‘I thought she would live forever’: A love story

At the urging of his grandson, the renowned photo-journalist and churumuri contributor and wellwisher T.S. Nagarajan has just put together a private book titled ‘A Pearl of Water on a Lotus Leaf and Other Memories‘ for his friends and family.

The piece de resistance in the beautifully produced, brilliantly written 198-page book is his 50-year love affair with his wife Meenakshi that ended two Decembers ago.

churumuri.com is both honoured and privileged to be given the permission to reproduce a 22-carat love story, all 4,624 words of it.

***

By T.S. NAGARAJAN

I do not know where to begin but I do know where it ended.

So many years together, so many memories. Losing her has changed my life.

Going back now to an empty house in Bangalore is difficult. There is no one to greet you. The house with its silence seems to grieve with you.

Somehow, this place doesn’t seem to fit me since Meenakshi died; but I really have to live here.

I love this place. It is my home.

Our house in Bangalore meant everything to both of us. We spent 20 of the full 50 years of our married life in this home. The house grew with us and acquired all its colours and glory. We developed a beautiful garden. Meenakshi was its brain. I was only the brawn.

Instead of a compound, we preferred a line of crotons as a green wall in front. Today, as I water them every evening, the plants remind me of the green fingers that nurtured them as they grew from little saplings to tall, robust and colourful sentinels. Meenakshi was a great gardener. She had magic in her hands. Whatever she touched flourished.

Life rolled on at an enjoyable pace for ten years. As all good things come to an end, we found it difficult to manage the garden. After much deliberation, we came to the painful decision to close the garden and pave the space around the house with grey granite.

I put in an ad in the paper announcing the sale of the garden. A few days later, an old gentleman arrived with a carrier van to buy the garden. After the deal, Meenakshi urged me to take some photographs of the garden and vanished from the scene.

She found it too difficult to witness the departure of her loved ones. The garden vanished in a jiffy.

As one grows older, passing through the realities of life, dreams die. But I still keep intact my memories of sharing an exciting life with someone special.

Meenakshi is dead.

How am I to tell you?

One does not fix appointments with fate.

There is a rigid lump in my throat. I am learning to hold on and come to terms with the reality that she is no more.  Old age demands dignity. I manage a stoic face with a deliberate smile. Cross-sections of my life with her spring involuntarily from my memory. I have enough of them to ruminate upon.

***

Madurai to Delhi was a huge change for Menakshi. A few weeks after our wedding in the temple-town, she travelled by air for the first time and landed in the capital to a noisy welcome from my friends.

They were stunned by her beauty.

She looked like one of those chiselled figurines in the Madurai temple, her skin shining like ebony in the midday sun and eyes those of angels. She appeared as though she had descended from heaven just to taunt the blue-blooded beauties of Delhi.

Delhi’s weather was an entirely new experience for her. In summer, she loved the cooling rain that followed the dust storms, and wondered why in Delhi no one carried umbrellas while walking in the summer sun. She loved the exhilarating aroma from the wet khus curtains.

Phatphatis”, Delhi’s famous motorcycle rickshaws, thrilled her. She had never seen a Sikh. She was puzzled most by the sight of a Sardarji drying his hair in the winter sun.  Khushwant Singh was the first Sikh she saw and spoke with. He was also the first to plant a soft kiss on her cheek.

In course of time, she fell in love with Delhi, its people and their manners and customs. It was in Delhi that our two daughters, Kalyani and Vasanti, grew up and were married.  We spent 30 long years in the Capital. They were indeed the sunshine years of our life.

***

Moving from Delhi to Bangalore was like going back home. A welcome change. We loved the city’s salubrious weather and the slow pace of life.

Riding on a Vespa scooter, we discovered Bangalore together.

Not knowing Kannada was a big handicap for Meenakshi.  But she learnt the language by persisting to speak, despite the initial imperfections. In a few years, she was able to speak well,  and relate easily with the women in the neighbourhood.

One day, I heard her speak in Kannada to a gathering of women in the temple behind our home. It was a meeting to form a women’s committee. She was elected its first secretary.

Our scootering adventures became less frequent after sometime. We then turned to walking. Most friends in the area got used to seeing us always together. If, for some reason, Meenakshi stayed back, I had to explain her absence to the friends I met on the way. To avoid this, I made it a point  to cancel my walks on the days she didn’t go.

