Blood and Helplessness in Calcutta

Just last week The Telegraph (India) carried front page chronicles of a school-boy who had been knocked off his friend’s motorbike and had stayed on the AJC Bose Road flyover, bleeding, while the city swerved and honked past him. It took a stranger’s illegal traffic blockade — the man parked his motorbike across the flyover in a desperate attempt to get people to stop and help — to convince an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital. By then, the boy was dead.

Before I’m enthusiastically drafted into casting stones, I should admit that I was one such city commuter last month, when I saw a man have a seizure/epileptic fit while on a bike, lose control of it, crack his unprotected head on the road and break his neck. “Shouldn’t we stop?”, I asked my colleagues in the cab with me, knowing I didn’t want to and willing them to emphatically disagree. Before they could, however, the taxi driver sped up. “There’s no need to go looking for trouble”, he admonished. “It’s past ten in the night, you’re a young woman, this isn’t a good area and his friends are with him. What do you want to go poking your nose for?”

And I sat back comfortably, my conscience assuaged.

It’s hard to pat myself on the back for talking the talk, however, when I’m standing in my bathroom with someone else’s blood on my hands, without a clue how to make it stop flowing. This morning, our neighbours were unexpectedly out, and their cleaning lady had come in to wash her muddy feet in our bathroom. While trying to scrub the mud off one foot with the other, she lost her balance, caught the sink on her way down, yanked it half off its support, crashed the glass shelf where we kept toothbrushes and things, and finally crashed with a jagged piece of glass in her palm, a gash across her forehead, and a sink tottering above her head.

And then she started screaming.

She screamed and screamed in a high-pitched monotone, refusing to budge as I tried to haul her out from under the sink. I was half in shock myself. I didn’t actually think the sink would crash, but thing had gone from normal to terrifying in three seconds. My ears were ringing, there was blood on my hands and, and my brain was lurching in woolly panic. Clearly, we needed help. And I had absolutely no clue how to get it, except from my neighbours. None of whom had come to our door, even after a minute of steady high-pitched screaming. In the end, more in desperation than in kindness, I splashed cold water from the bucket into the woman’s face. Thrice. And she abruptly stopped screaming. This time, when I urged her to get her left shoulder out from under the sink, she hastily complied. And it was only then that I noticed that her palm hadn’t been pierced by broken glass, as I’d assumed. She was clutching it tightly, without, apparently, realising she was doing it. It took me a few tries to get her to let go of the glass. And then I almost wished I hadn’t, because blood gushed forth, and she started screaming again, but this time more of an intelligible wail rather than a scream of terror.

Things went on quickly from there. We washed her hand on the damaged sink, held it in light to check for broken pieces of glass, wrapped it tightly in a piece torn off an old cotton blouse (I realised I had no idea where my parents now kept the medical supplies), made her an ice-pack with the rest of the blouse to stop the blood flow (I actually have no idea if this works, I could only hope) and warned her not to let the melt-water get inside the wound (I have no idea why this seemed so important, either). I even offered to find one of my mother’s old saris for her to wear, since the hem of hers was now wet.

She refused the offer. Glaring at me from the floor, she told me that I needn’t forget it was our bathroom that did this to her, and if I thought an old sari was enough bribe to keep her quiet, I had another thing coming. With triumphant malice, she declared she couldn’t wait to see what happened when we demanded she pay for the damage to our bathroom, damage that we had brought upon ourselves by putting stupid tiles on the floor and fussy glass shelves, and god would see to it that we suffer from them just as she had today. And then she attempted to get up. And collapsed once again, having sprained muscles in her hip or waist or thereabouts.

After much frantic networking, her family was finally located around 1PM. They helped her down four flights of stairs in a lift-less building, promising to take her directly to the hospital. I had missed a day at work. I had also realised, from her defensive, panicky rage, that our neighbours made their help pay for ‘damages’ incurred during the course of work. It was, of course, not reciprocal. No one came forward to help her family with hospital bills. And finally, at the end of it all, I am still just as clueless about getting help in medical emergencies as I was before this. For all that the US and its predilection for phoning the police made me nervous, I could at least dial 911 at a moment’s notice. Of course, I could be arrested five minutes into the cop’s entry for suspected domestic violence, but there’s always the off-chance I wouldn’t, and I’d at least have had briskly, impersonally efficient people around. Here, I was standing with a furious, intermittently wailing woman at my feet, and completely cut off from anybody who might be able to help.

