Dr. Ashok scowled from behind the newspaper. ‘Why does everything have to happen today only?’ That very morning a lineman from the Electricity Board had gotten electrocuted while checking a tube-well connection. By the time his colleagues had lugged him to the dispensary, all that Dr. Ashok could do was to ask for the relatives to be sent for, and to sign the papers. And now, this! ‘Don’t they realize it’s New Year’s Day tomorrow?’
‘They are from the lower classes, sir,’ Vijay said, rubbing his hands vigorously to warm himself. ‘What will they know about the New Year?’
‘Well, what happened?’ Ashok snapped. ‘Why don’t you tell me?’
‘A car hit the boy… on the Delhi road, sir.’
‘Is it serious?’
Vijay shrugged indifferently. ‘I don’t think so, sir.’
‘Then take charge and handle the case, bhai.’
‘As you say, sir,’ Vijay said happily. ‘But you’ll have to complete the paperwork, sir.’
‘The paperwork, oh yes,’ said Ashok wearily. ‘There’s always the paperwork. Just handle the patient will you? I’ll be ready with my pen.’ He didn’t want to leave the room, which, though damp and gloomy, was the largest room in the village dispensary; and more importantly, harbored a heater. ‘I hope this doesn’t take too much time. I was thinking of leaving early today.’ He slipped into the newspaper again. The ads in the Metro Times teased him with minutiae of New Year Eve parties in the city – live music, unbelievably exotic menus, variety programs, all-night entertainment, International DJs…. Dr. Ashok sighed. If only he could have been in Delhi at this time of the year…
Fifteen minutes later Vijay returned, clearly very pleased with himself. ‘Only surface injuries, sir. I’ve applied the dressing, and given him one tetanus shot.’
Dr. Ashok, vicariously living the delights of Delhi, waved him away. ‘Good.. very good. Keep it up, Vijay.’
Vijay grinned. As the nurse, record keeper, orderly, compounder, and often – as now – the doctor too, Vijay knew exactly what to do. It wasn’t just luck that had helped him hang on in this dispensary for fifteen years. The doctors, keen on getting transferred, stayed here for a short period; but he kept them so happy that they’d rate him ‘Excellent’ in the Annual Confidential Report, before leaving. ‘Sir, the driver of the car that hit the boy… he’s here, now. He wants to pay his respects to you.’
Dr. Ashok frowned. ‘Why does…’ But before he could finish, Vijay had pulled aside the thin green curtain and ushered in a tall, heavy set man who advanced right up to Dr. Ashok’s chair and thrust out his hand saying, ‘Good evening, doctor. I am Ravi.’
Dr. Ashok had no choice but to acknowledge the man, which he did ungraciously. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘These boys, they should be kept in chains, Doctor,’ Ravi said. ‘I wasn’t even driving fast… but suddenly he came out from behind a parked truck. How could anyone have seen him in time?’
‘They say Mr. Ravi blew the horn and braked hard, sir,’ Vijay added helpfully, ‘but couldn’t stop in time. These village children shouldn’t play near the road.’ He shook his head in disapproval.
Ravi sat down. ‘Doctor, by the grace of God, nothing serious has happened. Just minor cuts. So I want to leave immediately, or I’ll reach home late.’
‘Mr. Ravi,’ explained Ashok. ‘You see, because it’s an accident, the paperwork will have to be done. And only after that is over, can you go.’
‘As I told you Ravi ji, we’ve sent a message to the boy’s parents,’ Vijay added deferentially. ‘They’re very poor people – laborers. As soon as they come… we’ll sort out everything. Just be patient.’
Dr. Ashok gave him a grateful look.
‘It’s New Year’s Eve today, and I want to spend it with my family,’ Ravi said. ‘I hope you understand.’
‘Once the parents come, you can…’
Ravi pursed his lips. ‘If you say so, I’ll wait, but let’s hope they come quickly.’ He looked at Vijay. ‘Meanwhile how about some tea?’
‘I’ll get it. Two minutes.’ And Vijay dashed out of the room.
