An oncosurgeon for twenty-eight years, Dr. Nitesh Joshi has retired leaving behind his hours and days of cutting through people’s bodies so as to lend them a few more months, a couple of years perhaps, to allow them to do the same things that gave them their cancers. Unlike his brother who was extremely interested in medicine but was never able to secure admission after repeated attempts, Dr. Joshi wished to do something else other than medicine. But like many who find it useless to argue with a father who only knew two degrees in life -medicine and engineering, and whose words were carved in stone, he took up medicine not only because he knew that he was good at natural sciences but also to make his old man happy. His happiness? No, his parents wanted him to be happy but were not eager enough to let him do what he wanted. The only good thing back then was that he didn’t have a clue about what he wanted in life or what would make him happy.
At 30, marriage proposals kept pouring in and his disinterest in them displeased his father extremely. It even came to a point where he expected himself to be disowned, disinherited. But nothing of the sort happened. At 33, he did finally give in to societal pressure. He married, or, his parents arranged his marriage with a psychiatrist. Like many unexamined relationships, it only lasted for two years to the great dismay and disappointment of his parents. But according to Dr. Joshi, if he had not divorced his wife, he would have become a patient himself and would have to be locked up for the rest of his life in an asylum. So for the first time in his life, he did what he thought was right.
As the years passed his father’s frustration knew no bounds as he stayed in India and acquired one specialization after another, while his classmates from medical school accumulated dollars and pounds by going abroad. Did his decision make him happy? His father seemed happy for him. But Dr. Joshi himself didn’t feel so. He felt dissatisfied and unfulfilled. But the money that came along with his job empowered him to do the things he liked. Except for war-torn countries where no one and nothing, even money, could assure his safety, his wealth allowed him to travel the world and see places only very few people could. The problem was, you cannot really travel all your life. You get tired of it. And at some point, you have to settle somewhere.
Dr. Joshi makes the choice to settle someplace now.
No biological and, definitely, no illegitimate child, for he was a very careful man, and finally having quit the medical profession and retired from the only thing that occupied nearly half of his everyday hour.
The next question Dr. Joshi asks himself is where. Where to settle for good.
“What about your hometown, sir?” suggests Mr. Ashok Kumar, a real-estate agent whom Dr. Joshi has been in contact with for the last two months. The doctor’s demands are difficult to meet but with the kind of fee that his client is ready to pay him, Mr. Ashok will do everything to find the kind of house that Dr. Joshi wants. Even if he has to search outside his company’s listings.
“Out of the question!” comes the abrupt and stern reply, which makes Mr. Ashok look at his client’s face to-and-fro without moving his head.
When Dr. Joshi’s parents died from a car crash and no will of inheritance was left behind, his only brother, a struggling civil engineer, wanted two-thirds of their 12-acre land for himself justifying that he had a family to raise and the doctor, aside from already being an established oncosurgeon, had none, and therefore didn’t need as much. Angered by his brother’s attitude, Dr. Joshi tried to reason with him to no avail. Dr. Joshi was forced to file a case against his own family. He won, of course. He got half of the land. But what he did aftershock his brother, the neighbors, their friends, and other relatives. He lifted his share of land to his brother’s two daughters. And then, he left their hometown and severed all connections with everyone, for he could not accept that such a thought as his brother entertained would even be held by any member of as sacred a relationship as a family. Moreover, from the very person, he considered his best friend. So as soon as Dr. Joshi stepped into his car, he promised to never see his hometown again.
It has been thirty years since these events.
“Well, I’ve been wandering around India for two months and not a single house I showed you is to your liking. Perhaps, we should go back to my first plan. Find a land and build a house according to your preferences.”
“Yes. That occurred to me, Ashokji. I’ll let you know.”
In his mind, Dr. Joshi has another plan. He wants to visit his homeland after all these years, breaking his own promise. Just to look around, never get out of the car, he tells himself.
After an hour flight and a seven-hour drive, he is parked a few feet away from the gate of a three-block, five-storey apartment complex. Two of which stand to face each other and the third is right behind the very house he grew up with.
Knowing his brother’s money-oriented and success-driven mindset, the view in front of him does not surprise him. Gone are the trees that made the entire 12-acre land mini-forest. What he never imagined was his brother being a sentimental man, preserving the house that their parents built on loan after marriage. He has not expected that he will be seeing the same five-room bungalow standing still, well-painted, well-taken care of. However, the name A Hundred Stairs for an apartment complex, though creative, sounds very uncharacteristic of his brother.
Overcome with sudden nostalgia, he gets out of his hired car and walks towards the gate. All the while he is thinking about what he will tell the guard. He settles for honesty.
