nothing escaped her notice.
The first chapter she was writing was about Niharika Nimkar.
Room No. 402
Niharika, was staring at the door, waiting eagerly. She glanced at the clock.
“It’s 9.30 and she has not yet come. Maybe she took Dr. Chatterjee’s words seriously, he was too much for her. Maybe she’s not going write about his patients any more,” she murmured to herself forlornly.
But she was wrong. There was a knock at the door and she looked at it instantly with hope, a smile lighting up her face.
“Good morning Aunty, how are you?” It was Ashritha.
“Good morning Ashritha, where have you been till now, you are very late today, I thought you weren’t coming,” Niharika said in one breath.
“Come on Aunty, can this ever be that I won’t come to meet you?”
“I was hoping you would, but still Dr. Chatterjee was so furious yesterday that I thought you may not come today.” Her voice was still impatient.
“Yes, actually he doesn’t want me to bother his patients.”
Yesterday, when Ashritha and Niharika were chatting, Niharika suddenly complained of terrible pain. It was at the time of Dr. Chatterjee’s visit. He saw her crying in pain and Ashritha sitting beside her. He shouted at Ashritha, scolding her severely: “Can’t you see she is in pain? All you media people are the same; you just want stuff for your writing, even if it is at the cost of someone’s suffering. I have already told you many times, stay away from my patients, you had better write your story on someone else!”
Getting such a harsh scolding in front of the staff members was very insulting for Ashritha. Her face turned red now as she remembered the scathing words.
“Aunty, do you also think I just need stuff for my writing?” she asked miserably.
“No Ashritha, not at all.”
“I appreciate all of you who are struggling to fight death. I just want to connect different people suffering from this wicked disease. Through your experiences, I want my book to give courage to every cancer patient who reads it. That’s my only motivation. I’m not doing it for name or fame.”
“Ashritha I know that, I understand and trust you, why are you explaining all this to me?” Niharika asked.
But Ashritha took no notice of her words and continued:
“Dr. Chatterjee thinks I may hurt his patients, did my visits ever disturb you?”
Niharika was listening, a little disinterested because there was something more important that she wanted to share with Arshitha.
“Yes beta I understand, I also wait for you daily. I like talking to you, there is no one else I can talk to – my son is too busy with his job, he only comes once in a month. Who can I talk to? With whom can I share my feelings? It’s only you, I wait for you eagerly.”
Ashritha looked fondly at her. She knew her for only for 4 days but it seemed like a lifetime.
“Ashritha, I want to tell you something,” Niharika said with a worried expression on her face.
“What is it Aunty?”
“Ashritha something strange happened here last night.” Her voice was quivering slightly.
Ashritha looked at her alarmed “Strange! How, strange?” she asked.
“Well, around midnight, suddenly I heard some noise in my room. It woke me up. I opened my eyes and I saw a figure moving out of the door. There was a broken glass near the table. I froze with fear. I wanted to scream but that figure just went out, not even realising I saw him. I was so afraid that I could not even move.”
“Who was he?” Ashritha exclaimed.
“I don’t know, it was too dark, I could not see.”
“At least something?”
“Actually I was so afraid, my mind just went blank.”
“Try to remember aunty!”
“No…no, I can’t.”
“His height, his stature, something…?”
Niharika moaned in pain. “Ashritha I am not feeling well. That pain is getting worse again. It’s increasing day by day. I feel I just can’t deal with it anymore. Death would be better than a life like this!” she cried out.
The word ‘PAIN’ was enough for Ashritha to recall the verbal whipping that she got from Dr. Chatterjee.
“Ashritha you should leave now Dr. Chatterjee will be here any minute.”
“I know but I don’t feel like leaving you like this...”
“Don’t worry; Sarika will be there to assist me.”
Ashritha got up reluctantly.
“Okay Aunty. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said as she left.
While leaving, she glanced at where Niharika said that she saw that figure. She returned to her room with a heavy heart and sat down again to write her book. She went through the last lines again ‘Who’s there? What’s that sound?’
Room No. G05
Dr. Chatterjee was back in his room after diagnosing Niharika. The tension and the pain were easily visible on his face. Even though he was almost 60, his athletic body and 6-foot height gave him a tough look. His dark eyes behind the rectangular glasses seemed to be constantly preoccupied with many mysteries, adding to his stern image. His personality could intimidate anyone.
His cabin was very well organised. A table with wooden frame and glass top added to the the room’s appeal. A framed photo of a middle-aged woman was kept on it. He picked up the photo, stared at it for some time, and putting it back in its place, walked to the window. The view from the window was very beautiful. The huge garden surrounding the hospital looked wonderful and just outside the boundary of the hospital there was a beautiful lake. But this tranquil view could not delight Dr. Chatterjee, lost as he was in his own world.