Once Vijay had left, the two men in the room stared at each other. Then Dr. Ashok asked – more to break the silence than out of any real interest in this Ravi. ‘So! Where were you going?’
‘Delhi, doctor. I was going to Delhi.’
Dr. Ashok perked up. ‘And you have your business there, Mr. Ravi?’
‘Call me Ravi, please, doctor. I own a furniture shop.’
Dr. Ashok leaned forward. ‘In Delhi?’
‘Really? You’re so lucky. What wouldn’t I give to be in Delhi… the fantastic, decorated malls… winter shopping at Connaught Place… what a life! So… you’ll give me a good discount if I come to you? We’re looking for a dining table, but you get nothing decent in this backward place.’
Ravi spread out his arms. ‘But doctor sahib, how can you even ask such a question? Everything in the shop is yours only, sir. You’ll be my honored guest when you come to Delhi.’ Ravi’s head bobbed up and down. ‘You’re welcome any time.’
‘I just love Delhi,’ Dr. Ashok said wistfully. ‘Something’s always happening – something or other. It’s so exciting there. Not like this… this village.’ How he envied his medical college classmates who had wisely gone into private practice in Delhi. What a wonderful life they’d be leading, he thought, enjoying themselves on this chilly December afternoon, as he sat stuck in this dispensary.
‘But Delhi is too big, too huge. Like an ocean,’ Ravi said cautiously. ‘You have far more prestige and status here than what even a Minister gets in Delhi.’
‘Well… that’s true,’ Dr. Ashok demurred. He hadn’t considered this angle. ‘Yes, yes, that’s true. For example, do you know we’re dining tonight with the Sub Divisional Magistrate?’ The invite had greatly excited his bored, ever complaining wife – it wasn’t every day that the Sub Divisional Magistrate called them over for dinner.
‘That’s what I mean,’ Ravi said earnestly. ‘You’re such an important person here, doctor. But Delhi… I don’t know. No one respects you there.’
That pleased Dr. Ashok. This Ravi was such a fine person, he told himself. Why’s this Vijay taking so much time to get the tea, he wondered, annoyed at Vijay’s tardiness. He was about to jab the bell button when Vijay burst in. ‘Sir, the boy…’
‘Convulsions, doctor.’ For once, Vijay looked helpless and alarmed. ‘Please come…’
‘Damn these boys; damn these car drivers; damn these electricians, damn these villagers… all of them conspiring to spoil this New Year’s Eve,’ Dr. Ashok cursed as he rushed out of the room.
When he returned to the room, he gave Ravi a disapproving look. ‘Convulsions could indicate an internal injury. So we’ll have to keep this boy under observation for at least twenty four hours. Mr. Ravi, you’ll have to remain here till the situation is clear.’
‘But I can’t,’ Ravi said, dismayed. ‘I told you my son’s waiting for me. How can I stay here?’
‘As an accident case, it will have to be informed to the police,’ Dr. Ashok said gravely. ‘And the vehicle will have to be kept here as evidence.’ At this moment he wasn’t greatly enamored of Ravi.
‘Look, doctor,’ Ravi pleaded. ‘I’m sure the boy will recover quickly… please understand…’
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ravi, but there’s nothing I can do. If this becomes a police case… if something happens to the patient… I must follow procedures.’
‘I think we should wait outside, Ravi ji,’ Vijay intervened at this point. ‘As you know, doctor sahib has a lot of things to do. Anyway we can do nothing till the parents of the boy come.’ And with that he led a worried looking Ravi out of the room.
What an efficient handyman this Vijay is, Dr. Ashok thought, as he picked up the newspaper. And once again, looking at the ads, he cursed himself for having joined the Government Health Service that had sent him to serve the underprivileged, rural poor, as the circular had put it, in accordance with the Socialistic objectives of the government.
Half an hour later, just as he was about to fold the newspaper, Vijay parted the curtains and pulled in an elderly looking couple. ‘The boy’s parents, sir,’ he announced dramatically.
