When the boy returns with a bottle of water, Stille first drips a few drops into his (the man’s) mouth, which he immediately swallows eagerly. He then tilts a half-filled glass slowly into his mouth, which the man drinks more eagerly until his mouth shuts before Stille cants off the glass dry.
It seems he is relived for a while–his complaining eases off and then stops. The mist of tension lifts. Even the old woman rises with an effort and comes trudging past Stille, stops beside him and smiles weakly down at the man.
Is she his wife older by five or ten years? Stille wonders. Or his mother, him having sprinted through his life so fast almost overtaking his mother’s age, perhaps consumingly quickened by what he is suffering from?
Soon the creases of faint smile around her lips and eyes wither back home into the usual crow’s feet, and she leaves there before long, trudges back and sits down at a new place, curled up like before. However, when Stille begins to think of going back, the man starts again, and worse this time. He tosses and turns and twists and kicks, and the low moans develop into long-drawn shrieking cries. The spirits that showed a weak rise during the momentary let-up quail.
“What is the doctor saying?” Stille asks the boy without expecting much of an answer of the boy.
“Nothing!” He is quick on the trigger.
Exactly, Stille thinks.
He leans over the man and asks him in a calm, firm voice, “Please don’t cry. Let’s face this.”
The swaying of the head breaks off, and in the dark, steep depressions in the gnarly emaciated face, a pair of glinting eyeballs rolls to a stop to look at the speaker. “What do you want me to do?” Stille asks softly.
The eyeballs glint at Stille for a moment. There is no anger in them. No defiance. No suspicion. No wickedness. Nothing. Just pain, fear and confusion. Then the head that begins to sway takes them in tow. Now his body twists and then his legs shake as if they were kicking off the pain.
Stille leans back up, shifts his position a bit toward his left and begins to massage the man over his blanket. Unaware of what is troubling him and where the trouble lies, Stille is quite quick about the massage covering the man’s back, waist and legs. However, it seems that the man’s body does not feel his massage—the man groans on, as if the pain is as deep as his marrow, oozing out of the pores of his bones, unaffected by the massage.
“My skull! Frozen! My legs!” The slurred murmur amid his moans is fibered. He is tired, but the illness pulsates what remains in him. His slurs a second language to him now, the boy gets closer to the bedhead on the other side and massages the man’s skull with both his little hands, the fingers hooked and flicked out like the prongs of a harpoon. Stille moves further left down to the foot and finds the feet cold like a block of ice. The temperature felt normal five minutes ago. He manages to rub them fast until the increasingly more terrible jolting makes it impossible. Then the man gives himself up to more jolting, more strained groaning, cursing and crying.
The night has both ends of sound—silence and this man’s cry—together in such a strange fashion. There is the engulfing silence and his occasional cry tears into its pitching, throwing its spear-tipped flight into the darkness toward the other end of the long ward. And the ward’s dark silence kisses the sound dry off it even as it flies and turns it into one of its kind. The silent sitters who have woken up remain still like ghosts pitched in their sick beds black against the dull glass windows.
The place felt empty to Stille when he entered, and now when he scans the space allotted to the bed, its emptiness feels so chilling—the bed, the stainless steel on one side of the bed, the rusted steel bedside table with cabinets between the bed and the wall, which the hospital provides, and nothing else, except for a small bag under the bed and a small plastic trough smelling of urine. The steel cabinets contain no medicine. The only vestige of medicine is the spent plastic IV bottle on the hanger attached to the bed, with the tube casually coiled back up and the connector plugged into the hub of an extra needle punched into it.
Did the woman or the boy put the prescription away? In one of the half open empty cabinets? The darkness inside would not give away a small piece of paper that anybody would tend to fold. Or in a shirt or trousers pocket or in a petticoat pocket, as many Throny Vale women of the lower middle class steeped in hard earning with some valued money usually show doing when they furtively loosen the phanek slit to reach for the money when they need to part with part of that on a bill at a hospital or on an unavoidable distant trip? It is not anywhere visible, but yes we don’t put a prescription on the show. We tend to take prescriptions carefully even when we are too broke to make them meaningful and keep them at a safe place intensifying the feeling of safety, false as it may be, and the lesser money we have, the tighter and tighter does our hold get. How tightly a penniless person holds a prescription shows how tightly and dearly they hold their loved ones on a hospital bed against the pull of death, as if the piece of paper were the very soul of their loved ones.
