One afternoon in December 1991, I got a phone call at work from my father-in-law, to tell me that my wife’s grandmother – his mother-in-law – had passed away. He asked me to come down to her house when I could. Grandma was over 80, she’d had a long, eventful life, with many years of hardship and struggle as a young widow with 8 children, as well as several more nieces and nephews she brought up. But she had lived to see all her offspring, and several of her many grandchildren, all do very well in life in every way. My wife was close to her and so I too became acquainted with her through accompanying my wife on visits to her house and to family functions and get-togethers. Grandma had been ailing, and had been in hospital for a few days.
I wound up my work at office and went to her house. My office, Grandma’s house, my in-laws house, as well as the rented apartment I lived in until recently, were all very close to one another, around Gariahat in south Calcutta. When I reached the house in Dover Lane, my wife’s uncles were there. Her body arrived from the hospital. Then eldest uncle told me that Grandma had donated her eyes and instructed her family to see to this. She had passed away around noon. The corneas had to be removed within a few hours. It was already late afternoon. Could I do what was necessary?
I accepted the task and immediately set off, taking a taxi. A friend of mine had been involved in mounting a campaign for body and organ donation, and had managed to get the govt’s support through an order that all the 4 medical college hospitals in Calcutta would receive bodies and collect organs for transplant. I had assisted and participated in his work off and on. So it was just a question of going to the nearest medical college and arranging the collection of the corneas.
I headed towards the National Medical College, near Park Circus. In the usual slow moving traffic, it took a while to get there. I kept the taxi waiting and went into the hospital complex. I had never been here before Any public hospital in Calcutta – a scene of chaos and crowds. Its difficult to make any sense of what is where. No one to ask for help. One is always directed somewhere else. I finally reached the ophthalmology department and found someone to enquire from, only to learn that there was no arrangement for receiving corneas here.
Time was ticking away. The corneas had to be removed quickly otherwise it would be futile. Back to my taxi. I headed towards the Nilratan Sarkar Medical College. I had been there once, for an investitgation by the head of ENT, thanks to my landlady's grandson who was a medical student there. It was not so far off, in Entally. But the traffic was bad now, as it was the beginning of the evening office rush. I reached the hospital complex and kept the taxi waiting. Another scene of even more chaos and crowds. These were supposed to be hospitals, but it was anything but a sterile, hygienic, organised, quiet atmosphere. Again multiple enquiries, again the same frustration, and finally again to a doctor in the ophthalmology department, again only to learn that this hospital too did not receive corneas. I vented my frustration, asserting the govt’s announcement that all the medical college hospitals would receive this. I was told that the reality was that there were no arrangements for this, and that I should go to the Calcutta Medical College, which was the only place with the set-up.
Back again to my taxi. The Calcutta Medical College was a huge complex, it was going to be even more chaotic there. I remembered visiting my university professor many years ago, when he was there for surgery. I had gone to the hospital unit close to the Central Avenue entrance. That had been somewhat more sane and organised. So I headed towards that place.
The Calcutta Medical College was spoken about in reverential terms in my home as I was growing up, with my two aunts and an uncle having studied there before going to England where they settled down and practiced. On one of his visits to Calcutta during my university days, my uncle had taken me on a tour of the college where he had studied and shown me around. I felt the awesome grandeur and gravity of the institution that I had grown up hearing so much about.
It was the peak of the office rush, and I was now in the heart of the city. The traffic was terrible, the vehicles barely moving, just crawling along between long periods of waiting at traffic signals and unending hold-ups. Time was ticking away. I was on the edge, in a rage. That was it. Grandma’s eyes were going to be lost. And I was not going to be able to do anything about it. I went into a panic. I was trembling. Terror seized my heart. My breath broke into sobs and gasps, my voice a distraught bleat, my eyes brimming over and my face melting in grief. No! No! This cannot happen. I have to do it. I just had to flinch and wince and grimace and grit and go on and do it. I accepted the worst. But I was going to see this thing through.
The taxi eventually reached the Central Avenue entrance of Calcutta Medical College. I rushed and ran into the hospital, running from one place and person to another. Things seemed a bit better here. I was directed to an RMO, he was in his room. I ran there, he was not there, I found someone. Shouting and speaking at machine-gun speed I communicated the urgency of the matter. Hearing the shouting, the RMO appeared from somewhere. I said someone’s eyes had to be removed, very quickly, it was almost too late, I had gone from place to place and only been turned away. I shouted out all my anger and frustration. The RMO immediately took control of the situation. He asked me to calm down and said he would do what was necessary. He said there was still time to collect the corneas. He asked me for the address and said the people who would collect Grandma’s eyes would go there at once. He said I could leave and I should not worry.
I was immediately calmed and reassured. I went back to my waiting taxi and the driver who had accompanied me through the whole ordeal. After all the rushing and running and rage and edginess and panic and terror – I felt drained, giddy and exhausted. I collapsed into the seat. It took a while for gladness and satisfaction to sink in. I was pleased. I felt a deep sense of contentment. I returned to Grandma’s house in Dover Lane.
I reported to the people there that it had been more difficult than I had anticipated and that it had looked like I was going to fail, but I was eventually able to do what was necessary. The eyes would be collected soon. And sure enough, soon thereafter, a team arrived in an ambulance, with the special container for the eyes. We were impressed by their serious, brisk and efficient manner. They asked us to vacate the room where Grandma lay. They emerged after a few minutes, with their precious booty. And Grandma’s eyes were covered over with cotton wool.
If I’m not wrong, I think I did later learn that Grandma’s corneas had been put to use for two people.
Several years later, I was narrating this incident to my friend Achinto, acting out the whole thing, re-living that experience. And I concluded by saying: I did it! Because of me, two blind people got sight. Who can give sight to the blind? Only God. So I was God! But what exactly happened? It was Grandma’s pledging of her eyes. It was her family’s desire to fulfil her wish. It was their entrusting me with the responsibility. It was my fierce determination to do this, come what may. It was my persistence, despite all the hindrances and frustrations. It was my having stared at the face of failure and swallowed the terror and pressed on. And it was because of one person, who finally owned up to the responsibility and arranged for the eyes to be taken. All this together - that is God. That is what is immensely powerful, capable of working miracles.
When my life is over, I can go with the small satisfaction that whatever else I might have done or not done in life - I did try my very best to fulfil Grandma’s wish to give sight to others, and I was fortunate to succeed. And so my life would not have been entirely worthless.
Grandma was always knitting something for somebody. She had made me a soft, thin flesh-coloured sweater. And I had always worn that at home in winter, and also as an inner vest whenever I visited any cold place. I’ve worn it for almost 20 years now. Some years ago, it was washed improperly and became stretched, mis-shapen, faded and somewhat coarse. But I still wore it. I was recently searching for it and couldn’t find it. Becoming absent-minded with age, I wasn’t certain whether I hadn’t given this away – maybe to the gardener or someone like that. Then I found it, hidden from sight among a pile of things in a cupboard. Was I was relieved and glad! It would be a terrible thing if I lost it. For me that sweater made by Grandma is like chain mail, something to protect me.