May 25, 2020
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Life Flowing On The Ganga, As Seen From My Sick-Bed

A steadily accreting generosity amid the bedlam that wraps one in a lasting warmth

Life Flowing On The Ganga, As Seen From My Sick-Bed
Illustration by Sorit
Life Flowing On The Ganga, As Seen From My Sick-Bed
I spent my last days as a completely whole human being, physically equipped with everything God gave me apart from my milk teeth, in Bihar. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong—there were no warnings, nothing I could look back on and say, ‘There at that point, confess it, you felt a little off-colour.’ In the Rajdhani chair-car from Delhi to Dhanbad, I read Anthony Burgess’s Inside Mr Enderby, which my Delhi landlord, the incomparably well-read Sham Lal, had given me as "something that will make you laugh on the train". Mr Enderby’s insides provided the comedy. As a dyspeptic, he was always groaning, belching and farting—sounds that Burgess transcribed with words like Whhhagggguppp and Rrrrruurooosst—as he composed his poetry on the lavatory. Now I come to think of it, the title of this book could have been a sign—an omen about my own insides. But as I stepped from the train at Dhanbad, I felt perfectly well, and went on feeling well throughout my several nights at Dhanbad’s Hotel Bonanza and my many meals of channa dal and roti.

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. His father had wanted to call him Adolf, but there had been family opposition, and so he settled for another ‘A’, from the Leslie Howard character in Gone With The Wind. The father was uncomprehending when I laughed. Hitler had made no pejorative impact here.

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. The second doctor came later but felt around a little more thoroughly and wondered if it might not be appendicitis.

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)

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