After a week of home isolation since testing positive, when it was becoming obvious that we could not manage any more on our own, we found no hospital would respond to our frantic calls. My old office somehow arranged for a check-up at the Casualty Ward at AIIMS where we reached in a hired ambulance.

As we were stepping out, my wife collapsed on the ground ~ all the strength I could muster was not enough to hold her in my arms. Some kindly soul got a stretcher from somewhere and put her on it ~ she was lying almost lifeless as I, sitting on the ground bereft of all strength to get up, looked on helplessly.

There was a long queue at the Casualty before a single doctor and there were scores of people before us, many sitting on the road like me.

Then suddenly a storm appeared from nowhere ~ with blinding dust flying all over followed by a drizzle that drenched us; my wife was already running high fever and as the merciless rain poured over her frail body, being unable to move, I kept on wondering how worthless a husband I was who could not even shield his wife from rains ~ let alone supporting her in sickness and in health.

I could only waive my hands at anyone who would take notice to move the stretcher a little towards the wall so that she could at least get some protection.

A security guard did take notice, he not only rested the stretcher against a wall, but supported and led me to the doctor’s chamber where there was a single stool available for one to sit.

The doctor on duty ~ clearly exhausted, overworked and hence a little irritable ~ examined me and then came out to check on my wife as well, but said he could not help as there were no beds available for admission.

I thanked him and then requested the security guard to please assist me in getting a cab that could take us home where we could die in peace.

I don’t know if it was the desperation or the resolution in my voice, but it made the doctor look up. He wrote something on a prescription, handed it over to the security guard who ran with it. Ten minutes later, we were pushed into an ambulance along with three more patients ~ one of them using the single oxygen support available.

The driver explained that we were being taken to AIIMS Jhajhar ~ which is in Haryana. It is in fact a 700+ bed cancer hospital ~ the largest cancer hospital in India ~ that has now been converted entirely into a Covid facility.

It took us one and a half hours to reach. As we were led inside the sprawling building into a waiting area, we found ourselves among scores of patients with only two doctors available for checking, screening and admitting.

Here I was separated from my wife who was led into the ICU while I was guided into a ward where there were patients waiting for beds vacated by those who had been discharged, besides those who had finally departed.

There were kids and teenagers, men and women of all ages. Some of them wailed in pain, and some lay almost lifeless on their beds. From time to time, health workers, multi-tasking staff, nurses and doctors ~ all clad in their PPE gear from head to toe and all looking almost identical in these outfits ~ would come, check on the patients, push injections or administer medicines and oxygen, or help take them to the toilets in wheelchairs.

Their dedication, commitment and endurance were much beyond the call of mere duty; despite being physically and emotionally exhausted beyond limits, they kept on helping, supporting and counselling the patients in every possible manner. Here there was only the finest professionalism from the finest of people, and no time for anything else.

This was my first hospital stay in living memory. I only have a hazy recollection of the only other time I was in a hospital when I was ten and was studying at Narendrapur Ramkrishna Mission, when I had to be quarantined in the school hospital after I had an infection of mumps, a benign virus that needed about two weeks to get cured.

But then I was too young then to understand disease and suffering, least of all death; now here for the first time perhaps, death was constantly staring at each one of us. When you see bodies of the dead being wrapped in protective clothes like a mummy and being wheeled away, when you see patients turning critical and being surrounded by doctors and nurses or being taken out to the ICU – every moment was a stark reminder that the next one could be me.

I never had any occasion to reflect on death, but here, left with nothing else to do and too weak to focus my mind that was constantly wandering to thoughts of suffering and death, I almost overcame any fear I might be having of death.

It looked almost like a reality I came to peace with. One morning after my wife was released from the ICU but shifted to a different ward ~ they segregated the patients according to the severity of their infections ~ I called her up for a video chat; it was her birthday. She was crying and tears were rolling past her oxygen mask. She explained that a one-year-old child had just died and as her body was being wrapped into a plastic bag, her father was sitting immobilised in stony silence with a vacant stare that was impossible to forget.

Such heartrending stories and the unfolding of human tragedies will continue to wrench tears from our eyes. There would be many more stories about the greed and wickedness of people trying to profiteer from the suffering of others, and of the insensitivity of those in authority.

In Agra, some policemen had seized an oxygen cylinder a teenager had somehow procured for his mother who was ailing in a hospital that could not provide her any oxygen, leading to her death within two hours.

The kneeling boy pleading for the cylinder before policemen will perhaps be an iconic image of the terrible times we are living through. In another incident in the same city, a woman, unable to find a bed for her husband anywhere, at last tried to revive him through CPR in the auto in which they were moving from hospital to hospital, an effort too inadequate to save his life. Outside some hospitals, unscrupulous people were selling the drug Remdesivir at Rs 1.5 lakh a dose; some sold fire extinguishers as oxygen cylinders at Rs 10,000, with no one to check and control them. In ancient Rome, the term Interregnum was used to refer to the period of legal and political void after the death of a sovereign and before the enthronement of his successor. The declaration of interregnum was accompanied by the proclamation of justitium, for it was not only sovereignty but also legality that was suspended. It was a time of utter chaos. Reflecting on the Interregnum, the Marxist philosopher and Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who died in the prison of the Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini, wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” We are also in an interregnum, and our good old familiar world is already dead. Indeed, all the monsters which were lying dormant in the dark recesses of our hearts seem to have been let loose in the open. In this interregnum, humanity itself has been suspended and selfishness and greed have supplanted love and kindness which have so far sustained our civilisation and made us what we are. What would be the world we would inherit after this interregnum? Would we ever be able to look our fellow humans in the eye and talk about love again? Would the scars left in our hearts ever heal? Would we ever be able to rediscover our lost humanity once the pandemic stops its dance of death? In the Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission Hospital, the only way the Doctor Maharaj could quieten an unruly child was by telling him stories. He read me Erich Maria Remarque’s classic – “All Quiet on the Western Front” from which I recall a line, “A hospital alone shows what war is.” The hospital provided a living proof of the callousness, criminal neglect, stupidity and insensitivity of our leaders, politicians and institutions. The brief hospital stay has also probably made me a little wiser to understand that in the face of death, our possessions, wealth and whatever we strive to accumulate throughout our lives carry no meaning and cannot help us. Once your time is up, you just leave, heedless of the will that may reside in you. None of our departures has any extraordinariness and neither is there any bravery or courage involved in it. Nor should be there any fear while saying good bye. (Conclude)
The writer is a commentator, author and an academic.