He went back 48 years down the memory lane of his life to when he was just 12 years old, a very lively boy, always laughing and enjoying life. He remembered the golden moments he spent with his mother whom he adored. She meant the world to him. He still remembered her words:
“Juggu stop playing and pay attention to your studies. I want to see you as a doctor when you grow up.” He still heard her voice as if echoing from far away.
“Oh come on mom, me, a doctor? ” He would laugh in reply and hug her.
She had not been keeping well for a few months but his father was too busy with his business to give her time. They lived under the same roof like strangers. He ignored her most of the time.
Time passed and his mother became weaker and weaker. When her condition became too bad, he could no longer ignore; he had to get the tests done.
It was cancer – bone cancer – in its last stage. The doctor prescribed tablets and explained to his father that the treatment was going to be expensive. His father, who was already making a loss in his business, refused to pay for the treatment.
“How can a person be so cruel?” Jugal thought when his father later demanded a divorce from his mother.
“I don’t know how long you are going to live and I don’t have money to waste on you when I already know that even after spending all I have earned, I won’t be able to save you,” his father had declared.
Dr. Jugal Chatterjee could still feel the pain in his mother’s eyes. She had not been able to utter a single word and he felt just so helpless.
“God I wish I could help my mom!” he had cried to himself.
After some heated arguments, his father agreed not to separate for Jugal’s sake. But Jugal already felt the pain that the divorce would have caused.
The physical pain his mother felt was immense but it was nothing compared to the pain his father inflicted. Every day she would cry out unable to bear the suffering but there were no medicines for her. She never uttered a word about her husband’s betrayal to Jugal, but to him her silence sounded like screams.
One morning when Jugal entered her room, he found her fast asleep, an expression of calm on her face. He tried to wake her up but couldn’t. There was a bottle of sleeping pills besides her bed. They could not find any letter or note.
The last conversation he could remember with his father was: “Dad, you are responsible for mom’s death. I hate you Dad, I hate you.”
There had not been a single tear in his eyes; maybe they had all dried up seeing his mom dying a living death every day.
After that day, no one ever again saw Jugal laughing, playing or enjoying life. He told his father he wanted to study in boarding school His father, only too keen to free himself of the responsibility, so he could remarry, sent him off to boarding school and remarried within six months. After that their relation was just on monetary terms, his father sent money to Jugal every month till Jugal started earning.
Jugal promised himself he would become a doctor. “No one will ever have to feel the pain mom felt, no one will suffer because they can’t pay for treatment,” he promised himself. He surrendered his life to his promise and lived only for that. He concentrated fully on his studies. He never played, never laughed, never cried; he never interacted much with others. He closed his doors to the outside world. He just knew one thing – that he wanted to become a doctor. He always kept his mom’s photo on his table. She was his inspiration and his strength, and his weakness too, but he did not realise that then. The lively naughty Jugal turned into the serious and grim Dr. Chatterjee.
As time passed, he set up Umeed – the cancer hospital. His philosophy behind giving this name to the hospital was that no one should lose hope until the very last moment of life, every cancer patient had to be a fighter, fighting death, fighting pain and fighting fear every moment in the hope of living.
With years of hard work and struggle, Umeed turned out to be the best known cancer hospital of the country. He was lauded for treating poor patients free of charge. He was so caught up with his hospital that he did not even marry. He was in love with his hospital and his patients.
Time passed; everything changed except one thing, “THE PAIN” – “O God I still feel that pain!” he cried in his mind, standing at the window. Taking out a key from his pocket, he unlocked his drawer, took out a diary and started writing.
“The condition of the patient in Room no. 402 reminds me of you mom, I feel so helpless while treating her, O God I wish I could relieve her of her pain. God give me strength – O God I still feel that pain.”
Room No. 401
Ashritha came back to her room later that evening and decided to write. She always studied a little about every subject she wrote about, so she opened her laptop and googled “symptons of bone cancer”.
Site 1 – “The most common symptom of bone cancer is pain. In most cases, the symptoms become more brutal with time. In some cases mass or lump may be felt. At the initial levels pain may be felt at night time or when the person performs some activity.”
Site 2 – “Mostly the pain is felt at night time.”
Site 3 – ‘The pain may come and go but it may get worse at night time.”
Site 4 – “In most of the cases, pain is felt at night time.”
“Strange!” she exclaimed, “Most of the sites mention that pain generally occurs at night, but Niharika mostly feels the pain in the morning. I wonder why. It’s true it is nowhere mentioned that it necessarily occurs at night, so I can’t conclude anything for sure.”
She soon fell asleep, wondering if something was wrong or if it was just an undue feeling of suspicion that she had.
