The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Stroke at Noon
- KL Chowdhury
Rend open the heat
Cut apart the heat
Rend it to tatters.
Cut the heat
Plough through it
On either side of your path.
– Hilda Doolittle
I started the day early with a futile long wait for water. Every time I went to the backyard to find out if the water was running in the supply line, I was disappointed. The faucet eyed me with sympathy. I thought I heard it give a dry laugh or two but not a drop of the fluid we took for granted back home in Kashmir. We were left with just a bucket of water from the previous day. I saved it for drinking, not knowing if and when we would receive the forty-five-minute supply that was pumped into the pipes at about five-thirty every morning. I washed my face and decided to forgo the shave and the bath.
It was a busy morning with the patients – nearly all of them fellow refugees from Kashmir in the throes of their first summer in exile, most of them suffering from febrile illnesses, skin diseases, heat exhaustion, dehydration, anxiety, as well as apathy and depression. Lunch had no attraction, for we kept worrying about water, but the tap remained waterless. We had consumed the water saved from the previous day's ration.
Barely had I lain on my bed for a mid-day nap, when the doorbell rang. It was two-thirty. In my shorts, my torso bare, I went outside to check. It was burning hot, the temperature in mid forties. The birds had gone dumb, the leaves wilted, and the flowers that had dared to bloom in the morning had their faces burnt black by the merciless sun.
There were two young men at the door, breathless with anxiety, their faces wet and shiny with sweat. They apologized briefly and requested that I visit a patient – their mother – at home. She was unconscious.
I had stopped home visits, I told them, and going out in that heat was, in any case, out of the question. They begged me to make an exception in this case. Their mother was in very bad shape; they were new to the town and they did not know where to go. Their lodgings were not far off – it would take only a few minutes by car, they pleaded.
Reluctantly, I slipped into a half-sleeve shirt and trousers and got inside my car which, parked in the open, had turned into an oven. The steering wheel scorched my hands. I ran back inside to get a wet towel to cover it. The melting tar on the road had turned into paste and the road spewed venomous vapours as we drove past closed shops through what had become a ghost town – the denizens having fled from the terror of heat, like rats into their holes.
I must have driven hardly a mile from my lodgings at New Plots to Sarwal when I was asked to stop near the back door of a one-storey ramshackle structure that led into a dark, dingy room closed from all sides – no windows, no ventilators, just three blank walls staring at you, and the creaking metallic door that let in what little light there was inside the room. It must have been a stable or a storage shed that had been rented out to this family. It was unbearably hot and suffocating. The temperature inside the room felt much higher than outside. Living there seemed suicidal. A corner of the room with a few pots and pans, cups and glasses, and a gas cylinder seemed like it served as the kitchen. There was a mound of rolled up beddings, two small trunks, an ancient-looking wooden box and bric-a-brac in another corner; and what seemed like school textbooks strewn in the third. In the middle, on a tattered bedcover spread on the bare cement floor, a human figure lay sprawled, watched over by two ladies. They quickly moved aside as I approached the patient.
She was a sparsely-built middle-aged woman, lying limp and unconscious, breathing fast, froth drying up at the corners of her mouth and leaving crests on her pink cheeks. Her pulse was racing at a hundred and twenty a minute and the blood pressure was low. She was hot and dry. Her temperature was a whopping hundred and seven degrees Fahrenheit!
Armed with a photograph and other documentary evidence, her son had accompanied the patient to the Office of the Relief Commissioner early in the morning. She was required to be there for a personal interview in order to complete her application for registration as a 'migrant', a euphemistic term coined by the officials as a ploy to hide the harsh reality that the Pandits were in fact refugees who had been driven away from their homes. The son had failed to convince the officials about her bona fides in absentia on a previous occasion. This time, she was there in person.
A long queue of refugees was already waiting to get registered. The office had not opened yet and it was going to take a long time before her turn came, the son realized. He had left her there and asked her to take the bus home after completing the formalities. There was no waiting room, not much shade either, to protect the crowd in the open – their heads covered with handkerchiefs, towels and turbans. The sun was already up in the sky, beating hard on them.
She had had to wait three hours for her turn. When she returned at about noon, she was flushed, weak, exhausted, tremulous, and unsteady. By the time she drank a glass of water she was confused and incoherent. She had lapsed into coma soon after.
This was the first case of heat stroke in my twenty nine-year experience as a doctor. I would come across an occasional case of heat exhaustion in Kashmir during the summer months, but heat stroke was unknown to me except for what I had learnt from text books. Yet, there was no doubt in this case – an elderly frail woman, out in the summer sun, on an empty stomach and without water to drink, waiting long hours in the open. This was certainly an invitation to disaster.
In fact, disaster had struck. The woman had been in coma for nearly three hours when I saw her. Her attendants had little idea about the gravity of her condition. They did not know where to turn for help. They fed her spoonfuls of water and fanned her with notebook covers and hand fans, hoping she would recover soon. They were new to the city. They were new to such intense heat and did not know how to prevent or fight heat exhaustion, not to speak of managing a heat stroke. There was no doctor around. Someone had informed them that I was in town and they had rushed to see me.
There was no time to lose. Every minute of delay would send her closer to death. Taking her to the hospital was no use at this stage. It would waste another couple of hours getting there, checking in, shifting her to the ward and starting the treatment for which there was no special arrangement.
I looked around and saw a bucket of water nearby.