Of course, I have numbers for two ambulance local services. But they charge the sky, have no equipment to hold people with damaged bones or muscles, are not staffed with people who know what to do in case of an emergency mid-way to the hospital, and are very unreliable about showing up promptly. The only local hospital where one would not be in a risk of picking up an infection is a dental hospital, and the private nursing homes hem and haw before admitting one, and then promptly order a barrage of unnecessary tests and procedures. One of them told my mother she needed a pacemaker when she collapsed due to dehydration two years back. They even booked the surgery, and later tried to charge us a cancellation fee. And, of course, our neighbours no longer come running.

Put your hands up, philosophers and theologists. Have we made ourselves this helpless by our collective refusal to help others? Have we put ourselves at the mercy of mercenaries by refusing to hold our government accountable for our tax-funded services? I’m thinking yes. I’m thinking there is a big karmic kick-back here. I’m thinking if there are gods, we have rejected them pretty irreversibly by refusing to use the brains they ostensibly gave us,  and signing off our self-interest and rights at the coaxing of Daddy and Mummy figures on television and political rallies.

And, I’m thinking I’m going to have a few pointedly polite words with the neighbours, to see if we can’t turn this tide yet, one small wave at a time. Jesus Christ, people, we have to *live* in this world. With scars and fractures and blood. Diving headlong into saas-bahu serials, Page 3 supplements and Twitter activism isn’t going to help. Operation Dirtying Hands in on, people. And it will start with a scolding.

[First published on 24 August 2011]



    • I’m no fan of hers, Mr. B, but I think she’d been conditioned into pre-emptive aggressiveness by her Scrooge-like employers.

      It’s lovely to see you still read this blog, though 🙂

  1. This is such a great story, I hope you do something more with it. So much as things are, arguing about money with the poor, I was awakened by phone at 6 AM by a poor man I owe repair money to and he knew I’d have it today, I was irritated because he also knows I don’t get in from work until midnight, how can he not just let me sleep slightly longer, etc.

  2. The boy’s story was horrifying, and the maid’s no less so, for several reasons. For the last several years I find that most neighbours are strangers, and staying out of other people’s trouble is a byword for the times. love thy neighbour as thyself sounds mythical now.
    Did the woman come back for compensation? And what was your feedback from the neighbours? Hope the bathroom is back to normal.

  3. well, i have a lot to say. given my dad recently had convulsions while on the train alone going towards bangalore. he was given initial treatment by a kind ‘lady doctor’ on the train, taken to cuttack general hospital and taken care of the whole night BY STRANGERS before my boyfriend, uncle and I managed to reach next morning on an overnight bus. we took him to bhubaneswar apollo where the expensive medical establishment took over. and did well. we paid for it. but the young boy of 25 who stayed up all night with my dad while he was delusional and unconscious in phases was neither a doctor nor a friend. his dad stayed up with him. and they refused to accept the 400 rupees they had spent on buying medicines. boy said: ‘your dad, my dad.’ didnt speak very good english. so yes, strangely, ‘the kindness of strangers’, even now. so then i asked myself, would i do it for someone else’s dad? thing is, NOW i would.

    • Sheitai. In the past I had, in the more recent past I had stopped, and NOW again I would. But I would still make sure I had other people with me, because once I stayed with an accidental victim till the ambulance arrived, and his son accused me of stealing his father’s watch and wallet.

      • *Accident victim. But you get my point. Helpfulness seldom goes unpunished, that is perhaps another reason why we let people die by the streetside. Certainly why the cabbie wouldn’t let me help, certainly why a lot of people would think twice before helping the cleaning lady again.

  4. There’s only one clear reason why we don’t get involved in emergencies. That we don’t wish to get “involved”. Whether with someone else’s blood on our hands, or bloodying ourselves, in trying to get aid.

