Sandy Kundra Verma
“Turn the volume up, na,” Dr. Hema said.
Sadiq glanced at the console. The siren volume was turned to maximum
Whoo… ooop…Whoo…oop… Whoo…oop.
The row of cars in front did not flinch. They were boxed in.
“Traffic, Doctor,” he shrugged.
Traffic. Not just Traffic. Mumbai Traffic. Mumbai Monday Morning Traffic. What could an ordinary man do?
Dr. Hema muttered indistinctly, phrases such as ‘no sympathy,’ ‘emergency vehicle,’ ‘life and death situation’ popping out.
This was Mumbai. Your life and death was not more important than my office meeting with nondescript supplier. The ambulance siren bleated feebly in the cacophony, Mumbai was a noisy noisy city. Blaring horns, hollering hawkers, controlling spouses, interfering mother-in-laws, critical daily maids, egomaniacal bosses, demanding clients, pesky suppliers, shoving pedestrians, abusive autowallahs, abusing in so many languages now, belching buses, no wonder nobody could hear an ambulance siren, especially a German-manufactured one meant for silent European roads. And even if they did hear it, Sadiq caught a guilty look from a college student here and there; they could do nothing about it. With vehicular density double that of the international average, Mumbai’s cars were like the sliding block puzzles they used to play as kids, stuck together, moving side-to-side in circles, not being able to escape.
“One more patient gone…we won’t reach her in time.” Dr. Hema yawned and pulled out her mobile phone.
Birju gazed out of the window, lost in deep introspective thoughts, like every Mumbaikar forced to spend hours by himself, travelling.
Sadiq had lost count of how many patients they had lost to Mumbai’s traffic jams. The 9-year-old boy with cancer had run out of oxygen in Juhu-Circle. The 21-year-old girl had died from second degree dowry-related burns on Khar-Danda. The sole bread-earner had lost too much blood by the time they reached Milan Subway. And then some. And then some more.
It had been three years. He’d stopped associating city landmarks with the victims. They were back to being just Juhu-Circle, Khar-Danda, just Milan Subway.
It took forty minutes for a drive that was supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but they finally arrived at their destination. “The beach,” Birju nodded at the patch of brown relief amidst the sea of buildings.
“Good location,” the Mumbai-ite in Sadiq said.
“Yeah, but such an old building, haina?”
Dr. Hema was a fachcha
- a fresher, barely twenty-one and on paramedic duty since the last ten months. In ten months of fighting life-and-death, one was never sure which professional boundaries had blurred. Dr. Hema’s studied English had given way to their Bombaiya Hindi; in the ambulance, they were all friends.
“Should I come along?” Sadiq called as they stepped out.
“Sure! Its Juhu, it will probably be another Tun Tun!” Dr. Hema used the name of a famously obese Bollywood extra.
Sadiq cringed. He wished he were as insensitive as these young doctors.
A sulky maid opened the door, chewing tobacco like cow cud. They could hear loud Bollywood music in the background. For a moment they stood staring at each other.
“Uhm…you called the ambulance?” Dr. Hema said. Normally, anxious relatives would thankfully usher them in.
The bovine maid didn’t change expression. “Yes, inside. This way.”
They followed her. Birju threw him a meaningful look, filing this moment to gossip over masala chai later. The drawing room was unusually large. It had an old-fashioned balcony which opened up to the sea. Who had balconies in Mumbai nowadays? The décor had once been in vogue - fake-wood, sunk-in living room, and maroon sofas. It looked like an ‘80s Bollywood movie set, the house of the heroine’s rich father. The furnishings had gone dull; the velvet sofa and ornate dining table sported a thick layer of dust. This was clearly the home of faded fortune.
The maid led them to the sizable bedroom. On the floor was the patient on her back, motionless and obviously dead. She was a large woman, a blubber of white, with straw brown-grey hair and oversize jeans. She looked vaguely familiar. Sadiq wondered if she’d been in the hospital before; it was hard to tell from this angle.
Dr. Hema and Birju swung into action as per hospital procedure, taking vital stats, looking for the pulse. The Bollywood music kept on playing, a jingling tune meant for happier times. Sadiq had to stop his feet from tapping to the rhythm. He looked around, eyes travelling over the wooden décor - the faded but tightly-made bed, the tired wall painting…Oh My God!
Sadiq looked back from the gilt-framed photo on the bed-stand to the patient on the floor and back again.
‘Is she…?’ he turned to the maid.
The maid blinked, lips curling up in a cynical half-grin. She rolled her eyes.
Sadiq turned to the patient. Was she dead? Oh God! Was she dead?
‘We’ve got a pulse!’ Dr. Hema announced.
They prepared her, injecting, noting down vital stats, covering her with tubes. Dr. Hema asked the maid questions, How? What? When? The maid answered succinctly, surprisingly accurate in her facts. Sadiq wheeled the stretcher into the flat (thank God for the big drawing room). It was inconceivable that she lived here alone with this Hitler-of-a- maid for company, She who was once loved by millions. It was inconceivable that this white blubbering mass was her.
“1! 2! 3!” They heaved her up. “Told you it would be a Tun Tun!” Dr. Hema whispered as the stretcher’s wheels jingled in protest. Bollywood music continued clanging until the maid shut the door. She didn’t bother to ask questions about survival chances or visiting hours.
She who was once loved by millions.
They loaded her into the van and Sadiq started driving.
An image came to his mind. Her…in the blue halter-neck dress, the same one in the photo, sweet innocent face, silky hair, as if unaware of the cleavage on display. And Ahmed and he in the cinema hall, twelve, open-mouthed, drool dripping down to their chin. The men around them, horny, catcalling, wolf-whistling. Him, leaning over to whisper “Told you she was jhakaas…sexy!”
Ahmed nodding, eyes still on the screen.
It was the first time a heroine had worn revealing clothes in Bollywood. Vamps wore revealing clothes, danced the cabaret, and spoke English. Heroines wore demure saris and suffered in silence. But she - Raina Jamaal - had blasted that stereotype. She had the face of a heroine and the body of a vamp. No wonder men wrote letters in blood for her.
“Can’t imagine she’s Muslim,” Ammi would say, brandishing a steel ladle in the wok.
“Must be from Pakistan…. Stop that Salma!” His sister would sneak away to the toilet to dance to “Jing Jing Jinga” in front of their only mirror, blurred with age.
They used to play Bollywood- Bollywood. Ahmed and he. He would be Amitabh Bachchan and Ahmed would be the villain, Gabbar Singh. He would be Amitabh and Ahmed would be his side-kick, Shashi Kapoor. He would be Amitabh and Ahmed would swing his hips, pretending to be Raina, while Salma would giggle. But he would always be Amitabh. Ahmed fought with him about it, and then Sadiq would, once in a while, concede to be Shashi Kapoor.
Because, in that movie, Shashi Kapoor got Raina at the end.
Sadiq smiled. Ammi had refused to let him put up posters in the house so he’d kept a photo of Raina in his wallet. It was probably still there.
He turned a sharp right. Better to avoid the Andheri flyover at this time.
Ammi was dead now, “a broken heart because her only son amounted to a leech, a good-for-nothing leech” Salma reminded him from time to time. Salma was ridden with three babies, their father and her in-laws, demanding, wheedling cash from him every time she called. His dad’s entire life had amounted to a corner in Salma’s cupboard.
Ahmed was now a Floor Supervisor in a SuperBazaar in the mall, with his own two-wheeler, two-children family.
And he, he had run away, like millions and millions in billion-plus country to find Bollywood, as if only Bollywood would know that he was one-in-a-million.
And that Bollywood, that mystical Mumbai had sucked his soul of what-he-could-be and turned him inside-out into a shell of what-he-was. A junior employee in a corporate, money-making hospital. So unimportant that he didn’t have any specific job, but was a nameless, shapeless ‘hospital boy.’ Bought just because he cost so little, might as well have him in case they needed an extra pair of hands, not him specifically, but just an extra pair of hands to do the jobs everyone else was too important to do.
And she- Raina Jamaal - she had conquered Bollywood and Mumbai, but Mumbai had beaten her in the end. It had reduced her to the average- the nameless, faceless, shapeless average.
He turned into a gully and groaned. The gully was clogged. Traffic. Mumbai traffic. Be it a politician or a film superstar, Mumbai traffic made equals of us all. Reduced us to average. A not-required average.
The ambulance came to a halt behind a Party Supplies trailer. The siren whoop-whoop-whooped but dead faces stared back. One-more-dying, one less on our roads, “Good, Good, Good,” they seemed to chant.
Dr. Hema sighed, glancing at the monitor. “Don’t think she’ll last much longer,” she sighed. “Eh Birju, do you have Baby-Doll on your phone?”
They had still not recognized Raina; they were much younger than him, of course. They’d missed the Raina-Jamaal phase. What would they have done if they knew who she was? A politician had been recently admitted to the hospital. A special helicopter had been sent out to pick him up, he had been placed in the high-security floor, and a personal cook was preparing ayurvedic meals for him in the hospital kitchen. That politician had several cases of rape and corruption filed against him.
Sadiq stewed inside the non-air-con ambulance. What would Amitabh Bachchan have done? The steering wheel purred under his palm, reminding him of its awesome power. Tempting power. His hands rested lazily on it, a restrained animal. He tightened his grip on the wheel, his body internalizing the machine’s rhythm.
