No one took Sudeep seriously when he complained of severe backache. “Hypochondria,” I chuckled. I was the wife of a hypochondriac. “Must be the armchair,” suggested Dr. Natrajan, our doctor. “You must buy a high backed chair.” When the change of armchair, or the massage with Bengay ointment, or hot fomentation brought no relief to Sudeep, Dr. Natrajan brought him to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and ran a battery of tests to satisfy him. The kidney biopsy was a part of the tests.
Today we were going to collect the Reports from the Institute. “I hope everything is alright Kavita,” muttered Sudeep. “Of course,” I said, my mind on more pressing matters like the menu for dinner.
The biopsy report came as a shock to me. “There must be a mistake,” I stuttered as I saw the word “Malignant,” stamped over the piece of paper I was clutching in my hand. “The samples must have got mixed up.”
“I’m sorry,” responded the doctor on duty, his voice sounding bored and not even a tiny bit sorry, “but our labs don’t make mistakes.”
“It’s over, Kavita. It’s all over,” moaned Sudeep, snatching the report from my hand. “This is the end of the road for me.”
“Is there no hope doctor?” I asked Dr. Natrajan, voice forlorn, the implications of the findings registering upon me finally. In our thirty years of married life the longest we had been away from each other had been a week, when Amit was born. The thought of living alone for the rest of my life appalled me.
“Well,” he explained, “Sudeep has renal cell carcinoma and both his kidneys are affected. Chemotherapy will not work in his case, nor will radiation. There is really no hope for him unless we go in for a kidney transplant shortly.” My eyes lit up on hearing Dr. Natarajan but Sudeep’s were bleak.
“The donor has to come from amongst the family members,” he continued. “If your wife is willing to donate,” said Dr. Natrajan, “we can run some tests on her.” Sudeep looked at me with such abject longing that I simply forgot that I had been on medication for hypertension for the last twenty eight years, ever since Amit was born, and volunteered to donate my kidney.
I knew even before I saw the report that my kidney was not a match for Sudeep’s. “Spouses seldom are,” Dr. Natrajan consoled me, “now, if you have any children…”
“We have a son,” said Sudeep.
I recoiled in horror at the thought that Sudeep could even think of suggesting that Amit should donate his kidney. Amit was just twenty-eight years old, doing his PhD in Astrophysics at the University of Harvard. “Call Amit,” said Sudeep, his eyes begging me. At that moment I realized just how desperate Sudeep was to live.
Dreadful images of Amit began to flash before my eyes. Amit on dialysis while in his mid thirties, because he had donated his kidney. Amit, struck with the same malignancy as his father, with no one willing to donate a kidney for him. I would have delayed getting in touch with Amit, but I discovered to my horror that Sudeep, like a dying man clutching at straws, had already rung him up.
Amit rang back a day later saying that he had booked his tickets and would reach India within a week. That is how I found myself at the T-3 Terminal in New Delhi, clutching the special pass Sudeep had arranged for, awaiting Amit’s arrival with a mixture of hope and dread.
I was a little overwhelmed by the glitz, glamour and décor of the New Airport. The signboard at the Arrival lounge indicated that Amit’s flight had landed. As I stood near the Immigration Counter and saw the escalator coming down, I panicked wondering how I would recognize Amit from a distance. I need not have worried. He was wearing the orange and beige scarf I had knit for him ten years before, when he had first left for the USA. He strode down the escalator and disappeared into one of the queues at Immigration. Lost in my thoughts, I did not notice when he had cleared immigration until he enveloped me in a bear hug. I clung to him as if it had been an entire decade and not just one year since I had last seen him. His eyes, almond shaped, hid behind his tinted glasses. His nose, sharper than Sudeep’s and mine looked aquiline. His complexion, away from India’s heat and dust had become visibly fairer. He had begun to sport a French beard. He looked like a fine blend of both Sudeep and me.
“I won’t let Papa die, Ma,” Amit whispered. “I’m sure my kidney will be a perfect match with Dad’s.” I looked at him, who, at six feet, towered over me. He was twenty-eight, old enough to make his own decisions. Who was I to tell him anything?
Dr. Natrajan called me to the hospital a week later. “Amit’s kidney is not a match for Sudeep,” he said. Disappointment mingled with relief at the thought that Amit, my son, would not have to donate his kidney.
I was about to leave the room when Dr. Natrajan said, “Kavita, why didn’t you tell me that Amit is not Sudeep’s son?”
“What? I beg your pardon?”
“His DNA doesn’t match both of yours. Why didn’t you tell me that he was adopted?”
“He isn’t,” I retorted as the room began to revolve around me. Before Dr. Natrajan could rush towards me I had collapsed upon the floor. When I woke up it was on a hospital bed.
“If he is not adopted,” insisted Dr. Natrajan, “then he must have been exchanged.” “Which hospital was he born in?” he asked.
“He was not born in Delhi,” I said, “but in a small Primary Health Centre in Rewari Haryana.” I had been visiting my sister Sheila when the labour pains had started unexpectedly. I had been rushed to the PHC, as it was the closest to my sister’s house. I was discharged the next day.”
