Wednesday, January 23, 2013

`C` invades our home (part-II)

The Last 24 hours…

The morning of 4th January, 2013 dawned like any other day for Prabha. As usual it had been a very restless night, alternating between bouts of pain and unsound sleep. After a cup of tea and some medication she went back to sleep.

Around 9.30 am she got up and asked my daughter Sowmya to replay the video of my granddaughter Uthara’s maiden Carnatic music concert held five days earlier, on her laptop.

The solo performance was to be a part of the grand dinner get-together I had planned for my 70th Birth Day, and had even booked the Tag Centre for it. Unfortunately the programme had to be cancelled because of Prabha`s health, and she was feeling bad about it. So when Sowmya decided to come to Chennai with her children to spend time with her mother, the idea of having the solo performance resurfaced. We decided to have it at a local Perumal temple on Sunday 30th Dec,2012, in the presence of a small group of friends and relatives.

Prabha was eagerly looking forward to the event and was worried that she may not be able to make it because of her failing health and mobility. I reassured her that come-what- may she would attend the function. On the day of the event a special wheel chair was hired to ensure that she was mobile enough to attend. In the video taken on the occasion, we can see her listening to the programme entranced by the wonderful performance of her granddaughter.

On the last day of her life Prabha listened to this programme a couple of times reliving those wonderful moments.

After an otherwise uneventful day, in the evening she sat on a chair in the dining room and watched her four grandchildren running around and playing. When it was time for them to leave, to my elder daughter Kavita’s home nearby, she insisted on hugging, kissing and blessing each one of them. Even at that point, the family did not imagine that her end would come within a few hours.

Obviously it was in the middle of the night she had a premonition that she was going to leave the world soon. She got up around 1.00 am and asked my daughter to bring a pad and a pen as she wanted to write something. Going through the illegible writing later, I guessed that she was trying to say something about wanting a natural death. Subsequently, this is what she tried to tell me in person.

Around 2.00 am when I came to relieve my daughter so that she could rest for some time, Prabha told me that she did not want, what had happened to a friend`s mother, happen to her. She mentioned the friend by name and recalled that his mother was under life support system in a hospital and was refused a glass of water because she would die if the tubes were removed. I assured her that we would respect her wish and would not put her through such an ordeal.

I also told her that she cannot leave us so soon because she had to attend the Golden Jubilee function of Inner wheel Club of Madras South scheduled a couple of weeks later, as she was a Past President of the Club and they were going to honour her. She gave me a weak smile and said she would try to attend. Immediately afterwards, she asked me for a glass of water which she sipped slowly with relish.

The next two hours I spent with her talking and trying to put her to sleep. She was alternating between hallucination and normal conversation. She kept asking about our son Balaji who had gone to Trichy on official work and was expected back that morning. When she dozed off to sleep, I left Prabha in the care of the nurse and Sowmya and went to catch up an hour’s sleep.

During the hour when I was away she woke up and told Sowmya that she was leaving the world because her mother was calling her. (Her mother had passed away in March 2011 at the age of 89). She also asked Sowmya if she would miss her.

When I came back at 5.00 am and asked her if she would like to have a cup of tea, she said ‘yes’ but insisted on brushing her teeth before drinking it. When I started giving her the tea ,she became angry with me for rushing her into drinking the tea fast and asked my daughter to take over. I did not realise then that it was to be the last admonition I was to receive from her for my impatience.

At 5.30 am, at her request, the TV was switched on and she was delighted to see a picture of Lord Balaji appear on the screen. With folded hands and closed eyes she worshipped the visual. Her piety and devotion gave her strength even at these last moments of her life.

Then she went to the toilet and as she came out she was sweating profusely. I realised that she may be having a heart attack and just as I was considering taking her to the hospital, my son walked in. Her face brightened when she saw him, she held his hands and kissed it and as he supported her with his arms, suddenly her breathing became heavy. We tried to place the `nebuliser’ in position, but she was beginning to lose consciousness. All of us started shouting her name and tried to shake her back to consciousness but it had no effect. In a few minutes she breathed her last with her eyes and mouth open. Prabha was no more…

My daughter, son and I were standing around her when she passed away with the religious discourse on her favourite `Lord Rama` playing in the background.