The empty footpath stood beside; the pavement had been cleared of hawkers by BMC last night.
Suddenly he swung the steering wheel. Screeeeeee!!!
The ambulance swerved right. It wheeled to the pavement, lurching on its potholed surface, the stretcher jingling dangerously.
“Sadiq!” Dr. Hema shouted. “Are you crazy?”
He didn’t hear her. Mumbai was too noisy.
Pedestrians shrieked and ran helter-skelter, a blur of shrieks and colour. He swerved at the crossing, breaking the red light. Two cars screeched to avoid crashing into the ambulance. One spun right and the other grazed the first one’s bumper, glass and metal splintered satisfyingly.
Just like a Bachchan movie. He was in an old green Fiat and the villain was in an imported Benz.
“Sadiq! We’ll overturn!” Birju yelled, holding onto the window for dear life. The stretcher slid this way and that, but Raina Jamal was set firmly on it and safe, that was all he saw.
They were near Juhu-Circle, the 9-year-old cancer boy Juhu-Circle. Sadiq took a sharp left.
“What are you doing? That’s the Joggers Park!”
“Mumbai should not have any parks,” Sadiq muttered, driving onto the manicured gardens. Old aunties in saris and sneakers yelped as he passed by.
“No! We’re going to crash!” Dr. Hema cried.
The old benefactor, in whose fond memory the park had been built, had donated a huge plot for himself at its other end. In a city with no space for the living, some dead had valuable square footage. A rectangular plaque, marble and shiny, large and raised on one end, like a launch pad.
“Brake! Brake!” Birju yelled.
Sadiq was very clear about what he was going to do. He pressed the accelerator.
The ambulance made contact with marble and launched in the air. Sadiq saw it as if it was slow motion: the crunch of the vehicle against the plaque, the ambulance taking off, Birju and Dr. Hema yelling, “SADIQ!!!” in chorus, the stretcher a few centimeters in the air, up and up they were flying, the low wall of the park in front of them.
And then, they’d cleared the wall. They landed on the road with a thud. The stretcher landed in the center, Raina still on it, protected by the side-rails.
“Birju! Grab the wheel!” Dr. Hema ordered.
But Sadiq pressed race, and they both fell to the back of the vehicle. The hospital was close by now, but oh no, the market was in between. The BMC hadn’t been here and the hawkers had covered the pavements with bamboo and gunny bag stalls. Fruitwallahs, spice sellers, it was an Indian bazaar of colours and confusion.
Sadiq plunged on.
BAM! Dig…dig…digdigdig… digdigdigdigdig
Mountains of red and orange were obliterated and stray apples and oranges rolled on the streets.
A soda-water stall crashed and a fountain of coloured water erupted.
Gunny bags of spices sank to the floor and clouds of red and yellow blurred the ambulance from view. For a while there was stunned silence. Then Sadiq slammed the accelerator and the ambulance emerged from the dust, bearing garlands of marigold it had picked on the way.
They crossed the final crossing-on green light, mind it, and drove straight to the swanky gates of the hospital. For once there was not much traffic to enter the hospital; Sadiq took it as a sign from the Gods. They drove around the hospital, God strike the builder who had put the A&E at the back-gate, hoping that BMC would widen the road that led to it. Sadiq wheeled around, bumping over speed breakers into a large hollow cavern.
They screeched to a halt, the stretcher lurching to the center as if it had been there all the while. Sadiq turned to grin at his crew. Dr. Hema and Birju were squashed at the back, Raina was still comatose on the stretcher, but the heart monitor beeped encouragingly. Dr. Hema relaxed her fingers on her face; her nails had dug imprints on her cheek.
“WHAT THE ” she began, but there was a loud knocking on the ambulance doors. Birju came to life and pulled the lock open.
“Come on! Come on!” Nurses and scrubs exploded into the van. “Fast! Fast!”
Several hands reached out into the ambulance. In seconds, the stretcher was wheeled out. Birju had gone with it.
“Hurry!” A scrub shouted at Dr. Hema. “There’s been a building collapse. Let’s get this over with before the rest of the ambulances arrive!”
Dr. Hema shot Sadiq one last look and got off the vehicle.
Sadiq took a deep breath and jerked his door open, once, twice, ‘til he managed it. He got off the driver’s seat, unsteady on his feet, the ground forcing him to steady himself. All he could see was a sea of white and green. The stretcher had been swallowed, well out of his grasp. Red and yellow lights flashed, blinding him.
He stopped. She would not remember him. He smiled. She would never know him. Perhaps she would still die. Sadiq found that he already didn’t care. He could hear the sirens of approaching ambulances.
He looked back at his ambulance. It was just an ordinary, white, Omni ambulance.