Note: - This is a sequel to Chalk and Cheese. It can be read as a stand-alone story as well.
“You’ll never know unless you try!” declares Anj sputtering bits of lettuce and onion with the mayonnaise dripping down her full mouth. I look sceptically at her burger and then at my bowl of spinach gravy. My sleepless face is reflected in the green oil. I tend to agree with her. Maybe I should have taken up on Anj’s recommendation of a Maharaja Burger. At ‘Naveen Fusion Food’, the only cafeteria on the hospital premises, oil is the lifeline that courses through its skeletal menu. At this rate, we’ll soon be on each other’s examination bed. Anj polishes off her burger and I decide to chuck the food still left on my plate.
We weave our way back to the hospital through the haggard-looking relatives of the patients who are trying to make sense of the fusion of life events that have brought them to this oily mess.
Set in the sprawling, landscaped gardens, the Institute Of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru has become a second home to me. I remember feeling overwhelmed when I first stepped into its portals as a junior resident a year ago. Not by its imposing structure or eminent faculty; I had my fair share of exposure to both during my years as a post-grad student followed by the practice in a swish private hospital. But, by the sheer magnitude of common people it served.
“See you in the evening?” Anj asks me as she heads towards the Behavioural Sciences Division.
“Yup, wouldn’t miss the Wednesday special – Pao Bhaji!” I wave to her and check my apron for any haldi marks. None. I’m all set for my afternoon rounds.
It’s been two weeks since I returned from Ma and Appa’s Shashti Poorti. It was everything I had expected it to be and more. A string of rituals punctuated with haldi kumkum, assorted relatives, a grand feast and a special photo shoot of the new old couple! Appa looked a little uncomfortable posing for those photos, but Ma was every bit a diva. I would have found the entire thing cheesy had it not been for that sparkle in both of their eyes as they looked at each other-like it will stay bright for seven more lifetimes.
That had made me replay the words I had mouthed at the exit gate of the Chennai Airport for the millionth time; and relive how it had doused out the sparkle in the eyes of Major John Mathews.
I cheerfully greet the first patient on my list. “So, how are feeling today, Siddappa? Did you eat…oh I see you have not eaten much of Bisi Bele Bath. Is it not tasty?” I ask him as I give a gentle rap on his sole to check its sensitivity. No response. I check his chart. Low on sodium, even after giving a unit yesterday. I write down my observations and update his wife who is waiting on him. Dark circles have formed under her eyes and her shoulders seem to have slumped with the weight on her mind. She follows me and asks in a voice that is quickly running out of patience,
“Doctor, when will he start walking?”
I look at her face that is growing more hopeless by the day.
“It could take weeks Amma, can’t set a time frame for neuro issues. And he would need you to be brave and have faith.” I smile reassuringly and move ahead.
People think a person’s true character is revealed when he is dying. They are dead wrong, it’s their loved one’s true character that is revealed.
As I reach nearly the end of my patient list, my cell beeps.
I inform the nurse to call the next doctor on duty before rushing to ER.
I catch the ER team trying to stabilise a young male in his boxing gear.
He has suffered a head injury and is dizzy and vomity. His vitals seem to be fluctuating.
I order a CT scan and call the chief neurosurgeon. We may have to take him into OT at the earliest.
Then I come out to brief the next of kin. And the blue linoleum semicircle under my feet spins to form a full circle.
Standing there, in his combat uniform and maroon beret is Major John Mathews.
For a month after the surgery, I watch Major John Mathews spending every evening with his recovering buddy. It seems Major Vivek and he were course mates in the academy. And each other’s family in the station. There are other occasional visitors, but he is a constant.
He is at his usual polite best when interacting with me or with the other staff. At times, I feel the urge to tear down that wall of politeness and provoke him to say something more. But I dare not.
Not after saying something that had seemed realistic at the time but proved to be agonising later on.
To make matters worse, my best friend Angela is slipping through my fingers as she is growing close to a fellow resident after they hit it off at the cafeteria over some greasy food. Now, it seems like they are ready to eat food off each other’s fingers. Like Ma and Appa had in the feast, after the ceremony. Totally unacceptable for a bitter loser like me.
Major Vivek seems to have recovered quite well and could be discharged any day now. I am always happy when a patient reaches this milestone, but not so in this case. For all I know I might have to get a part of my brain removed to forget the baritone voice of Maj Mathews that keeps on playing in my mind.
As I near the end of my rounds I hear the same voice.
“Dr. Priya, may I ask you for a favour?”
I am stunned and my eyes begin to prickle. In all these days he sat by his buddy, this is the first time he has addressed me by name. I steady myself before turning to face him.
“Yes, chalk and cheese. I don’t think they are meant to be together,” were the words I had uttered thoughtlessly as we had parted ways. And had regretted since then with every heartbeat.
“Sure…sure officer!” I stutter.
“My buddy is getting discharged tomorrow, as you probably know.”
No. I didn’t.
He strides down the corridor and stands at arm’s length before whispering, “Do you think it’s possible to postpone it by a day?”
Really? That’s the favour you want from me?
He hesitates before saying,
“Prince, that is his lab died last week. I don’t want him to go back to an empty home. The new pup will be arriving tomorrow.” His eyes are inscrutable.
“I guess that can be arranged. Is that all?”. I am mortified.
I have to run before the tears escape my eyelids. Something similar seems to be happening to his eyes.
I blurt out. “Would you like to grab a cup of tea? The cafeteria serves pav bhaji on Wednesdays.”
What did I just say?
“I thought you would never ask!” he chuckles. The fiery orange evening sun reflects in his eyes.
We walk together out of the hospital building and on the cobbled path that leads to the cafeteria. The breeze over the lawns spread the fruity fragrance of Champa.
Am I being too reckless and stupid for a 34-year-old?
“So, I take it your parents’ Shasti Poorti celebration was a grand success?”
I am surprised that he remembers the word. The image of Ma and Appa exchanging garlands and me showering the turmeric-smeared rice on them along with relatives comes to my mind. Much to my surprise, I had found the ceremony to be beautiful.
“Yes. Whatever my father plans and my mother executes usually is!” I say with a shrug.
We reach the cafeteria. The crowd is beginning to thin. And there is no pao bhaji written on the menu board.
Major Mathews pulls a chair for me to sit. Then he too sits at the shiny granite top table and asks abruptly.
“So, what changed?” His face is earnest and keen to find an answer.
Nothing. My already smitten heart saw your dedication to your buddy, your decency in respecting my decision and your ability to disturb me and comfort me at the same time with just your presence like no one else can...
“The menu! No pao bhaji! I guess today we have to try the burger!” I say and laugh to camouflage my breathing that has become erratic.
“Is it any good?” he asks suspiciously.
“Well, you’ll never know unless you try!” No amount of mayonnaise can bring me down to earth this evening.