It was the night of 16 November 1992. We had celebrated my son Rituraj’s first birthday three days ago. That had been a grand affair, a very happy occasion of thanksgiving and sharing one's joy with relatives and friends, for being blessed with an angelic child.
I was in bed, Rituraj was sleeping beside me. My wife had left that evening on an out-station trip in connection with her work.
I was awakened in the dead of night by the sound of something like coughing. It was Rituraj. I jumped out of bed and turned the light on. There was something the matter with him. A strange sound emanated from his throat, a terrifying hoarse croaking-choking-coughing-gasping kind of sound. I could see he was having difficulty breathing. And when he got some breath he was crying or trying to cry, but only that frightful sound came out. I tried to give him a drink of water from his bottle, but he was unable to swallow.
Terror seized my heart. Oh my God! He is dying! I imagined he had someting like tetanus and was going to die in front of my eyes. What am I going to tell Rajashi when she returns?
I had no clue whatsoever about what might be the problem. I tried to calm him, by talking to him, saying soothing things, stroking his head. But seeing his condition I only sank deeper into panic.
I opened the doors. Rituraj’s nanny Pratima had heard the sounds and woken up. I went down to the ground floor, where my father lived and woke him up. His maidservant Archana also woke up. I told my father Rituraj seemed to have taken ill. I brought the baby downstairs and laid him on my father’s bed. But he too was clueless, and his helplessness was evident. So I realised it was up to me now to do something.
It was early winter in Calcutta. I wrapped Rituraj in his blanket and asked Pratima to carry him, and we set out for the emergency doctor’s clinic a few minutes walk away. On the way, in the desolate lane was a cow. As we passed it, Rituraj saw the cow from his place on Pratima’s shoulder and, as he was wont to do, said “Hamba”. That was his baby-word for “cow” (from it’s mooing). This only made it all the more poignant for me, but it also heartened me somewhat, that he must be alright.
We reached the emergency clinic – to discover that it was closed down. Back home again. It was close to 3 am. I dug out his paediatrician Dr Radha Narayan’s telephone number and called. After a while, she picked up the phone. I introduced myself, apologised for calling her at this unearthly hour, and explained Rituraj’s condition. She said it sounded like a case of chest congestion and gave me the names of certain medicines, including a broncho-dilator. I noted this down. I left Rituraj in the care of my father and Pratima and Archana, grabbed my wallet and set out, on my bicycle, to the 24-hours medicine shop, about 2 kms away.
Cycling at breakneck speed in the silent, still, desolate, cold night, I reached the shop. It was closed. I decided to try at another place I recalled, half a km away. I found that too closed. My panic and despair grew. I decided to go to another shop, quite a distance away, which I knew would definitely be open. In my state, I became disoriented and lost my sense of direction. I stopped an empty taxi passing by and asked the driver the way.
I was sobbing as I peddled. I knew that I was merely going through an act, of appearing to be doing something, when in reality I was simply avoiding and escaping witnessing my son's death. As far as I could see, when I returned I was going to find Rituraj gone. Oh the horror and despair of that! I wailed plaintively in my grief. How cruelly fate was mocking me with such a blow. I remembered all the unconscionable things I did habitually. No! No! Anything but that! Anything to avert that! And nothing was too high a price for that.
And then for the first time in my life, I turned to prayer. I sobbed out the mantra my father had once shared with me. Make my son well, oh Lord, I prayed, and extract any price from me. Take my life oh Lord, but spare him. I tried to shut out all other thoughts and simply utter the prayer. When I observed myself like this – it only heightened my despair. But in that desolate dead of night, there was no one to see me, I was all alone, and I kept uttering the prayer and peddled on, as if by this very act of will I could reverse fate.
I finally reached the medicine shop, found it open, got the prescribed medicines and headed back homewards. I kept uttering the prayer audibly, and tried to shut out any other thoughts, shut out the remembrance of the terror.
I reached home. Everyone was waiting or me. Pratima and Archana had somehow managed to put Rituraj to sleep on my bed. I woke him up and gave him the medicines, and patted him to sleep again. And I lay down beside him, watching over him until I too dozed off. My sleep was disturbed. In my dreams the horrid sound from Rituraj’s throat kept coming. I dreamt he was well again.
