She truly was a remarkable woman - Dr Nalini Nargundkar (August 10, 1929- November 22, 2020) - my mother-in-law and someone who I realised, I had known for almost three decades, longer than I had known my father. Coming from a family of seven sisters followed by a brother, the progeny of Madhav Oak and Radhabai Oak, Nalini Oak was the third of the sisters. Madhav Oak was a man of letters, a Professor of Philosophy, a learned man, Principal of Maharani College, Jaipur, Head of the College of Philosophy at Amalner, where he spent most of his working days before retiring to live with his third daughter. His children have fond memories of Amalner and it was there that the young Nalini grasped the importance of being financially independent, having a close look at the life of her soft, sensitive and intelligent mother Radha, who seemed to be bound by the traditions of family and never lived her life fully. Radha was well-read and wrote evocatively about her family, about her own thoughts about life in her booklets.
In typical fashion young Nalini negotiated her education with her father - she wanted to join the Indian Civil Services or become a doctor. Her father told her that he would support her education provided she took over the care of her younger siblings once she was done with her education. True to her word she worked hard, studied in the Medical College in Pune, got herself a job in the coal belt of Dhanbad, worked alone in faraway places like Vellore and other places, and finally landed a job in Singareni Collieries, Andhra Pradesh (then). She put her family first as she had promised her father, supporting them at every stage, being the central point of all family affairs. She fell in love with Vishwanath Nargundkar, the smiling, philosophical colleague of hers from Singareni, had three children, Rajendra, Satish and Shobha, completed her post-graduation in gynaecology from Bombay University, and worked hard at her job, treating miners and officers in the collieries. The extended family visited her and her parents stayed with her in the winter of their lives and she took care of them all, educated her children well, saw them married off. After retirement, she moved to Pune where she had a bungalow built according to her specifications, a house that she so loved that she stayed there for three decades almost, most of them by herself since her husband, whom everyone fondly called Kaka, passed away in 1992.
I met her first in this house when I stayed with them as a paying guest, thanks to Shobha who put in a good word for me and soon I became part of their family. This was in 1992, the year Kaka passed away. In 1995 Shobha and I married and after that, we have made several trips by car, train and flight, to Pune, many memorable ones. Many times aunty would come to visit us at Hyderabad, at times joined the car journeys. She loved travel, was generally curious about life and had a lust for life that remained alive till the end. Be it her TV serials, be it trying anything new (including intense workshops on self-development or painting along with Anjali, she was game for everything). Her many travels in India, within Pune, abroad, are testimony to her wanderlust. She has this immense fondness for games - ran a bridge club at her house for years - and until the pandemic came and shut all activity down, the bridge club was flourishing. She loved cultural and literary stuff - always had a book handy so as not to waste a moment even while waiting for doctor appointments and has an eclectic collection of Mills and Boons - she gave two hoots and did what she liked. She loved watching films and was a regular at the Pune Film Festival, buying the season pass, and watching as many as she could. She was a member of the senior citizens club and participated in their meetings and outings with gusto.
She loved ice cream, chocolate, shrikhand and all things sweet and sinful. She enjoyed good coffee and a snack with it. She loved dosas. She loved having people over and she loved helping them, going out of her way to do that, like she did when she came and spent three months with us when my mother was in her last days. There's always stuff to eat at her table, coffee or tea to drink. Despite her many health problems she would be the first to get the door, the first to ask after your health and offer her help in whatever way she can. Many are the lessons she taught me - which I have written down in several blogs.
The last few years have been tough on her - a pacemaker, a frozen shoulder she never recovered from. Last year, on her 90th birthday, she visited us at Hyderabad for her pacemaker checkup and also to celebrate her birthday which we did in the beautiful environs of Beauty Green and soon after that, suffered an unfortunate fall which broke her hip. It was an agonising period of recovery for her and she did recover quite well and fully to travel back in November. However, since she was so fragile, she got some help from her niece Baby who first stayed with her in Pune and then took her to Bangalore The moment she returned from Bangalore, the lockdown began, and she lived by herself in her bungalow in Pune, since then.
The Pandemic and the Beginning of the End
She was remarkably upbeat about the lockdown. I would call her every now and then and the only complaint she had was that she could not go out and that she got bored. 'I know I am not in a position to go out even if I want to,' she said. 'But the fact that I cannot go out is bothering me more.' Again during this period she had a fall and hurt her rib but she recovered (she has a very high pain tolerance I realised because the doctors later confirmed that her rib had broken and she lived with it). I'd speak to her almost every fortnight and when we were considering visiting Miskil in Mumbai in September, we thought we should look in on her too. Until the call came on October 23 from Milind who told us that she had collapsed and that she was not in a position to stay alone and that we better hurry. She had not been eating for a few days.
And so began a new phase of her life, the last one. We had stayed away from all sorts of travel and risk all this while and we now had to suddenly fly to Pune, take cabs, perhaps go to hospitals and what not. Anyway we geared up knowing she needed us, thought we would get her on her feet and bring her back to Hyderabad. A week or so we thought and booked our flight tickets for the 25th October and flew out - makes, sanitisers, gloves, visors, cabs, flights and home.
