I have just finished reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book took me on a fascinating journey. The blurb of the book reads, “It is the story of the quest to decipher the master-code that makes and defines humans, that governs our form and function. The story of the gene begins in an obscure Augustinian abbey in Moravia in 1856, where a monk stumbles on the idea of a ‘unit of heredity’.” The story continues through the decades, even up to now. The author has made all those years and the works of so many scientists come alive.
We have always known the term gene and have used it casually to describe some characteristic in the family. In Mukherjee’s book we learn a lot about what makes us who we are. But this knowledge is scary too. It is as if there are so many universes within us just as there are universes out there in space. They are unknown to us, and these universes within us are in many ways unknown. It is as if they have a life of their own. A single mutation or a change and everything changes. Most of the time we cannot do anything to stop the chain of events resulting from the mutation.
Reading about cancer in the book my thoughts went back to the days when I used to visit the children’s ward of the cancer hospital. I met some very brave people, one of them a lady from the northern part of our state. She and her family were agriculturists. In the normal course of life we would never have met. But we did meet, and there was an instant rapport. She had come with her youngest daughter who had cancer. Her eldest daughter had insisted on this treatment. She wanted to do her best for her little one. Her husband wanted her to return home and let nature take its course.
That lady fascinated me. In spite of her problems, she was so enthusiastic. She had never been to school, and I would often see her with a pen and paper, learning to write her name. She told me how to make ‘jowar roti’, though my first attempt was a flop. But, she encouraged me and said that everything comes with practice. Once the little girl was given colouring books and crayons, but she was reluctant to accept them. She did not want charity. When it was explained to her that they were given by a young man, who wanted to help children in some way, she was happy to accept them. It was so inspiring to see that self-respect. They had so less in material terms, but were so rich in right values. That little girl was lucky to have such a mother and the mother was lucky too. One day when I went to the hospital I learnt they had left. I don’t know what has happened to them, but they will always be a part of my life