Mahashweta, p.9Sudha Murty
Anu was sad for a while after she left her old job and joined the college. She missed her colleagues, but as a lecturer she soon became confident and self-assured. She had removed her mangalsutra—it had weighed down on her heavily, in more ways than one.
Without being conscious of it, a visit to the seashore to gaze at the waves had become a part of Anupama’s daily routine. She loved wandering along the Bandra seashore, watching the endless waves smash tirelessly against the black rocks, oblivious to everything else.
Sumi gave birth to a baby boy. Hari was transferred to Kolhapur a few weeks later. Anupama went to see Sumi and the baby before they left, and gave the baby a gold chain. Sumi was very happy to see her and whispered in the baby’s ear, ‘Look, your aunt has come to see you.’
Anupama shrank from the word ‘aunt’. I am not your aunt. I am just your mother’s best friend.
Bombay was being lashed by the fury of the monsoon. The sky was overcast, and the unrelenting downpour had cut off parts of the city. Dr Vasant wondered how high the water had risen in the vicinity, and peered out of the window.
He had been busy in the operation theatre since the morning. Emergency cases and his other duties had kept him so occupied that he had forgotten to have his lunch. It was almost time for dinner by the time he came back to his chambers. He could see Bombay Central station and its surging crowds in the distance. As usual, people were rushing to catch the local and outstation trains. The rain had brought great relief from the scorching heat of the summer, although it also created havoc, especially in the city’s slums. Vasant bit hard on a small stone in the sabji halfway through his dinner, and winced. He was getting tired of eating the same thing every day—thick chapatis that were difficult to chew, curds with sugar, dal that was too oily, vegetable gravy with too much masala, and rice that had been cooked without the stones being picked out! He had been having the same dinner for so many years that he had started hating the thought of his evening meal. He yearned for his mother’s cooking, but that was beyond his reach now.
Rainwater started streaming in from a broken window-pane. It formed a puddle and lapped against his feet. The cold rainwater reminded him of his childhood, of standing in the first shower after the hot summer. As children, they had believed that getting drenched in the first rains would bring them good luck and good health. But his mother, Tungakka, had not agreed with them. ‘Vasant, come inside. Don’t get wet. You will catch a cold.’
She had worried too much about diseases that never struck. But still, melting under his mother’s love and care, he had always heeded her words and gone in.
The knock at the door interrupted his reminiscences. ‘Yes, come in.’
‘Doctor, an emergency case was just brought in,’ the attendant announced without any emotion.
Vasant looked at his dinner plate and said, ‘I will be there in a minute.’ While he was washing his hands, the Bombay Central clock struck eight. He donned his white coat and headed for the emergency room. Sister Parvathi Ammu met him outside the ER. She looked at him and exclaimed in surprise, ‘How come you are on duty again, doctor? Where is Doctor Satya?’
Vasant just smiled before walking into the ER.
Satya, like Vasant, was from Karnataka. They had known each other for the past three years, but their attitude to life was very different.
‘Oh, Vasant! You don’t know how to enjoy life. You should have been a sage! I’m on duty on Sunday, but I have some urgent work. How about an exchange? You stand in for me on Sunday and I’ll take over your shift on Tuesday.’
He had not even waited for Vasant’s reply. He had assumed that Vasant would agree, and merrily gone his way.
The Sunday duty exchange between them was quite common. Vasant knew very well what Satya meant by ‘urgent work’. He would roam around with his junior, Dr Vidya, watch a movie at the Liberty or stroll down Marine Drive.
As soon as Vasant reached the ER, a police constable came up to him. ‘Doctor, there has been an accident. This lady was crossing the road towards Bombay Central when a taxi jumped the red light and hit her. It was not her fault; she was at the zebra crossing. The taxiwala ran away but we caught up with him at the next signal and he is now in the lock-up.’ The constable went on giving information that was in no way useful to Vasant.
Vasant was concentrating on the unconscious woman in front of him. She looked to be in her early twenties; her beautiful face was framed by long black hair. She had no ornaments on her. Her orange cotton sari was bloodstained, and blood still flowed from her injured leg. Vasant turned over her hand to examine it and noticed the white patches. For a moment he thought, What a blemish on this beautiful portrait!
And then, as the doctor within him took over, he proceeded to ascertain the extent of her injuries. He soon became so engrossed in treating her that he lost all track of time. By the time he returned to his room, exhausted, the rain had let up somewhat and the room had become sultry and uncomfortable. He turned on the light and saw his unfinished dinner—it looked even more unappetizing than before. Since he did not feel like eating anything he decided to go on his rounds instead.
Parvathi Ammu was writing the case sheets but she stopped as soon as she saw Vasant. ‘Doctor, I have the purse of that girl who met with the accident.’
‘What will I do with it? Give it to the police.’
‘I would have, except the constable has left. But there’s a more pressing problem—I have to give instructions for her medication, and there is no one with the patient.’
‘In that case, see if there are any phone numbers in her purse and call them up.’
‘Doctor, I can’t open her purse. If something goes missing I’ll be blamed. Only you or the constable should do that.’