“Was any other child born that day?” asked Dr. Natrajan.
“I do not know,” I said.
“How can I?” I asked. “My husband is dying, you tell me that the son I had nursed and brought up for twenty-eight years is not my own. Amit is the only child I have. How can I find out after so many years later who my real son is?”
“If you want your husband to live, you must find that out. Your biological son is his only hope.”
My son, my real son. Who was he? Where was he? How was he? And what about Amit whom I had raised as my own? How would I be able to tell him?
The next morning I went to the hospital early and told Sudeep that my sister Shiela was on her deathbed and asking for me. I left for Rewari by car. My mind was in a complete whirl as the driver, Sukhram, took me through Gurgaon to Manesar. As we passed through Dharuheda, I wondered if I would be able to find my birth son during this visit or not. Would my son belong to some rich zamindar family or would he be working as a lowly clerk? How would I make my plea to him? How would I tell him about the mix up? What would he say? What would his parents say?
When I reached Shiela’s house I burst into tears. My sister accompanied me to the Primary Health Centre which had become a full fledged District Hospital by now. The record keeper was away and the hospital authorities were not willing to help.
“Listen Kavita,” said Sheila, “it may come to nothing, but I do remember that my maid Phoolwati’s sister, who had come to visit her at the same time when you had come, had given birth to a baby boy the same day as you.” “Are you sure?” I asked her. “Yes, I remember cursing her for being on leave at the time I needed her most,” said Shiela. Finding out Phoolwati’s address was not too difficult. She still lived in the neighbourhood. From her, we were able to get her sister’s address. We found that she lived in a semi thatched house in a village some fifty kilometers from Rewari. I held my nose as the smell of cow dung assailed my nostrils. A tired cow lay near the door step. I crossed the drain which ran by the entrance gate and then walked inside.
“Koi hai?” I asked as I entered the courtyard. A young woman wearing a blue cotton saree emerged from the house. “Is she my bahu?” I thought in disbelief, “and are the boy and girl playing in the courtyard my grandson and grand daughter?”
“I want to meet the owner of the house,” I told the lady in blue.
“Shyam dawai lene gaye hain,” she explained, “Unhe jaundice hua tha.”
“I shall wait,” I replied, as I sat on the stringed cot lying in the courtyard. She looked at me and then away.
“Lachchmi, who is it?” asked a young man who entered the house half an hour later.
I looked at Shyam and could not stop staring. I needed no further proof of our relationship. He was a carbon copy of Sudeep. He had the same close knit eyes with bushy eyebrows, the same upturned nose, the same curly hair and the same short stature.
I felt a sudden stab of pain as I looked at him. This was the face Sudeep had been looking for, when he had held Amit in his arms. His son. His reflection. But I had goofed up. Or rather the doctor and the nurses had. At what point had Amit and Shyam been exchanged? When they had been taken for being weighed or being bathed? Did all babies look the same? Is that why the mistake had occurred? Why me? Why my son? This man with his hunched shoulders, weather beaten face, who ploughed his fields, yoked to an aging pair of bullocks, should have been studying in Harvard while Amit’s rightful place was here. I felt bile rise up in my throat as a sense of guilt overwhelmed me. It was not Amit’s fault at all that he had been exchanged. It was destiny. Amit was destiny’s child. As was Shyam.
“Ji aap ko kis se kaam tha?” he asked.
I looked at him. He had just recovered from jaundice. What could I say to him? “Son, for you are my son, today I want something from you. I want your kidney. You owe it to your father whom you have never seen. Who has never held you in his hands? Never cradled you in his arms. Never taken you abroad on holidays. Never educated you in famous schools. You must give him your kidney so that he may live. You owe him that, because you are his son. It will save your father’s life. This is the duty of every son.”
“Then we can start all over again. You and your family can come and live with us. Our house is big enough for all of you. You can live a life of leisure.”
How could I ask my son, a total stranger to me, to make such an enormous sacrifice?
“Ji aapko kis se kaam tha?” he asked me once again.
I smiled. “I thought you were someone I knew,” I said, “but I think I was mistaken.” Then I picked up my bag and left the house. Somehow it seemed the right thing to do.
Ji apko jisse kaam tha? Who do you have business with?
Koi hai? Is anyone there?
saree: a traditional dress for women
Unhe jaundice hua tha. He has had jaundice.
Shyam dawai lene gaye hain. Shyam has gone to get medicines.
zamindar: an aristrocratic landowner
Illustration by Alan Van Every
About the Author:
Vandana Kumari Jena is an Indian writer by inclination and a civil servant by profession. Born in New Delhi in 1955, she works for the Government of India. She has published over 250 short stories in leading newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have appeared in eleven anthologies, such as Black White and Various Shades of Brown, India Smiles, Blogprint, A Cup of Chai, The Shrinking Woman And Other Stories, Vanilla Desire and Other Stories, and Two is Company. She has won several prizes for her stories. Her first novel The Dance of Death, was published in 2008 by Har Anand Publications New Delhi.
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