I sighed and closed the curtains on the motley assortment of protesters outside my house. My mother eyed me worriedly.
‘Rhea, Are you alright?’ She asked, motherly concern clouding her eyes.
‘Ma, I’m fine.’
'Are you sure, Rhea?' asks my mother.
'Of course I'm. Survival of the fittest, mother. I'm not going against Darwin. Also I don't want unnecessary scars on my body.'
It's a known fact that we are all born to die. And frankly, I don't understand why it has to be made into such a big deal. If it were not for my mother I would have said that to the bunch of people outside my house, some of them with young kids, shouting slogans, waving placards, literally wanting me to cut one of my beating hearts out. "Save A Life. Donate!" they shout.
For someone who is one in billions, 7.125 billion to be exact, I expect to be treated better. Scientists are still befuddled regarding my condition that gave me two hearts in my mother's womb. But years of research and sticking needles into me have led them nowhere, and they have labelled me as a freak mutation. It's so rare – literally one in all humankind – that they didn't even name the anomaly (as they call it, I will call it awesomeness). I wanted to name the condition myself, something on the lines of Rhea's Heartsawesome but the doctors aren't thrilled with the suggestion. Instead they want to cut one of them out and save a life. Huh?
An IQ of 180, increased concentration, exceptional athleticism and a phenomenal metabolism rate – these are just the few boring benefits of an increased blood circulation. Why would I ever give that up?
Let me begin at the beginning....
Conceived via In Vitro Fertilization and born premature, my mother was sure something was wrong the moment I was born. Her motherly instincts rang alarm bells and even in that sedated state, she wept copiously for her ‘poor sick baby’. But I wasn’t ‘sick’ in any technical sense. Scrawny and piteous looking, I stumped the doctors when to their shock and amazement they discovered a tiny second heart beating in rhythm with my first one. Numerous scans and tests were done to rule out possible misdiagnosis. At the end of it all, they stared with wonder and disbelief at the little bundle squirming and screaming in the hospital crib. Thus, I Rhea Mathur, ‘The girl with Two Hearts’ came into earth with much aplomb.
I was allowed to go back home after the doctors carefully documented my condition with scans and photographs, as they were sure that I was one of a kind. At the insistence of my worried parents, they decided not to go public with my condition. They agreed it might be too much of attention for a week old baby to handle.
Nevertheless, my secret had to come out when I was to start school. My parents decided it was better to come clean to the school about my condition. The school authorities were flabbergasted, to say the least, but agreed to have me anyway, probably in lieu of the favourable publicity they could garner with a ‘unique’ child like me in their midst.
Almost from Day One, I was famous – but let me tell you, not in any good way. I was an oddity – an object of stares and whispers, which I couldn’t comprehend initially but which increasingly became clearer as I reached High School. I stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of a vast sea of carefree, happy, irascible kids – always worried of being pointed at and whispered about. Accompanying every beat of my two little hearts was an inner echo chanting ‘Freak, freak, freak...’. I was always guarded and fearful, mistrustful of everyone around. My wonderful parents were my only source of support. They hoped that my unusual intelligence and athleticism would make me better liked at school. But they couldn’t have been more wrong. To top it off, the school somehow concluded that letting me participate in sporting events would be terribly unfair towards other boys and girls, given the ‘advantage’ I had over them (of two hearts pumping blood, instead of one). So there I was, banned from sports and detested by girls and boys alike. The tiny ray of sunshine in my bleak existence was my only friend – Prithvi.
I still wonder what made him shyly sit next to me and share his lunch for the very first time when we were in class 5. We were thick as thieves ever after that.
‘You know Rhea, I had a rare disease too…’ he confessed one evening as we were walking back home after school.
‘I had an extra thumb on my left hand when I was born. But I don’t have it anymore. My parents got it removed by a doctor.’ He said, eyes downcast.
‘Aren’t you happy to be “normal” again?’ I asked him curiously, as being ‘normal’ was something I wished for, every waking moment of my life.
