A little lie, sometimes, is better than the whole truth. Or so it feels for a doctor at a government hospital who sees hundreds of thousands of fleeting faces in the out-patient clinic.
It is among those faces that one found Subaida, who would come rushing back to my memories – for the idea of freedom that she espoused was totally different. Even more noteworthy was the way she found her freedom.
Solace, for Rs.2
One cannot remember the exact day when she first turned up at the OP. She was in her 40s, frail and energetic. She had a burka on her and carried a black handbag. She was absolutely fine waiting endlessly. She had a sunken eye, markedly highlighted by black rings of weariness around them. She had lost two front teeth in an ‘accident’ and so her smile too was different.
She reported ‘pain’ in the limbs, shoulders, on the neck or some other part of the body. She wanted external application medicines and never asked for tablets. She would let people in whose Op tickets are numbered after her. But, she rushes to the bus stop to take the 1:30 pm bus back home.
For a doctor, she was a nightmare – never doing any tests prescribed. There was always some ruse. She would say she forgot or reply with a casual ‘will do next time.’ She would but always insist on a, “you please prescribe some medicine.”
One day, I burst out in anger. I told her unequivocally that she cannot come back without doing the tests. For once, her eyes welled up and she left, head hung in sadness.
She did not turn up for a couple of weeks. One fine day, she was again spotted at the OPD. She tried to smile but squared back to normal, probably noticing my nonchalant face. She anticipated my wrath and did not turn up in front of me for consultation. She did it twice after that. I called up the health inspector and the nurse in charge and asked them to be on the stakeout too.
Subaida, after a visit to the OPD, tried to leave in a huff. The hospital staff tried to stop her. A whole lot of tablets and medicines fell out of her bag onto the floor. On being confronted, Subaida unfurled her story for us.
She was the eldest of five daughters in an indigent family. She was married off at a young age. When the couple had two children, the man left her to fend for herself.
She had to marry another man as she found it difficult to make ends meet. They couple had three children. Her husband was an orthodox believer and had the first delivery was at home. He was reluctant to allow the children to be vaccinated but was otherwise fine. He used to take her to films and the family used to go out occasionally. She also attested to the fact that her family life was ‘going well.’
Then came the surprise – she said she came to the hospital and took the Rs.2 OP ticket to have some ‘me time.’ She said it earnestly and there was no reason I could disbelieve her. “Don’t know if you would understand, doctor. I do not even get some time inside the toilet with five children around the house. This is the only destination to which I travel alone and mingle with people.” She was in tears by then – she was on the brink of being called a thief – for all her ‘stash of medicines’ had fallen down on the hospital floor.
I imagined her plight. I was at once fully seized of the situation. Even with a relatively privileged life situation and little home chores to do and just my two children around, I had no time for myself. I could very well imagine the situation of this mother with five children at home.
I suddenly thought of my yearning to enjoy my tea in peace. This is also freedom – the freedom to do something we want, at least for a couple of minutes. By now, I was apologizing to her in my mind. I ‘granted’ her permission to return to the hospital at will. For, she used to show her husband the OP ticket as proof of her ‘outings’ to the hospital.
So, I, for once felt, some life are good.
(The author has added a dash of imagination to conceal the identity of the protagonist)