Anjum died last night.
Did you know him?
You think not?
But oh you did. You did. Probably almost as well as I did.
Anjum sat across from me at work. He was quiet. You hardly heard his husky, gravelly voice. But one often bumped into that ready smile that lit up his face and crinkled his eyes. He would catch your eye and give you a kind of happy double wink when he was sharing a joke or a moment of amusement with you. He had a bushy moustache and an unruly mop of black hair. And he habitually turned up in baggy Timberland jeans and a range of bright cotton shirts -- melon greens, bold oranges and daring purples.
He was down-to-earth, not given to flashy displays of emotion except for those shirts. Someone you could not help but like and respect for his sense of humor, for his reliability and, above all, his simple humanity.
As the days, months and years went by and we were thrown together during the long hours at work I learnt all kinds of small things about him. Normally so unflappable and calm, Anjum sometimes flew off the handle. He would be yelling down the phone at someone, his hoarse voice raised a couple of decibels. He headed a street theatre group that highlighted causes like AIDS that affected society and was constantly organising this band into some sort of order. I suppose that frazzled him at times.
I also learnt that, with considerable difficulty, he had married a girl not of his community and religion and, in spite of opposition and differences in background, they both had pulled off an excellent, warm relationship. Anjum and Patcy worshipped each other.
Then one day last August I discovered Anjum had cancer. Cancer of the worst and most monstrous kind that threatened to shut down his life in a matter of weeks, if not days.
In the days that followed I realised through some of life's lesson just how different I was from Anjum. Those little lessons are lessons that you could understand as well as I. They are lessons that will make you realise that you knew Anjum too.
I found out that Anjum had come up the hard way. He was a boy of a very simple home, who had studied, struggled hard, somehow earned and got himself an education, an excellent command of English and a profession. The things you and I took for granted when we were reaching adulthood, Anjum fought and achieved.
Life had just started looking up for Anjum. After years of struggle, Anjum, Patcy and his parents finally moved into a new home in April last year. Maybe you will say it was a modest achievement in a city where the streets are paved with gold, but for them it is was one of their dreams coming true. It was something they struggled much harder for than I did, or so many I know. It made me realise how unappreciative, or to put it better, how offhand I am for all that I have. And having got as far as he had, Anjum worked at giving back to society.
Just when Anjum's future was turning the corner and getting better, the very smallest thing he should have been allowed to take for granted, something he should never have had to struggle a minute for -- the promise of life -- was taken away.
No emotions or words or nifty passages of poetry and literature can bring you closer to realising just how cruel life is.
Why was the hand of cards dealt to a courageous person like Anjum so much worse than mine? What have I done with my life to have deserved this bounty? Am I not in comparison worthless, ungrateful and undeserving of my cards? Why can I not pass a card or two to Anjum?
I am sure you know Anjum. Don't you? You must know people like Anjum, who for no understandable reason got a lousy collection of cards, changing their lives forever?
No self knowledge can make you or me understand why we got a few aces instead. Nor push away the guilt you feel for not valuing those aces?
But what did Anjum go out and do when he learnt he had a pack of lousy cards? Did he curse and yell and shout that life had been unfair? Did he mourn and weep that he was not blessed?
Anjum just smiled his serene smile and with Patcy supporting him every bit of the way embarked on the battle of his life.
If there was a moment when he regretted his fate I never knew of it nor did any of us.
He fought cancer like a tiger just the way he fought his way out of every other difficulty in his life.
He was going to do the impossible. He was going to survive cancer and he geared up for that battle in the same way he did everything else -- quietly and courageously. For a little over a year he smiled his way through the cancer, never giving up, never saying die.
He traveled from clinic to hospital to home, often traveling many, many hours of distance for chemotherapy and doctor's appointments. But when you met him at the hospital, in the ICU, in the doctor's clinic, in the office, though frail, weakened, bald, breathless, pale, he always said I am okay, changed the topic and cracked a joke or two.
I met him a few days before he died at a doctor's clinic in Andheri. He was in terrible pain. He could not walk. But he insisted on walking from the clinic to the car. He was wearing that cheery purple-blue signature shirt of his. He could barely hold his head up. I felt I would not see him again. We held hands and as the car pulled away he held up his tired head and gave me a glowing smile and a thumbs up.
Again you wonder about those damn cards? Why was someone so courageous dealt such a bum set? What is all this about? What is life? What is God? Karma? If it could happen to someone as simply noble as Anjum, why can it not happen to me?
Cancer finally stole him away. It chased the life out of his suffering body. He apparently 'succumbed' in a hospital ward in Kochi on Wednesday evening.
But did he succumb, I wonder?
Vaihayasi P Daniel is a deputy managing editor, rediff.com and India Abroad