Jul
16

Far From Funny

Since I am writing a comedy novel, all of my blog posts here have had their humorous elements. This isn’t one of those. It’s easy to write comedy when you know what you’re writing about (flying pigs, jiggly cheesecake, the rare Harrison Ford reference). A lot has happened since my last post. I have read a lot of books (Outline by Rachel Cusk, My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper, There There by Tommy Orange (great book) and I am currently reading The John Lennon Letters compiled by Hunter Davies) Okay so maybe not a lot of books, but more than the average human. That’s not a genuine statistic or anything. And you may be wondering about the John Lennon book and how it relates to my research at all. Well, it doesn’t super relate, but I’ve been listening to solely Beatles music while writing and I needed to beef up my list of reading books so people take me seriously a little bit more. Just go with it.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog post:

Like I said before, comedy is easy; it’s natural when you’re in the right mood. It’s hard when you’re sad, which I am. I haven’t written in a fairly long time. I have stopped at a little over 160 pages. I am not sure if people are reading my posts, so I don’t super mind this being emotional or private (if you are reading, hello and comment “buffalo” so I know you’re there)

It’s been a sad few weeks.

This morning, we got the call that my grandfather passed away at 5:36 AM. It’s been a long road, and I’m still in a lot of shock about it. He was a great man – a phenomenal man who accomplished so much in his life after starting out with so little. He was heavily renowned in the science community, with plaques and trophies taking up every inch of his study, but most of all, he was loved. He was so loved. And there was good reason for it too. He had an incredible heart that was so capable of love. For example, the man hated desserts and most snack foods, but he always made sure to keep his pantry and freezer equipped with popsicles, ice cream, and potato chips just for me. After my grandmother passed away in 2016, he donated large amounts of money to my favorite charity, St. Jude, on her behalf. We only just went down last week to where he lived in the last years of his life, a retirement home in Huntsville, Alabama. During this visit, we had loads and loads of residents, nurses, workers, etc. coming up to us to tell us how incredible he was. Of course, we already knew this, but it was nice to hear how he worked to print out menus for people newly diagnosed with diabetes and how he picked up items at the grocery store for people, while refusing to be paid back. An incredible mind and an incredible heart all in one incredible grandfather. I truly am lucky to know him for as long as I did.

It all just gets me thinking about what this whole project is about. It’s a collection of made-up stories of strangers followed by the narrator/collector’s own story, showing the power in our own personal narrative. And here is a man with a tremendous story that is talked about so rarely. So here I am sharing it with you. It’s a long one. I didn’t know how to edit it down, nor did I want to edit it down:

 

Virendra Mahesh was born on April 25, 1932 in Khanki, Punjab, India. He was the youngest in a family of four – an older sister, Shakuntala, and two older brothers, Vidya and Bharat. His father was a civil engineer, who traveled and built dams and canals all over India. (I learned all of this after reading his personal memoir. I was surprised to learn that the fact that he had a baby cheetah as a pet did not make it into his collection of memories of his life; I myself would have lead with that.)

He came from a family that valued education more than anything. They always pushed their children to have the best grades, the best everything. Virendra, himself, was being pressured to be an engineer – something he wanted no part of. Eventually, his parents arranged them to go to a good school far from home. They lived with a man who was building a museum of Indian religious artifacts and a shrine for meditation and spiritual advancement. They lived here for ten years. They went to school and when they came home, they would study and oversee the building of the museum. There was no leisure time or games allowed. Finally, in third grade, Virendra met his science teacher who gave him insight into something that he might want to pursue outside the field of engineering. This science teacher introduced the class to scientific method and inspired the students with stories of scientific discoveries. Virendra loved it – everything about it. This was the mere beginning of the great Dr. Virendra B. Mahesh, renowned organic chemist, but more on that later.

When he was growing up, India was still under the control of the British. At one point, news arose about how leaders of the Indian National Army were tried for treason in Delhi and were sentenced to be hanged. Like other members of his school, Virendra took part in a demonstration outside of his school and was severely punished afterwards. However, the leaders received a pardon from the British Crown and were freed. Virendra called this the only demonstration he ever participated in, but perhaps the most important.

He was only 15 when India gained independence from England. Since Virendra grew up in an area that is now considered Pakistan, he was right in the action of the violence between Hindus and Muslims. By his house, there were not many skirmishes, but he could hear the shouts and religious fervor from his house. There was so much violence and fear that school was cancelled.