The boy shakes his head. The innocent face has learnt to show despair. Stille shifts his eyes to the man in noisy torment and it looks like he is dying.
Stille’s lips tighten. He draws in a long draft of air and gives a long sigh, and taking a couple of brisk steps toward the right, he leans low over the man’s face and asks,
“Do you believe in God? In Allah, or any God?”
Is he hesitating? The man gives no visible sign readable as a response to Stille’s question. Not even a different twitch in his lean face almost grotesque in fighting pain. Does he not believe in the idea of God or is he pissed off with me bringing in the far-fetched, inane and useless idea of God while he is struggling for life?
Go to Of God and Men (Part 1)
But little folk who will not climb
Into bed at the proper time
Get acquainted by-and-by
With Sleep’s big brother Hushabye.
“Ssssh,” says Hush to girls and boys,
“Go to sleep, and don’t make a noise.”
As he occasionally does, Stille Quiete looks up from the book—The Raibow Book by Samuil Marshak—toward his sister sleeping soundly on her hospital bed, the head section raised a little to her comfort. The transparent IV solution is dripping from the plastic bag hung from its hanger hook into the drip chamber slowly and regularly, and from there it curls down the tube through the roller clamp, takes a few circular turns where the tube lies in a few casual coils, flows through the needle and finally enters her body. She is recovering from a bad cardiac arrest.
“Eeeyouch!” This time the groan from the other ward is disturbing, both in loudness and the anguish it is filled with. “Mama! Aaaaugh! Somebody kill me please!”
The loud cry, cursing and howling in sharp pain continues in the hospital ward in the wee hour of the night when nobody—no patients and no attendants—makes a noise except for the whizzing of breathing and the rustles of shifting in bed once in a while and an occasional cough or two here and there. His sharp cry rings clearly in the silence and many wake up and sit up without complaining but worried.
“Something is really wrong with this guy.” Toiler Hard, husband of Lina Hard, the patient, turns in the cushioned divan on Stille’s left, which he has turned into a makeshift bed.
The sound disturbing to the others does not disquiet Stille, whose thresholds of the intensity of silence and noise are off the chart. But he quietly puts the open book face down on the steel bedside table with cabinets, walks out the door without a leaf, continues for a while in the corridor and disappears into the long ward on the other side.
With all lights out, the ward is semi-dark, lit only by the cold light from the lamps along the gravel path in the hospital campus on the other side that is thrown on the walls along with the skewed shadows of the windows. The man’s cry and cursing makes it easy for Stille to locate him in the semi-dark.
When Stille sees and approaches him, he finds the reduced, sixtyish-year old body of the man in agony from which the loud, high-pitched cry originates, and he restlessly tosses and turns in his bed in the semi-darkness attended only by a confused pre-teen boy who, at a loss, only keeps readjusting the blanket that keeps slipping off as the man writhes, and an old withered woman in head scarf seated on the naked floor (hospital floors—kneaded by restless shoes with dirt and floor cleaner and smelling of medicines and phthalates, triclosan, ammonia, chlorine and other chemicals—are a dreadful paradox of cleanliness and dirtiness) curled up and leaning on a wall near the foot of the bed, her forehead resting on a palm and the hand supported on the folded knees. A pathetic picture of utter confusion, hopelessness and resignation.
Stille rushes to the staff nurses’ station. In the low light of a power-saving night bulb, the place lies still, the swivel chairs and stainless steel stools empty; the several piles of files, record and register books ranged neatly on the desk, with a couple of medicine boxes lying in the spaces in between; and the visible corners of the open station harboring some unnamable dire-looking light pieces of hospital equipment and a couple of oxygen tanks clamped onto their carts leaning on the wall; a squattish off-white fridge humming at 40 Hz, quite peskily uncomfortable if you continually hear it in the silence.
They must be asleep, Stille thinks. He turns and looks around as he steps slowly, reading the door signs legible from this distance—Nurse Changing Room, Sterilization Room, and here is the Sister on Duty.
A nurse answers his knock and opens the door, her eyes crumpled from lack of sleep. Stille does not have to say much to identify the patient and his problem—she guesses it right and fast, which feels like there being something about it more than years of experience.
When they are back, Stille finds the light on.
“The sedative isn’t working?” She asks when they are at the man’s bedside, looking at the man and then at the empty tube attached to his hand and the plastic IV bag shaking caught on the hanger hook. Her control and casualness could not cover her irritation. The old woman on the floor turns and looks toward the nurse.
