If we live for the destination, we miss out on every joy-filled and fervent termini of the journey. Living and loving the journey involves making a habit of enjoying , loving ourselves , being with where we’re at present, even if it is not where we ultimately want to be.
Knowing that you are in a life-threatening condition inexorably leaves you living with uncertainty. Lance Armstrong’s open sesame code for respite in such dire straits is: “We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up or fight like hell.” However, the whole ordeal seems easier said than done.
Akin to the above theme is the novel, I Won’t Give You a Leg Up, Mr. Death, by the author, Arunabha Sengupta - a sensitive cancer surgeon who has closely witnessed and contemplated the lives of his patients and their families as well. The book is a painstaking and discerning account of their thoughts, fears, angst, and of course their faith and credence amidst all odds. As he candidly shares in the author’s note: “It is also wrong to assume that the patients think of their diseases only. They think of many other things…. Many of them remain alive to their aspirations and dreams, respond to tenderness, fall in love; few resolve not to allow the disease to dominate their lives.”
The main protagonist of this novelistic venture, Kanu is an Indian born, settled in Amsterdam, media expert, who is over and beyond a zealous and die hard enthusiast for photography. So much so that every visual scene he sees, makes him imagine how the same would have looked when captured by his lens, and what all he could timelessly preserve through the oculus of his camera. With his immense grit and fervor, he strives to capture the unseen beauty of places near his hometown; of people and how they remain happy and sparkle with hope under harsh circumstances too.
Despondency and disconsolateness are inescapable in the life of a human who is battling cancer but not so is the case with our protagonist. He wishes to relive his love for his hometown as a final destination. Besides that he yearns to travel roads forsaken, discover the smiles on the faces of unsung people and snapshot them in their happy moments.
The novel reconnoiters the journey of Kanu while he unabashedly and audaciously plans to submit himself to his envisioned death. His philosophy is best summed up in an excerpt from the novel: “All he wanted was not to cower before Mr. Death and beg to persist even if his life would not be worth living anymore.” The title of the book comes from a slight alteration of a line from the poem Conscientious Objector by Edna St Vincent Millay.
The novel opens with a very positive depiction of a scene narrating energy, life and liveliness:
“The vision he saw was that of a turbulent river whooshing through, foaming and rustling around large rocks and boulders, along a deep chasm between two ledges of a hill. Much above the water, slanting sunrays were passing through the slim tendrils of a cement and concrete lattice work that bridged the land on both sides of the arroyo.”
But gradually as the plot paces up, the lead star of the novel, tries to accept and progress through his thoughts of suffering from cancer and battling against it. The story-line continues with Kanu’s trips down the memory lane when his wife had struggled for nearly a month in an Intensive Care Unit in a pitiable, non-lively state of life .The persuasion of reading gets fulfilled when the reader sees Kanu not being in despair even after witnessing several subsequent deaths around him of people with whom he got closely acquainted during his stay in India. As Kanu has an unending fear of Intensive Care Units (ICU’s), he frequently envisions himself being in his own hamlet near Calcutta, craves for the aroma of its environs, its tall and slender coconut and palm trees and icy winters. Altogether, Sengupta’s I won’t give you a leg up Mr. Death appertains to the two fold agenda: a courageous acceptance of the present and undeterredly living in a wholesome, high-spirited and bountiful manner. An excerpt from the novel aptly describes Kanu’s and author’s stand on the above issue: “I want to put something else between now and that time, between death and me”
The book with its thirty chapters certainly doesn’t hold up an average reader uninterruptedly, as one is bound to get a little crestfallen after cognizing the loss of lives to diseases in hospitals. Though, the detailed narrative style of the author interests and peps up the readers. During a regular and mundane hospital visit, Kanu begins to romanticise the beauty and rawness of Monabari through a character’s (Dr.Ved) description, making Kanu more inclined and assertive to visit the loveliest rustic village and place in the world:
“Just a minute dot on the map of India, Monabari is up in the north, near the Himalayas, six hundred miles from the seacoast. It has jungles, rivers, and a primal tribal setting…. I presume it has still more of nature, the way God created it, and less of man-made masonries. And certainly not crowded bazaars or smoking chimneys. For a person like you, it could still be a kind of time travel, a journey to a different world that you’ve not known before.”
By the same token, the novel takes an interesting turn as the stay of Kanu at Monabari becomes ravishing, full of explorations laced with a surreal and unearthly feel of small town, but natural India. A sanctuary where he longs to belong and to immortalize it with the click of his camera:
“So here it will all begin!’ Kanu said to himself. As if to make that thought true, he took out his camera and stepped a few steps back to view through his lens the amazing relic….”
At Monabari, Kanu strikes a chord with the pristine and rustic folks, developing relationships beyond those of kinship and consanguinity. Furthermore, Kanu decides to unravel the folklore and folktales like that of Chand Saudagar, a devotee of lord Shiva. Towards the end of the novel, we are led to a photographic journey of pictures clicked by Kanu during his stay in Monabari, chiefly freezing happy moments of common village folks:
“An old woman smiled at him from one of those photographs, which showed only her toothless face, with creases as deep as furrows and she had two long earrings. In another photograph, an old man lazed on his side on the porch of a mud hut with his back pressed against the wall…. An elderly woman was evidently caught unawares surfacing from a dip into the water of a pond. She sported a broad coy smile but had squeezed her eyes shut in order to hide her embarrassment.”
The novel is a true narration of the harsh realities of life every patient of life-limiting diseases and his near and dear ones experience. The book serves as a referential text for those who love travelling to unexplored destinations, and seek solace in nature. Pertinent here is a quote from the novel:
“Do you think pilgrimage is more about knowing life than renouncing it? Come then, as you said, and let us travel-travel as roaming hermits do, without a care, making all notions of time and space irrelevant- and your lifetime ambition to flee from it all can find fulfillment.”
The novel acts as an enriching contribution to the society by revitalizing those afflicted with life- threatening diseases, with its anthem of not to cower down before death but lead serene and gratified lives, come whatever may be. Reading it brings to mind movies and books on similar issue like the Hollywood, romantic movie, The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Rajesh Khanna starrer Hindi movie Anand, (1971). It echoes and inspires one with the same message:
My dear friend!! Life need not be long, it should be big. (Babumoshai!! zindagi lambi nahi badi honi chahiye….)
Reviewed by Tejaswita Kaushal
The writer, a budding architect has a versatile persona, she loves reading literature and her book reviews have been published in many leading dailies and magazines.
A trained dancer and a member of Dramatics Club and Debating Society at School of Planning and Architecture, Chitkara University, Punjab, Tejaswita Kaushal has achieved many an accolades in diverse fields.
Her grad thesis on Film and Television Institute reflects her taste for amalgamation of art and architecture.