The faint light on the ceiling fan was creating a cart wheel in the dark room. The excruciating heat in the air was making the room unbearably warm and the smell of my sweat gave away a tingly odour in the confinement. Chennai has always been hot at this time of the year. ‘May’ as the locals say is the hottest month but my last four years in Chennai has taught me that it is better to keep the fan or the A.C always on. Every year mercury shoots up to heights yet unscaled and air conditioning has become a must in this part of the country.
I got up from the bed and went out to the balcony. It was cooler outside. Though located in the Centre of the city, the Seamen Club of Chennai has a well maintained lawn which provides freshness in the otherwise barren compound. The smell of fresh vegetation and the moist cool breeze provided the much needed relief. I looked at my watch. It was four thirty in the morning. I still had two hours left for the cab to call and four hours for my flight. It was my last day in Chennai, the city which taught me to be compassionate yet loud, caring yet aggressive and to love everything with a passion to die for. It inculcated the regionalism in me which I lacked before leaving North-East. I always felt myself as a patriot as I used to brave through the forced silence of Assam bandhs during Independence and Republic days to witness the parade at the local stadium. Being a student under the national government, I always felt be more Indian than Assamese. National anthem gave me goose bumps and Indian history was my favourite subject because reading the struggle for independence made me passionate about the efforts and valour of our forefathers.
However, once I shifted to Chennai, my perception changed as it is said, “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality”. Tamil people are crazy about Thiruvalluvar and whatever he had said is universal truth for them. They are so passionate about film stars that they have temples built and whenever any film releases, they do puja by bathing the idol in milk. This may sound crazy but everyone knew everything about Tamil Nadu and they loved their state to the core. But in my case, I didn’t know even a single line said by Shankardeva the Vaishnavite saint, never watched an Assamese film and didn’t even know the total number of districts in my state. I felt mortified when questions were asked either out of ignorance or out of sarcasm about my state. So I started to read, listen and see anything and everything I gathered or came across about my state and in the process I learnt about the greatness of it. Moreover the problems faced by my state such as floods, illegal influx etc. started bothering me as regionalism slowly seeped into me. Today while leaving Chennai I felt proud as there was a day when I had to explain to everyone where actually Assam, my state, is and today when everyone wanted to visit Assam with me.
The phone bell interrupted the thought process and brought me back to reality as the white backlight screen of my Nokia 1100 flashed ‘Cab driver’ intermittently. Answering the phone I asked for another thirty minutes from the cab driver. After exactly thirty minutes, I was in the cab on my way to airport.
Every city has its own smell; either out of pollution or any other source but a particular stench separates each city from the other. The morning breeze mixed in that particular Chennai stench gushed into the cab as it moved through the roads of the city. I reached the airport at 7.15 am which gave me ample time to check in for an eight thirty flight as in those days the policy was to check in 30 minutes prior to departure.
As I stood in the queue for check in, I saw a middle aged man struggle through the luggage trolleys with a teenage son on a wheel chair. Everyone gave way to them as the son appeared as if he needed medical attention and one small handbag wouldn’t take much of a time. When my turn came, I asked for a window seat but the lady declined saying that almost all the seats are full and she could only offer me a seat at the aisle. Taking my boarding pass I straight way went for the security check and bought a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I looked for a comfortable seat where I could sit and savour my coffee and found one next to a gentleman opposite the boarding gate. I saw the father-son duo again and this time I observed closely. The father was a short lean man in his late thirties. He wore a faded white shirt, dark brown trousers which had their bottoms worn out and blue bathroom slippers. He had a crisp moustache and his hair was neatly done to one side. Though he neatly turned up but by appearance, he belonged to the under privileged section of the society. His son appeared to be in his late teens and very sick. He was barely awake as if under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He wore an orange t-shirt with red shorts and was bare-footed, sitting on a wheel chair. I felt an urge to buy a pair of slippers for the boy and as if the thought reverberated in the air, the father took a pair of slippers from the handbag and slipped them into his feet. I could deduce that they came for some treatment to the acclaimed Apollo Hospitals in Chennai and were now returning home after treatment. However, the son didn’t look treated and looked more like a child suffering from some syndrome. His hands had catheters pierced into his veins so that he could be administered medicines and drip whenever and wherever required.
After taking off from Chennai, the flight would land at New Delhi before departing for Guwahati. As the boarding was announced, a sudden chaos occurred in the waiting area. Once on board, I searched for my seat and I was jaundiced when I found that I was provided the last aisle seat at the end of the plane which cannot be reclined and the second turn off was that the father-son duo were sitting next to me. Though I had sympathy for the child but sitting next to a patient of whatever communicable disease was frightening. I thought of asking the father to take the middle seat and let his son sit at the window but refrained as it might offend him. The air hostess appeared as savior as she asked the man to exchange his seat with his son.