Parvathi Ammu took out the purse and put it on the table. Just then the constable walked in, looking guilty. ‘Sorry, doctor, I had to go out, and got stuck in the traffic.’
‘Doesn’t matter now. Please open the purse and see if you can locate her contact details.’
The purse contained a small mirror, a comb, some tissues, a packet of bindis, a small bunch of keys, perfume and some money. It held no clue to her address, or any contact numbers. The constable looked irritated; tracing the girl’s address in the pouring rain was not going to be an easy job. He guessed that the girl was not very wealthy and probably came from one of the city’s many middle-class localities. ‘Doctor, there is a small book in her purse, but I cannot understand the language.’
‘Bhasa Nataka Chakra. It is a collection of Sanskrit plays,’ Vasant said.
‘Oh, you know this language?’ The constable was glad, as he felt it might make his job easier. ‘What is it?’
‘It is Kannada, my mother tongue.’
He opened the first page and read the address of the owner. Anupama, No. 46, Pali Hill Road, Bandra.
Vasant told the nurse to inform the patient when she regained consciousness that her book was with him, and that he would see her again the next day.
Once he returned to his room, he started reading the book and, unbidden, his thoughts turned to his younger days. He remembered his father, Ramanna, and his deep voice. Ramanna had been a schoolteacher, and every evening after dinner, he would recite old Kannada poems from Jaimini Bharatha while sitting in front of the Hanuman temple in the village. The cool breeze from the nearby pond would add to the serenity of the evening, and the villagers would listen to him with rapt attention. Vasant still remembered one of the poems:
There is no perfection in anything in life.
Even in the great river Ganga there are black serpents.
The beautiful Saraswathi has jet-black curls;
The moon has a dark spot
Because even in nature perfection is not possible.
He thought of Anupama for a fleeting moment before turning back to the book.
He was still reading the Kannada translation of Bhasa Nataka Chakra, when Satya walked in. His evening had
‘Yes, Satya, it wasn’t all that difficult. I was lucky.’ That was Vasant’s standard response even on especially gruelling days.
‘Why? Is there a special patient or some VIP?’ Satya winked.
‘Nothing like that. I found an interesting book. That is all.’
Satya was disappointed with Vasant’s reply. ‘What is so great about that? If you had asked me, I would have got some books for you. Is it the book that is interesting or the person who gave it to you?’
‘Satya, I am not like you. Lady Luck doesn’t even spare a glance at people like me!’
‘Vasant, don’t even say such things. You live like a hermit and that is why nothing exciting happens to you. Listen to me. . .we have more than enough experience between the two of us. Let’s resign from this job and start a clinic of our own in Andheri. With all the rich businessmen there, we’ll be minting money in no time at all.’
Vasant did not want to comment on that. ‘Satya, I think Vidya is calling you,’ he said, looking out of the window.
Satya smiled and said, ‘Don’t try to change the subject. Anyway, I know you’re not interested in private practice. Why on earth are you reading this? Today, there are enough DVDs in the market and people do not have time even to watch those. Umm. . .who else but you would want to read this Bhasa, hasa, chandrahasa. . .’
‘Satya, please don’t make fun of everything. If you knew anything about Sanskrit and its literature, you would enjoy reading this book, too.’
‘Thank you for the suggestion. Vasant, try to understand that the language of love is also important. But you wouldn’t understand it, and neither would you understand business!’
‘Yes, Satya, you are right! I don’t understand. I look at life in a more emotional way so I don’t understand business. For me, emotions and sentiment are important. I don’t care if those are at the cost of money.’
There was a knock at the door and Vidya entered. Satya dropped the discussion and left with her.
During his rounds the following evening, when Vasant approached Anupama’s bed, he saw two girls sitting next to her, conversing softly.
On seeing Vasant, Anupama became silent. Though Vasant was not talkative by nature, he asked Anupama, ‘How are you feeling now?’
Anupama replied to him in Kannada, ‘I am fine, thank you, doctor.’
‘How do you know that I speak Kannada?’ asked Vasant.
‘The duty nurse told me that you had taken my book; I knew then.’ Anupama realized that she was speaking Kannada after a long time.
‘I haven’t finished reading your book yet. It takes a while to read such literature.’
‘Please keep it for as long as you want. It is my book.’
Vasant now turned his attention to her leg. ‘How is the pain now?’
‘My leg hurts a lot.’
‘Yes, that is because you have a fracture. It will be all right once the plaster is in place. I will prescribe some tablets that I want you to take regularly for the pain.’ Vasant wrote out the prescription and left.
Later that night, Vasant continued reading the book, and pondered over the notes written in the margins. They showed a depth of knowledge that surprised him. Another thing that puzzled him was the fact that although several young girls visited her during the day, Anupama was alone all night long. He could not bring himself to ask her anything about it as it was against his nature to pry.
The next day, Anupama asked him anxiously, ‘Doctor, how long do I have to stay in the hospital?’
‘At least for a few more days. I will discharge you after assessing your progress.’ Anupama’s face fell.
