Twenty Gun Salute [Short Story]

A busy cancer-fighting doctor worries that her investment banker fiance wants to get married. She doesn't have time for it, does she?

It was a note on personalized stationery. It was not a SMS or a whatsapp message or even a Facebook notification. It was a handwritten note on thick vellum that had ‘Sandip Das’ printed on the top right hand corner. The envelope was also personalized and when Lata opened it to remove the paper, and heard and smelt something so old fashioned, she knew it was serious.

‘Join me for dinner tomorrow at Chez Louis. I’ll reserve the table for eight.’ The ‘Sandy’ scrawled at the bottom was the only sign that the message was from her lover, and not another pharma executive.

Lata looked around before sighing heavily. In the Oncology ward on the fourth floor of Beachwood Hospital, doctors weren’t supposed to read notes and stare vacuously while standing in the middle of a corridor. But if you had received what was as good as a proposal of marriage, you could be excused for taking a moment off before continuing with your work.

Friday morning, she felt irritation arc through her spine, was hardly the right time to dump this on her. Sandip would have pointed out that in her life, there was never a right time to put anything on her. And she would have pointed out that she was in her third year of residency, and could be excused for being just a little preoccupied with getting her certification. And he would have pointed out that she couldn’t trot out the same excuse for the rest of their lives. And she would have…

Being a doctor wasn’t what Lata would have chosen for her worst enemy. But she had chosen it for herself.

‘So tell him that marriage is not for you,’ said Mandy, gobbling a limp salad sandwich as she tried to reduce her calorie intake to take off thirty pounds from her one hundred and sixty pound frame. ‘Or maybe he knows that, and is just flirting with you. Come on, he’s getting you for free, why would he want marriage?’

‘Indian men don’t think like that.’ Lata looked at her own soup with dark intent, wondering if it was possible to drown in that thin gruel. That’s what her parents would advise her to do if they knew that she was seeing a man ‘in that way’. ‘Drown yourself in a handful of water.’ Shame needed nothing more for death. But they were in India, and she was here, in the wilds of Connecticut, and they need not know that she was sleeping with an investment banker who, like the rest of his compatriots in the United States, believed that sleeping with someone was a natural corollary to loving that person.

‘Don’t anticipate trouble,’ Mandy advised, wiping the salad dressing from her lips, grimacing at the taste in her mouth. ‘He hasn’t proposed, and if things go your way, hopefully he never will. So just relax. Go back to zapping the big C.’

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She hadn’t come all the way here, spending years and years with her nose in her medical books, to throw it all away. Marriage could wait.

Her words weren’t reassuring. Some day, sooner or later, he was going to pop the question, and then she didn’t know what she would do. She knew she couldn’t marry him. She hadn’t come all the way here, spending years and years with her nose in her medical books, to throw it all away. Marriage could wait. She had a lot to do before then. Sandip would understand. He was an achiever. He knew all about ambition, and goals, and targets and a life plan. In any case, why get married? Things were going so well for them. He was moving money around the world, and she was battling humankind’s most powerful enemy, a disease that surrendered to nothing and no one.

And now this note. Chez Louis was the place in town for proposing. ‘You bring the ring, we bring the rest’ was the slogan emblazoned across six prominent billboards in the town. Everyone knew that Chez Louis was for proposals and breakups. Lata had been there once before. She didn’t remember it clearly. It was hard to notice the details when someone had told you that things couldn’t work out with someone who was:

  1. Always late for a date
  2. Could never get away on a vacation even when it was planned
  3. Spent eighty per cent of her waking hours in hospital scrubs
  4. Believed dancing to be a waste of time

This last was unfair. True, Lata had looked at her watch six times in the one hour that she and Ted, her ex, had danced in the club, but only because she was on call, and would have to rush for duty at exactly three minutes before midnight so as not to miss the last bus. Ted claimed loftily that his life wasn’t dictated by bus schedules, told Lata that if she needed a life, she would have to reset her priorities, and paid the tab before walking out on her.

Lata had allowed herself two hours of weeping by waking up early, and then headed to the only place that would absorb her without questioning her motive or intent or sense of purpose, the fourth floor of Beachwood Hospital.

Sandip wasn’t at all like Ted. He believed, he said, in TOTAL FREEDOM. The capitalization was Lata’s. She used the words as a slogan for her life. TOTAL FREEDOM.

‘Yeah, like those poor sods on the fourth floor are free,’ said Mandy, committing to memory some sections of her ophthalmology textbook. ‘Like you don’t know that they’re chained to a monster that can eat them up at any moment.’

‘You’re being melodramatic.’

‘And you’re being idealistic. I don’t know about India, but mortality of cancer patients in the US is high. What’s the right statistic? Fifteen per cent? Yeah, they’re free all right, free to meet their maker, honey.’

Mandy didn’t know what she was talking about, thought Lata as she made her way to the ward. Cancer constantly surprised one. It was exhilarating when one cured it, and the feeling of defeat was always of a battle well fought. Yes, it was freedom, but of a different sort. And she was part of that freedom. She had chosen to treat an illness that was part science, part craps shooting. Nothing could be more exciting.

The monogrammed stationery rustled in her pocket as she walked around the ward, looking at each patient chart, strategizing every move that could kill certain cells without damaging the host body. She had already forgotten the phone call with her parents, sitting ten thousand miles away in Mumbai. They only spoke marriage, while she only spoke work. It was like two deaf people talking to each other without sign language. The communication was irrelevant. Parents needed to be spoken to. What they spoke didn’t matter. She was thirty four. She could control her own life.

The phone buzzed in her pocket while she was examining the second last patient in the ward. She let it buzz. It was against hospital rules to receive phone calls inside the wards. Lata systematically went through the procedure for both her patients and forgot about the buzzing phone. It couldn’t be anyone important. All the people close to her knew not to disturb her at work. Emergencies were different. But even emergencies had to wait till she finished her rounds.

More than an hour later, after managing two ovarian cancers and a phone consultation with her registrar, Lata took out her phone and stared at the India number. It was two in the morning there. On the Richter scale of emergency calls, this counted as a seven. It would be a ten if the first sentence mentioned either of her parents.

It didn’t. Lata exhaled and listened to the voice at the other end properly. And the needle moved up to nine. Darshan, her cousin, twenty six years old, the blue-eyed boy of the family, the one who called her Didi and surpassed her in everything, including getting engaged to a regular girl next door, the one who lived with his parents and advised his father on retirement plans while working in a bank, the one who forsook medicine in favour of business management, thus ensuring relative peace in the house, was now in the enemy camp. He had a malignant growth on the pancreas, and chances of recovery were slim to non-existent. He was calling, he explained, from the hospital ward, where he had come for three days of treatment.

‘They’ve told me that the radiation will zap the pancreas as well. I just thought I’d speak to you, Didi.’

 If she was his elder sister, then he was supposed to outlive her. That’s what younger brothers did.

Her first thought was that he had no business calling her Didi. If she was his elder sister, then he was supposed to outlive her. That’s what younger brothers did. They lived to old age and looked after their older sisters when the latter retired from medical practice. They produced nieces and nephews who were trotted out to please a doting aunt whenever she made the long journey home. They showered one with useless gifts of shower gels and pashmina shawls and showed up at one’s doorstep, looking for a place to stay while on vacation in the US. They left dirty cups in the sink, and looked guilty when one washed them up, apologizing for the extra work they were creating while clogging the bathtub. They compensated by taking one out to the most expensive restaurant in town without realizing that one wasn’t too fond of Italian food. They sniggered when one confessed that one still didn’t use Google Maps and frequently got lost as a result, and then they proceeded to download the app for you and explain how simple it all was while you cringed at the technological complexity of a mobile screen. What they didn’t do was call you up in the middle of the night from a hospital ward, and declare that, at least for the moment, life was a well of human excreta, otherwise called a shithole.

Lata almost told Darshan to call her Dr. Pandit but managed to bite back the words at the last minute. She took a pad, adjusted her voice to sotto voce instead of fortissimo and said, ‘Darshan, please call for the charts and give me the details that I’m going to ask for.’ There, professional and calm, just what the doctor ordered.

The call lasted for half an hour. Lata needed one fifth of that time to know that the doctors in India weren’t ignorant morons who didn’t know a carcinoma from their backside. She had so wanted to believe that, but she was a professional first and Lata Pandit, cousin of Darshan Pandit, last. A storm of questions raged through her mind. She asked none of them. Did his parents know? Of course they must. What about his fiancée? What about his office? What was he thinking about? What were his parents thinking about? What could she do?

She took a deep breath and ignored the tornado. She couldn’t be blown away by irrelevance. Darshan had been dragged over to the other side. Dr. Lata Pandit had to do her damnedest to pull him back. She couldn’t let go, not of this one. But first, she had to rid her mind of all the garbage called ‘feeling’ and replace it with analysis, data, information, knowledge. She knew the steps. Look at the reports, research the illness, call her superiors, meet the experts, those gods of cancer. There was no time for lamenting, certainly no time to think of his boyish face when she had met him five years ago, and he had sheepishly confessed to having a girlfriend whose existence was unknown to anyone else in the family. She had far better things to do with her time.