  5. My husband was lying unconscious on the side of a very busy Satragachi bridge after his car faced a head-on collision with a 16 wheeled truck. He would have been lying there and probably would have died if not for a 82 year old freedom-fighter who had gone out for his morning walk and contacted the local police station after he saw him. His so-called friends who incidentally are junior doctors themselves, had fled leaving him to bleed to death basically, because apparantly a police case can result in one’s doctor’s license to be nulled. This single incident which is very very close and personal to me makes me believe that we as a generation might actually have forgotten how to be brave. We are just too cautious to be that now.

  6. Chandrayee, this reminded me of when we ran around with a senior colleague’s driver (very well known to the entire office). He had had a stroke and I called up a doctor friend who asked me to bring him to their hospital. We weren’t allowed to enter since the man was already dead, and since we couldn’t enter we couldn’t get a death certificate. The body was taken to several private nursing homes and then eventually stood in queue at Chittaranjan where they finally obtained a death certificate. Imagine persuading the taxi driver to travel about town like this with a dead body. Nobody wanted to be involved because it apparently became a police case.

    • I think some of us remember the incident from our UG years when boys from the Jadavpur University Boys’ Hostel next to Thana ran from one police station to another with a bleeding man who had bashed his skull on the pavement, having been hurled off his bike by a lorry. No thana would lodge a FIR, and no private or public hospital would take him without a FIR. Eventually he died in some of the boys’ arms, or perhaps at the hospital gates. I forget which.

  7. There is some difference between getting involved with an unknown accident victim- which means getting involved with the police case and helping a known person (eg domestic help or colleague). In Kolkata even the latter is a challenge unfortunately. You have described the situation quite well- try getting a newspaper to publish it. If it is possible to spark some interest in solving the type of problem you faced (domestic help accidentally injured at work)- it would go a long way. Solving the “police case” phoboia is not so easy

  8. In my husband’s case the police of Satragachi station were infact extremely helpful. It was actually the O.C who called me up and informed me that they are taking my husband to Howrah General hospital. As far as I know they did not harass the old man who went to them for help. But that might also be because that old man is a well-known figure in that local community.
    The Howrah general hospital was a different case altogether. It was the filthiest place I have ever been to and I have been to filhty places(special mention Arsalan bathroom).Thankfully I had gotten a greedy but not-sleazy taxi-driver considering the fact that I was alone and it was 4 am in the morning who agreed to wait in front of the hospital, for extra money ofcourse.

    I went to the men’s ward and found Atanu lying on the floor moving in and out of consciousness, with blood all over him. There were two nurses and around a 100 patients and when I went up to someone who seemed like the head nurse to me and told her that I want to take Atanu out of there, she actually threatened me that the police might will put me in jail for wanting to take an accident case out of there and Atanu will die if I take him away then. But my brain was telling me that if I keep him here he will definitely die and if I take him away, then he might have a chance.I was adamant and rude and finally they made me sign on a blank sheet and released him.After that they refused to give me a trolley. I was expected to drag Atanu down three floors. Some Group D staff offered to provide me with a trolley in exchagne of 50 bucks but refused to push it.SO I took Atanu down and then tried looking around for an ambulance. There was a new one standing in front of us but apparantly we could not used that.So I ended up bundling a broken and delirious Atanu with a dislocated hip inside the cab and we finally ended up in WestBank.

    Later I found out that any government hospital need a ticket which proves that a person was admitted there. The Howrah general hospital could not raise one such ticket in 45 minutes or more and thats the reason why they were scared of legal complexities later if they release Atanu.

  9. My entire point behind that huge comment is that every single government institution are themselves scared/sceptical of the other institution and maybe of themselves. They might want to work and do good but they find reason to not.Their entire attitude seems to be that no matter what I do the public is going to hate me and I am going to get paid no matter what I do.
    We hear so many cases of people dying without any proper medical care, but by law in the Indian Constitution every single human being, even the most dangerous convict with a death sentence has the right to medical attention.

    • This is what I keep on telling everybody and I am tired by now. I am not a very humble person, so when I say it I mean it. It is not about being a hero, it is about being in a particular situation like Sunayana was moving around Kolkata with a dead body…that is a bloody brave thing to do. She could actually have gotten in a huge mess but you do not think about all that then.

