The Guru's Last wish
It was a Sunday afternoon in November. I was driving my Ambassador, on way to Habba Kadal, the famous second bridge on the Vitasta. Though the window panes were drawn up, an icy draft snaked in to send shivers down my spine and legs, even as I was bundled in an overcoat, a woolen muffler and a karakuli cap. It had snowed a couple of days earlier. The movement of vehicles had turned the potholes and the ditches into pools of slush. I drove slowly to avoid splashing the pedestrians.
Nannaji, waiting on the pavement near the bridge, saw me approaching. I braked to let him in. We drove across the bridge. He asked me to park near the fire station a few hundred yards down. From there, we started walking the distance to his home at Drabiyar.
I had been invited to lunch by my former school teacher, Pandit Gopi Nath Drabu. I had never been to his house before. Nannaji, his son, now led the way through a maze of narrow lanes that got narrower and darker with houses on either side rising three to four storeys, their balconies almost kissing each other. Some of the houses had breirkanis, the attics where cats sunned themselves and children played ghost games. Master Gopi Nath Drabu had told me that Drabiyar got the name after the Drabu clan settled there several hundred years earlier.
This was an invitation that I had been postponing week after week. I had been Master Gopi Nath’s favorite pupil. Now, I was his physician. He taught me at the Rangteng High School located on the bank of the Vitasta. On clear days he loved to take classes in the courtyard under the blue sky with the sun shining bright. He was a great lover of nature and believed that open sunlight lifted spirits and made studies enjoyable. He taught us English—prose, poetry, grammar and other complexities of the language. Of a mild temperament, he hardly ever rebuked any student and never carried the cane that other teachers employed liberally on our palms, backs and bottoms. He was of lean build and medium height, always upright in stance, and wore a white turban, a churidar and an achkan that suited him well. He looked handsome in his metal- rimmed glasses that settled comfortably on his high nose. A thin film of fluid in his left eye and a drop hanging at the inner canthus, which he frequently wiped away with his handkerchief, gave him a unique liquid appeal. His benign charm and his affable demeanor stood in sharp contrast to some of the other teachers that we had to reckon with—the fire-spitting Keshav Nath, the stern-looking Prem Nath with a tongue-in-cheek tic, and the short and stocky Jia Lal whose left hand fell heavy and hard on our cheeks at the slightest impropriety. Master Gopi Nath Drabu stole our heart with his soft speech, bewitching smile and gentle manners.
But that was not all as far as I was concerned, for he was most favorably disposed towards me. There was a reason, though. He was always on the look-out for, what he called, a boy with promise, whom he would like to groom specially. We had three sections in each grade, thirty students in each section. The three form masters would sit together and negotiate the distribution of students between the three sections according to their rank in the previous examination. When I passed my eighth grade and topped, Master Gopi Nath, one of the three form masters of the ninth grade, cut out a deal with the other two. If I were placed in his section, he would accept the remaining boys of any rank.
As a first step towards improving my English language skills, Master Gopi Nath asked me to write my journal every day. It was difficult in the beginning and I lost much of my play time fulfilling this task. He would reject mediocre writing and make me rewrite the journal if he was not satisfied. I often ran to my older siblings and, sometimes, to my father, for the right words and expressions. In a few weeks I settled into the practice and the strain eased. He read my journal religiously, often nodding and smiling approvingly, and proudly showed me off to other teachers, even commending my diary to Master Afzal, a tyrant who taught history and often caned students for failing to answer questions to his satisfaction. Master Afzal had an obsession with dates of major historical events and wanted each one of us to memorize them. He was working hard to achieve a degree of proficiency in English. In his spare time at school he took lessons in the language from Master Gopi Nath. Now that he got to read my journal, as a reward, he passed on his rod to me, affording me the special privilege of caning the students who failed to answer his questions. That was the worst affront to my classmates. They burned with envy even as I generally let them off with light strokes, for they preferred a lashing at the hands of Master Afzal to my leniency. Within days, they started memorizing the dates so well that the cane became redundant and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Master Gopi Nath wallowed in my presence in the classroom. While teaching he looked at me, as if there was no other student in the class. I had to reciprocate with full attention and nod in understanding and approval. He often fired questions at students and when they failed to answer he turned to me, expecting a correct answer every time. He would bring along his five year son, Nannaji, and seat him by my side, to place him under my care while the class went on, in the belief that some of my perceived intelligence would rub off on him. I basked in his attention and admiration. Taking care of his son was a privilege I enjoyed.
It was the same Nannaji who now accompanied me to his home. I had lost contact with my teacher and his son after I passed matriculation and joined Sri Pratap College. Though I had secured the sixth place in the university finals, he felt rather let down; he would have liked me to top the list. I moved on after another two years to pursue medicine at Patiala and Delhi. By the time I returned with a postgraduate degree, the first medical college had been established in Srinagar and, soon after, I was on the faculty. Meanwhile, Nannaji had managed to scrape through his B.A. and secured a clerical post in the Accountant General’s office. He had not come up to the expectations of his father.
Nearly five years after I started my medical practice, Master Gopi Nath sought my consultation. I practiced at Chotta Bazar, hardly a mile from Drabiyar. We met after seventeen years. He had retired and was much changed and rundown, but the unmistakable liquid look had stayed with him. He seemed much older than his years and quite weak, but managed to embrace me tightly. It was an emotional reunion.
Master Gopi Nath had been experiencing difficulty swallowing food for some time now. In the beginning it was easier to swallow soft food and liquids, but anything eaten in haste caused him discomfort. He choked at times and adapted himself to eating small frequent meals, easing the food down with swigs of water. During the previous few weeks, however, even liquids were becoming difficult to swallow and he could hardly eat or drink anything. He had lost weight appreciably and become a pale shadow of his former self. Medications did not provide any relief. X-rays, performed several months earlier, had not revealed any abnormality.
The symptoms suggested a progressive obstruction to the passage of food. I detected a node in his neck. This was a sinister sign, possibly a metastasis from cancer in his food pipe. I was aware of the high incidence of this monstrous disease among Kashmiris. I had lost an uncle to it when I was in my teens. Now it was my beloved teacher.
Master Gopi Nath Drabu was admitted to my ward in the hospital. Further examinations and tests confirmed metastasized esophageal cancer. This was the age of conservative medicine, the age of philosophical resignation to the inevitable, the age of passive submission to cruel destiny. Patients were sent home to die - no heroics, no experimentation.
I explained the prognosis to my revered teacher. He may have grasped the full import of what I was trying to tell him—that there was nothing that could be done—but he was not ready to accept that his star pupil would not be able to alleviate his distress.
“I am sure you will make it easy for me. I do not care how long I live; if I could just swallow it would be a great relief,” he pleaded.
His faith in me was implacable, the faith of a guru in his disciple. That is when I thought of a feeding tube and discussed with him a relatively simple procedure that would entail a small surgical incision in the upper abdomen to allow the placement of a tube inside his stomach.
“I know you will do the best for me,” he said, and gave me his permission without a second thought.
We started intravenous infusions to boost his nutrition. I arranged for a blood transfusion and roped in my surgical colleagues. He returned home ten days later, fitted with a feeding tube through which he himself administered his feeds. I explained how to care for the skin around the tube and how to hide the tube under his clothing.
Over the succeeding weeks, he became an adept in selfcare and often came to see me in my consulting chamber. He gained a little weight and looked somewhat healthier. People marveled at his seeming recovery. He told me that he went about his daily routine without revealing the secret of the feeding tube to any one except his family.
It was during one of those visits that he invited me to his home for dinner. I kept refusing the invitation under one pretext or other. With the certain knowledge that he was not going to last more than a few months, I did not have the heart to be his dinner guest while he suffered. Besides, I knew he was a person of modest means. Teachers were poorly paid. I did not like the idea of straining his family budget. I remembered one of my teachers in my primary school who was so hard up he could not afford to buy a pair of new shoes.
Master Gopi Nath felt offended when I declined his invitation, possibly for the fifth time. Was he a pariah, he asked? That is when I promised him that I would certainly eat at his place. He was animated.
“Let it be this coming Sunday,” he suggested.
“No, I will eat with you after the first snowfall of the season,” I promised.
His appetite had started to fade, and he was again losing weight and strength. The cancer was spreading, the node in the neck was getting bigger, and more nodes were surfacing. From the way he was going downhill, I felt he could not last more than a few weeks. It was early September and the first snow generally materialized in December. That was a long time away.
