My eyes snapped shut with a bang.
The lady sitting on the bed looked familiar, but I could not place her. Her eyes too quickly snapped open and shut as they met mine.
Just as doors open and close with a bang with a gust of wind.
I was in a wheelchair, waiting in front of cabin no 1130.
I had never sat in a wheelchair before, and I wasn’t even feeling weak, but the nurse insisted.
“I might lose my job if I do not put you in a wheelchair, sir,” she urged. So I let her take charge of my body. She pushed me into the wheelchair, strapped a belt around my waist and covered me with a blanket. She then wheeled me into an elevator and took me to another floor, where she took my weight on a large weighing machine installed at one end of the corridor. Halting the wheelchair in front of cabin no 1130, she walked over to the receptionist’s table, picked up a file and then wheeled me inside the cabin.
Cabin no. 1130 was a large, airy room, about 28-to-30 feet long and 12-to-14 feet wide, furnished with two TV sets, two beds and two long settees. Patients could keep their clothes and personal effects in the box under the settee. The two beds were separated by a heavy floor-to-ceiling screen on which there were artistic patchwork designs of parakeets and trees. My bed was numbered 1130-B. The other bed in the room must be 1130-A, I guessed.
There was an attached washroom on either side of the room, one for each patient. My bed faced a large French window that showed me the world beyond the hospital. I could see a thick growth of trees, a cluster of high-rise buildings, patches of dark grey clouds, the rain-lashing blind, a few birds laboriously flapping their cramped wings, and even fewer planes. If I stood close to the window, I could see the rain-wet earth and automobiles swishing along the road below in ones and twos.
When I lay in bed, I could see the tree tops swinging in an orderly fashion like terrorists conducting a drill in a training session; water tanks who wore their tops like cowboy hats; and planes and birds gliding across the sky. The architect who had designed the hospital must have had a strong aesthetic sense. A patient here could savour their pain ungrudgingly, and even indulge in fantasies about their incoming death.
The Covid-19 pandemic had been raging. Even patients who suffered from other ailments were put in quarantine. No attendants were allowed inside cabins and wards. Only one visitor was allowed in the cabin during visiting hours.
The young nurse returned, bringing me a hospital gown. “Here, change into this,” she said, her lips parted slightly in a well-rehearsed, artificial smile reserved for patients. “Put your shoes under the settee and your clothes and bags in the box beneath the settee. You have to wear these hospital slippers from now on,” she added. She gave me a gadget that looked like a remote control for the TV. “Press this button if you need something. One of us will come to you,” she said, and walked out of the room. While she spoke to me, my eyes remained fixed on her emerald nose-stud, which was the size of a moong dal grain.
Once she left, I turned my gaze to the dividing screen and the parakeets on it. The branches had been painted black and white, but the birds were in varying shades. I began to count them – one, two, three…There were fourteen. Some were tinged in bright red and green, some were green tinted with light yellow. Their beaks too were of different sizes. Some were long and more downturned, others were smaller and sharper. I do not know how long I was engrossed in the birds. I was brought back to reality when the nurse asked me, “Haven’t you changed yet?”
She reached for my arm and pricked a syringe into it. She pulled my arm hard, as if she was its sovereign owner and could do anything with it.
“Next time, you can just pull my arm out and take it to your chamber. You can give it back after the injection,” I laughed. She gave me a blank look and left again.
I changed into the gown and put my clothes into the box.
There was nothing much to do after this. I looked out the window once again – at the clouds, the trees and the rain. I remembered the remote control and pressed the call button. The young nurse walked in.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Why did you press the button then?”
“I was just checking to see if it works. I am sorry.”
She looked at me with a flash of warning in her eyes and left.
After a while, another nurse of robust appearance wheeled an empty wheelchair into the room.
“Please sit,” she said, pointing at the wheelchair. “We have to go.”
“For a chest X-ray.”
“Really?” I was happy. I had no idea they delved into your heart at the hospital. They would explore all the love, loathing, pride and humility hidden within it.
“How interesting!” I said aloud. “Let’s go.”
“You can’t go just like that. I will take you in the wheelchair,” she said.
I had to leave my body in her charge too. She repeated the procedure of strapping my waist and tucking a blanket around my legs.
