Fiction

Return of a Favor

by Sreelekha Chatterjee

The taxi came to a screeching halt, intruding on the flow of my thoughts.

“We have reached, sir.” The driver said, observing me in the rear-view mirror.

I looked out the window. The white three-storeyed house stood before me in its usual glory on the bright May afternoon, as I regarded the building with considerable curiosity. Not much had changed since I last visited the place, about five or six years ago. I noticed the white signboard fixed on the balcony of the first storey which read “Good Health Hospital,” painted in red. A fat security guard was sitting at the entrance, outside the main black wrought-iron gate. He saluted me habitually and opened the gate as I stepped out of the taxi. An ambulance was parked right in front of the building instead of my grandmother’s car. Turning from the broad avenue towards the house, I absorbed the satisfying image of the familiar floral designs on the main gate, the long white-walled passageway that led to the second door opening to the inside of the house. My grandmother would always be there at the front gate to receive me whenever I visited. The well-accustomed smiling face wasn’t there to greet me.

“Why did my grandmother decide to convert the house into a hospital?” The question hovered in my mind, with the same unfathomable, passive abnegation that presided when I first learned about her decision.

I walked in and reached the reception-area-cum-admissions office in the middle of the corridor on the ground floor. A pleasant-looking lady was sitting behind the desk, her eyes fixed on a computer screen before her. The lingering smell of some antiseptic cleaner wafted in the air while my gaze swivelled over to the set of five to six chairs kept at one corner of the corridor. Three or four people had occupied the seats. One elderly man was letting out harsh, hacking coughs intermittently. All of them had their eyes set on the five-cabin doors that had nameplates of doctors with their area of expertise – cardiologist, gynaecologist, dentist, orthopaedic, ENT specialist – on them. There were individual rooms for the doctors attending the patients, I thought to myself. Probably the outdoor patients were waiting to be examined by the doctors for their respective diseases.

“I would like to meet Dr. Anil Saha. My name is Sants, I mean Santanu.” I said with some impatience. Everyone – especially my colleagues and friends in the US – called me Sants.

“He is expecting you. His cabin is on the ground floor, room number G4, the one to your extreme left.” She raised her eyes inquisitively while pointing toward the room at the other end of the corridor.

“Thanks.”

My eyes were drawn toward the room with Anil uncle’s name on it. Suddenly I noticed a middle-aged man – disheveled hair, dull brown complexion, pale with no animation in his features, clad in white kurtapyjamas – seated at the corner and watching me intently. Seeing me proceed towards Anil uncle’s cabin, he got up from his seat and sprinted towards me, while the clacking of his slippers could be heard breaking into the silence of the corridor.

“I have to meet… doctor saab… urgently,… please.” He stammered, casting a look at me with melancholic eyes, while the other people seated at the corner looked on in silence.

“My sister is seriously ill. She has to undergo surgery… a tumour in the abdomen that needs to be removed immediately. I am an ordinary auto driver and do not have the money required for the surgery.” The man paused for a moment, almost breathless and flustered, while tears were welling up in his eyes. “They said that the operation and post-surgical care will cost around three lakh rupees.” He rejoined, pausing for a moment while observing the awkward, unpleasant expression on my face.

I lowered my eyes to hide the intrusive, unspoken questions that kept surfacing, making me thoroughly uncomfortable, and arising various suspicions out of a view to distrust the intent of the doctors who were handed over the responsibilities of the hospital. I wondered whether the decision to change the house into a hospital was worth it. I had to find out on my own. I moved aside. Just as I was about to advance towards Anil uncle’s room, a middle-aged gentleman – tall, clean-shaven, peppered hair, golden-rimmed spectacles, broad shoulders with a stethoscope around his neck – walked out. He was wearing a loosely-fitted green shirt, inside an unbuttoned white coat, and black trousers.

“Hello, Santanu! So nice to see you after a long time…” He blurted out smilingly, holding my eager look.

At first I couldn’t recognize him, but he seemed to be familiar. Then I recalled that he was Anil uncle himself.

On seeing Anil uncle, the man rushed towards him and fell onto his feet. “Please help me doctor saab.” He kept on repeating himself, turning his face intermittently upward to glance at him.

“I am working on it.” Anil uncle said while pulling up the man, helping him to stand on his feet. “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” He assured with an unusual depth of divination while fidgeting with his stethoscope. “Please give him a glass of water.” He told the lady at the reception.  

“Come, wait over here.” The lady pointed to the direction in which the seats lay at the corner. “I will ask someone to get you some water.” The man followed her obediently, wiping the tears that were falling on his cheeks, and sauntered towards the seat.

Anil uncle turned towards me with a smile on his face, stroking his hair. “I will show you around. You must be excited to see the place. This is the first time you have come after the house has been transformed into this hospital, just as Usha aunty, your grandmother, desired. I wish your parents were here as well.”