'This lady needs to be cold sponged at once. Give me a towel or a sheet of cloth,' I said, and dashed towards the bucket. But before I could pull the bucket near the patient, one of the ladies, possibly her daughter-in-law, seized hold of it and dragged it back.
'Doctor Sahib, this is all the water we have to drink for the whole family for today. We will die without water if we spend it sponging her.' She wore an expression of alarm even as she was apologetic.
I was taken aback, but it did not take me long to understand their predicament, for I was suddenly reminded about the drought in my own water pipes and wondered if the waterworks had released the day's quota anytime after I left.
'Can we get some ice from somewhere?' I asked.
'Yes, there is a shop outside. I hope it is open,' said one of the young men.
'Go get a large block of ice,' I told him as everyone looked on impatiently.
He ran out and returned quickly with a slab of ice. I asked them to break it into small pieces. We stripped off the woman's clothes. I passed on a portion of the ice to each of the attendants and directed them to rub it into her skin. Four of them took charge of her limbs and I took charge of the torso. We rubbed and rubbed. The ice slabs melted fast and evaporated, almost vanishing on the burning body of the unconscious patient. She remained dry and hot as before even as another ice block was brought in.
I could not see a fan anywhere. Flies buzzed around the patient in a weird dance, sticking at times on my face and arms; cockroaches darted from different directions; an odd mosquito stung my bare arms; the air was rife with fumes and fulminations of man and beast.
'Can we move her to a cooler room, a room with some ventilation?' I asked.
'We arrived in Jammu only a couple of months back. We have scoured the whole city. Every nook and corner has been rented out. This is the best accommodation we could find after a long search – just one room for the whole family,' said the second young man.
'Can you arrange a fan?'
'I will try and see if the landlord has one that we could borrow,' volunteered the daughter-in-law as she ran out of the room, soon to return with the landlord. He seemed visibly annoyed for having been disturbed at this unearthly hour when the sun beat people unconscious. He wondered why his tenants were making such a big fuss just because a lady had passed out.
'They are not making a fuss, sir. Can't you see this lady is dying? If you have a spare fan, kindly loan it to them. They will be grateful,' I said rather tersely.
He scowled with shame and slithered away like a snake. Soon he returned with a table fan. It was an old rickety contraption that blew more noise than air. I discarded it soon after; it was standing in the way.
The rubbing went on for half an hour but the temperature refused to come down. Her body was like a stove that continues to radiate heat even after the fuel has burnt itself out. She remained in deep coma.
I ordered a stomach tube and introduced it through her nostril and down the food pipe, to feed her chilled water in the hope that it would provide internal cooling and hydrate her at the same time. I passed on this function to one of the young men and departed, asking them to report her status to me after two hours.
By now it was four in the afternoon. The streets were showing signs of life, shops were being opened, and there was some vehicular movement. It was hotter than before and my head was swimming. I reached my lodgings, parked the car, and walked straight to the backyard to take a look at the faucet. My heart missed a beat! The water was gushing out – the tap had been left turned on in the morning. After the struggle for water that I had just had with the patient's family, the sight of water getting wasted seemed sacrilegious.
I rushed inside to wake my wife up – she had taken a nap after having tired herself out waiting the whole morning and afternoon for the water. We gathered pots, pans and buckets and filled them with water. We were tenants on the ground floor. My landlord upstairs was also stirred into wakefulness by the cling and clang of the buckets and utensils and wondered why I had not informed him at once to collect his quota of water rather than having it all to myself. His family members trooped down with pitchers and buckets and started filling them, pushing us to the rear while we strove hard to get some more. A battle of sorts ensued for water. And soon the tap started gurgling and spluttering, whooshing and whistling, and, finally, after about half an hour it stopped dry.
It was five in the evening. I sank into my bed, feeling wretched and shaken to the core. I was overcome by a strange revulsion – revulsion for existence itself. This was just the beginning of our first summer. Was this going to be our fate – being driven from our homes to live a beastly existence? Were we destined to die unheard and unsung in dungeons – dehydrated by the wind, burnt by the sun?
But there was to be no respite, no time to brood and cry for, soon after, patients started pouring in at my evening clinic. They informed me that there had been gross voltage fluctuations in the power supply due to excessive demand for electric power. The pumps at the waterworks department had broken down that morning as a result of a voltage surge. We would face similar breakdowns in the following months and years.
At six pm that day the heat stroke victim's son reported that her temperature had come down to a hundred and three degrees, but she was still unconscious. They were pushing chilled water and fruit juices through the tube into her stomach. At eight pm, when he returned to report her status, I was still examining patients. The temperature had come down to a hundred and two, but she continued to be comatose. I asked them to keep sponging her to maintain the temperature below a hundred and one degrees, and to report back in the morning. I knew that the probability of her surviving was remote, yet I kept hoping.
Nobody turned up. I had not even asked her name. Nor had I asked her sons about their hometown in Kashmir. Would she die nameless, unknown and unheard?
But there was a picture of the woman in the obituary columns of The Daily Excelsior a few days later. She was Ambravati from Gautam Naag in Kashmir, a place famous for its cool springs and shady chinars.
Dr KL Chowdhury, a retired professor of Medicine, is engaged in multifarious activities as a medical professional, social scientist, political thinker, poet, and writer. He has published three anthologies, a travelogue, and a short story collection. His poems, reviews, essays and stories have appeared in Indian Literature, South Asian Review, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, etcetera. He received The Best Book Award for Excellence in Literature' for the year 2008, by Jammu and Kashmir State Academy of Art, Culture and Languages for Enchanting World Infants