Children all sing
CHILDREN ALL SING
The conjoined twins have been successfully separated and were expected to arrive from London, shortly. The girls were joined by a band of flesh, cartilage and fused livers at torso. It took 60 doctors under the supervision of Dr. Pedro. The surgery lasted 97 hours. This middle class Indian family got the surgery done free of cost. Mr and Mrs Aalab Shah finally arrived with their daughters Zohra and Ira. They were both healthy. Expecting a lot of media interference, the airport staff asked them to take the side exit which had a car waiting for them. And so they did. Later, they realized that the only people from the media that showed up were the BBC.
He waited for him on the parking lot right beside his car. The man finally stepped out of the exit with a trolley containing his luggage. He was still suited up after a brief business trip abroad. He waved with his right hand which was only partially stretched out to its length as it was weighed down by his man purse. Gautham waved back with his left as he was supporting his cell phone to his ears with the right. He opened the boot of the car for him as he neared the vehicle and then walked away a bit further talking on the phone. Siddhartha loaded his luggage and closed the boot; went towards his father and touched his feet and then got inside and sat on the front seat. He tried to turn the air conditioner on but then realized the keys were taken out. The heat was building up inside but he stay put on his position as the burning sun looked to be in a rage.
Gautham got in the car and smiled at his son. He looked at him for a moment.
“How was your flight?”
“Slow,” replied Sid with a smile.
“Sort off… just the usual agonising jet lag.”
“A bit of this sun would help you get over it,” said Gautham. “I have something bad to tell you.”
“What is it?” he asked with curiosity. Gautham remained silent for an extra second or more.
“A fire broke on the City hospital by dawn today. It claimed lives of hundreds.”
“Oh my… t- that doesn’t sound good,” he said. His reaction was not that convincing. It was sort of catatonic. “My friend… my friend Sameer is a doctor there.”
“I know… he is safe. I talked to him after the incident took place,” clarified Gautham. “Well, I have this list of people’s name, dead and lying there all alone without anyone of their friends or family realizing that they are no longer with us. I ought to let their families know of it.”
“What!?” he expressed with shock. “But you just retired last week. And you were a senior ranked cop, dad. This is no job for you.”
“This is not a job, son. This is a duty of conviction. It is such acts of humanity that people like me have to do when there is a catastrophe.” Sid tries to understand what his father is trying to do here. He was under the impression that his old man thinks that he is not done serving his society. Maybe he just doesn’t want to feel retired. Or, maybe he might have not come in terms with the idea of not having anything important to do anymore. Maybe this is just who he is… a person who cares not only for his family but the common people. Like as he said… a police officer with conviction.
Probably it must be that very same conviction which made him completely forget about his son who just had a long flight as he was still in the car when his father was on this unprecedented assignment. But he remained silent and decided to go with the flow. It didn’t seem like a good time for certain obvious questions. Gautham started the engine and the car is on the move. There was not much talking inside anyway. His father was busy driving with a stern face. It seems like it’s going to be a long journey also as he took the highway which led to the opposite direction towards home. Sid was too tired. He was slowly dozing off. Just a few questions and thoughts in his mind and he was out.
“Wake up,” called out Gautham shaking him off the sleep. Sid opened his eyes and realized that he has been sleeping for a while. The car has stopped on some slum which he has not been before. “Come with me,” he said and got out of the car. He started walking towards the slum as if he knew the area so well. Sid followed him. He looked at all the one bedroom houses made of low cost materials. They were all in poor conditions. Few of them had TV sets and ceiling fans it seems. The surroundings were not as filthy or as squalor as he thought of it to be. He was very thirsty now. But he wouldn’t risk a drink from here.
“It used to be like 7 to 8 people living under one roof. Now, it seems like they have all found jobs to occupy themselves and a roof for each to look at lying down,” said Gautham marching along with his son. A man appeared to be sitting on a stool in front of a hut and having lunch. “Samad!” called aloud Gautham. The man raised his head to see who is calling and then got on his feet as he saw the visitors. He put aside his aluminium plate and smiled nervously.
“Sahib… what brings you to our shelter?” he enquired courteously. Gautham walked towards him with a smile and put a hand on shoulder and motioned him to be a bit further away from anyone’s audibility… including Gautham’s own companion. “What’s the matter, sahib?” he asked worriedly. Samad’s father was an informer of Gautham. Before that he was the trusty of a reputed mobster. When the mobster was killed in an encounter of conspiracy, the police asked his father to serve a small term in prison for his own safety. He was also given a small ransom.
“Samad, Yusuf got sick yesterday and he was taken to the hospital along with two policemen. The doctors said that he had Hernia and needed immediate surgery,” explained Gautham.
“Which hospital was he taken to sir?” Gautham looked at him without saying much. Then he looked at his house to see if anyone was outside. Then he looked at Sid… he seemed tensed now.
“City hospital,” he replied. Samad started breathing heavier. He appeared to be in pain. His lips trembled. His hands were shaking. Then he fell on his knees exhausted. Sid came running along to help him. Both of them lifted him. Gautham moved him further away from his house. He pressed him against a wall. “They don’t have to know… they don’t have to know for now,” he told repeatedly. The man was in tears. He appeared to be in only half consciousness.
“You don’t understand sahib,” he said. “I have a young daughter and a wife with polio.”
“You will be fine…” said Gautham.
“And I have cancer, Sahib,” said Samad. Gautham didn’t see that coming. “I don’t have much to go. What will happen to them?” he asked. Gautham let his grip loose on him. He moved away a bit. Took a cigarette and lit it. He started smoking. Samad was crying silently.
“How old is your daughter?” he asked.
“Does she go to school?”
“Her schooling will get completed in one year, sahib. I am not expected to live that long. My family is not aware of my condition either,” he said.
