My earlier years in Bombay- Dorabjee
I recounted some incidents of my earlier years in Bombay, now Mumbai, in my post Helped by known and Unknown- friends.
The following relates to the later half of that period.
What you are about to read is a love story; not the kind where the starry-eyed boy and girl sing and dance around trees. It is about the relationship, in the evening of their life, of two people who lived a rich and fruitful life. It is about tenderness, care, pain and love.
When I first met Dorabjee, he was nearing his retirement. He was much elder to me ; and more experienced at work; yet, he treated me, his boss, with regard and due propriety. He impressed me with his assured and unruffled way of doing things. I came to rely on his judgment of persons. We became a sort of friends. The reason I say that is, even outside the work relationship, he treated me as his senior. I was a bit uncomfortable, in the beginning; but, later, I learned to accept it, because he was at ease with that mode of communication with me. We did develop mutual regard. It was through Dorabjee I gained some familiarity with the Gathas (the book of Zarathustra); and , I later discovered the close relationship between the Gathas and the Rig Veda.
(Please see my post Rig Veda and Gathas -revisited)
Dorabjee lived in the Parsi colony tucked inside the Dadar area, with his wife Nadira and daughter Yasmin who worked in Bank Of India near Flora Fountain ; and, at 30 was unmarried, as is the case with many Parsi girls. Dorabjee appeared contented and well settled in life and was looking forward to a happy retired, busy life doing what he loved to do most. Social service and gardening topped his list of post retirement agenda.
One evening, after work, while we were having our customary tea at the Parsi Dairy Farm, I noticed that Dorabjee looked rather pensive. I asked him what the matter was. After some persuasion, he opened up.
“Nadira “, he said “has not been talking to me for sometime. She behaves as if I am just not there. She ignores me .When I try to talk to her, she looks out of the window. Yesterday her sister in Poona called me up to say Nadira complained I had not been treating her well, these days. Her sister wryly remarked she could not believe that ; and, asked with a chuckle , if there was a “problem” (kya chakkar chala rahe ho). I was so embarrassed I could hardly say anything. When I tried to question Nadira why she lied to her sister, she got furious and shouted at me. I had never seen her like that anytime in all our 33 years of married life. Nadira is not herself. I just do not know what to say or how to say”.
As I listened, I sympathized with the good-old-honest Dorabjee. He was truly distressed. On impulse, I suggested he could think of taking Nadira to Lonavala for the weekend; that might do her some good. He brightened up a bit.
When I met him next, about a week later, I casually asked, “How was the trip to Lonavala?” . “The trip to Lonavala and return was good,” he morosely said, ” Lonavala was as usual”. He explained, while driving to Lonavala she looked exited and happy as a child; she looked out of the window at the hills, clapped and shouted at the passing animals. She surely was delighted. Dorabjee said, he thanked all the gods in the heavens for giving him back his Nadira. But , once at Lonavala , she withdrew into a shell; stared blankly into space without slightest interest in her surroundings and in Dorabjee who by now was at the end of his wits. He returned to Bombay the next day cutting short his stay. Back in the car on the way to Bombay, Nadira looked relaxed and pleased.
I was away from Bombay and India for about six weeks or a little more. By afternoon, Dorabjee came into my cabin and asked, “Sir, can you spare sometime this evening? Want to talk”. That was rather unusual. Later in the evening, we went to a restaurant (not the ever-busy Parsi Dairy Farm). Dorabjee had lost weight, looked distraught. He was a pale shadow of the Dorabjee I knew.
He started abruptly,”I am loosing Nadira. I do not know what is happening. She is not the same any more. She was always well groomed, alert and friendly with everyone in the colony. She was popular and funny too. She was known for sending funny cards to everyone, even to people who barely knew her . She was fond of giving strange gifts to our visitors. She would gift toilet paper, sanitary napkins, stamps, can of coffee, tea, and matchbox, whatever. And once , to a fat old woman , she gifted a tin of snuff. Many thought her slightly eccentric , but always loving.” Dorabjee swallowed a gulp of beer. I could see he was thirsting to talk, talk more. “She used to take care of everything. We all depended on her.”