The man, wrapped in a thin sheet of cloth, hands folded, said, ‘Doctor sahib. Thank you for taking care of our boy. By the grace of God, he is totally ok.’
‘But Vijay must have explained to you, we have to watch him for sometime, because of the convulsions,’ Dr. Ashok said. ‘You understand that?’ He never liked talking to these villagers.
‘Of course, doctor sahib.’ The boy’s father smiled apologetically. Even though he couldn’t have been more than thirty five, his face was already fading. ‘Doctor Sahib, you know what is best. But we are poor people, and we leave everything in God’s hands. He looks after us. Whatever is His Will, that alone is good for us.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ Dr. Ashok tried to keep his irritation under control. He wasn’t sure what this man was trying to say. ‘But we have to be careful.’
‘Our son is strong and healthy,’ the mother spoke through her chunni – threadbare, dirty and of indeterminable colour. ‘Boys will always get into trouble. They’re always getting hurt. But that’s how they become strong. That’s how they grow up. Nothing will happen to him. Of that we are confident, sahib.’
Ashok frowned as he glanced at Vijay.
Vijay walked round the table, bent low next to Dr. Ashok’s chair, and said, ‘What they’re saying sir, is that their son got hurt while playing.’
‘What?’ Dr. Ashok sputtered. He couldn’t believe he’d heard Vijay right.
‘Yes, sir. That’s the statement they’ve made – and they’ve signed it… or… well they have put their thumb impression on the statement. They can’t read or write after all… lower classes, doctor sahib.’
‘What do you mean ‘he got hurt while playing’? He got hit by that car didn’t he?’
‘But they say that he got hurt while playing, sir,’ Vijay reiterated, but gently.
The couple, looking lost in that cavernous room, were nodding their heads.
‘Here’s the statement, sir.’ Vijay placed the single sheet of paper that had been torn out of an office register on the table. ‘It says their son fell down while playing on the road..’
‘But… but what about the driver. That Mr. Ravi. Where is he?’
‘Mr. Ravi has left for Delhi. He was in a hurry,’ Vijay said, as if explaining a simple maths sum to a weak student.
‘If you would just sign… here, sir,’ Vijay pushed a pen towards Dr. Ashok. ‘We can finish the paperwork quickly, and leave. It’s getting late, sir, and you have to go to that important party.’
As if in a daze, Dr. Ashok plucked the pen from Vijay’s outstretched hand and affixed his signature on the paper.
The parents, hands folded, bowed low as if to touch his feet. ‘Thank you Doctor sahib. You are very kind. We will go now.’
Dr. Ashok asked, ‘I don’t understand Vijay, what kind of parents were they? Don’t they care for their son?’
‘Oh, yes, sir, they do,’ Vijay said, as he locked up the dispensary. ‘But they’re also practical people.’
‘What do you mean?’
Vijay tugged at the lock to make sure it was secure. Deferentially staying two paces behind Dr. Ashok who was walking towards his motorcycle, he blew into his palms and said, ‘Today was a day of good fortune for all, sir.’
‘Sir, the driver, Mr. Ravi, will be able to spend the New Year with his family. We too, are going home in time. You’ll be the honored guest at Magistrate sahib’s house, and that poor family… well they’re also very happy.’
‘With their son probably suffering from an internal head injury?’ Dr. Ashok asked, exasperated. ‘How can you say they’ll be happy?’
‘The driver made sure of that, sir.’
Dr. Ashok whirled around. ‘You mean…? You mean…..’ He couldn’t bring himself to complete the sentence.
Vijay was smiling. ‘Yes, sir.’
The evening fog was getting thicker by the minute and Dr. Ashok didn’t want to end up knocking someone down in the dark as he drove homewards. He kickstarted his motorcycle and eased it out on the dirt path that led out of the dispensary. He was about to release the clutch, when it hit him. ‘And you?’ he asked Vijay. ‘What about you?’
Vijay grinned through the monkey cap he had put over his face. ‘Yes sir. Thanks to Mr. Ravi, it’s been a very good year end for me too, sir.’
And he pedaled away happily.