One evening, barely a few minutes after we had left home for a walk, I found Meenakshi   lagging behind, unable to keep pace with me. This was unusual. I asked her what was the matter. She said that she was feeling exhausted and wanted to return home.

As we turned back, I found her collapsing on the road, a small by-lane in the area, and sweating profusely. I was shocked to see her lying on the road, unable to talk. I sensed something serious. A passer-by helped me lift her and take her home in an auto-rickshaw.

I managed to put her on the bed. Her pulse was terribly low. I gave her a glass of sugared water, thinking she might have had low blood sugar. She was diabetic.  It might also be a heart attack, I thought. I put in a tablet of Sorbitrate (nitroglycerine, very helpful in such situations) under her tongue.

I had saved a strip of this drug for an emergency. Soon after the first aid, I phoned my grandson Duglu and told him that his grandma was sinking and urged him to rush home with his parents.  They arrived quickly accompanied by a hospital ambulance.

She was given emergency treatment in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Her condition stabilised by late in the night. She was declared out of danger the next day. A coronary angioplasty  was done. The doctors found an advanced block in one of the arteries.  She was given a stent.  She remained in the hospital for a few days and returned home, bright and beautiful.

The entire family heaved a sigh of relief. After a few weeks of rest and recuperation, Meenakshi resumed her normal routine.  She got up well before sunrise, helped herself to a cup of coffee, got the breakfast ready (invariably an oatmeal), finished the  day’s cooking and sat down in the favourite rattan chair in her room with the prayer book in hand. This was her meditation time. I made it a point not to disturb her.

It was also the time when some women, who swept the road every morning, her best friends, would drop in for their daily bible-babble. She wouldn’t mind their intrusion. She would make coffee for them. (A whole group of them came home to see me and condole her death. This was her speciality. She would relate with everyone on equal terms.)

***

Within months after she arrived in Delhi after the wedding, we attended a reception to the President of Ghana at Hyderabad House. It was hosted by Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Meenakshi saw Jawaharlal Nehru escorting his guest into the hall and whispered to me that she wanted to meet Nehru.

I told her that I didn’t know the Prime Minister personally. Barely I had finished saying this, she rushed through the gathering towards where Nehru was talking with some people. The next moment, I saw her talking with the Prime Minister.

Cameras clicked.

The picture became a hit in the family back home in Madurai.

Another  interesting incident involving Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the famous Indian writer,  comes to my mind. We had met him a few times at Khushwant Singh’s place. When Khushwant Singh became editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, he wanted me to do some interesting pictures of Nirad Babu to illustrate a series of articles by him for the magazine.

Accompanied by Meenakshi, I went to the writer’s home. Nirad Babu had become a familiar figure walking the lanes and quadrangles of the Mori Gate area of old Delhi; a thin, short, spry man in dhoti and kurta. He would usually don Bengali clothes at home. His suits and the hats were reserved for his walks. He was proud of everything British.  He loved showing off his collection of a variety of items, especially those made in England, to his visitors.

As he talked with us, he opened the shoe rack and pulled out a pair of shining Oxford shoes and began explaining its special features. When he brought the shoes somewhat close to Meenakshi, urging her to see them, she boxed her nose and politely pushed the shoes back telling him “Nirad Babu, thus far and no further, please.”

Nirad didn’t mind her comment. He had a hearty laugh with us, and continued singing in praise of the English shoes. Fame or position of people just didn’t bother her. She was frank. She was candid. She was brave. She had nothing to conceal. She was true to herself.

***

I found a big change in her in the years after her heart attack. She became very spiritual and often talked about God. She joined a group of women, all her friends, and started attending prayer meetings every Saturday morning. She stopped going out for walks because of pain in the knees.

She spent minimum time in the kitchen and would retire to her room when once the morning chores were over. Her interest in TV serials waned.

In the evenings, when I was busy with my computer in my room, she preferred to lie down on the couch in the drawing room waiting for me to come and sit next to her.  This is the time we listened to classical music.  Half past eight was dinner time. Thereafter, we would retire for the day.

Meenakshi was deeply interested in music and loved listening to her favourite singers. She was close to the diva M.S. Subbulakshmi. They became good friends when we spent three days in MS’ home in Madras documenting her life in pictures.

MS made it a point to meet Meenakshi whenever she came to Delhi or Bangalore. They would discuss not music but cooking.

We generally stayed at home and talked a good deal on various subjects. We listened to each other with steadfast attention. Often we discussed serious subjects like life, death and even God. We also indulged in a bit of gossip about the goings-on in the neighbourhood.