‘How is it that your sisters have not come today?’ he asked, attempting to distract her.
‘They are not my sisters. I am a professor in a college. Some of them are my colleagues, and some my students.’
‘Are you from Bombay?’ Vasant was examining her leg.
‘What about your family?’
Vasant caught the expression of pain and grief that flitted across her face.
‘I don’t have any.’
Vasant stopped examining her. He asked most of his patients such random questions, more to divert their attention than because he wished to know more about them. But, today he felt that his questions had distressed Anupama.
‘I’m sorry if I have hurt you.’
‘No, doctor, I have learnt to accept reality.’
Satya could not help noticing that among his patients, Vasant was most comfortable talking to Anupama, and he also spent more time with her.
‘How is your special patient today?’ he teased Vasant later.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Vasant replied shortly.
‘I’m asking about the patient who gave you the Kannada book.’
‘Satya, don’t make fun of her. If she hears this, she might feel uncomfortable. She has already had enough pain in her life. People who have leukoderma feel like outcasts in our society because we look down upon them. Though it is only what is called a “cosmetic” disease, our society has not yet accepted that.’
‘Sorry, Vasant, I did not mean to sound callous. She is stunningly beautiful; but a few white patches have spoiled her beauty, like a drop of lemon in milk.’
‘I really don’t understand why people look down upon such patients. I worked for a year in the Dermatology Department. People with leukoderma suffer from a deficiency in the pigmentation of their skin, that’s all. They are otherwise perfectly normal. No one has proved that it is hereditary; it is certainly not contagious, and often with proper treatment people have been completely cured. I have seen it happen myself.’
‘Come on, Vasant, I only said what others usually feel. Normally, such people are shunned in the marriage market. Even if one of the parents has leukoderma, the groom or bride will think twice before considering such an alliance. You are an idealist. Would you marry such a girl?’
By then, Vidya had arrived at the other end of the ward, and Satya hurried towards her.
Vasant mulled over Satya’s comment and then dismissed it. My marriage! Let me cross that bridge when I come to it!
Anupama was able to walk now, and she was going to be discharged the next day. She had been a good patient, and had followed the doctor’s advice sincerely, so her progress had been fast. Every day, she would slowly walk from her room to Vasant’s chambers and then go back, as she had been told to practise walking a little.
When she was leaving the hospital, Vasant told her, ‘You are fine now. Make sure you eat well and you will recover fast.’
She paid her bill and thanked Vasant, ‘Thank you, doctor, for all that you have done for me. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for all that you have done. Being able to speak Kannada again made me feel so much at home.’
Vasant felt a little embarrassed as he was not used to being thanked so profusely. He said, ‘If you really want to thank me, invite me to see the play that you are directing.’
Anupama was surprised, ‘How do you know about that?’
‘Satya told me. It seems one of the plays that you directed received an award. It was announced in the Kannada Sangha at Matunga. We go there often.’
‘By all means. Actually I am directing a play for the Dusshera festival. Please do come. I will send the invitation.’
‘Two of us will come, but please don’t send passes. I want to buy tickets. No performing art should be seen free of cost.’
‘Entry is free, so don’t worry about tickets. Do bring your wife.’
Vasant laughed heartily. ‘I’m still unmarried. I don’t have anyone either, like you. I will come with Satya. He’s my roommate.’
Anupama felt a little awkward and sa
‘Why are you apologizing? You never asked me anything. I chose to tell you about myself.’
Anupama had also become well acquainted with Satya by this time. She said goodbye, gave him her visiting card and left, saying, ‘Keep in touch.’
A few months later, Satya and Vasant went to attend their colleague’s wedding in Bandra. They were both surprised when they saw Anupama there. She had recovered completely and looked happy.
‘Hello doctor, it’s so nice to meet you again,’ Anupama smiled.
Satya happily started a conversation with her. ‘It is not always nice to meet doctors! They remind one of sickness and surgery.’
Anupama disagreed, ‘No, doctors always remind me of service and hope!’
Vasant interrupted, ‘How come you are here?’
‘The bride is my student.’
‘The groom is our colleague,’ Satya told her.
There was a two-hour break between the wedding ceremony and lunch.
‘My house is close by. I must go and check on something. Please come and have a cup of tea before lunch,’ insisted Anupama.
Vasant was keen on getting to know her better and immediately agreed.
‘Not now. We will come some other time,’ said Satya who was in no mood to exert himself.
‘Why don’t you go ahead? We’ll come in half an hour.’ It was Vasant who took the lead although it was unusual for him.
‘How will you find my house? I could go later if you want.’
‘Don’t worry, Satya Prakash is here. We will find our way.’ Satya was surprised by Vasant’s eagerness, although he knew what was going on. Once Anupama left, he asked with a mischievous smile, ‘Vasant, why are we going to a former patient’s house?’
‘Instead of sitting here and wasting time, we might as well go. Besides, she is a good person. My mother always told me that one should make an effort to meet people when one doesn’t need something from them. Only then will relationships develop.’
Mahashweta by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes