Passing On The Baton [#ShortStory]

Ritu grimaced inwardly. “Now why on earth did I, of all people, commit the error of assuming that the surgeon would be male?” she thought.

Ritu grimaced inwardly. “Now why on earth did I, of all people, commit the error of assuming that the surgeon would be male?” she thought.

Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Not A Cinderella”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is,

  • it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
  • who talk to each other
  • on topics other than men or boys.

The first winner of our February 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar.

Passing On The Baton

As a surge of venous blood appeared at the end of the intravenous cannula, Ritu quickly released the velcro tourniquet with practised ease. Her assistant fixed it to the skin with an adhesive patch, removed the metal stylet and started the intravenous drip. They worked smoothly in tandem, their actions part of a preoperative protocol, a prelude to any surgery in the operation theatre.

The patient looked askance at her.“Sister, doctor sahaeb kabhi ayenge? (when will the doctor arrive?)”

Ritu gave her a reassuring smile. The rejoinder of “Main doctor hoon! ( I am a doctor!)” rarely sprang to her lips these days. Inured to such comments after often being mistaken as a nurse due to her gender after over twenty years on the job, Ritu rarely gave it a second thought! Gender neutrality zindabad!

Her assistant was having none of this, however, and said, “Ma’am is a doctor, a specialist in anaesthesia. She will put you to sleep….”

The patient had the grace to look embarrassed.“Oh, she did meet us yesterday…..I just didn’t know…”

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Ritu said in a soothing voice, “Doesn’t matter, Maaji. You just relax”

Soon, the cocktail of intravenous drugs had indeed relaxed her…..the patient in a deep sleep, all her vital parameters including her breathing under Ritu’s control….the monitor beeping away slowly.

The surgical resident, a young man in his twenties, plucked out the X-ray and MRI plates from a folder and thrust them into the viewing box, as was the practice. The patient had a fracture of the forearm bone, the humerus, near her shoulder, result of a fall in the bathroom. Her delicate bones rendered porotic by age, no match for the vicissitudes of gravity and Newton’s Laws, had snapped in a spiral fracture.

The orthopaedic surgeon who would operate today was a recent appointee, called Dr. Sonu Patil, someone who Ritu had never worked with before.

“This looks like a complicated fracture”, Ritu mused as she glanced at the X-rays, hoping that this new surgeon was really skilled.

As positioning of patients for surgery had to be done by the operating surgeons, Ritu did not have to wait long. In walked a petite young woman in her mid-thirties, her eyes gleaming with confidence and thrust her hand towards Ritu.

“Hi. I am Sonu!”

Ritu grimaced inwardly, “Now why on earth did I, of all people, commit the error of assuming that the surgeon would be male?” she thought.

Bemused, Ritu accepted the firm handshake, “I am Ritu.” she answered.

Sonu’s eyes twinkled at her over the surgical mask. “We have met, ma’am. I was your student, way back in my second year of Medical school in Pune. You may not remember me. My name is Sonakshi Patil.”

The name rang a bell in Ritu’s mind. But she chose not to dig deeper. Time enough for the reminiscences, when they had coffee after the case was over. The patient on the operating table came first, as always.

The operation “theatre” as it is called, is no different from any other theatre where a performance is played out, albeit to a very limited audience. But, with far-reaching effect on the life of a single person- the patient. The surgeon plays the central role in this theatre, and his or her skill and personality sets the tone for the atmosphere in the theatre.

Like a conductor of an exquisite opera, Dr. Sonu had now taken charge. Softly rapped instructions, crisp orders and precise requirements were spelled out by Dr.Sonu. In short order, the patient was positioned and the shoulder prepared and draped with sterile towels.

And the surgery began.

By the time the surgery was concluded two and a half hours later, Ritu’s memories were tumbling out .

“Sonakshi!” thought Ritu, marvelling at the confident young woman who had taken centre stage and was acquitting herself brilliantly. She could hardly reconcile this ‘Sonu’ with the image that she had of the painfully shy young girl that she remembered.

The surgery having been accomplished smoothly, the patient, now awake, though slightly sleepy was in the recovery area of the theatre complex.

The lounge for consultants was situated just off the operation theatre. Sonu was waiting there, as Ritu returned from the recovery area.

Two cups of coffee were steaming in their mugs.

“Great to see you, ma’am, after all these years.” said Sonu.

“I remember you, Sonakshi. Sorry that I didn’t earlier. We met during your fifteen-day rotation post in Anaesthesia…..” said Ritu, taking a thoughtful sip of her coffee.“In fact, none of the students were as curious and questioning as you were. You stood out in that group of youngsters.”