I woke up at dawn and after giving Rituraj another dose of the medicines, rang up my father-in-law and told him what had happened. I said I was bringing Rituraj over right away. I took him there in a taxi. My in-laws had called Tutul, a medical student who lived nearby, who was a close friend of the family. We went right away to a friend of his, Atom, a paediatric intern, who lived nearby.
Atom examined Rituraj. He told us that he had a bad chest congestion. The phlegm had congealed in his chest. And as a result there was also an infection. He said it was fortunate that he had been diagnosed right now. It might otherwise have been too late and quickly led to pneumonia. He prescribed a more precise set of medicines. Rituraj was unwell, but he was going to be alright after a few days.
After the night’s experience – I felt drained. But the whole day I was giddy with relief and gladness. A week later Rituraj was fully recovered. And after my wife returned, I told her what had happened.
When I am in any kind of personal difficulty or unhappiness – I sometimes remember Rituraj’s survival that night. And I remember that I will gladly pay any price, bear any kind of personal pain for the rest of my life, for that gift of his life.
As a ten year old, I had learnt in school that the Mughal emperor Babur, had prayed for his son Humayun’s life when he was very ill, and exchanged his life for his son’s. Something like that happened with me as well. About a year after Rituraj's respiratory condition, I was very ill, having come down with reactive arthritis consequent to gastroenteritis. My father had suffered a mild cerebral stroke earlier, and in the altered mental state induced by that condition he thought I was dying. He prayed for exchanging his life for mine. I recovered. Shortly after that my father passed away, suddenly, in his sleep.
When Rituraj was about seven, on the way back after a short holiday in the Lakshwadip islands (off the south-western coast of India), he and I made a quick trip to my grandmother’s village, in Thodupuzha, in the state of Kerala. This was now a bustling municipal town. We went to the house of my grandmother’s cousin, and after a few seconds of introduction-explanation, we were welcomed. That evening we went to the ancient Krishna temple in Thodupuzha. The deity there had been my grandmother’s companion and solace all her life.
The new place, the new topography, the new culture, the new people around, the new traditional village house – perhaps because of all this, a transformation had taken place in Rituraj. I was struck by how angelic he had become. And when Rituraj wore a dhoti (a wrap-around lower garment) to go to the temple – all the people in the house felt Krishna himself had visited their home!
I went to the temple again that night, as the closing rituals were being performed. I took a walk around the temple. This was where my grandmother had been born and grew up, the place where my father had been born. This place represented the cultural roots of my family. I had come here 23 years earlier, to attend a marriage. Now it seemed to me to be the culmination of all my journeys and all my learning. It was the centre of the world. The temple, its layout, the layout of the town around the temple, all seemed to suggest a deep symmetry and pattern.
On this visit to Thodupuzha, I learnt that this temple was famed for healing sick children. The deity in the temple represented the infant Krishna, who had just fought off the attack by the monstrous bird Bakasura. I was told that besides bringing the sick children to the temple, even praying to the deity from faraway saved the children.
A couple of years ago, Mike Davis, a friend in Melbourne, had come on holiday to Calcutta with his wife and two daughters. He was staying with Mahadev, a common friend. I went to meet them. Mike’s younger daughter, who was about six years old, was quite unwell. They had all returned from a trip where she had caught some kind of infection, and had a high fever. They had seen a doctor then, and medication was being taken. But the symptoms persisted. And they had to catch their return flight later that night. The parents were very anxious and distraught.
I could not bear to see the parents’ agony. So I immediately phoned my boys’ paediatrician and told her I was coming with a little girl who was unwell. And I set off with Mike and his wife and daughter. The doctor examined the girl, prescribed some medicines, and assured the parents that she could travel and that they should not worry.
After many hours of the anxiety gnawing away at them – that cloud over the terrified parents was lifted. I was happy I had been able to help. On the way back to Mahadev’s apartment, I shared with them the stories of Rituraj’s illness when he was one, of Babur and Humayun, of my father and me, and of the temple in our village which was famed for healing sick children.
Doing all one can to help sick children, whether one’s own or anyone else’s, whatever the cost – I think that is one of the most important things in life. This is what led me, in 1996, to start working in the slums of Howrah, where the infant mortality rates are disproportionately high. But sadly, owing to utter collapse of governance at the grassroots, this is not something where one's personal efforts bring any kind of positive result.