They move and speak-these strange, strange people…I am the silent watcher of their strangely listless, strangely rote-like motions. Though their attention is fixed on me, they seem not to notice me at all…for it was not the first time that the cold sting of a needle entered my flesh without my knowledge, without them telling me, piercing my body into pincer-like spasms of uncontrollable terror, making me shriek wildly, sobbing hysterically as the antibiotics entered my bloodstream-more of out of fear than of pain…and yet-perhaps, I should not speak so harshly. Perhaps…perhaps without these people, I might not have lived to speak my heart once more.
Even now, dreams of the rain crashing down from a disturbed, steel-grey heaven, pounding on my back like maces and seeming strangely vile-not like the first cool, purifying drops of rain that would send us into transports of delight after the scorching drought of summer-seeming as if it would dirty my body, not cleanse it. This was not the life-giving rain that would draw forth the first tender green saplings from the dying earth and bring out the birds and animals and those of my kind from their dark shelters to populate the land once more…these were not God's tears, raining down from his abode to purify the world of its sins-this was what had caused the deluge that would irreparably destroy the lives of more than a hundred thousand innocents who had all done little to deserve such an untimely death.
All around me, chaos reigns…I live that fateful evening once more, when I foolishly escaped the safety of my school and ventured out into the rain to return home…only then to wade through four hours of grey, foul-smelling water, the refuse from the gutters openly pouring out onto the streets…and the rain…the endless, torrential rain. It was late evening when I finally staggered through my front door, only to collapse into a dead faint, my exhausted limbs not being able to handle the pain anymore, my wet clothes weighing me down, and a strange weakness beginning to spread through my body like a slow poison, lying latent…and which, upon striking out, led to my imprisonment in this white world I now lie alone and helpless in…a prisoner of my mind.
Leptospyrosis-the only word which my drugged brain is able to register. The rest of my thoughts are faint nothings, merely tapping against my consciousness like dying tendrils of sunlight straining to shine against a darkening evening sky-meaningless, insignificant. How long I have been lying in this daze of unreality, I know not. My senses diminish to an infant's weakness…sights reduced to mere blurs of navy-blue-the uniform the nurses donned…smell-oh, the only smell that reaches me now strikes a shard of fear within me…the cold, metallic smell of the needle they will once again insert within the tender, throbbing veins of my upper palms…sounds reduced to mere howls and shrieks of meaningless uncertainty in the distance.
No more, no more! This world of white strangely seems unreal no longer…one glance into those eyes and I am frozen, wondering who this new torturer was, wondering what fresh hell they had in store for me now. What if my disease was incurable? What if I would be crippled for life and would never be the one I had always dreamed to be? What if…what if, what if-oh, he nears me now…my heart bangs wildly in my chest, making me want to scream with the sudden onrush of tears and terror combining into a single knot inside me, wondering how they would hurt me now…wondering how they would hurt me forever, for the rest of my life.
He raises a hand. I feel the spasm of a flinch cross my face as he moves it towards me, but…but-what is he doing? He is not going to hurt me…those hands are stroking my hair, those warm brown eyes filled with all the sorrow of the world-never leaving my own. "Brave girl…" he whispers - and his voice is a stream running over the black river-stones of the northern waters, the breath of the mountain winds against the fortresses of impenetrable white that surround them. "Brave, brave girl…you were strong all through it, did you know that? You have been here for an entire week and are already recovering…"
I felt myself trembling, not even daring to let the tiny seed of hope he had planted burst into fruition. "Then when can I go home?" I spoke slowly, enunciating all my words like a toddler struggling to speak a difficult sentence. My tongue suddenly felt too thick for my mouth. Strangely enough, I, who had always been known for my outspokenness, was silenced before this man.
For those brown eyes had warmed. "Soon, child. Very soon."
The stories would reach me only later. I had been too heavily sedated to notice anything that had been occurring around me - for I had not felt my mother's arms, nor my father's hands gripping mine, had not felt the urgent praying of my siblings, had not felt the shower of the rains pouring against the windows-threatening to reach me again. We would not have even been able to pay for the hospital room had it not been for that man who had spoken to me with such comforting words. "He is a Muslim man," my sister whispered to me one night. "How strange, to think that one who is not even of our religion would take so much trouble for someone he does not even know…"
I was silent, not knowing when I would meet my savior again. For I was probably one of the thousands of patients in this hospital, suffering from the many diseases that had defiled the land when the rains fell-and yet, this man, this man whom I did not even know, who had no connection to my family whatsoever, this man who lived a wealthy life, in a wealthy home - had paid all the expenses for the room, the treatment, the medicines, for a girl of a middle-class Hindu family. I met him only once again. Till today, I will never forget that face, those eyes…that voice.
"You wonder why I have done this for you," he spoke softly, one hand unconsciously smoothening out the sheet, deftly avoiding the IV connection. I wondered, from the fine clothes he wore, what kind of a life he led. "I, who know nothing of you or your family…you wonder why, do you not?"
Again, I could not speak, feeling a strangely reverent peace filling my every vein in his presence. To speak something irrelevant before him would seem almost like a profanity. Almost like questioning God's intentions.
The man looked at me-though his eyes were calm, I could see grief lingering in every nuance of his unmarked face, in the depth of his eyes, in the slight break of his voice, in the way his hands clasped against each other. When he spoke, I felt a lump grow in my throat.
"I had a daughter once myself," he said quietly. "She was the same age as you when she died-a disease similar to yours." For a moment, he paused - and then spoke once more in a harder voice, as if he felt that any softening would reveal all emotions. "I wasn't strong enough to save her then…but she was returned to this world through you." For the first time, he smiled a small, sad smile that to me was the most heartbreaking sight in the world. My eyes were obscured by the hot, wet tears until vision blurred. Watching him was like watching him through a waterfall. "When I saw you, I saw my Zubéida again…and I can only hope Allah has been merciful on her soul."
I nodded dumbly, not knowing what to say. Despite his kindness, there was still a rift between us. He sensed it as well-somehow, he seemed to have been expecting it. "Dear child…" the man whispered, stroking my hair again, his mask of calmness suddenly beginning to crack. Suddenly, he was no more the wealthy Muslim man who had stood as our beneficiary. Suddenly, he seemed to be no more than one who had once loved…one who had once held dear - "We are divided by hatred…not by the one who has created us. I was merely one to see past that hatred."
And then he was gone. I sat there silently, feeling ready to laugh and cry at the same time, before my tearful family walked into the room-smothering me with hugs and kisses, the word "home" entering into every conversation. Memory fails me now…all I remember before my mind slept once more was a pair of brown eyes, shining with tears, filled with all the love and sorrow of the world.
How ironic, that in times of adversity, all boundaries that demarcate the Hindu from the Muslim, the rich from the poor, the sinner from the saint, the atheist and the fanatic, all seem to melt away to nothingness.
A chance meeting with a tortured, yet healing soul had changed my way of thinking for the rest of my life. A simple act of kindness had shaken the very foundations of what I had based my thinking on for the past fourteen years of my life.
For I had always seen myself as a middle-class Hindu girl...
He saw me only as a girl.
Pallavi Chatterjee --- Submitted by Sandeep Chatterjee