[In 2014, Mr. Hosi Daruwala or ‘Uncle’ as he is fondly remembered in his neighbourhoos, passed away at the age of 73, finally succumbing to his long battle with cancer. But not without touching the lives of millions of other cancer patients who couldn’t afford better treatment. This is his inspiring story.]
Seated in a chair at the head of a rickety old sewing machine, Mr. Hosi Daruwala matches its battle-weariness with some of his own. At 71, he is a small, shriveled man who looks tiny even under layers of sweaters and thermals that he wears to fight the slight monsoon chill as he stoops over his sewing machine, hard at work. Over the thermals, he wears a yellow polyester shirt and trousers fastened by a belt that is stretched until the very last hole, and then a little more. His tiny frame is a telling scar; a wound that he earned very early on in his battle with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia; a type of blood cancer he fell prey to and lost over 30 kilos because of in a single month in 1999. This changed his life and set him on a course that helped him transform the lives of several others battling cancer like him, and he has done it in his own unique manner. Homegrown’s Reza Noorani and Neville Sukhia spent a day with him as he went about his regular life and this is the story they unravelled.
As far as social workers go, there is nothing quite extraordinary about Mr Daruwala that would set him apart from the others, though each of them plays an important part in their own special way. What does stand out in Mr Daruwala’s case however, is the sheer physical effort he puts into his work as he goes around making blankets for cancer patients who live on the footpath outside Tata Memorial Hospital in the Fort area in Mumbai. And he doesn’t simply buy these blankets, he recycles. He makes them out of little discarded pieces of cloth which he collects from tailor shops in the neighborhood. He collects these pieces, lugs them home where he washes them all, cuts the uneven bits into equal rectangles out of which he stitches a six and a half foot blanket. Holding true to his personal no wastage policy--with the life he lives or otherwise--the remaining smaller pieces are made of equal use. He stitches a small one and a half foot pillow that accompanies the blanket. As a personal touch he makes sure to use the different colour combinations of the ‘chindi’ (as the tailors popularly call it) so as to make the blanket look prettier in its own tattered way; All of which he accomplishes single-handedly without any help. Not even the Mrs. contributes too much. When asked about how she feels about her husband being such a help to others, with so much to sacrifice at his personal account, all she had to say was a low and polite, “No comments please.”
Their daughter, who mostly stayed with her maternal aunt as a kid while growing up and now lives on her own, has only recently started accompanying her father to one of his blanket distributing trips down at The Tata Hospital. Mr Daruwala later tells us he feel his daughter now understands his work better than she did before. Though she too wouldn’t like to elaborate on her views regarding her father’s social work, it seems like she has made her peace with it. However his eldest son, who works as a senior manager in a travel company, is more than vocal and disagrees with his father about the senior’s knack for going out of his way to help people. Mr Daruwala says his son has asked him a number of times to tone down the work he does. “I feel he is embarrassed at what I do, as all kids are,” he says giving the impression that he is aware there is an extent to which he can hope to involve others in what he does, and he seems content with what he has managed to achieve. “My wife is very timid. She can’t take all this. She has grown up a very sheltered life, while I have slept on the floor as a young man, I speak five languages and I lived in several different cities in the world. I can look after myself. In fact I even cook for myself!” he beams. “Also, because I am a better cook than my wife,” he adds as an afterthought.
In the 450-square feet flat into which he has recently moved in, Mr Daruwala darts around his living room and pulls out files that give you an idea of the world. It is made up of photographs of patients who passed away from cancer, and every so often Mr Daruwala stops and tells us a fact or two about how the ones in the pictures fared or how they fell in their battle with the disease. He has magpie-like, hoarded up stacks of documents that fill up the two well-maintained, seventies-style TV cabinets; letters of appreciation that people have sent in, help that he himself received, cheques for cancer foundations that kind folks have mailed from all around the world for (each of which is connected to a cancer story of a relative or a loved one who survived or succumbed and who came across Mr Daruwala during the course of their treatment). There are forms of more than half a dozen cancer foundations he works with, and finally a whole bound history of his own battle with cancer in the form of test results and a bunch of other medical literature. This, he shows to other cancer patients and inspires them to see that when a man as old as him could fight cancer, it shouldn’t be all that tough for them to do so. There is also a large bundle of Xeroxed copies of home remedies to fight the side-effects of radiation and chemotherapy. In fact, Mr Daruwala is big on these home remedies for which he depends a lot on his friend, whom he introduces as a doctor, Dr Daraius Umrigar.
Dr Umrigar, he claims, is a tough guy to meet and reminds us a number of times about how lucky we are to be able to see him today. This is true because Dr. Daraius tells us he doesn’t really have a cellphone, nor does he have a dispensary. He is not even a doctor in the technical sense, although he does hold more than a handful of degrees in Alternative Medicines. Dr. Daraius, in fact, travels with his dispensary which is a big blue bag – big enough to be charged as luggage in the local bus. His advice is the simple kind that doctors usually give at the end of their examination, and some of it is a bit tough to digest! It goes something like - if your head is aching - eat a pomegranate, if you want to avoid prostate cancer - don’t cook on Teflon-coated pans, if you have a stomachache - eat a pineapple, and so on and so forth. Also, because he says all diseases and conditions, even fractures, are an effect of planets colliding in space, at times he prescribes his medicines based on Astrology. He has around seven hundred blog-posts to his name on an alternative medicine blog and he tells you he can meet you only after his office hours because he still is employed and only dabbles in medicine as a hobby! We realize that ‘Doctor’ Umrigar is only one of Mr Daruwala’s friends in the support system he has built for himself and for others. And besides medication based on Astrology, a number of the ‘Doctor’s’ home remedies have in fact helped cancer patients overcome the usual side-effects of the many drugs they use. A testament is Mr Daruwala himself who, as soon as his friend enters, runs and gets for himself a Collins glass full of mega-lime juice (eight cut lemons in a glass!) to counter the effects of the medicines he takes.
See, everyone that Mr Daruwala helps doesn’t need a blanket. Some of whom who meet Mr Daruwala are only very poor people, too horrified to come to terms with their cancer. He helps them with the many ways they can apply for aid, takes doctors’ and cancer specialist’s appointments on their behalf and gives them a confidence that few doctors are able to provide. Being a cancer patient himself, he is well aware of just how inexplicably tough the battle is, with the soul-wrecking condition.
In the evening, his doors open again and out stand a few smiling young men carrying bundles of “chindi” courtesy a well-wisher and a friend that Mr Daruwala made on one of his regular rounds; a cloth merchant who now regularly sends his office boys with whatever discarded cloth he has to spare. He thanks the boys, chats with them, and reveals how it’s only recently that people have started getting the cloth to his doorstep, as opposed to earlier when the cloth merchants and tailors used to shake him off as a waste-cloth hoarder. He looks happy about this small victory as he narrates it and asks his man-Friday Salim to make tea. Salim, 31, is a mechanic who lives nearby and whose diabetes Mr Daruwala has helped control. He occasionally pops in to say a hello and today his wife and kid will accompany Mr Daruwala to distribute blankets at the hospital.
“See this, these are also like my family, and when I go down I have no doubt they will be around to help,” he says as he sips the last of his tea and readies to go on another round with Salim, his wife and their little boy to distribute another round of blankets to the patients.
Images: Neville Sukhia
Words: Reza Noorani