The flood of “My Friend Arun Jaitley” obituaries today will tell you much about the life — regrettably a short one — of a remarkable public figure. Please do read those, as I shall. And if they don’t tell you that personal friendships transcended political rivalries for him, then I will remind you up-front that in his study, for years now, he had only two framed portraits on his desk: Madhavrao Scindia and Lalit Suri.
With this, I will take a break from politics today and write about the most inspirational side of his personal life.
In a mere 15 years, between the young age of 51 and 66, Jaitley faced more serious sickness than any public figure we have known. Did anybody see him complain? Betray a trace of self-pity? Or an exasperated why the hell is all this happening only to me?
You have probably seen a person make light of battling the most crippling, terminal sickness before, but only in the movies. Like Rajesh Khanna’s Anand. In real life, not many would be dealt such a cruel hand by the health gods.
A quadruple heart bypass after he collapsed while walking in the Lodi Gardens (2005, when his big troubles began), a crippling ‘hospital’ infection in the chest after his bariatric surgery to reduce weight and control diabetic complications in 2014, a kidney transplant last year, and a large and long procedure at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering for excising a connective tissue cancer from between his knee and thigh this year.
It was, as we understand, a particularly nasty, aggressive cancer, a ‘clear-cell carcinoma’. American surgeons thought they had removed the monster. All this, happening to a human body which was still learning to accept new kidneys, and surviving with rock-bottom immunity. Organ transplants are followed by heavy steroidal medication to suppress the body’s immunity to prevent organ rejection. A body on heavy steroids, with new kidneys, now had to endure a long and difficult cancer surgery and all that came with it. Imagine and shudder.
Yet, when Jaitley returned a couple of months back, he was still the same smiling, compulsive ‘gup-shup’ (not the same as gossip). It isn’t as if he didn’t want to talk about his sickness. His wasn’t an act to hide his trauma. He talked about it more than you would dare to ask, and in great detail. It is just that it was all about how brilliant his doctors were, how great modern surgery and modern medicine were, how dedicated the military doctors and nursing officers looking after him 24×7 were. This, because he was a former defence minister.
He talked about how his kidney transplant was over like a breeze, no pain, no trouble. You don’t believe me, ask Sushma (Swaraj), he’d say. These AIIMS doctors are so brilliant. And then, he would reel out the numbers of transplants successfully done by them compared to the most famous American surgeons. Almost as if comparing some cricketers’ scores and averages.
This cancer treatment, however, didn’t work. Some rogue cell from that awful cancer had survived the Sloan-Kettering surgery and invaded his lung. Within a couple of months, AIIMS doctors, led by its formidable director Randeep Guleria, among India’s foremost chest specialists, noted a large and growing fluid formation in that lung.
The surgeons at Sloan Kettering had failed to drain and clear the lung. Jaitley had returned nevertheless. He was, however, already on a very aggressive and new chemotherapy.
Yet, the last time I met him at his personal residence in New Delhi’s Kailash Colony (his family leaned on him to vacate his official residence, 2, Krishna Menon Marg as they thought its Vaastu was bad for him), there wasn’t a flicker of pain or pessimism. “I am now only on oral chemo, intra-venous is gone, all dietary restrictions are gone so I have ordered a samosa each for you and me, these AIIMS doctors are so wonderful, the best in the world, they took out that fluid in a 10-minute procedure what Sloan Kettering couldn’t, or wouldn’t, dare to for two weeks, another six weeks and we will have clarity on how well my chemo has worked ,” and so on.
He was now a bit distant from day-to-day politics though he did mention with great affection the fact that even now Prime Minister Narendra Modi called to check on him almost every evening, no matter in which time zones they were. He said he only met four visitors a day, people he wanted to spend time with. “Just before you”, he said, “(economist) Arvind Panagariya was here”.
What did Jaitley talk about when he was done with politics, cricket (which he ran for a long time) and personalities? It was Hindi films, and even more, old Hindi songs. We will be eternally grateful to him for making such a radical difference to our evenings and to de-toxify them from prime-time claptrap.
Don’t watch news at prime time, he said, watch the channel called Sony Mix. Between 9 pm and midnight, they run this fantastic programme called “Raina Beeti Jaaye” where they seamlessly play old Hindi songs. They have a great inventory from the fifties to the seventies and it is the best thing you can watch. He was right.
In gratitude, the gift I took to him at our last meeting was the definitive biography of Sachin Dev Burman, by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal.