My father, Dr. Arunananda Ray, resides in the intensive care unit. Tubes run through his neck, nose, abdomen, and emaciated limbs. The machines he’s hooked up to constantly beep, flash, hum, and occasionally set off alarms that send shivers through every fiber of my being.
I am allowed in for brief periods twice a day. I use those precious minutes to rub his now knobbly head and the parchment-like skin stretching over his face and slender limbs.
I insert headphones into ears that look exactly like mine, hoping he can hear his favorite music, Rabindra Sangeet, Tagore songs. I grew up with these melodies played in my home, both of my parents being avidly interested in Bengali culture and literature. I never enjoyed music then; the language sounded a different version of what we were speaking and the music, to my untrained ear, was depressing. I now realize what I missed, as I find it hard to remember the songs Baba liked, but he no longer recognizes them.
One of 11 children of a High Court judge, Baba hailed from a wealthy landowner or Zamindar family, who owned huge tracts of land in East and West Bengal. A sizable area of Dum Dum in Calcutta (now Kolkata) belonged to them, and the multi-generational family resided in a palatial mansion whose entrance was a massive, heavy iron gate engraved with ancient scriptures. The building was surrounded by fish ponds, orchards and farmland. Income came from the rental of their land. But gradually most of the wealth was wasted due to complacency and mismanagement.
Baba said he walked to school, snacking on roasted chickpeas to stave off hunger. He had to borrow textbooks from friends. He played good football and was a good swimmer, once saving the life of a young cousin by pulling her out of the water by her hair.
On a school trip, he visited the famous Calcutta Blind School, where he was so moved that he wanted to donate, but his pockets were empty. He promised himself that he would come back one day. Several decades later, it did, with me in tow. The donation allowed the school to buy materials that later helped at least one girl to be able to read again.
Baba intended to specialize in paediatrics. So he decided to earn money abroad first and then continue his education. He applied to join the Malaysian health service, and in September 1959 flew to the new country with his wife of two months. The flight was diverted to Singapore due to bad weather and they were accommodated at the Raffles Hotel until the next flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Fifty-seven years later, I took him on a stay there. Reluctant as he is, until today I don’t know if he was happy to be there or if he was sad that this time his beloved wife was not with him.
He was in his early thirties when he took on the responsibility of running a hospital, first in Alor Setar, then in Kangar (where I was born) and then, if memory serves, in Baling and Kemaman. He met Tunku Abdul Rahman and several sultans. A photo of him with Bapa Malaysia hung in our clinic for many years until it was damaged by flood waters. Many of his patients still remember the exact spot he occupied. Eventually, he was assigned to Kota Tinggi District Hospital.
By 1969 he had a growing family and also had to support his mother in Calcutta. His younger brother had sold part of their declining property and moved to the UK to specialize, leaving all the responsibilities to my father.
Baba, as always, having everyone’s well-being at heart, gave up his own ambitions and settled down to establish the Ray Clinic. He worked hard. At the time, it was the sleepy town’s second private clinic.
To this day, his patients, who now bring their grandchildren or great-grandchildren, still ask for him. They remember his calm demeanor and penchant for children. Many still insist that it was simply Father’s touch that cured their children and that they no longer needed medicine when they returned home. If that was exaggerated or just looking back through rose-colored glasses, or maybe the truth, I’ll never know. But if four generations return to the same clinic, although they have moved to bigger cities or even abroad, Baba must have done something right.
When I hear how selfless and humble my father was, my heart swells with pride.
Despite losing his beloved wife nearly 30 years ago, he stoically carried on. Shortly after his passing, he started preparing meals for my brother and me, cooking in between patient visits, just so that I would have home cooked meals when I got home from work. He was also very good at cooking, skillfully preparing delicious dishes. He was already in his 60s but took on the new role without complaining.
At night he slept with the sari my mother had worn the day she collapsed, rolled up next to her pillow.
He continued to practice until he reached his mid-80s, until I asked him to rest as I watched in concern as he slowly descended the stairs to the clinical.
Everyone says I take after him – in appearance and in character. But I do not agree. I am only the shadow of the great man.
So now that he’s lying in a touch-and-go situation, thin skin stretched over visible bone, barely able to communicate, and I’m helpless against the ravages of time. It hurts my heart not to be able to do more to relieve his suffering. But I leave him in the expert hands of the two doctors who have taken care of him for the past few years, whom I call Baba’s Dynamic Duo, Dr PS and Dr MI, who teamed up (Baba was a WWF wrestling fan and made me a disciple) more than once to save him.
I have no way of knowing what he’s thinking, but of one thing I’m sure – he’s still the fighter he always was, in his quiet, subtle way.
The anesthesiologist who placed him for his operation told me that Baba was lucky to have me for his daughter.
I immediately responded with what I know to be the absolute truth, “I’m lucky to be his daughter.”