‘I somehow liked having that little extra thumb. It was something I enjoyed showing off and doing tricks with. It made me feel I was better than the other boys – that I was going to do things in life that they couldn’t. Kind of a lucky charm. At least nobody’s going to ask you to cut your heart out, so you still can do big things in life, Lucky you!’ he said smiling wistfully.
At that moment of innocence, a connection was made and a friendship of a lifetime was forged.
It’s been many years since that day. I’m thankfully done with my miserable school and college years and carefully adopted an approach of calculated indifference and a ‘devil may care’ attitude towards society in general.
I am now all of 24 years old with two healthy beating hearts and in love. Somewhere between all our laughs, long talks and little fights, I fell in love with Prithvi. With him I was not afraid to be ‘The girl with two hearts’ as he accepted me unconditionally for who I was. And the truth is we all long for that connection with somebody that we don’t have to hide from. He made me believe that I was unique for a reason, that it was a mark of greatness and not an anomaly as everyone pointed out. The only catch was I was simply his best friend, nothing more. But I was content to carry on with my unrequited love as I knew he was the only one who could put my insecurities to sleep, brush away my unseen fears and make me want to dream again.
It was all blissful until Prithvi left for San Diego on a work assignment. I missed him sorely. Distance took a toll on our friendship and unsurprisingly, when he came back he was already engaged to a pretty colleague of his. I had loved him with all of my two hearts and he ended up breaking them both. But, I survived. I felt no bitterness. I was simply thankful for all the love we shared, although briefly. So I watched him get married and swore to myself that I wouldn’t waste time wallowing in self pity.
I spent the next couple of years aimlessly doing this and that.
I needed a project in life to keep me busy. I came up with an idea of establishing an NGO for people like me who were born different, with disorders that society had little or no understanding of. People who were often denied living life with dignity on account of their condition. The more I researched, the more I realised the need to educate society to be slightly more compassionate towards people like us. I knew all so well the devastating effects social isolation can have on life. I wanted to create a of support group through my NGO where fellow sufferers could provide one another support and share stories of their struggles and successes. When living out every day was a challenge sharing it with people who faced similar issues made it a little less burdensome.
For a little smile, a warm hug, a bunch of flowers or a few encouraging words of support can do us a lot more good than any medicine ever can.
Luckily, my idea had many takers and within months my dream was taking shape into something real. I was amazed at the number of volunteers who enrolled. From all over the country I had people with several unique disorders signing up – there was this guy with the ‘werewolf syndrome’ who had hair sprouting from every inch of his body. And then there were a few patients with ‘elephantiasis’ who were shunned by family and friends. There was even a little girl with the rare and dreaded progeria which made her age prematurely. I also had many from the LGBT community signing up. I was deeply moved by each one of their stories. A few doctors came on board too. Over the months, contributions from members, NRIs and unknown sources started pouring in. For the first time in my life, I started getting attention for something more than just my medical condition. The MP of our constituency visited me with an army of supporters to extend his ‘party’s’ full support. The next day my photograph with the MP graced the local dailies with a full page article which spoke mostly about my unique medical condition rather than my cause.
Still, I was a celebrity now.
A few days after his meeting with me, Mr. Gupta, the ailing MP from the ruling party fell ill seriously. Apparently his heart was having trouble functioning, having borne the full impact of his overindulgent lifestyle for years. Normally such a piece of news would’ve been lost in the midst of the incessant information overload that the news channels dished out, but being the party’s front runner for the Chief Minister, a big hullabaloo was being made of Mr. Gupta’s sudden illness. In one of the numerous (pointless) debates aired on the news channels, a certain doctor, happened to suggest that Mr. Gupta had a chance if he could find a suitable donor for a heart transplant. All hell broke loose after that. As I was the only person around strutting about with an extra heart, the next thing I knew, a few party men and loyalists of Mr Gupta were out my door, waving placards and shouting slogans asking me to donate my ‘spare’ heart , accusing me of being a hypocrite.
