I would’nt have believed a word of it, if I didn’t have the chance for a cross-check. Lies travel faster than the wind and the stilted ones, faster than the spirit. It’s a kind of vetting I was in search of, prior to putting it in words after I first came to know of it from a twenty-three year intern at the state run medical college at Pathankot.
It all began with Dr Vivian Mukerji a half Anglo-Indian by birth, only twenty- nine, too encumbered by the incredulous weight of her books, standing calm and frozen by the window. Her gaze though discreet, bound nothing along its beaten path and it only disclosed her befuddlement without assent. She could care little for herself and look forward to a happily married life. Reflections of her home in Calcutta, now tormented by her parents in disagreement, bring little hope to look eastward. This window, her only fancy, will soon be occupied by the newcomers at the medical college dormitory in Jaipur.
Vivian, I don’t know why , miffed and riled, may be by some inherent forestalling had deterred her age from catching her up, looks younger. But a close inquiry into the creases along her temples reveal the pain and agony that kept vexing her since childhood. Her placid eyes divulge little but beneath the lasting glistening tear, which never had rolled, lies a different world of love and hatred. She, still unable to decide where to head after her postgraduate training that ends next week, had sought permission to stay at the dorm for an extended fortnight. But this deferment, she believes, may bring more misery to her than the much needed contentment.
The notice in the newspaper read “Wanted a general duty residential medical officer at Missionary Hospital, Palampur, H.P 176061. Salary will not be a bar for the right candidate.” It was brief. For Vivian, it seemed too pithy, missing even a proper postal address. She read it for a second time, only to find a landline telephone number that seemed too outdated to be tried.
When the train dropped Vivian at Pathankot it was noon. In the December sun that hung right over her head, she felt comfortable in a full sleeves woolen. The very feeling of coldness of night deterred her. She wondered how bitter it must be, for Palampur lay another three hours up the hill on road.
The bus reached the railway rest house at about half past three in the evening. The missionary hospital stood right behind the railway campus, surrounded by the woods. Father Doyle, an Irishman in his mid seventies, and a surgeon himself, had asked Dr Vivek Agnihotri to pick up Vivian. When the bus conductor asked the passengers to leave their seats, Vivian could easily recognise the doctor waiting for her.
“Come my child, come. Take your seat. Just a minute. Dr Mukerji ? Vivian? I’m Dr Doyle. Sit, sit”, the smiling large face swiftly spoke without pause, somewhat panting. Then he took to his chair wiping his dripping forehead with a piece of embroidered handkerchief that looked funnily smaller than what the enormous face needed .
“My B.P, you know, It always troubles me,” uttered Doyle, looking above the thin golden frame as he pressed the bell below his writing desk. Vivek kept waiting by the bookshelf, without a word, which Doyle had kept in his room blocking another door leading to the library.
“ Oh. Sit my son, sit ,sit” Doyle asked Vivek, a little embarrassed at not having set his eyes on him so long.
Vivian noticed how ignorantly this old delicate creature repeats his words. She had earlier met fathers from the church, her mother used to take her to on Sundays. Then in a christian school it was a common sight. But a father, a doctor himself, with a face so resolute, was new to her. She couldn’t shift her focus off the gentle affectionate man, still sweating in the December cold. A pleasant quiet voice, such tenderly he spoke, that even an ardent listener would often put his hand cuffed behind his ear, his eyes expectantly reaching Doyle’s lips to synchronise the words he uttered. And when a few days would pass, one quietly gets familiar to Doyle’s inadvertant whisperings in baritone.
The matron in-charge accompanied Vivian to the first floor of the doctors’ hostel. The flat occupied two-rooms, a kitchen and a balcony overlooking the Himalayas, standing tall, now washed by the cerise of the setting sun, only a hand’s breadth away. The moutain is so steep here that it strains your neck. Vivian stood there awed. When Miriam, the matron, bid good-bye, Vivian lay on her bed drained enough for the rest of the day.
At about nine in the evening Vivian heard Dr Seema Sharma knock. The supper at the dining hall reminded Vivian of the training days she has left behind at Jaipur and it won’t be difficult for her to tailor herself, she thought. There were about twenty souls in the middle of their dinner and getting to know each other was no hard task.
