The month was September; the year 1983. There had been a mining disaster in the Jharia coalfield and Dhanbad's hotel rooms were taken up with reporters and PR men from Coal India. Quite possibly, the Bonanza was the best hotel. I remember I shared a room with the Statesman's Ranchi correspondent but otherwise my memory of those days is fuzzy; the time of clarity comes a few days later, when pain made the minutes stand out sharp. I remember the pithead of the Jharia mine like something out of 1920s South Wales, and a restaurant, possibly known as the best restaurant in Dhanbad, which was an outpost of something grander in Calcutta with a name like Trinca's. On my last evening, I went to the house of a young Anglo-Indian family where the children were encouraged to call me 'uncle'. One of the children was called Ashley.
Then I took the train: not a through train, but the Damodar Express, which began in Dhanbad and ended in Patna and spent the whole night toiling over 150 miles (Here Be Dacoits—lock the door). When I think of this train—its place of origin and its place of arrival—I think how intrepid I must have been, and for what? I was going to Patna to try to find the lawyer who had represented (and eventually freed) a man who had spent 30 years in jails and lunatic asylums for the crime of being found without a ticket on the Assam Mail.
In Patna I went to a hotel, then to the law courts, then back to the hotel. In the evening I ate chicken and pineapple in the hotel's Chinese restaurant. In the night I awoke with a pain in my stomach. For several hours I wrongly blamed the chicken and pineapple, though the pain was stubborn rather than nauseous. No amount of aspirin and warm tea would make it go away. In the morning it grew worse. I didn't show up to two appointments with Patna journalists, and in the evening they came to see me. Janak Singh of the Times of India and Yuvraj Ghimire, then with Sunday magazine: I owe these two men a great deal. Both summoned doctors. The first doctor felt around my belly a little and diagnosed possible colitis, with a hot water bottle resting on the stomach as the remedy.
I should go to hospital. The question was, which hospital? Janak Singh said, "If you go to Patna Medical College, you may never come out alive." He went to his office and telephoned Subhash Chakravarty, his paper's Delhi bureau chief. Subhash said, thunderously, "You must tell the civil surgeon that if this man dies, questions will be asked in the Lok Sabha itself!" And so I was found a place at Kurji Holy Family Hospital, a Christian foundation on the banks of the Ganges. An Ambassador car came to collect me the next morning—I'd now been whimpering and turning over and over in my bed for thirty hours—and every pothole in the road made me wince.
At the hospital, I lay down on a cot. Yuvraj took the one opposite. I barely knew him but for the next 24 hours he stayed with me. I felt faintly embarrassed that this kind stranger should see me so sick and helpless. A surgeon, Mr Banerjee, came to see me. Injections were given. I began to vomit often and copiously. A night passed, and then I was wheeled through the hospital to the surgery where a Filipino anaesthetist, giggling to her helper, shaved off my pubic hair. Then came the theatre, Mr Banerjee again, more injections...nothing.
I woke up in the dark. I sometimes think about this scene: the utter blackness and the sounds of men—I think they were always men—moaning and whimpering around me. One or two, I later realised, were dying. I was in the windowless intensive care ward. Worse than that, I was in the windowless intensive care ward during a powercut, as it hit the Kurji Holy Family Hospital just as it did the rest of Patna. Sometimes a nurse would pick up a telephone, perhaps to summon help or ask advice, and then, finding it dead, would give a small shout and bang it down again. Perhaps two days went by like this, of my knowing and then not knowing where I was, until the moment came when I saw a woman standing by my bed and realised after a minute or two that she was my wife, who had flown from London. A newspaper account would have read: "She flew three thousand miles to be at his bedside." I was too dazed to weep.
Mr Banerjee said, "You are lucky. You have been very ill, you know. Your appendix had burst. I was worried about peritonitis. You were vomiting even during the operation itself."
Slowly, I recovered. I got a room with a view of the Ganges and watched country boats with their rough brown sails move up and down the river. On the far bank, men towed them against the current with a rope. I watched this living, toiling world with a new respect and affection.
Drips and tubes were removed, the wound washed, dressings replaced. The nurses were South Indian Christians—it struck me with great force then how wrong Nirad Chaudhuri was to deride the strong streak of social compassion in Christianity. That was its great weakness as a religion according to him; a view even he would have found it hard to sustain from a mission hospital bed. The nurses began to bring food, first eggs and toast and then rice that seemed mixed with grit, stringy beans, mutton curry filled with bones. In the heat, my wife unpacked melting chocolate and runny cheese. I read several old copies of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Absurdly, I started to smoke again. A stall near the hospital sold Gold Flake.
Mr Banerjee would often come by on his rounds, and from him I learned more about the hospital. Yes, many people did die in intensive care and I wouldn't have been wrong to imagine I had heard a death rattle. "Hospitals are expensive, you see. People get ill but they don't want to come. Eventually, they have to come, but then you open them up and nothing can be done—it's too late."
I had not been too late. I left the Kurji Holy Family Hospital after a couple of weeks and took the plane to Delhi and then to London. It would be neat to say that I never saw my saviour Mr Banerjee again, but in fact the oddest thing happened, the kind of unlikely denouement that often concludes Indian stories as they are told to you by strangers on a train: "And then, Krishna be praised, the servant that stole my hundred rupees met my niece in Kishoreganj and saved her from a snake."
Later in the year I came back to India and went to stay with my in-laws in Calcutta. One day, in the offices of the Telegraph newspaper, a crushing, breath-sucking pain hit me in the stomach, far worse than anything I had ever known in Patna. A car took me home to Ballygunge and I lay on the bed believing I was going to die. Suddenly, Mr Banerjee was standing over me. A chapter of coincidences: he was visiting his sister in Calcutta and he thought he would pay a call at the address I'd given him two months back. He arrived, you might say, at my hour of greatest need. He sent for syringes and injectables to the pharmacy over the road, then plunged them into my middle. I awoke the next day pain-free, cured. The pain remained a mystery.
I think Mr Banerjee migrated to America. That was his plan and when I next went to Patna he was no longer in his hospital bungalow, the only part of which I can recollect is the garland of dead marigolds around the portrait of his father. What did all this teach me about India? Some of the usual things: that it pays to know people if you are ill and that, despite the uncaring chaos or because of it, people in India have huge reserves of personal generosity. But beyond that it taught me, as a man in his careless thirties, that frailty was everyone's inheritance, everywhere.
(Ian Jack, formerly editor of Granta, is a British essayist and journalist)
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT