Head Quarters of Doom, 2:00 AM
The envoy walked in scratching the back of his neck. It took his green eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light in the room. He could decipher the silhouette advancing towards him, moving alone, without a shadow.
The walls appeared black against his pale gaunt face.
“What seems to be the problem?” The voice evoked a profound sorrow that the envoy was used to.
“Sir, there is a woman who is meddling with our plans.”
“What could an individual possibly do?”
“She thwarts our plans, time and again. She has single-handedly upset at least a dozen of our ventures over the decades, managing to pull back several of our recruits. Her powers are getting stronger.”
“How far can she go? Push her till her reserves are exhausted. Simple.”
“That might be difficult, Sir.” The envoy swallowed nervously.
“And why is that?”
“Because we feel she is manufacturing it, out of thin air.”
The envoy pursed his eyes as he mouthed the word with painful effort, “Hope.”
Despair grinned sardonically. “This should be fun.”
Siji Mathew shielded her closed umbrella against the influx of people as she alighted at the Hill Road bus stop. Funny place this, Mumbai! You need to shield the umbrella against the deluge of people, instead of the other way around!
Siji smiled inwardly. Now at the fag end of the fifth decade of life, she had developed a mechanism to prevent herself from laughing out at her wisecracks. Her spindly frame moved briskly through the maze of people on that Monday morning. The ageing lines on her face dipped and rose with its bony contours. Her salt and pepper hair were pulled back in a tight bun.
She walked in through the rusted iron gate, glancing at the name on the arch, ‘Holy Trinity Hospital.’ An LED hoarding cast a red and blue reflection on the wet footpath – EMERGENCY 24×7, it read.
She glanced at her wristwatch. 7:20 AM. There was still time before the commotion of switching shifts of the nursing staff commenced.
Just as she wiped her feet on the damp coir rug at the entrance, a young man brushed past her towards the pharmacy, prescription in hand. He left a trail of muddy footsteps behind him. There goes the siren, Siji gently slapped her forehead, in anticipation.
“Hey, what is this mess? Why can’t you wipe your feet?” The sweeper hollered, with antiseptic solution dripping down the mop. Frustration ran in a trickle of sweat dripping down his face as he mopped the floor, again.
“Cool down, Raju. Your sweat will bring a flood before the rains do.” Siji addressed the sweeper, with a straight face.
Their eyes met, and Raju’s frown broke into a mischievous grin.
“Good morning, Sister Siji! Aren’t you early for the shift?”
“I have a few fused bulbs like you, that need repairing.” Siji chuckled as she walked into the changing room.
The world beyond the glass doors of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) was a vastly different one. The sounds of everyday life were filtered out, while the constant beeps of monitors charted the last fight for survival. The acrid smell of disinfectant that permeated the hospital, in general, was replaced by a more mellow one, emanating from the frequently used hand rub. Words were uttered after weighing them, lest they trample a fragile breath, too weak to fight back.
Sister Siji had transformed too. While she took rounds in her scrubs, she let her eyes do the talking. Gloved and masked, her eyes did the smiling as well.
The beds were arranged in a circular arrangement, with the headrests against the wall. The remaining three free sides gave ample access to the numerous tubes and IV lines that snaked their way to the patient lying on the bed.
Siji Sister, as each of her subordinates lovingly called her, stopped by each bed. She drew the curtains gently, lest she disturbed the person behind them. Sleep was hard to come by when death knocked at the door, repeatedly.
She read the faces before the charts that her staff had jotted down. A smile here, a comforting tap on the shoulder there. Sometimes, just a reassuring blink of her eyes. The ICU collectively breathed easier when Sister Siji was around.
“Go have breakfast before the Big Boss arrives, doctor.” Siji rolled her eyes dramatically, nudging the junior doctor who was already exhausted before the day began.
The doctor glanced up from the file he was studying.” I have to fill ten more files.”
“Yes, but I can finish the dressing for you.” Siji gestured toward the burns victim on bed number 8.
“You are the best, Sister!” The doctor smiled gratefully, turning to leave.
Thud, thump, thud!
There was a sudden violent movement of the patient on bed 9.
“Aye, he is convulsing!” Babban, the ward boy who was clearing the bin screamed, alerting the nurses.
In a moment, the haggard doctor and two nurses were administering medication, restraining the patient from hurting himself.