“Namaste! I’m here to see my brother, Engineer Nitin Joshi.”
“Your full name, sir?”
Flummoxed, Nitesh gives his full name. The guard then dials a number and talks to someone on the other line. After thirty seconds, he tells the doctor to go directly to the main house.
Only when walking towards it he realizes the massive difference in the house’s appearance. Though the structures look the same, it is no longer the family home that he used to know. It has been converted into a hotel and restaurant, expanding towards the back side. The lack of diners, he observes, is probably due to the renovation on the right wing.
Upon reaching the entrance door, a man in his late 40s receives him. After a short introduction, the doctor learns that the entire property had been sold to one of the country’s biggest hotelier fifteen years ago and that, none of the staff has any knowledge of the whereabouts of the former owner and his family.
As he listens, a haunting melancholy appears on the doctor’s face. For the first time in thirty years, he feels sad and disappointed. Truth be told, he does not want to leave the place empty-handed and unfulfilled. Coming here, his heart, he admits, longs for any kind of reconciliation with his brother. It’s probably not too late and they’re probably not too old to make peace with each other. But time and tide wait for no one.
Having failed to accomplish what he came for, Nitesh decides to leave. But before he offers his hand to shake the hotel manager’s hand to thank him for his time, the manager speaks and says, “We would like you to stay here for the night, sir.”
“Ah, yes. I was so excited to come here I forgot to book a hotel.” The truth is, he expected to be welcomed by his family.
“Perfect! I’ll make some arrangements immediately.”
“The taxi I hired, uh, do you have accommodations for drivers?”
“That will be taken care of as well, sir.”
“Well then. If the plum room is-”
“Is still purple, sir. Our patrons love the different shades in each room so we didn’t change any of it,” he supplies cheerfully. “And it is available, sir.”
After thanking the manager, he asks if he could take a look at the attic before dinner. The manager, sensing the guest’s pining for the past and being well-trained in his profession, says yes without any hesitation.
Dr. Joshi isn’t really sure why he wants to see the attic. His brother would not have left behind anything before selling the estate. But the attic brings back happy memories. And if for a short period of time he can relish such a moment, it would be worth his stay.
Pulling the wooden attic door down, he slowly begins his ascent. Eleven steps. He remembers. An icy cold air welcomes him; dust fills his nostrils; the sun’s evening rays shine down on the dusty wooden panes illuminating the room slightly. He tries the switch. It’s dead. Once his eyes adjust, he finds old hotel junk scattered in all the corners; a familiar steel trunk that his mother insisted he take to boarding school with him sits beside a dresser with a broken mirror that has lost its balance. Frowning, he checks it out and finds it locked. He tries the set of numbers he still clearly remembers. It works.
He expects old clothing inside. Instead, a self-stamped letter addressed to him and his brother’s Nikon N90s camera wrapped in linen come into view. With the letter and Nitin’s camera, Nitesh senses that his brother kept these items on purpose. His brother had hoped that he would come back. Somehow. One day. The thought makes the doctor’s chin quiver; his lips tremble; his shoulders shake; his throat tighten. He tries to blink his eyes rapidly, trying to force a smile but tears find their way out of his tear ducts. Perhaps he wants to cry. To mourn for the past that no one has the power to bring back.
He clears his throat and composes himself. It is time to read the letter and see what’s in the camera.
In his room, the letter dated 18 October 1997 reads —
To my brother whom I did a great disservice to,
I am dying Nit. Throat Cancer. Ironic huh! You…spending your whole life-saving people’s lives from cancer and yet you can’t save your own brother’s? Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t probably waste my time saving the life of the person who wronged me immensely. I thought of that. I don’t deserve your forgiveness. But I did come and visit you once. At Poor St Claire Hospital. I wanted you to operate on me. I could not trust any other doctor. But the hospital staff whom I talked to told me that you were at the OR for six hours straight doing a 12-hour surgery. So, I waited. When I finally saw you in the lobby, I lost my nerve. I guess I was not prepared to swallow my pride and admit that your life turned out way better than mine. Despite all the wealth that I have accumulated. Man, you looked so…living. You didn’t even look like 50. I was so happy to see you. I just wasn’t sure you’d be happy to see me. So here I am, confessing to you with the slightest hope that you’d come back and find this. But I remember a mother of a cancer patient once said, “I don’t care about the 96% of my son dying. I care more about the 4%. And so, I am trying to do the same. Clinging to that 4% that you would come back and forgive my wrongdoings.
By the time you read this, I am probably long gone. I’m so sorry, Nit, for the way I treated you.
A deep sigh and a sniff reverberate around the silent attic. Nitesh shakes his head and reads the postscript.