“Do they study the heart in this hospital?” I asked as she pushed the wheelchair down the corridor. “The people here must be really nice!”
She smiled briefly but did not say anything. We travelled up and down in the elevator to different floors and moved in and out of many rooms. It took almost an hour for them to run the tests.
“Good, your heart is functioning perfectly,” said an elderly doctor, who looked gentlemanly and polite. “What is the problem with you?” he looked at me questioningly.
“I have a slight infection in my right leg,” I replied.
The muscles in his face went taut and then relaxed. ‘Infection? That’s strange!’
The nurse wheeled me back to cabin no 1130. I saw the lady who occupied the other bed as soon I entered the room. Once again, our eyes blinked together with a synchronised bang, like doors during a storm. I could not think why it had happened. Someone had left a cup of tea covered by a lid and a covered plate on the bedside table.
“The tea is still hot,” the nurse said. “Drink it before it gets cold.”
“Where is yours?”
“It must have been sent to my room,” she said with a smile and pushed the empty wheelchair out the room.
“Thank you very much for giving my body back to me,” I called out behind her.
She turned and gave me an odd glance. Perhaps my remark surprised her. But she looked lovely. In fact, all women look attractive to me when they turn around to look back at something. “Enchanting!” I murmured and spread out my tired body on the bed, which looked quite inviting.
When I woke up, it was past six pm. The visiting hour was here. My wife Mili had come to visit me. She had to wait for a long time in the lobby which was overcrowded with other patients’ family members and friends. A young woman had come to visit the lady who occupied the other bed. I could hear them as they spoke. I pressed a button on the remote control and asked for two cups of coffee.
“Who is on that side?” Mili asked me.
“No idea. Why don’t you go and meet them?”
When visiting hour ended, my nephew Pupun, a doctor here, took my wife home.
The doctor came to examine me along with two nurses. He measured my blood pressure, put me on a drip and gave me a string of advice and instructions. “You have to follow these seriously or we may have to amputate your leg,” he warned.
He looked vexed. “What is there to laugh about?”
“How romantic!” I said.
The doctor stared at me, more astonished than angry. He looked as though he was about to say something, but he left the room quietly, throwing me an awkward glance. After a few minutes, one of the nurses returned. She adjusted the needle that had clawed into my vein and checked the tube which connected it to an inverted bottle hooked to an iron stand.
I looked at the fluid dripping from the bottle.
‘The drops are like rows of tiny ants, one following the other – drop…drop…drop…” I said aloud to the nurse and pointed at the drip. Her gaze followed my finger, but she did not say a word. Her face wore a grim look. “She must be feeling overworked,” I reasoned with myself.
Dinner was brought in at nine pm, served in a paper plate wrapped in plastic. The food was good. A glass of milk followed. I sipped the milk leisurely as I gazed at the night sky. At ten I listened to Mohammad Rafi’s songs on my smart phone. I kept the volume low to not disturb the other patient or violate hospital rules.
My wife came at about ten the next morning. She had bathed and looked as fresh as the morning sun. I told her I had counted the number of aircraft that had flown over the hospital – eight last night and four this morning. She ignored my remark and asked if I had eaten breakfast. Without waiting for my reply she pushed aside the screen and went across to the other bed.
She returned after a while.
“They are from Bhawanipatna,” she told me. “They have been here for the past seven days. She will stay in the hospital for two more weeks. Her two sons are staying in a lodge nearby. The daughter-in-law visits for a few hours every day to attend to her.” After a pause, she said, “Pupun says we have to stay for a week.”
I had no plans of getting admitted to a hospital. We had come here to consult a physician about my leg infection, return home, and take the medicines the doctor had prescribed. But Pupun was vociferous in his praise of this hospital, where both he and his wife worked, and had declared with pride that the set-up and infrastructure were no less than that of a posh sanatorium in Darjeeling. We just had to give it a try. Thus a light-hearted conversation landed me here in this sophisticated corporate hospital.
“Okay, look at the parakeets on the screen. Artistic, aren’t they? There are fourteen of them.”
My wife left after a while. The daughter-in-law of the patient in the other bed went home too.
It was just the two of us now.
The floor-to-ceiling screen hung determinedly between our two beds, confining us to our spaces. Nurses kept walking in and out every half hour. The dietician came by and wanted to know if I had liked the food. She asked if I had any requests.