She called him again eight hours later, in the middle of her twenty hour shift, her dinnertime soup declining into a brownish suspension that was fast losing all resemblance to food. It wasn’t a professional call, but she turned it into one. She asked for more information, useless numbers and decimal points that added no value to the simple fact that Darshan Pandit was now a very temporary occupant of this world. His voice sounded the same, the public school accent mixed with a business executive’s crisp tone to yield an upper middle class timbre that was universally accepted as an educated man’s language. He sounded well, and Lata reminded herself that the malignancy was in his pancreas, not his throat. She wanted to reach across the oceans and pluck the dragon from its evil lair, and whirl it by its tail and fling it far away. Instead, she scribbled on her writing pad, illegible notations that were hardly any substitute for actual treatment.

Her meal break was almost ending when the phone buzzed again. There was a reason she hadn’t spoken to Sandy. Despair, anger, frustration, misery, emptiness, she had a whole thesaurus of words to describe the reason, and she was afraid that she would pour it all on his head if she spoke to him. And Dr. Pandit never poured out her problems on anyone else’s head. Except that she didn’t call them problems, she called them challenges, and challenges were to be faced, not discussed.

‘I’m going to cry,’ she said, as soon as she accepted the call. And then proceeded to do so, allowing the tears to flow down her cheeks and clamping down upon the attendant sobs, all the time aware that the enemy was winning this round.

Sandip Das wasn’t a man to waste his words. Nor was he a man to be flustered by a few tears, even if they were shed by his personal iron lady. Once the torrent had abated he asked, ‘What’s up?’ and allowed Lata to pour the whole story into his ears.

‘Looks like you have a lot to deal with. Do you want me to come over?’ That was code for ‘Do you want me to come over and make love to you in the doctors rest area, and hold you for a little bit, even though it’s completely illegal?’

Lata declined, already regretting her breakdown. Darshan had called her as a doctor, not as a fond sister. She couldn’t betray that trust by becoming emotional. ‘I’ll call you,’ she said.

Her taciturnity was picked up and responded in kind. ‘Sure,’ said Sandy before ringing off.

This time there was no note on expensive stationery. A whatsapp message said, ‘Do you want to call off tomorrow? Love.’

Lata stared at the phone before shoving it back in her pocket and proceeding on her rounds. It was two in the morning. Her lover was keeping vigil with her, staying awake and letting her know that he was thinking of her. She smiled at the message and thought of it no more. There was no time. She would think of it later, when she was done with her day’s work of treating the sick.

Her shift ended at six in the morning and at six fifteen the whatsapp notification lit up. ‘Get some rest’ it said. It was an ordinary message and she felt extraordinarily happy to read it. She called up her cousin in India. It was dinnertime there, and she could hear the sounds of other patients eating their food, the clink of silverware on plates punctuating the phone call. ‘We’re going to take this step by step,’ she said, her tone a strip of starch. ‘You need to get some more tests done. Let’s prepare ourselves for a fight.’

Her crispness carried across the waves, and she heard Darshan’s cheerful voice with a sense of relief. He wasn’t letting go, and nor was she, at least not right away. But soon it would be time. And she had things to do before then, things that didn’t consist solely of going to the hospital and returning, dead on her feet, no other thought in her head except how to acquire the latest research on stomach ulcers. There was more to life and at thirty four, she needed to discover what.

She sent a whatsapp reply to Sandip, ‘See you at eight. I’ll meet you there.’ And then she fell asleep for a few hours before preparing for the evening.

The restaurant was crowded and Lata wondered at the irony of choosing one of the most densely populated spots in the entire town for an act of such intimacy as popping the question. But this was America. Nothing was intimate here. Everything had a twenty one gun salute aura. Well, she would soon bring out her own weapon. Sandip had already arrived, and smiled when he saw her enter the restaurant. She smiled back and threaded her way confidently through the crowd, her high heels clicking on the wooden floor. She looked wonderful and knew it. It wasn’t only the result of the two hours that she had spent in the hair and nail salon. She wanted to look her best today, and that desire had changed her appearance.

Sandy stood up when she reached their table and said, ‘You look beautiful, more beautiful than ever before.’

I know, she thought, and said, ‘Thank you.’

She sat down in her seat, and waited for him to do so. Her maroon dress was accessorized with a golden clutch, a tiny box that could barely hold a handkerchief. But it was enough forwhat she needed. Now she opened it, pulled out something, stood up from her chair and went round to kneel in front of her lover.

‘Sandip Das,’ she said, holding out the ring, ‘I love you with all my heart and soul. Will you please marry me?’

 Pic credit: jmcphers (Used under a Creative Commons license)


About the Author


Beyond Pink writes on women's stories in urban India. They could be real or fictional, but they are all about what women in modern India think about their partners, their families, their workplace and read more...

16 Posts | 55,991 Views

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