“Now she looks so untidy; keeps scratching her head; does not change her clothes, and does not take a wash. She just does not care for anything. She is restless; keeps searching for something or the other all the time. If you ask her what she was searching, she gets angry. She forgets things. She does not remember phone numbers or even the names of her friends in the colony. She misplaces keys and her glasses. She asks the same questions again and again. She lets out our dog into the colony. I shout at her not to do that; but, she keeps doing it again. She feeds the dog several times a day. He is getting too fat. I am scared when she is in the kitchen. She does not close the pump stove properly. I am afraid the stove will burst someday. Yesterday , she kept the newspaper on the stove instead of the teapot. I have now appointed a cook. That is not of much help, either. She just does not care to listen to the cook. I cannot watch her every minute. I am worried about her safety. She is getting too dangerous. I am afraid even to sleep at night. We used to be such a close family. Now she does not care for me. I have lost her…”
I realized something was seriously wrong here. I asked, “Did you show her to a doctor…. a psychologist?”.” That was what I wanted to ask you Sir. I have taken an appointment with the doctor this Saturday. I do not know what the doctor might say. I have no courage to be alone. Will you please come with me to the hospital, Sahib?” He was pleading. I thought this was the least I could do; and , agreed to go with him to the hospital.
The next Saturday, I went along with Dorabjee and Nadira, who looked rather thin and weak, to the KEM Hospital. The doctors who examined Nadira said she was suffering from depression; but, her general and elemental neurological parameters seemed normal. They suspected it to be a case of dementia; prescribed some medicines; and, asked us to take the patient to a specialist after about a fortnight. That left us no wiser than before.
After about three weeks, the Specialists who examined Nadira said her brain cells were being destroyed; and, she was an unusual case of Alzheimer Type disease. Usually it attacks people above 65 years of age ; but, unfortunately, Nadira was a victim before she reached 60. We were told that she was entering the middle stage of Alzheimer’s. The cure was not definite. They scolded us , roundly, for not bringing her in time.
Dorabjee was devastated; withered in pain like a dumb animal. We had not even heard of such a killer disease. When I tried to note it down in my note-pad, I could not spell it. We just did not know what hit Nadira. We were clueless.
Dorabjee decided to resign the job to take care of Nadira. I prevailed on him to take about three months of sick leave, initially ;and, to watch for improvement.
What followed thereafter was a saga of care, tenderness, sacrifice and love.
Dorabjee took care of Nadira as if she were a little girl. He brushed her teeth; did her toilet; bathed her; tied her hair into a knot; fed her by spoon; administered her medicines religiously; sang songs; and, rocked her to sleep. He was not a singer of any sort. He had a gruff voice. He sang all day. He sang songs he heard in his childhood; the Gujarati theater songs; the songs he heard on the streets; the film songs ; and, he sang aloud the passages from the Gathas. He read the morning Gujarati newspaper aloud like a song. He told her stories, jokes. He sang to her again and again, “you are my child. You are my little girl, my darling, my sweet pie”.
He got a wheel chair; and, wheeled her around in the colony. Sometimes, he drove her in his faithful Ford Prefect. She did not seem to enjoy the drive as she did on the way to Lonavala. Each evening he put her in the wheel chair placed on the balcony. She would stare vacantly , not noticing her friends’ wave to her as they took their constitutional rounds. She seemed to be bored with life.
Nadira loved crotchet, earlier. Dorabjee brought knitting needles and ball of yarn. He tried knitting a few stitches and patiently egged Nadira to knit a few stitches. She messed up the yarn. Dorabjee sang rhymes and cajoled her to put a few stitches. It was not working well. He did not give up.
He played games with her; the games that little girls of about five play. He brought her picture books meant for kindergarten children , showed her the pictures , sang rhymes . She would soon loose interest , tear up the book to pieces and throw the pieces up in air over her head.
As she could not turn thin sheets of paper, Dorabjee got her thick cardboard sheets with pictures pasted on them ; the crayon; wooden toys; and, simple puzzles. Nothing seemed to work. He then got her thick cards, which she could hold, with colorful pictures pasted on them . She would spend hours just sitting there , moving the cards around and playing her own kind of game.
The disease took Nadira by deceit and treachery. She was unaware and unprepared. It was like the wicked witch that tricked Snow White into eating a poisoned apple. She didn’t die; but, went into deep sleep. It took a prince kissing her to wake her up. Alas, Dorabjee was no prince. This was no fairy tale either
Alzheimer robbed Nadira of her life, her ability to share, her thoughts, and her speech.
She who loved the beauty of words and nuances of communication was cruelly silenced. She was no longer a person, not even a child. She was fading now. She was not even a shadow of the woman once she was. Each day she looked different. Dorabjee desperately fought to hold on to the memory of Nadira. “I do not want her to be like this. I want her how she was before. Maybe God will find a cure,” he said to himself aloud; shouted at her to wake her up. He was scared that she was disappearing. He knew in his heart that she was no longer with him. Yet, he did not want to accept that and give up on her.
