Between the Lines Chapter 15
Dwarka hospital was full of old sick people and young girls with huge bellies. It was for the old and unwanted, not necessarily meant together. The older ones were all suffering from mental sicknesses and sparse memory. The younger ones had been dumped by their husbands, boyfriends or relatives. It was one of a kind in the hilly town of Ranchi. The board at the gate read "eldercare and women care". A plain one-storey building painted in mismatched orange and blue, it stood on its own on a bleak broken road facing the backside of a school campus. The dirty white walls of the hospital smelled of ammonia and phenyl. There were two other women in her room, and Budhan never attempted to speak to either. they were both cooked in the head, and often forgot their names, just like her. Budhan's sons rarely came to see her. Her youngest son had come once, he was so fragile, as a grown up man, she recollected. But she remembered nothing of his childhood. "Ma, do you remember the bhatua soup you used to prepare for us", he had asked her. She had looked blankly at him, and replied, "Why are you calling me Ma?". She didn't remember him, she did remember that she had kids, but she was perfectly sure it was a daughter, she reminded herself.
Her heart sobbed sometimes in pain, she remembered how she had spent some happy years in the Chatterji household. Budhan remembered her happy days in her maternal village, and the Chatterji home, and her beloved Ruma..Chatterji babu had admitted her to the ward after his wife passed away. She knew he did not have a choice. he was growing old himself, and she would have been of no help to him. But he came to see her every first Sunday of the month, and she knowingly refused to acknowledge his presence. He was in no health to come here, and she did not want to trouble him, He had been good to her, and she owed it to him. But he still kept coming every month to rekindle her memory. Sometimes he would miss a Sunday if he felt sick, but would then turn up the next Sunday.
It was early April, and the leaves of the Gulmohar near the gate of the hospital had already started popping out in different hues. A flame of red, orange and yellow, strewed around the entrance, leaving the rotten smelling hospital with a fresh breath of life. Budhan sat on the dusty stairs at the front of the building, trying to remember when she had eaten her last meal. Was it yesterday, or the day before. She had certainly not eaten that morning and afternoon, and it seemed like they didn't care.
Burntface, the sweeper, who was brooming the front veranda said to her, "Mai, do you remember that goat who is standing next to the gate. She always waits for me to give her some left over food. Yesterday I gave her some left over bhaji too", he said and walked to the gate to give the goat a leftover roti. The goat grabbed the roti from his hand, and walked off past the honking car and motorbike, across the street. Budhan replied, "You are blind. The one you fed yesterday was a cow, not a goat". Burntface laughed, displaying his immaculate set of yellow tinged teeth and humungous gums, that protected his teeth like the Himalayas protecting northern India. "Mai, you do have a memory. I know the doctors in our hospital are all junk, for sure. They got their degrees from their father's cowshed, frankly if you ask me", he said stopping to take rest from his work. He held the broom like a bow, resting on his shoulders. Budhan smiled. She knew Burntface was no mean feat, being an orphan and growing off the streets, he had learned the rules of life, the hard way. She pitied him and detested him as well, but she definitely did not like his friend the night guard. Blackowl they used to call him. The guy was an ex-convict, she was pretty sure of that. She replied, "Burntface, you have no idea how much I remember. But yes, the doctor's here are useless. I have not eaten today since morning you know. Noone's here to check. Maybe you can talk to the guy who comes on visits from the General hospital", she said to Burntface. Burntface shook his head vehemently in disapproval. "Mai, I saw you eating lunch. I come late, so I wouldn't know about breakfast, but I definitely saw you eating a plateful of rice for lunch", he said, swearing by his forehead. Budhan raised her hands in disbelief. "Breakfast is chai and pav only, you know, well it is more of a stone than a pav", Budhan replied. "I could kill the bloody doctor with it, it is so hard, I could pierce it right through his stomach and take out his intestines", she said, acting out her attempt to murder doctor Bhuvan. Burntface laughed. "And how about the nurse in your ward, Nurse Sheetal, ooh la la, she is sexy", he joked. Budhan seemed disgusted at Burntface's opinion of Sheetal, the nurse. "I will get you hooked to her. She will whip you every night. And probably dump you in the big dumpster outside, when her whip breaks", Budhan said, quietly. "But I heard, she has a twist of a tale with Dr. Shivnath in the gynecology department", said Burntface, winking at her. He was still laughing, his gums, sticking out from his mouth like that of a monkey. Just then, Blackowl, the guard of the evening shift entered the gate, casually poking his teeth with the edge of a twig. Burntface welcomed him. "Come in brother, you are just in time for our interesting discussion. We were talking about our sweetheart. Mai somehow does not seem to like her", he said gurgling in his laughter. Budhan got up from the stairs and headed back to her ward. "What happened Mai, we were just starting the discussion here", said Burntface. Budhan waved her hand and said, "I know no sweetheart of any kind. I know a cow and a goat. I need to have my lunch", she said and hurried off.
Ruma explained to Shubho, that she needed to go to India to see her father and Budhan. "This is the second year since Budhan went to the hospital. Her Alzheimer's is getting worse, Baba says. I must go now", she pleaded to Shubho. "But this is Guno's final year in school. How is she going to cope for a month without you? You know she needs to study hard this year", Shubho replied. "I know, I am just saying, maybe you can spend a little more time at home, come back early for a month", Ruma said. "Why do I have to always be the one to compromise in our marriage", Shubho replied agitatedly. "Ok, I will go for two weeks, then?", questioned Ruma. "Fine", replied Shubho, and banged his newspaper on the table. Their marriage seemed to spin around just useless arguments, and irritable silences, Ruma thought. She was not sure if she could change that, or she even wanted to change that. She had given up on the possibility of happiness in her marriage long time back. But happiness reminded her of her home in Ranchi, of her parents, Nakul, and Budhan. She decided to go, even if that translated to a few months of putting up with ugly irritable comments from her husband.
"Mom, can I come with you", Guno pleaded. "No dear, it will be hot, and I will be living in different places, First I will go to Kolkatta, then Ranchi. I am not sure, visiting a rundown eldercare will be a safe place for you. If your dad had come along, I would have taken you, but not this time dear", Ruma replied. She was not sure, Ranchi was not a safe place for young girls, especially young girls in western outfits. She had heard many stories of how the town had turned increasingly unsafe over the years, especially for girls. She could not pin point as to why there was this sudden change, it had definitely to do something with the increasing population of the city perhaps. When Ruma reached Ranchi, she was amazed at how the city had changed over the years. The last time she had visited the town was when Guno was twelve, the year her mother had passed away, leaving an emptiness in her life.
Ruma's father had accompanied her to the city. He now lived with her brother Nakul in Kolkatta and visited Ranchi once a month. He was reaching eighty-five, and she knew he was growing fragile. She wished she could bring him with her to the US, but she knew Shubho would not be happy with that decision. So she kept her thoughts to herself. They went to the hospital early the next morning.The doctor had informed her father, that Budhan was not keeping well, and perhaps was on her last leg.
The hospital was a run down building with a stinking smell. The alley in which it was located, seemed deserted except for a cow who was hovering around the entrance. Ruma covered her mouth to cope with the stink. The doctor had not come in yet. Dwarka hospital was more like an eldercare with an additional wing of a maternity ward. L-shaped, it had the ward for the elderly at one end, and the other side of the L was a host of rooms, for giving birth. They were choked full of young women from nearby villages, some with their husbands, some with their parents, but mostly alone. She had never seen such a sad bunch of young girls. They all sat in the back garden of the hospital huddled together on the benches drinking hot tea for breakfast. The garden was just a bare piece of land with a mango tree in the center and a few overgrown shrubs randomly scattered around the empty space like some of its inhabitants.The elderly care wing, had mostly older people, some with huge families, occupying the visitor's bench, and the space outside in the verandah. The older wing seemed a much happier lot, with son's trying to pamper their old mothers with gifts, or son's pampering their old fathers with homemade food prepared by their wives and gifts from their grandchildren. Most of the elderly suffered from Alzheimer's and many had families who cared for them but did not know how to take care of them in their home environment. Ruma observed the peculiarities of the hospital with great interest. It seemed incredible to Ruma, how a society's value system had the capability of hollowing up human life to the extent that one life was extremely important while another was unloved and unwanted.
The doctor finally arrived and informed us that Budhan had been taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) in the bigger General hospital nearby. She was quite unwell and had developed a severe lung infection, he informed them. Ruma hurried with her old father to the General hospital. After an hour of frantic searching, she finally found the ICU in which Budhan had been admitted. To her horror, she discovered Budhan still lying outside the ICU unit waiting for a doctor's attention, her oxygen mask being her only savior. She could barely open her eyes and had a high fever. Ruma inquired with the attendant standing outside. He replied, "Madam, she does not have any reference from her doctor, they just left her here, and said, we should wait for her relatives before we could take her inside". After a few hours of firefighting with the hospital staff and running back and forth between Dwarka and the General hospital, Ruma was finally able to admit Budhan inside the ICU. She and Baba had to drag her bed themselves, as there was no attendant available during lunchtime. It was a complete chaos. The doctor in the ICU informed Ruma that Budhan's infection had worsened since the last X-ray, and it was unlikely that she was going to last much longer. They would inject her with medication, and keep her under observation for a few days, he concluded. Ruma was heartbroken. She felt as if her entire childhood, was slipping away from under her feet. Ruma and Baba waited for a few hours outside the ICU, unsure of what to do. They finally headed home late that evening.
Budhan passed away the next morning in her sleep. When Ruma and Baba reached the hospital, she was still in the ICU. The hospital staff was still observing her though she had no pulse or heartbeat. It was their way of making some extra money, Ruma guessed. But that hardly mattered. She remembered the days when Budhan had protected her from her mother's rage when she came home late after school. She had gone for a movie with her friends without telling her mother, but she knew Budhan would always be there to save her. The hunchback woman of their house, they all depended on so much, was no more!