      • Yeah, you don’t. But that doesn’t make the two of you any less brave for *other* people. If you asked me right now, I cannot honestly say I will cart around a friend’s dead body demanding a death certificate like Sunny did. It’s different for one’s own family, but even then it takes considerable spine to stand up to hostile administration while one’s husband (or parent, or child, or any other relative) is lying unconscious and bloody o the floor.

  10. Chandreyee, I beg your pardon. Careless of me. 🙂

    And Priyanka, one never really knows what one will do and for whom. As a matter of fact I didn’t really like that driver much. But nobody deserves to die like that.

  11. Hats off to each of the heroic efforts recounted above. Helping the injured need not have demanded so much heroism if our systems were simpler/functioning. Most of the people working in the system learn to use the complexity as a tool for exploitation. The dehumanisation is chilling. People who have gone to the christian medical college at vellore are happy about the efficiency but happiest about the humane treatment they get. Whereas a visitor to R.K.Mission hospital Calcutta complained of the maharajes acting like wannabe bureaucrats. There are gangs in the city which stage small accidents or near accidents and a mob materializes out of nowhere demanding damages. Mostly people pay up rather than facing the officials. People are sacred of visiting even the municipal corporation office. This is what we have elected for decades. The elected let the workers and service providers get so thoroughly out of hand. This is why most of the bengalis who can manage it, escape to other countries and stay there despite all the nostalgia.

    • Unfortunately, I have to agree with almost everything you said. I have my doubts about reluctant emigrants — in my experience people just accept this constant victimisation as a part of life, OR network like mad to get whatever little crumble of power they can. The same person would pal up to the local politicians and their, ahem, ‘party workers’, and be respectful sycophants to the local OC. *And* ingratiate himself (it’s largely still a male-bonding phenomenon, given the scant number of women in such roles) with a good lawyer, should there be one within his para or his extended social circle.

      Once he has these important friends, however, he will puff himself up quite beyond the size of his own skin, and play broker between the unconnected masses and these his influential pals. And one more rung will have been added to the hierarchy of powerlessness in our society.

  12. For some years, staying in UK and US, I always wondered how it was that South Asians seemed to adjust so quickly and willingly to the fences, borders and anonymity of a Milton Keynes, Bucks., or a Reston, Va. Then I saw Gurgaon, and Salt Lake, and the likes, and I wondered no more. In the West it’s about individuals and their property rights and freedoms. In India it isn’t about individuals, it’s about relationships, but the resulting preoccupation with one’s own and one’s family’s status in relation to that of another, or of others in general, leads straight down the path that Western-inspired global marketing has made ready.

    I told you a while back, Priyanka, about the cyclist who struck (accidentally, he wasn’t looking where he was going) the small street child in Gariahat, then picked up his cycle and kept on going. I told you about my stopping to pick up the child till his dada came from across the road. I told you about then catching up with the offending cyclist, spluttering the obvious “Aapni o chele rastay marlen!” (in my crappy bangla) and receiving only a careless shrug as he made off across the road.

    It is India’s preoccuptation with relationships that makes its people capable of great empathy and support, and great callousness and shunning.

    • I remember that incident. You even pointed out the place where it happened, and I think I told you then — or I may not have, because this is not something I’m proud of — that we’ve become so utterly immune to such casual cruelties that we do not even notice these things any more. Perhaps the cruelties of cultures we haven’t grown up in hit us harder. Once in Somerville, I saw an acquaintance threaten to call the cops on a few Middle-Easten looking foreign students, because one of them had tripped and hurt his ankle, and were resting on his driveway. “You can never be too careful”, he told me, “And if they want it to heal they should go to the ER, not my driveway”. I was, of course, absolutely aghast, and thought predictable thoughts about the racism and social alienation of western cultures. But here, I regularly turn away begging children and impaired people, shove people aside to get that last foothold on a bus, don’t even blink at the working children in establishments I patronise, don’t always protest when I hear casteist/fundamentalist talk, and barely notice the shoves and kicks and exploitations that happen all around us. Getting used to the world is probably the worst thing we do to ourselves, yet how else would be have a modicum of peace? But, of course, this means that when we’re the one’s in trouble, everyone else will ignore us the way we ignored them. There is justice in that, perhaps.


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