“They couldn’t make it this time.”

“Doctor saab!” A nurse in a white uniform interposed while running up to him. She paused for breath and continued, impatiently, “Please come to room number I3, the patient is not feeling well.”

“Uncle, please carry on.” I motioned towards the open door of that floor. “I will look around all by myself. After all, it was my house at one point of time.”

“Alright. Your Seema aunty isn’t here today or else she would have showed you around. Please go ahead and let me know if you need anything.”

 

I slipped out of the corridor. My grandmother used to live on the first floor, the ground floor and second floor were rented out. I moved towards the stairs. Everyone used to say that our staircase was huge and it had some space in the middle. I noticed that a lift had taken up the central space. It must be for the doctors and patients, I presumed. I climbed the stairs, the ones on which I had always dashed up and down as a child without giving much attention to the glass window that stood midway, harbouring mild sunlight and opening up to the familiar pink-colored neighboring house.

On reaching the first floor, I landed straight into the corridor. A group of nurses were standing near a round table somewhere in the middle. Unlike the ground floor, there weren’t any seating arrangement in that part of the floor. The individual room at one end of the corridor was once my grandmother’s kitchen, the hall used to be the dining area. The door of the kitchen, no longer the room for culinary activities, was closed; probably, the nurses’ room. I thought I would have to deal with a surge of unhappiness on seeing the five rooms renovated into hospital wards, as it was the first floor where I had spent my childhood days with my grandmother. Surprisingly, nothing of that sort happened, though it felt as if I was a stranger seeking his way. The odour of a sanitizer or disinfectant floor cleaner mingled with the scent of get-well-soon flowers spilled in the surrounding. The wards seemed to be spacious, clean, bright and welcoming, the expansive windows letting the sunrays in, as were the rooms when my grandmother lived there, full of sunlight and positive energy. Almost all the wards were occupied as I noticed while passing by the doors, each in numbered order – the privacy screen or curtain pulled over somewhere, a nurse examining a patient’s record sheet at another, a care giver adjusting a saline drip, a guardian taking care of a patient in the absence of a nurse, and a doctor checking the pulse rate of a patient. I could hear the sound of low-volumed TV or radio, muffled voices and beeps of heart-beat monitors, cries of patients being injected with medicine or perhaps groans of patients in pain. I recalled how much I dreaded the needle as a child and created a ruckus whenever I had to be injected with any medicine. Several of our fear inhabited our mind, and perhaps the hospital was one such place where we got intimidated on realizing them.

  As a child, almost after every one or two years, I visited my grandmother who stayed alone in that house in New Delhi. My grandfather passed away when my dad was a teenager. Bereft of any sort of support, she raised my dad singlehandedly.

At one point of time, my parents had insisted that my grandmother should sell the house and join them in the US, but under the pretext of certain reservations she refused to go there. I accompanied my parents on every single visit till I was sixteen. Thereafter, the visits reduced with time and it so happened that we came to see my grandmother only once after every five or six years. Eventually, I had mostly been on solo trips to New Delhi, as my parents were unable to travel that frequently due to health-related ailments. On one occasion, about two years ago, my grandmother was very ill and at that time Anil uncle and Seema aunty, who were doctors and also her neighbor, had taken good care of her.

I walked towards the balcony. It was perhaps the most spacious balcony that I had seen in my life, about 20 feet long and 5 feet wide. The once-open balcony was then entirely covered with corrugated plastic sheets diffusing the luminous afternoon light. Probably two or three counters were set up where a couple of men and women, each wearing navy blue top and trousers, were present; probably the health workers and attendants, I assumed. A few people were discussing something with them in a hushed tone, while they were busy sending out directions on the intercom.

I recalled with pleasure those instances when my grandmother and I used to spend the cold wintry afternoons on the balcony with the sunrays warming us. We would arrange the cane mat on the floor of the balcony. My grandmother always sat on her haunches while I would mostly lie down and lay my head on her lap. At times our afternoon sessions were accompanied by devouring tepid peanuts that we purchased from the hawkers that went by. Stroking my hair, my beguiling grandmother would narrate the same story over and over again, a Japanese folktale about a crane’s return of a favor to a man – reconditioned with her love and innocence of my childhood. I insisted on listening to the same story all the time, indulging in the blissful happiness of the moment. On every occasion, we pretended as if she was narrating it for the first time. I would listen to it with great interest, watching the expressions on her round face with large black eyes, while wisps of her curly, black, and grey hair would fall back and forth on her forehead due to vigorous head movement. Even in my early thirties, I could still feel the strange yet comforting acuities of the excitement of those times under the spell of her enchanting account.

