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Behind the iron curtain of Belle Vue

- My patient, my relative

The first time I saw her was in December 2007, when someone in her family had called me to see Mrs Sen. I was dumbfounded when I got the phone call and initially couldn’t believe it.

It was around 8 on a cold December evening when I reached her apartment and was led to a sprawling drawing room. The common acquaintance was also present there. It was five minutes of restless wait in which I had mixed feelings of apprehension and interest. Those were the longest five minutes of my life.

Then I found Mrs Sen approaching the drawing room, walking with a stick. She was wearing a printed gown. She greeted me with folded hands. I stood up and greeted her in return. She asked me to sit down.

I was overawed seeing her standing in front of me because I had grown up watching films of Uttam-Suchitra. Although aged, she had the same grace and the same look in her eyes. She had the same personality, glamour and, yes, the same eyes.

She offered me tea and rosogolla. When I refused to have the rosogolla she said, “khetei hobe (You must have it).” Such was her personality that I couldn’t refuse.

She knew that I had treated Swami Ranganathanandaji, former president of Ramakrishna Math and Mission, and that I have been associated with Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral house and Belur Math. On the first day, there was no discussion about treatment and she only spoke about spiritual matters.

I took the opportunity to mention that my maternal uncle, Dr B.C. Lahiri, was her family gynaecologist and also told her that she had visited our ancestral house at Shantipur in the middle of the night in the mid-1960s to attend the Durga Puja at our house on Ashtami while returning from a film shoot.

It was like breaking the ice and the conversation rolled on for half an hour.

She asked me whether I could look into her medical problems on a regular basis.

During Aila in 2009, she and her daughter Moon Moon came forward to help and sent a lot of clothes for the affected people through me.

In early 2008, I went for a conference in Chennai and after coming back in the middle of February, I was summoned urgently to her Ballygunge Circular Road apartment. Mrs Sen had had a fall. I went and saw her lying on the bed and wheezing. I told her to get admitted to hospital but she refused. That was the first time I came to know that she was averse to getting admitted. But finally I could persuade her and we could get her admitted in the night, around 10.30-11, when no one could see her.

She was admitted to Belle Vue with chest infection. I was under a lot of stress. A small-time doctor like Subrata Maitra treating a screen icon like Suchitra Sen! I told her that she could call senior doctors but she said she wanted no one else. Although she could understand that I was under a lot of stress she didn’t say anything. One day when I entered the hospital room she asked the others to go out and told me, “Don’t worry I will be alright.”

At the hospital she would always tell me that she wanted to go home. She never liked too many strangers seeing or surrounding her and preferred the recluse of her home to the hospital cabin.

That’s why, she was admitted only four times — 2008, 2010, 2012 and now. Since 2010, she was on oxygen support at home which improved her general condition.

Doctors of the medical team used to visit her regularly whenever there was a crisis. At times they also had to spend the night there.

Whenever I visited her at her home she used to offer tea, coffee and snacks despite her medical condition. When members of our medical team would go to see her, Mrs Sen would ask them whether they had had their food. She would often send me chocolates, cookies and even Chinese dishes as gifts.

I found her to be soft-spoken, precise, reserved yet cordial. She never carried a mobile phone and always called me from a land phone. In the initial years she used to call me herself and later her helps used to give me a call. She was very polite and always respected my busy schedule. “Jokhon shomoy paben tokhon ashben.” (Please come when you have time).

I found her completely out of touch with the glamour world and any discussion about her heydays would upset her. She didn’t like it at all. She was very fond of her daughter and granddaughters and was proud of their success.

I think the main reason behind her becoming a recluse was spiritual inclination, which was there from her childhood days. On one occasion she mentioned that one performance that she still cherished was the role of Bishnupriya, a film in her early days.

During my repeated but brief visits I never saw her watching television. But she told me that she loved listening to old Bengali film songs of the 1960s and also Tagore songs.

At times she used to share a cup of coffee with us at her home and we would discuss household topics.

Five or six days back she recited two lines of a Tagore poem. That was the last proper conversation that I had with her. After that, she hardly opened her eyes except through gestures and brief communication with family members. They were always by her side.

She had become like a relative to me. It’s a personal loss. I will never get that call from her again.