We derived a vicarious delight in giving nicknames to people. For example, we named a vegetable seller, who came every morning announcing his wares at a high musical pitch, “Bhimsen”, after the music maestro Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Meenakshi felt that Bhimsen was indeed blessed with a great voice; if he had only taken to music, he would have been a celebrity.

The woman, who swept the road,  Lakshmi was called “R.L.”, Road Lakshmi. After she left, she was replaced by another Lakshmi. The new Lakshmi was called “N.R.L.”, New Road Lakshmi.

We found delight even in seemingly simple things in life. This is what perhaps made our life an enjoyable journey.

***

Each remembrance brings heartache in the darkness of my grief at this hour. All the high adventures of our life together come back to my mind.

Our biggest adventure was a visit to the Durga temple (also called monkey temple) in Banaras. I was shooting the monkeys, accepted denizens of the temple, in interesting situations.

As I was peeping into my camera, I heard some grunting sounds from behind. I turned back, and to my utter horror, I found a bunch of monkeys attacking Meenakshi. One was pulling her saree, another was scratching her feet and a third was on her head and monkeying with her plait of hair.

She was in agony.

I didn’t know what to do except clicking the camera. Fortunately, one of the priests saw what was happening and deliberately dropped a large metal container on the floor. The loud sound unnerved the monkeys and they bolted away from the scene leaving her unharmed, but in total disarray. We breathed again.

She was with me always as I travelled in the country and abroad with my camera. She had learnt a good deal of photography and even picture appreciation. I never finalised a single photographic print I made in the darkroom without her examining it in daylight and approving it. She had an excellent picture sense. She was also an expert in displaying pictures on the wall for an exhibition.

Meenakshi was, in fact, the real photographer behind my camera.

Had it not been for her enthusiastic participation with me on my decade-long project of photographing century-old homes of India, I don’t think I would have achieved even a part of what I did. We travelled all over the country by air, train, bus and even bullock carts looking for old homes.

Most homes welcomed us and gave us all the freedom. The invariable presence of Meenakshi with me made my job simpler.

I never did anything without her approval.

I always read out to her whatever I wrote.

She would come up with comments which often helped improve what I had written. We had an intellectual side to our relationship. It had its convergences as well as its differences but differences did not imply either disagreement or confrontation.

She was very house proud; always doing things here and there till everything looked spic and span. She was a great cook too. Within months after our wedding, she made an earnest effort to learn the well-known Mysore dishes, especially “Bisibelebath” in preparing which she became an expert.

She had a zest for life and loved people coming home. Even though she was just a matriculate from a convent in Madurai, she spoke impeccable English and could carry on a conversation with anybody without any inhibition. She was a voracious reader.

Once the writer R.K. Narayan, a close friend of ours, came to our Delhi home. He was very fond of Meenakshi.

Dinner over, we sat for a chat. At one stage, Meenakshi asked him about his experiments with talking to the spirits, especially that of his wife. Narayan, normally very quiet about the subject, didn’t mind the straight question and asked her “Meenakshi, do you really want to know? I have never talked about it to anyone.”

Then he explained to us briefly all that had happened to him after his wife died, barely a few years after the marriage. “I have done it. Talking to  spirits. But, there is no need for you to know about it now.” he said closing the subject, and asked for the khas-khas payasam, a delicious dessert, which Meenakshi had made for the dinner.

“This is my crème de minthe. I want a second helping” he said. The name crème de minthe rang a bell in Meenakshi’s mind. “In any case, Hercule Poirot wouldn’t have liked my payasam,” she said referring to one of Agatha Christie‘s most famous and long-lived characters, whose favourite drink was the popular mint-flavoured liqueur. She loved reading detective fiction. Agatha Christe was her favourite author.

***

On 20 August 2008, we completed fifty years of married life in great style. Kalyani and Pramod came to Bangalore to celebrate the event with Vasanti and Ravi. The grandchildren missed the event.  Duglu was away in the US and Manasvinee was busy with her examination.

Both of us were showered with innumerable gifts. Meenakshi wanted only polycot saris, her favourites. By now she had outlived her fascination for Kancheepuram silks.

We spent a full day in the city enjoying an unusual lunch sitting in what looked like a railway coach in one of the big malls in Bangalore. We went to a Punjabi restaurant for dinner. The lift was not working and Meenakshi found it almost impossible to climb up the stairs.

For the first time, I sensed that all was not well with her.

