I just got some very bad news. Someone , now 85, who has literally known me from birth, and who I have been closely in touch with, had a stroke, and is now in hospital ICCU. She is my last connection with the past generation. No umbilical or genetic connection, but something more than that, if there was a name for it.
She never married, but dedicated her entire life to her parents and siblings, their welfare, and her practice of her chosen profession. The last of her generation, a beloved aunt to folks like me, her nephews rushed her to hospital, and were taking turns being with her.
It is difficult to believe. Like my parents, I thought she would go on for ever. She is a leading doctor. I cannot use the word "was", because she keeps getting consulted about surgeries and stuff even now. A couple of days before her stroke.
I land up at the suburban Mumbai stop for the Volvo bus, that runs every half hour between the two cities. There has been no sleep since the news, and I use that to make a very early start . The bus point is an hour away. The unpredictable Mumbai traffic even at 6 am works in my favour. A bus appears within 5 minutes and there is a seat for me. Right in the front. Good omen.
Across the aisle are two ladies older to me, in all white, including their hair, and they smile at me as I sit down. The white bothers me. It is not a color I want to know right now. They seem to be Sindhi. Many of this community have settled in Pune, and I had many Sindhi classmates when I went to school here. They are wearing salwar suits in white, but with some wonderful light embroidery on it in a few colors. A good lesson in not reading too many meanings into colors, or the lack of them.
The bus stops for a tea break. I am the first off. They follow me and one hesitates on the last step. We specialize in non standard buses and steps. And the last step in too high. I hold out a hand automatically. She clutches it tight, steps down, and smiles at me. We trundle away. And get in line to buy coupons for some hot mini breakfasts to be eaten on the bus, since it will not wait much if we have a sit down snack.
I get a newspaper, and am back in my seat, reading about the Women's Reservation Bill, assorted opponents, corruption in this and that, and how thousands of cops will be deployed for the third session of the IPL cricket matches. Pointless stuff. The bus has started again and we are in the mountains, facing a great sunrise.
I have finished eating my stuff when I feel a tap against my shoulder. Its the ladies again. They have brought several apples , already cut, in a bunch of zip lock bags, and are offering me some. They are making an offer I couldn't refuse. And will not. They like that. We get talking. In Hindi.
They are returning after a similar visit to Mumbai. They ask after me. They hear why I am going. And where. They have heard of the lady I am going to see. They tell me its good I have come. Regardless of whether the person in hospital is conscious or not, these vibrations get passed on, they say. Every now and then one's eyes fill up, and they understand. And don't act surprised.
I get off at an intermittent stop, and mentally mobilize to find a three wheeler willing to take me to the hospital. They often refuse to service that area. But there is a driver actually gesturing at me and in a great display of the attitude of the city I am visiting, he agrees to take me there, after letting me know that the correct full name of the hospital is so-and-so, and not what I call it.
I reach there, and proceed as told by her nephews . No one stops me. I look for her name outside, and enter the ICCU area and remove my footwear. A uniformed person arrives. I take a deep breath. A light one would have sufficed. He says to take in the footwear to another area outside the ICCU patients visitors' area. No one stops me . I am right outside the room where she lies, deep in sleep, oblivious to the clicks and beeps of life happening around her.
A nephew sits reading in the anteroom. He welcomes me. I have seen him as a small child visiting his aunt during vacations. Now he lives there. He, his brother and their families, are making sure she gets the best help, and taking turns being there. I offer to relieve them for the time I am there, 4-5 hours, but the doctor visits in the morning, and he needs to stay. We sit , talking, reminiscing, across the years.
There is an amazing line of visitors. She started attending Sanskrit classes 5 years ago, at 80, and one of her classmates, comes trundling in with a four pronged walking stick, wiping a sweaty face and neck, having just braved a strong morning sun. Then there is a doctor, an assistant from her old days at the teaching hospital. She is retired, stays a bit far, but has been coming twice a day.
Several doctors come by. They trained under her, and she taught them as undergraduates in med school. Some come in through the sterile area inside where the nurses are, check on her, and go. Some later come out where we are and speak a few words of solace. Ma'am has been a tough teacher, a demanding one, but one who greatly enjoyed their career and life successes, and today, some of these docs who are my age, and leading luminaries in their fields, swallow, as they see her lying there.
Its time for me to leave to catch my bus. Its a Friday afternoon, and I expect big lines for tickets. I take the usual precautions, and go in to see her. She is in deep sleep, head to one side, and the eyelids intermittently make minor movements within themselves. She has a determined look on her face. I touch her feet, and call out to her. Massage her ankles. No response. Her nephew looks at me as if to say, "I told you so". I try again. No change.
I move to her good side. Her entire left side is paralyzed , and that will not change. Her right palm lies open on the bed, amidst a plethora of contraptions designed to introduce all kinds of life saving and maintaining medicines into her system, little by little. She is breathing on her own, which is a good sign.
I put my fingers in her open palm and call out to her once more. There is some movement of her fingers. They seem to be checking out the outlines of mine. And then they close around them. Gripping them . I look up. Hold my breath. A lump in my throat. Stunned. At the nephew who has been watching.
Her grip loosens. The palm is open once again. I prepare to leave. Touch her feet, wish her well in my mind, and hope the vibrations get through, like the ladies in the bus said.
The nephew tells me that this has been happening for some time now. But the doctors have told him that its an automatic response by her fingers to some touch. She doesn't know its another human.
Its OK. But I like to believe what the ladies in the bus said. I think the vibrations got passed on. Some came back to me too.
Sometimes it is nice NOT being a doctor. You believe these little signs. To me its a sign that she has not given up the fight yet. That's why the determined look on her face.
I leave , wondering at meeting the old ladies in the bus, what they said, my easy entry into what is always a tough thing to manage in the face of hospital rules, and the opportunity to spend quality time with her.
I think she knows. I think her own anatomy has eyes and ears. She is watching and listening. and she spoke a thousand words to me in her determined clutch of my fingers.....
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