It is our privilege to be able to interview Ms Rajalakshmi Siva Ji who is more than willing to forsake her this year’s royalty earnings from their book ‘When Thoughts Invade the Cancer Conqueror’ to promote cancer awareness programs. This gives one more reason why more folks should buy the book and support this noble cause.
*We congratulate you and Nilakanta Siva Ji for this noble venture. Can you tell us a little more of your past?
- I am currently a Managing Partner at Madhurakalpa Collections, a women’s boutique dealing with ladies’ apparel, imitation jewellery and white metal gift items, in Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. We started this venture just to mark his (my husband’s) victory over bladder cancer and to prove to the world that even after cancer, even at the age of 72 you can become an entrepreneur when your family is supportive. We have two children and four grandchildren, all doing great in the USA.
*Shall we start from the beginning, your childhood, madam?
- Oh sure. In my childhood I was a classical, traditional village belle. Born to a marketing executive at a cement factory: The India Cements Ltd. Grew up in both their housing colonies: first, at Talayuthi in Tirunelveli District and later at Sankari Drug in Salem District. I studied at the local Panchayat Union School. Then, all of a sudden, like in most children’s books, the handsome prince from far away Mumbai came visiting. This visit culminated in our wedding and I was promptly exported to Mumbai. You’ve seen these movies of rural girls when they enter the big, bad and ugly city. It was tough going adjusting at a place where I did not understand their language and they had no clue to mine. So began my life as the wife of a nuclear scientist.
It was a great relief when a transfer had me back at my familiar type of closed township life at Kalpakkam. Our two children grew up there studying in the Kendriya Vidyalaya and subsequently joined their father and uncle as IIT alumni.
*This is a great example of a family where education runs in the genes. You must have been a very contented and happy family.
- Yes, life went on smoothly till the infamous episode: gross hematuria, i.e. plenty of blood in the urine about two and a half years ago. Like the one black dot in a blank sheet of white paper.
*When most people shiver with fright at the very mention of the word ‘cancer’ how did you keep your hopes on during this fight against cancer? Did you feel confident you would come out of it successfully?
- It was a roller coaster ride swinging like a pendulum from periods of deep despair to moments of irrational exuberance. Every few good days would invariably be followed by a couple of difficult ones. We really started becoming consistently positive only after the second or third biopsy report came out. It said there was no malignancy anywhere; this was after several organs were removed successfully.
* It is really great how you stuck on and didn’t feel like jumping off the boat in the middle of the journey. I liked that quote in your book, “like hell is empty and the devils are here just to torture you”, adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. It must have been full of events, some good ones too. Any experience that you would like to cherish?
- First and foremost would be the way our relatives and friends all came to our help. The way our sons and daughters-in-law saw us through the difficult year and a half. Every moment an unforgettable one, an experience to cherish. How some of our folks had been in and out of this hospital so often that the security guards believed they were one among the super specialty consultant doctors, even if she had a TCS, CITIBANK or Cognizant identity card hanging from her neck!!! The humour in the little grandchildren’s pranks at crucial tense moments of discussion, all are meant to be cherished, chewed well and digested, if you get what I mean.
* Who was the person who kept the hopes on in the hard times?
- You will be surprised, but really, it was my surgeon’s father-in-law. He had been my father-in-law’s colleague in the Government of India at Shastri Bhavan, Chennai, in the 1970s. And closer to home it is difficult to single out anyone, as all his siblings as also mine and their spouses and children all contributed in no small measure to keeping the flag flying at full mast all the time. But still, it would be wrong not to mention my mother as a major source of strength through all our tribulations as also the zest and cheerfulness of the little grandson. So it was really almost everyone across four generations.
This year, 2016, marks the centenary year of my father-in-law and we have, therefore, dedicated the book to his memory.
* I am really surprised that in the midst of all this turmoil you managed to pen a book in almost real time as the activities in the operation theatres. What motivated you to come up with this book?
- We had made a promise to our surgeon very early that if there were any new bladder cancer patients and/or their family and relatives who were afraid, confused or needed counseling in the days ahead in privacy, then both of us would be glad to help out with telephonic conversations. We soon became a counselling fountain head. Then there were so many questions and doubts that we thought of drafting a small pamphlet or brochure. No great writing ambition was involved. But that manuscript became so dull and boring and too heavy for anyone to read it through.
*So what did you do to correct that mode of presentation or the style, whatever was disturbing you?
- It was then that as we thought of ways of making it more interesting we decided to write a short story of which this formed a major part. At first, I was a little perturbed whether we would get the medical terminology right. However, my husband, Nilakanta Siva’s previous experience with medical transcription gave us the courage to go ahead.
