Wednesday, March 10, 2010

#24. Shankar's Story

Shankar’s Story
(This is only partially based on real life incidents. I have added a lot from my imagination which may or may not be true. So it is more in the nature of fiction.)
I had known Shankar for a very long time. He was no friend of mine—the age difference was too much for it—almost two decades. I remember him as a dashing young man when as a child I saw with awe girls falling over him. He was in a media, and such people are easy to attract people of both sexes in the hope of getting some exposure. But it was only later that I realized that though womanizing was more or less a habit with him, he was honest in his profession, sincere , talented, hardworking and surprise of surprise, honest. There are several degrees of honesty—some stop at small favours, drinks and nice dinners thrown in, using government vehicle for personal use, and even not hesitating to ask his acquaintances for the favour; but these people stop at taking gifts, even at festival times, not to talk of actual greenbacks. Shankar was such a person. I had seen his family grumbling when he returned Diwali or Holi gifts which is very normal in the corporate world.
That reminds me of a colleague of mine who in his young days was posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate in some godforsaken place in a godforsaken state. Once a contractor came and presented to him a new year diary. This young officer lost his temper. ‘Arent you ashamed of yourself, giving a diary free!’ The contractor was flabbergasted—‘Sir, it is only a diary, nothing inside it!’ This was told to me by the same officer some years later with amusement over his innocence during the early days in service. But on the whole he remained straight throughout life. I remember that he stayed at Delhi for a few months after his tenure was over—you are allowed upto eight months by the government for medical or educational reasons. At that time he used to borrow magazines from me as I used to get them from my library which subscribed to all sorts of magazines and journals. But here also he hardly got any rewards for his straightforwardness. He had an only child who had some problem with one of his legs, and had to undergo a number of surgeries to rectify the defect. His wife was diagnosed with tumour in the brain, which unfortunately turned out to be malignant, and she died a few years later. Son ultimately got into IIM, and must be having a good job somewhere. However, sons never stay yours. After marriage they are part of another nuclear family where you don’t fit anywhere. I never heard anything spectacular about this officer while he was in job, and he must have retired when the time came.
Anyway, to come baack to Shankar. He did get his due promotions in time, which in government amounts to nothing much in monetary terms, at least during those days. He had a large family—four daughters and four sons from two wives, It is a long story how he had two wives. I heard it not directly from him and so it may or may not be true. He had a sister and his father was a school teacher. The caste they belonged to had the pernicious custom of big dowry for girls which sometimes the parents could not afford. One hears of Bengali Brahman girls married off to much older men often a widower where there was no dowry. This is the story of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal. It is strange that in India where the sex ratio is always against women, there should have been such a custom. One shudders to think of the dreadful life the widows had. Many landed in the ashrams of Vrindavan. There was a deliberate attempt to make them ugly so that they are not able to attract anybody, either in the household or outside. Anyway, shankar’s sisiter had to be married, and in an age-old practice the father went around searching for a suitable match. One son’s father put a strange condition—there should be a mutual marriage of his daughter to Shankar, and in turn Shankar’s sister will be married to his bride’s brother. I do not how Shankar was persuaded, but ultimately he landed with a semi-literate, very plain-looking wife. There was hardly anything but sex between husband and wife, which resulted in regular birth of children. When Shankar married the second lady, pretty in a way, educated and an excellent singer who used to appear in radio programmes regularly, any normal girl should have refused, but it did not happen that way. It seems that her father, a widower, had fancied some lady and wanted to marry her, and did not want a young girl at home by some strange twisted logic. And from the second wife, Shankar again had four children—two sons and two daughters. Worst Shankar’s sister became a widow, with a son who for some years stayed with him, and so Shankar had to raise a family of nine children. Educating the children and marrying off the eldest son and three daughters one after the other, resulted in wiping off all his savings, and in addition had to draw heavily from the provident fund which is actually deduction from one’s own salary with a good interest thrown in by the government.
The tension of raising nine children and support to his first wife who mercifully did not stay with him brought him early hypertensionhen he was in his early forties. Though he had memdication for that, ultimately it had to have a prey somewhere. Some part of the body had to have a permanent damage, and in his case it was his kidneys. By this time he had lost all the interest in life, and the desire to live. And when a person loses the will to live, then things are on a fast downslide. He was living in a metro where dialysis facility was available. He also had medical coverage as a pensioner, but then he had to have somebody to escort him, which unfortunately nobody in his family was willing to. His son was in a job, and he hardly had time. The daughter lazy with dreams of getting rich quick but without the necessary qualification for it, nor money to start a business and thrive. Wife was never trained to do such things herself—a typical helpless sort of woman who needed somebody else to do the job for her when out of home. Medical coverage in the government means a lot of formality to go through, and here nobody had the patience to do that. Son took him a few times for dialysis done privately on payment, which could also have worked provided there was enough money to see through the lifetime of treatment.
One day I heard that Shankar died. Well, with total kidney failure it had to happen sooner or later, but I was not expecting the death to be so near and was taken by surprise, apart from the grief death of person you know for long brings.
Later I heard a horrific story as to how his end came. Dialysis costs money, and it came from his kitty, the post-retirement fund that he got from the government like provident fund, gratuity, leave encashment etc. Younger daughter was unmarried and it was assumed that her marriage expenses would come from the same pool. One day the daughter gave vent to her feelings that all the money large part of which was meant to have gone for her marriage was being dipped into on a regular basis, and very soon nothing would be left for her. It is so easy to apply blindly the laws of a joint Hindu family to self acquired property which has no such strings attached. All the shouting happened within the hearing of the poor old man. I am still puzzled how things could not have been organized in a more systematic way so that regular dialysis could be given to him under the government coverage. Plain laziness and lethargy on the part of the family and the absence of the will to live on the part of the patient. And dialysis was a painful procedure to undergo. Worse, Shankar was never the same mentally after he was on dialysis. He used to be in a daze and his mental faculty was much less alert. He ultimately decided to stop going for the procedure which meant a painful and sure death, and it happened.
Shankar’s death churned my mind, and I realized that in your old age nobody can chaperon you all the time to places you have to go whether for medical reasons or otherwise, and you have to fend for yourself. Unless you are a wealthy person with a lot of sidekicks around. The other painful thought that came to my mind was that modern medicine can extend your life to a certain point, and after that probably it is much better to find a way to end one’s life. This is the done thing, and one should not be too shocked to realize it. You withdraw the life support system after a certain point when all hope is lost. Ram iin his old age took Jal Samadhi. Kunti, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari after the battle of Mahabharat went to live in the forest where they perished in a jungle fire. Pandavas went to the Himalayas where they died one after another. And as late as in the twentieth century Vinoba Bhave refused to live. Is euthanasia the correct solution in so many cases? Opinions differ.