This month the life beyond doctors section gives you an engrossing fascinating short story written by our very own senior colleague Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh.
Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh has been a story teller since school days! This story is one among the twenty written for Times of India during 2016-18, in response to an interesting challenge.Each month a well-known author would give one line or paragraph as a 'seed' story line and invite the writers to spin out their own story. In this story the first three paragraphs were given as seed lines by the Times of India. The twenty stories were published in Amazon.Com as Stories for our times-tales of modern India.
The time of our lives
It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend's wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn't know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
Four years back, at the same airport, in the departure lounge, we had made a joint decision not to meet again unless chance or destiny brings us together again at the same spot. We decided to part, cut ourselves loose, severing all attached strings. With heavy hearts we flew away in different directions.
We were ‘college sweethearts’. So sweet that it hurt to think that we were two separate, and different people. When it did not hurt, it frightened the living day lights out of us. What happens if/when love dies? We had barely begun to live and we were petrified by death-of love, affection, understanding, sharing, caring, supporting and being there for each other through pleasure and pain, yet enjoying, relishing, nourishing and cherishing every moment-the time of our lives.
We were leaving the flame of our love behind, leaving its fate to the vicissitudes of life. It might burn along brightly, drawing its energy from our breaths somewhere on this planet or it might curl up in smoke and be extinguished, deprived of its oxygen.
Now that we had met again, by chance or destiny we did not know which for the moment, we had a lot to catch up on, sitting in that airport, waiting for an indefinitely delayed flight.
She talked, I listened. When she finally fell silent I let her stay immersed in her thoughts for several moments. When she blinked, sighed and turned to me, then I chose to tell my story.
We were both doctors. She had always harboured an insatiable curiosity about life and times of people all over the world and wanted to make a personal difference to their lives which made her volunteer for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the Doctors without Borders. I had become a doctor without patients, a researcher into mental mechanisms, anger management and anthropology, the study of man and humankind. It seemed that, from the moment we parted,we had taken different pathsat every crossroad.
Indeed our paths had crossed, or almost, time and again, but without glancing around to know where we were and who else was around, we had continued to take divergent paths.
She had not hesitated when Ebola struck West Africa, decimating thousands of lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. MSF was the first to arrive, act and alert the world about the outbreak that was evolving into an epidemic and was well on its way to strike a hysterical and frightened world as a potential pandemic.
She had toiled day and night, dressed in suits that made her look like a creature from outer space, but she was no alien to disease, distress and danger; she cared tenderly and expertly for patients abandoned by even their own families. She saw in their eyes the fear of the unknown disease that was certain to cause death but her eyes reflected kindness and compassion, and her hands offered care and comfort with confidence and competence.
I never knew what drew me like a magnet to those troubled spots. But now I know. My research team and I had trekked to Meliandou, a remote and nondescript village in Guinea where the outbreak had begun at the foot of a tree that housed in its branches bats, the reservoir of the virus that caused the Ebola fever. The bats had begun to die and fell on the ground. Three-year-old Elba had played on that ground contaminated by the lurking virus and had become sick. The village was beside a major junction on the border of Guinea from where roads led to both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Grieving relatives had come to the funeral, hugged, kissed and washed the tiny body and had then travelled along the roads to the two neighbouring countries carrying the deadly virus, had fallen ill and died soon after. Funeral rituals of rural Africa had carried the virus further and further along till they reached and struck the densely populated capitals-Conakry of Guinea, Free Town of Sierra Leone and Monrovia of Liberia.
Looking back, I recall that I had not feared the virus. There was a song fluttering inside my head and an ache that was making my heart heavy with longing. There often were tears in my eyes for those who lost their lives or family. I also had tears for me, whose life seemed lost. But deep within, I had felt that for some undiscernible reason I had come to the right place at the right time.
I had gone straight from there to the labs at MIT, Massachusetts, to work on the Ebola vaccine. I was hearing a whisper inside my ears ‘Go and do something about this, we need help down here’. At that time I had not known from whom the whisper came. But I was driven by it and made inspired progress at the lab benches.
I could understand a virus that crossed species, from animals to man, and wreaking havoc as Ebola Viral Fever but I found it very difficult to understand the mindless violence in north east Nigeria, to where I was drawn to some months later. In that unstable zone terrorists strapped bombs around uncomprehending children and goaded them to be suicide bombers in crowded markets. I was interested in investigating the mental mechanisms that spawned such terrible violence on fellow human beings. We knew where in the brain music, language, mathematics, laughter, grief and fear originate but we did not know where violence spawned. I was told that MSF, led by a female Indian surgeon, wasbearing the burden of mitigating the never ending stream of horrific injuries stemming from those acts of terrorism. But before I left for Abuja, the national capital, I turned to look at the MSF hospital from the distance. I had felt a racing of the heart, with missed beats that seemed to miss something terribly and an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a void that seemed to indicate that I had lost what was very valuable, what was once near and dear to me.
That feeling returned when I was some months later at the towns and villages that got caught up in violence at the Kenya–Somalia border. During my investigations I only had to look up at the tent hospitals and operating rooms of the MSF along the road to feel that indefinable sense of great loss and abject misery return. Questions such as ‘What have I lost, what/who is missing from my life?’ began to haunt my mind.
It so happened that I was in Paris the day the massacre at Charlie Hebdo happened. So much of hate here? This was the city of love, Seine was the river on which floated barges that carried lovers past the ‘ponts’ that professed and promised ‘eternal togetherness’ for lovers who pledged their affinity and sealed their affection with a kiss as they passed underneath them. The Notre Dame cathedral stands here around which Victor Hugo wove his classic tale about the unrequited love of Quasimodo, the grotesquely deformed hunchback of Notre dame,for the beautiful gypsy La Esmeralda. Humphrey Bogart had whispered to Ingrid Bergman in the last frame of Casablanca: ‘We will always have Paris’. In more recent times, Julia Ormond had wistfully murmured to Harrison Ford in Sabrina:‘We could be happy in Paris’. But I was unhappy, as I looked up at the world headquarters of MSF in Paris and asked myself ’Where love has gone?’
Then came the call to Afghanistan. This was a country that incubated its troubles incessantly. It was also a country where, historically, every intruder, welcome or unwelcome, came to grief. Yet the needs were great and the suffering was enormous. I was invited to coordinate the work of several NGOs in the health care sector which were working at cross purposes. ‘Why me?’ I wondered. But the by now familiar whisper came across the ether” It will be great to have you here”. Nothing could stop me; I packed my bags and set course for the country.
I reached Kunduz on 3 Oct 2015, the day the MSF hospital was ‘mistakenly’ strafed and bombed by American Forces. Fourteen medical staff, 24 patients and 4 caretakers died that day, many staff were injured and the only hospital for the town was destroyed.
While engrossed in my work, tales of great bravery, dedication and sacrifice on part of the hospital staff came wafting over the air and permeated the room. Increasing anxiety began to seep into my mind and that sense of great loss began to tug at my heart. Also a great burden of irresponsibility and guilt began to descend on, envelop and smother me.
I left Afghanistan deeply troubled, devastated and depressed.
On that fateful day at Bengaluru airport, when she turned to me, her height, hair and complexion intact, I sensed instantly that nothing else was. Afghanistan had spared her life but damaged her greatly.
I reached and held her scarred and deformed hands. Hands that were once cream colored and glowing, with fingers slender and long, hands that I had not long ago held with great joy, pride, affection and admiration as I swung her around on the dance floor, were now the hands of a surgeon who healed so many with dexterity and dedication but were now bruised and burnt by man’s inhumanity to humankind.
I knew that if I also looked up at her face at the same time I would hurt her, which, for the life of me, I would never do again.
Holding her hands gently I said ‘During the last four years I was often at this airport, hoping to see you return’.
Her eyes, downcast since our conversation began, rose to meet mine.
I looked deep into her eyes, put my hands on her shoulders, drew her to me and hugged tightly’I know you belonged to the world for some time. But for now, and for the hereafter, you are and will be all mine. I am not going to let go of you’.
Article by Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh
Group Medical Director