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Her skirmishes with Death


She has signed a truce with Fate, but her skirmishes with Death go on. She quietly slogs about her calling, she silently reminds herself that she would not let anyone else die like Ranjit. Rama owes it all to Ranjit's pain. She never talks of her own...

"There's some bad news." The oncologist began gingerly. Rama Mehra thought it would be a mere repetition of what she had heard two days ago in the same cabin. "Your husband has cancer and there's isn't much time," the oncologist had said in one breath. Just two days ago…. "Is his condition really bad? Won't I get even some moments to pray?" With tears welling in the corners of her large eyes, she threw a question. "It's not about him, it is about you, you too have cancer." Rama dug her nails into her palms.
Ranjit and Rama Mehra had lived and loved life together for 24 years, would they be together in death too? And what about their three boys?

Fortunately, the illness had showed a little kindness towards Rama - a hysterectomy could buy her time, but Ranjit had hit a dead-end. The cancer had completely corroded his colon but a gritty Rama was not ready to surrender to Fate. Not yet. Not for him, not for herself, not for their children. "With death staring at us, our life crumbled completely. But I ignored my pain and thought of options for Ranjit," says Rama. The first chocie was Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York, but something within Rama resisted the idea of chemotherapy. As a growing up girl in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, she had seen her grandmother put together herbal concoctions and chase ailments in a jiffy. She believed in the power of natural remedies and her meeting with the Chinese alternative medicine doctor at Sloan-Kettering corroborated the belief. But time was running out and the family insisted on going the chemotherapy way. "I hated seeing Ranjit going through rounds of chemotherapy, I wish I could put my foot down and switch over completely to alternative and natural therapies." Cooped in an apartment in New York and in the hours that she could spare from tending Ranjit, Rama took to reading books, journals, web material on cancer, anything that she could lay her hands on. "I was obsessed with knowing more and more about the disease; I was looking for ways to mitigate Ranjit's pain, prolong his days…," Rama remembers those harrowing times. The subject was new, the jargon sounded more like abracadabra, but Rama would still spend hours looking for answers to her question.

Fate was to intervene in one more way; it was on a bus from Pennsylvania to New York. Studying, working and lending a shoulder to his ailing parents, Iqbal, the Mehras first born, was fortuitously on this bus. Next to him sat Lucyna Kwiatkowski, a nutritionist who advised cancer patients at Sloan-Kettering. When conversation flowed, Iqbal unwittingly mentioned Ranjit's terminal illness and Rama's grit to beat Death. "Kwiatkowski walked into my life like a messiah, it was as if God had heard my prayers and sent her just to help me tackle my adversities," adds a grateful Rama.

Months were whizzing past the Mehras, a robust Ranjit was looking pale and Rama's heart would skip a beat every time she saw a frail Ranjit perched against a large pillow on the hospital bed. Her health was failing too, she could no longer ignore her own pain. The doctors suggested an immediate hysterectomy before it metastasized. Rama had no choice but to fly back to India for the surgery. When more months fluttered past the calendar, she returned to the US to be with Ranjit, still believing that natural remedies could heal him faster.

That is when Kwiatkowski stepped in like a messiah. Rama had detailed the Polish nutritionist about Ranjit and she started giving him the natural supplements on her advice. Within days, Rama noticed the changes. Despite the side effects of chemotherapy, Ranjit's faint smile was once again a large grin, he could crack a hearty joke or two, hope hovered amidst the whiff of ether in the hospital room and he talked of getting back to India and perhaps, planting more red roses and yellow hibiscus in the garden. Rama got perked up with all the positive signs, but it would not last long. After the hysterectomy, her joints were getting jammed, her bones were getting more porous and fingers seemed completely paralysed. The deterioration was so rapid that Rama was once again getting jittery about the tomorrows.

She sent an SOS to Kwiatkowski, she did not want to die, she had to get back being healthy for herself, for Ranjit, for the children. This time again, Kwiatkowski recommended natural supplements and it worked like a miracle. " I knew Type 1 osteoporosis is not unheard of in estrogen-deficient women, but I honestly, could not believe that within a month of taking supplements my joints seemed to be getting back to normal, the pain had subsided and the flexibility returned," says Rama.

Perhaps Rama was ordained to swing between hope and despair; while her pain was gradually vansihing, Ranjit's condition began to deteriorate once again and this time again despite her protests, other family members insisted on more chemotherapy and stronger allopathic medicine. And then the ineviatble happened. Having struggled with the disease for almost two years, one evening Ranjit slumped into the bed and closed his eyes, never to open it again. That was the last time Rama saw his large grin. He was barely 45. Rama returned to India, this time alone. Financially drained and completely broken.

"I t has been almost six years since Ranjit left us, but I still feel that if we had stuck to alernative medicine he would have survived, who knows he might have been here, cracking one of his favourite jokes," says Rama while discussing the case of a young girl's thalassaemia with her nutritionist in Svaasa…. A Breath of Life, her wellness store in Gurgaon.