His father was offered a new irrigation job in Muzaffarpur when Virendra was 16, and the whole family moved out there. That happened to be the very same morning that Gandhi was assassinated. Virendra remembers having trouble finding transportation to their hotel. Advised by his father, Virendra was admitted into a local 2-year college in the middle of the year, and was able to keep up, despite the limited time. Next, he got a Bachelor’s Degree in Science at Patna University. On July 1, 1951, he joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Delhi to earn his Master’s in science, focusing on organic chemistry. While he was there, he came up with a brand new method of synthesizing 4, 6, 7-trihydroxy isoflavone – his first of many scientific discoveries that was deemed worthy of publication. He passed his laboratory examination with flying colors, despite having a fever of 101 degrees.

In July of 1953, he began his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Delhi, where he worked on a project of determining what chemicals in a particular pine wood made it resistant to insects. He was on track to finish his Ph.D. in a record-breaking two years when his mother became sick in March of 1955. A local physician came by and mentioned that one of his classmates was trying to find a man to marry his daughter. Virendra’s parents agreed to meet the Aggarwal family.

In early April of 1955, Virendra’s parents met the Aggarwal family for afternoon tea. His potential bride, Sushila, was present, but they did not have time for one-on-one conversation at this particular meeting. They both agreed to the marriage and were engaged that afternoon. An astrologer was called to the house, who decided that June 29th, 1955 was the most auspicious date for the wedding.

Just to back track a tad, Sushila Aggarwal was born in Nairobi, Kenya on September 23, 1934 to an incredibly large family. Their family, although Indian, operated a trading post in Nairobi. Prior to this introductory tea where she met her soon to be betrothed, the family provided refuge to activist Jomo Kenyatta who was on the run. Kenyatta later brought Kenya to independence and became the first president of the country. His son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the current president of Kenya.

Virendra and Sushila were married on June 29th, 1955. It was a busy couple of weeks for Virendra, seeing as he was rewarded a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in July of 1955 at the age of 23. Upon graduation, Virendra received one of the six post doctoral fellowships advertised for post doctoral study in England by the Assam Oil Company. Virendra was one of 480 applicants. However, there was a bit of a snafu. Somewhere, an error must have been made, for Virendra was granted a physical chemist position. The Indian Ambassador warned him that going to England was going to be a risk, seeing as it would be difficult to find an organic chemist position with such short notice. However, the two newlyweds decided to take a chance and begin the 21 day journey to London, England.

Once in England, people were amazed at Virendra’s skill and he was given a fellowship position at Oxford on October 1, 1956. He was advised to also enroll for a D. Phil degree at Christ Church College at the same time. Although he had done research in wood, the true thing that captured his interests were hormones and steroids, since there were real world human applications to these areas. It was in Oxford that Virendra first developed a method to measure hormones in blood and urine.

Oxford was a time of growth and change. After a long delivery of 32 hours, Anita Mahesh was born into the world. In a new place and with a new baby, the newlyweds struggled to make ends meet. They could not even afford bus fare, so Virendra would walk the two miles to work everyday, Sushila would walk the 2-4 miles to the store, and then she would meet Virendra halfway at the end of the day. Still, on April 26th, 1958, a day after his 26th birthday, Virendra defended and received his D. Phil. degree from Oxford University.

After spending some time working and presenting research in Switzerland and Austria, Virendra was awarded the James Hudson Brown Memorial Fellowship at Yale University. Once again, the now-three-person family would make a big move – but this time, to America. The three arrived in New York on October 30, 1958 on the SS United States before making their way to New Haven, Connecticut.

At Yale, Virendra worked more on steroid and hormone research (endocrinology as it is called). On August 21, 1959, the family became four as Sushila welcomed another child – this time, a boy: Vinit Mahesh.

Eventually, Virendra was invited to work as an Assistant Research Professor of Endicronology at the Medical College of Georgia once people started hearing about his work. Some colleagues advised him against the position, based on ideas of Southern segregation. To test out their concerns, when Virendra was invited to visit the college in Augusta, Georgia, he asked for one day off to explore. In this day, he took a bus to downtown Augusta and sat in the front portion of the bus. He went to three restaurants and had a cup of coffee. He went to two movie theaters and bought tickets to get in. And at the end of the day, he returned to his motel via the bus. All in all, he found that he was not subjected to segregation. And thus he accepted the position, starting on November 1, 1959.

In Augusta, Virendra made some fascinating discoveries. He was given multiple grants to work on steroid research. A lot of his research surrounded polycystic ovarian syndrome and how various hormones caused it or reacted with it. Eventually, he worked with Dr. Greenblatt from the Medical College on the development of oral contraceptives. Before, birth control was solely an estrogen pill, which was incredibly fatal to women. Virendra discovered that by combining estrogen and progestin, the pill was equally effective with less danger of estrogen.