Siji walked up to the team working feverishly. Her eyes placidly surveyed everything- the monitor, the patient’s slowing convulsions and the hands of her staff. Everyone was working as per the protocol. She nodded knowingly at Babban, who stood befuddled, still holding the bin.
The doctor turned to Siji. “Sister, he will need…”
Siji interrupted him, “I have called for an EEG. It should be here by the time you have your breakfast.”
The doctor’s shoulders dropped gratefully. Siji drew closer as she whispered,
“If possible, let Babban have some too. Looks like he is going to convulse as well.”
A small wave of smiles ran across the faces of the nurses and the doctor. Sister Siji was like the calm, during a storm.
How are you, my child? I am sure you must have skipped your lunch, again. But have a hearty dinner at least.
How is your Grandma doing? Does she still obsessively brush her dentures thrice a day? Such a waste, if she is not going to smile often!
Are both of you taking good care of each other? Please do, because I am perennially worried for both of you.
Do you know I keep seeing you around the house? Playing hopscotch when you were eight, painting your nails when you were thirteen. Rushing to surprise me when you got your first salary. The last photograph of us together is from two years back, the last time I saw you in person. I miss you, mol.
Hope you are spreading good cheer all around, keeping your neighbours entertained. I know your Grandma cannot be cheered. She loves wallowing in gloom.
Speaking of which, it has been pouring constantly for a week here. Is it raining there? Get wet in the rain as often as you want, don’t let Grandma tell you otherwise. But dry your long tresses immediately after.
You have not chopped them, have you? No amount of workload justifies losing hair or cutting it.
I wish I could come to visit you, but you know I cannot. I will not get leave. Also, there is still plenty to do here.
Could you not come over? I know, you can’t either. We will just have to wait. And worry not, I am not lonely. These days I have a constant dull headache for company!
It was lunchtime. Tiffin boxes with everything from fresh paranthas to yesterday’s leftover idly were laid open on the table. A stack of ICU charts sat beside the tiffins. The nurses sat on benches, in their pink scrubs. There was giggling and passing of tiffins to and fro.
“Lekshmi, why don’t you eat with us?” One of the nurses cheerfully called out to her colleague.
“No Sudha, I am not hungry. Maybe later.”
From the corner of her eye, Siji kept a watch on one of her most efficient nurses, Lekshmi. The olive complexioned, doe-eyed young woman was beautiful inside out. She went about her work quietly. Perhaps, that is why no one noticed when she grew quieter than before.
Siji prorogued her observation to be acted upon later.
“Babban, where were you? Did they finally decide to hire you as a model for those cigarettes you puff all day?” She beckoned the ward boy in for a bite.
Putting on her slippers, she walked out into the ICU.
She had transformed again. A strange calm emanated from her.
“Hello, Agastya. I see you have been permitted light food orally now!” Siji beamed at the eighteen-year-old.
“So can I have…”
“No egg bhurji…” Siji wagged her finger.
“How did you know?”
“It was all over me, remember?” Siji replied with genuine amusement in her eyes. The young lad had been admitted several times before and had a propensity for vomiting. Agastly held his breath while the nurse examined the colostomy bag fixed to his abdomen.
“You will be pooping like an expert in no time!” Siji winked as she moved to the next bed.
“Mr Sharma, care for a game of chess?”
The laboriously breathing old man smiled despite himself, as Siji walked ahead, rubbing her aching right temple.
There is a girl back in the hospital, Lekshmi, who reminds me of you. No, not because she is a fussy eater. By the way, did you have your dinner? Yes, I had mine, I made your favourite Pongal. That is the only thing I felt like eating, what with this nagging headache. I must visit the physician one of these days…Don’t laugh, I know I am surrounded by them. But working by their side in emergencies is so different from consulting them for my malady.
Coming back to Lekshmi, the young lady keeps her feelings bottled up, just like you used to. You still do that, don’t you? She seems to have had a bad break up or so I hear. But the girl just wouldn’t talk. It has been over a year, and she goes about her job with all hope extinguished in her eyes. Not that she has ever given me a reason to complain workwise. She is my best ICU nurse, undoubtedly. But we are in the business of spreading hope in the most dismal circumstances. And it is kind of difficult to gather and distribute something you cannot see, right? I wish she would just unload her burden. That she would talk to someone she is comfortable with. My dear mol, could you also confide in me from time to time, instead of bottling yourself up till you are ready to burst?
