This story is sponsored by HCG
Mention Mumbai and you get a mixed bag of superlatives. It is home to the filthy rich and the dirt poor; business tycoons and street-side hawkers; Bhendi Bazaar and, yes, Bollywood. Maximum City produces heroes not just on the silver screen, but also among ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These unlikely heroes – people you may come across on the street -- give no indication of their feats till you stop to listen to their story. One such young man is Shekhar Jha, who first visited Mumbai when he was just six. The year was 1992, but this was no holiday: he had just been diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a type of blood cancer. Hailing from a small town in Bihar that had no facilities for treatment, his family was referred to a hospital in Mumbai.
A late realisation
“I was too young to understand what cancer was. I knew I was unwell because I was undergoing so many tests and had to take so many injections. When you are young, all you think about is going out to play. Even when you are sick, that is all you can think about,” recalls Shekhar. Despite his illness, he never felt any different from the other children, mainly because his parents never treated him differently. He first realised he had been treated for cancer only when he turned 15.
“I had come to Mumbai for a routine check-up. By then, I had read that this was one of the best cancer hospitals in the country. That was the first time I realised that I might have had cancer all those years ago. So, I asked my parents and they said, ‘Yes, you had cancer, but you are better now.’ When I asked them why they never told me, their reply was, ‘The need to tell you never came up as you never asked’,” Shekhar explains.
His family did go through some financial strain, and his grandfather had made arrangements to pay for his treatment. “I remember there were times I would catch my parents looking at me with tears in their eyes. I would ask why they were upset, and they would dismiss it as nothing. And everything would be normal again.”
Shekhar has no complaints about being kept in the dark about his illness. “I am absolutely okay now, and there is no reason to be upset that I had cancer as a child.”
Ignorance can be bliss at times. His parents’ stoic but dedicated approach to treating his cancer probably helped him coast through it without added stress. He laughingly recalls an incident from his childhood, when he lost some hair after chemotherapy. “My friends in the village said that I was a hero who had come back from Mumbai with the latest hairstyle. I did feel a little annoyed that they were teasing me, but was also amused I was being called a hero. My hair grew back eventually.”
Doctor shows the way
Over the years, Shekhar kept returning to Mumbai for his check-ups. In 2010, while pursuing a degree in commerce, a doctor at the hospital suggested that he give back something to society. “He told me that we do so much for ourselves but should do something for others too. He advised me to join a cancer support group where I would find like-minded people who could help me get rid of my sense of isolation.”
At the time, there were no such support groups in Bihar. As he was still a student, Shekhar promised to join a group on his return to Mumbai after his education.
For him, life has been a series of compromises. “I was very interested in cricket and had even played at the school and college levels. But my family was not well off enough for me to take up sports as a career. So I decided to focus on my studies. I was an average student, but I completed my Masters’ degree and returned to Mumbai, this time to look for a job and settle down in this city – it has become my second home.”
Keeping his promise to his doctor, Shekhar joined Ugam, a support group for those affected by childhood cancer. He was so involved with it he was soon offered full-time employment there. Shekhar says, “The group motivates people and teaches them that childhood cancer is curable. We do a lot of activities, including street plays, through which we demonstrate that as survivors, we are leading perfectly normal lives.”
“The group made me realise that I am not alone and that there are others who have been through what I have. The people here drew me out of my shell and helped me open up to others.”
Love of his life
Shekhar’s wife Rekha, whom he met in Mumbai, was very accepting when he told her about his diagnosis as a child. “Ours is a love marriage, and I was very honest with her. She said the only thing that mattered was that I was fine now.”
The other big motivator is his love for the city he now calls home. He has always felt a connection with Mumbai. “Even as child, I felt that I would settle down in this city. People here have a very positive attitude. In the village, they tend to gossip and bear grudges. I have never liked that. People here care for each other but mind their own business. Also, they are constantly trying to better their lives. This is what I came from Bihar to do. I wanted to improve my life and make something of myself, and only Mumbai can do that for me.”
Role of the arts
Bollywood city has also imparted to him a love for music, which he sees as a mood elevator. “When I lived alone here, I would come as often as I could to Marine Drive and listen to old Hindi film music. My favourite singer is Mohammed Rafi. I also like Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. I would listen to their solo romantic songs and feel happy. And then I would go home relaxed.”
He would have tried his hand at some serious singing but his voice was affected by a thyroid condition, a side effect of radiation therapy. Nevertheless, this young man, who exudes positive energy, continues to sing to himself
Shekhar aspires to motivate more people even as he believes one is never too old to learn from others. Drawing inspiration from the way his own parents handled his illness, he advises parents to behave similarly. “Let your children go out and play whenever possible. Don’t be overprotective or be overindulgent when they misbehave. Treat them normally and never betray weakness in front of them. Always answer their questions honestly. Children know when you are lying to them.”
If you have overcome cancer, or know someone who has, and can be an inspiration to others, log on to www.selfv.in to find out how to participate.
Videographers - Anushree Fadnavis and Francis Mascarenhas
Editor - Anand Prasad
Script and conceptualization - Shivani Dave