Avoidable deaths

Enough is enough: An open letter to Narendra Modi from five tobacco widows

On World No Tobacco Day, women whose husbands have died of substance-related diseases share their tragic stories.

Dear Shri Narendra Modi,

Pranaam. Greetings from the widows of five former smokers and tobacco users on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day. We feel it is apt to greet you on this great occasion as the government is a major shareholder in the tobacco industry. Our late husbands have contributed considerable amounts to your government's massive tax income from the tobacco industries, and also to the profits of Life Insurance Corporation, financial institutions, mutual funds etc, who hold about 35% shares in tobacco companies.

Mr Prime Minister, Sir, we beg to introduce ourselves and describe the ordeal that the tobacco industry has put us and our families through.

Mrs Anup Shakti Nigam



My husband Anup Shakti Nigam passed away in the year 2000. He was a light hearted fun loving person. He used to smoke at work. His job required lot of travelling; maybe that was the reason. He was addicted to tobacco in his college days but quit after college. Later he took up the habit when he started working. My children (one boy and one girl) were only 10 and 13 years old respectively when their father expired due to throat cancer at the age of 40, after undergoing eight months of treatment in a cancer hospital. Our world came crashing down around us. Needless to say, we went through a financial crisis, and suffered from mental and physical insecurity.

Alka Pandey



I was 23 years old when I met and married Rajeev Pandey in 1998. We lived together for only 12 years before my husband expired at the age of 40. He used to chew Raj Durbar tobacco in his workplace, and became more and more addicted to it day by day.

When he passed away on March 27, 2010, after 10 months of hospital treatment, I and my two kids (eight and four years then) had no one to support us. Neither in-laws nor relatives were there to morally or financially support us, and I managed to find a job after about 10 months of financial struggle.

Kaumudi Chaturvedi

I was married to Manoj in our mid mid-20s. We are blessed with a girl child. My husband – a government employee in Bhopal – was fond of chewing tobacco, and was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2009. I had to leave my job to take care of him. What followed was many years of hospital treatment – both chemotherapy and surgery. It was a daily struggle to survive, as he kept losing weight on a liquid diet.

Finally, he passed away on October 29, 2013 at the age of 56. Losing him came with more hardships than I could ever imagine. Although we miss him at each and every point in life, the most difficult times are the family occasions and major events in our lives. My pension is now the only source of our family's income.

Niku Sidhu



It is not yet one month since my husband Rahul Sahgal passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer and the side effects of the chemotherapy. The date was May 7, and I am yet coming to terms with the death of my husband at the age of 48. We were married for 14 years, of which the first ten were excellent and carefree.

Throughout, we lived a healthy diet-controlled, exercise-inclusive lifestyle. Rahul was a gym-goer for years. The only hitch was, he had chewed tobacco for a couple of years in the 1990s. This old habit, which he had dumped, sneaked up on him in 2012 and ravaged his health at the peak of his career and his health.

After the biopsy report revealed that he was suffering from head and neck cancer, our lives changed overnight. Commando surgery where the right mandible was replaced by a pectoral flap from the chest, radiation for six weeks, the horrific external burns on the skin and the ulcers in the mouth and neck; these were the effects of routine medical treatment. He could not consume enough food to regain strength and rebuild immunity for a year. Continuing in his profession became impossible. Having paid this steep price, we thought we had managed to crush the cancer.

Not quite. Two years later, malignancy raised its ugly head above the mandible, close to the brain. Another surgery was followed by radiation and supportive chemotherapy for a period of six weeks. Rahul had completed the trio treatments of cut, burn and poison. I had to take time off from my work too. As the primary caregiver for three long years, I was fighting the cancer too.

The third time around, we both knew the disease was out of control. As palliative chemotherapy treatments were considered, we resorted to taking loans, I took leave without pay. We had fought the disease long and hard, but in the end, it won.

Tobacco ‒ a small pack of Rs 10 ‒ took away a million-dollar life. It is time a complete ban on tobacco is not just considered but effected today. Many lives, careers and the happiness of many homes depends on it.

 Sumitra Satish Pednekar



I am proud to be the wife of Maharashtra’s former home and labour minister, Satish Pednekar, who died of oral cancer in 2011. My husband’s illness happened because of his addiction to mawa, a mix of chewing tobacco and pan masala. In his last few months, my husband could not swallow even watery dal-khichdi. My daughters and I are still struggling to come to terms with the scars left by his extended illness and tragic demise.

The tobacco industry, which the government tacitly supports and patronises, is an unjust and inhuman industry that has made many victims like me and my family. My husband was a tobacco, paan and alchohol user. This lethal combination, his poor appetite and his strong headedness was the primary reason for his cancer. His cancer was detected in a very advance stage in early 2010. At first, he recovered quickly with the help of a minor surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But, during the five months of his treatment, he lost lot of weight and became extremely weak. Due to his inability to eat orally,we first fed him through a nasal peg tube and later through a stomach peg tube, which required a specific liquid intake.

Then, on January 21, 2011, I felt that his stomach was a little bloated. So we went for a sonography, and he was hospitalised again as his cancer had reached his liver, and was now at an advanced stage.

My husband was an orator, a public figure and had always lived his life like a king. He was always a giver, and for a man like him to live a life where he couldn't take a bath or even as much a visit the bathroom alone was very difficult.

On March 23, I was called by doctor outside the room around 11.30 am and told that they are stopping his treatment, as it wasn’t having an effect anymore. My husband was unaware of this, as I didn’t want him to give up hope. He passed away, peacefully in his sleep at 4 pm; it was as if he had heard what the doctor had said. Before sleeping he asked me to read the Hanuman haleesa and the Sankat Mochan out to him. Little did i know that was the last time I communicated with him. He slept like a baby, a very deep sound sleep. Its very difficult for me and my family to relive those moments. I am incoherent even as I write this.

I understand life and death are beyond our control but we can always control how we live. People who consume things that have a bad effect on their health, always have a funny explanation as to why they can’t give up smoking and tobacco. It’s too late when they do, it’s when life is ready to give them up. Cancer is a life style disease, that comes by invitation for adults and is given as a gift to children by adults.

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Mr Prime Minister, Sir, we hope you will give heed to our voices. We are only five among the lakhs of Indian widows that the tobacco industry has made.

Cancer is India’s second-largest killer followed by heart attack. Both are attributable to tobacco. In fact 40% of all cancer-related deaths are related to tobacco, while 20% all deaths are related to tobacco.

How many more widows and orphans will you allow the tobacco industry to make before India says enough is enough?

Yours sincerely,

Anup Shakti Nigam
Alka Pandey
Kaumudhi Chaturvedi
Niku Sidhu
Sumitra Pednekar

Issued in the public interest by Krisharaj Rao. 

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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