A long time ago, an old couple lived an underprivileged life, associated with economic drawbacks. Burdened with drudgery, the man used to gather firewood from the nearby hills, and the woman wove cloth at her loom. One day as he was returning from the hills, he found a white crane in a trap. A bout of compassion overwhelmed him on seeing the birds suffering. He then freed the bird from the shackles of its misery.  A few days after the incident, a good-looking young woman came to visit them. She started staying with the old couple and took great care of them. Expressing her desire to weave some cloth, she went inside a room and asked them not to peek to check what she was doing. After three days, she emerged with a gorgeous, fine cloth and asked them to sell it at the nearby market. The old man vended the cloth at a handsome price. The young woman did the same thing for a second time and the couple earned a lot of money, relieving them to a certain extent from the burden of hardship that had become a part of their lives. The old couple asked the young lady to weave a cloth for the third and final time to which she agreed. But curiosity got the better of them as they wondered what she was weaving behind the closed door for three days at a stretch, and thus, peeked into the room. To their astonishment they discovered a white crane plucking its own feathers with its beak and weaving a magnificent fabric. It was the same white crane that the old man had saved from the trap. My grandmother would always pause at that point and utter a deep sigh. I remembered having seen her eyes glistening with tears. She would quickly wipe her eyes with the edge of the pallu of her handloom sari that she wore most of the time. I was too young to comprehend whether it was the tragedy from the story that moved her or perhaps an emotional outpouring due to the burden of her solitary life; deterred by some natural sorrow, pain, or grievance that belonged to the obscure realms of her life.

“Why did my grandmother wish to convert her house into a hospital?” I murmured under my breath, as I moved away from the lingering confrontation of intense reminiscence. Closing my eyes with the palm of my hand, I tried to get rid of the question which had been somewhat burdensome and made a permanent home in my mind. The inner darkness was frightening, and suffocating. I opened my eyes and shifted irritably from the balcony.

Taking the flight of steps, I reached the second floor of the building. There were the Operating Theatre, Intensive Care Unit, X-ray room, and a general ward on that floor. The sound of a squeaky wheelchair came from somewhere behind the closed doors and the clanking of the computer keyboard could be heard along with the noise of life-saving electronic machines monitoring patients’ vital signs. A man seated behind a desk at the corner of the corridor kept glancing at me occasionally.

A group of people was standing near the ICU. They were discussing something among themselves in muffled voices. I strained my ears in an attempt to listen to their conversation.

“Anil doctor saab is an angel. He has saved our son’s life.”

“The hospital didn’t charge a single penny. We don’t know how we would repay his kindness.”

I surmised that the patient’s family members were happy with the services provided by the hospital. Heartened and relieved on knowing that the hospital had shown considerable kindness to its patients, there was no room left for the doubt that had misled my notions at the beginning and also, simultaneously dismissing the possibility that any sort of calumny could spring. A brief wave of melancholy struck me as I found them thanking Anil uncle alone but my grandmother was the one who had insisted on converting the building into a charitable hospital and had given away her savings for its sake, entrusting the sole responsibility with Anil uncle. A smile brushed past my lips as the realization dawned on me that my grandmother wanted to return the favor to the society that she had received from her neighbors, Anil uncle and Seema aunty, when she was seriously ill. But she wanted to be the one who wouldn’t let anyone know about it. The thought that had been consistent in my mind for so long shrivelled up in the magnanimity of my grandmother’s selfless deed.

The last part of the folktale was heartbreaking. A brief moment after the old couple had observed the crane weaving in the room, she came out with a beautiful cloth. A feeling of pathos emerged whenever my grandmother reached the final stage of the story, draping the moment in a gloomy, tragic attire. As a moment’s incomprehension led the old couple to disregard their promise of not watching her weave the cloth, she left them forever. The crane was present with the resolve to repay the act of kindness that the old man showered on her by releasing her from the hunter’s trap. Letting out a plaintive cry, the young woman transformed back into the crane and flew away. My septuagenarian grandmother did something similar, as she didn’t wish to be acknowledged for the kindness she had shown to innumerable people. She had the courage to accord herself her particular form of existence, a voluntary decision to reside in an old age home for the rest of her life and leave the comfort of her home to those who needed a helping hand through the service of the doctors.  

About the Author:

Sreelekha Chatterjee lives in New Delhi. Her short stories have been published in various national, international magazines and journals like Femina, Indian Short Fiction, eFiction India, The Criterion, The Literary Voyage, World of Words, Writer’s Ezine and Estuary, and have been included in numerous print and online anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul series (Westland Ltd, India), Wisdom of Our Mothers (Familia Books, USA), and several others.

You can connect with her on Facebook at facebook.com/sreelekha.chatterjee.1/, on Twitter @sreelekha001, and Instagram @sreelekha2023.

 

6 Comments

  1. Beautiful story. Well written.

  2. Very thoughtful and lovely. As always, beautifully written T :)

  3. Beautifully penned down Sreelekha…as usual flawless writing…superb !!