6.00 am. Ashritha’s alarm rang. As usual she hit the snooze button and dozed off again, finally, half an hour later, she woke up, with a strange intuition that she should go and see Niharika.
She immediately went to Niharika’s room. The nurse was fluttering around in a state of panic.
“What happened?” Ashritha asked sounding worried.
“She’s not breathing!” the nurse said, running to call the doctor as she completed the sentence.
Ashritha went near Niharika and sat on the chair beside the bed.
“Ashritha! You here again, can’t you see she is not well?” Dr. Chatterjee exclaimed angrily as he ran into the room and checked Niharika with his stethoscope.
Ashritha rushed out of the room and waited there, those few moments feeling like a decade to her. After some time Dr. Chatterjee came out of the room. Ashritha could see the hidden pain behind his tense face. She did not dare to ask him anything. As soon as she saw Dr. Chatterjee taking a turn through the lobby, she rushed into the room. Niharika’s eyes were closed, her face calm and quiet. The nurse looked at Ashritha with a sigh.
“She is no more.”
“What? But she was okay till yesterday!” Ashritha exclaimed with quaking voice. She sat beside Niharika and remembered her words, “Ashritha your book will be fantastic and I will be the first one to read it.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
She had spent only five days with Niharika, today would have been her sixth. Ashritha had come to the hospital on the 1st of July and today was the 6th. Even in that short span she was feeling so attached to Niharika. She had opened up her soul to her to the extent that even a family member would not do.
With heavy steps, Ashritha returned to her room. Her mind was blank for some time. “She was talking to me yesterday and now she is no more,” she mused.
Niharika’s son was called to collect the body. He arrived around five hours later. He seemed to be in his late twenties, his resemblance to his mother reflected in his tense face. Ashritha saw him talking to Dr. Chatterjee.
“She had a talk with me just the day before yesterday, she was sounding quite well, although a bit worried, she wanted to see me and talk to me, but I could not take time out of my business meeting. I wish I could have met her before she…” he couldn’t complete the sentence. The body was taken away after completing all the formalities.
Ashritha was feeling very uneasy. Niharika’s face kept flashing in her mind and her words echoed in her ears:
“I saw a figure moving out of the door.”
She felt like reading the chapter she had written on her. ‘So strange is the fact that when something is nearing its end, it becomes more precious; whether it is some strong relation in life, or life itself. Why…why do you want to…kill me…?’
“What…?” Ashritha read the line again in surprise. “ Why do you want to kill me…? Have I gone mad or what? Why am I writing such odd things? The day before yesterday I wrote, Who’s there? And yesterday this strange rather horrible stuff…”
She tried to figure out the reason but she found none. She was feeling very uneasy so she went to Niharika’s room again at 2.00 pm.
Sarika was winding up Niharika’s things...She was the nurse who was taking care of Niharika. Her makeup cleary portrayed her lack of knowledge of fashion; she could have looked more attractive without the liberally applied compact over her dark skin and her maroon lipstick was not at all a match for her nurse’s dress. The body-hugging top was not a good idea for her plump body. If she did not try to show off she could have looked much more appealing.
“Ashritha, what happened? You are not looking well,” she asked as Ashritha stepped into the room.
“This room was filled some time ago and now it’s empty,” Ashritha said with a lump in her throat.
“I understand. Death is not something you see everyday. I have been working in cancer hospitals for the last 4 years and for the last 2 months in this hospital. I have seen so many people dying that at times I feel I have become indifferent to death, at least other people’s death.”
At least other people’s death…the words were not easily digestible to Ashritha. Death wasn’t as casual as Sarika made it sound. After a small pause, Ashritha asked her, “Did anyone come to check her after she slept?”
“Not really, why?”
“No, just asking.”
“Or did she tell you something strange, like someone came into her room at midnight?”
“Do you think it’s strange?”
“Well, I should not say so, but I don’t believe it.”
“She told you about this?”
“No, she didn’t. I heard her telling you she saw someone in this room at midnight.”
She waited for Ashritha’s response. Ashritha was astounded by her sharp ears – she wasn’t in the room when Niharika was talking about this.
Sarika studied her expression and said, “I was at the door when she said this.”
“Who do you think he was?”
For a second Sarika stopped her work, stared at Ashritha and slowly replied,“Why do you assume ‘he’, it can be ‘she’.” And before Ashritha could reply she concluded, “Anyway I think it was a hallucination.”
“Hallucination!” Ashritha was surprised.
“Yes, at times it happens with people under stress. They see what they imagine, they see people and they hear voices which are not real, just imaginary. As she was a cancer patient, she had a feeling she was going to die; she just anticipated things that were not real. I think it was purely her imagination.”
She was blunt, Ashritha concluded. “Do you really think so?”
