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A couple of days ago when she was admitted for what she told me then were still early signs of Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) after her second bone marrow transplant in less than three years, where the body’s immune system reacts to the transplanted cells, and she was plagued by a particularly bad stomach bug, put on IV nutrition support and allowed only a few drops of water to relieve her parched throat, she wouldn’t stop chattering. Following her banter about shopping, sales, and food, she said she had cut off from Facebook for a few days to relieve herself of the “tension” of reading about the events in Kashmir.
That led to our usual conversation about pieces, headlines, editorials, and reporters on the story closest to her heart from her days as a journalism student in Delhi University — Kashmir. She was too weak to speak, and by chatter, I refer to Whatsapp messages we sent back and forth, which had over the last two weeks since her latest admission, become our regular mode of conversation. And that really was what my friend Sumegha Gulati epitomised — the story first, no matter what her physical state.
Sumegha’s most treasured possession was her byline. She was fiercely competitive when it came to assignments, relentless in their pursuit. When the case of rape by an Uber driver had everyone in a frenzy, it was Sumegha who brought the unidentified survivor to life. The story broke at a time when Sumegha had just gotten back after her first bout of cancer and she was complaining about not landing meaty assignments. So where an army of crime reporters across organisations chased the story, Sumegha fought her way into it like only she could. She established contact with the young woman and her family after weeks of perseverance. She dispelled their misgivings, made her a friend.
But what makes Sumegha one of the finest journalists I have known is this simple fact — barring one story she wrote for Caravan magazine last year, she chose to refrain from “full fledged” reporting on Kashmir in the last few years. She dreamt of becoming a conflict zone reporter, and the thought of asking for a transfer to Kashmir — immediately after her first round of treatment — did strike her. But she soon changed her mind: “How can I report from Kashmir full time when I am not removed enough from the story? It will not be a fair story. A good story is above everything.”
With Sumegha there was no excuse for not doing a story. When she was too weak to even cough during her auto-rides to meet sources last winter, when Delhi’s pollution levels added to the cancer that had already started engulfing her lungs, she got herself a car and a driver. When taking notes with her right hand started tiring her, she began to practice writing with her left hand. When she had a catheter put near her thigh to inject chemotherapy drugs in the last few months in Mumbai, she hid it with her clothes while interviewing a writer for another story on Indian television writers. When the lymphoma had enveloped her life, she found stories around it — bone marrow transplant facilities in India, doctors, patients, their stories. She found ways to sneak in queries to her own doctor at Tata hospital, till he started “rebuking” her. “P, you know in OPDs, as soon as I walk in, he calls out, yeh lo aa gayi journalist.”
Since her diagnosis, barely a year after she passed out of college and joined this paper, the cancer ate her away, bit by bit. But unless you made the effort to scrape away her layers of resolve, you could never tell. Among the hundreds of messages and calls I received today, one described her perfectly. “We are so shocked she is gone, because she never made us realise she is a cancer patient”. “Are you eating yet? When will you be discharged?” — the usual “patient” questions she brushed away. Her indignation was not about Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but about editors, stories, payments and boys.
Her panic laden phone calls, till last month, when I waited with bated breath for updates, were never about her own self. When she asked for help with doctors, processes, and ways to ease delays in the health system, it was for the maid, the friend who was recently diagnosed with blood infection, the relative.
For me, she was the friend I found in the newsroom who stuck with me through professional screw-ups and personal crises. Who through her own fierce resolve taught me about hospitals, health systems, the transplant ward, and cancer itself. Sumegha and I only grew closer with time and distance.
Sumegha, for me, is so synchronous with life and hyperactivity, to conquering troubles and looking forward to good food and great travel, that it is difficult to describe her in the past tense. I’m trying hard to think of the joke she would come up with if she knew I even attempted this. For someone who told so many stories, and lately found her passion for long form writing, it is cruel her own story ended at barely 26 years.