In March of 1960, the family moved into a new house in Augusta, Georgia. This was a time where there was utmost peace – no one locked their doors. At one point, Sushila kept saying that she heard noises coming from under the house. At 4 AM, the Mahesh’s neighbors called the police. The police arrived and found two escaped prisoners under the house in the crawl space. A week later, someone rang the doorbell during the day. Sushila went to answer. It was a Jehovah Witness, who asked “Are you saved?” As someone raised in Nairobi, Kenya her whole life, Sushila had not heard of this phrase. She asked “Are there other prisoners running around?”

In 1961, a problem was posed. The Mahesh family was in the United States under an Exchange Visitors visa for a limited time. They were due to leave on October 29, 1961. But Virendra had so much work to do; he could not just up and leave now. But there was another way to prolong the period – a waiver request, nicknamed the Einstein Visa. This is a visa for the brightest and smartest, the ones who have so much to add to America that it is vital for them to stay in the country. Virendra was rejected twice. On the third time, multiple professors, scientists, and academics wrote to a government agency, pleading on his behalf. He was accepted. The government agency wrote a letter on his behalf, stating how vital to the future of female reproduction system research it was that Virendra stay in the country. The request was reviewed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Attorney General Robert Kennedy before being signed by President John F. Kennedy. The Mahesh family was saved. However, not permanently – the waiver allowed them to stay until they could file for actual green cards. Unfortunately, the country worked on a quota system. They could not apply for green cards until the a place in the quota for India opened up. However, the government found a loop hole: Virendra was technically born in Punjab, now a Pakistan territory. The line for Pakistan was much shorter. They were given green cards before being granted citizenship in 1968.

In 1962, Sushila found herself pregnant again. They had really wanted a third child. However, like in all of her previous pregnancies, her hemoglobin was terribly low. Now, with more resources at the Medical College, Virendra took Sushila to be tested. Renowned hematologist Dr. Titus Heismann discovered that both Sushila and Virendra carried the Thalassemia trait. Thalassemia or Cooley’s Anemia is a genetic disease where the body cannot make the right type and quantity of red blood cells due to a defect in the synthesis of hemoglobin. There is still no cure for the disease. Both parents had one gene affected by the disease. There were three possibilities to how this third pregnancy could turn out: The two normal genes could combine to create a perfectly healthy child (as was the case with Anita). One normal gene could combine with one affected gene to create a mostly healthy child (as was the case with Vinit). The two affected genes could combine to create a child with Thalassemia Major, meaning that the child would have to have frequent blood transfusions for their relatively short life span. With no options, all Virendra and Sushila could do was wait.

Angela Mahesh was born on March 21, 1963. She was deemed perfectly normal at birth, something that relieved both parents. However, she slept a lot and did not feed well. Eventually, she was tested and found to have Thalassemia Major – a condition that, in this time period, had a projected lifespan of less than 5 years. Sushila cared for the child while Virendra tried to keep his emotions in check. He would hold Angela’s hand during blood transfusions and try to be strong, since it was too scary for Sushila. Upon seeing Angela have a lack of energy and some serious growth retardation, he went looking for some answers. He went to various scientific meetings and presentations about new discoveries for Thalassemia. He met a scientist who kept children healthy by keeping hemoglobin between 10 to 14 grams (compared to the standard 8 grams), which led them to be energetic with normal growth patterns. Angela’s pediatric Hematologist tried this out with remarkable results.

Angela started requiring more frequent transfusions to suppress her own immune system. This brought about weight gain, a puffy face, and low resistance to infections. It started to be hard to be around people. No one understood, and she could not figure out why she was so different from other people. Eventually, the family decided to homeschool her after she faced constant ridicule. When Virendra went to the second international conference on Thalassemia, the same scientist who had given him so much hope with the higher hemoglobin levels had taken a turn. With the high dose of blood transfusions, some of the patients had started to show signs of pancreas, liver and heart disorders caused by iron overload. This disappointed the whole Mahesh familyy.

Angela was a sweet child with a big taste for anything artistic. She took up painting, drawing, embroidery, and anything she could get her hands on. Later on, she became a massive wrestling fan, because she felt that she was always being beaten down, too. She was also occasionally clumsy – something that frustrated her older brother, Vinit. At one point, she pricked her finger on a rose bush. He stopped her bleeding, but reprimanded her (“We keep trying to put blood in you, but you keep taking it out”).

Meanwhile, Virendra was studying androgen production and had started teaching. In his first year, he received the Best Teacher Award in 1969 from the freshman class. Later on, he became a Regents professor (the second regents professor appointment in the entire history of the Medical College of Georgia). Later on, there were discussions of him as a possible chairman for the Department of Endocrinology. Angela did not understand truly what was going on, but understood that there was some kind of job anxiety. When Virendra came home from work one day, Angela told him that he did not have to worry anymore – she had seen on TV that Dairy Queen was hiring. He got the job (Chairman, not Dairy Queen. I can’t imagine him handing out Blizzards).

