Radhika&’s name flashing on my cell annoyed me. Irregular and indifferent to class activities, she was an irritant. In a mixed-bag department, the absence of a competent student ate into student-confidence. Her classmates disliked her. “She stays away from all departmental activities,” they complained. “You simply cannot make her sign up.” As department-in-charge, I suffered, but my hands were tied. For a student, college life is about making choices. A department can only hope her choice will be in its favour.

Yet when Radhika did turn up, she paid undivided attention. Her essays were pleasing, a bit terse and lacking in the personal slant that would have pushed her to the upper five per cent. I wanted to tell her to work towards upgrading herself, to enjoy college days for all they were worth. But her poise compelled me to keep my counsel.

I saw red, however, when her classmates informed me that, instigated by their tuition teacher, three girls, Radhika among them, were opting for Indian literature this year, an optional paper in third year. Since the department offered American literature, the trio planned to focus exclusively on tuitions. I took it personally and rang up the parents, a step I rarely take. The mothers of the other two were scared-embarrassed, but Radhika&’s mother was as bold as brass.

“I understand, Madam,” she replied in a voice identical to Radhika&’s. “I too think the college alternative should be followed. But,” a pregnant pause, “my daughter is staying away for a different reason. My mother-in-law has been hospitalised. I am outside the general ward at the moment. My daughter is with me and I need her to fill forms and talk to doctors. Her father has a tour job. My daughter will have to tide us over this crisis. First she will help her family; then she will attend classes.”

This was unexpected. I rang off prickling with humiliation.

When Radhika turned up the next day, I called her aside. “Listen,” I said, “illness and crisis will dog our steps. As a daughter you have to help out. But frittered time doesn’t return. If you stay away from classes you will miss out on college guidance. Your tuition teacher cannot be your be-all and end-all. She is actually alienating you from your classmates when she is supposed to help you.”

“I understand, Ma’am. I shall attend classes henceforth,” Radhika replied with characteristic maturity.

From then on she would be present on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday onwards she would stay away. In student seminars she read papers, but workshops and excursions she avoided. Had I enough time I would have plotted her pattern, but I lacked that. Also, she was on her way out. Radhika had possibilities, I rued. But her mother would obstruct her progress. Radhika would be shackled to family responsibilities.

Reluctantly I took her call now.  “Madam,” said Radhika&’s clear voice, “this is urgent.”

“Yes?” I replied grudgingly (Possibly she wanted suggestions now that exams were impending).

“Madam, it is about Bishwarupa, my tuition friend. Even as we speak, Bishwarupa is fighting for her life. She has developed Steve-Johnson syndrome, a disease that affects one in the hundreds of thousands. Her skin is all burnt up and flesh is falling off her bones so rapidly that she cannot be removed from her ICCU bed in Adonis Nursing Home.”

I was shocked. “Is it some kind of skin cancer?” I asked, my voice shaking perceptibly. My palms felt clammy. It was tax month. An unknown kid&’s life hung in a balance, but I too had family liabilities. A couple of loans hung on my head.

“No, it isn’t cancer, Ma’am. It is a virulent allergy to a strong sulphur drug, Ultratet, that a doctor prescribed for her headache.” Obviously Radhika had the details on her fingertips. “Only people above 40 can consume the drug. It is a case of wrong treatment, Ma’am. Plenty of money is required. More than 50 lakh. Even then it will take her a long, long time to recover. Bishwarupa is an only child. Her father is retired. They’ll probably have to sell their house.”

“What drug? What is this Steve-Johnson syndrome?” I asked in spite of myself. What use was the information to me? How could I help? And who was I helping? God, why was I even being looped in? I was upset, frantic.

“Ma’am, Bishwarupa was given Ultratet, a painkiller, to relieve her headaches. After taking two capsules, she developed welts and burns on her skin and could not breathe. The doctors in the government hospital mistakenly thought that hers was a compound case of conjunctivitis, pneumonia and measles and asked them to go to a specialty hospital. She was taken to Nazrul Islam Nursing Home where they prescribed a cocktail of 17 tablets. She couldn’t swallow them. They asked her mother to grind the pellets and force the mixture down her throat. Kakima (her mother) did it. She shouldn’t have. But she did – Kakima is a simple woman, Ma’am — and Biswarupa&’s collapse was immediate. Some relatives referred them to Adonis. Five days had gone by the time she was finally taken to there. A skin specialist pushed a few injections — quite effective injections they were since they stalled the burns — and then casually left for a US conference handing her to a plastic surgeon. Imagine, Ma’am, what will a plastic surgeon do when there is no skin to graft? The specialist should have stayed back. Another case of neglect…”

“Wait, you’re going too fast. I have to get ready for college. What are your plans? How are you handling the situation?” The irony of my question struck me. 

“Ma’am, could some money be raised somehow? I mean, if you had contacts with NGOs, for instance? Bishwarupa&’s father is depending on us tuition friends. He doesn’t have any contacts. We are running from pillar to post. We have posted on Facebook. I thought maybe you and our principal would help…”

“Our principal? But your friend isn’t from our college. Have you approached her college, her principal? You have? She is giving the matter deep consideration? Tell you what. Give me some time, Radhika. Let me think. In the meantime keep me posted.”

