Dear Gabla, …. A letter to my brother on the first anniversary of his passing

One of my favorite pictures. Courtesy: Kanishka Bhattacharya

Dear Gabla,

Ok, so this is bizarre, right? Why am I writing to you when you are no longer part of this beautiful-but-flawed material world?

I am channeling Eshaa (yup, that 7-year-old niece of yours, who you worried wouldn’t remember you). A few months ago, she told me with tears streaming down her face that I needed to ask Siri why the medicines didn’t work. And that she thought you would come back. Later, she wished there was some technology that would allow us to text you when she or Ishaan got an A in math or some other subject. That time she was smiling.

So, here I am taking her sage advice and updating you about the past 12 months. I don’t possess that fantastic technology that she wished for but what better than Medium to be … well, the medium.

In the spirit of a decent journalist, I won’t bury the news: Democrats regained the House so the balance of power has shifted a bit. Partisanship and division though will still continue to be the order of the day.

Another piece of news more relevant to the Parmar household is Shalin did get that job that he was interviewing for.

You felt so guilty that he was let go from his Minnesota company because we moved here after the cancer diagnosis per your request. You somehow felt responsible. But, despite your and my worries, Shalin was always confident that something good would eventually turn up.

In retrospect, I am thankful that Shalin’s position was eliminated in early 2017 because he could hold the fort at home and take care of the kids when you needed me most those last seven months. But now he has a C-suite role at an agri-tech startup in the Midwest. He is enjoying it. I would die if I had to deal with the uncertainty of working in a startup but his patience makes him uniquely suited for that world. He also travels every few weeks to HQ. It’s a nice getaway for him from me. I know how you two joked openly about the “space” that he needs from me from time to time given that I am not a sweet and pleasant wife :-)

The news of the job arrived almost as soon as you left us, and I remember hugging him, crying, and wishing you had known.

You must be wondering how Baba and Ma are doing. Once in our walks around your apartment, you mused out loud, “Baba, Ma are strong, right? It was as if — with that unfinished thought —you were trying to assure yourself that they would be mentally resilient to withstand this most unnatural and profound loss.

Well, you would be proud.

At your memorial, which happened per your request at the Bechtel International Center at Stanford University in December 2017, Baba sang one of your favorite songs, Jokhon porbe na mor payer chihno ei baate. (When my footsteps no longer fall on this earth). It was gut-wrenching and he cried as he sang — as did some in the audience — but he plowed through. After temporarily giving up worshipping god, he has resumed. Old habits die hard.

And Ma has taken her usual, intellectual route to deal with the soul-crushing void — she talked about the universality of pain and suffering while acknowledging she is not the first mother to lose her first-born. And she has immersed herself in listening to various philosophical videos on YouTube. I am a sorry replacement for the intellectual conversations she enjoyed with you. That is a void that will remain.

Both of them break down from time to time and that is natural but, for Baba especially, the knowledge that you absolutely expected them to be able to take this sorrow and emerge unbroken is a huge motivator to keep on living.

Luckily, Eshaa and Ishaan are a huge distraction for them, keeping them busy whether it be Baba playing chess with 9-year-old Ishaan or Ma teaching Eshaa spelling. Eshaa, Ishaan and I also took a trip to India in the summer to Chhutki’s wedding when Baba Ma were in India, which all of us enjoyed.

In sharing some of these details, I don’t want to miss highlighting how right you were regarding your memorial. A hundred people showed up at Bechtel and we laughed and cried as we recounted your utter craziness and brilliance.

My experience at hosting conferences at MedCity News came in handy as I crafted the narrative about your 44-year-old short-but-impactful life. So many spoke — Arijit over audio from Mumbai about your youth in Kolkata and your Travolta-style walk; David and Dan shared stories of your undergrad days at Stanford; Rajarshi spoke of your odyssey across the Bay Area to finally pass the driver’s license test; Dan Niles of those busy days at Robertson Stephens, your first job; Matt of those parties in Los Angeles, your math volunteering days at Minds Matter and of course knocking on doors for Barack Obama back in 2008. And even Jensen came and spoke of how you closely followed Nvidia as an equity analyst until being hired there a few years ago. He said it would be a mistake to think that your potential was left unfulfilled by cancer’s brutal intervention. Those words — that you made an impact on the company and that some portion of your promise was realized—really comforted Ma. But she couldn’t bring herself to speak at your memorial .