“Chicken?” I asked hopefully.
“Sorry,” she shook her head. “No non-veg dishes.”
My eyes turned to her red lips. “Can I have lip-cutlet?” I thought I sounded amusing when I asked that.
She did not understand my joke and looked confused.
My wife returned in the evening. The lady’s sons visited too. The daughter-in-law had not come this time.
One of the sons came over to meet me. He worked in a statistics department and was posted in Shimla, he said. His wife was a teacher at a private school there. Their father was now alone in Bhawanipatna. His mother’s kidneys and liver had become dysfunctional, but the doctors were not giving them any information on whether her condition would improve with the treatment. Doctors always spoke in a roundabout way when they did not have a specific answer. The bill is never below a lakh once you get admitted in such multipurpose hospitals.
It occurred to me that the hospital had run several necessary and unnecessary tests on me as well. The place was more like a luxury hotel. Everything looked neat, clean and well-maintained.
Next morning, a nurse entered and filled the room with her smile as she handed me a bill. It was an inventory of charges for the different favours the hospital people had done me during my twenty-four hour stay in cabin no. 1130. The bill was printed flawlessly on expensive bluish-white paper:
1. Charges for the comfort of the bed and the beautiful view through the French window: 4000
2. Consultation with three senior and six junior physicians: 4200
3. Expert acrobatics done by the slim fingers of four nurses: 2000
4. The red lips of the dietician and the soft hissing voice slithering out of them: 1000
5. The smile and surprise in the eyes of the cardiologist: 2000
6. The polite manners of the doctors in the radiology department: 1600
7. Pathology department tests that examined blood, sputum, sweat and all such abominations: 2000
8. Tests to determine the sensitivity of my five senses: 5500
9. Blood Culture: 6000
10. Doppler Test: 6000
11. Cleaning and sanitisation: 500
12. Mysterious miscellaneous expenses: 500
I sanitised my reading glasses before I read the boldly printed last line.
There were several things I loved at the hospital. I loved the large glass windows. I liked the tall lush trees that swung about. Maybe they looked a little like fleeing terrorists when it rained, but I liked them all the same. I have always liked women who wear minimal jewellery and have their hair tied in a topknot. All the nurses here wore their hair like that and wore nose-studs of emeralds, topaz, rubies, diamonds or sapphires. When they removed their masks, their red lips looked like freshly cut pieces of freshwater fish. Everything here had a romantic touch to it.
The identity of the patient on the other side of the screen remained unknown to me for four days.I found myself wondering if she was indeed the same slim and fair woman who wore her hair in a topknot and went to university with me forty years ago.
When the dietician came the next morning, I asked her if she could share the name of the patient in bed number 1130-A.
“Lily Patnaik,” she said.
Lily was an enchanting episode from my past.
Our families were neighbours in Bhawanipatna when we were in high school. I often gave her a ride on my bicycle to her girls’ school. I broke down poems she found hard to understand. In those dreamy days of adolescence, I wrote her many letters while helping her learn “How to Write a Letter” in the general English course.
She too had written a hundred-and-odd letters to me on the pretext of homework for the “Letter Writing” chapter. I had brushed my wet lips against her cheek while we ate rice porridge from the same bowl. She would turn her face away when I did that. Only later did I realise she had been offering me the other cheek too. In almost all of her letters she wrote of how cool my fingers and lips felt when I touched her cheeks.
After three years, my father got transferred and we had to leave Bhawanipatna for good.
Six years later, I came across Lily at the Bolangir bus stop, where I was waiting to board a bus to Sambalpur. She was with her father. They were waiting for the same bus. I had no idea she too studied in Sambalpur University.
“There is no need for me to travel so far now that you are also on the same bus,” her father said and returned home, entrusting his daughter to me.
As the bus reached Bargarh, the vehicles ahead of us crawled to a stop. The conductor returned the fare for the rest of the journey to the passengers and told us there was a strike and the bus would not go any further. The passengers had no choice but to get off and think of an alternative. The next bus to Sambalpur was at seven am the next day.
Lily said she would spend the night with a distant aunt who lived in Bargarh. I told her I would take her there and spend the night at a lodge near the bus stand. We climbed into a rickshaw and went to Lily’s aunt’s house, a long way away from the stand. We were welcomed by a closed door where a disappointing lock hung indifferently. We asked around and learnt that Lily’s aunt had gone to their village with her family a few days ago.