As if reading my thoughts, he asked, “Are you waiting to visit me after I am gone?”
I was red with shame and fumbled for an answer. “I will certainly lunch with you and have fish,” I said reassuringly.
“You can have it tomorrow. My wife cooks fish with a passion.” There was gentle persuasion in his eyes, a pleading note in his voice.
“Father says that fish should not be eaten in this season when they spawn. We have the whole winter ahead of us, and there is nothing like fish after a fresh snowfall. That is when I relish it most. Fish and brown rice,” I replied, and at once regretted why I had mentioned brown rice.
He must have prayed for an early snowfall more than for his life. That year, it snowed in November. He wanted to call on me personally to remind me of my promise but he had grown too weak and the snow was thick on the roads. He sent his son instead. It was Friday. I said I would lunch with them on Sunday. That is how Nannaji was waiting for me at the bridge to lead me to his home.
It was a great welcome. My teacher’s eyes lit up as soon as I entered the low-ceilinged, small, almost claustrophobic room where he lay on a mattress in a corner near the window. Too weak to stand, he sat up and opened his arms wide to hug me. He took out the kangri from under his pheron and passed it on to me. “Your hands are cold, come warm them.” Then to his son, “Get a blanket, the one which you bought last week, and drape it on his legs.”
I sat at the balcony window near his bed as he leaned on the bolster, facing me. He was a picture of ecstasy. He wiped the drop that had collected at the corner of his eye.
It was one of the most memorable lunches I have ever had. I marveled at the effort that had gone into it. He had sent Nannaji to Sopore, thirty miles west of Srinagar to procure the fabled Sopore trout. His wife had cooked the fish with great love and care with the right mixture of spices for this special recipe of fish with lotus roots.
And there was brown rice! That was a scarce commodity after the green revolution supplanted the brown variety for higher yielding ones. His son had gone to great lengths to procure it from a friend in Ganderbal, another twelve miles to the north. It was overwhelming. I felt guilty and irresponsible for having mentioned fish and brown rice so casually and carelessly when he extended the invitation. I never believed then that this dinner would actually come to pass. This was a burden of gratitude that my teacher heaped on me, never to be repaid.
The window overlooked the lanes and the neighboring houses. There was snow on the ground, snow on the roofs, snow on the adobe walls, and snow on the trees and bushes. But everything else was warm—the reception, the kangri, the food, and the warmest hearts that beat with contentment as I ate and relished dish after dish, course after course.
Master Gopi Nath pressed me to eat another and yet another piece of fish as if he was enjoying it himself. His son sat near to pass on the salad, his wife making trips to the kitchen to fetch new courses of lotus root, spinach, pickles and more fish. It was a delicious, love-laden lunch. “It makes me feel odd and uncomfortable that all of you are waiting on me while I eat. Why can’t you join me?” I asked “Let us wallow in the joy of watching you eat. I lost taste for food long back and, since you introduced the feeding tube, it is immaterial what I put inside my stomach. I could be eating saw dust for all I care. But now, vicariously, I taste and relish each item as I watch you eat.”
My beloved teacher was a satisfied man that day. He watched me with amusement and love, as he sat there, debilitated and weak, the film of liquid in the left eye shining in the reflection of the midday sun that found its way inside through a narrow stretch of the sky between the houses.
|*Dr. K L Chowdhury Dr. K L Chowdhury retired as a Professor of Medicine, Medical College, Srinagar. Presently he is the Director of a charitable institution, Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center, Durga Nagar, Jammu.
He is a physician and neurologist, a medical researcher, poet, social activist. He writes on diverse subjects – medical, literary, social and political and has numerous research papers to his credit, his pioneering work being “The Health Trauma in a Displaced Population” which was presented at national and international conferences.
He has published three anthologies namely:
1- “Of Gods, Men and Militants”. Minerva Press (Pvt.) India -2000
2- “A Thousand-Petalled Garland and other Poems”. Writers Workshop Kolkata – 2003
3- “Enchanting world of Infants” Peacock Books, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors-2007
He was declared Shehjar's 'Kashmiri Person of the year' for 2007.
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