Not long after meeting Hema a few years ago, Kane told me Hema was once the prettiest girl in all of Saki Naka; a fact she told anyone who would listen. So beautiful, she proclaimed, that she had to beat men away with a bamboo stick just to get some time alone.
Up until a few months ago, Hema, despite being treated for kidney failure, was still vibrant (and yes, beautiful) to the point of being sassy. Her tiny body, a sturdy skeleton draped with loose sun-parched copper skin, moved slowly, taking deliberate measured steps but never stumbling. She would stop to berate errant children in her cackling but honeyed voice or gossip with neighbours outside her home while perched daintily on an unsteady piece of oily wood held off the ground by two vertical towers of piled rock and broken brick. Her hazel eyes, set on a shelf of angular cheekbones saw almost five decades of life – a life that DWP was humbled to be a part of.
She lived in Saki Naka for years – though the actual count (and her real age) is anyone’s guess. Photos of Hema taken about 10 years ago surfaced in a heap of old mementos in someone else’s home a few months ago. Standing stoically for the photographer among a group of women who wore the dour expressions of soldiers about to head to war, Hema glowed, and it seemed as if the restraint of not smiling for the photo was almost too much for her.
In the last few months of Hema’s life, she suffered kidney failure, and was diagnosed with TB and diabetes. Yet she still wandered the lane ways; her kidney dialysis catheter shooting out of her neck, bobbing with every tiny step, looking for work. She wanted to sweep or clean up garbage – anything to consume her time or pay her a little money. Her schedule of kidney dialysis twice a week and frequent infections that caused shaking chills and high fevers along with her desire to drink endless cups of chai, negated the effects of dialysis and kept Hema in a constant state of pain and her family, Indu, and us, in a constant state of anxiety. Poverty combined with life-threatening illness was a recipe for what sometimes felt like a futile effort to save Hema. At the very least we wanted to make her comfortable, give her hope and feed her healthy ego. Hema wanted to live and to thrive, to exist outside of her apparent fragility – she was not yet fifty, she would cheekily exclaim, though we wondered if she should add ten years to that number.
Her life, marred by poverty, the early death of her husband, the shackles of an abusive, alcoholic grown son who beat Hema and caused her worry and despair, was also sweetened by a loving daughter, three beautiful grandchildren and Chandrikant, her saintly son-in-law who advocated for the care she required and received in her final months.
Along with Indu and Chandrikant, we spent hours every week dealing with Hema’s illness and her immediate needs. Chandrikant would call Indu, who would call us, the hour of the day or night inconsequential to Hema’s suffering. We would arrive at Hema’s small home often to find her sleeping on a flithy, pock-marked piece of foam completely huddled under a dust-infused blanket that hadn’t seen detergent or sunlight in months. We would gently help her to her feet and she would lean on Chandrikant or Todd as they escorted her out of the slum, up onto the street and into a rickshaw that would take them to a clinic or a hospital for another round of doctor’s, opinions, and hopeful treatment. Hema was bold, spoke her mind and pointed her finger, dirt clinging to the underside of her fingernails, at doctors and staff at clinics who refused to help us help her, and to those who asked us for exorbitant amounts of money for Hema’s treatment. She barged into waiting rooms demanding to be heard, while we sometimes cringed, and she often wandered the hallways of the hospitals unable to sit for too long. And she always needed chai. Since October, twice a week, Hema and Chandrikant rode buses and rickshaws to her dialysis appointments two hours each way through congested stop and go traffic in heat that melted asphalt and singed butterfly wings.
As a friend, Hema was unstoppable and often came to our aid, pointing her bony fingers, spitting heated words toward anyone who was aggressive with us, damning people with her gaze when she felt we had been wronged or gossip turned nasty. And then she would grab me and hold me tight, nestling her head onto my shoulder, defying anyone to interfere. A more loyal friend would be hard to imagine. Her deep affection for Kane, who knew Hema well was demonstrated whenever his name was mentioned in her presence. She would clasp her hands in the traditional namaste pose, close her fierce, beautiful eyes and chant, Oh, Kane Sir, Kane Sir. Sometimes it brought me to tears and sometimes it was humorous and mildly irritating as I tended to her needs, but it always hit me in the gut as I recognized the lingering sweetness of helping someone.
Chandrikant wasn’t so lucky – Hema took out her frustrations on those closest to her. Chandrikant, her steadfast advocate, care-giver and son-in-law, was the easy target. He always responded with a shy shrug and a ‘what choice do I have’ attitude while gently caring for his rascally mother-in-law. Living in a small room separated by a narrow brick wall with Hema and her son living on the other side, Chandrikant and his family were the breath of air that Hema required to survive her life of abuse with her son, while living in conditions that bordered on appalling.
Finally exhausted by trying to stay alive, Hema drank her last cup of sweet chai and laid her beautiful, somewhat reckless and spirited soul to rest on March 8. She died at Sugun Hospital in Mumbai with Chandrikant by her side, leaving a space too large to be filled. We hope that chai and vada pav are plentiful where she is now residing. It’s Chandrikant’s time to rest and recoup and tend to his small family. He deserves a medal. We’ll all miss her sparkle and her fury. Rest in peace, dear Hema.
When Hema’s health deteriorated quickly, a tired and very weary Chandrikant decided to take her to Sugun (a small private hospital) as it was closer to Saki Naka, instead of a free public hospital that was miles away. DWP has paid for Hema’s complete medical care since October when it was discovered that she required dialysis, releasing her family of financial burdens they couldn’t possibly bear over the long term. The final bill for Hema’s final stay at Sugun is $1090 CAD which included dialysis, new catheters, ICU and numerous doctor’s consulting fees. Kane addressed the ongoing hospital costs while Hema was in ICU with the administration of Sugun Hospital and they agreed to reduce the amount by 17,000 rupees ($310 CAD) which was not insubstantial and we are grateful for small monetary mercies.
Hema’s final care bill at Sugun Hospital: 60,000 rupees ($1090 CAD) (after the reduction)
DWP paid: 25,000 rupees ($454 CAD)
Chandrikant paid: 35,000 rupees ($636 CAD) – (this borrowed amount is approximately 4 to 5 months wages for Chandrikant – the only wage earner in his family).
DWP will be helping Chandrikant pay down some of this debt in installments over the next few months but we also feel it is the family’s responsibility to pay some of this debt enabling DWP to help others in need.