Nabeel felt nauseated as he entered the emergency ward. The pungent smell of tinctures filled his nostrils and disrupted his breathing. His destination was Ward 3, but he had to pass through the emergency ward which was located at the entrance. Every time there would be a new case in need of urgent attention. Whenever Nabeel happened to be there, he would see people in a serious condition. They would be bleeding, maimed, seriously injured, in agony or in the throes of death. Doctors and nurses would be frantically trying to save those wretches. Sometimes they would be stanching a hemorrhage, at times resuscitating the heart by pressing the patient’s chest. Another patient would be retching to cough out the blood flooding his lungs. Do they survive? He often wondered. He hoped they did. But in his sojourn through the emergency ward he would invariably see a couple of dead bodies laid out on stretchers. They would be surrounded by wailing women, hysterical with grief, falling all over them. The men would be trying to extricate them, consoling and gently advising them to accept the grim reality with fortitude.
Nabeel wouldn’t think these thoughts when he heard the heart-rending wails. He would allow himself to ponder on these, only when he reached the long corridor of the cardiology ward. The reason was that he had seen many corpses here too, but the people accompanying the stretchers wouldn’t be mourning.
No sobs. No tears. Nothing. Their faces would be drained of colour. White like a shroud, they would walk by the stretcher reverently, as though they had been rehearsing this walk for years. And now that the moment had arrived, they would not undermine their long patient preparation by acting in an un-becoming way.
On his walk from the emergency through the cardiology ward, he would rationalize everything and his breathing would become regular. He had visited the ward about three weeks back with Nudrat. Nudrat’s father was concerned about her mother. He suspected that she had a heart condition. One day when she lay down for her daily siesta, she felt heaviness in her chest. A lump of pain and discomfort would begin in her navel and rise up to her chest near her heart and then subside leaving a trail of dull throb. Nudrat’s dad had her checked up thoroughly and only when the doctors had given a clean bill of health, was he reassured.
Nabeel never even suspected that she had a heart condition. He firmly believed that a cautious, patient person would never be susceptible to such an illness. Despite this belief, when he came to visit Nudrat’s mother, he felt very uneasy. On his second visit too, the nagging feeling was there. Perhaps what he had learnt was self-control and not acceptance and the ability to bear. Patience he had mastered long since.
Medical wards were ahead, Ward I to the right, II and III along the corridor. In Ward III in a private room lay his own sick mother. She had been ill for so long that he had virtually forgotten the times when she used to be healthy. After his father’s death, the right side of her body had been paralyzed and since then she had been bed-ridden.
In the beginning, she would become thirsty very frequently. Her throat would be dry; her stomach would churn with hunger. And she had been incontinent too. The wetness of the bed would slice through her back. She made desperate efforts to call out to her son, but incoherent guttural sounds would be produced. The effort would almost kill her. Her chest would be strained and her lower jaw would drop. Her frail body would double up.
At first he would respond with alacrity, but when this became a routine, he was a bit weary. In the end he actually had to drag himself to attend to her needs.
One day, when his mother was going through the same agonizing routine, the door-bell rang. One short abrupt ring followed by a persistent one. Nudrat’s distinctive trade-mark style. The sound terminated and silence fell. A long silence in which his mother’s incoherent sounds drowned. His heart missed a beat.
He had reached the front door before the sound had subsided. He opened the door but her demeanour indicated that she had not come to sit. She motioned towards the car. He followed her like a serf. He had no will in her presence and neither did she care for it. She was that kind of a person; confident, sophisticated.
She was not only exceptionally beautiful, material well-being oozed from her as a bubbling stream cascading down an incline.
On that day he returned home after many hours. The offensive smell of stale urine hit his senses. He looked at his mother. There was a little puddle of urine under her bed, trickling down to the door.
A gasp of remorse and grief burst out of him unintentionally.
No one wants to be grieved and no one can will grief away.
Time spent with Nudrat was euphoria. He was brimming with a sense of well-being. The fragrance-filled charm of the pretty girl evaporated from his senses. His mother turned her face away. His hands went about their work mechanically. When he had dried and changed his mother, he lifted her and placed her on the adjoining bed. He was shocked at how much weight she had lost during her illness. She was feather-light.
The way he had gone about the chores with tender, meticulous care had wiped away all the frowns of displeasure from her face, her disappointed demeanour cleared and her open, ever-fluttering eye was filled with tears of gratitude.
In the hospital corridor, ahead of the cardiology ward, where another corridor intersected the fist one, four benches were placed along the wall. Before entering the ward, he used to sit there for a few moments. Not initially, but now, after two months of his mother’s hospitalization he would always sit if there was an empty bench. The first time he had sat there with Nudrat when she had come to enquire after his mother, Nudrat was very concerned about the fact that the patient had a slim chance of survival. She never visited again, but whenever she called she would always show concern about the prolonged illness. The illness definitely had gone on for long. The bed-sores were not healing due to diabetes and her breathing had become laboured, wheezing gasps. She had been oxygen-dependent for some time; still every breath was an agonizing ordeal for her. The doctors performed tracheotomy and inserted a tube through her throat to facilitate breathing. No doctor would give them a clear picture as to when her lungs would resume breathing on their own. Sometimes they would sound very hopeful, at others they would seem to be on the verge of giving up.