Towards the end of 1972, Sushila’s health began declining with frequent backaches and the swelling of the ankles and wrists – early indications of Theumatic Arthritis. In May 1973, Angela had to have her spleen removed – something that terrified her completely. In July 1974, she developed symptoms of diabetes. This was the last straw – Virendra hated having to give her insulin injections on top of everything she was already suffering through.

In July of 1976, Angela started making hints that she would die soon. In September, she decided that the last Christmas presents she would give would be handmade. In November, she told Virendra that the room that she used to share with Anita would just be Anita’s come December. On December 19th, 1976, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. On the 20th, she had difficulty breathing and it was discovered that wheeling her in a reclining chair helped her breathe. Sushila, Virendra, Vinit, Anita (who had come back from Duke to see Angela), and some of Vinit’s classmates took turns wheeling her around in the day and night. On Christmas, she gave out her handmade presents. A pillow for Anita. Ties for Virendra and Vinit. She had run out of time to make something for Sushila, but she had picked out a Ming Tree art kit. Virendra presented her with two envelopes: one offered wheeling services as needed, the other was a promise to make the Ming Tree for Sushila. Angela smiled.

On December 30th, 1976, the family was called to the hospital. Sushila was finishing up the 18th and final chapter of the Bhagavad Gita to Angela and it was clear that this was it. Virendra wheeled her around while Anita held her up in the chair. At one point, Anita realized she wasn’t breathing. Virendra told her to not make a scene of it and they wheeled her around once more to make her last moments peaceful. After passing, following Indian customs, she was cremated. They were given permission from the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. to send the ashes to India to be immersed in the Ganges River.

After Angela’s death, Sushila was distraught. She joined a pastoral counseling program at University Hospital to try to help other families of patients going through similar things. She joined the volunteer staff, behaving different from other counselors. She stayed with patients and families as long as they needed, sometimes bringing them by the house. She refused to ask patients whether they attended church, even though she was advised to do so. Eventually, the Medical College of Georgia needed her in the Pediatric Cardiology section. Since she was needed, she did just that, even though she was forced to work in the same section where she lost her child day after day. She worked as a volunteer for over 20 years before retiring due to her declining health. There are now counseling programs at the college, something she initiated herself.

After Anita received her Bachelor’s in History and Economics from Duke University, graduating summa cum laude, she went on to receive her Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. She went on to become a lead economist at the World Bank. She is married with two children, Alena and myself.

Vinit went on to earn his medical degree at the Medical College of Georgia. He is currently a pediatric pulmonologist in Huntsville, Alabama, and he is a great uncle.

Sushila’s health continued to decline after arthritis, multiple falls, and a stroke. She was known for her caring and humorous personality. There was no one that she couldn’t befriend. She was particularly kind to me, always making sure that I was eating right and being treated right. When I was a child, I scraped my knee and called her to complain about how we didn’t have any Band-Aids in the house. Within the week, we got a package of at least 3 boxes of Band-Aids. She had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met. She joined Angela in her eighties, passing away in Huntsville on April 24th, 2016.

Virendra continued to stay on and work at the Medical College of Georgia until his retirement in 1999. He worked as a professor starting in 1966 and a regents professor starting in 1970. He was appointed the Chairman of the Department of Endocrinology at the Medical College in 1972. He served as Editor-in-Chief of the premier journal “Biology of Reproduction” from July 1999 to June 2004. Even up until his death, he still attended scientific conferences, accepted prestigious awards, reviewed manuscripts and served on the Board of Directors of two national scientific societies. He held a research grant for a record-breaking 40 years. Over his time, he published 375 peer reviewed articles, 83 chapters in books and conference proceedings, co-edited 8 scientific monographs, served as Guest Editor for 2 issues of the journal Steroids and Cellular Endocrinology, and presented 273 research papers at national and international scientific conferences. He served as President of the International Society of Reproductive Medicine from 1980 to 1981, and he served on various study sections at National Institute of Health as a member and as Chairman on several occasions for 45 years. In 2001, the American Physiological Society established the Virendra B. Mahesh Distinguished Award in Endocrinology. And there is so so so much more. But most of all, he was my grandfather, my Nanaji (mother’s father). And I love him with my whole heart. And also – it is important to note – he kept his promise; he made the Ming Tree that he promised Angela he would.

He started out with so little, but achieved so much. He created a beautiful family and had to overcome so many struggles. I am so incredibly honored and proud to call him my grandfather. I will miss him truly – I know everyone will.

Rest in peace, Nanaji.

 

It may take some time to get back into my thesis. John Lennon once told Daily Mail in 1965 that if he were to write a book, his “only aim… [would be] to make it funny. It’s either funny or it’s nothing.” My book will be funny. I promise I’ll write a funny book. Just not today.

 

All my love,

Marriya

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