mancarriesbodyofhiswife-3

Apparently it is impossible to continue to exist without righteous indignation at the present. There are more than enough reasons to exercise your anger. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to continue to contain ones anger. Everyday debilitating news brings us close and closer towards breaking our own vows of resistance and restraint at social indifference and rampant callousness. This one takes the cake: A man waited too long for an ambulance to transport his wife’s body, and finally gave up. He had to wrap the body in a bed sheet and carry it slung over his shoulder in plain day light over the street! In this country where each undeserving political autocrat is given undue security from God knows what and has a whole retinue of cars and jeeps to accompany him or her wherever they go it has come to such a state that an ordinary citizen cannot avail of an ambulance to shift a dead body! Cry my beloved country! My indignation swells over and so would yours my dear reader I am sure in sheer helplessness.

I am reminded of a forgotten chapter in my own life. I had just about taken up a job as a Lecturer in a college in Kerala. My parents and my kid sister were then in Trivandrum. Those good old days did not have instant connectivity and communication facilities like the present, one had to depend on the now-old fashioned landlines to get some sort of connectivity outside, and that too after waiting for hours on end to get the operator to connect your call across districts through their trunk facility.

But of course one would write long letters with the aid of Indian posts and Telegraphs. However once it happened that I rushed home for no obvious reason only to find to my dismay the doors all locked and lights turned off.  I enquired with our neighbours and got to know that my father had suddenly taken ill and my sister and mother had rushed him to the nearest hospital. Shouldering my bag I retraced my way to the hospital and ran from pillar to post to locate my family. Finally when I did find them my father was in a dangerous situation, and beside him crouched my mother and sister helplessly.  I don’t distinctly recall my mental state but I dashed over to the doctor who was kind enough to let me know that the patient was in a critical coma and was in urgent need of higher specialised medical attention. He coolly told me to shift him to another bigger hospital without delay! To my indignation he also let me know that this had to be done within no less than six hours! I was at a colossal loss. I just didn’t know what to do. Somehow I managed to put on a brave face for the sake of not upsetting my mother and sister and withdrew to the porch in search of an ambulance. As was to be expected none was available just then and I had to resort to a way side shop and beg the shopkeeper for the use of his land phone to call nearby hospitals. I succeeded eventually to trace a driver who was condescending enough to bring his ambulance over within an hour or so. I had never felt the ticking of the seconds and the minutes so loud as then when I stood out in the rain all alone in a strange evening waiting for a strange ambulance to deliver my father to another hospital! Gradually the rain cleared or I thought it had cleared when they lugged him on to the backseat of a decrepit van. The three of us crowded round my father in the dingy space while the van tossed and tottered and tooted its way meandering through busy streets and byways. And finally we were in front of a super-speciality hospital. Some helping hands came aboard and rolled the patient inward. We got off to follow suit when the van driver sauntered over to me and demanded his fee: Rs 90/-. I was flabbergasted. This might appear to be a paltry sum of money for many youngsters these days, but back in those days this indeed was a good deal. I searched all my pockets and drew close to forty. But that won’t do. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I took off my watch and handed it over to the exasperated driver! But he was a good soul deep within. He handed it back to me and said: please get me the money as quickly as possible. Now you run after you father and get him all the medical help needed!

I was left holding the watch and for a long minute didn’t know what I was to do. But then I looked at the watch once again and realised how fast time was ticking.There was barely an hour or so left as per the first doctor’s instructions. I dashed in with the crowd and caught up with the stretcher bearing the patient. We were extremely fortunate to run into many medical practitioners who knew us as family friends and their timely help saved my father.

Come to think of it, I was extremely fortunate—there were indeed helping hands that were wilfully extended all through my life in times of dire need. But the situation of the unfortunate man I mentioned at the beginning still turns my insides. Where have we gone wrong as a community? What has happened to our human selves?

Among his favourite poems that my father used to recite was this one Only a Soldier by Agnes Macdonnell:  see http://cambridge.dlconsulting.com/cgi-bin/cambridge?a=d&d=Chronicle18800529-01.2.4#

 

Unarmed and unattended’ walks the Czar’

Through Moscow’s busy street’ one winter’s day.

The crowd uncover as his face’ they see:

“God greet the Czar!” they say.

 

Along his path there moved a funeral,

Grave spectacle of poverty and woe –

A wretched sledge, dragged by one weary man

Slowly across the snow.

 

And on the sledge, blown by the winter wind,

Lay a poor coffin, very rude and bare;

And he who drew it bent before his load

With dull and sullen air.

 

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:

“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.

“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;

“Only a soldier, dead.”

 

“Only a soldier!” musing, said the Czar:

“Only a Russian, who was poor and brave.

Move on, I follow. Such’ a one goes not

Unhonored to his grave.”

 

He bent his head and silent raised his cap;

The Czar of all the Russians, pacing slow,

Followed the coffin as again it went

Slowly across the snow.

 

The passers of the street, all wondering,

Looked on that sight, then followed silently;

Peasant and prince, and artisans and clerk,

All in one company.

 

Still as they went, the crowd grew ever more,

Till thousands stood around the friendless grave,

Led by that princely heart, who, royal, true,

Honoured the poor and brave.

 

This might be read by the rabid post-colonialists that we are as the very embodiment of hegemonial power structure, or even how power is maintained by such devious measures as the fostering medieval values of loyalty and chivalry which lead to heroism.  But if one were to read some vestiges of human value into it irrespective of class and cunning, one can still see this short poem as engendering what is dreadfully lacking amidst us these days.  A poor man’s dead body is casually being lugged across the street, and the Tzar espies this:

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:

“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.

“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;

“Only a soldier, dead.”

Move on, I’ll follow, and so saying the Emperor of Russia followed suit. Eventually there are thousands: Till thousands stood around the friendless grave,paying homage to the departed. It did not take long for the Tzar to recognise the significance of this ordinary soldier who is not to be thus dismissed. Each and every human soul requires to be honoured. How can we just turn our heads at the sight of another’s grief? When did we become as callous as to disregard the cries of another human? Sartre has written somewhere: “…all our philosophies fade into meaningless gibberish at the hungry cry of a third world child!” Forgive the discriminatory terminology (the i/thou, we/they, first/third binaries implied in the French philosopher’s statement) and let’s perceive the essential truth behind the observation. Aren’t we human’s still? Or has the machine entered our soul?

The image of the wretched man with the corpse of his wife flung over his shoulder meandering the streets uncared for, overlooked and disregarded by the world that passes this sight by mercilessly is one that is going to haunt a whole generation no doubt. Is he just another soldier battling the unjust elements in a lost world bereft of humanity?

As I said earlier there are indeed several reasons why the sensitive intellectual cannot hold his/her own peace. Life these days is not without its own share of horrors and dreadfulness. “The horror, the horror!” This phrase occurs in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Many have discussed the meaning of this in terms of the horrendous experiences that Mr Kurtz undergoes in the wake of colonialism and imperialism in deep Africa; this has also been linked to the profound state of the protagonist’s sanity that as in a process of onion peeling just comes off layer after layer! But perhaps taken out of context this could fit quite well with our own present day situation. The horror the horror!

 Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan, Professor and former Chair, Department of English, Pondicherry University smurals@gmail.com

 

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    When a man is struggling with carrying the dead body, the society of onlookers were a mere spectators… and that is the most heart-piercing and most apathetic situation one can encounter…! It shows the deep divisions of humanity where such incidents are photographed for circulation rather than helping the person and his daughter…!