How cancer, India and Harry Hill inspired Elaine Cook to publish her first book - A Geordie Up The Ganges
Six years ago, the 61-year-old was busy preparing for the trip of a lifetime when five days before her flight, she was hit with the ‘bombshell’ that she had cancer.
But undeterred, she flew to India and made every second count. On her return, she began treatment and wrote a novel based on her experiences - A Geordie Up The Ganges.
Elaine, who grew up in Newcastle before moving to Blackpool 38 years ago, was happy just to leave it alone, until she saw an advert for a TV pilot with Harry Hill, asking for ideas for a show. She pitched her idea based on her book and on getting good feedback, she was spurred on to finish it and self publish it.
She revealed: “I became hooked on yoga and decided I wanted to visit India. I booked an adventure trip on my own with Exodus Travels, as my husband, John, didn’t want to go.
“I had been planning this for two years and I was starting to have one or two health problems, which turned out to be gall stones.
“I found this out a month before I was going, so I was a bit fed up as I knew I had to be careful with the food out there.
“I had a scan at Blackpool Victoria Hospital and we were going to arrange surgery for after I got back. I just happened to mention I was having pains in my left side and my consultant sent me for a CT scan. Five days before my trip - on my 55th birthday - the consultant called me in and gave me the bombshell shock that I had a tumour in my left kidney and I needed to have surgery to remove it. It was a massive shock and I felt like I had been hit with a hammer.
“Once I had stopped crying, I said I can’t have my kidney removed, as I was going to India. The consultant said if my chest x-ray was clear, I could go and have the surgery when I got back.
“It was really serious and I didn’t know if I would survive. I just wanted to go to India and deal with it when I came back.”
Elaine flew to India and enjoyed 16 days of excitement, celebration and culture, detailing it all in a blog, A Geordie Up The Ganges.
When she returned, she had half her left kidney removed and she had six months away from her job at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.
Elaine, who has one daughter and one granddaughter, said: “It was a very aggressive tumour. If they had not found it, it would have grown and I could have gone in six months. I was very lucky.”
Whilst recovering at home, Elaine began turning her experiences into a work of fiction. As she returned to work, she left it alone, until four years later when she saw an advert on Facebook about Harry Hill looking for ideas for a TV show, so she put forward her idea of a comedy drama mini series about her trip to India. Elaine explains: “I thought about my story - A Geordie Up The Ganges - which would be like a female Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
“I went to London and pitched my idea in front of a panel and an audience. That galvanised me to finish my book and get my message out there.
“At the time of starting my book, I had a lot on my plate, as I had gone back to work and was looking after my mum, Joan Redshaw, 87, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Sadly she died last week. She was so proud of me and my book.
“I wanted it to be fiction so I could flex my creative muscles and write something entertaining. I wanted to make people laugh and cry.
“Quite a few people have said that what happened to me is really inspirational. I want to say to people that if they get a frightening diagnosis, don’t give up hope. If you want to go on a trip on your own - do it, because I did. Keep fighting.”
Elaine, who now works in the NHS finance department at Lancashire Care Foundation Trust, in Preston, experienced a lot on her 16 days and was there for the Maha Kumbh, which happens every 144 years. The festival is part of the Kumbh Mela, which occurs every 12 years.
She recalled: “This is the biggest gathering of people on earth, as millions of people bathe in India’s sacred Ganges and Yamuna, as they believe the water from the river will cleanse them of sin. I had never experienced anything like it. It was so calm.”
Elaine visited various sights, including Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta and the Sunderban Tiger Camp.
She said: “Seeing Mother Teresa’s home was eye-opening. There is a little museum which is used as a hospice for people dying. People were brought in from the streets so they can die with dignity.
“I also visited Kalighat Temple which is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. It was the most bizarre place I have ever visited in my life. It was like walking into something from an Indiana Jones film. It is quite small place but there are people crowding around an effigy and it is so emotional.
“The best place I went to was Sunderban Tiger Camp which is the largest tiger sanctuary, with more than 400 Bengali tigers. We had to be careful as there are about 40 maulings a year. A lot of locals go fishing there and get attacked by tigers.”
Elaine was also privy to many Indian rituals, including sun worshipping and cremations.
She revealed: “I saw the real India and visited a lot of little villages.
“I would watch ladies travel from the villages to the temples by the Ganges and they would bathe in the water to worship the morning sun. They were full dressed in the water and you could see the mist on the water as the sun had not come up yet. They were chanting and dipping their pots in the water. It was such a privilege to watch them in their private moments.
“I went to Varanasi, which is very holy to Hindus and where people go to be cremated. The city runs along the River Ganga and there are different areas along the water that have different purposes: bathing, washing and burning.
“The main burning place is used for cremations. When someone passes away, the body is wrapped and brought to Varanasi for a procession. It is a celebration as the body is carried through on bamboo and there is singing, chanting and the banging if drums.
“The bodies are put on piles of wood and there is an evening ceremony where the priests perform a ritual, bringing honey and water from the Ganges and wave lanterns. Thousands of people join in and the atmosphere is hypnotic. It is amazing to watch it all.”
Elaine’s trip was not without amusing anecdotes, like the time she was attacked by a monkey.
She recalled: “I was stood at the train station and I was taking photos of a monkey on the other side of the track.
“It was staring at me and I thought we had a connection. Then it came thundering towards me from across the track.
“I thought it was going to kill me and bite my face off.
“I turned my back and crouched down but I had a bag of oranges, so my hand was sticking out, holding this bag.
“I felt my arm that was holding the bag juddering and all my oranges were rolling around on the floor. The monkey had shredded the bag and then more monkeys came to pinch all my oranges.”
Elaine enjoyed her trip so much, she is planning another to Cambodia and Vietnam, which she hopes will provide material for a second book.
Elaine will be signing copies of her book - A Geordie Up the Ganges - at an arts and crafts fair at Norbreck Castle on Saturday, November 23, from 11am until 5pm.