One Saturday afternoon, I visited Dorabjee just to check how he was managing Nadira ; and, whether he needed any help. He was very happy to see me. I was aghast Dorabjee resembled his sick ward. He had lost weight; the stare in his eyes had a glassy look just as in Nadira’s eyes. He was talking loud almost shouting his words. “Sir, can you see , she is better now? Sahib, Sahib , Look at her eyes. She knows me. She is smiling. She is happy in her little world, I can tell. I know she loves me very much. She looks a little thin; but, is still lovely and wonderful. If she eats a little more, she will surely be better.”
I did not see any of that. My mind was elsewhere. How do I tell this man that her brain is dieing every minute, cell by cell. She no longer is with him. She is not his Nadira anymore. What could be worse than helplessly watching a loved one slip into abyss, inch by inch? This is clearly an ongoing horror. Why has life been so merciless? It is a blessing that Nadira is not aware of Dorabjee’s torment, sitting in that bubble world called Alzheimer.
I wanted to tell him, if there is a lesson in this cruel perversion of fate, it is this: love is something that can’t be destroyed by suffering, the only thing that rescues you from this cauldron of pain and insanity is love; hold on to that love defying this horrible disease.
Dorabjee was in no condition to resume work. We arranged for his early retirement with full benefits. The weeks sank into months; the months stretched to years. It was now three years since Nadira was taken to KEM Hospital. Feeding had become very difficult. She had shrunk to a little girl’s size. All communication with her had vanished. There were no more games, toys or pictures. There were no songs either. He had stopped talking. He made signs to her. Kept looking into her eyes, as that was the only one thing that had not changed these three years; that perpetual stare. He hoped some day her eyes would light up, smile and know he belonged to her. He told himself : she knows I am with her ; but, she can’t say that; poor girl.
Dorabjee had fallen silent. His heath was failing. He was no longer the person he once was. Yet, he would not let anyone else nurse Nadira. Yasmin and the maid now ran the household. The friends in the colony advised, argued, cajoled, stormed and threatened Dorabjee to send Nadira to a Home . He would not listen; he would not talk nor make a sound. He like a scared animal mutely hugged Nadira, fearing someone might snatch her away. He would not let her go.
It was now nearly four years since the monster disease felled Nadira. One afternoon Yasmin came into my office. She looked desperate. It was impossible for her to take care of her parents, both unresponsive – each in his/her own way. Her parents were not there for her any more. Her own life was in tatters. She wanted me to talk to her father to let her mother into a hospital. She hoped he would listen to me. I told her that might not be the best answer. We should arrange proper care for both. That evening we talked to the Panthaki (priest at the fire temple) and the Parsi council ; and, arranged to admit Dorabjee and Nadira into a Parsi Home for the aged. The Home ,for some reason, refused to put both in the same room. Nadira was sent to the female ward while Dorabjee stayed in the Men’s accommodations.
That didn’t deter Dorabjee. He spent his entire day, from morning until nightfall , by the side of Nadira, holding her hands, caressing her brows, stroking her head, massaging her limbs, searching into her eyes with a hope to catch a glimmer of a smile break through the glassy stare. She did not eat, she did not drink, she did not make a sound; and, she did nothing except breathe heavily. He made no sound, either. He sat by her side faithfully, lovingly and silently day after day for more than two months . The hospital staff came to accept him as a part of the furniture.
One late evening in December, as the city was busy welcoming the Christmas Eve, Yasmin called me to say that her mother was sinking. The doctors at the hospital told me that she had been sinking for the past one week ; and, wondered why she would not let herself go. Dorabjee , as ever , was at her side , keeping his vigil.
At about two in the night, finally, Nadira let herself go. She slept like a baby; her sweetest sleep in long years. Strangely, after her death , Nadira’s face had regained the soft , mellow beauty that once adorned her. She looked relaxed and peaceful. We were sad and relieved ; she found her peace.
We left Dorabjee alone with Nadira. As we stepped into the corridor, a heart wrenching horribly painful shriek pierced the still of the winter night. Dorabjee had broken his years of silence. He was singing. He sang all the forgotten songs. He told her stories and little silly jokes. He sang. He sang his heart out all night like a thorn bird until his heart bled.
In my beloved’s absence
Life hangs upon me, and becomes a burden;
I am ten times undone, while hope, and fear,
And grief, and rage and love rise up at once,
And with variety of pain burn me to embers.