The dialysis ward was brightly lit, well ventilated, and was neither too cold nor to hot. It was not a very large room, and therefore one could see all of the ten beds in the ward; next to each one of which sat the large squat machines in whose innards the process of dialysis took place, clicking and beeping. The room was empty, as the clock had only just struck eleven, and the first patients would only arrive at a quarter past that hour.
To the casual onlooker, these environs would not have seemed grim or foreboding, and yet my stomach lurched and a sense of dread welled up in my stomach as I imagined the dialysis machines at work.
We whispered to each other in muted tones, discussing the functions of various aspects of the dialysis machines, and the intricacies of the procedure itself with Jomon Kuriakose, one of the managers of the institution. As we talked, we moved along the rows of beds, and then retraced our steps to end up in our original position. Occasionally, Kuriakose would lift his arm and gesture at a component of one of the machines, and, in his lilting Malayali accent, deliver a lucid explanation of its operation. During the breaks in our dialogue with Kuriakose we could discern the soft whirring of the air-conditioning machines in the background. When Kuriakose was satisfied that he had demystified – to the best of his abilities – the functions of the dialysis apparatus, he took leave of us and retired to his position at the reception. It was but a couple of minutes after his departure that the glass door of the ward swung open, and a tall man clad in a dhoti and a shirt walked in. His gait served to distinguish him immediately from the other men who might have been accoutred as he was: his stride was short, slow and measured; it was not purposeful and nor was it regal – it was the stride of a defeated man. At glance at his eyes told me immediately that such was indeed the case – the fire that burns in my eyes, in your eyes, in everybody’s eyes, had, in his eyes, faded to a dim, reticent glow; dull, and almost totally obscure by the sadness contained in his expression.
He walked past us and, with the air of a man well accustomed to what he was doing, he slowly slid into the last bed from the wall opposite us. He slowly unfolded the blanket at his feet and draped it over himself in a manner that told us he had done it many times before. He held out his right arm and patiently waited for the nurse to connect him to the machine that was the closest to him.
While Shekar, as we later learned his name to be, was being handled by the nurse, we heard the door behind us creak again. The newcomer had exactly the same gait as Shekar. His eyes too, no longer burned with the fire of life. They told a miserable story of grief and illness; of reduced circumstances; of pain and fatigue. The chubby cheeks that one playfully pinches on the face of a child were, on this man’s face, the symptoms of failing kidneys. Disturbed and unnerved, I turned around to see my companions and Roopa Aunty striding towards the bed of that other unfortunate, Shekar.
We stood together beside his bed as Roopa Aunty softly asked him if we, as students and teacher, could ask him some questions about the history of his illness and of his life. He assented with the slightest of nods of his head.
Shekar was Tamil, and hence Roopa Aunty asked him questions in that same language. As they spoke, the story of his life unfolded in our heads, painting grim pictures, not unlike Rembrandts, in our minds—
Shekar was, judging by the ages of his children, aged between thirty and forty years. His two children, of ages five and three years, get their respective stomachs through the labour of their mother. He (Shekar) used to work on a daily wage basis, but was forced to leave his job after his dialysis began. He had earlier spent fifty thousand rupees on dialysis at St. Johns Hospital, and had come to know of Sarvagna Dialysis Centre only later. Now, dialysis is free for him, but he is not likely to be able to resume work in the near future.
While Shekar’s life story was unfolding, he made soft, restricted, gestures with his arms. As my senses absorbed all the information they were receiving, I tried to imagine what it would be like, as a poor man, to have to undergo treatment such as dialysis three times a week, for four hours each time.
From where did he get the courage to plod all the way to the dialysis centre three times a week, when each time he knows that he will have to come again only two days later, or face the pain and fatigue? Are not the dim motes of light in his eyes the ghosts of a once bright flame; remnants of the past that might, at any time, vanish, along with his spirit? Is not going to the dialysis centre the only thing that he can do for the rest of his life until he dies?