Thursday, August 04, 2011

Shilpa Saket Jain (14 Sep’78 to 28 Jul’11): A Tribute

“I’m veryyyy fine. How are you doing, Doctor?”

A week after my beloved sister Shilpa passed away, her strong words uttered haltingly but defiantly still proudly echo in our thoughts.

It was only two weeks ago, though it now seems ages. She was bed-ridden, and was in extreme pain and deep discomfort. But the final blow had been dealt to her only a few days back- she had lost her vision completely. The development had crushed my cowardly spirit - I couldn’t even imagine what it had done to her. A world without colour seems no world at all. So when asked the routine inquiry of how-you-doing by her doctor, we expected a sigh, a loss for words, or at best an “Ok” to save us the pain. We also braced ourselves for her tears, just in case. But yet another time in these last few months, she proved us wrong, reaching into her inner well of spirit and pulling out bucketfuls, just when we thought it had finally run dry.

It was a side of Shilpa didi that we had never really fully grasped. A post-mature entry into the world, she was a physically weak baby who took her own time to start growing. Her heels were to always remain her Achilles heels - her legs ached frequently. She also suffered often from medically unfathomable migraines. Her soft temperament reinforced the picture - she never raised her voice, never said much and always sacrificed her ego for peace. In a superficial age of visual impressions, she hardly seemed an icon of strength.

But beneath that exterior was a steely nerve determined to fight her frailties and rise above them. She was the glue that bound the family together with her understanding and her humour. She possessed an innate ability to handle everyone and to diffuse stress with her characteristic spare-none wit. I still fondly remember her first payslip - she gave the entire amount home, save a nice sum for me as pocket money. It was the same after marriage and into motherhood - she coolly picked up the added responsibilities and fulfilled them stoically.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, we as a family wondered: how would Shilpa didi deal with it? With immense courage, she answered in her own silent way, as she flew from Singapore to India on her own for treatment, despite her weakness. It was a difficult, long surgery the next day but she sailed through it without an emotional scar; Mummy and Maasi described her as amazingly peaceful and smiling afterwards. We were relieved - the worst was seemingly behind us and Shilpa didi had navigated it with the best of her resolve on display.

But God (does he exist? I’m not sure anymore) had other plans; worse was to follow. The aggressive cancer would continue to run amok, and despite ongoing treatment, within weeks it had evaded its persecutors and found refuge in the spinal fluid, its safe haven. Her death warrant had effectively been issued.

The terminal nature of her illness didn’t unfaze didi however, and over the next four months, as her condition stabilized and her mobility improved, she fought hard to resume normal life. We had been dreading about how to break the news of the terminal nature of her illness to her, but she found out on her own, and in a few days had picked herself up from the shock. She wanted to live, and she wanted to be that miracle that would be talked about for years later. Despite weakness, backbreaking injections and toxic drugs, she went alone to evaluate schools for her 2-year old son Ruhaan, prepared yummy food from cookbooks for her family and made plans for moving back to Singapore. Even during such a time of personal agony, she cared deeply for us and asked us all not to stress.

The end came peacefully and painlessly (Him at play?), albeit too fast for our liking. But we mercifully got enough time to spend by our didi’s side, engaging with her in merry conversation. She usually took care of the “merry” bit. When her friends visited, she ribbed them with jokes from college days and demanded a head massage from each of them. She interrogated the nurses about their love lives. And she spun stories out of thin air for Ruhaan.

Dear didi, you left us very early, but with tons of love, respect, admiration and inspiration. You blessed our lives with your caring, selflessness, loving and humour. Your indomitable spirit will always shine brightly in our hearts. Above all, you have taught us life’s two most important lessons - how to live, and how to die. We will always love you. And we promise that we will make Ruhaan a great man, just as you asked.