In the first year of college, many of my friends would light cigarettes. It seemed a cool thing to do and I liked the aroma. Very soon I began taking a few drags with them. The drags grew and I lit my very own first cigarette. From then on to keeping packs in my pocket was just a matter of three months. Around then, I even started mixing tobacco in my pan masala. It felt like another world, light, intoxicating; every little or big stress seemed manageable with fire on one end and masala in my pocket.
When the time came, I tied the knot. My wife Netra was fiercely against any form of tobacco consumption. She tried all tricks she could: threats, imploring, love. I even tried giving up both the vyasan many times, but each time my willpower failed. I tried to cut down on my smoking, which meant 8 instead of 10 cigarettes and the days I tried not to chew tobacco, my cigarettes went up to 15! And then I would begin chewing tobacco too. Nothing worked!
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Whenever Netra’s reproaches became too much, I would take the middle path. Lie that I had given up. When she found out she would be angry, even not talk for a few days. We kept up this cycle for years, decades.
The day my cancer got detected I had been lying to her for over two months about having given up both cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
The doctor suggested surgery as treatment. He said, “We will simply remove the affected area. It can be done. I can tell you that you will not die from it.” His words really soothed me, with Netra holding my hand at my side.
We began discussing details of surgery and its side effects. One major problem with mouth cancer is disfigurement. A cleanup of the affected area would leave a gaping hollow in my mouth. Our doctor said that since I was just 43 then and had many good years in front of me, I must opt for reconstructive surgery, too. It was decided that they would take tissues from my arm and fill up the gap left behind once the affected area was cleaned out.
“We want Hemant’s life to be as close to normal,” Netra said. “We will come up with the required money.” I was admitted for surgery. They had shaved off my facial hair and even my head. When I saw my reflection, I was taken aback. But then I calmed down. My wife said, “You are as lovable to me, hair or no hair.”
My son, who was then in the 12th told me that he had decided that he would go into cancer research. I did not know whether to cry for being so irresponsible as to put my family through the ordeal that I did or smile at the strength and wisdom of my wife and son.
I told my family that I was being punished for lying to my wife and that punishment was not death. It was a nice, tight slap in the face with that surgery. I felt very strongly that God did not want me to die, he just wanted me to live more responsibly. I said, “Main thappad kahin ne aaun chuu.”
After the surgery, the recovery stage was tough. I couldn’t do anything except walk. My right arm was very sore. I needed help for everything: to eat, drink, even use the bathroom. Netra was always there. Most times, she would come even before I had called for her help. I remember this feeling of embarrassment, again and again of what I had put them through. One day she told me, “God gave us this problem so that we would not face a bigger one later. Now all we have to do is work on solving this one and I am with you in it on every step. Stop feeling bad. What’s done is done.” She said she had no complaints.
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Every time I visited my plastic surgeon Bijal bhai and complained about my right hand he would say that my cancer got detected because of my wife and so every morning I should fold my hands and do namaste to her. And I did precisely that, for it was a physiotherapy exercise too.
And then one fine morning my physiotherapist said, “Let’s try signing on the cheque book today, Hemant bhai.” I did and sent it to the bank. The cheque passed. It was like reclaiming power. A man’s identity does hinge on this, right?
Netra smiled and said, “Everything normal, haan?”
I said, “How could it not be, if you are there with me?”
(As told to Raksha Bharadia)