Time stood still as Bishakha Mullick, a forty-two year old mother of two, looking sixty-two, touched the hand of a young medical student and breathed deeply. Her tired, sparkless eyes touched the student’s heart in apparent helplessness. In an absent voice she told him what she wanted to tell him all along: he must let her go.
Sovon Roy, the young final-year student had been by her side during her final few days at the hospital. He had lied to get her admitted to the over-filled emergency A & E Wards. Her terminal breast cancer had no relevance. His false statement that she was his close relative, and vomited a bucketful of fresh blood, and about to die within hours, had got her admitted.
He had spent more and more hours consoling and reassuring her, and a special bond had grown between the souls; widely separated by age and circumstances. Both had sought solace from each other’s company. The human link between the two had surprised the nursing staff at the Ward. Considering Bishakha’s terminal state, they could appreciate the student’s concerns. In a traditional Hindu social environment the situation lacked protocol that an unrelated male was showing extra interest in a married woman. It bred gossip; but none of these two cared for it.
Sovon had just passed his twenty-second birthday, in August. The Bengali festival of Durga Puja ceremony was imminent, and the bustling city of Calcutta was vibrant with colour and anticipation. But these had no effect on him. His mind was engulfed in more immediate medical issues.
He lived in a three-storey doctor’s accommodation, at a noisy surrounding with a hundred-and-thirty House Officers living there. His gruelling life in itself was challenging: getting up early for the Operating Theatre, attending large out-patients departments, and following up the Ward patients. There were no fixed working hours, and hardly anyone left the hospital before half-ten at night. His life, like his colleagues was in the hospital among his patients, throughout the day, and being on-call at nights for patients in his unit. His parents never came into picture except for paying end-of-the-month bills, and infrequent home visits, during holidays. It was a time for attending patients, studying, fighting for a date, and going to bed late. But after Bisakha’s admission his routine life was put on hold.
At eighteen, Bishakha Mullick was married to Soumitra, nine years older to her. The marriage was arranged, and she had no say. The deeply tanned man with a moustache was very slim. As a salesman at a BATA shoe shop at Esplanade, in Calcutta, he brought home a meagre sum of money. He coached young school children, at home, to boost his earnings.
Accepting her fate, she spent her life cooking, and raising children. Her interest in singing never took off, in her allotted one room accommodation, at the joint family home. Her two sons, twenty-two and eighteen, had virtually left home, and her husband was too busy to bother about her.
She had noticed the hard marble-like lump, which was growing inside her left breast for some time, had enlarged to the size of a large lemon; but she had ignored it.
Not only there was an issue of a male doctor examining her, they the swelling seemed to stick to her chest needed money to see the doctor, as well as to buy the medicines. She hid her condition until the lump became stuck to her chest, but it had turned too painful to ignore. finally she confessed to her husband.
The old family physician at a local Pharmacy prescribed pain killers, vitamin tonics, and asked for blood tests. When she became worse, her husband visited a senior colleague, whose son was studying medicine. That was the beginning of a new friendship that would bring her a trace of joy.
Sovon requested a senior colleague to examine her, who confirmed his fears that Bisakha had an advanced breast cancer. After soliciting with the Resident Surgeon that she was his aunt, he transferred her to a surgical ward, under consultant unit, he was attached to. Initially a mattress was allotted to her, on the floor, and Sovon sighed in relief.
The next day, Bisakha was enlisted for an operation. A radical Mastectomy with clearing of lymph nodes was scheduled, which was the treatment of choice at the time.
Sovon secretly donated one unit of blood for the operation, and paid for the second unit of blood, donated by a hospital porter; as her husband was too anaemic to be a blood donor. Medicines were too expensive for the family, so he borrowed vitamin tonics, and pain killers from senior colleagues, and the Medical Representatives. Her husband bought the antibiotics.
Nothing went smoothly in Bisakha’s life, including the current episode. After a prolonged suffering she improved.
As she was coming out of her anaesthetic, her mind was dreaming. She thought of the day when her arranged marriage was agreed. The groom’s side never spared her, saying that her front teeth were too long for her mouth. They criticised her about her
Eyebrows, which were too thick and encroaching the midline. A bad omen, as it indicated her to be too sexy for a housewife. The worst was when her future mother-in-law made her walk bare-footed on wet floor, to check her footsteps. Her in-turned pigeon-toes caused great disquiet. The dowry negotiations were threatened until an additional twenty thousand rupees into the kitty, compensated for her birth defects.
Bisakha pondered about those shameful pre-marital days, which had produced deep furrows in her mind; and now she faced an altogether different threat. It was difficult to get out of this.
She was like a sinking ship. Nothing really mattered except pain, and she felt tired all the time. With Sovon by her side, she thought, she could sail in the doomed liner with a smile. Her husband and two boys who visited her increasingly infrequently, were drifting further and further as her life’s end-game progressed.
She looked forward to the young student’s company, who was like a son she never had. He would tide her over the pain barrier and bring joy and tranquillity to the remaining life flame left in her.
Only couple days ago, on a Thursday, Sovon spent two hours by her side late at night. She hardly spoke. Bisakha had told him to go home and take a rest. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she said, ‘there’s nothing else to be done. I’ve no pain.’
‘All right; I’ll leave now,’ Sovon smiled, patting on her freezing fingers. ‘Please ask for more pain killers if you need. I’ll be back tomorrow. Get a good rest; maybe I’ll read you another poem, I’m half way through it.’
‘I’d like that. I could never write poetry, but I’ll wait to listen to your poems.’
The next evening her unwelcome mother-in-law visited unexpectedly. She balanced with her hand on her right knee, and sat down.