Once everyone was settled down, headphones were distributed and when the father got one he asked me, “Dada! Kita ei ginis?” (Dada! What is this?).
I was not that well versed in Bengali but still I tried to answer in Bengali. I said, “Eita headphone. Gaan sunar joinei” (Its headphone to listen to songs).
He looked at them and kept both the headphones in the bag. Then he smiled at me and I smiled back. This time I asked, “Tumar ghar kothai?” (Where is your home?)
He replied, “Hatsingmari, Dhubri district. Sirer basa?” (Hatsingmari in Dhubri district in Assam Sir! Your home?”)
As the flight was about to take off, an air hostess came to him and enquired if he felt comfortable and had taken all the requisite medicines for the flight. He was blank as he didn’t understand a single word of what she said but he shook his head in affirmation. She didn’t buy his affirmation and looked at me. I said that I was not with them but I explained her query to him in broken Bengali to which he voiced his reassuring affirmation. She then helped them to buckle up and left.
After about 30 minutes I felt heavy panting on the window seat and I could see that the son was feeling uneasy. A sudden trepidation gripped him as he was gulping for air. The palpitation increased every minute and I looked at his father if he had any remedy or medicine to relieve the lad from the anxious situation. But the father was just caressing him and telling him “everything will be fine” in Bengali. I got alarmed as I could sense that everything was not fine and pinged for an air hostess. As soon as she arrived I told her about the traumatic situation we were in and asked for help. Without wasting any time, she announced on the public announcement system repeatedly, “We have a medical emergency. Do we have any doctor onboard?”
I saw a young lady and a middle aged gentleman walk towards us and I got up giving them access to the patient. They checked his pulse and in the meantime two air hostesses brought in a first aid kit and an oxygen administering kit. The doctors discussed something in medical terms and the son was administered oxygen which gradually relieved him from the gasping. Now the doctors started asking me about the medical condition and I had to explain everyone that I was not with them. They asked the father for the medical reports and after going through them the gentleman revealed, “Blood cancer”. It felt like a stab on my heart when I heard it. A young lad in his teens who had his whole life in front of him to live, enjoy and conquer was now fighting for survival. I felt sorry for his father who might have had so many dreams attached to his son which are now on the verge of shattering. As the situation calmed down and I was seated back at my seat, one air hostess came to me and told me to explain the father that he and his son would be detained at New Delhi airport for the day and he wouldn’t be allowed to proceed to Guwahati. A doctor from the airlines company would check and certify if his son is fit to fly again. Once the certification is done, he would be allowed to fly to Guwahati the next day.
When I explained it to him he frowned and said, “Koto taka lagbo? Amra pocket khali. Amra jete hobe (How much money should I pay? My pockets are empty. I have to go).” The moist look in his eyes and his son’s helplessness were enough to let me know that he was in extreme need of money. I thought to myself that before getting down I will hand him a 500 note for his onward journey.
I assured him that everything including his stay in Delhi would be free of cost and he need not pay anything. Though not appeased but he calmed down and started to tell me in entirety as he wanted to let it out to someone to ease his pain. He said, “It all started four months ago when he had problems breathing. I and my wife brought him to Guwahati where they gave him oxygen and kept him alive but could not find the cause of it. They gave medicines but the cure was not to be found. A friend of mine suggested me to bring him to Chennai. When they checked here they found out that his blood has gone bad and he won’t survive long but if the blood of the whole body is changed then he might survive for a few more days. The cost of it was about two lakhs which I didn’t have at that time. So I went back to Dhubri, sold my land, house, cows and the plough and brought him back here for treatment. Now after changing the blood they assured me that he will live for two more months. My wife is staying as a maid in one household in Dhubri. I have Rs. 2000 with me now which I will use to take him to Dhubri but I don’t have a home right now, where will I take him? I don’t know what I will do, how will I live. I have left everything in the hands of Allah.”
I was aghast after I heard his story. I was shamed by a small marginal farmer from the remotest corner of a rural state with his generosity. He had the guts to spend every single thing he had just to grant two more months of existence to his son.
I was embarrassed to the core but still I managed to console him, “Don’t worry brother! God has answer for everything and he would have thought for your wellbeing as you have shown courage in saving your son’s life.”
He cut me short and he didn’t even know the exact word, “He is not my son. He is my wife’s brother.”