Speaking of the bottle, your drunkard father was here last night. Is it not funny how much your father resembles mine? I grew up watching Amma take more than one blow each night. I vowed I would never marry such a man. And as a grown-up I watched my husband sink into the same pattern. But I had resolved to make an example out of my situation, for my little girl. I remember you cheering me on when I broke his rib and sent him packing. It was a surprise he turned up after all these years. Turns out he had come to mock me, now that you don’t stay here with me anymore. I had half a mind to break another of the clearly visible ribs in his wasted chest, but I decided to operate on remote control mode. I cursed him to rot with my father, after death. Don’t laugh mol, I’m serious. By the time I slammed the door on him, I had a throbbing headache. Come to think of it, the headache has been worse since yesterday.
Don’t you ever feel like visiting me? I know you don’t like this place. I understand. How is Grandma? Tell her I’m relieved knowing at least you have each other for company. Just make it a point to talk to her every day, ok? She is a lot like you, and that Lekshmi girl. If only the young lady would confide in me, I would tell her there is so much to life beyond that one dark moment! Sigh!
Now don’t toss and turn in worry, I am good, as always. Eat well.
Headquarters of Doom, 12 AM
“Sir, we finally have some good news regarding that lady, Siji.”
“We have planted a bomb in her head, and it is ticking.”
“When does it go off?”
“Tomorrow, at noon.”
“Make sure the ones who love her the most get to watch it. And leave a mess that is tough to clean.”
The monitors were beeping in a frenzy. The nursing staff was at their wit’s end. Two casualties had already been recorded before 8 AM. Joining the morning shift, Sister Lekshmi closed the curtains over an overcast sky. The weather forecast suggested a heavy downpour. They would need their own sun to see them through the day.
In walked Sister Siji, eliciting smiles on her way.
“Which patients are deteriorating, Lekshmi?”
“Sister, Giriraj on bed 9 had a refractory seizure. He is sedated now. Mrs Geetika on bed 4 has plummeting BP and is on a Dobutamine drip. And Agastya refuses to eat. His liver enzymes are flying off the charts. Dr Mehra says they may have to put a tube through his nose to feed him.”
“Hmm. Let’s start with the conscious ones, Leskhmi.”
Siji tiptoed to bed 8.
“Sister?” The wiry teenager looked at Siji with yellow, jaundiced eyes. The spark was missing.
“Is this hunger strike organized to demand egg bhurji?” Siji asked with twinkling eyes.
“Huh?” Agastya looked into her eyes, trying hard not to accept the glimmer of hope they offered.
“When my daughter was younger, I would race her to a countdown to ten, for her to finish her milk. Can we do that with your soup? But don’t drink too fast, you have a wound in your intestines, remember?”
The patients in the ICU who were conscious turned on their beds for a better view of the ensuing contest.
Agastya was watching in confusion as two bowls of bland soup were laid. Just as Sister Leskhmi was about to start the countdown, Sister Siji interrupted.
“I nominate Babban from my side. One strapping lad against another.”
Caught unaware, Babban almost choked over the Paan which he tried to swallow. The patients coughed with joy.
“10…9…8…” The countdown in the ICU was a muffled one.
Siji looked expectantly at Agastya, as Lekshmi held his bowl for him. Suddenly like a thunderclap, the most excruciating headache struck her. Her vision blurred, she took around her beloved ICU, the beeping screens fading out.
Sister Siji fell in a heap, on the disinfected ICU floor.
1 month later
Siji smiled as the junior doctor checked her vitals.
“Did you have breakfast?” Siji’s mouth deviated to the right as she spoke. But her eyes twinkled.
“Yes, Sister. And you are fit to be shifted from the ICU to the ward.” The doctor smiled.
“Oh, who would keep a tab on your food habits then?” Siji feigned anger with the right half of her face.
“There are plenty of doctors to care for in the ward as well.”
Sister Lekshmi rearranged her pillows and hoisted the deadweight of her right leg onto them. Sister Siji lay still, as the young nurse placed her immobile right arm in a more comfortable position. Siji gave a thumbs up with her left hand.
Motioning Lekshmi to come closer, she whispered, “Aren’t you glad I am reed-thin? Imagine the difficulty in giving me a sponge bath had I been hefty!”
The younger nurse smiled, revealing pearly white teeth.
