He stared into the horizon, his feet tightly gripping the wet sand, as he stood there feeling the water caress his feet. He loved to bask in the warmth of the morning sun while there was still a cold breeze in the air. Strolling down the beach at dawn had become an everyday ritual for him. It helped him drown away all his grief and sorrow.
He would turn 73 in a few months. He was thin and fragile; the white hair and the grey beard coupled with the horn-rimmed glasses exuded the aura of a wise old man. During the day, he sold roasted corn just outside the village school and after dark he would moonlight as a volunteer at an orphanage. He loved kids and kids loved him. The locals lovingly referred to him as Imam Chacha (Imam Uncle) or just Chacha. Imam in Urdu means, the one who leads a prayer ceremony in mosques. Chacha quite often played the role of a mediator, helping settle domestic disputes in the village. Chacha lived in a modest home near the beach, with four walls and a roof made from coconut leaves and bamboo shoots. The villagers often offered to help Chacha but he always turned it down saying that he would accept their help when he needed it.
Chacha raised his two sons to the best of his ability after their mother died. The paltry sum he made working as a daily wage laborer, he spent on his sons’ education. Little did he know that both his sons would one day abandon him and leave him to fend for himself during his old age. Despite the way his children treated him, he believed that children were God’s angels. He loved and cared for all the children at the orphanage where he volunteered, like they were his own. But Sagar held a special place in Chacha’s heart.
Sagar was brought to the orphanage by a social worker. Sagar’s parents had died after being shot in a communal riot where they were protesting against the injustice shown towards their community. Sagar was at a tender age of 5 when he first walked in through the doors of the orphanage. It took a while before he started talking to the other kids; he used to sit on his cot all day, staring out through the window. One night, Chacha put his arm around Sagar and told him, “If you need someone to talk to, I’m always here. You can tell me anything.” Sagar turned around and stared into Chacha’s eyes, and hesitatingly asked “Chacha, why do you think God took my parents away from me? Am I so bad that even God doesn’t love me?” Chacha held Sagar’s chin and tilted his head up, then with a smile on his face Chacha replied, “Son, God loves everybody equally, not more, not less. Your parents were such good people that God wanted to share them with other kids like yourself. God knows that you’re a strong kid but there are other children who aren’t as strong as you. Those kids needed your parents more than you do. And for every gift God takes away, he replaces it with something else. Now you’ve me.” Sagar burst into tears, something he hadn’t done since he came into the orphanage, and hugged Chacha.
Since that day, Sagar doted on Chacha. He tagged along with Chacha during his morning walks to the beach. He used to stand on the shore with his arms wide open facing the sun as though he was expressing his gratitude for all that he was blessed with. On some days, Chacha took Sagar along with him when he went for work. Chacha saw his young self in Sagar and the kid made him feel happy, especially after his own children had disowned him. The villagers were happy for Chacha, he seemed more buoyant and peaceful since Sagar came into his life.
One day while Chacha was talking to a few villagers, the gardener from the orphanage came rushing and told him that Sagar had been vomiting since morning and that they had to take him to the hospital in the city, after he complained of abdominal pain. Chacha rushed to the hospital to find Sagar sitting on the hospital bed, eating grapes while he was talking animatedly to one of the hospital orderlies. Chacha walked over to Sagar’s bed breathing a sigh of relief. Sagar grabbed Chacha’s hands and said, “I’m alright! Don’t you worry. I’ll be out of here in no time!” Chacha smiled and left to meet the doctor. The doctor explained that it could be a bad case of diarrhea but just to be sure they were running a few tests. Chacha waited patiently for the test results to come in and later that evening, the doctor beckoned him to his cabin. The doctor started off by apologizing profusely and then said that the results from the tests showed that Sagar had a cancerous tumor on his liver. Chacha looked away as soon as he heard this, gripping the arm rest of his chair. The doctor explained that this was a rare disease found in young children below age six, called Hepatoblastoma. Considering the criticality of Sagar’s condition, the doctor said that the only way Sagar could survive would be if he had a liver transplant operation done immediately. He went on to explain that the liver transplant was an expensive procedure and more importantly, a liver donor was the most important piece. He also told Chacha that donor livers were a rare commodity in the country and it could be months before they could find a perfect match. Chacha enquired whether his liver could be used to do the transplant. The doctor replied that they could only know that once they’ve run a few pre-operative tests on Chacha. The results came in five days later and Chacha was summoned back to the hospital. The doctor informed Chacha that his liver was a perfect match for Sagar but the operation could include some complications since Chacha’s EKG test results were abnormally high. He advised Chacha that they wait till they find another donor. Chacha snapped, “And let that little child die? No. Doctor, please make the necessary arrangements for the surgery and I’ll in the meantime arrange the money required for the operation.”
