“Someday, someone will walk into your life and make you realise why it never worked out with anyone else.” - 500 Days of Summer (2009)
The doctor gave her two weeks to live. If she’s lucky, she’d get four, he said. Amit Basu had heard this prognosis before. Twice in eight years. But each time, his 50-year-old Australian wife had beaten death.
Amit wasn’t prone to crying. He was old-fashioned that way. But when he heard the doctor’s words, which sounded like the final gong at a boxing match, his eyes filled with tears. A heaviness crept upon his desolate heart. He couldn’t shake away the familiar feeling -- that he was responsible for his wife’s illness.
“My educated mind refutes my illogical thinking,” he says. “I know, one human being cannot give another cancer. But deep inside, I believe, it was I who gave my wife cancer.”
40-year-old Amit* is a creative director in a reputed ad agency in Hyderabad. Lanky and suave with salt and pepper hair, he’s the guy who opens doors and pulls up a chair for you and makes sure you have your coffee before he takes a sip from his cuppa. He will escort you home safely after late-night office parties. He will never cut you off mid-sentence. He will always say “thank you”, “sorry” and “please”. He has a way with kids, and they love him too. He loves animals. He has turned down well-paying jobs abroad because he couldn’t take his six dogs and four cats, whom he had rescued from the streets, with him. He is chivalrous and charming and has the reputation of a “ladies man who never crosses the line.”
Talk around the office cooler revolves around his “devotion to his cancer-stricken wife”. Single women want a man like Amit and married women want their husbands to be Amit. They all want to be loved the way Amit loves his wife.
Do you love your wife? I ask Amit. We are in his spacious office with large windows. An unlit cigarette is dangling from the corner of his lips. He looks at me through his blue rimmed glasses perched on his Roman nose and says without missing a beat: “No.”
Amit and Joan* met through common friends when they were working in Sydney. She worked as an assistant to a veterinarian. She was ten years older than Amit. Differences didn’t matter and conversations were always easy between them. Joan became the friend that Amit could talk to, without inhibitions or guilt, about anything under the sun, including the women he was sleeping with. And there were many. Joan was there to pick him up every time he went on a whisky-bender when he was in between relationships.
Joan grew up on a farm in rural Australia. She was no wallflower and was tough as nails. She was the one person who could look Amit in the eye and call his nonsense out. Over time, Joan became the friend that Amit respected and leaned on. At some point, friendship turned into something more. For over a decade, they were in a relationship. Sometimes on and sometimes off. But all along, Joan was Amit’s comfort zone and his safe place. For her, Amit was “a genuine and loving human being” in spite of his roving eye.
When Amit decided to return to India, Joan sold all her belongings, wrapped up her life in Australia, bid goodbye to family and friends and went with Amit to start a new life in his hometown in Kolkata. Shortly after, Amit got a job in an ad agency in Bengaluru. Joan was to follow him in a month’s time.
But within two weeks of his new life in Bangalore, Amit found himself falling passionately in love with a colleague. “Priya* was a force to reckon with. Beautiful, bold, intelligent and outrageous. I couldn’t resist her. I was putty in her hands,” he says.
Before the end of the month, he flew back to Kolkata and told Joan: “It’s over between us. I have met someone, and it's serious.” He gave her enough money to tide over for a couple of months and told her to return to Australia “as soon as possible”. He then got on a plane to Bengaluru the same day and forgot all about Joan.
“Even today, I don’t understand why never felt even an iota of guilt for abandoning Joan in a world that was alien to her,” says Amit.
For the next six months, Amit’s life was a passionate romance novel. He and Priya moved in together and life was an endless party. For someone who vowed never to get married, Amit was shopping for engagement rings. Until one evening, he discovered that Priya was not only sleeping with his boss but also other men.
“She was being me, in a relationship,” laughs Amit. But back then, it hurt. He wanted to get away from it all. He quit his job and returned to his parents’ home in Kolkata. The next day, his father informed him that Joan hadn’t gone back to Australia.
When he went to see Joan, he remembers being greeted by a “bag of bones.”
“I didn’t recognise her at all,” he recalls. Joan was her skeletal self – ashen, sickly and drinking heavily. She was also raging against Amit’s callousness. She abused him and hurled things at him. Amit did nothing to stop her. He didn’t want to, either.
“I deserved it. What I did to Joan was inhuman. I should have ensured her safe return to Australia, at the least.”
In the following weeks, Amit nursed Joan back to health. He realised that whatever romantic feelings that they had for each other were now gone. But that wasn’t going to stop him from doing the right thing this time around, he promised himself. So, when he got a job as a creative director in an ad agency in Hyderabad, he took Joan with him.