Suddenly things began to change. She started taking my arm to cross a road, grabbing my hand like a child, and eventually, when sitting close, letting me hold hers in my own. Her fingers had become thin, lean and skinny. They would have been elegant if they hadn’t served years of domestic drudgery. She did housework until it became impossible.

She became weak and found it very tiresome to work in the kitchen. I arranged with a caterer for meals to be delivered at home. She spoke less and preferred lying on the bed for most part of the day. She stopped reading the newspaper.

Most of my queries got a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer. She became totally disinterested in everything and kept saying repeatedly “I feel exhausted. I want to retire.” Initially, I found all this very strange. I did not realise that something inside her was changing.

It was Diwali night.

There was no celebration at home.

Meenakshi was in her room.

It was dinner time.

I laid the table and called her. There was no response.

I went in and found her asleep, very unusual at that time.

She got up, walked with difficulty towards the kitchen, felt exhausted, came out and sat in front of me at the table. She mumbled something to me which did not make sense. She had mild fever and appeared very ill. I helped her back to her room, gave her a glass of milk to drink and made her lie down. She went back to sleep.

I could not foresee what was happening, so suddenly. She was fine in the morning and answered all the telephone calls from friends wishing us well for Diwali. I felt I may have to shift her to a hospital in case of an emergency in the night. I called Ravi, my son-in-law, and wanted him to be with me in the night. He arrived. We spent an anxious Diwali night amidst the sound of crackers.

Next morning at the hospital, the x-ray of the chest showed a patch in her lung. The doctors felt that it was pneumonia. She responded well to antibiotics. The fever subsided and she recovered well within a week and discharged.

We returned home. All was well for a few days.

But later the fever returned and refused to respond to a further dose of antibiotics. What was more worrying was that she developed some neurological disorders. Her memory started failing. She was confused at times, and to my utter horror, one morning she mistook the day for night and asked the maid who had arrived why she had come for work in the night.

I found it impossible to manage her alone and called Kalyani to come from Chennai. She arrived the following day and found that all was not well with her mother. We decided to shift her to Chennai for proper diagnosis and specialised treatment.

At Malar Hospital, cardiologist Dr V.K. Menon examined her, and said that her heart was fine.  But after he looked at her chest x-ray done at Bangalore, he felt that it may not be pneumonia. He wanted us to meet the pulmonologist, Dr. Lakshmi Varadarajulu with a CT scan of the chest.

Next morning, we met Dr. Lakshmi with the scan. She looked at it and said that it was  lung cancer, in an advanced stage. Our hearts broke. She wanted us to meet Dr Sankar Srinivasan, medical oncologist, at the Apollo Specialities, for a confirmation of her diagnosis.

December 2, 2008. We were with the oncologist.  Meenakshi was not with us. She was at home eagerly waiting to know the final diagnosis of her condition.

Dr. Sankar Srinivasan appeared a very unassuming person. He put the scanned picture on the light box, looked at it briefly, and asked me “Has anyone explained this to you?” I said “no”. He then pointed towards what looked like a lump at the top of the right lung and said that it was a cancerous tumour in an advanced stage.

In his opinion, not much could be achieved by resorting to any aggressive treatment like chemotherapy. He gave us a prognosis of only a few weeks.

We were also against any aggressive intervention but wanted to know, if done, whether it would help at all. “May prolong life by a week or two but that would be hard on the patient.” the doctor said. What was his advice? He wouldn’t recommend any aggressive treatment. Even a biopsy was not required since we did not opt for chemotherapy.

He wanted us to keep her at home amidst the family and look after well. “I can’t save her but I can see she goes without much pain and suffering” he said.

My daughter Vasanti asked him how many weeks he would give her mother. “Two or three weeks. I’m not God”, answered the doctor.

As I listened to the doctor, tears rolled down my cheeks.

Dr. Srinivasan looked at me and handed over a paper napkin to me. None of us said anything more and got up to leave. The doctor wrote down his personal cell phone number on his card and gave it to us adding that we could call him for consultation whatever be the time, day or night. He appeared a very special person.

***

As we drove back home, I kept thinking whether or not to tell Meenakshi that she had lung cancer and that she had barely a few weeks to live. It would be utterly wrong to lie and keep the diagnosis a secret. I was sure she had the ability to cope with the information.  She was brave.

We were used to facing life and its problems boldly;  but now it was different, we had to face death, not life.

