One and Half Years
by Gitanjali Maria
As I sat packing up my bags to leave my hostel room forever, I was reminded of the last one year and half years that I had spent there. It had been a roller-coaster kind of year.
As a young new entrant into the corporate world, I had moved to Mumbai almost a year and a half ago. It was through a contact of my uncle’s friend that I found accommodation in the working women’s hostel located in the suburban areas of the city. From here it almost took me an hour to reach my workplace and to commute back. Having grown up in a small village, I was apprehensive of my life in the big metropolitan. But soon I fell in love with the place; the fast-paced life, the early morning rush, the wayside vada paavs and pani puris and everything that this place offered.
I was allotted a single room on the second floor of the four storied hostel building. It had an attached bath too, for which I was very much relieved. They also provided food in the common mess/restaurant that operated on the ground floor; but it was optional.
As I had come just the previous evening before my joining date, I didn’t meet any other inmates of the hostel. I was told that were almost 30 women residing in the hostel.
I hurried out in the morning to catch the local train so as to reach my office well in advance of the given joining time. The office was located in the tech city and I was welcomed by the HR lady and allotted to a 15 day induction training programme. There were about 30 other people who had joined on the same day. The first day of the training was fun with ice-breaker sessions and introduction about the company etc.
I caught back the local to reach my place around 6:30 pm. I bought some stationary and other necessities for my room from a shop next to the station and was proceeding to enter into the hostel when Prema too was returning from her workplace. She was a thin and frail woman, approximately my age or may be a little older. She said ‘hi’ and asked me whether I was the new girl. I replied, ‘‘yes’’. It so happened that Prema’s room was the one next to mine on the second floor. She told me that she worked for AXY securities and had had been here for from the last three months only. She had done her B.Com from Delhi University and was currently pursuing her CA and LLB course side by side her job. I bade her good bye as I entered into my room to rest and freshen up.
My days in Mumbai went by like this. During the weekend I often used to go out with Prema and few other girl friends to Chowpati, Marine drive or Juhu beach. Though there were many other girls of my age in the hostel, it was Prema who attracted me the most. She was a quiet and simple Tamil Brahmin girl who was reserved and studious. The light in her room could be on till the early hours of dawn implying that she was burning the midnight oil. She did well in her job too as I heard from a couple of others and had a nice pay cheque. But she never boasted or showed off, but was humble and down-to-earth.
I too loved my job. It required me to travel often and I enjoyed my flights and experience in the different cities. It was one day after my return from Agra that I was told that Prema had not been keeping well and was taken to the hospital earlier in the day. The others assured me that she was fine and would return back by night. Tired after the journey, I slept off early.
It was only the next day morning that I could catch up with Prema. Though she looked a bit weaker than usual, she was cheerful and greeted me enthusiastically enquiring about my visit to Taj Mahal and what I had brought from there. I smiled as I brought out the packet of Agra Pedha’s that I had bought. And once again it was back to routine office-going, cleaning and washing chores.
It was a few couple of days later I noticed that Prema had withdrawn into herself a little more than the reserved person she was when I met her. The lights in her room used to get switched off before midnight and I guess she used to return earlier from office than usual as I never met her on my return. I wanted to enquire but was a bit trepid of being intrusive into her personal life. I had never asked her about her parents or family or whether she had a boyfriend.
But after a week like this, I decided to ask her the matter. I went to her room one afternoon to have a chat with her and know about her well-being. She was lying on her bed when I entered. She seemed tired and worn out. Her eyes were swollen as if she had been crying for a long time. I sat down at the edge of her bed, took her hand and asked her what the matter was. She replied that all was fine and that she was just feeling tired. But I could sense that there was something more than that and was asked whether everyone was fine at home. She again replied, ‘yes’. But still there was something missing. I stayed for a few minutes in her room, asking
her about various things in order to get some clue about her sad state.
It was only while leaving, when I had almost exited her room, that she weakly whispered, “I have cancer.” I was motionless for a second, didn’t know what to do. I turned and went back to her, livid faced. She was crying now. I held her, trying to calm her down. Slowly between sobs she told me that doctors had diagnosed her with cancer and her scan and x-ray reports showed the same. I tried consoling her telling her that we’ll try better hospitals and doctors and better treatment. I managed to calm her down a bit and as I left she requested me not to disclose it to anyone.
True to my word I didn’t tell about it to anyone. I took her reports to the doctor in my company. He too stated that her chances of living beyond six months were slim and that this kind of brain cancer rarely responded positively to treatment. I didn’t tell her this, but I think she knew it herself.
After the initial few weeks of shock, she tried to be her normal self, going back to her studies and full-time job. Though she suffered from constant headaches and tiredness, she rarely told anybody. But I could see her pain in that innocent face and I tried my best to keep her good company. Within a few months time, her condition had worsened and she had to be taken to hospital almost every night for dosage of pain killer injections and IV. Others too got to know about her condition. Though many helped, no one wanted to help her unconditionally that too at odd hours of the night and day.
Every one advised her to inform her family about the condition. But she was reluctant saying that they were poor and couldn’t help. It was only much later that I got to know that she had no parents and that she had been bought up in an orphanage. It was a very sad state. She cried as she told me details of her childhood days, when she had started working even before she turned 10 and how difficult life had been to her.
I spent many sleepless nights with her in the hospital and used to rush to work in the morning to reach the company on time. It did take a toll on my health but the fact that she had no one else to take care of her and her bravery despite all difficulties helped me go on. I used to feel frustrated and tired on most days, but used all my energy at least not to snap at her or be angry on her. Prema too missed work many days a week and had to make myriad excuses to keep up her job. Finally that too was lost one day.
Still, she never lost hope except during those dark hours of life when she wanted to join leave this world of troubles. She gave her CA exams despite her pain and anguish. She never expressed her sadness to anyone and tried to keep everyone around her happy and comfortable. Despite her bad health and frequent periods of unconsciousness, she tried to do all her stuff by herself.
It was around that time that I got another travel assignment. This one was a foreign trip to Singapore to meet some clients there. Though excited at the prospect, I was reluctant to leave behind Prema for one month. But it was also essential that I go. Prema egged on me to go and repeatedly said that she’ll be okay and that I should go for this assignment as it will help in my career growth and so on. She pushed me on to take the assignment and finally I did.
The day I was to fly out, I got some flowers and presented her to them, jovially reprimanding and asking her to be alright by the time I come back. She smile and gave me a nudge. As I left her I wondered whether I would see her again. The six month period the doctor had said was already over.
I couldn’t stay much in touch with her or others while in Singapore due to the demanding nature of work and time difference. The few times I spoke to her over phone, she seemed to be in terrible pain and I only had some soothing words to offer. I often felt angry at myself for not being at her at this point of her pain. I too had bouts of crying sessions as I sensed her terrible pains from her speech and her feelings of loneliness.
It was only when I returned back that I got to know that she had died a week earlier. She has been admitted to the government hospital a few days before that and the authorities there had informed the hostel about the time and date of her death.
I was saddened to hear about her passing away but also felt glad that her sufferings had come to an end. She was a hardworking self-made person, having started her life from scratch and reached uptil here. I mourned her death and wondered how much she had meant for me, how much she had taught me through her life experiences.
As I locked my room, carrying many heavy packed bags across, I once again walked past Room: 202 that had been occupied by Prema, memories filled my mind mingled with a trance of sadness and I wondered who would be the next people to occupy our now vacant rooms. The end