Friday, June 30, 2006

“Could I get some water to drink?”

I was thirsty. I was interviewing the father of a family in the Atharamura forest in Tripura, a remote hilly region in northeast India, home to the indigenous Reang community who practice slash-and-burn (jhum) cultivation. As a member of TARU, a development research group, I was leading a multi-disciplinary research team, of architects, civil engineers and anthropologists, to investigate (on behalf of the govt. of India) shelter and drinking water conditions, towards preparing a techno-economic action plan for improvement.

The family I was interviewing lost three children to gastroenteritis, the last one a 15 year old boy, the first in their family to be going through school, who had suffered a slow, painful death. Gastroenteritis was endemic here, especially in the dry seasons, continually claiming young children, and fundamentally on account of the complete absence of basic infrastructure that should have been provided by the govt, despite the huge amounts allocated for this.

After hearing the account, I recall I asked for some water to drink and drank that. I was thirsty. It never struck me that I was doing anything untoward. In a few hours I was very sick ...

I was scheduled to return to Calcutta the next day – to be present for my son Rituraj’s second birthday - and come back a few days later. In Calcutta, I saw a doctor and took a course of medicines for the shigella-like infection. I thought that was over and done with and returned to Tripura. But meanwhile, one of my team-members in Tripura, Sajish, a young civil engineer from Kerala, fell ill. Perhaps malaria, or typhoid. He had been taken to a district hospital in a remote militancy-affected region of the state, and the conditions there – made to lie on the verandah outside the ward, with dogs ferreting in garbage – had shaken him badly, and he was in a sad state.

Sajish returned to the state capital Agartala, and I remained there to look after him while he was admitted to the govt hospital. He was not in a state to travel home. I planned and assigned the field research work, sent off the team to the interior regions for their village surveys (ably managed by my architect/friend Deva), and kept myself busy in Agartala collecting study-related information and reports, meeting officials, academics, coordinating with the field team etc. And every day, in the morning and in the evening, I would visit Sajish at the hospital, carrying food cooked for him from the guest house I had put up in, talking to the doctors and nurses, getting his tests done, buying his medicines, communicating with his family and so on. He was there for 10-12 days before going back home. There he was diagnosed for typhoid, and fortunately recovered his health. (Six years later we were together on another field research mission, just after the super-cyclone hit Orissa.)

But after Sajish left, I fell ill. I developed a very severe allergic condition, with my skin swollen and red, itching like mad, and scratching only made the skin more inflamed and with a burning sensation. Then the joints of my fingers and arms became painfully stiff. It was hellish. I took some anti-allergic pills. I visited the dermatologist at the hospital, who prescribed some medicines. The work in Tripura was also almost complete, and I returned to Calcutta. At home, I consulted an orthopedist, who too prescribed some medicines and tests. The stiffness spread to all my joints, coming and going, now here, now there, until I was in a permanent condition of extreme pain, the whole body throbbing with pain, and barely able to move at all.

In this condition, I lay in bed, one Tuesday afternoon. I was in severe pain and in despair. Suddenly, I remembered Jesus Christ, and then my mind took a turn that it had never taken before.

I slipped, into the embrace of the Almighty. For a few minutes, but which seemed an infinity, in the midst of everyday life and the world, lying, awake, but my eyes shut tight, fully aware of yet oblivious to all this, I was somewhere else, and my whole being thrilled in delight, I exploded in ultimate joy, and inside me I was singing, a child, "I don't have to worry since my Lord's with me. I don't care for nothing since my Lord's with me. O Lord, O Sweetness ..."

That was on 30th November 1993.

The next evening my wife Rajashi took me to our family physician, Dr Narayanan, who immediately diagnosed my condition as “reactive arthritis” and I was admitted to a nursing home for a few days. And it was only after visiting me there that the doctor realised the pain I was suffering and prescribed the anti-arthritic indomethacine pills and also other strong painkillers. In the nursing home, I could hear from the next cubicle the tortured cries of a small boy who had suffered a horrid accident, being hit and dragged by a car. He had been brought to get his dressing changed.

The medicines screwed up my digestion system, leaving me with a burning stomach and cramps, and great discomfort. If I didn’t take them, the painful stiffness returned.

Then my father had a minor cerebral stroke. He had a stroke a year and half earlier, and was on medication. But it was a degenerating condition. He was admitted to a nursing home for a few days. A week or so after he returned home, I left for Delhi in connection with research studies I was engaged in. I was there for a fortnight.

My return train to Calcutta was delayed. I rang home, and spoke to my father. I told him I’d be reaching around noon the next day. He started telling me something about my application to the telephone department for restoring STD facility. I told him we would talk about it tomorrow. He asked: we’ll talk about it tomorrow? I said, yeah, we'll do that.

Arriving at Howrah station, I had a minor fracas with a railway official who held me up for not having booked in the luggage van all the boxes I was carrying (of census reports and the like). I took a taxi and reached home. It was around mid-day. I got down from the taxi to find a small crowd of friends and neighbours gathered in front of the house. My father had been asleep in his bedroom, and the entrance door was latched from within. He was not responding to the knocks and subsequent banging on the door and shouting by the cleaning lady who had come a couple of hours ago. So I had my brother-in-law break into the ground floor with a shove to the entrance door, and we entered to find my father lying in his bed, dead, cold.

His death was the final and most precious gift that my beloved father gave me.

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