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Where Peacocks Fly - 11

by Prema Sastri

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Chapter 11

Looking back she saw that by the calendar the illness lasted three weeks. She could never look on the time spent in the hospital with any proportion. It was as if she had entered a tunnel. At first she missed the light. Then she forgot there was anything but darkness. For a while there was still a sense of distance. Soon that too was lost. There was nothing but darkness and encircling walls. Her senses became numbed and the reentry into daylight came as a shock.

Modern drugs and the resilience of youth played their part. Shankaran soon recovered; Meera’s nervous system did not. It seemed as if all the pain and discomfort that Shankaran suffered had lodged itself in her forever. It was a reel that would suddenly unroll on the screen of her thought and play itself out in slow motion. She would hear the rasping breath and feel the convulsive movement. She would see the doctors passing a stethoscope over the boy’s chest, asking questions, and taking what seemed an inordinate amount of time to write the details on a chart. Once there was a flurry and an oxygen cylinder was moved in. It was not needed after all but it stood there all day’ as a warning of a possible crisis.

Ramaswamy came every evening. She never got him into focus. She could only remember him in fragments, limbs moving, a voice speaking, questions asked and answers given. Mangalam came a few times. She appeared to Meera with three dimensional clarity,the image of her swinging hair and childish voice remaining long after she was gone.

Meera herself occasionally went home, cleared up, cooked, and set things in order. It was Mangalam who took on most of the work. The maid servant chose those weeks to deliver a baby. Mangalam managed by begging the good offices of her neighbours’ servants. Ramaswamy had lunch in his office.

Back in the hospital time again started its endless spinning like a coin rotating till you could not see which side was heads. That first day Meera sat by the bed till late evening, afraid that if she moved or stirred the life would ebb out from the tortured lungs. She tried to pray but she could not. Why was it she wondered the capacity for prayer disappeared when it was most needed? All that she could manage was a repetition: ’please God, don’t let him die.’ The words went on till they tapered and died from lack of response like a beggar’s whine.

She tried to focus on an image of God. Pictures flowed away from her. None of them stood still. There was the Goddess Saraswati dressed in white with a veena in her hand. She had a sweet smile and a bright face. She was replaced by Shiva with his matted hair which held the Ganges, and a trident and a begging bowl in his hands. He seemed to lift a hand in blessing but when she looked again there was Lakshmi standing on a lotus. Her red sari shone and she fluttered away in a blaze of heat. Meera’s gaze fixed on Ganesha the elephant. The appearance of his trunk and stomach filled to bursting made her smile and a little more cheerful.

She wished she could concentrate on one image but she had never been able to do so, even as a child. She remembered in the convent where she had studied a nun had asked her to which God she prayed. “To all the Gods,” she had replied. She remembered the nun’s shocked look. She had been terrified for months, for the nun had vividly described the terrors of hell for which she was bound if she did not give up her worship of heathen Gods. She had tried to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary with fervour. The image of Christ on the cross appeared frightening to her. The pictures she saw of him depicted a gaunt face and a bleeding heart. It made her depressed. She had turned to the merry picture of Lord Krishna with relief.

She stretched herself out to sleep. The routine of the hospital went on. In the morning the sweepers came with a clanging of chamber pots and bedpans. Their room was next to the bathroom and she was wakened early each morning by the sound of pots being scraped and flush being pulled. The room smelt of urine. The sweepers were not given a disinfectant with which to wipe the rooms as the month’s supply of dettol had been stolen from the store cupboard. On the second day she bought a bottle of Listerine from the chemist’s shop just outside the hospital and poured generous amounts of it on the floor. The resulting odour was overpowering, but it served to mask the unpleasant bathroom stench. Early morning the nurses made their rounds, taking temperatures, administering medicines. A little later the doctors would come round the wards.

On the second day two doctors were discussing the case. Shankaran’s fever was still high. “It might be meningitis said one.” He looked thoughtful. “Of course there is a possibility that one of the lungs might collapse. It might be necessary to give the patient oxygen.” The other doctor looked puzzled, but dutifully took down notes. “I think,” continued the first doctor, “it would be wise to take an E.C.G.” He put his stethoscope on the boy’s chest cursorily. “There seems to be a murmur in his heart.”

“Meera broke in. “Is it as serious as that doctor?”

The doctor nodded his head. “One should be prepared for anything,” he said dolefully. “Don’t worry, we will do our best.”

A short while later the E.C.G. apparatus was moved in. It could not be used as the electricity failed. The attendant returned a few hours later. The attendant gradually unwound the long strip of paper with its mysterious markings. At last he was satisfied and turned the machine off. Meera started at the spool of paper, wondering what the markings meant. What did they reveal of the beating of her son’s heart? The E.C.G. machine was wheeled away to be followed by the oxygen cylinder. A nurse looked in. Seeing Meera’s stricken face she smiled. “Don’t worry Mrs. Ramaswamy,” she said, “your son will be playing around very soon. My son had pneumonia when he was six. He was completely blue. Now he is the captain of his school football team.”

“But all this apparatus….they just took an E.C.G.”

“Don’t be alarmed. These are just hospital precautions. They don’t always mean an emergency. You see your boy will be driving you crazy with his pranks soon.”

A buzzer sounded in one of the wards and the nurse left in a hurry. Meera felt grateful for the nurse’s encouraging words, but wondered whether she was merely trying to be kind. The thin, still body seemed very far from playing tricks. He has been a mischievous child. She remembered now they had gone shopping in Connaught Place. They had come to the end of one of the long verandha and were waiting to cross the street. The verandha was full of the usual vendors. She thought she had Shankaran firmly by the collar. The other hand was held out to restrain Mangalam who was about to step into the midst of the traffic. Ramaswamy was a few paces ahead waiting impatiently to cross. With a sudden wriggle Shankaran had escaped from her clutches. In a moment he pulled out a book from underneath a huge pile. The books came tumbling down. In an effort to avoid further destruction the shopkeeper thrust out his arm to prevent another bundle from crashing down. In the process his arm got entangled in a pile of lacy underwear the man next to him was holding out to solicit attention. The verandha became a medley of books and laces.

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