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]