When Rama returned to India, there was nothing. She had gotten married into a family that had many firsts for Amritsar: The Mehras were instrumental in bringing the first international flight into Amritsar (it was a Kabul-Amritsar flight), had built the first centrally air-conditioned hotel and also had a private golf course. But with Ranjit gone, Rama felt like a little girl lost in a crowd of strangers. And she was not alone, there were three growing up boys to take care of. She signed on a piece of paper that gave her share of the property and she then decided to pull life by its ears.

During her illness, Rama had noticed the wonders that natural supplements did to her body; she, in a way, survived because of that. She had seen the positive changes that it brought into the frail frame of Ranjit. Death took away all that she had loved, but Rama would not cling to despair, she was not ready to sulk, she did not want to say no to life. Wasn't she ever angry at Fate? How often do you hear of stories where a couple gets diagnosed with cancer within a span of two days? "Perhaps, it was Destiny and there is no solace in getting angry with turns that are preordained. There is nothing you can do about it. Yes, I was angry, but not with God. I was angry with all the chemotherpay that Ranjit had to go through…. If only I could change that," her voice trailing into a regret that bothered her, that worried her.

"T here is always a flip side to a coin, though. Who knows if I did not have to go through all this, I would have been just another ordinary woman, living an ordinary life, blissful in my cocoon and content with mere existence. Perhaps God had another reason." The reason: Not to let anyone else die like Ranjit. The means: A healthier lifestyle, use of natural supplments and saying no to all the toxins that we include in our everyday life.

The big question was how? With the help of all the information that she had garnered during Ranjit's illness, Rama had been helping her friends with suggestions about dietary supplements and it always worked wonders. Friends got back for more and they brought in others. A little ripple had been created, but Rama was not to rest on her laurels; she wanted to reach out to more people, to spread awareness to as far as the sky stretched. It was a difficult proposition but Rama had to do it.

"That's when the idea of a spa struck me, maybe all that I talked about and propounded could be offered under one roof," Rama remembers her first step. The 250-year old manor in the heart of Amritsar that she had inherited was where it would all begin. In the sprawling lawns and the backyard there lived squirrels and fireflies, the hibiscus grew wantonly and the lilies looked elegant. Rama needed space, but she knew she would not intefere with nature, the squirrels, the fireflies and the hibiscus could live happily ever after with her.

"This quest to do something for others gave a new meaning to my life, it became my raison d etre." But Rama who was born on the cusp of Aquarius and Pisces did not want to do anything half-heartedly. She scoured the countryside for farmers who grew organic grains and vegetables. "I twitched my ankles going from one village to another looking for organic farmer, I was ready to shell out more than the market price but I found none. None; I was so disheartened. I turned to my little patch of a farmhouse in Gurgaon and took to farming that would at least cater to the needs of the spa." But that was just one chunk of the conundrum - she needed Ayurveda masseurs, yoga teachers and a dedictaed retinue. By then, perhaps, Fate too had gotten jaded against Rama's will and everything fell into place. The spa had its first guest in 2003, then came another, then another, then another…

Amidst all the buzz in the spa, Rama hadn't forgotten Ranjit and the pain that he went through - Rama had promised herself she would not let anyone else die the way the man she loved the most did. She had to reach out to more people and for that the spa was barely enough. Sitting in her house in Beverly Park in Gurgaon, Harayna, Rama had been mulling about it and one evening while she sat on the window sill and sipped tea, the idea of opening a wellness store walked past her. That's it, she pumped with joy.

"The herbal label in most of the products that you buy is such a farce; a product might have just one percent herbal ingredient and the manufacturer would stick the herbal label and deceive the gullible customer. Since people are ignorant, they fall for these ploys," says an angry Rama. What is important is to look for the 'Certified Organic' label. There are companies in the West that make only certified organic product - a lip balm with shea butter and safflower oil, mascara with jojoba oil, lemon myrtle shampoo, barley greens that boost your immunity, green tea that is a natural energiser…

Rama scoured all the information and tied up with these 'real' organic companies and has opened her first store in Gurgaon. To help people with the needed information, she has also hired a nutritionist who was trained in Canada. "Yes, the products are a little expensive but if you look at it logically in the end you are actually saving doctor and treatment cost," says Rama trying to explain it to people that it is worth it.

In her store have walked in patients with thalessmia, cancer, cardiac, skin and those with abdominal ailments. Rama knows that she is fighting the mighty Death and it is not always that she can symmetrically rearrange life for these patients, but she is content that in a way she is helping people prolong their uncertain lives.

She has signed a truce with Fate, but her skirmishes with Death go on. She quietly slogs about her calling, she silently reminds herself that she would not let anyone else die like Ranjit. Rama owes it all to Ranjit's pain. She never talks of her own.

Published in Good Housekeeping, 2006

Contact: Preetivermalal@gmail.com

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