On that beautiful day at Stanford, my eyes welled up every time someone said, “You remind me of Arnab” or “Your brother would call you when we were in the car together.” So many reached out to me over email, LinkedIn, Facebook recounting how you helped them. You were special and fortunate in the way few people are with so many friends and well-wishers.

And remember how I told you that I wanted to set up a scholarship in your name at Stanford? The folks at NVIDIA independently wanted to do the same thing. I was amazed at how people who had known you barely a few years came up with the same exact idea to honor you as I who have known you all your life.

Anyway, we joined forces to create the Arnab Chanda NVIDIA Scholarship in Physics fund at Stanford. People who I didn’t even know have contributed. Stanford also handed out a small award this year to a young man who is double majoring in Physics and Math. Meanwhile Ma and Baba have begun to support a talented boy—and son of a bookseller who sells English books on the street in Kolkata—who got a 98% percent in the statewide exams. He was admitted to St. James, your alma mater, but was having trouble with the fees. Ma and Baba stepped in. Shubhankar-da, your classmate from St. James, is now an integral part of this effort and is helping that young boy fulfill his dream to win admission to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

One person who cannot bring himself to talk about you in the way Eshaa does is her brother. Ishaan, almost my height at age 9, asks one or two questions and it ends with “I don’t want to talk about it.” But sometimes, he dons your “Californians for Obama” T-shirt even as it hangs off his tall, scrawny fame. Recently, he said the sadness has gone though he remembers his last birthday with you in the hospital. He tells me I will see you in heaven when I die.

Shalin also suffers quietly. On a recent trip to San Francisco, he sent me a picture of the building where Robertson was housed, saddened by all his shared memories with you in downtown SF. He wants to remember the good times he had with you instead of recalling how cancer affected your life, which is where I aspire to get to someday.

Many of your friends have really struggled with your passing. I shared with Rajarshi’s wife what David told me: “Arnab was not a tragic person and it would be very sad if all that was left of him was sadness.” Truer words were never spoken and it helped me cope.

As for me, my life with you seems like a dream.

How can a whole, living, breathing person with whom you have shared everything just go poof? I have channeled some of my grief into writing for MedCity where I enumerated the many ways the health system bewildered us. I have also spoken of our experiences at MedCity’s cancer innovation conference, CONVERGE, and our patient engagement conference, ENGAGE, and received heartfelt response from the audience.

But those moments of catharsis are fleeting.

I remember all our conversations in the last seven months especially the one time you uncharacteristically hugged me after having spent a particularly scary period in the ICU. You told me, “I have come back from death’s door.”

I remember our carefree childhood days — scattering talcum powder on the stairway bannister so we could whoosh down in Dhaka. Those ’90s Aamir Khan songs; the time in LA you told me not to puke in your Porsche convertible as you drove back to your Hollywood Hills home on a night I had too much to drink; the time right after my wedding when you hugged me and wouldn’t let me go; the time you showed up the day I gave birth to Ishaan and looking at my huge frame and remarked, “Wow, your face is so big”…

We were peas in a pod sharing a lasting bond that few siblings share.

Only now do I really comprehend the human compulsion to believe that the flame is not eternally extinguished when the mortal heart gives out; that there is something beyond this earthly life, that some supernatural power somewhere has some plan confounding as it may be.

But you were on a higher plane than those mortals who need to believe such lore. I admire that you never showed fear, never expressed anger, never found god and stayed true to who you were even as you lost sovereignty over your body, even as you confronted your own mortality, even as you knew you could lose everyone you loved. Hope I have the same courage when it’s my turn.



P.S. By completely serendipity, I ran into a professional dancer who also learned Manipuri dancing in the same school I did in Kolkata. So now I think I am going to get a chance to perform on stage once again. Yay!