Prabha did not live to see our 41st wedding anniversary on 26th January,2013.

On our return from Kashmir in April last year, Prabha wrote a very interesting travelogue in Tamil, in which she mentioned her childhood dream of visiting Kashmir one day, becoming a reality. The title of the story was Dreams become a reality and reality has now become a dream.

I realised that the reality of our wonderful life together for 41 years had now become a dream!

I can only live with her memories for the rest of my life.

(This is the second of the three part article I had promised on Prabha. The last article will be on our experience with Adyar Cancer Institute (headed by the Magasaysay Award winner Dr.Shantha) where she was treated. It will take sometime as I intend to research the subject before I write the piece.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

C` invades our home!

It is 1.30 am. As usual I get up to check up if my wife Prabha is ok and needs any help. When I realize that she is not there to share my bed any more, tears well up in my eyes. She has already joined the Lord’s family in heaven, as a Sumangali, leaving me to face the world alone for the rest of my life. For how many more years, only God knows. I thought she will be there to look after me in my old age, to attend to me when I fall sick, take care of my needs and help me leave this world with dignity. That is not to be. Instead, during the last seven months I became a house husband – looking after her 24 x 7 with support from other members of the family. Trying to help her cope with the dreaded Cancer with all the pains associated with it..

While I could look after her physical and emotional needs, I could not do anything about the bone rattling cough she suffered from. There was no way I could take over the pain so that she would feel relieved. This she had to suffer all by herself. During the day time, she had other distractions to keep her mind away from her body, nights were always nightmares. Though pain relievers helped her to some extent, they had a limited timespan. In the middle of the night, she would get up writhing in pain, turning and twisting until the next dose of painkiller started working.

Unfortunately, as it happens with many cancer patients, we discovered the disease very late when metastasis had already set in. Several tests conducted on her, many of them intrusive and painful showed that the primary was located in the ascending colon and the disease had already spread to the liver and lungs. Except for the occasional mild coughs she had during the previous few months there was absolutely no indication of the disease having affected the stomach. Infact she had withstood the rigours of a fantastic, dream come true, holiday we had in Kashmir just six weeks earlier. I realised that there was something seriously wrong, only when I found that she had lost four Kgs in one month, prior to the discovery of the disease, during a routine monthly check up of her weight.

Looking at the CT scan report our family doctor, another doctor from Apollo hospital and three doctors at the Adyar Cancer Institute where she was registered for treatment , said that there was no cure possible because Prabha`s was an inoperative case and the disease had already spread to the lungs. All that they could do was to give her palliative treatment to keep her as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Even the Tibetian and Ayurvedic doctors I consulted agreed that cure was impossible but they would try to reduce the side effects of the Chemotheraphy with their medication. However, all of them agreed that miracles can and do happen. The whole family lived on that hope.

Prabha went through six cycles of Chemotherapy , at the Cancer Institute, administered every three weeks As one of her lungs was filled with fluid, doctors had to aspirate some fluid from the lungs, before every therapy. This process was also painful. A week after the therapy she was admitted to the hospital for five days for pleural tapping of the fluid to drain as much fluid as possible from the lungs. Again a painful process which helped her almost get rid of the frequent bouts of cough but the pain in different parts of the body continued

Since it was only a palliative treatment Prabha did not have the usual side effects of chemotheraphy like nausea, diarrhea, fever and loss of hair, etc. The doctors at the hospital felt that she had held on well in terms of usual cancer markers during the therapy and wanted to consider the possibility of one more round of tests to check if they could explore further treatment.

Even while we were mentally preparing her for undergoing further tests, her condition suddenly started getting worse. The disease had invaded her bones and brain. She started becoming weaker day by day, finding it difficult to consume both food and medicines. Breathlessness and difficulty in speaking accompanied by excruciating pain in different parts of the body with occasional blurring of vision and hallucination followed.

