Dissolving Boundaries

BY AAHANA DUDANI

The following piece received 2nd place in the Writing (Preclinical) section of The Auricle’s 2021 Writing and Visual Art Competition and is responding to the prompt “Where the art of medicine is loved, there is a love of humanity.” Uttered by Hippocrates millenia ago, has this adage stood the test of time?  

Dear Dr Kakoti,

You mightn’t remember me, but my mother was a patient of yours a few months ago. She’s ill at ease with doctors, so I usually accompany her, but this time I noted the immediate relief on her face when she saw your brown skin, just like ours. I want to thank you for the kindness you showed her that day. Even though you didn’t speak much Hindi, and she only spoke broken English, you didn’t rush her or make her feel like a burden, you empowered her by explaining things with diagrams, slowing down and having me fill in and translate wherever needed. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it made to her.

In the past, she’s staunchly defended her independence; she’s the kind of mum who still at the age of 84 cooks up big feasts for each of our birthdays (and there are five of us kids!), helps out weekly at the local temple and takes her grandchildren on shopping trips. But she’s had some tough experiences with doctors in the past. After the last appointment she attended alone, I heard her crying in bed, and she finally admitted that the doctor’s impatience –  and later outburst of anger –  at her slow English had caused her immense embarrassment. 

After the harrowing breast cancer diagnosis, you really were a beacon of light for us, and although we were referred on to a specialist, your compassion didn’t go unnoticed.

Tara Bajaj – Kalpana’s daughter

Dear Tara,

I’ve never received such a letter before – thank you for such a kind and uplifting message. Oh – and please call me Aanya. 

I have a lot of patients, but there are always individuals who stand out; your mother was one such character. I remember her greeting me warmly, as she walked into the room with a nervous smile. To tell you the truth, I was nervous too– although I’ve been an oncologist for years, breaking bad news to patients doesn’t get any easier. She was a real trooper through it all. 

It’s always a pleasure to serve the Indian diaspora, and I’m glad your mother was at ease with me. It wasn’t hard at all to connect with her – she struck me as such a kind soul. In medical practice, and also growing up, I often felt that showing emotion made me weak, but I’ve since learnt that I couldn’t be farther from the truth. Allowing myself to empathise deeply with your mother formed the basis of a strong bond – one that could transcend any language or cultural barrier. It was such a human moment, and I’m grateful that she felt heard and supported.

As for speaking Hindi – I wish I knew more than the few words I do! My mum moved here with me when I was quite young, and unfortunately, I lost all my fluency bit by bit. I’m trying to refamiliarise myself with the sounds of the language again – mainly by listening to songs and watching movies – but it’s definitely a challenge!

Thanks again for writing, it was lovely to hear from you.

Aanya Kakoti 

Dear Aanya, 

Although we don’t see you often now, mum loves it when I translate your letters for her. This relationship is so special to her – and to me too, of course. Thanks for keeping in touch all these years. 

Indeed, telling our friends and family was tough. We took your advice and told my brothers all together, and her close friends one-by-one. Cancer is all a bit hush-hush in our community, as I’m sure you know. Some of mum’s friends were certain she got sick because she had done bad deeds or because she used to eat meat; that karma was catching up to her. It took me a while to convince her that that was not the case – and your reassurance really helped. Either way though, it can only have been confronting to hear something so accusatory from our friends.

As you know, mum has been undergoing chemo for several months now. At first, she was able to keep up most of her daily activities, but lately she has become weaker and more fatigued. She’s started losing hair too, and though she’s stoically making peace with the fact, I can tell it impacts how she feels about herself. 

Something that brought her a lot of joy, though, was making this mithai for you to wish you happy Diwali. Hope the New Year brings you and your family much happiness and good fortune! 

Tara 

Dear Tara,

What gorgeous mithai! I’m really touched. Eating Indian sweets really makes me long for home, and reminds me so much of my own mother. In fact – the close relationship you have with your mum  –  I hope she’s doing better now – inspired me to properly reconnect with mine. 

I didn’t cook with my mum the way you did growing up – we weren’t altogether close. For a single mother to raise a child in a new country was a feat in itself, but she worked multiple jobs to be able to provide for me the best she could. Between my being glued to my desk in high school and university, and her having to work odd hours, we didn’t spend so much quality time together. But in this profession, I’m reminded daily how important it is to seize every moment with those you love – and I’ve been trying to do that more and more with my mum lately. 

Given your talk about cooking, I asked mum to teach me to cook a traditional family curry recipe that I loved as a child. There’s something so utterly human about cooking a simple meal with another person and enjoying it together – it was lovely. It’s true that we learn as much from our patients as they do from us – you and your mum are a testament to that.

Best always,

Aanya Kakoti

Aanya – 

It is with a heavy heart that I write to tell you that mum passed away last week. The chemo worked well and she was cancer free for years, but it recurred, metastasising in her lungs some twelve years later. I know you and I haven’t written in a while, but I thought it only right to tell you just how much your presence has meant to mum over the years. That you truly got to know her, her values and wishes, and got to know us – her family – too, made a world of difference.

I’ll leave you with something mum said, a few days before her passing. I know you’re learning Hindi – I think you’ll appreciate it. 

Jab do log ek doosare ko samajhte hain, ek akshar bhi bolna nahi par ta hai; bas, unke aankhein dekhane se pata lagta hai ki hum ek hee thaan se kate hain

When two people truly understand each other, not a word needs to be said; just a glance at their eyes and you know you’re both cut from the same cloth.

Take care, Doctor. I can’t thank you enough for all the warmth and compassion you’ve shown our family. It has truly changed our lives. 

With every good wish,

Tara Bajaj

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