Chitra Ramaswamy: ‘A captive audience’

Chitra Ramaswamy. Picture: Dan Phillips
Chitra Ramaswamy. Picture: Dan Phillips
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IT MUST be the time of year. Spring doing its best to spring. Another series of Masterchef over. The Alphonso mango season just beginning. These are innocent seasonal markers, or rather they used to be.

Now they shore up memories of another kind. Last year, circa now, when Ma Ramaswamy went into hospital.

Funnily enough, I look back on the first time she went in fondly. Not that it was a happy occasion. We had just found out that she had breast cancer. A cancer I associated with pink ribbons, women striding through Edinburgh in their bras at night, Kylie Minogue... A comprehensible cancer, less frightening somehow because of the campaigns, the T-shirts, the survivors. Then all of that fell away. Breast cancer was in our family. Ma R was the one little pink stick figure in eight.

And so, following the series of small shocks that come with a routine mammogram and biopsy gone wrong, we find ourselves at a London hospital in the early hours of a spring morning. The day of Ma R’s lumpectomy. We drive through Richmond Park in a taxi, everything quiet apart from the capital’s unstoppable runners pounding the paths at 5am. London’s largest royal park is a vast green place full of ancient trees and red deer, dearly loved by all my family. Tiny-but-Deadly and I grew up here, tumbling through bracken and leaping head-first into dead leaves. Ma and Pa R walked the dog here and scattered his ashes across the paths when he died. And now we are driving through it in silence, adding a fresh association to this centuries-old wilderness.

At the hospital, the ward Ma R is supposed to go to is full and we are directed to another one. The woman in front of us becomes distraught. She has been in this ward before, she explains, and had a dreadful time. She refuses to go back. We watch all this unfold in acquiescent silence. We will go wherever they tell us. We’re that sort of family.

In the new ward, chaos reigns. It takes me an hour of campaigning to get a pillow for Ma R’s bed. Which, incidentally, has a sign on it saying ‘bed broken’. It makes us laugh but, then again, we’re a captive audience. Conspicuously, every other woman here is alone. The one opposite Ma R is having a double mastectomy and tells me her family live too far away to come to the hospital. “Where?” I ask. “Cheltenham,” she replies. I don’t tell her that I’ve come from Edinburgh or that Tiny-but-Deadly, unable to set foot inside the hospital because of an infection, has positioned herself outside for the duration. Every so often I go out to update her and we sit on a bench, I weep and Tiny-but-Deadly comforts me.

The day wears on and still Ma R is not taken down to surgery. We get tired and emotional and, for a while, angry. I shout at a junior doctor and Ma R says, “Sorry, my daughter is a journalist,” which makes us all laugh. Finally she goes into theatre and Pa R, Tiny-but-Deadly and I go for a burger. And wait. A few hours later the surgeon calls. Ma R is in recovery. We don’t know yet but the news isn’t good – the tumour was bigger than they expected, the cancer more aggressive, and Ma R will need a mastectomy.

For now, elation. Ma R is on fine form, shuffling around with a drip and saying that her new look is “very Lady Gaga”. I gulp away at the lump in my throat and laugh. The woman opposite has returned from her operation too, heavily doped. We watch her struggle to reach for a cup of water. Ma R sends me over to put it to her lips. Her eyes fill up with tears and become glassy with morphine as she drinks. She gestures around the room, making her drip stand wobble. “Such humanity,” she announces to us, the other women, the nurses and, I hope, herself. It sums it up perfectly. Yes. Such humanity. n

Read more of Chitra’s weekly columns from Spectrum here