What we saw was completely different from what we expected. The smiling ajji of Anjali lay fragile in her bed, screaming in pain, barely able to recognise us though she made a big effort and said hello. During discussions with Milind and Neelima and Parth and Maria, and a couple of calls from Neelima to her doctor friend at the nearby Shaswath Hospital, we decided that we had to shift her to the hospital immediately. Admission, tests, ICU and several decisions to be made - whether they had to feed her through the nose, insert a central line, whether they had to restrain her, oxygen - and suddenly life went into hyper mode. Shobha and I were going to the hospital, buying medicines, bringing stuff, talking to the doctors who were unsure about how she would respond to treatment. Raja arrived after a few days and by then she recovered a bit from her electrolyte imbalance, started feeding through the tubes and regained some strength. But she was clearly unhappy and wanted to go home. They figured she had had a bad case of gastritis, which led to not eating, low immunity, electrolyte imbalance and to top it all, chest infection.
After 5-6 days in the ICU she was shifted to the room. Now with all the COVID situation outside it was scary because she had a good chance of catching the infection and so did we, Shobha and I, who were going in and out of the hospital. Thankfully Milind and Neelima took Anjali home for that period which was a big relief because we knew she would be away from the possibility of infection and thankfully, she enjoyed herself with them, learned new things, polished her Marathi, ate new dishes etc. Just when Shobha was at breaking point Suhita landed up from Mumbai and it was such a relief to have her with us in that stressful period - not knowing how invasive to go with the treatment, whether we should keep her with all those tubes in the hospital or bring her home without having the know-how of how to operate anything in case of an emergency.
Then on the 4th of November, the doctors also suggested that perhaps we can take her home because she was not responding to the treatment for the chest infection. The only thing was we would need an oxygen concentrator, a suction machine, a Foley's bed, an air mattress and as Dr Sudhir Mudle said, we would need to set up a mini hospital at home. To set up this mini-hospital at home they shared numbers of people who could supply everything - from oxygen to attendants. I called Sunburst Health Services in Pune and Dr Sujata Malik was quite helpful and arranged the whole lot including a nurse within half a day.
Now began the second part of the adventure - having her at home with a trained sister from Jharkhand Sukhmani and a female attendant called Leelabai who had worked in a hospital before and had attended on several family members too. We checked out of the hospital and ajji was already in a better mood at the thought of going home, took the ambulance and shifted her to a bed right in front of the TV in the front room. She was quite happy with the arrangement, said she would eat by herself, and tried to get into her rhythm. Mangala tai came down from Mumbai, which was most generous of her considering that she is 77 (though she looks 50 and less), and she brought with her a fresh burst of energy and tales that ajji loved to talk about. The way those two would joke about was great fun to watch.
Anatomy of a Death
At that time it still looked like Ajji would make it considering her enormous will to live. She instantly decided that she needed to take things under her control though she could not get up by herself, was on oxygen, had a catheter on. She would complain about the oxygen mask, would want hot water baths and I sensed, a life she was used to. So on day one she watched some TV, asked for her glasses and tried to read her novel, woke up at night to play cards, asked for her favorite food like sheera made by her sister Manik, asked for ice cream, or some specific dishes. She would also try to exercise while lying in bed. My sense was that she wanted to will herself to live a normal life. At that stage it looked like she would recover and we could take her home in an ambulance or a flight.
But then the pain would not subside. She would hallucinate about people gone and not gone and repeat their names over and over again in her sleep and we could sense she was half here and half there in some other world. When she was awake she would be very lucid, smile, joke, ask for what she wanted and express herself very clearly. Her memory was razor sharp right till the end and she would remember where she kept the most insignificant of things. As the hallucinations increased and her spells of lucidity reduced we could sense that she no longer watched TV, did not try to read and slowly gave up certain things. Her intake would be low and some signs of deterioration would show.
Outwardly however she was as strong in spirit as ever. She would specifically ask for us by name for any help she wanted - Shobha, Mangala, Hari and even Anjali. Shobha was to discuss medicine and food, Mangala for food and chat, me to wheel her in the courtyard, Anjali to read and play cards. She played cards and outlasted others, sat in the chair and chatted, asked to be taken out. She asked Anjali to read to her and Anjali read. At times Anjali would reach out and hold Ajji's hand and at times Ajji would reach out and hold Anjali's hand. When people visited she remembered who all had come and one day she counted and said - all those who could come have come. She enjoyed smelling her favorite flowers - parijatha - and would handle them with great love. She would take a pen and draw some flower patterns on paper.
A bunch of tests done around the 15th showed that she was surprisingly holding on well. The doctors said that the chest infection seemed to have reduced and there were signs of improvement. But on the other hand she was not able to sit up by herself, not eating enough, was getting weaker by the day. One day she told me that she was thinking of how to come out of this situation and I could see her actually trying to figure it out. In fact, I felt she had a better understanding of her condition than the doctors had. She developed a bed SOre which was painful and we immediately got an air mattress for her.
