April 1, 2000. I was on a train shooting Calcutta Mail, somewhere near Hyderabad. The toilets were filthy since the whole unit was using them. So when the train stopped, I got off to pee. To cut a long story short, I slipped, went hurtling down the slope next to the tracks, and just when I thought I had regained my balance, my foot hit a loose stone and my ankle twisted in the socket. I was taken to a hospital where they did an X-ray and told me that they would have to give me anaesthesia in order to set the bone back.
I clearly remember the anaesthesia mask coming towards me as my phone rang. It was Vinod (filmmaker and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra) calling to inform me that Renu had just been diagnosed with cancer.
I told the doctor to stop administering the anaesthesia and asked the production guy to fetch Anil Kapoor, my film’s lead. “Please take me back home. Renu has cancer,” I told him as soon as he entered the room.
Aditi Rao Hydari will play Renu in Mishra’s upcoming film
I swear, this is exactly how it happened. When I woke up from the anaesthesia, my foot was back in the socket, the shoot had been cancelled and the next morning I was on a flight back to Mumbai.
Friends who had come to receive me at the airport greeted me with that tentativeness which follows a bad news. In such situations, people are not sure how the person has reacted to the news. I had spoken to Renu before getting on the flight. She had laughed about the diagnosis and told me not to worry at all. The doctors had told her the bloody disease had been caught early, she said, and that she would be back in the editing room very soon.
That’s not how it was, though.
My friend Atul Tiwari told me on the way to the hospital that she had not been told the truth. Later, when I met my friend Dr Nagraj Huilgol, a radiation oncologist, he had one look at the reports and all he said was “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” When I walked into her hospital room, which was like a suite with an outer room, there seemed to be a party going on. Javed sa’ab was there with Shabana, Vinod Chopra, her first husband and many, many others. Renu looked at me and giggled, ‘You know I have a Lymphoma..’ By then I knew how bad it was and she didn’t, and I just looked at her not knowing how to tell her. It was odd.
“I wonder how we lived together. Whenever it came to bills, whoever received them first, paid. I vaguely knew that she earned more than me”
After everybody else left, there was this soft, tender moment between us. Maybe her body was already giving her signs. Maybe she could stop playing brave and break down with someone she was in a relationship with, which meant me at that time. In that moment, she looked at me and said that if something were to happen to her I should get married again. “What the hell…” I reacted, but later we had conversations about imaginary women that I could possibly marry, because, obviously, she didn’t want to talk about somebody who’s actually around! So we talked about a somebody like ‘this’ and a somebody like her. But how would one find somebody with all of Renu’s qualities? And she had a lot of them. How was I ever going to find someone like her?
She was five or six years older than me. Well, that wasn’t the most difficult quality to find. But she was much better than me at her work, she was brilliant as an editor. She was supremely compassionate as a person. She saw the positive side of mostly everything. She did not have a mean bone in her body, and that can be said about only a very few people. At that moment, I started thinking about who dislikes Renu. I thought long and hard but couldn’t think of anyone. Whoever she touched, she became a part of them in some way, and again I found myself thinking, “Shit! What’s going to happen to me without her?” She had the amazing ability to be yours and yet not be yours. To be with you and yet stand in opposition, when she thinks you’re wrong. To be by your side throughout and still step back, when she thought you were wrong. In turn, preventing you from so much foolishness. It could be really exasperating to be with her, because she was far from being the devoted girlfriend/wife who’s always in agreement with you. That was the exciting part of being with her.
Renu had this amazing quality about her that set you free, and she demanded the same freedom. For instance, I never knew how much money she had in the bank, and she never asked me how much I had. I wonder how we lived together. Whenever some bills had to be paid, whoever received the bill paid it. Whoever came up with the idea of a holiday, bought the tickets. Whenever we went out, whoever took out the wallet first paid the bill. We didn’t exactly have to ‘manage’ our finances. I vaguely knew that she made more money than I did, but we never discussed it.
She never asked me where I was going and when I was coming back. I never felt the need to ask her whenever I made a professional commitment because I knew that she would understand. Say, if I was out shooting and the shoot got extended for 20 days, then it got extended. She knew it was part of our deal. Similarly, she wouldn’t ask you, and in the beginning for a man, it’s difficult. But you got used to it, after all that was our deal. That’s the deal she put on the table. Either you took it or you f*****d off. She gave you no other choice. I took it because I knew I’d never find anybody like her. It’s not true that I didn’t protest, of course I did. Like say if she cut my film, then I’d pretend that “Oh that cut isn’t good,” but in reality, she would cut my films better than I could. Similarly, she guided my life better than I could. So I wondered what my life would be without her, because I could not find anybody like her.
After she passed, it took me a long time to realise that you can’t expect the same out of others and that it is unfair to do so. It was very hard. This was her. Renu: strong, brilliant, joyous, giggly, self-confident, compassionate, loved by her colleagues, her assistants, her maid, her sister, her parents and me. It felt really strange when she started withdrawing and the first chinks of weakness started showing. What slowly dawned on our lives was the unfairness of it all. She was always happy, never tense, never stressed even though she worked hard. She was loved by all, wasn’t lonely, not a smoker and not a drinker too. Why did she have stomach cancer and not the others around her who had led far more decadent lives? She was 48, not very old at the time. The unfairness of it struck her and she started withdrawing. Slowly, she stopped coming home, and then decided to move to her parents’ house.
When I tried to be by her side, I kept thinking that I was going to live and she wasn’t. This wasn’t the first relationship for either of us. She had a past and I had a past and that fact had never intruded till now. But now she began looking into her past and questioning the choices she’d made. This also meant she started questioning her decision to be with me. It was difficult. All I could do was be by her side while she almost started pushing me away. That is the test of love I think; when the people you love, question themselves and push you away. When they’re in that state in their life, they are not themselves, they lose the benefit of wisdom. At that moment, they can almost hate people. Can you stand by them? That’s the difficult part, and every day, that was my life for two months. To stand, to be, to do what one could. To manage, to get a reaction from her, a conversation whenever I could or stay in the background to let her clear all the confusion. To let her go back into her womb, to her sister, her father, her mother. To allow her space to think why she left her first husband. To go into her past and to hold that hand, till the very end. The whole thing became a test of love for me because, in a sense, she had given me a life. Can you be there for someone even when they don’t want you to and are pushing you away? You know you have to because they need you, so you just be there for them.
In the end, when she was lost, almost gone and thought she was talking to someone else, she spoke about me to me, assuming that she was speaking to Vinod. And then she spoke about how much he (Vinod) should take care of me. That was an odd, private moment. Therefore after she passed, at her funeral, where Vinod was also present, I called him and we performed her last rites together. That’s how it ended.