“I can go to my friend Bini’s place,” Lily suggested, not very convincingly.
Another disappointment awaited us at Bini’s house. Lily went inside and returned to say Bini had left for the university the night before. Bini’s family was a Marwari one, and did not show much interest in Lily’s problem. Lily decided not to ask them if she could stay the night. The rickshaw driver was exhausted by now and it took a lot of convincing to make him take us back to the bus stop.
It was dark by the time we reached the bus stop and our fruitless efforts were beginning to take their toll on us. We were tired to our bones and hungry too. The only solution we could think of was to spend the night at a lodge close by. We found one and told the manager of our difficulties. He understood our predicament and agreed to give us a room for the night. He charged us a hundred rupees. Two giggling kids who worked as luggage bearers carried our bags to the room. They told us dinner would not be available after ten pm and went away after collecting their tips.
“Would you please go out for a stroll? I want to bathe,” Lily asked.
“Sure,” I said and went out. I walked for a distance and found a roadside shed that served tea even at that hour. Perhaps because it was near the bus stop, I reckoned. I bought a comb from another shop and when I returned to the room, Lily had finished bathing. She opened the door for me. She had rolled her hair in a bun and looked refreshed.
“I should bathe too,” I said.
The door of our room was kept ajar.
One of the kids came in and asked what we wanted for dinner.
I looked questioningly at Lily.
“Roti and some curry,” she said.
“Six pieces of roti, two plates of dal tadka and two glasses of milk,” I told him.
After the boy left, I took off my shirt and went into the washroom. When I came out ten minutes later, Lily was sitting on the bed rearranging the things in her suitcase. She had taken out some books and put them on the bed.
“You sleep on the bed, I will use the sofa,” I said. She nodded without looking at me.
“I had borrowed these books from the library a long time ago. I have to return them before I get a notice,” Lily said, changing the conversation. We began talking about books and our studies, and our friends and professors at the university. We talked about writers and philosophers. I spoke about Greek and Sanskrit plays. Lilly spoke about the dramatic theories of Kalidas and Bharat Muni.
I explained the dramatic theory of Stanislavsky while we ate. She encouraged me with her occasional monosyllabic remarks. Dinner over, we washed our hands.She picked up a glass of milk and walked to the bed. I sat down on the sofa with my glass. The door was half open and we were still busy discussing the theory of drama. The boy returned, cleaned the table and took away the plates, giving us a shy smile as he closed the door behind him. It was midnight when I locked the door and went to lie down on the sofa. Lily came out of the washroom and lay down hesitantly, pulling the sheet over her.
“The switch is on the wall by the bed. You can turn off the light,” I said. She switched it off. The dim light that filtered in through the slightly ajar door of the washroom left a tiny luminous pool on the floor. I got up and walked to the washroom. I could hear the sound of my own footsteps and the faint whirr of the fan. I shut the door tight and groped my way back to the sofa. I tried to listen to the sounds of silence. I could hear the sound of both Lily’s and my breathing distinctly. I saw Lily in the darkness. There was a sort of resigned surrender in the way she lay on the bed, curled up under the sheet in a foetal position. She had gathered up her whole body tight, as if she were expecting a tiger to pounce upon her any moment now.
Nothing happened for a long time.
A slim hand snaked out of the sheet and whipped back as it touched something on the bed. Lily began to breath faster. Her heart raced. She wanted to take a leak but controlled the urge. A moment or so later, she sat up on the bed. Her legs felt weak and numb. She clenched her left palm into a fist and hit at the muscles of her feet. The wetness between her legs startled her. As she climbed abruptly off the bed, she stumbled and fell to the ground. I rushed to help her up. She was trembling all over.
“I need to go to the washroom,” she mumbled.
“Okay,” I said and held the door open for her.
She went in and bolted the door from inside. She did not come out for a long time. I looked at the wall clock in the feeble light that filtered into the room from somewhere. I waited some more. Minutes crawled by. Then I heard the toilet flush. I stood outside holding a bottle of drinking water. I had taken the lid off. The door opened and Lily came out, dragging her feet behind her. A hand leaned on the wall for support.She pulled the door shut with the other and walked over to the bed. I handed her the bottle.