But then to our dismay our publishers’ auto correct or whatever software publishers’ editorial staff use, perhaps, kept making prostate as prostrate and vesicular as vascular, and ligated as legated. I corrected it so many times but it still crept in again. And then we gave up. Only doctors will note the error and they will know what the right word is. Their mental auto-correct will work correctly.
* We noted a lot of very relevant quotations from the classics, like from Charles Dickens, Lord Macaulay, William Shakespeare, and Lord Alfred Tennyson in the main text. There were also interesting poems by modern budding poets like Geetha Paniker and Arun Sivakrishna too. Even an extract from Dwight Eisenhower’s D-Day speech found a place here.
- We needed to break the monotony of just in and out of hospitals, so we thought of inserting poems and quotes from famous writers that fitted the ethos and the context. After all, they have described what through our minds better than we ever can. And thus we had a great manuscript that was applauded by our main target audience: the cancer community comprising doctors, patients, caregivers and family of victims. We have even put a lot of these Facebook comments as reviews in the last few pages of the book.
* How was the journey from writing to getting it published?
- As far as the writing goes, it was mostly fun, even if painful at times when we had to relive the difficult times as we write. But, beyond that, probably, we need to be related to a Chetan Bhagat or Anita Nair, Madhuri Bannerji, Ravi Subramanian or one of their peers to get someone in the publishing industry to read your manuscript. We had no Godfather in the authors’ circle, so we went to a kind hearted self-publisher who gave us a big discount on their normal charges. This was because this book is on cancer awareness and smoking avoidance written by a cancer survivor for public education. And after news of the launch was splashed all over these traditional publishers keep calling to ask when our next book will be done. It is more of mental satisfaction than a money spinner.
*Any activity in life throws up a spectrum feeling when a long cherished goal has been achieved, so also with writing and publishing a book. What was the feeling when you held the published book in your hands?
- It took us back to those days in the mid-nineties when our son won the Bombay University gold medal and we were invited to an almost exclusive felicitation by the Vice Chancellor. Then again, when he bagged the silver medal at the IIT convocation our bliss knew no bounds. We felt a similar elation when the first lot of twenty-five authors’ copies reached us in time for the launch. Didn’t know how to take a picture with it as my phone was giving me a mirror image all the time and we didn’t know how to reset it.
Later, it was a pleasant surprise to notice medical students asking for and buying the book along with their purchase of sarees or imitation jewellery. And we felt our efforts rewarded when a doctor had bought six copies to distribute to his current patients. We are glad we had the disclaimer implying that the authors are not surgeons but only those who experienced the surgeons’ ‘scope and scalpel.
* We writers do experience a writer’s block from time to time when nothing moves ahead. Which part of the book turned out to be the most difficult phase to freeze out? The surgical details were awesome. The discussion about the broken stent stuck inside between the doctor and the family members was very educative.
- Yes, lots of these had plenty of discussion, but went through smoothly. It was the cover design that was our stumbling block. The cover design, a lot of thought had to go into it. The usual face with a cigarette dangling from the lips, or a no smoking sign with a burning cigarette and a cross across it, or even a skull and bones seemed far too primitive for a book dealing with the most modern robotic removal of the bladder and prostate and the creation of an ileal conduit diversion. The cancer awareness ribbon-loop colour for bladder cancer is a sort of golden yellow (like for breast cancer it is pink). So we chose this colour. The printer couldn’t really get the golden yellow accurately on paper. And the yellow on books bought in USA or UK is slightly different from the ones sold here.
*But it still looks attractive. And the imagery is very, very apt. What made you select that image
- Yes, since the story is all about removing the bladder and creating a man-made alternate path for the urine from the kidney to be expelled, we chose the kidneys and the bladder for the imagery. Many people appreciated it a lot. In fact, one doctor did suggest that since the protagonist is with a dysplastic kidney we should have shown just one full kidney and the second wrapped up with a knot on the way. Well, we didn’t know what sort of a knot the surgeon used in the ligation process.
* What would you say to our audience about this deadly disease?
- It has been called the Emperor of all diseases. If detected early it can be easily cured. Being diagnosed with cancer is not the end of the world. Rehabilitation and getting back to a decent lifestyle is possible. We entered a new profession. Started a boutique of women’s apparel, imitation jewellery, and other white metal gift items. And of course, our book is also sold here.
* Any social message?
- Don’t smoke, never. If you are already smoking, stop immediately. Or else bladder cancer will catch up with you in your old age.
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Our Review of the book : https://arudhasoul.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/when-thoughts-invade-the-cancer-conquerors-nilakanta-siva-and-rajalakshmi-siva-book-review/