“Tell me, Samad… do you trust me?”
“What kind of question is that, sir? Without you our entire family would have been slaughtered.”
“Then wipe your tears,” he said and put his cigarette down. He walked close to him. “It is not tough to die, Samad. It is only surviving that has a cost. Your family will get a relief amount for the death of your father. It would come handy. And don’t worry about your daughter and wife. They will be protected by me and she will be married of well if you won’t be around to do it. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” he said still in tears and pain.
“Good… now go to the hospital with your wife and do a son’s duty. Be gentle when you tell your family,” he said and walked away with his son.
“Sahib…” called out Samad. They turned around to see what it was. “Wasn’t there any policemen with him at the hospital?” he asked.
“Two of them,” said Gautham.
“Did they also die?” he asked.
“No…” he replied and walked away. A girl wearing a school uniform and a scarf on her head, carrying a bag slowly walked on the opposite direction beside them. Gautham smiled at her. She seemed to be scared to meet eyes with him. She would be the saddle on top of her father’s pain. She would be the motive for the family to fight grief.
Gautham checked his paper for the next destination once he and Sid got inside the vehicle.“I haven’t made a call home after arriving,” said Siddhartha taking out his phone. “The battery seems to be low. Is there a charger in the car?” he asked and began to open the dash board.
“No!” said Gautham and held the half open dash board as if he didn’t want him to open it. “We don’t have one. Besides I told the ladies in the house that the flight is delayed so that we could have some father-son time together. Is that okay?” he asked. Sid was a bit confused. “It’s just… your mother wouldn’t appreciate you witnessing such dark shades of life. And I feel too old to do it alone. So…”
“It’s ok dad. I am just happy to assist you,” he said. Gautham started the vehicle and continued the journey. Sid clearly seemed tired and fatigued. But it didn’t seem like he was going to get any sort of attention. The car remained on constant motion for the next 45 minutes until it reached on what looks to be like some sort of a Christian rehab clinic. The place had no name board. Sid thought it would be better to accompany his father than get burned inside a parked vehicle. So he followed his dad to an office room which was directed to them by a nun they met in the hall way. They were made to wait in the office for sometime where the nun had left them to call up on Father Reynolds.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” greeted Father as he stepped in. He was white… and big. He shook hands and took his seat behind the table. “What may I do for you?”
“Water!” said Sid. Gautham looked at him. Sid smiled.
“Are you in charge of this place?” asked Gautham.
“Yes, and you are?”
“My name is Gautham. I was in the police. I came here with my son to give you very unfortunate news. It is regarding Sister Dorian.”
“What about her?” he asked with anxiety.
“She was admitted in City hospital with chest infection 2 days back, right?”
“Did she have any bystanders?”
“One… Sister Clarice. What seems to be the matter here?”
“I assume you weren’t aware of the fire accident on the hospital by today dawn. Several have died and many injured. Sister Clarice have been rescued but, she has had second degree burns and her condition is critical,”
“And Sister Dorian?” asked Father anxiously.
“I am sorry, father. Unfortunately she couldn’t be rescued on time.”
“Oh-my…” sighed Father in agony. He leaned back on his chair.
“She… she actually went deeper in to the fire trying to help the other patients. That is what the survived patients who witnessed it said.” Father just sat there silent. He had no more questions to ask. He just sat there lost in thoughts. A nun came with refreshments for all. She handed it to each and left the room. Father gestured them to drink up and then gulped his quota.
“I’ll just go over to the spot and…”
“Sure, Father,” said Gautham saving the father’s words. Father now got up from his chair. He stood there a bit traumatized. Gautham and Sid also stood up.
“I am not sure how to let the others here know about it… at least not now. I would like you both to give an impression that you are here to make a charity and see the children here. Is that okay?” They nodded. “You don’t have to make a donation for it. I will take care of that.”
“That won’t be a problem, father,” said Gautham. “We will pay willingly.”
“Sister Dorian would be a huge loss for anyone here.”
“We understand that from the bravery and affection showed by Sister Clarice and the concern she shows in her half consciousness, Father,” said Gautham.
“I’ll ask Sister Nancy to show you around,” said Father and rang a bell on his table. It was the same person who bought in the refreshments. Father introduced them to her and left the place. Sister Nancy led them to the wards.
The place looked bigger from the inside. They could hear the noise beginning to creep up as they were approaching a door to some room. The door led them to something which looked similar to a hospital ward. There were beds at each sides of the room. There must be at least 20 beds. Three or four nuns were there who were nursing the patients. The patients here seemed to be mentally unstable. Most of them wore dress which didn’t fit them. They could see that there were patients who complained that they were hungry. The nuns would be spoon feeding them. But then they would throw up instantly. And then cry because they are still hungry. But somehow the nuns had them at peace. They were in pain and agony. Still one gets an impression that they are constantly touched by divine. They kept failing themselves as they would pass stool or urine even without realising they did so. It was nothing to worry though. The nuns never gave them an impression that they did something wrong. They would be cleaned and changed straight away. There would be constant washing and drying of clothes throughout the day. Sometimes a patient needed to be changed half a dozen times a day. Death was also in the cards as there are patients of all ages. A doctor who visits twice a day feels helpless with not much facility. The patients would just laugh or cry all the time. And those who could walk… would attend the prayer were verses of the bible are recited. Some even by-hearts few of the verses. It has some sort of effect with them. They could somehow relate it with their lives. And they keep on chanting it for hours.
“Look at that child on the cradle…” said Sid.
“That is no child,” said Sister Nancy. She went towards the cradle and touched the hand of the patient with love. “His name is Babu. He has Progeria. It is a condition of no aging. And our Babu is 32. He must be the oldest Progeria survivor in the world. Isn’t it Babu?” she asked him with kindness and care in her voice. “But Babu is much more intelligent than anyone here. He doesn’t want the world to know of him,” she said facing them. “He had two attacks and I am afraid he won’t survive more than a week. And he is a very, very brave man.”
“Does he know that?” asked Siddhartha. She nodded.
“You can talk to him if you want. It is really fascinating to talk to him. And he believes his prayers are very powerful,” she spoke in a pampering tone. “You can share your worries and he would pray for you. And he would also give you advices like no other that, I am sure it will give you some sort of reconciliation.” Sid wasn’t feeling comfortable to chat with him. He didn’t know what to say to a man who just suffered an entire life and still smiles though so close to his death. He just marked himself a little more distance. But Gautham spent a moment alone with him. Sister Nancy walked Sid through the ward at that time.
“Hello, there,” whispered Gautham on Babu’s ears. “For the first time in my life, I have no idea what I am doing. And I have no idea how it is going to end.” Babu remained silent. He just smiled and tried to shift his pupil to the left to get a glance of this man as he was lying tilted to the right, opposite of him. He merely understood the words that were spoken to him. But he understood the man was in pain of some sort. He just wanted to see this man through the entire brief conversation. Then he understood the conversation was over as he spoke no more. But he remained seated beside him. It was always nice to have company.
“Bless you,” said Babu in a feeble voice.
Sid and the sister were now outside the room and now placed in a hall which was unroofed in the middle. There were verandas on the four sides with the centre space lowered to the ground. It had a small garden in it with potted flowers which enjoyed the prolific sunlight. Women of different age group were sitting there and talking. One could easily make out they are not the normal kind… that they are all mentally ill or almost normal. The oldest among them looked frail and lonely. She sat there on the side of the veranda with her head rested on one of the four pillars, glaring at the roses. On the left side of the hall, girls from 8 to 18 were playing hopscotch. One of those girls when they saw Sid was blushing and ran for hide behind a door beside her. She kept peeking at him behind the door. The sight made both the sister and Sid laugh. She was a beautiful 18 year old girl and hardly looked like she had a sickness. Her fellow mates teased her for her sudden expressive shyness.
“I think she likes you,” said the sister. He smiled. Gautham stepped in at that time and the sister took them along to another block.
This blocked seemed to be the darkest of them all. It seemed more like a prison. Every patient had to do with his 7 by 7 feet enclose space with not much to vandalise. Either of them could see how these ill people could be treated or at least taken care of by a group of missionaries. But it makes no difference as they don’t have any to claim them or anyone who is interested in spending their convenience on curing them. The patients constantly complaint about hunger though they are fed 3 to 4 times a day. Probably the strong medicines are giving them a huge appetite. Or maybe it’s just the case of a few and the shout of ‘I am hungry!’ became an anthem with the others too. Sister Nancy had to constantly remind them to not to interact with them by going for their deceiving words. Sid found it all a little hot under his collar. He no more wanted to be a part of it. The light here seemed to be much duller compared to the rest. The walls have been painted white and still manage to remain that way. It would have been spookier if it wasn’t that way. It is probably the only thing of sanity in this maze.
“Hey! Sshh… young sir?” called someone from one of the cells. The young man was in no mood to turn around and see who it was. He was too tired. His head felt heavy. His heart is taking a battering each second he spending in this asylum. He continued his steps leading him further from the voice calling for him. “No sir. Please, please!” shouted the man. The man’s earnest voice was too much for him to keep avoiding. He paid respect to it by turning around to him. A half naked stocky man with a thick beard on his face stood caged in front of him. He seemed happy for the attention he attained. He smiled like a baby with his forehead resting on the bars of the cell-door. “Sire…” he called him again… this time with more conviction. “It’s probably the medicines… I just can’t seem to handle the hunger,” he said. “And from my understanding, the food is made with the assistance of the recovering patients here. It’s hardly worthy to be eaten as they are either under cooked or over cooked at most times.” Sid seemed puzzled from the behaviour of the man. It is not something you would expect to hear from a caged patient with a reputation of being a cuckoo. “You might be wondering why I am telling you this. But you are the one on the outside, the one who has more prospect than me to do something regarding this,” said the man smiling. “Food is the most vital thing in our lives as we have no other connection with the outside world,” he added.
“You speak as if you are cured,” said Siddhartha.
“I don’t know about ‘cure,’ sire. But if you mean to say that I don’t appear to look crazy to you then I say you are correct,” said the man.
“Sid!” called out Gautham. “We need to be moving,” he said.
“I… I need to be going now. I’ll see what I can do,” he said to the man and then went towards his father and Sister.
“Sure,” said the man to himself and went to his bed. Sid joined the two and they made their way out of the building. She walked with them to their car.
“That man… these people could be so deceptive. That man talked in a manner like normal people,” said Sid in disbelieve.
“Perhaps you didn’t notice his cell wasn’t locked, Mr. Siddhartha,” said the Sister overhearing him.
“What you mean?”
“Sometimes… miracles do happen for the worst or good and inmates here do get cured completely. But only to realize that they have been abandon by their loved ones,” she said. When someone narrates the story of life with a smile, you could bet it must be something filled with glee. But here they all talk about pain with a similar smile. And then you wonder… what is life for these people? “He decided to continue the only life he knows of… caged, that is.”
Gautham and Sid left the place leaving behind a small cheque in the hands of the sister. With nothing much to say to each other… they knew that this day will see and hear more stories of lives inherited with pain.
Constructing a bridge takes a lifetime of adversity. What it does is jus connect. When it is made, then it is for you to see that your actions would help centuries to pass. And here… they are on the process of making a bridge to heaven.
As a kid, Siddhartha always feels how it would be like to be seated beside his father’s driving seat. He was never allowed to sit on the front. Gautham was protective like most fathers. His desire to sit along with his father grew as he got older. The conscientiousness he carried as a policeman was infectious. His persona and the ease at which he handled things were always envious. He was his childhood hero. But somewhere on the line he lost that desire to be a policeman. But the urge to travel beside him and get some action remained. That was until today. He just realised that grief was the background of these sorts of adventures. And the calmness and focus of his father were just mistaken. They were all just the silence of a man who helplessly witnesses the dark nature of life.
Gautham’s cell phone started ringing. He picked it up without stopping the vehicle on the sides. It was not something you would see him do usually.
“Hello,” he answered. Then he listened to the caller with silence from his part. “I’ll be there in 15,” and then cut the call. “Slight change in plan,” he told his son. He took the next diversion and headed in another direction. Sid recognized this path as the one which leads to the hospital… the one on which he was told to be caught on fire.
Gautham parked the car few blocks away from the hospital. This part of the area must be blocked or something. Not even one city-dweller is seen around. Shops are all closed. But then he didn’t see any policemen restricting traffic or diverting away the public. Or maybe he just missed it as he still felt the after affects of a jet lag. There were temporary tents set up on the open ground nearby. He has been here years back to play an inter college cricket match against the medical college. And then there they were… the press and the media… must be 50 of them. They were restricted entry. The police kept them 100 metres away. Not an inch closer. Then he looked towards the neighbouring towers. Hanging above was the cameramen with their mad angels. They were trying to get whatever picture they could transmit. There was nothing interesting on shooting the hospital building now. But they were stubborn and optimistic.
Siddhartha followed his father to the ground. They met a policeman on uniform who saluted his father. Not sure if he still needs to do that, remarked Gautham to his son. He led his father to one of those tents. Siddhartha followed their lead. A very old man who sat there alone rose to his feet when he saw Gautham approach. The man looked very concern. He is dressed in plain white clothes and the wrinkles in his forehead said that this is a man who is struggling to meet the needs of everyday. Even when he appeared to be in deep concern he still showed the signs of respect for Gautham. Siddhartha felt that he has seen him somewhere many years back. His face resembled someone he knew.
“Majumdhar!” called Gautham. “How are you? Take your seat,” the man sat down. Gautham drew another chair forward and sat in front of him. Then he turned to Siddhartha and asked him to go with the policeman and have some tea and requested him to bring a cup for Mr. Majumdhar when he returns. Siddhartha left the room as he was asked to. Then Gautham turned to the man. He smiled to him. But the old man didn’t respond.
“You do remember me, don’t you?” asked Gautham. “You were the driver of my service vehicle when I first joined the force as Assistant Commissioner. For 3 months to be precise. I am guessing then you were transferred to be the driver of the Commissioner. I heard you retired soon after.” The man remained silent. Gautham was unable to get him involved in a conversation with him. Gautham drew his chair a little more closely. “Listen Majumdhar… I have some news for you. I want you to be calm when you hear this. It can be painful. But…”
“She called me minutes before she died,” he said interrupting Gautham.
“My daughter… she called me from inside. She said she was sorry that she had to leave me. But she knew I will be alright as I have the strength of her mother’s good-spirit with me,” said the man wiping the tears from his right eye with a towel in his hand. His voice trembled. “Then she asked me to take the medicines on time. So that I will live enough to tell her what all she missed. She spoke a lot more. I just can’t recall what. Maybe I didn’t have the strength to listen anymore. Or maybe it was because of all the cries of fear and agony and… Pain that all those people went through when their lives were burned out from their bodies,” he said with his eyes closed. He took a moment trying to have a grip on himself. “She spoke to me for 2 minutes and 13 seconds, sire. 2 minutes… the changes calamity can bring to a man in that little time can be so much. Even a sea of water can’t put off the fire in a father’s heart, sire.” The man started to weep now. Gautham put a hand on his shoulder. He again dried his eyes with his towel… then tried to regain his mental composure. “She also hinted how the doctors and the other nurses ran away to their rescue leaving behind those helpless patients to be burned to death. That doesn’t bother me much. My daughter and her good friend from our neighbourhood, who is also a nurse working along with her showed how much our people value lives. We live each day with poverty and discrimination. What that taught our kids is to be there for each other no matter how big the hurdles get.”
Sid and the other policeman entered the room now. He handed a cup of tea to Majumdhar and then stood behind his father. His father turned to look at him sighing him to wait outside for a little longer. So Sid stepped out of the tent along with the officer, again. Gautham turned to face Majumdhar. “Trust me when I say this… I know what it is to lose someone we love dearly,” he now put his hand on his hand. “I do feel your pain. But you hang in there. We cannot quit at testing times like these. We must go on at least for the younger generation to see… to see…” he searched for words.
“To see how we move on with our loved ones on heart and not on an urn of ashes,” said Majumdhar with a blank smile on his face.
“Yes,” replied Gautham almost lost in his own thoughts. Majumdhar took a sip from his cup. “Pardon me when I ask you this. You know how it is, right? I want you to stress on the conversation with your daughter. Did she mention anything else? As in… who were all still in there or who have passed away, anything of that sort?”
He kept the cup on the ground near his seat as there was no table. “Not anything I can think of,” he replied.
“Hmm… did she call you from her cell phone?” he asked.
“Well… the number she called me from doesn’t look familiar. But I am almost certain that she was not alone when she called as I did hear a male voice on the background,” he said and handed over his cell to him to show the number. Gautham looked at it and took out a pen and small piece of paper from his pocket and wrote down the number on it. Then he handed back the phone.
“Do you know under which doctor she is put under charge these days?”
“I couldn’t say for sure. But she did say something about a Dr. Raghav, few days back,” he said. Gautham called in the inspector and asked him to check and confirm if this number belongs to Dr. Raghav. The officer confirmed it affirmative inside 5 minutes. He also told him that the doctor is suspected to be dead as an unrecognised body from the spot has been doubted to be his. He also clarified that it cannot be confirmed for the next two days; and the CCTV footage is not convincing either.
“Is this the same Dr. Raghav that is married to Dr. Aisha?” asked Gautham.
“Yes sir. She is right now attending to the patients who have been rescued from the fire,” said the officer.
“Where?” asked Gautham.
“Half a kilometre from here, sir,” replied the officer.
“You wait for me outside a little while more? Hope you can manage.”
“Definitely… not much for me to do now,” he said and stepped out.
Gautham turned towards the old man and put his hand on his shirt pocket and took out money from it. “I hope you don’t mind. This is on understanding that your head will not be on the right place to run for money. You already have more concerns,” he said and put the money on his hand and pressed it against his palm. The old man couldn’t think of anything to say. He just looked at him with his eyes wide open and his mouth on the middle of that grey haired face slightly open. “Let us do her final rituals appropriately. I will see you at your house tomorrow. Don’t worry even if in any case I won’t be there. I will have people take care of it. All right?” he asked. The old man nodded. Gautham then put his hand on his shoulder as a gesture of support. He then exited the tent. The other two were waiting outside for him.
“Lead me to Dr. Aisha,” he said to the officer.
Just like a mother spider that sacrifices its life to its offspring; two women here have done the same. Except, they wouldn’t know the people they did it for. Yet again ‘sacrifice’ becomes the surname of women.
The police didn’t seem to have too much control of the crowd at this quarter. People, possibly relatives of the victims have been developing a commotion. They were crying, blaming, swearing, cursing, shouting, praying, vomiting, fainting, and the frenzied searching for their friend or relative who is probably unrecognizable after the mishap, and even trying to get in to a fist fight with a local politician… all in desperation. The media cherished more at this terrain. And on the midst of all this, there are these people wearing the white uniform trying to save lives. And amongst those few were Dr. Aisha, positioned 120 metres, north-east of the gentlemen who came for her. Gautham sees her at his 1 O’ clock. He approaches her with his son.
She was attending a boy who lay in this old rusty bed at this open field, looking skyward. His face… wrapped with cotton. Looks badly burned. She was sewing up his thighs. The boy hardly responded to the motion of the needle and thread piercing his skin at succession. And it’s not always you see a doctor doing this without a nurse or another doctor being accompanied. In fact even nurses have been applying their knowledge of medical science to the survivors without any supervision as the times highly recommended it.
“Dr. Aisha, may I have a word with you?” asked Gautham. She was done with the boy at the time. She looked at him with a straight face, cleaning her hands with cotton. Her hair was all over the place in this windy open field. Behind her some 500 metres away stood the hospital building which looked haunted now.
“It’s not like I am attending some patients with appointment that I can ask to wait, Mr. Gautham,” she commented.
“I understand… but this won’t take long, doctor,” he said. She just shows both her arms partially raised and starts to move away. “Doctor!” he called aloud. “It’s regarding your husband,” he said. She stopped walking and stood there with her back to them. “Dr. Aisha,” he walked slowly towards her. “We can’t reach him on his official number. Does he have any other number that we can try to contact?”
“That is something I wouldn’t know now, would I?” she says turning towards him.
“We haven’t been living together for the past few months. So, I am not sure if I can help you with any other number of his as I am not aware of what all are new in his life,” she says aggravated. Gautham now stood there with utter mystification. He couldn’t find what to say next.
“Doctor, I would like us to sit somewhere for a little while.”
“Oh, cut the crap Mr. Gautham. Can’t you see what is around me?” she asks pointing the injured around her. “Now just tell me. Was he in this hospital at that time?” she asked. Gautham just lowered his head a bit and maintained silence. She crossed her arms and covered her mouth with her right hand fist. The cotton on her hand dropped to the ground. Her eyes slightly wet. “Injured or dead?” she asks.
“Just missing… for now.”
“That’s as good as dead, isn’t it? There was only one way out and those all who came out of it were rescued by the fire brigade. I know he wasn’t amongst them. Tell me… that leaves me to be a widower, doesn’t it?” she asks.
“Let’s just hope for the best.”
“You know Mr. Gautham,” she looks straight in to his eyes. “There is an 8 year old girl in my house who tries to be awake after 12 every midnight just to see her mother. She eagerly waits for each and every Sunday so that she can spend some quality time with her father. Don’t you think it is hard on her already? You just tell me what should I tell my little angel? I am also just a woman after all,” she says and breaks in to tears kneeling down on the ground. Gautham quickly gets to her and grabs her by the shoulder. He kneels down in front of her.
He keeps repeating, “its okay my child.” She grabs him firmly and cries on his shoulder profusely. Siddhartha couldn’t bear to watch this anymore. He could see a nurse looking on what was going on as she was also giving first aid at the same time. The way she looked gave the impression that she knew the doctor well. The tears on the nurse’s cheeks suggested that she overheard the conversation but, the day is such that people were made to do bigger things than console. However, Siddhartha had an option to walk away and not be an onlooker of grief and agony. And that’s exactly what he did… walk away.
Just like a tree that sheds its leaves in autumn, she expected to have a season of spring with her husband again. But the fire was so drastic that the jungle is left to ashes.
Little while later Gautham came out to the road. His eyes searched for his son. He saw Siddhartha standing in front of a small shop talking to the keeper. A small cloud of smoke was around him.
“Sid!” called aloud his father. “Let’s keep moving.” Siddhartha slowly turned around dropping something and crossed the road and followed his father’s lead. Nothing was spoken on the way. They got in to his car and drove away. Once again it was not the path leading to home. Siddhartha didn’t ask where they were going. He was now feeling a bit drowsy also.
Two days back he celebrated with his co-workers one of the biggest achievement of his company. This will put them along with the biggest names. And he has some huge credentials and benefits coming his way. All the glitz and glamour anyone would wish for is now knocking on his door. He was thinking about how his beloved wife and he will now be able to settle abroad and live a cosy life. A penthouse was always something he craved on. All these are just a few days away. And he still can’t believe he made this possible at such a young age. He was proud of himself this morning. He felt he did something right.
Here is his hometown where people die because of this same self ambition of people. The quest for man’s ultimate money greed is what killed those people. He saw the hospital today and what transpired there. He has been there several times before. He may or may not have noticed that despite having good treatment facility the hospital had absolutely no safety facilities. There was no fire exit. There were no fire extinguishers. There were only two elevators and one stairway. That was never sufficient for such a massive and complex structure. He doesn’t remember seeing a smoke detector there either. The centralized air-conditioned building had no proper ventilation channel. And hence many died due to suffocation.
It was not like the hospital owners weren’t aware of these lapses. It was not that they couldn’t afford it. Their drive to make a hospital was money rather than service. The cost of manipulating the officials who need to make sure things are done properly can be settled with small bribes compared to the amount need to be spent on the not so important necessities. Then what about the cost of a life? How small will that be on their conscience? That is… if they ever have one. All these thoughts eluded his tired brain. The sun has set by now. City is slowly taking cover on the shade after a day of mourning. The spirits of the lost appears on the dark sky.
“Dad watch out!” he shouted and grabbed the steering with his right hand and forcefully steered the car to the left as it was very close from colliding with a truck coming against it. His father panicked. It was a close call. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I am…. Sorry about that.”
“You sure?” he asked. “Just pull over. I’ll take the wheel.”
“No, I am fine. I am fine,” said Gautham.
“Are we going round? I thought we passed this street 10 minutes back,” he said looking outside the window.
“Gosh… I missed a turn,” said Gautham. Sid didn’t ask anything further. His father was clearly disturbed. Persisting on the topic would only add up to his frustration. He had to find something else to occupy his mind.
“I saw Sameer.”
“W-what?” asked Gautham.
“Sameer… Dr. Sameer. My friend who was rescued from the hospital,” explained Sid. “I saw him while you were talking to that old man while we were back there. He clearly seemed to be in the after-shock of the incident. He kept crying and repeatedly apologized to me saying he couldn’t do anything. That officer we met then just caught him and took him to another tent. He j-just spoke… in this strange way though… despite what he was going through.”
Gautham now started to show signs of apprehension and exhaustion. He reacted as if it was getting difficult to breathe. But he still drove the car, rashly.
“Are you all right?!” asked Siddhartha, assisting his father with the steering again. He made him pull the car on the side. Then he got out of the car and ran out to his father’s side and opened his door. He turned down the engine and unbelted him and pulled out his legs from the pedal to the outside. “Look at me,” he asked crouching on the ground and looking up to his father’s eyes. “Are you ok? Does your left hand hurt? Can you cough for me?”
“I am fine. It’s not an attack,” he said tiredly. “Sid… I can’t take this within me anymore. There is not a nice way to say this.”
“That’s all right, dad. Let me just take you home now.”
“No!” he shouted and grabbed his collar. “You don’t understand. I have been running around the city like a fool this whole day thinking how I shall break this to you. Son… I need you to be strong for me.”
“W-what is it dad? Y-you are scaring me.” His eyes now wet. His pupil fixated with fear.
“I was not on the city for the past few days. The day I left your mother called me to say that your wife, Nisha is conceived.”
W-what?” he asked with mixed emotions.
“She wanted to make it a surprise when you meet her. She…” Gautham lowered his head and closed his eyes and took a long breath. He gripped on Sid’s left shoulder with his right hand. “Yesterday, by midnight she called me to say that your mother had some sort of food poisoning and she is taking her to a hospital. Your mother was to be…” he clears his throat. “She had to be admitted in that hospital. She…”
“Which hospital?” he asks interrupting him. His eyes were blood red. They had tears o them. His lips were trembling. His forehead is sweaty. Gautham looked at him with sympathy and despair. “I need to hear it. You have to make clear. W-which hospital!?” he asked. Gautham got on his feet and made Sid stand up. He hugged him and held him tight and whispered in his ear, “They passed away son. They passed away. I am sorry. Please be strong. It’s going to be ok.” Siddhartha just froze. All his senses just shut for a moment. His chin pressed in to his father’s shoulder. He tried to analyse what he just heard and what it really means. A million images from the past flashed in his mind. He could feel his father’s hug getting tighter. He saw an image of his wife and mother sitting along with him on the dining table. They were laughing along with him. Then something from inside mentioned that they are now dead and that to a suffering death. His pupils enlarged with his eyes widely opening. He exhaled hard blowing out hot air. He felt the nerves on his head shrinking and then… he cried out loud with a sudden outburst. He looked skyward and screamed on top of his voice. His father repeatedly told him, “its okay.” He let loose of his father’s grip. Gautham fell down on process. Siddhartha tried to run away from this moment of hysteria. And he started to run away with an unstable mind which had no control to his own doing. He fell hard. Then he fell again as he tried to lift himself up. All this happened too quickly for his father to retaliate. He kept calling his son’s name hoping he would stop. But he kept running towards the road. He fell again and tried to get back on his feet.
“Watch out!” shouted Gautham. Siddhartha was almost on the centre of the highway when he fell down and an unloaded truck was speeding towards him. Even though the truck driver saw him and applied the brakes, it hit him on the side of the head as he was gathering himself up. He wouldn’t know what possibly happened. He lay on the middle of the road unconscious.
Tell a boy that it isn’t dark, it’s just he has woke up blind. Tell a man he lost his family. Tell me who appeared more petrified.
