Saturday, October 02, 2010

Burning issues

One quiet Mumbai February evening, 40 years ago, I had just returned home from Pune and was unpacking and chatting, when there was a big commotion of folks shouting and rushing, on an upper floor. We were all young new employees, each staying in a temporary one room accommodation till our turn came up for the apartments available.

We rushed out, just in time to hear that someone had got burnt accidentally on the first floor, and people were rushing there. I picked up the tube of Burnol and we ran there. The sight was heart rending.

A friend, herself a doctor, was sitting outside in the corridor, in great pain from the direct flame burns , unable to move, her terrified husband, himself burnt (a bit less), was trying to comfort her, while many helpful folks were rushing around trying to put out the fire in their room that was threatening to go out of control. I ran to her, trying to comfort her, and along with another friend tried to apply the ointment wherever we could. Someone suggested applying ice, and some folks tried that too. Some folks helped her husband, who was relatively less burned, and in a position to walk, but my friend was in a bad way.

She was 4 months pregnant, could sense her body reacting to the intense burn trauma, and as a doctor , knew exactly what was happening. An ambulance soon arrived and we rushed with her to the hospital. As we sat beside her and sped across town, she suddenly clutched my hand, and said, "I think I am going into shock" .......and she looked at her husband seated across. Between sharp breaths, she told us to contact her guide with whom she was specializing , who worked at another hospital. And then looked at her husband, her eyes, now slits in a hugely swollen face, and wondered aloud softly , about the future of their yet unborn child.

Hospital admission, besides treatment , also involved , some police work. The police spoke to her husband, after he had been given some urgent treatment, and then took us aside.

"Do you know this couple ?" the constable asked.

"Yes. very well. She is a good friend of mine. " Me, trying to be polite.

" Was there a problem with her and her husband ? " He looks at me.

" How dare you ask this ? What business is it of yours ? I will complain . How can you ask this when , right now, we should all be doing something to help her and her husband ? " I will complain about this "... Me. Raging mad.

"Ma'am. Please. We have to make a report about this as all burn cases are police cases. And when the burn victim is not in a position to talk , we ask the folks who are related or neighbors etc. I saw you talking to the doctors etc, so thought you could help us." Maybe the constable faced this kind of anger from folks routinely.

Placated, I helped him do the report. He did his work, and went away with his colleagues. We stayed there, watching her sink, unresponsive to the best treatment because she was very very badly burnt. Her senior doctor guide had rushed over, and she was getting very personalized care, but it was not to be. It was all over in the morning. And I never , never forgot this whole thing.

Two days ago, S. my household help, gave me some shocking news. At some point during the last year, she had introduced me to a lady who would be additionally coming to help with some work. H., the lady who came was so thin, she was almost two dimensional.

Her mother-in-law, totally opposite and almost spherical, had worked with me earlier, and was what could be called a boss figure in their house.

By contrast, H , not yet middle aged, and a mother of two, was was a simple quiet worker, unwilling to say a bad word about anyone in the house. She had a husband, who drank, demanded money, and beat her frequently and mercilessly. Very often he grabbed the money she kept aside for the childrens' school expenses.

She had taken to muttering to herself about ending it all once and for all, and lately, he had taken to taunting her , and urging her to immolate herself. All the neighbours , including S and her family heard him shout when drunk. The very thin H, had now reduced to something almost like a stick; but she continued to slog in their house, with nary a decent word from her mother-in-law, and non stop abuse from her husband.

Two nights ago, H hardened her mind, stopped thinking of her children, poured kerosene over herself, and lit a match. Reality was terrible, and she ran screaming out of her one room house.

S.'s children , heard the commotion, and ran to help, waking the other neighbors, and rushed her to hospital. The husband, in a drunk stupor , stayed at home. There was , of course, a police case, and the police made enquiries . H's burn injuries, were either within mangeable limits, (thanks to quick action by the neighbors), or may she was simply rushed there in good time, but she was able to speak to the police.

Today no one wants to tangle with the police, and the neighbors kept quiet.

And so the police hardly spoke to the others. H was asked if she wanted to name someone as the culprit who caused this.

And H, hurting like mad from all that exposed burnt skin, and even more from the fact that she lived, shook her head. "No, she didn't want to name anyone. Everyone was nice to her in the family. She was cooking and the stove got dragged when her saree edge got stuck while removing a hot utensil. That caused the flames to touch the fabric, and the fire started. "

The police made a cursory check, didn't ask anyone else anything. They went away to submit their report. No foul play.

In the meanwhile, the next day the actual "foul player" her husband, came, ascertained the costs of treatment, got into an argument with the duty doctor, and took her home against medical advice. The frightened children stayed with their mother, still nursing some very serious wounds while their father continued his drinking and baiting of his wife. Turns out that the wounds became septic swollen, and she was moved to another hospital.

I asked my household help S., why H did not take the children and leave and go back to her parents. And found out there were no parents , only an uncle an aunt, who were very old and badly off. H had nowhere to go.

I remembered these two instances because I recently saw a program on TV about skin banks. One can donate skin post death, just like one can donate eyes. And the pr0cedure is visually untraumatic for the relatives . The number of donors continues to rise.

Some outstanding Burns Treatment related work is happening at the L.T.M.G Hospital in Mumbai. The doctor on TV was from there. The same hospital where my friend was taken 40 years ago by us. Specially Treated Skin from the skin banks is used to actually initiate an innovative fast healing. And many people can now survive.

The doctor who was being interviewed on TV mentioned that the patients who come are almost always young women. Who now stand a decent chance . They stand to recover and get on with their lives , and possibly enjoy a fruitful family life in the future.

I thought of my friend, who could have possibly lived , had this research been around at that time. And become a good pediatrician, something she was specializing in. I see her face, questioning us about the child she was carrying. I remember the police making detailed enquiries with us. She desperately wanted to live , and could not.

And then I wonder about folks like H., who are stuck in a horrendous life. No education, no future. Nothing to fall back on. Except a huge depression. A manic husband, and a mother-in-law , who doesn't have the guts to tell off her erring son, and hand him over to the police. Who amazingly , believe what H expressionlessly told them in the hospital.

We have so many discoveries, inventions, smart scientists, excellent doctors, a government who knows how to announce successes from the rooftops.

Those who have some education, or, better still, educated mothers, stand to benefit from all this.

What should people like H do ?

October is supposed to be Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Maybe her husband knew that ?


  1. Its always heart wrenching to read such posts and wonder how life presents itself to all in the world. How things pan out well for some and for yet just peters aways !

    I hope all is indeed well...

  2. Shuddered reading this account. A burning issue indeed.

  3. very touching. i cannot fully understand the need for people like H to cover up the torture meted out by their husbands,in laws etc. etc. Are they really that forgiving/sacrificing or do they woory about their children?

  4. Oh dear...both the incidents, really shook me...

    I really wonder at the lives of women like H - what keeps them going, with so much of abuse around them....Should we say kudos to them for facing life for what it is or should we advice them to stand up against whats happening to them !!! But, only being in her shoes, will we ever understand her need to keep quiet...dont understand what brought so much silence in her...

    I esp like the way, u intermingled the stories with the skin donor thing.

  5. Lotusleaf,Kavi,HipGrandma,Starry, UmaS

    Thank you all for the insightful comments....