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She steadies me and looks at me with a thousand-yard-stare that looks into my soul. Then she stands up and in front of me, protecting me with her body.
The fourth winner of our December 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar.
I walk home from the hospital, my spidey senses tingling (my Marvellian metaphors are updated, thanks to being single parent to a ten year old). The lane is deserted and it is way past my usual time. But these are unusual times after all. The city is under lockdown as bomb blasts have rocked the city. Unusual times call for unusual measures, they say. And, I reflect that it is certainly true of today. It was “all hands on deck” as we –my colleagues and I, have been operating non-stop. Casualties have been wheeled in almost constantly. Hunger, thirst, tiredness, personal grievances, dogmas, privately-held beliefs, religious leanings, political beliefs have all been put aside as we have worked to save those who have needed our help and expertise.
I am exhausted as I have pulled a double shift today. This is compounded by the pint of blood that I donated because there was a dire shortage. The 30 minute walk home is usually quite pleasant and never at this late hour. But as I said, today is unusual. The dichotomy of my life hits me every single time there is a crisis.
Can I be a dedicated surgeon at the cost of being a conscientious mother? My daughter has spent the whole of today with an elderly, ailing neighbour as the babysitter was naturally unable to commute. Also naturally, I have not been able to find a cab, as none seem to be available exactly when I needed them.
So, here I am, having worked like a demon at saving lives, but still ridden with guilt for not having done justice to the life of my child who needs only me to give her succour.
The road is deserted and I walk faster sensing something amiss. I am wearing my white apron from the hospital because I know that it converts me into a unisexual creature and also makes a person to be respected to those who have even a vestige of conscience. But, conversely, to those with no conscience, it makes me an easy target, spottable in the dark, and arms them with the knowledge that my capacity to fight back is dulled due to my white-collar profession.
I hear the voices first. Men. There are three, sounding drunk…at the end of the lane. I stiffen reflexly and walk a little faster. The catcalls, obsecnities and teasing noises are next. They have spotted me! I whip out my phone, and try to call the police….busy…Then, my colleague at the hospital. It rings and rings. I walk on, almost running now. The lane may be deserted, but there are a few doorways that show promise of habitation. I spot a grilled door with a light shining in the window adjacent, and start ringing the bell frantically. I can hear a television, muted quickly. Voices, shuffling footsteps, a child crying… woken by the din and then a female voice.
I feel relief, for here surely is a kindred spirit. It is a woman with a child….someone who could relate to me. She opens her door fearfully, speaking to me from beyond the grill. I beg her… flashing my hospital I.D., explaining that I just need to wait for a few minutes….till they have gone. But alas, her fear and wariness are more powerful than her need to help a woman in need. And, in some corner of my mind, I know that she is right….for I am, but a stranger….and why should she trust me blindly.
I stand there stunned for a moment, and then take off running. They are closer now, laughing at me. The one who appears least drunk, breaks into a run, following me. I turn the corner and fall over something in my path. It is a young woman. She has been sitting with her legs stretched outside her little shanty. From her attire and make-up, it is clear that she is a “lady-of-the-night”. Today she has had no clientiele. And her bad luck has extended to having me, certainly no customer…..but an accidental visitor stumbling over her…and followed closely by some bad news in form of these drunken men.
As I sit up trembling, it takes her but a glance to size up the situation. She steadies me and looks at me with a thousand-yard-stare that looks into my soul. Then she stands up and in front of me, protecting me with her body. As I watch, the man who was following me grinds to a stop. She whips out a knife from her pocket and looks challengingly at him.
The man asks, “Step aside. Who is she to you? (Hat ja…woh teri kaun lagti hai)” His tone is sneering.
“No-one.” She answers, “Perhaps she is my sister from another life. (pichle janam ki behen hai)”
She stands there until the other two come over and stand looking askance.
“The first one to come any closer will get a knife wound in the face.”She says with an confident ease that is chilling.
I whip out my phone and call my colleague. He answers. My conversation in English with the promise of help cuts through their drunken fog and they slink away. I have operated on thousands of men, my patients, all helpless when anaesthetized, and my knife without exception has been wielded for healing. I wonder what makes some of them into such predators under the skin, that they could seek to harm someone helpless or physically weaker. If one of these men were to lie on my operating table someday, would I reciprocate with cruelty?
We sit here, side by side, sisters under the skin. She is trembling, just like I am.
Her trembling reveals how much of her behaviour was just bravado, for my sake. To protect me. A complete stranger.
It is strange how sisters can be a saviours or a strangers or sometimes both.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for December 2019 is this quote from the poem The Princess saves Herself in This One by poet Amanda Lovelace, whose book The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One was selected for the Goodreads Choice Award 2018 for Best Poetry in 2018.
“it is strange
a bit of both.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Moothon
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Hi. I am an anaesthetist by profession living and working in Mumbai.
I truly love
A big thanks to Women’s web for this amazing cue.
The theme is very close to my heart. Working women may empathise as we are always so much at risk when we travel late at night.
As usual, very well written. Not sisters by blood but by circumstance…
Yup. That about sums it up!
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this one fro Ujwala, just like many others before. Her ability to touch some emotional chord within us is uncanny. I have myself often wondered that when we as Doctors just rise up to any situation, irrespective of gender, caste or previous bad experiences with people as patients, why cant the public look at us likewise? The difference being a professional and being (in) human, I guess!
Anyway, kudos to you!
Nicely written Ujwala. Enjoyed reading it!!
This comment was recd on WhatsApp. And written by one of my teachers from med College.
I have taken the liberty of pasting it here.
In Vasai fisherwomen wear saree and choli. The unmarried ones don’t take pallu, so their breast is not covered. But no one dares to go near them. They carry कोयता. It is true that we may be highly educated, having good character but the animal instinct in man makes us vulnerable. Those who are much inferior to us are much fitter to take care of themselves and us. So who is superior? She could easily call you sister, can we do that in her case?
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