“Relax. You are on a sedative.” The nurse hates it that the emaciated man has so high a threshold or is refractory to α-2 adrenergic agonists. She goes round the bed to the other side, removes the connector from the cannula luer lock, caps the lock, casually coils the tube up and hangs the coil on the hook after capping the connector.
She must have been so fed up with that man that she then slips into scolding him loudly in the silence of the night. With a grimace he turns his head to the left and wearily stares at the wall, and his noisy complaints, cries, restless toss and turn stop all of a sudden as if an insensitive reproach were more effective than a sedative. Is he angry with the nurse? Or is he rather thankful that the nurse’s reproach pulls him back out of a dark abyss he has plunged into, like a 200–1000-volt shock defibrillates an arrested heart quivering into a final rest.
She swings the doors of the two cabinets on the bedside table one after another and looks casually into them. Then as she rises, she pushes the doors back in listlessly just to leave them half-open and leaves without a word further. A newcomer, who arrived the last evening just a few hours ago, Stille cannot not understand a thing about it.
“What’s he suffering from?” Stille asks the boy.
“I don’t know,” he says innocently.
The old woman has retreated into her somber silence.
The light goes out a few seconds after the nurse’s departure, and turning round to see any sign of who may be doing that, Stille catches, three beds away, a grainy glimpse of a black figure in the dark move from the wall and it fades into the pervasive darkness below the level of the beds. Used to gloomy rooms and finding the cold light reflected from the wall in this part end of the ward sufficient, he does not complain. The old woman and the boy also seem to be accustomed to darkness.
Stille turns to the agonizing man, ready to do something about him. But the man confuses him—he complains his chest is burning and Stille attends, and almost at the same moment he says his feet are icy cold. Stille checks and they are not, but he removes the blanket from over the man’s chest to fold it up and cover his feet. Then the complaints pile up–“This head is frozen. Oh, my feet–burning. My chest–something pierces me. Ah, cold chest. Cold feet. Hot head.” All almost simultaneously–he just takes time to give words to what is happening to him, it seems. It is like ice, fire and pain are running here and there all over his body, taking turns to occupy different parts of the body momentarily. Stille shifts the blanket very fast and massages the muscles as the pains ghost around.
Despite all Stille’s sweating, the man’s complaint does not subside. Amid his breathless moaning, he asks for water. Stille looks at the boy who is standing still and confused on the other side of the bed opposite him—he does not move in response to “water,” the man’s thirst.
“Water!” Stille says.
“Run out of it,” he replies resignedly.
The woman on the floor shifts in response and glances slightly toward us, apparently apologetically. The weak light through the windows from the hospital campus thrown on the walls cannot light up her face enough, but it seems she is wiping a few drops of fresh tear off her cheeks.
Stille tosses off a twenty rupees note from his pocket and gives it to the boy.
“Go run. Fast as you can.”
The boy disappears and Stille continues to help the man as he keeps rolling and complaining, but not so terribly as he did before.
Go the Of God and Men (Part 2)
Manipuri short story writer and one of the state’s top cops, Rajen Moirangthem (left) and Manipuri poet and sports columnist, Saratchand Thiyam on the evening of 16 January 2017.
Both of them are national Sahitya Akademi award recipients. I set out as an editor when I assisted Mr. Rajen in editing Chumthang, a literary journal published by Sahitya Seva Samiti, Kakching.
Saratchand and I came to know each other at a seminar at India International Center, New Delhi, in 2005. Organized by Katha. As a young boy–youngest among the delegates–I was a panelist in a discussion program–Knowledge Keepers and Dream Makers. Did he get a book of his released during the seminar? I don’t remember. Something like the English translation of his Nungsibi Greece was hot then.
Depression broods in art. Anger chafes in art. The fires, cries and deaths of war do not spare art. Every human thing touches art. Still, there is something about art that keeps it cool. You will rediscover the innocence of humans in old men of art being together. Just being happy, without any reason. Just being together. Just listening to each other’s songs. A cappella. Just listening to each other’s poems or short stories.
These guys are such folks. I photographed them after a literary program in Manipur early this year. January 2017. From left to right:
The sea gathers love of sand scribbled on its shore
The ebbs leaving the wordless wet, cold and empty
And the world caving in–a cosmic rubble heap of nothingness
Motions–of slipping into appearance and
of slipping into disappearance–lines described and not–
a pure visual world
Meaningless sounds different from their absence
Lurk like what you feel