Short Story: Illusions of Hope

The picture painted in oils. The war, the fall of 1943 images on a picture. Females gazing into the distance in trouble,
Painting: Alexander Becher

By Maliha Iqbal

Dr. Amrit Sethi cozily snuggled up just like Ali had been. His belly was forming a perfect mountain in the sea of blankets that covered him. The blankets frightened him, but he clung on to them for no reason or perhaps because it was a little cold.

He looked up at the whirling ceiling fan that blew in strong gusts of wind. Somehow the fan seemed like a reassuring friend in the dark room that revealed nothing except the outlines of the furniture. You wouldn’t know if it were furniture or not if you hadn’t been in the room before. They were just darker shadows in the dark shadow of the dark night. “But then,” Dr. Sethi thought, “if you can’t know the dead from the living then you can’t know anything. That’s elementary.”

Even the fan, yes, that too could be a treacherous thing when there was no electricity, just like a schoolboy who refused to get up in the mornings. It stopped its friendly whirling, stopped the gusts of wind and was nonchalant about the heat or the sweat that drenched him.

He grunted to himself, turned around and unknowingly, but inevitably, lived the moment when God had given him the godly powers to ‘undie’ (He found English to be difficult but was sound in his own field) the dead. Oh sure, doctors had that power to save lives, but he had that power to undie the dead. And that was something.

Now don’t think that was the presence of death itself that preoccupied his mind (he had seen plenty of death in his line of work and was quite used to it) but the absence of it…

***

The Government Hospital was directly in front of a large open drain. Like the hospital, the drain too was used rigorously by the people as a toilet (without any embarrassment), dustbin and a place to empty their noses with loud (this too without any embarrassment) blowing. People coming to the hospital for the first time would meet the stench before seeing the building.

The hospital was painted white with a clumsily drawn Chhota Bheem on the front walls. It seemed like the nebulous cartoon would melt into some kind of pulpy mesh at any second now. His head was too large, and he was holding a comb-sized broom in his hands. The message painted beside him read, “KEEP YOUR CITY CLEAN AND GREEN.” The wall just below the message was red with people spitting out paan and greenish black with age and moss.

The double-glass doors of the hospital were smeared with fingerprints – a map of different lives (and deaths) woven together by their destinies. Above the doors, a red and blue sign read, “Open 24×7” – the title of the existential map. Inside, the air was charged with life (and death) as patients came and went out of the hospital, as lives came and went out of the world.

It was here that Dr. Sethi worked. Not every day, though. Only on Sundays when his own clinic was closed, and he did voluntary services because all his other colleagues did that. It was as simple as that. He did it because everyone else did it. In fact, Dr. Sethi only did things that other people did simply because it made sense to him. He wore a wristwatch to work because everyone did that, he dyed his thinning hair a jet black because everyone did that. He breathed, walked, talked, and ate because everyone else seemed to be doing that.

His only rebellious acts were his strangely philosophical thoughts before drifting into a dreamless sleep and The Sneakers. Dr. Sethi always wore Nike Sneakers to work along with the mandatory lab court and customary pant-shirt that distinguished men in their middle ages from youth with tight low-waist jeans and T-shirts with “Apna Time Aayega” (Our Time will Come) written on them. All of Dr. Sethi’s colleagues wore leather shoes or, at the very least, handmade sandals. This footwear revolt strangely pleased and excited him.

And so it was on one of these Sundays when a new path would be woven out from the 24×7 map. When Dr. Sethi, in his Nike sneakers, would be given godly powers by God and he would undie the dead.

***

It was past midnight and nothing had changed in the hospital. Patients came and went out of the hospital, as lives came and went out of the world. The only difference perhaps was the surreal silence as tired patients slept and most of their relatives sat around dozing, praying or staring at the glowing screens of their phones. It was around 1 o’clock when Dr. Sethi saw her.

She came in swift as the wind, her lilac saree carelessly rippling behind as she walked ahead. Her hair was tied in a hasty bun and strands of it curtained the face with its scared eyes and the lips that never ceased moving, uttering prayer after prayer. The creature in her hands too never ceased writhing in agony of the pains that it could not tell others.

