He has been here all the while I have. Over nightly vigils and corridor meals, our eyes have met. He is hovering around at the far end of the room, stopping nurses and asking them something, but no one seems to be answering him. He spots me and walks up hurriedly.
“My father has died. I am new here…I don’t know what to do…I don’t even have a sheet for the body.” He is young and uncomfortable asking for help. During the last week, I have watched him get pushed around and bullied by the doctors, nurses, cleaners, everyone because he doesn’t speak the language.
“The hearse driver has refused to drive the body back home because the Singur protesters have blocked the road. They are not letting even ambulances go through.” A moment later, he lets go. “How will it help the farmers if someone dies in an ambulance? What do they gain by stopping a hearse?” The tears come fast and furious.
Driver: “That route is longer by 30 kilometres. It will cost you one thousand five hundred rupees more.”
I: “Please, I will pay. Your mother will be waiting. Please, just go. You can repay me later.”
Friend: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? This is supposed to be free service, instead you are making money from it! Have you no compassion, this boy has just lost his father! Does he look like he can afford what you are demanding?”
Driver: “People die everyday. Driving on these roads is not easy. Take a taxi if you want. It will cost you more.”
He has lost most of his hair since I last saw him. He is wearing a white coat, is barefoot and seated in a stupor in the doctor’s bay of the ICU.
“Come, sit. You look just the same. You don’t have any white hair yet! How is your mother? Is Dr. Kumar in charge? Oh good, he is a good guy. The only one who doesn’t hit on the nurses. Haha.”
Sixteen people plugged into beeping machines lie around us, some resisting death, some resisting life. But he carries on in his normal, loud way.
“You got married didn’t you? No children yet? Haha, enjoying yourself, eh?
An old woman, shrunken by age and hardship shuffles up to the door. “Doctor….”
“What is it?”
“The scan results…”
“Oh yes.” He runs a casual eye over the sheet. “There has been a lot of bleeding. The healing will take a long time. Not much hope. We will keep her here for another week and see. Go, go now.”
He is in a hurry to get back to our conversation. Colour has drained from the woman’s face. Another week in the hospital? But she has sold all her jewels already. She stoops even more as she leaves the room.
“Didi, may I ask you something? Please will you speak to the doctor on my behalf?”
I am at least half a decade younger than him, but he calls me didi. It is an acknowledgement not of age, but another kind of hierarchy.
“You see, he doesn’t answer my questions…I am…I am illiterate, so he doesn’t tell me anything. If you ask him, he will answer you. You can ask him in English. Please.”
There is a community here. Bonded by similar anxieties, familiar burdens. We know each other now. He asks me about my mother, I ask him about his son. We share food, small complaints about the nurses. A deliberate air settles over those who have been around long. The new ones are fretful, hurried. We wait for them to slow down, and when they sit on these cold chairs, we offer water. Watch their bags, help with errands, tell them painkillers are cheaper in the pharmacy outside.
Who knows, we may feel sad to leave when the vigil finally ends.