It must have been a dream. Though he couldn’t tell what was that he dreamt of. He couldn’t tell which of those facts in his head are true and which of those were a part of a nightmare. He wished that all of those things were indeed a dream. He could feel his senses waking up after a long sleep. He slowly opened his eyes. His father stood in front of his bed right next to his feet.
“Hi,” said Gautham. He tried to look beyond him. There was nothing other than an open door. He could see people pass by in front of the room. He realized it was a hospital. “You… have a linear fracture on you skull,” said Gautham. “But don’t worry. There are no other complications. Well… if I could say that.” He remarked. Siddhartha’s eyes started searching the room once again. There was nobody else. That means all those things were true and not a nightmare.
“How long have I been here?”
“This is the fourth day,” clarified his father. “And… the funeral of both has been done with. It couldn’t have been delayed after the autopsy. I am sorry.”
“Don’t be… I wouldn’t have liked to witness that,” said Sid. “And please don’t mention the autopsy.” Gautham nodded. Siddhartha expressed signs of head pain.
“Does it really hurt?” asked his father. He looked in to his father’s eyes for a brief moment.
“Not as much as my heart,” he replied. There was a small din coming from the next room. It sounded like some sort of a small celebration. He felt it to be a little unusual for a hospital. “What’s that?” he enquired.
“There is a small girl admitted in the next room. It is her birthday today. They are just being nice to her. Don’t worry about it,” said Gautham. Sid closed his eyes and laid back his head slowly. “You know… I hate to bring this now but, today happen to be your mother’s birthday too,” said Gautham with a derisive smile. Siddhartha opened his eye lids and looked at the ceiling.
“Why don’t we celebrate this pretending they are still with us?” he asked looking upwards.
“Listen now,” said Gautham coming close to his son and voicing deeply. “You will be good to go home after 3 more days, possibly. And when you step out of this hospital you will accept reality and face life as it comes. We will not pretend anything. Clear?” he asked. Siddhartha nodded with flooded eyes.
Days passed. Days became weeks and weeks became months. Each day for him was like ages and the nights would seem agonisingly and terrifyingly even much longer. Siddhartha remained lost on the shadows of his past. He would look for every opportunity he could get to be alone and when he has found his solitude he would feel lost and scared. And at times he would sneak out of his house at midnight on the hope of running away but then he wouldn’t cross a block before it occurs to him that he doesn’t know anymore of how to and where to go. He would sense no lack of direction. He wouldn’t be able to remember even the most basic of things. He would stand outside the perimeter of his house and wonder which street to cross and which route could take him wherever he decided to go. And he would stand there till dawn thinking about a destination before he decides to go inside his house. His father would secretly watch his doings… just in case. He would plan for a suicide and it would seem easy for him to go through it. It might be the only thing he would feel courageous about. But then he would wonder what if this is just a new type of prank the world is playing on him. He has not seen the bodies of the people who have been declared dead. They could be very much alive. Or maybe the bodies they found were not actually of his loved ones… just mistaken to be theirs. Maybe the two women are injured and in a condition of trauma and they can’t find the way back home. There could be a thousand other possibilities for them of being alive. So he must find alive.
At the fourth month he had a minor heart attack as a result of under sleeping for some period of time. He had to be hospitalized and the stay was not a pleasant one for him. There were too many people for his comfort. He felt the presence of the dead lingering over there. He was forced in to counselling sessions and misleading conversations with psychologists. Finally he would pretend he has come in to terms with reality. And he would return home.
From then he would be cautious of getting proper sleep. But it was not something that could be achieved just like hitting the switch. Sleeping pills would have no major effect either. Then he would think of those combinations his friends at college would do to make certain drugs with few medicines one could easily get from a chemist without suspicion. He did that with success. And it did give him a little peace and relaxation. But it wouldn’t interest him for more than a couple of times.
The old man’s pet has gone rabid. He is not going to get rid of it. At times… the cure is in form of death. He can’t let it happen as he is all alone. The sick can only bark with none capable to understand its pain. Just bark…
Now there are no friends or a job to brag about… just grief and a poor looking reflection. All he has is a heart that has come used to with loneliness and a mind that lives on the past. He has accepted his fate. He would like to do something for the people who go through similar circumstances. He would feel a sense of responsibility towards the adverse. But he will be the first one to admit that the healing needs to start from the inside at first. He just didn’t know how.
“May I come in?” asked Gautham standing on the doorway in front of his room with a tray on his hand. Siddhartha nodded. “The maid will not be here today. So I thought I’ll make some breakfast for you,” he said as he stepped in and kept the tray on a small table on the room. Then he stood erect and looked at him for a brief moment. “Listen… tomorrow there will be a small ceremony on the remembrance of all who lost their lives last year.” Siddhartha was astounded to know that a year has passed by. “All the loved ones of the dead will pay their respects at that hospital. You can come if you would like to… only if you want to, no pressure.” He added.
“Okay like in the sense you will be coming?” he asked. Siddhartha nodded. “Great,” he said with glee. “So… I have to be going now. I will be back by evening. So… see you,” he said as his body slightly jiggled with excitement and he walked backwards till the doorway and turned around to leave.
“How do you do this?” he asked his father who ceased his motion as he heard it.
“Do what?” he asked without turning around.
“All this… everything,” he said. Gautham slowly turned to face him.
“Have you ever… have you ever thought that what your mother would have said to me if she had a chance to say goodbye?” he asked in a mellow voice. “Have you ever thought about what would she want me to do? I did.” He said. Siddhartha saw tears in his father’s eyes for the first time after what transpired their lives. Not much of it though… just enough for him to understand his grief. “She left me with a responsibility,” he continued. “I can’t afford to disappoint her,” he said and slowly left the room. Siddhartha heard his footsteps climbing down the stairs and then walking away out of the house with the front door closing behind him. He could hear the car engine start and paid attention to the sound of his father driving away his SUV.