I was inundated with phone calls and interview requests. Protesters outside the office of my NGO bullied volunteers and disrupted work. I was sickened by it all. The truth is, not all people suffering from heart ailments qualify for a transplant. For a heart transplant to be successful there were other factors to consider – the age and the overall health of the patient, his or her lifestyle, compatibility with the donor heart and so on. But how could I get this across to the ignorant crowds out there crying out for my heart? I settled on cold indifference. I had nothing to say, no one to please. It was MY LIFE and I wouldn’t let a bunch of crazies arm twist me into donating my heart for a senile old gentleman of seventy five, with numerous other health issues who definitely wasn’t a fair candidate for receiving the benefits of my healthy heart. I came out looking like the villain of the highest order, but who cared!
Weeks passed and the crowd outside my house dwindled. One day something surprising happened. I ran into Prithvi at the local mall. I hadn’t met him in many years.
‘Rhea, you’re a famous personality now!’ He joked.
‘Yeah, right…want me to sign you an autograph?’ I lashed out sarcastically. I wanted to be mad at him as sometimes it is easier to be mad at someone than to admit that you were deeply hurt by them. But I couldn’t. Ours wasn’t a bond that could be undone by a nasty heartbreak. The inexplicable intimacy we had shared over the years had left us hopelessly locked in something much deeper. It was comforting and disturbing at the same time.
‘Jokes apart, I appreciate what you are trying to achieve through your NGO. I’d like to volunteer if you won’t mind.’
We were interrupted by the arrival of his pretty wife Preeti and his baby daughter. I didn’t know that he was a father already. We chatted awhile and parted. Seeing him again after all these years made me realise that loving Prithvi was like breathing. I was doing it without thinking and without knowing how to make it stop.
Prithvi did enrol as a volunteer after all. In a way I was glad he was back in my life. It was one of my lowest phases. All around people hated me. There was even an article in a local daily trashing me, dramatically titled – ‘The Girl With Two Hearts is nothing more than a Heartless Soul’.
One evening I got back home, to find Ma dining with her friend Sheela. After all the pleasantries, I excused myself and was getting up to leave, when I heard Sheela aunty ask Ma, ‘Have you heard about Prithvi Agarwal’s daughter Rupa?’
My ears perked up.
‘Poor girl, such a sad fate.’
I couldn’t resist asking what she meant.
‘Such a distressing thing to happen. The poor child was born with some heart defect – faulty valve or something like that.’
I was stunned. I had met Rupa just a few days back as Prithvi was bringing her back from playschool and hadn’t suspected a thing. How could he keep something like this a secret and that too from me, his very best friend? I was hurt. Then just as the stealthy sunrise creeps over the unsuspecting, sleeping earth, it dawned on me with full force – he didn’t want me to feel guilty. He knew the agony I would feel and the despair I could face if I knew that I was in a position to save his baby’s life and yet didn’t want me to feel obliged in any way to donate my heart, just because he was my best friend. He’d rather watch his baby live out her brief life than make such a request. He was the only person on earth apart from my parents, who didn’t see me as a possible organ donor and wanted to maintain that status quo. I realised he had put on a brave face for my sake whilst his daughter faced certain death. I was somehow angry.
As I looked up, I saw Ma give me a pained look – she’d known it all along. I couldn’t hold her gaze. I walked away wanting to be by myself. Weird how you could sometimes experience two feelings so different at the same time – pain and love.
It was a long night for me and a decisive one as well.
The next morning, I called up my doctor. I was doing this – come what may. I do not know how it would all work out – but I would never be able to live with myself if I didn’t even try.
Sometimes against all odds, against all logic, there’s still Hope. And I hoped that my heart would be a compatible one for little Rupa – that at the end of it all, when she was leading the happy life, she so deserved, she’d carry a piece of me within her and in loving her, Prithvi would love me, beyond words, beyond measure, forever.