“Also have a look at the adjacent patient’s urine bag. I think he has blood in his urine.”
Lekshmi Sister nodded, even as she glanced admiringly at her senior. Hemiplegic and twice the enthusiasm to live!
This is the first letter I am writing to you, in my head. Because my right hand has forgotten how to write, and the left one, albeit healthy, is too slow to keep up with my train of thoughts. It has been a month since the day I fell. A burst aneurysm in my brain, they tell me. After all the hardships that I faced, I had only one fear. Of not being self-sufficient. Of being dependent on someone else for my basic needs. Ah, well!
There is so much to learn from the other side as well. While giving hope is noble, accepting hope given by someone needs enormous generosity. Because we tend to shut doors tight, in difficult times. And to leave the door ajar, to let hope enter, is an act of faith.
So much for philosophy! I guess the brain haemorrhage has dampened my wit. But Lekshmi has been caring for me incessantly. I see such tremendous potential in her. The veil on her eyes seems to have lifted slightly. I sometimes get a glimpse of the old Lekshmi. But she is a lot more powerful than before.
And I get reminded of you again, mol. Maybe hope knocked on your door too, just a moment late. Maybe your inner voices were too loud, you could not hear it. Had I been off-duty at that time, would I have heard the knock? I definitely would have heard you scuffle and struggle, probably even regret, as you hung yourself from the ceiling fan.
After my mother died of a head injury when I was eleven, I had been haunted by questions. Did she slip? Did my father push her? Would I have been able to save her, if I had not gone to school that day? Four decades later I had a few more questions. Was it failed love that claimed my mol? Was it deep-rooted despair from childhood?
I never found an answer. But I did discover a secret. Hope is not just a flame to reignite a lost spark. Hope is the belief that a spark can be ignited without a flame.
I have tried my best to burn and sparkle, often with the wind threatening to extinguish me every second.
But it would be nice to meet you now. Maybe I can apply for leave.
Headquarters of Doom, 1 AM
“She continues to make it difficult for us, Sir. Now that she is admitted in the general ward, it is as if she is working 24×7.” The envoy seemed to be breaking into a cold sweat.
“Interesting lady, this one.” Despair raised an almost hairless eyebrow.
“It is as if she lights a million candles with her spark. She is a one-man army,” the envoy said with a hint of admiration, which he immediately regretted.
“And that is why we need not worry. How far can a crippled daughter of Hope go?
“Can she not be lifted?”
“That is not our job. Look around. People are isolating themselves, ignoring the joys of the real world only to settle in solitary bubbles of their own.” Despair waved in dismissal. “Remember, Hope thrives in company. Despair works alone.”
As the envoy left, Despair sat smoking his cigar, blowing bubbles small and large. These bubbles drifted to earth, ensconcing one lonely person in each, oblivious to the loved ones rapping on its transparent walls.
2 months later
Sister Lekshmi walked briskly into the ICU. The inmates, both patients and staff, breathed a little easier in her presence. As she accompanied the newly appointed ICU in-charge on her rounds, she made a mental note. Mrs Sengupta on bed 3 had lost a limb in a road traffic accident. She had also lost her family. She needed extra care.
Babban smiled, as Sister Lekshmi went about making lives a little less difficult, in her quiet manner.
Dear Sister Siji,
How are you? You must have finally met your daughter and your mother. Wish them on my behalf.
I know it is late, but I want to thank you. For making me see the world beyond my woes. For making me meet my purpose in life. Your ICU is doing fine. I am trying my best to maintain it the way you taught us. A place of hope, beyond despair.
I am healing as well. I still remember you telling me, that the Devil harms himself by throwing difficulties our way. Because there is nothing more powerful than a person who has nothing to lose.
I often giggle remembering your jokes. But I have trained myself not to laugh at the thoughts in my head. You have given us enough to smile in this lifetime. More, when we meet on the other side.
P.S. I will someday tell you my story when I have healed enough.
IV lines: Intravenous lines
EEG: Electroencephalogram, a graph to chart abnormal brain activity
Colostomy: a surgically designed opening of the large intestine through the abdominal wall,
to outside the body. A bag is fixed to collect the discharged contents of the intestine.
Mol: pronounced as mow-lay; term used to address a little girl, daughter (In Malyalam)
BP: abbreviation for blood pressure
Dobutamine: name of a drug
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