The stench of stale air overwhelmed me as soon as I stepped into the ICU unit of the hospital. Cabin 415 was on the fourth floor and I was soon inside the elevator of one of the most posh and newly-constructed establishments of the city.
Bishnupriya and I have been in a steady relationship for almost three years now. A year younger to me in St Xavier’s college, her ready wit had mesmerised all of us at the Fresher’s welcome day. I was an economics student and she was a student of literature. When we had been asked the question, “In what state is the Bay of Bengal?” she had raised her hand stating, “It was in the liquid state” — an answer that had us in splits.
Being extremely tall caused her to stand out catching the attention of most people in college as it was not accustomed to see such tall women according to the existing feminine stereotypes. A professor was so entranced by her, that she was always given the task of distributing the semester papers to the class.
Priya was an ardent fan of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice which in fact had a permanent position in her bag. Frankly, I found Jane Austen too naive, as Elizabeth Bennett and William Darcy were far too clichéd to be appreciated in modern times. On the other hand, James Joyce offered a more interesting and easier read without any need of prior knowledge about the socio-political history of the times like Austen demanded. We always seemed to debate quite heatedly on this difference of opinion.
“Priya’s father was admitted late last night,” said Indra, whose voice sounded far off on the phone.
“What happened to him?” I said snapping back to reality.
“Venkat, wake up! Priya called me up last night. She said that she had tried your number too, but your phone was switched off. Her father suffered a stroke and had to be admitted in CMRI,” said Indra wearily.
I dressed in a rush and left for the hospital after having to pay extra to the irate cab driver who was half-asleep and was in no mood to bicker about the fare at six o’clock in the morning. He was stretching when I walked up to him to ask him to drive me to the hospital. He immediately asked me to pay 100 rupees extra to which I agreed, being in a hurry.
I reached the hospital and found Priya’s mother in the reception lounge and I recalled the day I was introduced to her parents. Priya had been candid about her open invitation to visit their home that day but I had squirmed at the idea of coming face-to-face with her parents for a long time.
Her mother, clad in a Dhaniakhali striped sari, which is traditional of Bengali culture, with a big bindi in the middle of her forehead had resembled Goddess Durga to me. They lived in a spacious flat in Alipore which was large enough for the three of them. Accustomed to living in a joint family, but after inter-family issues, they soon moved out and got a place of their own.
But today, she sat like a shrivelled woman, to whom fate had dealt a cruel blow. Upon seeing me through her tear-stained eyes, she called, “Venkat!”
“We were eating dinner last night when Priya’s father got a stroke. He loves to have chicken curry and in fact, we have it almost every day after his doctors had advised him to consume lean meat regularly. But you never know when misfortune may strike and he had almost finished his dinner when he complained of chest pain. The next moment, he had fallen on to the floor,” said Priya’s mother barely being able to get the words out.
Concerned about Priya, I inquired whether she was upstairs with her father. “Yes. She stayed all night with him. The hospital attendants had been very helpful and had immediately admitted Priya’s father after the preliminary examinations. Even though the room was a single occupancy one, the hospital’s staff was kind enough to allow her to stay the night with him,” she said.
I decided that I would enquire at the reception desk if I would be allowed to visit Priya’s father’s room. The receptionist was well-dressed and could have easily been mistaken for an airline stewardess. Chic, stoic and intimidating, I made my way to her hoping she would listen to my plea.
“I know it isn’t visiting hours yet; in fact it is an odd hour for visiting patients,” I said trying to be charming to the woman behind the counter.
“Rules are rules and I have to abide by them. If you are adamant to visit, then you will have to secure a special permit from the authorities,” she said, unmoved by my failure to charm her.
The word “authorities” sounded as if I was visiting a legal firm and felt cold and unfitting for a hospital administration office.
“Ma’am please, a friend of mine is upstairs and has had a sleepless night taking care of her father. If you would be so kind so as to allow me to just see the doctor….” I trailed off noticing the raised hand of protest from her.
“I can allow you only on the condition that you will not disturb the patient in any way and you will come down within twenty minutes. I am doing you a favour here and you need to understand my position. If my superiors get to know about this, I am likely to lose my job,” she said clearly exasperated with my relentlessness.
The resident staff along with the nurses and the doctors who were on their routine morning rounds looked bewildered to see me walk boldly into the ICU.
“Yes?’ said someone who I guessed was the nurse-in-charge looking at me with suspicion.
“Please, will you allow me to enter cabin number 415?” I said almost short of putting my hands together in an act of ardent supplication. I was reminded of the last time that I had similarly done so when my late fines at our college library had exceeded my monthly pocket allowance and I had pleaded pardon at the desk of our librarian.
“You are lucky as the doctor is on his rounds at this very moment. If you wish and since you have already arrived, you may as well speak to him,” she said.
“Do you mean to say that…” I stopped speaking as my throat suddenly felt choked. My sentence hung in mid-air as my eyes travelled in the direction of the rooms as a group of resident in-house physicians were doing their morning check-ups on the admitted patients.
I approached room 415, forcing myself to be optimistic on entering.
As soon as I pushed open the cold metallic doors of the cabin, I heard a whimper. I was prepared for the worst as I saw Priya standing by her father’s side, crying silently.
“It’s all over, Venkat. They had taken him to the operation theatre very early in the morning and I was asleep when they had shifted him,” she said breaking down in hysterical sobs.
“The doctor who was treating him appeared to have had a drunken fit during the operation. My father lost his life just because his doctor was unstable during the procedure,” said Priya.
Priya and I parted ways soon afterwards and I came to hear from friends that she is still unmarried and lives with her mother.