Doctors at the hospital decided to hand over the case to a Pain Management Expert. We decided to treat Prabha at home, so that she could be showered with all the love and personal care that the family , consisting of my siblings, my three children and four grand children, could give her with the assistance of a full time nurse in attendance. While the combination of medicines helped in making the pain somewhat bearable, Prabha was going down steadily, needing physical help to move around. The whole family tried to keep her in good cheer helped further by other friends and well wishers.

Though the pain management doctor had said that she might live for another two months, the end came within a month. She was a known Ischemic heart patient with high cholesterol and BP, having regular medication for the last ten years. She died of cardiac arrest on the morning of Saturday, 5th January at 6.25 am. This was the second time I saw a patient dying after my father who passed away in 1994 at the ripe age of 80. But Prabha was only 61 and did not want to die.

She was a bold person who fought the disease stoically. There was no self pity, no crying and no `why me?` syndrome. Friends who called on her at home or others who talked to her on the phone were surprised by her positive attitude. Even four hours before she passed away she said she wanted to attend the golden Jubilee function (scheduled on 29th January) of the Innerwheeel club of Madras South of which she was a Past President.

Until the last minute she was conscious. The last twenty four hours of her life on the earth, seemed like a scene from a typical Indian movie. ( To be continued)

Friday, January 4, 2013

From P{romoter of Consumerism to Consumer activism - Part II (R.Desikan)

When I asked R. Desikan what made him transform himself from being an active promoter of

consumerism in the country to becoming a consumer activist, he narrated these two incidents:
In 1977, when the country was still reeling under Emergency rule and any form of criticism
against the Government would earn its wrath and a guaranteed place in jail, he wrote a long
letter to Indira Gandhi about the travails of the consumer in India, highlighting the importance of
passing the Consumer Protection Act. Not only did Indira Gandhi respond to his letter, but she
also gave him an audience to hear his views on the matter! This incident taught him the
importance of voicing an opinion when faced with problems, instead of living with them.
However, his fight against establishments producing sub-standard products or providing shoddy
services can be traced back to a personal episode involving a new Ambassador car which he
had bought. When the car gave him serious trouble, even during the warranty period, he went to
the car dealer who had sold him the car. The indifferent attitude of the dealer who had the
audacity to tell him that he had no choice but to live with the defective vehicle, forced Desikan to
take up cudgels and fight for the cause of the consumer. Those were the days of a seller's
market, where manufacturers got away with producing poor quality products.

By this time his over-ambitious publishing project ran into a serious financial crunch and he
decided to close the unit and sell the title of Mangayar Malar alone to another friend who, in
turn, sold it to the Kalki magazine group. However, Desikan continued running a printing press
for South Madras News. After trying out a couple of other businesses, he decided to cease all
business activities and concentrate fully on consumer activism.

* * *

His experience with the SMN Consumer Protection Council led him to take an active interest in
the Federation of Consumer Organisations in Tamil Nadu (FEDCOT). He became Chairman of
the organisation and during the six years that he was involved with FEDCOT, he helped the
membership grow from 12 organisations to 260 organisations and the turnover increase from a
few thousand rupees to Rs. 75 lakhs, through grants and subsidies from donor agencies.
Desikan's work at FEDCOT was noticed by people in Tamil Nadu and he became a name to
reckon with in the world of Consumer Activism. He was now keen to play an active role in
promoting awareness about consumer rights and responsibilities at the national level. His first
foray was Concert (Centre for Education, Research testing and Training) which established the
first-ever fuel testing laboratory run by an NGO in Chennai, and has been publishing reports
based on comparative testing of products commonly used by consumers. Concert has also
developed an adulteration detection kit and trained over 2500 women in Tamil Nadu to use it.

Along with stalwarts like B.S. Raghavan (IAS RTD), K. Ravindran IPS, Dr. S. Krishnaswamy,
and N.L. Rajah he started an NGO called The Catalyst Trust with the objective of bridging the
gap between grassroots people (aam-aadmi) and government establishments. 'Catalyst' is also
active in championing electoral reforms and already has 207 regional Citizen Centres and
publishes a monthly journal in the regional languages. 'Catalyst' has been very active in
promoting voter awareness in a big way, with aggressive media campaigns. According to
Desikan, it helped add 1.2 million new voters during the 2004 election.
The flagship organisation of the group, Consumers Association of India (CAI), was started in
2001, with Desikan, the late Yegnaraman and Krishnakumar as Founder Trustees. Today, the
Board of Trustees of CAI includes some well-known names, like N. Gopalaswami, former CEC
of India.