Nudrat had given up on him too. Her parents had goaded her on. They had selected a very suitable match in their own family but they were helpless before their daughter’s resolve. They loved her immensely and did not want to force her. But the uncertainty of his mother’s condition paved their way in convincing their daughter. They fueled her doubts. A pre-occupied son, devoted to a very sick mother presented a bleak scenario. No one knew how long the ordeal could drag.
The doctors’ prognosis was that if the patient survived, she would need constant care and support. Nudrat was disappointed, dejected but the disappointing old woman’s son would glean out many hopeful strands out of the doctor’s talk.
For the next fifteen days, Nabeel waited for Nudrat. She never visited, but called him every day. She would want to talk about things other than his mother’s condition, but he would be so drained emotionally by the time he had tackled that issue, that she did not have the nerve to put her query across. A lovely girl, with life’s charmed vistas open before her, she did love him, but she could not live on hospital talk alone. And she could not wait endlessly. So the fragrant love inside her gradually wafted away. No surprise. On the fifteenth day she shrugged her love away. She rationalized that their love had outlived its span. She did call him on the two following days in an effort to drag him out of the depressing situation. He did not respond to her satisfaction and with a sigh she gave up on him.
Nabeel was not the son who would give up on his mother. He felt as though he was still a part of her; attached by the umbilical cord, curled up in her womb. Like Abbas Shah’s sculpture of quasi-marble in which a fetus was placed in the mother’s womb. It was Nabeel himself. He touched the translucent statue with curiosity. It was surprisingly light and shaky. His mother’s frame had also become light but it wouldn’t shake. When he looked at it, all sorts of fears would drift through his mind. He couldn’t even conceive life without this frame. But unstoppable time flew on. Nudrat had stopped calling altogether. He called her a few times but he was told that she was not in. One fine day she called to inform him of her engagement, unceremoniously. She did not even enquire after his mother. His heart sank. The shock made him speechless. Disappointment rent his heart. The lovely time spent with Nudrat floated through his senses like an elusive dream. His true love had abandoned him.
He survived. He had to, because he had no recourse. He was fully cognizant of what the doctors were saying. ‘Cannot say with any certainty, how long it would take for the patient’s condition to stabilize.’ Whenever the doctors tried to remove the tracheal tube, the patient’s body would go into agonizing spasms.
He sat on the bench and dozed. God knows how long he had been sitting there. His mother’s condition had deteriorated in the night. The doctors had re-installed the tube. The feeding-tube inserted through her nose was bothering her. Perhaps it had lacerated the delicate tissue inside and she was feeling burning pain. She would raise her shivering hand towards it again and again.
He told the doctor about it, who informed him that it was possibly a minor rupture which would heal in time. He advised Nabeel to ensure that his mother did not pull it out.
He felt like pulling it out himself to end his mother’s ordeal, but he controlled himself. He stayed awake all through the night. When dawn peeped through the window, he followed it out. He wandered aimlessly for sometime. When he returned, an emptiness had seized his being. He cast an empty gaze at the activity within the emergency ward. He found the wailing women vulgar and distasteful. ‘Will this sordid display bring back their dead?’ He laughed a bitter laugh to quell the question rising within.
One of the mourning girls was very beautiful, and the old dead woman she was mourning, very graceful. He gave them a passing glance and moved on.
Each time the passage through the emergency to the cardiology ward would be a painful one, but today, he was drained of all emotions.
He collapsed onto one of the benches and remained there. He had lost all sense of time.
A stretcher emerged from Ward 3 and he was jolted out of his stupor. He was curious to look at the corpse’s face. It was not of his mother. He slumped back on the bench. That was the first time he prayed for his mother’s deliverance from this pain.
And he prayed on till he had exhausted the cache of all the pious terms. He was suddenly destitute as if all the currency he possessed had been blown away. His incantation was incoherent gibberish. Words were like insects, wriggling in his mouth, stuck to his palate. Lifeless. His eyes were glazed. He watched but nothing registered. The mourners and the mourned lost distinction. Dead bodies were being transported in front of him. Instead of grief he felt relief, something akin to release. Perhaps this was an indication that he was still living. He could clearly rationalize that the people who had been attending to the sick and dying were finally relieved of their burden. A stench arose in him. He delved deep into his consciousness. He could see two corpses engulfed in pitch darkness. One was his dead love. He did not look at the other. He made a very sincere effort to shed tears but he was adrift on that wave of stench, gradually being carried away.