“Look what you have become,” said someone from behind him. That voice was very familiar. He turned around to see who it was. The semi-transparent white curtain which hung on the doorway to the balcony from his room wavered from the breeze outside it. This obstructed his view to see the person standing beside it for a little moment.
“Nisha,” he said to himself as the person came in to his visibility.
“You must recognize that he is living through his hardships for you. You should return the same with gratitude,” said the mysterious. “You have to set me free. You have to live yours,” it said. The curtain again obstructed for a second or two and as it cleared and was the space surrounding it. He stood there alone lost in thought till mid-day.
The next morning, both of them returned to the hospital that changed their lives forever. The top floor terrace was to be where the people are expected to gather. Siddhartha sensed a change even as he entered the ground floor of the hospital. But he couldn’t tell what it was. He couldn’t recognize what kind of a change it was. He couldn’t tell that it was a positive one or not. He just entered the elevator along with his father. He could feel something inside his tummy tumbling and grumbling. It has more to do with the uneasiness of being here rather than the upward motion of the elevator. The elevator rose steadily and smoothly and yet you could clearly hear the motion of its mechanism as the place was almost mute on an early 5:30 am. The silence and the animosity attached with it upset Siddhartha even more.
And then, the heavy metal door opened for them to exit. With utmost pleasure Siddhartha wasted no time in doing so. His father got out after him and then took the lead showing him the way towards the meeting place. Siddhartha’s stomach started to ache even more. But his father decided not to pay much attention to it. He kept advancing. It was for them to see that almost all the loved ones of the dead have already made it so early. Siddhartha recognized some of those faces his father shook hands with. He kept his distance from all. He made sure no one approaches him for a conversation.
“You there,” said an obese old man who caught a young man by his arm at all of a sudden. The young man appeared to be scared and looked as if he was hoping that he doesn’t get caught on anybody’s eye the while he was there. He had his cape from his t-shirt put on his head, with a white sports cap on top of it. “I know…” the man continued. “I know you loved her. You don’t have to be scared of me, okay? I might have been intimidating then. Which father isn’t?” the man asked in trembling voice. “Y-you just pray for her soul. Maybe your prayer gives here some harmony. Okay?” he asked slightly motioning his head up and down.
“Okay,” said the boy looking down with either fear or pain… or maybe both.
“And you come home, too,” said the man. “Stay if you can. You can have her room,” he said with affection. You could sense that he had made himself a patch of guilt at heart. He seems to be lonely and he just hasn’t come in terms with his loss like most people gathered there.
Siddhartha just wasn’t in a mood for witnessing any drama. He walked away from there to find himself a corner to sit. He gazed at the kids who came there and found new friends to sing and play whilst all those people just mourned. He would think of the child he never had as he kept watching them. Then there was this sudden built-up of even more excitement amongst them. They got up from their knees and pointed downwards to each other. Siddhartha also got on his feet to see what got their attention. It was a truck that entered the premises with the gate closing behind it. That was absurd… a hospital gate closing. Perhaps they were making sure that there is no intervention from any unwanted source. So this is supposed to be a discreet meeting, he assumed. Two men stepped out of the vehicle and started to unload cages of what looked like pigeons. And there were plenty. Just to excite the children even more. So the plan is to set them free and buy the resting people some peace with that gesture of kindness, he assumed. And the cages made their way up. Each family would get one caged bird to be set free for a lost life. They obediently came forward to take their cage and opened it to have their pigeon tightly held in their hand. One lady prematurely let lose the bird from her grip and set it free as she got a little nervous with a small life with flapping wings. The count on birds was 200. So such mistakes were easily tolerated.
Siddhartha maintained his distance. His father approached him with two cages. “One for you and one for me,” he said smiling.
“Dad… we lost three. Not two,” said Siddhartha. Gautham’s hands which held the cages up now lowered. The smile disappeared.
“I am sorry,” he said. He went as quickly as possible and returned with one more. With the birds in their hands, people made a silent prayer and they all set it free with whatever synchronisation they could manage at the first time. And then the few which lost more than one member would take another one to be freed and the pigeon would fly east. Still there would be more pigeons left. They would also eventually find freedom from the hands of somebody there.
With time people started to disperse and the floor was now more visible and spacious for the few still there. A woman stood on the brink of the terrace with her daughter. They were simply watching the sun getting mightier each second and how the pigeons flew towards it. And then they finally vanished. It seemed as if they really believed in this small ritual. Siddhartha stayed there as a silent observer.
Hello, sir. Remember me?” someone asked Siddhartha. Siddhartha looked at him and recognized the man to be the police officer he met in the rescue camps last year. It took him a bit more to identify the man who is now dressed in a dark green shirt and black pants. He looked at him and then looked away to indulge on what he was more keen on before the man came up to him. The officer understood his current mental absence and looked to see what he was so intense on. “That’s Dr. Aisha… and her daughter,” he clarified. “You remember her don’t you?” Siddhartha didn’t respond. “Poor lady… she even stopped practising medicine. She and her daughter persist on being isolated from the outside world. Even her family members weren’t there for them when they needed. Just lonely…” Siddhartha walked away even before the man had concluded his narration of her story. He walked towards her. He stood 3 feet behind her. He tilted his face to see the side of her face which was partially covered by her hair that constantly shifted with the breeze. Then he looked down to her daughter. A sweet innocent girl with her hand held on her mother’s. The light got a bit dull all of a sudden. And within seconds it started to bristle ever so slightly. It had no impinge on on any of them.
“Hello,” said Siddhartha. She took a slight moment of pause and then turned around to see who it was. And so did her daughter following her mother. He looked at the little girl. Then he looked at her. She brushed aside her hair with her fingers. Then she smiled at him.
“Hello,” she replied.