Chacha met the Sarpanch (village chief) on his way back from the hospital. He explained the situation to the Sarpanch and asked the Sarpanch if there was a way to arrange for the money needed for Sagar’s operation. The Sarpanch asked Chacha to go home and rest and that he would see what he could do to arrange the money. Two days later, the Sarpanch came to Chacha’s house and handed over a plastic bag that had 15 lakh rupees in it. Chacha was astonished and asked how the Sarpanch had managed to put together the money in just two days. The Sarpanch replied, “I had a panchayat (village administration) meeting with the villagers and I told them we needed to raise 15 lakhs at the earliest. Even before I could finish talking, everybody went back home. They emerged with as much valuable jewelry as they could they and put it in front of me. Imam, you never accepted our help when we offered it. Now when you come to us asking for help, how could any of us turn our backs to you? We all love you and we love Sagar. Be rest assured that we will be there for you, along every step of this endeavor.” Chacha’s eyes welled-up. He wiped his eyes and got up to hug the Sarpanch.
Three days later, Chacha and Sagar were rolled into adjoining O.Ts at a specialty clinic in a neighboring city. It had taken a lot of convincing by the villagers and Chacha to get Sagar to agree for the operation. He took the news of him having a life-taking disease really well but he was heart-broken when he learnt that Chacha had agreed to donate 60% of his liver to save him. Chacha assured Sagar that it was a completely safe procedure and that his liver would grow back very quickly. Finally Sagar yielded and agreed to undergo the surgical treatment. On the day of the surgery before leaving for the hospital, Chacha went to Sagar and gave him a Tawiz (amulet. Chacha told him “Religions are man-made and there’s only one god, and he looks over all of us. This Tawiz has protected me over the years and now I want you to have it. I’ll not be around always but know that I’ll always be there with you. Also remember to be the best you can and the world will cherish you for who you are.” Sagar burst out into tears and hugged Chacha. “Once this operation is done, both of us would go strolling on the beach again.” said Chacha, running his fingers through Sagar’s hair.
Sagar’s operation was a success; his immune system had accepted the new liver. Chacha died on the operating table. As the doctor had foreseen, there were multiple complications during the surgery. Chacha had gone into a cardiac arrest after a vein that carries blood away from the liver partially tore off and started bleeding. The surgeons had tried everything they could but a few critical errors and the lack of expertise to handle such precarious situations resulted in Chacha succumbing to the internal bleeding. The Sarpanch broke the news to Sagar once he was moved into the general ward from the ICU. Sagar was devastated. He felt even more agonized when he learnt that the villagers had performed the last rites for Chacha, while Sagar was being kept under observation in the ICU.
Sagar was discharged from the hospital three days later. He strolled down the beach remembering what Chacha had once told him – “And for every gift God takes away, he replaces it with something else. Now you’ve me.” He wondered then why God had then taken Chacha away from him too. He stared out into the horizon, basking in the warmth of the sun. He reached into his pocket and removed the Tawiz, gripping it tightly in his hands. He smiled remembering Chacha’s last words to him – “I’ll not be around always but know that I’ll always be there with you.“
The greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of life. Learn more about organ donation in India, from the following websites:
http://www.dorso.org/ (Delhi region only)