“Yes definitely. You tell me, who will come to her room? What is there that anyone would like to have? Nothing! Why would anyone want to harm her? Her life was anyway ending, she or her life would not be of any concern to anybody.”
Although what Sarika said was logical, Ashritha was not fully convinced. She returned to her room.
She thought, “In a way Sarika is right, who will benefit by harming a cancer patient? She would have died in a few months anyhow.”
She kept on thinking about that incident for hours. By night as she brooded on what Sarika told her, she was almost convinced that was a hallucination.
“Sarika was right, she has to work in a cancer hospital so she needs to be tough and I have to write on cancer patients so I need to be become tough too, although not insensitive.”
She opened her book thoughtfully and glanced at the last words she had written that day. ‘Why...why do you want to...kill me?’
“Why did I write this?” she asked herself. “Why are such strange things happening here? Is it just my eerie feeling or something strange is going on here?”
She was trying to solve the puzzle when someone knocked at the door.
“Madam I want to talk to you regarding something, can I?”
There was a nurse standing at the door, a fair, dumpy, middle-aged woman. The only thing attractive about her was her thick hair. Her clenched fingers and high pitched stuttering voice gave an indication of her nervousness.
“Sure,” replied Ashritha a little puzzled as she did not know the nurse.
“Madam my name is Vishakha. I am working in this hospital as a nurse for the last 2 years. Sarika told me about Niharika and about the talk you had with her.” She completed her sentence in one breath.
Ashritha offered her a seat.
“Please have a seat Vishakha, calm down, we have enough time.”
Vishakha sat on the chair and without wasting much time came to the point.
“Madam I agree with you that something strange is going on here.” There was urgency and worry in her voice.
Ashritha sat up, alert but she listened patiently.
“Sarika joined this hospital just 2 months back; she is new to this hospital so she doesn’t know anything. Before Sarika, there was a girl named Pooja working with us. She was an orphan. After completing her nurse’s training course, she joined our hospital. She had also observed a few odd things going on in room no. 402.”
Ashritha was listening patiently. She urged the nurse to continue.
“We were very good friends. She used to share everything with me. At that time there was a patient named Smriti Parikh in that room. She was a very nice woman but very lonely. Unfortunately, she was a patient of one of the most painful forms of cancer, bone cancer. At times, she used to cry out of pain so much but strangely, at times she sounded fine as if she were normal. Somehow Pooja thought she was different from other patients suffering from bone cancer. One day Smriti fell asleep, but she never woke up. Pooja seemed to be very worried that day. She wanted to tell me something, she tried to talk to me many times, but because of the busy schedule, we could not talk. Finally, she told me to meet her at 7.00 pm at Suvarna restaurant. I reached there at sharp 7.00 pm but she did not come. I tried her mobile but there was no reply.”
Her face was turning grim as she continued:
“Next day when I came to the hospital I learned that she had resigned and she did not even come personally to resign, she sent her resignation by e-mail! This was very strange because as far as I know Pooja, she was not the kind of person who would send in her resignation by e-mail; also, she would have talked to me at least once before resigning. I went to her rented home but her landlord said she had left the night before and she had been looking very afraid and worried. After that she never contacted me and when I tried to call her there was no reply ever.”
“Oh my god,” Ashritha remarked.
“I find all this very strange; in fact, I can say horrifying. Something is definitely wrong with that room. Other nurses were gossiping…Er…I mean that room might be haunted.”
Ashritha was listening patiently. After a few moments of silence she asked:
“When did this incident take place?”
“About four months back.”
“Hmmm, not that long back...What kind of a person was Pooja? I mean was she the kind of person who would gossip?”
“Not at all, she was very mature and sensible.”
“How old was Mrs. Parikh?”
“What about her family?”
“There was no one in her family. She was childless. Her husband divorced her many years back because she could not give him a child and he had married someone else. Since then she had been working as a teacher. She never regretted having her disease. In fact, we felt she did not have any desire to live.”
“And you said she was a patient of bone cancer.”
“Yes. Why, anything significant in that?”
“No, just asking…”
“Was there any other patient in that room after that?”
“Yes. There was a boy named Harsh. He was 14. He had brain tumour.”
“Oh, what happened to him?”
“He was cured and left the hospital in the best of health. And then Mrs. Nimkar was admitted in that room and the rest you know.”
Ashritha nodded, she was thinking about something.
“Ma’am I need to go now. I have to check the patient in room no. 208.” After a pause she continued, “And whatever I shared with you should remain between us only. Don’t let anyone even guess you have suspicions...Every time I feel like sharing with someone, I remember Pooja and I feel a shivering in my spine but you seem genuine to me so I thought I could share with you.”
Vishakha left the room with relief on her face.
It was quite late so Ashritha decided to wind up for the day and go to bed. It took some time for her to fall asleep because of the odd happenings of the day.