I Won’t give you a leg up, Mr Death
New Delhi: Vitastaa Publishing. 2016
Pp 254 | Rs 295
An engaging and powerful tale of the harsh reality of life with a brilliant portrayal of characters and mesmerising backdrop
It may not be far from truth that each one of us may have a family member, friend or an acquaintance who has either succumbed to the unfathomable malady of cancer or lucky enough to have emerged a survivor. The author, Arunabha Sengupta, has deftly interwoven his practical expertise and imagination in his debut novel I won’t give you a leg up, Mr Death, a fiction with an incredible touch of realism that adds authenticity to the characters and their emotions. I reckon that the realism of this fictional piece is also owing to the fact that a few of the characters are based on the author’s personal encounters and the backdrop of the story is based on real life, masked a bit, so as to not resemble a memoir; as acknowledged by the author. The book couldn’t have had a better title to show the optimism and fight put up by the protagonist against all odds and his approach to living life when death looms large, not knowing when it would show up.
The author Arunabha Sengupta, is a cancer surgeon from Kolkata and a consultant to cancer hospitals of repute. He is also associated with social service organisations and has brought out in writing as well as his lectures, societal issues related to cancer. Hence equipped with more than adequate knowledge, expertise and experience – the author has been able to do justice to the details demanded by this grave issue and narrated the incidents with sensitivity that one can empathise with; all of which makes the book enthralling from start to finish.
“‘Those who are diseased and down, they are also fighting.’ A poet, himself a cancer patient, told me once. ‘It is also wrong to assume that the patients think of their diseases only. They think of many other things,’ he said. Many of them remain alive to their aspirations and dreams, respond to tenderness, fall in love; a few resolve not to allow the disease to dominate their lives.”
The above mentioned opening note by Arunabha Sengupta emphasises the spirit, mind-set and maturity with which this fiction has been written and this can be witnessed throughout the book. It is impressive as to how the author has not let the story flag at any point of time. This is largely because his portrayal of characters is very strong and convincing; and they come alive as one delves deeper into the book. The author is eloquent and has demonstrated his flair as a writer, whilst describing the places and incidents, and interspersed these appropriately to complement the story.
I particularly liked the breezy and cheerful style adopted by the author. This bears a reminder that one has to make the most of living but at the same time accept the fact we are all mortals and cancer is one such disease which comes with no warning signals. But that does not mean we take it all lying down. “I won’t give you a leg up, Mr Death” should be the spirit by putting as much distance as possible between the beginning and the end, by living it up.
Set in the late nineties, the story unfolds with the protagonist Kanu Chatterjee, an Amsterdam based ad-man and photographer, whose life is about to change. After the loss of his wife Ludwina under tragic circumstances and his son Nanu moving away to the States, Kanu shifts to a modest apartment and one day returns home after a biopsy hoping that the start of his ulcer might not turn out to be serious. Just as Kanu is gearing up to reluctantly plan for the future forced by circumstances, the truth hits him hard when he is diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He realises that his retirement from life is now a question of time. Plagued by the thought that he ought not to end up like his wife Ludwina and a secret stashed from his son Nanu, surrounding her end, Kanu prepares to rock his unsteady boat and changes course.
Fear of death in an adopted land and having lived away from India for four decades, Kanu displays the typical Indian diaspora trait and decides to return to his homeland, India. Nanu gives him the option of getting treated in New York and Kanu accedes to this but the desire to come back to his roots outweighs everything and he returns to Calcutta. However, facing some resistance and misunderstandings by his cousin and family, Kanu decides to seek asylum in Monabari, a small town blessed by nature’s beauty and here is when a new leaf turns as he begins to re-discover himself. Amidst the suffering of the people dying of cancer, he forms friendships and suffers losses too. The subtle bonding he develops with Kalyani portrays a compassion and love between the two. He gets the affection of the locals.
Monabari enchants him and his penchant for photography revives. Kanu looks at the brighter side and being one with nature helps his own journey of enjoying life, despite all odds and his impending death. His son Nanu visits him and initially feels that his father would have had a more comfortable life with him in the States. Slowly his perception changes and the story begins to take shape from the eyes of Nanu who is visiting India for the first time. He understands as to why his father chose to come here. The story gets exciting with unexpected happenings at Monabari which Kanu has not anticipated.
The conflict between giving peace to the body and soul by pulling the plug and the humane angle of mercy killing has been well articulated by the author. There are moments of sadness as one reads the plight of the patients. However this does not make the book depressing as the author puts things in perspective as part of life and human existence although it makes you wish that Pandora had not opened the box. It is quite likely that the author has drawn inspiration from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal an insightful non-fiction about the inevitable aspect of growing old and grappling with infirmity. A quote from Gawande’s book describing cancer is noteworthy: “But the disease, while slowed, continues progressing, like a night brigade taking out perimeter defences.”
I won’t give you a leg up, Mr Death starts to grab attention in the first two chapters itself and gets intriguing as the story deepens. A good book to settle down with a hot cup of tea and accepting the harsh reality of life with a positive bent of mind.