P.S. My condition doesn’t allow me to right the wrong I’ve done. Perhaps, you can, my brother.
The last lines do not make any sense to Dr. Joshi. If Nitin was talking about his cancer, none of that matters now. The estate? “Perhaps, the camera has the answer,” he mumbles. So, he opens the back and finds it loaded with a film role. A curiosity-induced excitement wants him to get the film developed right away, instantly. The hotel manager turns out to be very useful. His wife’s cousin-brother, fortunately, is obsessed with the 90’s, so his shop plus studio deals and houses anything and everything that has something to do with the number 90. May it be a price, a date or an age.
The following day, he sits and waits at The 90’s. After an hour or so, he is back in his room; and twenty-eight pictures lie chronologically on his bed. The first one dates 12 June 1995, his brother’s natal day, and the rest of the photographs are shot one month apart. Majority of the photographs are taken on the same spot outside their house; a few are close-up, many differ in range, but each of them chronicles his battle with cancer. Standing and looking over these pictures, his brother’s transformation from being a plumpy 50-year-old man with thick, grey hair to being scraggy, under-nourished and bald, becomes apparent. Dr. Nitesh looks up at the ceiling and sighs deeply. Cachexia is just one of the debilitating effects of cancer. Add chemotherapy into the picture and cancer doesn’t only rip you off with your physical strength and abilities but drains your bank account as well.
The last picture is a relief. Nitin is in the mango room, lying in bed. His wife sits next to him; her eyes swollen; her hand caressing his left cheek. His daughters and their husbands, along with their young children, stand around for a final picture. This is the only picture where his brother smiles.
“How I wish you approached me that day, Tin. Whether it would have made a difference, I cannot say. But I wish you did.”
Still looking at the pictures, Dr. Nitesh remembers his brother’s letter. “What wrong did he want to right? What can I do about it?”
He looks at the pictures again, pacing from one direction to another. That’s when he sees it.
Cancer develops when cells in the body divide and grow at an excessive rate. When damaged cells remain and transform into a new growth, tumors appear. But unlike a benign swelling, cancerous cells invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body, destroying the healthy normal tissues and replacing them with new cancer cells that relentlessly spread further. Like a forest fire that rapidly moves from leaf to leaf, grass to grass, tree to tree, ruthlessly engulfing the forest, leaving behind only death and ashes in its wake. By the time his brother’s cancer was detected, it must have invaded and spread all over his neck; the food passage had become very narrow, and eating had become extremely difficult. His brother was literally choked to death by the cancer cells that had but one purpose – to multiply and devour everything around them, even though it meant the death of their host. Growth at any cost was the aim of cancer, and the cells would keep growing until there was nothing left to grow on. So like a suicide bomber, cancer would kill the host and terminate itself.
His brother’s postscript is making sense now. While most people would focus their attention on the changes in Nitin’s physical look, his brother wants to show something else. The first to 26th pictures are all taken outdoors with the estate in the background. While Nitin’s body is slowly being destroyed by cancer, the mini-forest estate that they grew up in is also slowly getting transformed into a concrete jungle. That one stretch of land once teeming with all kinds of life gets replaced by concrete boxes devoid of it. Like cancer, it too spreads…gradually advancing beyond acceptable limits, oblivious of the devastating consequences. When it reaches the point of no return, no amount of money can bring back whatever life that is lost. Once gone, it is gone forever.
But if his brother, who was then only bothered about money and success, was capable of seeking the truth, there would be many like him.
Dr. Joshi suddenly feels his body pulsing with adrenaline. An instant enthusiasm envelopes his entire system. His heart beats faster than usual. He thinks he now knows what exactly he wants to do in life. “Huh! At 70! Never too late, indeed,” he mutters under his breath.
His house-hunting no longer matters now. With the kind of project he has in mind, thanks to his brother, there would be no point in settling in one place, at least for the next couple of years…for he has more pressing matters to accomplish.
Six months later, a teenage girl carrying the morning paper back to the house looks at a large picture of an elderly man occupying much of the front page and reads the headline, ‘A 71-Year-Old Retired Oncosurgeon Spreads Awareness Against The Cancer That’s Killing Mother Earth’.
“Mom! Mommy!” yells the girl. “It’s grand uncle! He’s on TOI’s front page!”
For the last six months, Dr. Nitesh Joshi has been in many schools, colleges, and universities all over India giving talks and lectures on behalf of Mother Earth. In one interview, when asked why he targets these institutions, he answers, “We have come to a point where ignorance can no longer be tolerated. If teachers don’t conquer theirs, what would be the fate of our young earthlings?”
Now, Dr. Nitesh Joshi feels satisfied. At 71, he finally finds his happiness.