However, within a month, Joan was diagnosed with cancer.
“Somehow, from that day onwards, I couldn’t shun this feeling that Joan got cancer because of the pain she endured when I abandoned her. I left her helpless and alone,” says Amit. This dark shadow on his soul would become a constant in his life and the glue that made him stick with Joan.
Amit was determined to do all he could to save Joan. He married her at the Registrar’s office so that he could avail of the health insurance meant for the spouse for Joan’s medical treatment.
By the end of the year, Joan became cancer-free. However, she was unable to forget or forgive Amit’s previous behaviour. She became the alpha in the marriage. Raging against her husband became the norm. It was cathartic, too. Amit never defended himself because he would always feel the weight of the dark shadow on his soul. Over time, Joan’s anger faded, along with her love for Amit. But their friendship survived the ordeal.
“We had affection. We had a friendship, and we had separate bedrooms,” says Amit.
Joan poured her energies into regaining her health, creating beautiful furniture and caring for stray animals. Amit let himself be consumed by work. For everything else, he had Tinder. It wasn’t an ideal recipe for even quarter-of-a-good-marriage. After two years, Joan and Amit decided to part ways amicably. She decided to return to her family in Australia.
Two days before Amit could file for divorce, Joan’s cancer returned. Amit threw away the divorce papers and went back to caring for Joan.
It was eight months since Joan’s second bout with cancer. Amit lived out of his office and the hospital. His home became just a roof to sleep under. Getting up every morning and living his life became exhausting. It was uncertain, even. Aimless too. Amit felt unanchored in the middle of a surging sea of life.
That’s when he met Ashna*. The woman who would go on to become the love of his life. The one he would eventually chase away.
Ashna worked as a copywriter in the ad agency. She was sunshine on two feet.
“She was from a different religion and class altogether,” Amit says. “We were a study in contrast. She didn’t drink. I drank like a fish. She was a vegan. I liked my pork sausages and beef fry. She didn’t smoke. I would puff a packet or more a day. She came from a prominent family in the city and I was an outsider. I was also much older. She was 26. I was 40. My friends were quick to point out the differences. But we didn’t care.” It was like she walked into his life and he knew immediately why it never worked out with anyone else before.
Like the rest of the office, Ashna knew about Amit’s cancer-stricken wife.
But they fell deeply in love. Even as Amit and Ashna got into a serious relationship, Joan beat cancer the second time. But she made the crucial mistake of discontinuing her medication, something her doctors had warned her against.
Life was limping back to normal. Amit saw to it that Joan was comfortable even as he held on to Ashna, the silver lining in his life.
“There was something different about Ashna,” Amit says. “Something pure and innocent. Just being around her made me feel clean. She wanted me to be a better man. No woman had made me want to change. But for this woman, I wanted to change.”
Amit stopped drinking and turned vegetarian. Ashna didn’t ask him to, he wanted to. This love thrilled Amit. It also scared him.
Having grown up in a dysfunctional home, where his father would give five-year-old Amit Playboy magazines to keep him occupied while he gambled with his friends or where his mother’s boyfriend would ask him to pass on flowers and notes to her, Amit says he grew up believing that love and relationships "didn't last long.”
“To me they were fleeting, he says.” So, whenever a relationship got serious, it scared him. Fear always made him either sabotage a relationship or run away from it.
Having been a slave to a pattern all his life, Amit did what he always did in such a situation, run into the arms of another woman. When Ashna learnt about it, she broke up with him. She said to Amit, “You like the idea of falling in love. And you always want to be in love.”
Today Amit says, “Yes, I always want to be in love but with her. Now it’s too late.”
When I met Amit many months after our last meeting, Joan was still alive. A new drug has extended her life, for now. But, the cancer is bound to return with force at some point, the doctors warn. Amit says he is fully invested in taking care of his wife his entire life – the weight of the shadow on his soul increases each time Joan falls sick.
Joan has her good days and bad days. Often she takes Amit to task for his mistakes of the past.
“Especially when she thinks of the life she could’ve had back in Australia, if not for me or cancer. I know if she had a chance, she would leave me and go back to Australia and start a new life. I want that for her too. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I want her to be happy,” he says.
Joan might be his best friend, but Ashna will always be the love of his life. “The one that got away,” he says wistfully.
It has been four years since Ashna moved to the US and moved on in life. Amit still pines for her. “Now all I have are the memories of our time together. My greatest fear in life is that I might lose my memory as I grow old. If I do, then I will have nothing.”
What if the love of your life comes back, will you divorce Joan and marry Ashna? I ask.
“No,” he says without missing a beat. “There’s no question of abandoning Joan. Ever again.”