‘Our maid-servant, Narayani, didn’t attend today,’ she puffed, ‘said, her grand daughter has fever. She bunked one day last week…’
Without any prompt, she continued, ‘your father-in-law suffers from acid in stomach. I tell him to take stomach medicine, but he’s too stubborn to listen…’
Bisakha was thinking of ways to dislodge her from the visitor’s chair. She coughed and retched, pretending to have aggravation of backache. That didn’t dissuade the elderly lady. As she picked another topic, her husband, intervened.
‘Shall we go? It’ll be difficult to get a bus home… the doctor is here…’
Sovon had passed by the bedside a couple of times, and now, when they left he approached her. ‘How’re you feeling tonight?’
A pale smile followed. ‘How do you think? I’m alright… true, I’ve no pain and I feel restful. You are like my new-found son; God has sent me during my last days. He had been kind to me.’
‘You shouldn’t speak like that,’ Sovon protested.
‘I only say what I feel. Without you my life would have ended long ago.’
‘It’s my job. I’m training to be a doctor.’
‘And you’ll be a good doctor; who’ll care for those that have no one.’
‘Thanks. Now have some sleep. Did you have pain? Did you have the tablets?’
‘I had all medicines that you brought me.’
‘That’s good. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’
‘Will you bring the poem you wrote for me? Just a few lines would do.’ Again that pale smile that faded in dim glow of the Ward as Night Sister switched off the main lights. It was approaching nine o’clock.’
‘Of course I will. Good night. It’s Sunday after breakfast.’
‘Till tomorrow…’ Bisakha touched Sovon’s hand with her ice cold fingers.
‘Are you feeling cold?’
‘I’ll ask the Nurse to fetch a blanket. Sleep well… till tomorrow.’ Sovon left with a feeling that she was going down rapidly.
Around half-past-three at night, a porter knocked on his door. The note he was carrying, said that Bishakha had suddenly deteriorated. With no phone extension in the rooms, porters worked as runners. Unable to contact her husband, the Nurse had sent for him. The patient was also asking for him by name.
Bishakha was at her last stage; barely conscious and gasping, yet seemed to be waiting for him. After a torrent spree of medical journey, fighting a devil of a disease that would take her soul, she was on her last stand. Sovon had nothing to play, except being a bystander; witnessing her safe access to the world of peace and tranquillity, at the hands of God.
The galloping cancer had riddled every corner of her body. It had sieved through her lungs and brains. Yet the doctors had fought back, with little resources of advanced medical pharmacopoeia against the marching army of cancer cells. Against all odds, Sovon in his meagre role of a med student clung to his precious patient refusing to let go.
By assisting, comforting, and reassuring he carried the self-appointed role of a carer. He sailed along with her rejecting the inevitable. His unsolicited hours beyond his duty, late night sorties to set up Intra-venous lines for morphine, and anti-cancer drugs, had all come to an end. He lied to the hospital, begged attention from the nurses for more care; who rightly thought he was being naïve. And now it had all come to the end point.
Bishakha had thrived in Sovon’s enthusiasm, watched it all resignedly. She always knew, trying to tell the young medical student that medicine did not cure everything; that death was the ultimate truth. She tried to tell the young man, with what wisdom she learnt from her life, and raising a family in poverty through pain and suffering - that it was time, he should let her go.
But Sovon would have none of that. In an un-defeating mood he had pursued relentlessly against the cunning, run-away adversary – cancer that sneaked through every crevices, cell by cell, organ by organ in Bishakha’s body; like a florid virus taking over her nerve centres that controlled her being.
He had not seen her so pale, and struggling for breath till that moment. Even at that late hour he refused to believe that this was the final plea. Her fleeting smile was the final ‘thank you, and goodbye.’
‘I’m here now. Hold my hand, and don’t be afraid. See… I’ve brought the poem you requested…’
A pale smile followed… a touch of life showed on her face, as Sovon took out a piece of paper and started to read, what he wrote for her, titled
‘In controlled patience I’ve waited
For Your approaching footsteps,
Over the swept carpet of loose pebbles
Outside my barn door all day.
One by one I’ve shifted the dead leaves
For You to approach the moor,
Making way for fresh petals that’d shed
For Thee, along the way to my door.
My life, a spark in your cosmos
Would merge infinity with Thee
I would travel to the Heaven that’s You,
As You walk leisurely towards me.
And now, as I wait for You to arrive
I light my candles; my frail body
Flowering in a disappearing wick
To celebrate the glory of Your might.
As the eastern sky turned orange, the gleam from Bisakha’s eyes dimmed even
before the poem ended. Rigid, cool fingers desperately clung to his hand. The sad Mona Lisa smile painted on her lips started to ease. Her tired eyelids hardly blinked. She breathed slower and shallow - till it all stopped.
Sovon never noticed the night nurses gathered round the bed, flanking him in apparent reassurance; wondering and sympathising with the unselfish devotion of a young student who was too young, and too proud to realise the universal truth: death. They had seen it all before.
Sovon couldn’t remember when he cried the last time. Silent drops rolled down his cheeks in a mute torment. A deep seated volcano stuck to his chest pounding to burst.
He cherished the feeling that he could brighten up the last moments of Bisakha’s life, and eased her pain. To be able to be with her during her terminal moments when nothing could be done, to be able to lend her his last touch, was his reward. And though he cried in his heart; he knew he had let a part of his soul travel with her to eternity.
With dawn breaking, he walked back to his quarters. He sat on a bench at the children’s play area on his way; feeling the pain he would learn to bear each time he touched death. It was the only reality for all that lived, and yet, most painful and hard to endure.