Author: Dr. M. Suneetha, Radiation Oncology
At the beginning of my career, I was a visiting consultant at a hospital in Kurnool – my native town. Every Sunday I drove to the town to see my patients but they had to come to Hyderabad for treatment since in those days we didn’t have a radiation machine at Kurnool.
One day, a middle-aged man brought his mother to my chamber. The 65-year-old widow, Zareena Begum was deeply religious as well as shy. She wore a black burkha and only her eyes were visible through the mesh. I sent out those accompanying her in order to get her history. She was suffering from post menopausal bleeding for the past six months. Zareena also complained of white discharge and low back pain. I examined her and concluded that it was a case of locally advanced carcinoma cervix. We investigated her thoroughly with all scans and biopsies and confirmed her to be in stage III of cervical cancer.
Since it was a routine case of cervical cancer, she was advised to undergo 25 fractions of external radiation and 3 fractions of internal radiations along with weekly chemotherapy. Her son and his wife accompanied Zareena for her treatment in Hyderabad. Her son, Kabir, a government employee posted in Kurnool, made all the arrangements for a comfortable stay at Hyderabad and left while his wife stayed back with the mother-in-law as a caregiver.
Miriam, the daughter-in-law doted on Zareena. Everyday she accompanied Zareena for her treatment and politely inquired about what she should prepare for her Maaji’ who had lost her appetite completely due to the side effects. She even counted the rotis Zareena ate during each meal and was anxious if she ate even half a roti less. She even kept a count on the number of times Zareena went to the washroom. Patients usually have severe diarrhea during the fourth week of treatment and I admitted Zareena in the ward since she was dehydrated and had put her on IV fluids. Miriam kept a tab and reminded the nurses 10 minutes before a sachet emptied out so that they could keep ready the next one. Most people were convinced that Miriam was the daughter instead of the daughter-in-law.
Kabir stayed back in Kurnool because of his work and family commitments but every Sunday he would pay me a visit and inquire about the well being of his mother. He asked whether his wife was able to take care of his mother. He was truly a very humble and dutiful man. Zareena completed her treatment successfully and then came regularly for follow up visits to my chamber at Kurnool on Sundays.
After about two years Zareena came with a beautiful lady in her early 40s and introduced her as her sister Waheeda. Zareena had little education yet she was smart and intelligent and brought Waheeda to me when the symptoms were suspiciously similar to what she had a few years back. Indeed I confirmed cervical cancer upon examining her. After all the necessary investigations and staging workup, it was diagnosed as cervical cancer at a very early stage. We planned the same treatment as Zareena. It was when I asked about her husband, I got the biggest surprise of my life.
Waheeda was actually her husband’s second wife. And after her husband’s death, Zareena brought her home along with her two sons since Waheeda didn’t have any financial backup. I don’t know whether she had forgiven her husband for what he did but she readily shared her home and space with the other woman in her husband’s life.
And it was not only Zareena who opened her heart, her son Kabir and daughter-in-law, Miriam had the same respect and sense of responsibility towards Waheeda. When Waheeda was brought to Hyderabad, Kabir came initially to get them settled and then met me every Sunday at Kurnool along with his half brothers to inquire about her well-being, expressing the same concern as he did for his biological mother. Zareena stayed back at home to take care of the children just as Waheeda had done in the past. Miriam left her family and home to stay with her Çhotimaa’ and tenderly cared for her, counting the number of roles she ate and the trips she made to the washroom. To me, Kabir and Miriam were like Lord Rama and Sita who did
not make any difference between their biological mother and the step mother.
Polygamous marriages are notoriously difficult for women and children in their relationships. The infidelity and resulting mistrust between partners and property battles among children often tear asunder the veil of familial love and harmony. But Zareena and her family had opened their hearts and readily gave love and acceptance to the second wife and her children, proving themselves to be exceptional human beings.