“I AM thankful God gave me cancer… yes, yes, everyone looks shocked when I say this, but I mean it.” Ten minutes into a conversation with Hosi D. Daruwalla, 71, you realise that the man does truly mean what he says. Cancer, he says, has changed his life. In his case the cliché is loaded with meaning because life and living have more meaning for him after his brush with the disease. This is not just because he survived but because he has proactively made a decision to give back. “You may call it gratitude or anything else,” he says in his brusque, no-nonsense manner, “but I am one of the lucky ones. I survived. I am on medication that would normally cost more than a lakh of rupees a month, but I get it free thanks to Novartis and the Max Foundation. Others are not so fortunate.” The reference is to poor patients, especially those who come to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital from rural areas and have no choice but to make temporary homes on pavements. “My heart goes out to them,” says Daruwalla, “And so I do this work.”
Daruwalla’s sentiments are not unusual—many cancer survivors see their remaining years as a rebirth and pursue life with zest. This usually tapers off as the person gets accustomed to the idea of having beaten the disease. Where Daruwalla is different is in the fact that for close to a decade he has been fulfilling a pledge he made to himself—to help less fortunate patients.
From the very first telephone call to ask for an appointment, there was nothing to indicate that he had gone through what must have been a harrowing experience. The cheerful voice that answered the phone briskly assured this correspondent that he was free “any time and all the time… just walk into my place”.
On entering his building compound, another phone call brought him out on to his third-floor balcony from where he hallooed out. Then, it was the steep flight of stairs, with Daruwalla egging on this correspondent and the photographer from above: “Come on, come on, I do this at least three times a day and I’m 71.” Finally, one is face to face with a slight man, fresh faced with bright eyes and, as we were to discover, restless. We enter a small room, crammed with furniture, knick-knacks and bundles of cloth. Old Hindi film songs play. In the middle of all this is Daruwalla, talking, gesturing, pulling open drawers to show us photographs, dragging chairs for us to sit on, dashing off to the kitchen to return with three bottles in one hand: “Butterscotch, ginger, Rooh Afza, which one do you want? All three are healthy drinks. Better than all this cola-shola.” Impatient for an answer, he pours out drinks and thrusts the glasses at us, dragging a small table forward at the same time. He is in his eighth decade and is still on daily oral chemotherapy. But, in his own words, he is “like a horse”. There is no stopping the man. How does he do it? He smiles and says, “I have my work. I have a purpose.”
Cancer has redefined everything for him. Material gains are of little interest now unless they can be translated into something for the poor and the sick. He spends his time and energy on his pet projects of making quilts and medicinal oils for poor cancer patients and collecting funds to help in their treatment. “When I first went to Tata [Memorial], I saw all these poor patients on the footpath. And I thought ‘ Arre yaar , I have a machine, my mother had taught me sewing.’ So I started making quilts.”
Still refusing to sit, he recounts his life’s work. Pulling down a bundle of cloth from the top of a cupboard, he says, “See these bits of cloth. Nobody wants them, but I do. I stitch them together piece by piece, choosing colours and sizes and make this….” At this point he drops the bundle and whisks out a length of patchworked material. It is a large patchwork quilt, big enough to cover two people. It took Daruwalla about four hours to sew, bent assiduously over his old motorised foot-pedal sewing machine. His output depends on the size of the cloth pieces. If there are six large pieces, it takes him half a day to make one quilt. He also makes pillow covers. “I wake up around 6-30 a.m., light a divo [prayer lamp], have a small cup of tea and sit down at my machine.”
Sourcing cloth for the quilts was difficult at first. Daruwalla used to go to tailoring shops in the Dharavi slums and ask for leftovers and would be grudgingly given scraps. Now cloth merchants come to him with rag bundles. Though he says he will never be able to make as many quilts as are required, he has distributed close to a thousand quilts and pillow covers over the last decade. “Earlier, I used to go to patients on footpaths and give them parcels of the quilts and pillow covers, but that became unmanageable because crowds would gather.” So now he distributes them through Jeevan Jyot and V Care, both voluntary organisations that assist cancer patients.
His dedication extends to making oil for cancer patients. Using a recipe given to him by his oncologist, Daruwalla makes the oil and packs it in small bottles that he “begs from the local daru nu dukaan ”(liquor shop). “Chemotherapy is rough on the joints. They ache a lot. My doctor gave me this recipe for homemade oil and it helped greatly. I thought, ‘why not help others too’, and so I make and distribute this oil for poor patients. It’s not difficult: grind a quarter kilo of garlic and 15 rupees worth of methi [fenugreek] seeds. Boil it in palmolein oil until it turns brown. Strain, cool and apply. It actually helps with arthritis too. Let your readers try it—it’s from my oncologist.”
The journey of his life traverses a colourful and varied landscape. At one point, while talking about the importance of diet, he got up saying he had to go to the fish market because his regular fish vendor had fresh crabs. We just about kept pace with him as he sped to the market. There, he was greeted by a line of fisherwomen. In what looked like a daily exercise, he lectured them to live life well, told them to hurry with cleaning the crabs, became impatient at their slowness and grabbed some crabs and started cleaning them at top speed. Looking at him affectionately, the owner of A. Rashid Chicken Shop says, “Uncle comes regularly. We know what he has been through. He helps everyone.”
Back home, he declares he is a good cook. He certainly seems to know the finer points like washing crabs with turmeric, salt and vinegar “to take away the smell”. Despite his constant movement, there is something Zen-like about him. He is focussed on what he does even though he multitasks. As he selects and grinds ingredients to marinate the crabs, he speaks about his life.
Daruwalla worked as a mechanical engineer in the design section of the Associated Cement Companies. In 2000, he took voluntary retirement to look after his grandson. A year later when he lost 30 kilos in a month, worried friends asked him to see a doctor. Characteristically, he pooh-poohed the idea, saying he was fine. At some point he realised he was wrong. The diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukaemia came as a jolt, but Daruwalla said he was not afraid. “I told the doctor, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”
Though the cancer took him “to hell and beyond”, when he became “mentally, financially, physically zero”, his bullish attitude finally saw him through. He bled through his nose, mouth and rectum almost continuously and then came the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. “I lost my hair and teeth. I was sick and in pain all the time. The doctors did everything they could to help me, but I realised I had to help myself. Two things are crucial—positive thinking and control of the diet.”
Daruwalla started the process of educating himself and becoming what he calls “a qualified patient”. He scoured public libraries and tried everything from juiced wheatgrass, which he grows at home and still drinks and also gives to other cancer-afflicted people. Monetarily, Daruwalla says he is comfortable. His two children are independent and he and his wife have few wants. “I will do this until I die… I have learnt this much: Give. Don’t take.”