This missionary hospital is a hundred bedded three storied structure which had about a dozen doctors under its belt. There were only two wards, one for the surgical cases and the other for the medical ones. Each ward housed in two large rooms accommodated about thirty patients each for the male and the female. A very long corridor lit dimly by the incandescents, with rooms binding on one side, seized a greater part of the floor. There the patients ambled down in the evenings . In each floor a doctors’ room stood inbetween the expanse meant for male and female sufferers. And through a small glass window, the doctor watched the patients on either side, pass their time in horridness waiting to be discharged. The nurses shared their space with the medics. But the little room at the end of the ward, stuffy and overflowing, doubled as a gossip room for the nurses and the ward boys. This room had little to ventilate its body, but it matterd little when a mouthfull of slander would endanger a young sister’s dome threatening to spill. This room smelled heavily of a concoction of benzene, chloroform and antibiotics and as soon as its door was held ajar, the ward would bury itself under an impending cloud of odour neither pungent nor sweet.
Dr. Doyle, who suffered from insomnia, as everyone believed, reached at nine for his rounds. After the visit was over, the smell of coffee emanating from the amenity center at the rear of the hospital would allure everyone. A very large round table occupied the center of this coffee shop, and a few odd narrow counters mounted on the wall, brought coziness and warmth to all. Doyle had made it a point to open this shop for the doctors, and the patients alike. Even the stray dogs would sit muted beside the staff. But at the corner of the room hung a display ‘For doctors only’, quietly insulating about eight chairs and silently drawing a line that patients knew well.
For Vivian, fresh out of a large hospital, the work here was not much of an affliction to her. She always kept a ‘kindle’ in the locker, her only way of communicating with the outer world. New places of work,in some ways or the other, detracts sufficient part of ones rambling thoughts, and that brought Vivian closer to the woods beneath the towering mountains,cherishing them. Here the air seemed lighter and smelled only of wild flowers barring the heavy tar that the vehicles spewed in Jaipur. One Sunday morning while her feet delicately trod the cobble stones that landscaped the garden, she heard Dr Sharma call her.
“Good morning,’, she said with a smile, Vivek joining her from behind. At six in the morning, the sun still not up, the cold had started pestering Vivian to return to her room. The enormous mountain that faced her, now looked dull.
“Good morning,” replied Vivian, “Its too cold here.”
“Would you two mind a cup of tea with me? I have an electric kettle.” she added. After the three had reached her room, the place no more felt desolate.
During the first six months the hours moved effectively. Days that began in ward rounds with Doyle, followed a spell with celerity at the out-patient-department, finally ending in a quiet dinner with Vivek. The kindle and the coffee shop freed her inbetween. But empty apprehensions and uncharted thoughts kept troubling her. Her distress did not escape Doyle, a keen observer who noticed how disquiet her mind was. But he was the last man to put his remarks about someone else’s world. Whenever he found Vivian in his room, he would ask her to look at the little ceramic of Jesus that stood beside Doyle’s pen stand, for compassion. But Vivian had never emptied her thoughts about her childhood. Only she didn’t know, how pensive and sorrowfull her eyes looked when they wandered faraway.
As the days passed, time lost its momentum, and eased its pace. Seema often would accompany Vivian to the bazaar a furlong away both carelessly watching the shops. Vivek rarely visited her residence wary of others’ thoughts. But after work he would call Vivian over the intercom, restless to know how she had passed her day.
One Friday after about eleven in the morning a clerk from the office asked Vivian to meet Dr Doyle. This was the first time Doyle had sent someone to call her.
“My child, would you mind working tonight at the casualty?” Doyle enquired hesitantly. “ This year- end almost everyone is on leave and its hard to manage the roster,” he continued,” I belive you will relieve Dr Agnihotri who will be in his afternoon shift.”
“Yes father, I will.”
“ You are all right I believe ?” asked a skeptical Doyle, as he looked at the ceramic that lay on his table.
“Yes, I do Sir.”
The casualty stood at the end of the corridor on the ground floor facing the garden. It bore a large room with two beds, a doctors’ ante-room and a medical store. The nights often passed lean though cautious of its highway that ran right across the boundary wall obliterating the garden. Vivian went to sleep by twelve at night, feeling dizzy after all the hard work that morning, in the ante-room. This act of sleeping, though sounds uncomfortable, is a routine affair and how quick these doctors are in responding to the bell sounded by the sisters in crisis, is worth imitating.
“Hello doctor. Doctor Vivian I believe.” Spoke the sister-in charge over phone from the surgical ward. Vivian could easily recognise her voice.
“Yes, What is it? You need me upstairs”
“ Oh. Its all the same. That poor,old cancer lady at 31.”
“Ok. Don’t mind. I will be in a minute.”
In the second floor, just by the side of the stairs is a small room for two patients in isolation. Beds 31 and 32 are not that easily noticed unless one peeps into the room.
