What about us? (06.26.2017)
What does it feel to be helpless?
I ask myself from time to time. I have encountered the feeling at times in face of some adversity, but there are always options. If worse comes to worst I could find a job that pays less and barring that I could dip into my savings account or ask my sister to support me for a while.
There are always options. I have always felt that these did not even come close to the helplessness felt by some, where there are no options, no hope. When you have nothing to gain, you have nothing to lose.
I walk along the sidewalk of the KEM hospital on my way to the grocery store nearby. KEM is one of the few remaining government hospitals in Bombay that still tend to the poor, the people who cannot afford the 50,000 rupees deposit that you have to post in before you are admitted.
People from around Bombay come here to be treated. Most of them live outside and have no connection to the city. They have nowhere to live and cannot afford the hotels in town. So they do what the poor do when faced with diminished choices, they improvise.
The sidewalk is littered with small makeshift tents that contain a scatter of belongings, rarely any people. The people are in the park surrounding the hospital, hordes of them waiting to be treated. There are no appointments, lines, or a sense of order.
They have no idea what is ailing them. Some will go back cured. For some, this will be their burial ground.
Life in all its glory of unpredictability unfolds here every day.
As I stand by the iron fences surrounding the park, I try to look inside. I glance at a couple at the far end of the park under the banyan tree. The man is dark, short, and tough. He is wearing a white shirt and pants which are now yellow with dirt while his wife sits next to him.
A boy around twelve sleeps on her lap. He sleeps as most kids do, holding the end of her dress in his tight little fist. His entire head is bandaged in gauze and they are trying to keep him as comfortable as they physically can. His father massages his feet, rubbing them gently almost wanting to not give up the physical proximity of human touch. They are looking around, searching, a slightly worried frown on their faces.
I am curious so I walk in towards them. I see the father getting alarmed as he sees me coming. His gaze is locked on my shoes. He mistakes my military shoes as security or worse the cops.
“Sir, we are only here for some time. Let him sleep for a bit. We will go out by the end of the day,” he pleads.
I don’t correct him but instead, point toward the boy to ask what is wrong with him. “Dokyat gaath” (lump in the brain) he says simply. He does not know much about brain tumors, but he has collected enough to know that it is serious enough.
The kid was operated on last week and was in an emergency for the last six days. They have since shifted him out which could only mean two things — he has either done miraculously better or his bed has been prioritized over someone else’s. I suspect it’s the latter. Shelar does not know this yet. This is probably his first brush with the public hospital system.
They are farmers who own a piece of small land in Nasik, a small town 200 km from Bombay. Proud and self-sufficient they had never encountered this feeling of helplessness, a loss of control over their situation. They are overwhelmed, tired, and lost, as any parent would be in their situation, rich or poor.
Shelar suddenly stops his conversation midway and runs to a short stooping man in a white coat. His wife explains that he is their doctor and they had been waiting all day to see him. The doctor recognizes him and walks toward the kid to check on him. He runs a battery of standard neurological tests, pinching his feet, hitting his ankle with a solid object, and looking at the pupils.
He talks to Shelar in hushed tones while his wife and I wait at a distance.
As the doctor prepares to walk away, Shelar comes back to his kid to slowly pull his head on his lap comforting him, comforting himself.
I take this opportunity to walk toward the doctor who is walking out to take a break. My English with a slight American accent opens the door for a conversation. He has seen me with Shelar and his family. I ask him about the kid and he shakes his head in sadness.
The prognosis is not good. In a city where there is a severe lack of neurosurgeons, their places are filled with interns learning to operate. They join a government hospital hoping to get some expertise before they bolt to greener pastures, the private hospitals that are growing like mushrooms.
He speculates that one of them probably operated Shelar’s boy. He recognizes the angle of the cut of an intern compared to an experienced neurosurgeon.
“Someone like me will never cut below the ear “, he shows me using his finger as the knife.
They probably removed the tumor but accidentally nicked nerve-wracking havoc. When this happens, the patient is quickly stitched up. There is no accountability. This is rare but happens more often than we would know, he says.
The parents have a glimmer of hope that something was done. They win some and they lose some.
Over multiple cups of sweet strong tea, he explains his day-to-day work.
He gets up at 4.00 and takes the 4.50 fast train from Virar to come down here. He starts to make his rounds at 7.00 and operates in the afternoon unless there is an emergency.
He seems tired, not by the amount of his work but even more with what he has seen and endured.
“I see them all every night”, he tells me of those failed surgeries performed with limited instruments under the most challenging conditions.
“I see them all. Every night. They scream at me. Horrifying screams. I am not afraid of them anymore.”
He pauses for a second and I see the moisture in his eyes. He stops only for a second, his eyes fixated just over my shoulder.
“It’s the little ones that scare me. They look at me silently with their dark pleading eyes… I could have saved them,…if only I had tried harder”.
His voice is barely above a whisper and is cracking.
People around us are talking, couples are holdings hands drinking their latte coffee, or laughing on their cell phones unaware of the brevity of the moment.
The brunt of the decisions he has to take in the split of a second, acting like God has taken its toll on him.
“I don’t know why I do this. I can easily retire somewhere “
His brother-in-law is in Texas and has been urging him to migrate. He has a standing offer from a local hospital there to head their neurosurgery department easily fetching north of 300,000$, 500 times his current salary in the government hospital here where he is paid a pittance.
They could buy a four-bedroom house, buy a Honda pilot and put their kids in a private school or take vacations to Europe once a year or attend wellness life seminars spending thousands.
His wife can spend her days making decisions on who to invite over on the weekends or when to refurbish their basement instead of waiting for him to come home at 10.30 pm. However, he cannot make that leap.
“What would they do without me?” he makes a sweeping gesture at the people in the park.
I look up at his face expecting a sense of self-importance but instead see only a sense of overwhelming sadness.
“What would I do without them?” He adds with a wry smile for good measure.
He shakes my hands, smiles, and walks away thanking me for the coffee. As the short dark figure walks away, I wonder how many of these real heroes we miss. These people who give their all to save a life. Saving the world entire. Making an actual difference. Barely acknowledged, almost never recognized.
I walk back to Shelar slowly almost dreading it but he is happy to see me.
“The doctor has asked us to monitor him for the next 24 hours. I think he will get better “, he says gazing longingly at his son, and softly rubbing his face as his wife adjusts the blanket shielding him from the dust and flies surrounding him.
The flies probably have recognized a dying body and they know what I know now, but I have no heart to tell Shelar that his son will never wake up. That he will take the Nasik express someday soon without him. I fish my hands into my pocket and take out all the money I have and give it to him.
It’s not much. Around 3,400 rupees(60$). He will need much more for the funeral. They are both amazed and surprised as to why a stranger that they just met today morning would do this for them.
I don’t know why I want to do it either. Maybe it’s a way for me to assuage the guilt. They are proud people and keep telling me — “Sir if you can only give us your address, we will return every cent someday soon”, he says with utmost sincerity.
I know they will, but I don’t want them to.
I am tired, almost physically. I was only out to buy some groceries and I just want to go back home.
Back to my cocoon where everything is fine.
Where there is no sickness, no death.
Days later, I visit Darius, my friend who is in Beach Candy, an elite hospital in South Bombay, for a sore throat infection. Darius runs a flourishing ad agency and is doing really well for himself. He believes he got the infection while waiting outside his car on the road while his driver fixed a flat tire.
“I should have just f**ing got a cab”, he says with obvious irritation.
His consulting doctor comes in as I am talking to him. He examines his patient with a gravitas barely commiserating with the ailment but more in line with the bank account.
A bevy of attentive interns follows him and a nurse writes down the instructions on her iPad while Darius regales in all the attention. He is bored and lonely and is looking to get out of here.
The doctor urges him to stay a couple more days and get a full-body scan, just in case. He says.
Darius will easily spend north of 500,000 rupees in these couple of days to cure an ailment that could have been easily taken care of by gargling with warm saltwater. He tends to his health in the same way as he does with business — carefully.
I find myself wondering — what would Shelar have done with the 500,000. Would it have made a difference to that family?
What is wrong with Darius wanting to spend his hard-earned money to ensure his well-being? Why should he give away anything?
The capitalist and the socialist within me fight the eternal battle that has gone on for generations.
I sometimes wonder how people can be so oblivious of things happening around them.
I work in the financial district of Boston where there are more millionaires per square foot than compared to most places on earth. Fabulously wealthy people who wear Savile Row suits — custom-tailored. I watch a suit walking down the pathway towards the south station and an old woman sitting on the sidewalk. She is bent over, her feet clad in battered shoes, probably the same age as his grandmother, but she still has the dignity of someone who has seen better days.
As he walks by, she extends her hand out to ask for money. The guy almost physically flinches as he quickly moves away from her and starts to look at his cellphone — the new social crutch. He starts to cross the street to the other side in full-blown traffic, almost embarrassed to be there.
I wonder what a couple of bucks would have cost him. What would be the impact if he stopped for a second, and looked at her — not just as dirt, but just as a human being?
Would he end up helping her a bit?
Would he have walked away as easily if it were his own mother instead?
I have seen enough things in my life that have affected the way I think about spending money. I have never developed the finer tastes for a man of my stature, even though I have been closely associated with people who have more refined tastes.
It’s not that I don’t want to, but every time I attempt to do that, I am thwarted back by something — something concrete yet invisible.
Like a hand pulling me back.
My relationship with money is like that of a man with his mistress -
Hidden in the shadows of ambiguity.
“What will you do with all the money?”, they ask me again and again.
My friends, my relatives, and even my friend’s daughters.
Some ask with a barely hidden tinge of sarcasm, while some are genuinely curious.
My friend in the Boston office wants to go out for lunch and I cannot tell him that those 10$ lunches at the local food cart add up.
I cannot tell him that I need that money, every cent of it.
I cannot tell him that even if I add the entire net worth of myself and then add his — that it would still hardly make a dent in the suffering. I can’t give them a good answer.
I cannot tell them about the things that I have seen nor can I erase those from my psyche.
Sometimes, I walk around in the malls at times going through the brand-name stores. I run my fingers over the soft material of the shirt or admire the stiffness of the collar or the cut and then inadvertently I look at the 80$ price tag.
I am not walking away from it, I am running. I just don’t see the need to own another shirt when my closet is not growing any more accommodating. Sometimes I indulge and end up buying a 10$ shirt from Savers when it’s on sale for 5.
Coming home, I already know they are there and even before I open the door, the LaxmiBai’s or the Shelar’s are waiting for me, looking at me accusingly.
“Do you really need another shirt when we have not eaten in four days?”
“Why do you need another leather belt for your expanding waist when our children’s bellies are shrinking in hunger?”.
And so, I exist, as I have been for years now — Torn between these two worlds, neither here nor there. A bridge in time between these two very disparate worlds that rarely interact with each other. One safe in their nest of silky materialism, while the other seething with anger born out of hopelessness. I have seen them both, lived them both, but I cannot un-see or un-live them either.
When we were young, we heard a Buddhist tale about a prince that was asked by the gods to be granted a wish and he told them, hands bound in prayer –
“May I be able to alleviate the suffering of every being, small or big, whosoever I cast my eyes on across all universes. May they be free from suffering and all the causes of suffering”
I sit on my balcony chair watching the setting sun contemplating what it would be to have been granted that wish.