During the last eleven years of its existence, CAI has helped over 10,000 consumers get
redressal for their problems with Governments or erring corporates; 98 per cent of these cases
were resolved without any legal intervention. The persistent efforts of CAI resulted in RBI
passing a rule by which banks are now calculating the interest due to Savings Bank account
holders on a daily basis instead of the earlier periodicity which had been unfavourable to bank
customers. This is helping millions of customers across the country get better earnings. CAI has
also been working closely with self-help groups in Tamil Nadu, training them to be more aware
of their rights and responsibilities as consumers. A few of them have also become Consumer
Activists. In recent years, CAI has been working closely with schools and colleges, trying to sow
the seeds of consumer awareness in young minds. CAI has published a number of guides
useful to consumers and every member gets a free copy of its bi-monthly called Consumers
Digest. With some major projects assigned by the Government to CAI, it has come to be
recognised as one of the top two consumer organisations in the country.

* * *

Desikan had a major health crisis in 2006. When doctors had given up hope, he had a
miraculous recovery. After spending a couple of months in the hospital and later recouping at
home for a couple of more months, Desikan was back in action with greater vigour and energy
to do what he is passionate about – fighting for the hapless Indian consumer!
When I asked him why in spite of poor health he continues to push himself beyond his
endurance limits, he said, "I feel very happy when people who have benefited from CAI come to
thank me. More than any award, it is this spontaneous appreciation from the common people
that is keeping me going. I am happy that I am able to make some difference to their lives."
An ad-man, journalist, printer, publisher, a pioneer of ideas, a visionary with tremendous energy
and enthusiasm – more than all these descriptions of Desikan, what people will always
remember him is for his role as a crusader for consumer rights.


From Promoter of Consumerism to Consumer Activist-Part-I ( R.Desikan)

R. Desikan is a highly respected consumer activist who is looked upon for advice on any consumer-related issue by both State and Central Governments. Scores of people approach him every week seeking redressal for their product or service-related problems. Though I have known Desikan for over 40 years, I saw his fiery passion and crusading spirit for consumer activism from close quarters only when he invited me to join the Consumer Association of India as a Trustee a couple of years ago.

* * *
Desikan's fighting spirit can be traced back to his school days. What he lacked in terms of physical size in height and weight, he compensated with rustic intelligence and raw common sense.

When he was still in school, a diminutive young boy who showed no fear in dealing with any situation, he was challenged by a big bully in the class to a wrestling match. He accepted the challenge. With his clever mind he quickly identified the weak spot of the boy and managed to get hold of that part in a vice-like grip and would not let go until the boy, in sheer agony, surrendered. Desikan was to later adopt the same strategy in dealing with erring corporate goliaths as a consumer activist.

Born in Srirangam, he was brought up in a village called Desamanikam in Tirunelveli District. After schooling there, he joined Madras Christian College to pursue a course in Mathematics and Economics, subjects which he hated. He would often bunk class to watch English films – always first day-first show. Unfortunately, within six months of his joining college, his contractor father passed away, leaving the burden of bringing up the family on his eldest son. Desikan, the younger son, had to discontinue his college education as his brother found it difficult to pay the college fees. He now taught himself by becoming a voracious reader of books, often spending hours at the Connemara Library in Madras.

* * *

Desikan's first job was as a special health worker, in which role he had to visit several villages assigned to him and examine people for ailments and report them to Government for action. However, impressed by his enterprise and passion for books, Dr. (Rev.) J.R. Macphail, the former Principal of Madras Christian College, persuaded Desikan to help import books and magazines for use in the libraries of Madras Christian College, Women's Christian College, and Christian Medical College, Vellore. This probably sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship in Desikan and the experience came in handy when he launched his own publishing house later in life.