“Here, drink some water,” I said. Our fingers touched as she took the bottle from me. I could feel her close to me. Her breath hit me like a gust of warm wind. The bottle slipped out of our hands and fell, water spilling on to the floor. Neither of us flinched. When the water kissed my feet I picked up the bottle. As I stood up, my head bumped into her soft belly. Her body emitted a strong, overpowering smell. She grabbed my hand in the dark and curled a finger around one of mine. “I am scared,” she whispered. She lay down on the bed and shifted a little to one side leaving room for me.
Our fingers were still entwined when we fell asleep.
I woke up in the morning to find Lily putting her things back in the suitcase. She had bathed and changed into another dress.
“It’s nearly time. We have to hurry if we are to catch the bus,” she said and went into the washroom. I changed quickly while she was inside. I was putting on my shoes when she came out. I washed my face and ran a comb through my hair. “Let’s go,” I said.
We walked to the bus stop in silence. The driver was already behind the wheel when we reached. We climbed inside hurriedly.
During the ride, we exchanged a few formal words. She asked me to get Raymond Williams’s Drama from Ibsen to Brecht for her.
The bus stopped outside the University. We got down and walked towards the hostel. As we reached the fork in the road that led to our respective hostels, she broke the silence.
“I do not need the book urgently,” she said. “I am returning to Bhawanipatna tomorrow. I am getting married this week. I will come back after a month. It will do if you get me the book at that time.” She then turned and walked away towards her hostel. My eyes followed her till she disappeared behind the trees. She did not look back, not once.
I sat down by the side of the road. A couple of students I knew walked by. “Have you just arrived?” they asked, smiling at me. I nodded. I did not feel like smiling. I was drenched in sweat even at that cool hour of the morning.
I never saw Lily again. Nor did I try and keep in touch.
Now, after so many years, we were together – two patients in the same hospital cabin! I with an infection in my right leg, and she with a liver and kidneys running out of time.
The next morning, I moved aside the partition and stood by her bed. She was sleeping.
“Lily!” I called out softly.
She opened her eyes wide and looked up at me.
“Lily!” I said again.
“Is it Subu?” her lips quivered.
“Yes,” I said and sat down on the bed.
She tried to say something but no words came out. The muscles in her throat twitched as she swallowed her breath. Tears flooded her eyes. She sat up with effort. I held one of her hands. She had let it into mine as if it did not belong to her any longer. We sat like that for a few minutes.
A nurse came into the cabin and walked to my bed.
I got up, pushed the screen aside and went back to my bed. I looked at the wall clock.
It was close to seven.
A small group of people came to gather around Lily’s bed.
I looked at the nurse questioningly.
“She will be discharged today. The formalities are almost complete.”
The news was a hard blow.
“But they were to stay for another few weeks, weren’t they?” I asked desperately.
“No. There is no point. She will not make it. Her vital organs are dysfunctional,” the nurse answered.
I got up and then slumped back onto the bed.
Everything went blank. I was plunged into a whirlpool of darkness. The multi-coloured parakeets disappeared from the screen. The tall trees outside the French window tossed their heads in a frenzy of anger. Rain came down in torrents.
The nurse was loading a syringe. I got up and walked outside to the corridor. They were wheeling a stretcher down the corridor. Lily lay motionless in it, her eyes shut.
Her son came up to me.
“We are taking our mother back. The doctors have given up on her,” he said, and followed the stretcher.
I came back inside and lay down, covering my face with a towel.
The nurse pricked the needle into my arm.
I did not feel the prick.
I did not feel anything.
I did not feel as though I had a body at all.
“Cabin 1130-A” first appeared in “Hatadhua Bela”, an Odia short story anthology on the pandemic edited by Manu Dash and published by Dhauli Books in 2020.
Manoj Kumar Panda had three short story collections to his credit – Hada Bagicha (Garden of Bones), Varna Bagicha (Garden of the Alphabet) and Maya Bagicha (Garden of Illusions). He received the Sarala Award in 2015 for Maya Bagicha.
Snehaprava Das has translated several Odia texts in English. Her translated works have been published by Speaking Tiger, Sahitya Akademi, Oxford University Press and Odisha Sahitya Akademi.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.