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Waiting for the Monsoon, Discovering a Brain Tumor Instead

I routinely give titles to my journals, in which I have long recorded interviews, appointments, odd thoughts and cris de coeur. My journal commencing June 17, 2019, is called, “Waiting for the Monsoon.”

The Indian summer has always fascinated me, and I was in New Delhi, experiencing its climatic extremes firsthand.

Summer is when the heat of the subcontinent’s vast plains generates an enormous mass of warm air that pushes against the impenetrable massif of the Himalayas to the north, while the west wind drives clouds from the broiling Arabian Sea across the country.

Heat builds to inhuman levels: Days of 125 degrees Fahrenheit are not unheard-of; 110-degree days, or 43 Celsius, are common, with humidity sometimes approaching 100 percent.

These are the forces that breed the southwest monsoon, the greatest accumulation of fresh water in the atmosphere anywhere on the planet, and it broods over a landmass with the earth’s densest population: 1.3 billion people. The poorest of that multitude suffer grievously from heat and thirst, but all are waiting for the monsoon to bring relief.

For weeks in June and July, black clouds gather as the entire country obsessively tracks the progress of the rains.

The waiting is a time of expectation and worry: If it rains 10 percent more than normal, it means catastrophic flooding; 10 percent less may mean drought and famine.

ImageCreditFrancis Mascarenhas/Reuters

The high drama of the wait was captured by the 5th-century poet Kalidasa:

“The clouds advance like rutting elephants,

Enormous and full of rain.

They come forward as kings among tumultuous armies;

Their flags are the lightning; the thunder is their drum.”

Then one day comes “the bursting”: All that fresh water breaks as if from a celestial womb, gushing as much as 40 inches in a few weeks.

When the universal longing is finally requited, there is a sense of nationwide relief, bringing with it an almost immediate respite from the terrible heat. Temperatures drop overnight by an astonishing 20 to 30 degrees.

On the morning of July 4, I left Delhi for Uttar Pradesh to report a story on India’s feverish toilet-building campaign. I was out on the street most of the day, when I noticed ink in my journal was smudged with raindrops. “The monsoon has arrived,” I noted.

ImageCreditJohanna Nordland

The smudged page also contained a fragment of overheard conversation: “We will marry our daughter to you only if you have a foot.” It was the first line of an intriguing story I would never write, because the next day I went for a morning jog in Delhi’s beautiful Lodhi Gardens.

That is really the last thing I remember with certainty. I only learned later that I had, somehow, made my way from the gardens to New Delhi’s Golf Course Colony, several miles away.

This is where a malignant brain tumor, as yet undiagnosed, struck me down and left me thrashing on the ground.

A Good Samaritan, I would be told, had seen me reeling in circles, with arms upraised, as if dancing, or praying, then watched me collapse in an epileptic seizure.

ImageCreditDominique Faget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He hailed an ambulance, which sounds strange to a Westerner, although in India, one hails an ambulance like a taxi, a practice sometimes abused by wealthier citizens, who use the stratagem to avoid epic traffic jams. The ambulance drivers would not, at first, take me to a hospital unless this Samaritan — Sunny Kumar Kangotra, an aid worker at a private foundation — came with them.

They were concerned about being blamed by the police for a thrashed-up foreigner, and they wanted Sunny to take responsibility for me.

But doing so meant he would have had to leave behind his motorcycle, one of the two most valuable things he owned. After a lot of haggling, he offered to follow behind the ambulance, but the crew worried he would race off.

So Sunny negotiated a compromise in which he would give them his second-most valuable possession: his smartphone, as a guarantee that he would stay with them until they got to the hospital. Since the phone meant a month’s salary to him, he did not give it up lightly.

The driver for the New York Times bureau in Delhi, Jagmohan Singh, had already realized something was wrong when I had not returned within the hour I had promised. Jag, as we all called him, has worked for multiple bureau chiefs over the past 20 years and he remains friends with many of them. He began doggedly ringing the cellphone I had in my pocket until finally someone answered it and told him I was on my way to Moolchand Hospital.

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

We foreign correspondents depend heavily on our local staff members; they are our interpreters to their societies, our protectors, our surrogate families, and they often become great friends as well. But I was new to Delhi, filling in for our bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, while he was on vacation, so the bureau staff barely knew me.

Nevertheless, as I heard later, half a dozen of them gathered with Jag around my hospital bed, sending an important message in a country where your place in a byzantine social hierarchy can be a matter of life or death. It was, in short, a crucial communication: that this is someone to attend to.

Now the monsoon was upon us with a vengeance. Reflections of lightning flashed across the walls of the Intensive Care Unit, and sheets of nearly horizontal rain beat a tattoo against the windows, with seemingly no spaces between the raindrops.

While I was comatose for a day or two, dozens of people perished from the flooding in Mumbai in early July.

ImageCreditPiyal Adhikary/European Pressphoto Agency

My journal picks up again on July 8, a Monday, with the pages of the preceding weekend blank, as if they had disappeared from my life. I noted the absence with dismay.

At that point, I had been moved to a private hospital, and my journal was full of puzzlement about what had happened. After my run, a seizure, but what was that even? At first I posited heat stroke from exercising in extreme weather.

Dr. Rajshekhar Reddy, the head of neurology at the Max Hospital, was in charge of my case. He told me what I had, but only in the most circumspect manner.

“A sub-cranial, space-occupying lesion,” he said.

“A what?” My skepticism of that euphemism shouted from the page.

Then, for reasons obscure to me, the following pages are devoted to collective nouns for groups of beasts.

A caldron of bats (what else, Lord Macbeth?).

An obstinacy of buffalo (of course).

A cackle of hyenas (ha ha).

A conspiracy of lemurs (hee hee).

A crash of rhinoceroses (indeed).

And one I already knew: a murder of crows (kaw kaw).

A prickle of porcupines. I had no idea where I acquired these terms, perhaps a talkative and literary-minded nurse.

ImageCreditSanjay Kanojia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Clearly, I thought, this was my mind showing off, saying, “Hey, I’m still in here, regardless of any alleged ‘space-occupying lesion.’ ”

I found that term annoying: It sounded like a pointless euphemism for a tumor, and I said so to Dr. Reddy, who smiled enigmatically but kindly. “We cannot call it a tumor until we can biopsy it and we find tumor cells.”

All I could do at that point was laugh. The whole experience was becoming increasingly amusing. I frequently laughed out loud, however bizarre that might have seemed under the circumstances.

I was still seizing up, or so witnesses would report. The medical team would have to induce a coma to get the seizures under control, and at one point (this is hearsay, but too good not to recount), I was taken for dead by a mortuary crew, who toe-tagged me with the following ID: “Unknown Caucasian male, age 47 and a half.”

Nothing could have cheered me up more. It was only days until my 70th birthday. “Well,” I thought, “I could learn to love this tumor.”

The age-flattering toe-tag was, it would turn out, the first of several silver linings caused by the stunning impact of this cerebral intruder in my life. They say that people who survive malignancy of this magnitude approach it with a positive attitude, and I was determined to be one of them, not a victim swept along by bad weather and worse luck.

ImageCreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

The next day, I was medevacked by The Times from India to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, one of the best hospitals in America.

Back in India, the monsoon was in full swing, once again, as from time immemorial — a poignant concept for someone with a brain tumor.

The rains were inundating the fields of the farmers who have to feed a billion mouths. Those brown fields were green again, and the floods devastated some areas.

The sheets of rain would eventually drain off into the Arabian Sea, whence they came, or into the Andaman Sea to the east, to which they had been bound.

As for the ebbing of the space-occupying intruder in my head, that remained to be seen. From 3 to 6 percent of glioblastoma patients are cured; one of them will bear my name. I’ve already ordered a T-shirt with a giant 6 and a percent sign on it.

The monsoon lasts all summer, so it is raining in India as I write this. In the meantime, I am teaching myself to love my tumor. Hopefully, love it to death. (Its, not mine.) It has not just made me younger by about 23 years, in toe-tag time, but it has made me better, somehow stronger, funnier, even kinder, more tolerant. Ask anyone who has seen me lately.

ImageCreditAmit Dave/Reuters

I think of my tumor cells as a hawks’ boil — the collective noun for two or three raptors when they circle their prey. And when my oncologists come around to discuss the progress of this disease, to them I assign a collective noun that I had underlined, thrice, presciently, in my journal: “A shrewdness of apes.”

In the Weill Cornell shrewdness troop, Dr. Phil Stieg is an alpha male, chairman of neurology and neurosurgeon-in-chief. He was my brain surgeon and there was from him no politely indirect talk of space-occupying lesions. His bluntness came as a refreshing breeze. “It’s a glioblastoma multiforme,” he declared, naming the worst, most aggressive of brain tumors, “and I’m taking it out right away.”

He sawed right in and resected what he said was 99.99 percent of it. The remaining .01 percent will be radiated and treated with chemotherapy just in case.

“We’re on a journey,” he said.

Dr. Stieg has a podcast, the title of which I have borrowed for my current journal, which opens on my 70th birthday, which was also the day Dr. Stieg operated: “This Is Your Brain.”

I’m done with waiting for the monsoon.


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