All night she would be up, screaming in pain, and all morning in discomfort. There would be a few hours of lucidity which were fun. We decided that as long as she enjoyed life, we would support her and do nothing artificially. The idea of taking her to Hyderabad gradually evaporated and we decided to stay with her as long as she held on because now it was only a matter of when. We would take it a week at a time and before we realised, it was a month almost. Of course the doctors would say it could be a year or a week so we had to figure it bit by bit.
Shobha, as the primary caregiver, took the brunt of the situation, dealing with her strong mother in this condition was tough on her and it did appear that the roles had reversed. In fact towards the end Ajji actually told Shobha that she had taken great care of her, like her own mother, words Shobha would repeat later when she remembered her mother. They would have discussions on what aunty still had left to do, on whether she wanted to go or stay to which she replied she wanted to go. One day she told me that she felt someone would come and take her during the night but the next day she was still here. Then she would smile in her child-like manner. One memory that's forever etched in my mind is when Shobha told her that Raja was coming and told her that she (aunty) seemed to be happier when her sons came while she was doing all the work and whether she had something valuable hidden for her son - in jest. Aunty who was lying on her side at that moment turned towards Shobha and smiled so sweetly that I'll never forget it. The mother and daughter perhaps healed their own troubled relation in the one month.
Now the deterioration was clearer by the day and though I had decided to go to Hyderabad for a couple of days, held myself back. Raja came on Friday. We all spent time around her. Her condition was getting worse and Shobha looked really bad so we told her to take off for a day with Anjali and they went to Gauri's house. That night though aunty merely slept, not having enough strength to wake up, and only woke up to discomfort when she choked. The next morning we all sensed something impending and I told Shobha to come home and she did come by 1030. Ajji slept quietly and peacefully and at about 1258 pm, stopped breathing. We were by her side, Shobha, Mangala tai, Leelabai, me, while Raja and Anjali were in the dining hall next room. The mighty Oak had fallen.
After that it was a matter of procedure, to certify her death, to cremate her at Vaikunth. Someone placed a bright pink sari on her, and she looked beautiful as she lay, ready to become one with the earth and the sky again.
It was an empty house that day and Manju sent some food over thoughtfully. The next day we met those who dropped in and on Thursday even had a small get together in her honour with Suhita, Gauri, Manik maushi, Shashi maushi, Maria, Shobhs, me and Anjali - eating poori and sabzi, a food she had wanted to eat in the end. The house that always opened to a huge 'Welcome' or 'Yaaa' with offers of tea and coffee and snacks galore had fallen silent. No more Marathi serials, no more astrology sessions, bridge club, flower picking in the garden, midnight raids on the fridge for laddus and chocolate and ice cream. In the end we were so glad she passed away in her house, the one she loved so much she would not go anywhere else, surrounded by those who loved her. Milind, Neelima, Parth, Maria, Shashi and Manik maushi, Raja, Shobha, Anjali, Suhita, Mangala tai, Gauri, Prakash, Aboli, Prarthana, Bishu, Baburao, Leelabai, Manisha, Usha, Bhavna, Bahadur.
Going through her papers and things Shobha would frequently break down in the next few days or even at her memory, wondering if she could have done something differently, something better for her mother. Anjali processed the first close death of someone she loved - staying with Milind, then spending time with her ajji in ways that told me that she had realised that it was about Ajji and not her anymore, a mature realisation. She stayed with her Ajji till the end, holding her hand, asking her for stories, feeding ice cream, reading.
To me, her passing was the end of something that affected me very subtly and deeply. I loved my times in Pune, I loved what aunty brought to life and had many conversations with her, I loved the zest for life, the kharvas, dahlia ka kheer, shrikhand etc she would prepare for me since I had expressed my liking for them. She never objected to our drinking, eating non veg at home nor of putting bonfires in the backyard and singing loud songs. In fact she would join in for the bonfires with great gusto. She would be concerned about my health and many times in my earlier days when I would be laid up with migraines and hangovers, she would do reiki for me. For all my many illnesses and pains, she would hand me an endless chain of home medicines. She was upset that I had high BP and needed to take medicines so early for that. We spent many hours in our visits to Madhuri who would try her Sujok on her and alleviate her shoulder pain. She never questioned me leaving my job and taking to writing, and actually enjoyed my writing. I would tell her to write her story and in one of the blogs I have actually published her story written by herself - some part. I think in the end she also made peace with me and my madness, knowing that her daughter was ok. Her only regret though was that Anjali did not have a sibling.
Well, I will miss you aai (mother) as I would call her for a while, aunty (as I called her for most times) or ajji (as Anjali calls her). I will miss her calls on my birthday and her singing the off key 'Happy birthday to you', her constant invites to come to stay with her in Pune, her enjoyment when we would go out anywhere and just her love for life. Right till the end she lived in the moment and if there was something I wish to take, its that love for life, that ability to stay in the moment, that stupendous discipline that also ensured her happiness, her fierce sense of independence, her incredible compassion and desire to help those in distress. After my mother passed away, she was the closest to a mother I had, though she had this incredible quality of shifting easily to being your friend too.
So Aai, glad to have met you, known you and to have shared time with you, and to know that we all share the same soul. If we do, we have never lost you.