While he continued importing books and magazines, G.R. Devarajan & Co., a well-known wholesale distributor of books and magazines in Madras, sought Desikan's help to appoint Distribution Agents for Reader's Digest and Life and Time magazines. This gave Desikan an opportunity to visit every important town in South India and he gained valuable insights into the distribution business. Impressed by his performance, the company made him a Director and its Company Secretary. That was in 1956 and Desikan was just 24.

Unfortunately, in 1958, Devarajan's business collapsed for various reasons and Desikan joined the Southern Languages Book Trust (SLBT) as its Development Officer. SLBT, at the time, was involved in the translation of World Classics . He remembers that Rajaji's Chakravarthi Thirumagan sold 1,00,000 copies in English and a book titled How to Repair a Motorcycle published by Higginbotham's sold 75,000 copies. Desikan helped SLBT open book outlets in Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Madras. In those days, Madras had only two established bookshops and 25 magazine outlets. Desikan's efforts helped create 150 bookshops and 1200 retail book outlets in Madras alone.

* * *

Around this time his elder brother passed away and the responsibility of looking after his large family fell on Desikan's shoulders. He realised that he was now responsible for the education of his brother's four sons and a daughter as well. He decided to postpone his own marriage and look for a more lucrative job. Between 1961 and 1966, he was the representative of Imprint magazine in India. His success with Imprint made Reader's Digest offer Desikan the position of Regional Manager (South) based in Madras. In 1968, he was transferred as its Bombay representative and, within a year, was promoted as Advertisement Manager. In this role he pioneered the concept of the 'Advertiser's Supplement', the first of its kind in any magazine in the country. It was a 32-page insert on the topic 'Good Health', consisting of 65% editorial matter and 35% advertisements.

It was in Reader's Digest, that Desikan met his future wife Nirmala, who was the Executive Assistant to the MD. Having fulfilled his commitment to educate his brother's children and creating a future for them, Desikan decided to get married. He was 36. In spite of company rules prohibiting married couples working in the same organisation, Parameshwaran, the MD of the company, got special permission from headquarters to keep both Nirmala and Desikan with Reader's Digest, as he found them indispensable. Nirmala proved to be the greatest asset in Desikan's life. Coming from a large family, Nirmala was not only a great homemaker but also a great support to Desikan in all his, often adventurous, ideas! He was the ideas man and she was the executor of his ideas. A truly 'Made for a Each Other' couple!

* * *

When his contract with Reader's Digest ended in 1973, he decided to move to Madras, for his family's sake. His good friend (Babu) Krishnaswamy had insisted that he join Krishnaswamy Associates, the documentary/ad film makers, as a Director. He accepted the offer and helped the firm quadruple its turnover in one year.

While still with Krishnaswamy, his love for the publishing business got the better of him and he decided to start a magazine called Indian Needlewoman under the banner of Speciality Publications with Nirmala as its Editor. It had the support of Madura Coats, the well-known textile company based in South India. Inspired by the success of the magazine, Desikan and Nirmala decided to launch a slew of magazines, all pioneering efforts at the time.

Indian Needlewoman was followed by Indian Cookery. Later, Mangayar Malar, the first ever Tamil magazine exclusively targeting women, was launched. Based on the success of Mangayar Malar, he combined the two English magazines to launch Indian Housewife, soon to be followed by the Hindi version, Grahani and Grahasthi.

Then, in 1977, Desikan thought of a local community newspaper to be distributed free, another first of its kind in the country. South Madras News, a weekly, was devoted to local news and promoted local talent which were not getting enough exposure in the major media. The magazine also paved the way for representing the problems of the South Madras community to the government in power. A natural corollary was the establishment of an NGO called SMN Consumer Protection Council in 1987. It was significant, because it followed close on the heels of the much-debated Indian Consumer Protection Act 1986 passed by Parliament the previous year. The Act was to help the much exploited Indian consumer, empowering him with rights and responsibilities. This was the beginning of Desikan's avatar as an aggressive consumer activist.

(To be concluded next fortnight)