“May I come in?”, enquired Vivian, knocking the door, not willing to disturb the nurse in the middle of the night. The room, poorly lit, with half the incandescent bulbs put off at night appeared sultry. At thrity one, the old lady in her terminal stage of carcioma breast sat, thinly covered with a white sheet. She waived at Vivian and spoke with an obfuscated voice.
“Doctor you know, I have a cancer and my chemo is done.Would you please mind treating the burn on my leg with a graft you had suggested earlier. It’s an old burn,” she moved the sheet on her leg and continued in a drowsy voice. “You know, I cant walk.”
Vivian knew well that it was not her who recommended the skin graft. Watching the frail body gather so much desire to be alive, she felt pity for this old lady. She thought what an hour to ask a doctor in the middle of night such unworthy a question. But the doctors are used to it.
“Don’t worry. I will take care of it,” she continued.
“I will look into it for sure tomorrow morning,” nodded Vivian, knowing well that the lady was not worthy of the surgery with her metastising tumor ramifying fast. Vivian left the unused gloves, ready to return to her room, with all the sleep that is gone for now.
The next day it rained heavily clearing the sky for the belt of Orion to look abnormally bright. Vivian having finished her dinner, too cold and reluctant to follow the Orion from the naked ground, stood at the vernadah beside the dining hall, protected in a thick woolen she had bought from Shillong. She then returned to the casualty for the second night that Doyle had requested her with humility.
It was a bitter January and burrying under a heap of blankets was the only reasonable comfort nature could bring. At the ‘Emergency’ Vivian kept quiet, not uttering even a word, reluctant to lose an inch of warmth she had gathered from the room heater that lay near the footstool, keeping her legs crossed, afraid of scalding her feet. The empty verandah behind the closed doors looked stress free. Most of the switches having been put off by midnight, darkness buried all the incandescence that emerged from a few bulbs already covered with dust and smoke. Chilled wind found its way through the slits between the doors and windows bringing discomfort faster than the hours that elapsed. This missionary hospital now over a hundred years old had withstood the earthquake of 1905 that left behind a trail of destruction at Palampur. The ceilings that rose too high and the windows, twice the size of the modern ones, proved to be a hindrance in modernising the building. There was no way to have air pockets that would work as insulators. Doyle was strongly opposed to renovate the concrete into a thin walled avant-garde of steel and glass. After midnight, the chill advanced faster, bringing shivers and headache. Too cold to sit, Vivian walked into the veradah to check where from the cold wind came. The next day she would request Doyle to cover up the grills with a thick sheet of tarpaulin to deter the chill that only brought despair. It was too cold outside. In the narrowness of the verandah, nothing to prevent the air from being turbulent , sound resonated into eerie noises that brought fear into the weak hearts. Nurses were too afraid to go out into the icy obscurity, fearing spirits that roamed the cemetry on the rear portion of the church at Palampur. Vivian walked slowly, inhaling the cold air that swiftly brought a pungent smell from the wild flowers. Then rather suddenly, catching her unawares and cutting short her thoughts,the old lady appeared in the bat of an eye at the end of the corridor where an intense feeling of coldness popped up from nowhere, freezing everything it found along its path. For a moment in utter coldness, contracted with fear very unusual for her, she stood stiff.
“Oh my god!” she said, scared and in a feeling of sheer worriness.
“I am so sorry,” said the lady.
“ I didn’t want to scare you. I just came to remind you for my skin. You remember that doctor? Its all that I need for the graft. Won’t you gift me some skin for the burn? ” she murmured, looking away from Vivian and her eyes transfixed on her own shadow.
“ I will do it for you, I told you once.Don’t worry,” replied Vivian, a little annoyed but in a voice she could hardly hear.
Still trembling and unable to hold back her displeasure she spoke again, “Who permitted you to come downstairs? Did you ask the sisters for that?”
But the lady seemed to have little patience on her and was reluctant to be attentive.
At last she replied hesitantly in a very low and thin voice, still staring at the other direction watching her shadow, “No madam, they are fast asleep.”
“Then I must accompany you and find out the truth.”
At this the lady, her eyes still focused away from Vivian, into the darkness of the verandah, left quickly leaving her shadow behind. The shadow trailed the woman too slowly, as if it was not hers and Vivian now motionless and daunted looking at a distance in the faintness of the dark corridor wondered how fast a fragile lady could walk. She had never felt so distraught before. The coldness of the wind, the intense freeze,the odor from wild flowers and the turbulent air followed her and then suddenly disappeared as quickly as the old lady had left. Vivian stood astounded, unable to fathom the weird happening but not much eager to find it out, may be out of sheer fright and a sense of edginess slowly creeping into her, returned to the anteroom and fell asleep.
