Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Among A Thousand Other Peddlers"

Sometime last week, my uncle had to be admitted to the nursing home because of acute chest pain. It was quite sudden. He had been complaining of the pain for a few days, and was being nudged to see a doctor. Maa first told me over the phone that he had been waiting for a long time outside the doctor's chamber. I was on my way to class on that dusty February afternoon, when the last dregs of winter had already been squeezed out of the day; and I imagined him sitting in a crowded corridor, clutching his chest. There was a sense of foreboding in the image, but I felt convinced that nothing could possibly go wrong.

I was in class when Maa called again and said that the doctor has asked him to get admitted immediately, that he was on his way home to get a supply of basic necessities before checking in to Apollo, and that Baba had already booked a ticket for the following day. It took me a long time to process the information, and the phone had disconnected by then. My teacher was asking me what I thought about a piece I was reading aloud moments before the call, and instead of answering in German, I mumbled "oui" and stopped. By the time my class got over, my uncle was still sorting out matters of business for the following days. So Maa urged me to go to my music class since I wouldn't get to meet uncle at the hospital that day anyway. For the next hour and a half, I sang in unison with a group of elderly ladies, most of them casting critical glances in my direction - like they always do - making trite comments on my sense of dress, and the altered definition of decency - like they always do. Except this day, I had transcended petty criticism. By the time I reached home at night, and after numerous telephonic conversations along the way, I had achieved a clarity regarding the situation, and had made plans for the following day.

The first thing that struck me about Apollo as I entered the main building at around nine the next morning, was the sign "No Flowers Allowed". Flower pots nevertheless made a visible presence outside the building. I made my way through the corridors, the interiors with its more than a touch of Foucauldian panopticon, the noiseless elevator, and then finally the third floor, my heels clicking so loud, that it sounded obscene; especially considering that the hurried roll of wheels had a nod of approval about them. The cabins have name plates outside, with the number and name of the patient. I passed a few, inadvertently peering to catch a glimpse of the patient, or of his/her visitors. The patient I was interested in was standing at the foot of his bed, alone, looking at the door, and I felt glad I was in early. The room was unremarkable, lemon-yellow walls trying to make a statement by not being pristine white. An unremarkable painting hung behind the bed, the television glared without any volume, and I settled down comfortably on the generous sofa. Snatches of Sylvia Plath was already coming to my mind, but having difficulty in remembering poems, they just lingered in the back-waters like a ghostly presence. I drew the curtains behind me to see what lay beyond, and was pleasantly surprised to see a terrace, the windows camouflaged to look like French windows. While uncle talked about everything other than his "condition", I let my mind wander on the aesthetic differences between the terrace and Hans Castorp's balcony where he and Joachim would lie half reclined, propped up by pillows and blankets wrapped with an expertise that only a dweller of the Berghof of der Zauberberg could master.Yet, the basic premise of both the terrace and the balcony was quite the same. Both extended and covered the breadth of the corridor, running parallel to it, although I was sure the doctors of Apollo, unlike Dr. Krokowski, would prefer the latter, and we were in no danger of being intruded from the terrace. I also noticed the differences between the nurses I'd read about, and the very young carers who'd come to "collect blood" (as they said) from my uncle. While Hans Castorp had a very efficient one who took his temperature and made sure he was taking the right medicines, these young nurses failed to locate a vein, but in the process spilled a lot of useless (and unnecessary as it was turning out to be) blood, and called it "a slip".

I was reading Truman Capote's short stories at that time, and as uncle was asked to get ready for his Angiograph, I turned the pages to the story I'd read midway before class the previous day. I've always thought that there is a certain lightness involved after one sells one's dreams; a relief if the dreams were turning out to be a burden against which one had to weigh oneself every day. Estelle however, returned from 'Master Misery' every time after selling a dream, richer by a few dollars, but crumbling inside. I felt sorry for her. Although she acknowledged that life was nothing overtly philosophical, but a dreary everyday routine, where one would not be missed if one failed to wake up from bed, she still clung to the hope that her dreams had fed her with, and those that she had sold. In the lemon yellow room of the nursing home, the images floating before my eyes were vivid, colourful and full of vigour - people floating through the air, wearing wreaths, stretching and swooping to the melodious tunes of an instrument playing in the background...

I was home for lunch when Maa called me to say that the doctor hadn't found any blockage whatsoever, and the pain could thus be attributed to something minor. The extended family had begun celebrating, and by the time I returned to the nursing home, I found the room look like a veritable family gathering, turning the quiet, sunless, rather Lenten corridor into a republic of Carnival. I took the opportunity of the presence of the crowd - now agitated by the poor service of the authorities to provide with proper food for the patient (another difference, I mentally noted, with the Hans-Joachim situation) - to slip out and walk through the building, walking down the stairs, where busy people rushing to and from more important work wouldn't mind the loud clicking of my heels. At the ground floor, exactly opposite the elevators, I noticed a mini-temple, with an imposing statue of a god, and devotees, prostrate, in various stages of prayer, making ardent appeals. They were visitors who had relatives inside the numerous corridors and rooms and cabins; and I noticed that the donation box, placed in front of the deity was overflowing with 500 rupee notes.

Picture: The Dance by Marc Chagall

1 comment:

  1. I won't say much. I am superstitious about this hospital because they cured my mother But I totally understand how helpless one feels, running from pillar to post for nearly everything. ( we had to literally scream to get blood for my mother whose haemoglobin was 4) . And that farcical "mandir" with people sitting on that mat..that irked the hell out of me. Strange that the rooms have TV and don't have water. Will the patients watch "pyasa" as they die of thirst? Farce. That's what the health business is.