Aman Ganapathy is a 12th grade CBSE topper with an aggregate that reads 97 per cent in the science stream. It’s a bittersweet time for the Dubai resident– there’s a scholarship that awaits his response; a lifetime of achievements on the horizon.
But there’s an emptiness: days after he took his exams, a visit to home country, India, ended in sorrow.
On April 12, 2019, Aman’s father, Ganapathy Uthappa, passed away. He was 53 years old.
His last real conversation with his father was in December, recalls Aman. “I was crying and he told me you just have to do well in your boards and you have to study hard. [The] last thing he told me was take care of your mom and your sister.”
In April, in the early hours of that fateful morning, a cousin screamed him awake. “The cousin staying with us in Bangalore [Bengaluru] had come and told me, 'get ready, get ready we need to go to the hospital'…I was really worried and confused, I kept asking him what is going on, but no one would ever answer me. I walked into the room I saw dad’s eyes half-lidded and empty and I saw his body kind of staring, lifeless. I thought he was sleeping. So I tried to call for him, I tried to shake him. Then my mom told me: ‘He’s gone Aman’.”
“And I said, no, that’s not true. His chest is moving. My mom said, ‘that’s just a ventilator that’s connected to him, he’s not actually breathing, he’s gone’. And it just felt like everything fell to pieces around me,” he recalls.
“And then I went out of the room. When I went back they were dressing up his body there – and there was his shrunken body, scars everywhere, surgery wounds,” he says.
How it began
Two years earlier, bothered by a throat bug, 52-year-old Ganapathy Uthappa had gone to a hospital in the UAE and returned with antibiotics. A two-week course later, when the irritation did not abate, Uthappa was asked to undergo a biopsy. He had been an on-again, off-again smoker for about 20 years, which had raised a red flag. He was also diabetic. Since he was already planning a trip to India for a family event, he went to be screened for any anomalies.
The result of the biopsy was unpleasant: he had cancer of the upper palette.
Aman’s sister was with their father during the diagnosis. And they returned home with a sliver of hope; the doctors had caught it early – ‘stage zero’ – and the odds of remission were high. “So June 1 we did the biopsy; June 6 we got the result and by June 10th, we started the radiation with concurrent chemotherapy. We finished that and he came back to Dubai, on the 10th of August,” explains Aman's mother, Bharti.
There was a marked improvement in health before the downward spiral. One day, he could not open his mouth properly; soon he had to be fed using a baby spoon. The doctor said, ‘This is one of the side-effects of radiation where your cells are necrosed.’ We also spoke to a doctor in Bangalore who said it does look like necrosis,” recalls Bharti.
They returned to India anyway, arousing in Aman a curiosity about all the travel, but not much more. “Just complications,” they told him as he readied for his 11th grade exams.
When they returned with another round of medicine, Ganapathy seemed to be getting better.
In that one week, the cancer cells had multiplied thrice over.
But then, even as Aman began his wade into twelfth grade, his father’s condition began to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Besides the difficulty in opening his mouth to eat, he had trouble with swallowing.
Bharti took him to a hospital in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, where a PET scan confirmed their worst fears: Ganapathy was not getting any better. Residual malignant cells had been detected in the mouth. It had also spread to his pharynx - the area that connects the mouth to the oesophagus .
Not wanting to interrupt Aman’s last year of schooling, the couple decided to follow – surreptitiously – their doctor’s advice. They decided on a quick surgery that would have kept him in hospital for about ten days - and they kept the prognosis to themselves.
Circumstances delayed the treatment by seven days. Bahrti says: “In that one week, the cells had multiplied thrice over.”
At the end of this period, Aman and his family saw a healthy 5-foot-10-inch man shrink, down from 72-75kg to 45kg.
His bones had begun to jut out. He was turning skeletal. (At the end, he weighed a mere 38kgs.)
Ganapathy and Bharti had to make more frequent trips to India; Aman remained behind – he had to study. “I wanted to do well and ultimately it played a lot in my head. There were times when it was bringing down my performance and it was constantly hanging over my head,” he says.
In 2018, “[Ganapathy's] body had become resistant to chemotherapy,” recalls Bharti.
And the same year in October he had a heart attack. “After the cardiac arrest, I think, he never recovered,” she says.
A month later, the doctors had even graver instructions: the outlook was dire, it was time to discuss palliative care. “We didn’t want to give up, we went to Bombay [Mumbai]. They said ok chemo isn’t working, let’s do immunotherapy,” says Bharti. His eyesight began to give him trouble.
This entire time, Aman watched grief take a-hold of his parents, saw medicines that needed to be downed like clockwork, felt strange absences for months at a time – and simmered in anger. Why were his guardians arranging for others to stay with him while they went back and forth from India? Why was his father rapidly vanishing before his eyes? If the situation was that serious, surely there would have been a conversation about what was wrong.
“Just complications” - the phase had begun to haunt him. He found refuge in his books.
At first I was in denial, because I couldn’t believe something like this had happened. It seemed fantastical, because it’s something you read about happening to other people but not something that you yourself would experience. And I was obviously afraid, because I didn’t know what was going on
Then came the day he learned the truth. “For one-and-a-half years, I didn’t tell him what it was exactly so he was very agitated because he was hearing half the information from here and there. But once when I actually came down and spoke to him, I remember I talked to him and I cried a lot,” says Bharti.
Aman comforted his mother, but under the surface, his world was coming undone. “At first I was in denial, because I couldn’t believe something like this had happened. It seemed fantastical, because it’s something you read about happening to other people but not something that you yourself would experience. And I was obviously afraid, because I didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Aman.
He knew, however, that he had to persevere. “[It’s] because I knew that’s what he wanted; that’s what he told me he wanted me to do. To me, I had to do it because I had to make him proud.”
Aman’s results came out a few days ago; it’s a bittersweet victory.
Bleached days go by and as the family comes to terms with their loss they speak of the support that’s kept them going, from employers and teachers, friends and family members.
But this family keeps fighting for the future. Acing one exam at a time. Surviving, thriving, one day at a time.