Days passed quickly for both Vivian and Vivek. Nature, for a reason best known to it, bequests good and happy days to frisk itself and have wings. Dr Doyle too felt happy as he loved both of them but never expressed his thoughts. Doyle looked the same as before, repeating small words unknowingly and wiping the sweat over his platform. Then another day arrived when Dr Doyle requested Vivian to perform a third night’s duty.
On Friday, Vivian had her night to perform, but this time it was in her ward. At about half past eleven Vivek, as seldom as one gets to see, arrived with a smile, carrying a thermos on him.
“I thought I should bring you some coffee for the night”, he said.
“Oh thank you,” replied Vivian, the color quickly rising on her face.
“Won’t you share some with me?” she asked, but Vivek refused, afraid of losing his sleep.
They sat quietly for sometime, Vivian carrying her notings on the bed head ticket as Vivek looked over her head thinking how beautiful she looked in that stance.
Vivian broke the silence.
Looking straight into Vivek she asked, “Is Doyle all alone?”
“It’s a sad story I believe. His wife died young, when his daughter was hardly eight years of age. She had a background of cancer in her family,” Vivek continued,
“After his daughter left school, she felt sick. I believe she must have been around eighteen then. She started feeling feverish every alternate day and it sadly came out to be leukaemia. She didn’t survive long.“
“Doyle still says that he often hears his daughter cry in pain.”
Vivian had never heard of this before. And finding no word redundant, undecided, she silently rose from her chair.
“How old would she have been now?”.
The nurse, who stood near the shelf, readying a syringe, replied, “Had she been now, she would reach your age madam.”
The air in the room stood still while the night turned colder.
“Would you mind putting on the room-heater,” she asked the sister.
The clock stood at half past midnight and when Vivek was about to leave, the room suddenly froze in a vacuum of cold air. Vivek changed his mind and took to the chair. There was an intense odor of chloroform and benzene, emerging from the other end of the room. Vivian knew where it came from. Someone must have opened the storeroom, she thought. Then rising from her chair in repulsion and moving the chair aside she was ready to reach the store when Vivek abruptly held her hand.
“Wait, don’t go, you won’t be able to open the store. The door now is glued to its frame.”
Vivian, failing to grasp what was happening, turned towards the sister. The sister stood calm, wedged with the syringe still in her grip, not much willing to fill it up, appeared immobile rigidly fixed to the shelf. As the strong smell of the blend moved over the beds, it became increasingly pungent and aggressive. Abruptly it stopped near the shelves where the sister stood, distorting her face into a gurn. Vivek looked at the clock, hanging over the wall. The second hand had stopped by then. It stood stiff for about ten seconds and then started moving again. The pungent air moved quickly away from the shelf as quickly as the second hand had started moving away from the minute arm.
“What happened?” Vivian asked, rising from her captivity not fully appreciating the appalling situation.
Not paying attention to what Vivian said, Vivek enquired ,“On Wednesday night why did you go to the ward for thirty-one? “
“Why shouldn’t I? The sister rang me up”. Vivian’s face looked deadpan.
“Are you sure it was a phone call?”
As the three of them sat, now keenly looking at each, unable to fathom what did go wrong that day and who made the call.
“She is dead for over a year now.” Vivek explained.
“Who ?”, “The old lady at 31?”
“How did you know I went to the ward?”
“The sister told me. She saw you leaving the locked room.”
“Who locked it?”
“ it’s locked since the lady died.” Vivek replied
Vivian lay thawed over the chair. The night at the verandah beside the casualty and the shadow trudging behind came into her mind. Things were making sense now. The air felt breathable. The sister having finished with the injection now took to her seat, the pelvis away from the backrest of the chair, the legs stretched and crossed , dozing.
“Was it the old lady this time?” it suddenly came out of Vivian’s mouth without an impediment.
“No. It was Dominique, the stretcher bearer.”
“Lets get out of this place”, said Vivek, but he wanted to mean something larger than that. It didn’t reach Vivian. The whole country was under lockdown for the pandemic. Nowhere to go she thought.
The last time I had been to Palampur for a trip, I enquired about Vivek and Vivian. They are married now.
Dr. Doyle who unlawfully practiced euthanesia on the terminally ill cancer sufferers, had died. His body lay in dust, forgotten, in the cemetry behind the church at Palampur. Since then no one turned into the store room at odd hours of the day and or anyone asking for a piece of integument.