Part I: The Blooming Lotus
I walked in through the sliding glass door of the hospital. The white plastered walls and bored receptionists were a complete contrast to the bright and beautiful woman of about 25, sitting in one corner of the room, talking animatedly to a group of children, all bandaged or plastered, gathered around her. They all looked expectantly at her, as if her charming smile had stolen all their pain and exchanged it for all the happiness of the world. She had a white coat on and a stethoscope around her neck. I entered the lift, and that aberration disappeared from view.
A month later, the same sight greeted me at the entrance of the hospital. She seemed to be consoling a girl of about five, with a fractured hand. Her beautiful features along with the delicate peacock blue and green anarkali that she adorned under her customary doctor’s coat and stethoscope took my breath away.
I got off the elevator two minutes later and walked to the cancer department of the hospital on the fifth floor for my routine check-up. I noticed that my doctor’s bag wasn’t on the chair as usual. While I was wondering how he might have fit it inside that tiny drawer in his desk, she walked in.
“Sarthak Arora?” She read from her notepad.
“Hi! I’m Dr Mannat Ahuja.” She went on without waiting for a response.”I’ll be doing your routine check up today as Dr Gaikwad is on leave. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine.” I replied in a morose tone.
“That’s great news!” she said ecstatically.
“So, how’s your college going?”she asked pretentiously, I believe, to keep me busy. “Dr Gaikwad mentioned that you have recently joined college after a long break due to your surgery.”
“It’s going fine, thank you,” I replied bluntly to avoid any conversation with her.
“I just graduated out of my college a couple of years back, you know. I miss those fun-and-frolic-only days so much. Now all I do is work at the hospital and go back to greet an empty apartment. I wish I had got a job back in Kerala itself,” she said, completely ignoring my discomfort.”At least my family and friends would be there to give me some company.”
“So how long have you been here in this city?” she asked after a five minutes of awkward silence, trying to make conversation. I wish she would stop talking and let me be.
She gazed at me expectantly. Seeing no way out of this, I finally got myself to say, “For the last 23 years.”
“Oh, that’s really nice! I recently moved in here and haven’t yet got the opportunity to take a tour of this amazing city. I have a day off this Sunday. Do you think you can guide me through a tour of this city?”
I was surprised that she was extending a hand of friendship towards me. I had never known that feeling before, as long as I can remember. The surprise lasted long enough to let me get rid of the wall I had built around myself, and I let her in. Before I could get my numb senses back to normal, my overly excited brain said a yes.
“Thanks, Sarthak!” she gave the prettiest smile I had ever seen . We exchanged phone numbers and confirmed our meeting on Sunday near the chai stall on the corner of Anand Park lane at 9 am.
Part II: The Evergreen Journey
I reached the tea stall at 8:55 am precisely. I waited for the next fifteen minutes, while making a mental note to find a female patient next time and make friends with her. Or at least my female intuition told me to do so from past experiences.
Just then, Sarthak came into view; his bobbing head one among the many others walking down the lane, his oxygen-tank-suitcase running along behind him, connected to a pipe and providing him oxygen.
He walked up to me and said, ” Hey, doc. How are you?” He seemed to be in a pleasant mood.
“I’m doing fine, thank you.” I replied.
We walked up to the cab parked just outside the lane which he had booked. First stop, Agakhan Palace.
We were out in the lawns of Agakhan palace having lunch. We gazed at the beautiful white building which housed the samadhi of Gandhji. Two kids played cricket beside us, whilst their parents enjoyed the cool shade of the trees. I signaled the kids to come to me. The two kids came running seeing the inviting prospect of the chocolates I held in my hand. While they helped themselves to the chocolate, I asked them questions and played with them.
“Why do you like kids so much? Even at the hospital you’re always talking to kids,” Sarthak inquired.
“For me, children are the life that I never had.” I replied, with a pang of sadness rising within me. I couldn’t bring myself to explain anything to him. Not at this beautiful turn in life I had never foreseen.
I immediately changed the topic. “Any more interesting places that your city has?” I smirked, trying to hide the tears in my eyes.
We spent the rest of the day going around the busy streets of Lakshmi Road, the famous Puneri market.
Part III: A Thunderstorm
Six months had gone by, in which Mannat and I became the best of friends. Some days we spoke over the phone or Insta. On others, we grabbed a quick bite and some coffee in our break at the hospital in the late afternoon. I couldn’t have thought about meeting anyone better to have as a friend and companion. We knew all there was to know about each other. Except one thing.
I was back at the hospital for my monthly check up. Mannat had come in along with Dr. Gaikwad to conduct my check up.
“Hey, Mannat.” I called out. “Hey,” She replied, not as energetically as she usually did.
“Not well?” I asked, worried. “Nope. I’ve had better days,” she said as she gave a weak smile.
“Take care,” I suggested. She nodded, clutching a handkerchief in her hand as always.
Fifteen minutes of my check up passed by when Mannat had a fit of coughs. She immediately walked out of the room. I’d never seen her so sick. I refused to let my check up continue and went out to check on her, leaving my oxygen suitcase in the ward. She was on her way to the washroom, still coughing. Midway, she stopped to take support. I ran to her and held her.
“Are you alright?” I inquired. She had clamped the handkerchief around her mouth tightly.
“Go away,” she said through her coughs. I refused. “What’s wrong?”
Finally after ten minutes her coughs ceased and I sat her down on the chair nearby.
She looked at me with moist eyes. “I’m sorry, Sarthak. There’s something I’ve hidden from you from the very start,” she told me painfully. Something told me that I had to gain control of myself very soon.
“I’m a patient of lung cancer.”
I leaned against the wall while trying to accept it. Suddenly all those instances flashed by me when she had run away into the corner, coughing and casually waving it off saying that she has a bad cold.
“I found out when I was midway through my graduation. I had a sudden and drastic weight loss, anaemia and I felt very tired. One day, I blacked out and opened my eyes to find myself in the hospital, when the doctor broke the news to me.
It’s been three years since then. I’ve tried all the medications; none has exactly worked more than extending my life for one or two years.
I sometimes repent not enjoying my childhood like all the other kids did, playing around. My parents always wanted me to be a doctor and so I confined myself to the environment of studying most of the time as my parents advised me to.”
I ran forward to console her, while taking it all in myself.
She continued through sobs,” For a while I got really tense about how long I would be alive and instead of living life to the fullest even then, I sank into depression.
Then one day, I found a friend and mentor in a cancer support club I joined. Mrs Sushma taught me how to look at life differently. How everything changed that day, just because I decided to tilt the camera I looked through everyday.
I began spending most of my free time with a few college friends I made and the children in the orphanage closeby, while I buried my secret deep within, at times even forgetting about it.
That’s pretty much how life has been.
But only last month, I could feel my condition getting worse. My doctor fears I have no more than a year to live.”
The smile that had appeared on her face while telling me about the kids faded into the darkness again. I had just relived her life.
That evening, she took me to a orphanage she had been visiting in Pune since she came here. It had never given me as much joy to spend time with kids as that day. I loved being called Sarthak Dada. That day, she managed to tilt my camera angle.
She was destined to meet me. The writing was on the wall.
Part IV: Afterlife
I had come to visit the orphanage as usual. I had brought my kids along for the first time. I watched them play with the same kids Mannat used to while she was here. I reminisced the smile it brought on her aesthetic face.
It’s been ten years since she’s gone and although it feels like a century, she’s still here, etched into my mind. I remember her crystal clear. I never got married. I decided to give shelter to a 7 year old brother and sister I met when I visited Kerala to meet her family nearly three years after she left for another world. They’ve been my family since then. They’re nearly adults now, ready to go and face the world, knowing that someday, soon, I would too be departing to meet Doctor Mannat Ahuja.