She rushed up to the first doctor in sight, ready to plead softly or give orders in a stream of fluent English or cry or beg or… She wasn’t sure about anything… There was a hand restraining her shoulder. It was her brother, but she couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying, wasn’t sure about what to say as her baby was snatched out of her hands. She fought them off but there were too many.

Firoz, her brother, was dragging her to a bench. It will be okay. Calm down. He was giving her a form to fill. She wrote her name, Aleena Rahman. Next was her darling son’s name, Ali Mirza. She had named him after herself. He was going to be fine. That’s what they said.

People who had initially stared at her sympathetically returned to their dozing, praying and, of course, staring at the glowing screens of their phones…

She saw the doctor who had taken her son from her. The toad-like creature with drops of perspiration on his curving nose. Like Squidward’s nose in SpongeBob SquarePants, although the sweat was new. It was a long time since she had seen that show. Almost twenty years ago when she would watch it with her elder daughter. Her eyes moved to the sneakers and he suddenly turned and saw her staring at them. There was an almost idiotic-cheeky kind of smile on his face, like a child who has been caught eating chocolates without permission…

Her lips started moving but she was spitting out too much. She watched the spit spraying out of her mouth as she prayed. Her eyes filled with tears and her body flooded with anger, hatred, love, sorrow or maybe joy. She wasn’t sure anymore.

***

Dr. Sethi saw the woman rush towards him. Messed up clothes and disheveled hair – she could have been a war victim. Except that she was fighting a war against death and this was a hospital and he was a doctor.

She stood directly in front of him and looked unseeingly into his eyes. Her blabbering continued until a man ran up from behind and took charge. The baby was hurriedly admitted. He was seven months old. Dr. Sethi only hoped that the woman’s prayers would work.

The baby died in the next two hours. Dr. Sethi walked out awkwardly and stood near the reception desk. The woman hadn’t moved from her position. The hospital was quiet and alive and dead at the same time. Dr. Sethi noticed her watching his sneakers and an inexplicable joy filled him. The rebel in him couldn’t help the little smile which vanished as quickly as it had come when he looked at her.

He could tell she was from a lower middle-class house, the kind that wanted to show their affluence but calculated everything before spending. The elegant proletarians. The kind who painted their faces in five-inch-deep make-up at weddings. He knew what a screaming wreck that thing could become. He couldn’t afford that. There were patients in the ICU who would have a heart attack from that noise. Well, the heart attack was used figuratively but he would have to be careful next time. He was a doctor after all. Literally speaking, they could have serious shock, panic, stress, anxiety, heart attack and a thousand different organ failures. He took out a frayed handkerchief and wiped his face.

The baby’s father was in Delhi. The Idiot. He had to go to Delhi just now. He stood there for a whole ten minutes and then almost jogged to the elegant proletariat. She looked up with dreamy yet insanely attentive eyes. Those eyes were the ones forcing him to have Godly powers. To undie the dead. He could hear the blood pounding through his veins, hear his lungs contracting as they greedily sucked in oxygen, the hair in his nose moving slightly like grass sways in the wind, the sound his eyelids made when he blinked. He could feel every sign of life in his body and each sign wanted him to stop but there was no way.

“You had better take the boy to a private hospital. We won’t be able to take proper care of him here. The situation is critical.”

He was surprised at his own terseness and could hardly conceal it. But the elegant proletariat was no longer paying attention. She didn’t notice his look of surprise at what he had just said. She was ready for battle and conscious of only the battle that lay ahead.

Her brother appeared with a warm blanket and they snuggled up the undied dead (Just like Dr. Sethi would snuggle up later that night) in it. Aleena held the baby close to her with a tenderness that was almost frightening.

She went out swift as the wind, her lilac saree carelessly rippling behind as she walked ahead. Dr. Sethi watched them,

Just darker shadows in the dark shadow of the dark night…

Bio:
Maliha Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India.

***

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

***

Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

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