I knew the famous oncologist personally and had an appointment to meet him. But there was a tension filled one-hour wait before being summoned. “Some of the reports,” the smartly dressed young nurse who came to call me said, “reached only a little while back.”
The doctor did not look up from the papers he was studying but gestured me to sit down. I was on tender-hooks as minutes passed. Finally the specialist placed the medical reports on the table, looked me straight in the eye and said bluntly, “Just as I suspected, Mr. Varma. Your father has malignant pleural mesothelioma. Terminal stage. Contact with asbestos is considered to be the cause of this cancer.”
I briefly thought about our ancestral house. Three decades back father had the front veranda roofing changed from tiles to asbestos to prevent leaks during monsoon.
“Can anything be done?” I asked.
The doctor shook his head negatively.
“Suppose I take him to the U.S. or – “
“Every year I spend three months in the States. I’m abreast of the latest developments. Sorry. Your father has six months to live at the most.”
After we came back home and father had settled on his favourite chair on the veranda, my ninety-one year old aunt called me aside and asked for the details. She refused to accept the doctor’s pronouncement. “There are many things,” she told me, “that allopathy doctors and apothecaries don’t know. You meet Brahmadathan Thirumeni.”
Thirumeni, the doyen of a Kerala Brahmin family, was an authority on Ayurveda. The response of the oncologist when I checked with him about referring to Thirumeni, impressed me. “Why not?” he asked. “If Ayurveda can offer an effective line of management, it will help a lot of people.”
Next morning Thirumrni listened carefully to the case history, and commented, “It doesn’t sound good.”
He called his highly qualified doctor son who ran a free clinic in the next compound and sought his opinion on the medical documentation. After listening to the doctor’s view he said, “I’m sorry. There is nothing more to be done at this stage.”
I was about to leave when Thirumeni added, “But a remote possibility does exist. An experiment, actually. Don’t pin any hopes on it.”
An ember of hope flared within me.
“In some old texts,” the elderly physician continued, “it is said that sleeping regularly on a cot made of shendurney wood helps to resist seven major diseases. It increases potency as well. Rather late but try it anyway if you can.”
“Of course, we’ll try.”
“The problem is,” Thirumeni went on, “to get shendurney wood.”
I went straight to the largest timber depot in the area. The owner said that he had heard of the wood but thought the tree was extinct.
“Shendurney is still very much there,” the District Forrest Officer whom I met next said authoritatively. “It’s locally known as ‘chenkurinji’. Botanical name is Gluta Travancorica. It’s supposed to have several medicinal properties. The tree grows in the Rockwood area of the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary in Quilon District.”
He went on to say that the tree was classified as endemic and endangered specie and that the government had implemented a special project to protect and propagate it.
When he finished, I explained my dilemma. “All I need,” I pleaded, “is enough wood to make just one cot.”
“Impossible,” the D.F.O. scuttled my hopes with one word. “Shendurney is a royal tree. Formerly, only the maharajas of Travancore could have them felled. Now nobody has the authority.”
“What about the Forest Minister or the Cabinet?”
“Not unless they change the law, as far as I know.”
I was wondering about possible alternate avenues for obtaining the material when the officer added, “Shendurney won’t be found at any timber auction or depot. The punishment for cutting one is mandatory imprisonment and a mammoth fine.”
By the time I returned home disappointed, father had retired. I went in quietly and sat on the balcony staring into the darkness outside.
A few minutes later, aunt came there. She stood near me and started stroking my hair. “Be brave, my son,” she whispered. “It’s God’s will. We have to accept.”
It was the first time that I had seen her in a pessimistic mood. “Why do you say that, ammai?” I asked.
“When Thirumeni gives up,” she explained, “the patient is as good as finished.”
“But,” I protested, “he didn’t give up.”
“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed. “When you went in silently I thought – “
“The question is,” I said, “whether we would be able to give the suggested treatment.”
“What do you mean?” aunt asked aggressively. “We must follow the vaidyan’s instructions no matter what it takes.”
I narrated the details to her. The moment shendurney cot was mentioned, aunt responded, “But we have one here. It must be in the attic.”
She described how the rare piece happened to be in our house. Many decades ago there was only one female member in the family, which used to follow the matrilineal system. She did not have children even twelve years after her marriage. A member of the royal family who was aware of the problem consulted the palace vaidyan and sent across a shendurney cot. After the couple used it for three years, a daughter was born to them.
Immediately I climbed to the attic and there it was, an old piece of carved furniture. When the servant who accompanied me finished dusting it, I noticed that the wood had a strange red-crimson colour.
Next morning I told father about Thirumeni’s suggestion and the shendurney cot. There was a glimmer in his eyes. “Let me try it,” he said. “After all, it kept the family lineage unbroken.”
From that afternoon’s siesta, father started using the cot regularly. In fact he was lying on it most of the time. A week later, the improvement in his condition was perceptible. Within a month, it was difficult to believe that father had been pronounced a terminal cancer patient.
Both the cancer specialist and Brahmadathan Thirumeni were kept posted of the details. Thirumeni’s doctor son came after two months and checked the patient.
The oncologist also came, twice – shortly after the doctor Thirumeni’s visit and again three months later. According to him the progress was amazing. He asked many questions about Brahmadathan Thirumeni and shendurney and took notes.
Father lived eleven months and nine days after returning from the hospital. Since his death, there have been a couple of developments. I received a notice from the DFO asking me to show cause why I should not be prosecuted for unauthorized possession of a shendurney cot. The second was a brief news item stating that an American company had filed a patent application involving shendurney with the US Patent & Trademark Office!