“What happened?” Subrata asked. While telling him, the enormity of the situation struck me. A 20-year-old girl fighting a losing battle! A couple of innocuous capsules swallowed and young life gets destroyed! Is it really that easy?

“Tell your student to contact the media,” suggested Subrata. “Her situation needs publicity. This kind of money cannot be raised by word of mouth.”

I stared at him. I did know Tania who worked for a prominent news channel. Why hadn’t I thought of her? I also knew Panchali, my entrepreneur friend in Abu Dhabi. Surely she could rustle up some money. My fingertips got busy with my mobile.

Later in the day, I rang Radhika from the staff-room. She called back when I was in class. I excused myself and took her call in the corridor. I told her about my conversation with Tania and Panchali.  “Interested parties will require a phone number,” I said.

“Give them my number, Ma’am,” she replied confidently. “An account has been created for NRI money. Cash is being deposited there. I’m forwarding the account number.” 

I marvelled at the resourcefulness of young girls. Without asking, I knew the tuition friends had achieved this on their own. “How is the girl? And her parents?” I asked haltingly.

“Not good, Ma’am, not good at all. How can a girl survive so much wrong treatment? Sulphur drugs followed by 17 tablets forced down her gullet. How could doctors do it? But majorly, the S-J syndrome is a result of the Ultratet tablet she had been given for headache.”

“Headache? Sulphur drugs for headache? Haven’t you people heard of Saridon and Amrutanjan?”

“I know, Ma’am. Bishwarupa trusted that hospital completely. She’d been going there since childhood. On Valentine&’s Day she had gone to Forum with her special friend. She returned with fever and a headache. There is a government hospital in their locality. Since her father is a retired government employee they get free treatment from there. Bishwarupa straightaway went to the hospital and consulted a doctor who thoughtlessly prescribed the sulphur drug.”

“By herself?”

“Bishwarupa took her own decisions.  We looked up to her. She was beautiful, Ma’am, with a unique dress sense. And she believed in a full life. Don’t be parochial, don’t sit buried in books, she’d say. Life is time management.  Study a bit, enjoy a bit. None of us dared to go out on Valentine&’s Day since exams were approaching. She’d laugh. Valentine&’s Day was for love and romance, not for sitting at home and worrying about exams, she said. And her parents hung on to her every word. She was bold, brainy and so lovely…”

In the background I heard Radhika&’s mother prompting her with the day&’s routine. Some girls were leaving for Adonis. They would check in on the patient and then do the collection rounds. “I shall wait in college. Come down and talk to the principal if possible,” I said.

“Thank you, Ma’am. On our way back, we’ll drop in.”

My mother-in-law had emptied her medicine bag on the dining table. She’d just had breakfast and it was medicine time. Blood sugar, pressure, heart ailment, urinary complaints, osteoarthritis; the frills of old age.  Jamming glasses onto her nose, Ma was matching strips with prescription. “Since this is to be my routine for life,” she’d asserted, “Subrata will explain the sequence once, and I shall take my medicines accordingly.”

On an impulse I rushed to the dining table. “Ma, show me your packets,” I ordered, rummaging through the heap. There it was: Ultratet, written large on a white and blue pill box. I held it up accusingly. “What&’s this for?” My voice was loud and harsh.

“For back pain. Last month the orthopaedic prescribed it. I’m taking it twice daily.”

“Subrata, Subrata!” I screamed.

Subrata came running one cheek shaved, one lathered. “Ring the doctor. Immediately, do you hear me?”

“All right, all right, you’re getting late for work. Go for your bath,” he soothed, one hand on my mother-in-law&’s shoulder. The old lady looked perplexed. I walked off muttering to myself. It just didn’t make sense.

Most of my colleagues had left. But I sat waiting. In my bag I was carrying a folded 1,000-rupee note. I had tried talking to the principal but she’d had to leave in a tearing hurry. 

At 6.30 pm Radhika entered the staff-room with a friend. She glowed from a film of perspiration on her clear skin. I’d never seen her look more exhausted or beautiful. “It&’s all ended, Ma’am,” she said calmly. “Biswarupa passed away an hour ago. Multiple-organ failure. First her kidneys went, then she had a couple of cardiac arrests and that was that.”

“Her parents?” I whispered.

“They are spent. But they’ll have to accept it. I told her mother, Aunty, Bishwarupa loved to dress up. She’d wanted a full life. She would have looked hideous had she lived. There was no skin left. Much of her flesh had fallen off. How could she have lived? It is good, she went.”

I timidly handed over my 1,000-rupee note. “My contribution,” I said.

“Thank you, Ma’am. This’ll come in handy. The bill has already run to seven lakh. Almost everyone has contributed except some selfish girls who just won’t. Let&’s see how things turn out. Bye, Ma’am. It&’s late. We have to go home.”

I sat nailed to my chair. Tomorrow I would message Radhika, telling her to make up for lost time. Or maybe I’d leave it a day or two. What was a full life?   What lay ahead of my girls? I had to control my riotous thoughts. I had to get up and leave. But I sat and waited.