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...
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
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,"
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
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.
in Good Housekeeping, 2006