It was a grim evening. I was reading and re-reading a piece of text that I had written, trying my best to accept the words on the screen in front of me. I had been in testing situations before, but none like this.
While I live and work as a photographer in Mumbai, I am originally from Shillong, where my parents and dog still live. It had been a while since my parents had visited me, but in February of 2021, they were making an urgent trip to the city — my mother had been diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. After all the initial fear, panic, grief, and confusion, we got some respite when the PET scan miraculously showed that the cancer had not spread. Our surgical oncologist told us that this was incredibly positive and that he and his team would work towards treatment that would cure her of the disease. We used these words as fuel to carry on, and readied ourselves for what was going to be a long treatment. I began aggressively looking for assignments and picking up whatever shoots came my way; dad went back home to Shillong to resume his stalled projects and try to wrap them up as soon as possible. Mom did not have any health insurance, so the costs of treatment had to be incurred by us. We knew this was never going to be easy, but we could never have fathomed what lay ahead of us.
Mom’s treatment plan included sixteen rounds of chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy, and fifteen rounds of radiation therapy — a course of treatment that would unfold over nine months. It was only her second round of chemo when we were hit by the brutal second wave of COVID-19. It was a trying time for the country at large and especially stressful for us — mom was immunocompromised, and at the time, I didn’t have space to isolate in my house. We took it one day at a time and tried our best to keep our spirits up. As the days kept ticking over, something more worrying was taking shape: it had been weeks since I had my last assignment, all shoots had completely dried up and I was rapidly eating into my reserve. Still, I held on to faith that things would get better.
As luck would have it, there was one day that year in which Mumbai received 44% of the month’s average rainfall on a single day. It was like nothing I had seen in almost a decade of living in the city — and the nightmare assumed form when I realised that water was trickling into my one room-kitchen, ground-floor accommodation through a crack in the floor in the kitchen. We had to move swiftly. The next ten days were a blur: between visits to the hospital for chemo and ensuring that she was least inconvenienced, I managed to find and move into another house.
Once I had a moment to breathe, I decided to take a long, hard look at my finances, which had, of course, taken a massive beating. It was worse than what I thought it would be — mom had nine rounds of chemo remaining, plus the surgery and radiation therapy, and the money left in my bank account was just enough to cover maybe six rounds of chemo if I didn’t count my rent and living expenses. Back in Shillong, things weren’t looking great for dad either, and there wasn’t much that he could do. Four of my closest friends were on standby, waiting for my word to transfer money, but before I resorted to borrowing, there was one last thing I wanted to try.
That grim evening, I stared at the text that would be accompanying a set of 22 photographs — I had decided to conduct a print sale of my photographs on Instagram to raise the cost of the treatment. I was acutely aware of the reach I had and immensely daunted by the fact that I was about to lay my vulnerabilities bare to that audience. I did not expect to raise the full cost of the treatment through the print sale — my intention was to have some breathing room while I continued looking for assignments.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined what happened next. Not only was the cost of treatment fully covered, but it far exceeded the target amount. It was extremely overwhelming and an incredible relief.
My mother’s treatment was completed successfully, and the doctors have given her the all-clear. We hope things continue in that vein. She isn’t eligible for insurance, but I have made sure that my father and I are covered. I’ve also learnt to be better prepared, putting money away in investments and savings schemes with the help of a financial consultant so that we are never caught off guard again.
Maybe it is actually true: it gets worse before it gets much, much better.
Anurag Banerjee is an independent photographer based in Mumbai.