Returning home, I went straight to her room. She asked me anxiously “What did the doctor say? I hope it is not TB”. I replied that it was not and would tell her everything soon after finishing lunch. I saw a ray of hope in her eyes. At the lunch table, it was an ominous silence. No one spoke.

Kalyani gave her mother something to eat  and came out of her room. I went in and closed the door after me.

This was perhaps the saddest moment in my life—to tell my wife that she is going to die in a few weeks.

I sat next to her on the bed, held her hand, and tried to find the right words. We looked deeply into each other’s eyes. She appeared as though she was going through moments of exceptional intensity. She knew something terrible was coming.

I told her that our wondrous life together would end soon for ever and quickly reported exactly what the doctor had said.

I couldn’t hold back my tears.

She did, and received the news with an innocent smile.

She said “Do you remember that I used say I would go first?”

I nodded my head and broke down.

She remained unruffled and appeared to be in full control of herself and her emotions.

Meenakshi then told me that she wanted to mention to me a few things as her last wish. What she told me, among other things, that no religious rituals to be performed after her death and her eyes should be donated to an eye bank, didn’t surprise me at all. I promised her that I would do everything as per her wishes.

Then, after a moment’s pause, she asked for a notebook and a pen. I gave her both wondering what was it that she wanted to put in writing. I helped her sit up and lean against a pile of pillows. She wrote, with some difficulty, all that she had told me, one by one, and signed at the bottom.

“Why do you have to write this? You don’t trust me?” I asked her.

“I trust you fully but others won’t”, she replied.

She then wanted me to call the family into the room. Everyone sat around her. She then gave the note to her grandson Duglu and asked him to read it aloud. He did it with tear-filled eyes. The contents of the note and her equanimity at a time she was facing death took everyone by surprise.

She joined us in the evening in the verandah for a chat. She didn’t talk much but managed to keep a faint smile on her face, perhaps just to assure us that she was not devastated by the news. Manasvinee, the granddaughter, asked her if she wanted some ice cream.

She nodded her head and said “I’m being looked after like a queen”.

In the following week, we got two medical nurses to look after her day and night. She found it difficult to get out of bed and often complained of pain which disturbed her sleep. The doctor put her on a course of steroids which helped only for a day or two.

Again the nights became very uncomfortable. The doctor then put her on morphine tablets which gave her some comfort. She slept for long hours and, when awake, she talked with relatives and friends who came in to see  her. She spoke very little and just listened to them with that smile on her lips.

Later, as days passed, her condition worsened. She ate very little and opted for fluids. Her memory began to fail. She found it difficult to identify people. Later she found it impossible to take any kind of food. Her breathing became hard and loud. She was given oxygen for brief periods.

A few days later even the oxygen didn’t help and she started moaning in pain. It became impossible to even swallow fluids and the morphine tablets. The doctor advised us to resort to morphine patches which comforted her and perhaps made her go into a semi-conscious condition.

***

December 21, 2008. Sunday.  Manasvinee and I were with her. The nursing sister had just given Meenakshi a sponge wash. She was resting with pillows at her back.

Suddenly, I found her breathing become slower and louder.

The nurse alerted me, and gestured to me to give her Ganga water.

I gave her a spoonful which she swallowed.  Then she opened her eyes wide, looked at me.  Suddenly the breathing stopped. She was gone.

Her passing was peaceful. I shall never forget that noble head lying on the pillow: the face showed no suffering; she looked, as ever, gorgeous and beautiful. She was cremated on the following day.

I felt that I should return Meenakshi to her home town Madurai.  We got married there. Her home stood on the bank of the river Vaigai. I therefore went to Madurai, accompanied by the entire family, and immersed her ashes in the Vaigai.

Life without her is a mirage. I feel like being pushed off  a cliff. Her sudden death has stunned me. I know “leaves have their time to fall and stars to set”, but she made me believe that she would live for ever. I realise that there is no sun without a shadow and all of us are, in fact, terminal cases.

I am now experiencing an emotional territory I had never explored – a landscape of grief, loss and longing.

***

Photograph: “The very first picture I took of Meenakshi after our wedding. It was done on the lawns of Rajghat in Delhi. She was trying to give me the good news that she was carrying a baby!” (courtesy T.S. Nagarajan)

***

Also by T.S. Nagarajan: The maharaja’s elephant made me a lensman

One for the album: A picture that’s worth 7,000 words

The H.Y. Sharada Prasad only I knew

The R.K. Narayan only I knew

‘The camera, like the brush, is only a tool of art’