“Ma’am, I remember clearly…. you taught us so many things. Not just about anaesthesia, but also about the correct way of wearing gloves. How to wash up for surgery, the concepts of sterility before surgery, the history of Medicine and….ohh…. so many things” said Sonu remembered with a grateful smile.

Flustered and pleased as any dedicated teacher is when a student recalls lessons, Ritu smiled back warmly.

“I love teaching. But I also felt a great interest in your welfare because we both hail from the same district in the Konkan- Ratnagiri. And we share similar backgrounds as well.” Said Ritu.

Sonu said, “Yes. And I remember the lovely modaks that you had brought us one day in your dabba. Far away from home, missing everyone and everything familiar, it was soul-food for me.”

In fact, the recollection of the moment that she had bitten into the modak’s soft white exterior and tasted the rough sweetness of the coconut filling was still so fresh that Sonu felt her eyes sting with tears. Time and again, she had been offered and had eaten more exquisite sweets, but nothing came close to the bite of that taste of home and hearth in the midst of homesickness.

They were both sunk in their memories for a few moments. .

Removing the surgical cap that was habitually worn by all within the operation theatre, Sonu ran her fingers through the short bob-cut on her head.

“Ohh. Sonakshi. You have cut off your long hair! This style suits you though. Practical as well, isn’t it for the demands of a surgical residency and hostel life!” said Ritu.

“Ma’am, I was constantly teased for my poor English, strange accent and oily plaits….” Sonu said, “A few weeks after I was with you, someone applied chewing gum to my hair during class….the damage was irreparable….I had to cut my hair short. And has remained sshort ever since.” Said Sonu in a flat voice.

Familiar with the petty cruelties that are rife in student life from her own experience, Ritu was nevertheless shocked. Medical school puts people of disparate backgrounds together. Organised in the alphabetical order of their surnames, a Ms. Patil from a village with no running water and a cowshed in the frontyard could thus share a dissection table with a Mr. Patil from a tony metropolitan locality with a couple of Audis in his garage. Students who sprinkled Gucci perfume on themselves like water were loath to understand that the body order of the student next to them was often a result of sheer limited number of clothes or the lack of means to wash them regularly.

‘Oh, Sonakshi! ‘ thought Ritu, her throat closing with anguish. ‘Those kids from privileged backgrounds probably never saw past your rustic accent and oiled hair to the brilliant mind that far surpassed their own.’

“How terrible that must have been for you!”said Ritu aloud. “How did you survive this….it does you great credit that you have accomplished what you have!”

Sonu drew in a deep breath. “Ma’am, you know something? I am the first girl in my family who left the village to study in the big, bad city, and the first to be a doctor. The first certainly for miles around to be a surgeon…. My father who had to sell his prize bull to raise the money for my education, cried when he had to take the bull to the market”

Ritu said, “Your family must be proud of you today.”

“Yes”, said Sonu smiling widely. “Even today my mother does not precisely understand what I do, but she proudly tells everyone….my daughter fixes bones…My father refers everyone from the village with a medical problem to me! I see a cataract, a patient with chest pain and sometimes a uterine prolapse ….all in the same week! ”

They shared an amused smile.

Sonu continued. “Ma’am. I had just one goal when I came to Pune….to complete my education and help out my parents. To never let them regret their support for me. Later it became a crusade of sorts….to break every glass ceiling there is and prove all the nay-sayers wrong.”

Ritu nodded. “Hmm..I understand.”

“Yes. I know you do. When I first entered your class, I remember how you had made me feel included, even welcome.”

Ritu said, “Yes, Sonakshi.. The sniggers from the others, their cruel imitation of your accent…their comments …. were all an echo of my own past. It made me indignant and more determined to …. I don’t know….change the future, I guess….prevent history from repeating itself.”

Sonu was smiling now. “You did, ma’am. Your kindness meant the world to me. You became my beacon, reminding me that girls from remote villages can beat the odds…and achieve the impossible. And also to try pass on this understanding to others like me, who may need it.”

Ritu was overwhelmed. What far-reaching consequence from such simple kindness, she thought. She remembered something she had heard a few years ago- ‘Bend a twig on earth and sometimes you stir a distant star.’

Sonu continued, “Those fifteen days with you…. they changed me! You were like Cinderella’s fairy godmother to me. Only you did not change me outwardly and I was certainly no Cinderella.” Sonu laughed lightly. “Instead you gave me something to aspire to….internally….a confidence, a goal, a feeling that none of the negativity around me mattered.”

Ritu smiled at her, “No Sonakshi, that was all you, your effort. I did not need a handsome prince on a charger and neither do you…. We can create our own castles and make our own kingdoms!”

Sonu looked at her in perfect agreement…”Hmmm….Why wait for a glass slipper, Ma’am…… when you can create shoes that are really large to fill???”

Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations! 

Image source: shutterstock

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