The sun was almost touching the tops of the hills, ready to disappear behind them, when Madhuli got home. Amma was still seated on the low stone wall that ran around the courtyard, trying to squeeze the last drops of warmth from the fading sun. Responding to the sound of Madhuli’s footsteps, she said, “So, you’ve come?” reaching out for her stick.
“Yes, Amma,” twelve-year-old Madhuli replied. “Wait, I’ll help you.” She put down her cloth bag, heavy with books, eased the bundle of twigs off her slender back and stretched gratefully. It was a long walk home from school in the nearby village, up and down rough hill tracks.
“I don’t need help,” Amma insisted. She’d already got to her feet, and was settling the ends of her crumpled cotton sari with one hand while she grasped the stick firmly with the other. “Come, child. I asked Basanti to put water for tea on the fire so it would be ready when you came.” Using the stick to feel her way, she made her way into the house.
“Oh, Amma, why did you trouble her?” Madhuli’s fine eyebrows drew together in a frown. “I could have done it.”
“Why not?” Amma’s bony face, crisscrossed with wrinkles, turned shrewd. “Didn’t I give her four big lemons off our tree yesterday?”
“Oh, Amma!” Madhuli couldn’t help smiling, as she followed her grandmother into the slate roofed cottage.
Basanti was a neighbor, a kindly middle-aged woman who often looked out for Amma while Madhuli was away in school. Madhuli had lost her mother when she was barely five and her father, who had gone off to work in the plains had remarried, leaving Basanti and her older brother Haria to be brought up by their maternal grandmother. But when Haria finished school and managed to do quite well in his exams, Babuji had called him to Delhi, taught him driving and found him a job. The only difficulty was that now Madhuli was left all alone with Amma, who could not see so well any longer. But that was not such a big problem, both Babuji and Haria said. The village was safe, safer than the city. They had good neighbors and one of these days Haria would get a doctor to operate on Amma’s eyes. Only he needed to save money for the operation. Government hospitals were no use and a good private doctor was expensive so it would take some time because he had to send money for their upkeep too. Amma could not work in the fields now and Babuji found it hard to support two families.
Both Amma and Madhuli understood this well, that’s why they were patient and tried to manage as best as they could. And whenever anyone told Amma that a simple operation would set her eyes right, she would say, “When Haria comes, he will see to it. What can an old woman like me and this little girl do on our own?”
So there the matter rested.
The blackened old aluminium saucepan was simmering on the wood fire. Madhuli added a few more twigs to it, then as the flames shot up and the water began to boil, she added tea leaves, milk and sugar.
“Were you able to find some wood?” Amma asked.
“Yes. I gathered enough to see us through the next few days. Here, Amma.” She put a steel glass of tea into her grandmother’s hand, being careful to wrap it in the end of her sari.
“Bless you, child,” Amma said. She sighed, “I wish I wasn’t so helpless. You go to school, come home tired and have to do all the work. If only these wretched eyes of mine weren’t so bad…”
“Oh, no Amma!” Madhuli quickly said. “It’s hardly any work. After all we just sit in school the whole day.”
“My dear girl,” Amma said with a laugh, fondling Madhuli’s head. “But it won’t be long now. When Haria comes next, he said, he will take me to Dilli (Delhi) for my eye operation. And then I’ll be able to do all the cooking and everything else.”
Madhuli didn’t say anything. She thought of Haria’s last letter in which he had written that he was finding it hard to save as much as he needed to for the operation, with the cost of living going up. As she munched on the cold chapattis which formed her evening snack all kinds of thoughts flitted through her mind.
How long would it take for Haria to collect enough money? The sum he mentioned sounded enormous—five thousand rupees, apart from what they would spend on traveling to Delhi. If only it was possible to get Amma’s eyes treated here! There was a hospital in the nearby town, but old Dewan kaka had lost his eyesight totally after getting operated upon there. This was one reason Haria wanted Amma to come to Delhi.
“You can’t get decent medical treatment here,” he said. “We can’t take chances with Amma’s eyes.”
But in the meantime, life was becoming more and more difficult for Amma. She could barely move around on her own now. Just a couple of weeks ago, she had tripped and fallen. Thankfully she didn’t break any bones. However, she had been downcast for several days. It was hard for a hard working and independent person like her to just sit around the whole day, doing nothing. But what choice did they have but to wait for Haria?
Sometimes, though, Madhuli really got tired of waiting. And sometimes she felt so despondent that she wondered if Haria would ever be able to save enough money.
That time when Amma had fallen down, she couldn’t help confiding these fears to her friend Bhagya, who accompanied her to school every day.
“Yes, I know how hard it is for you,” Bhagya had said sympathetically. “But what can you do? You just have to wait till Haria can arrange things.”
That hadn’t helped at all, made Madhuli fret even more. Why can’t I do anything on my own? She had thought despairingly.
But today, as they were walking to school, Bhagya suddenly stopped and looked at her thoughtfully.
“Madhuli,” she said, “have you heard about the new hospital?”
“Hospital?” Madhuli frowned. “I know some construction was going on near Sehrapani and someone said they were building a hospital.” Then she broke off to look at Bhagya again, her heart skipping a beat. “You mean—but…can people like us go there?”
“Of course we can!” Bhagya’s eyes gleamed. “My aunt took her baby boy there. She was full of praise and kept saying, ‘The doctors are so nice. You can’t imagine how clean it is!’ And the best is though it’s a private hospital, she said, they charge very little from poor people like us. Some rich lady has given money to build and run it.”
“I can’t believe it!” Madhuli cried. “You mean there really is a nice clean hospital where people like us can get proper medical treatment without paying much? It sounds too good to be true!”
“If you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself,” Bhagya replied. “Sehrapani is not that far. Maybe you can find out if they can do something for Amma.”
“Do you think so, Bhagya?” Madhuli exclaimed, gripping her friend’s hand excitedly.
“Why not?” Bhagya’s round face was nonchalant. “You only have to go and ask.”
“Why not?” Madhuli echoed, so buoyant with hope that she felt she could fly there that very moment.
She would have taken a detour on her way back from school if they hadn’t been running out of fuel. She had to spend a lot of time gathering twigs from the forest through which she passed on her way home, because they could not afford to buy wood or coal from the market. She would definitely find out tomorrow. And if they could do Amma’s eye operation—she felt she could fly all the way to Delhi to tell Haria!
Suddenly she realized that that it had grown quite dark. Lost in thought, she had not noticed it. Night swooped down on them so swiftly in winter. Madhuli hurriedly lit the kerosene lamps. There was homework to finish and dinner to be cooked.
The simple meal of spinach and chapattis was soon ready and she served Amma first so she could eat and go to bed. She herself would stay up completing her homework. She was done and just about to blow the lamp out when Amma stirred and groaned.
“What’s the matter?” Madhuli asked.
“My stomach,” she said, “it aches terribly. Maybe the spinach did not agree with me.”
“Oh…I should have borrowed some potatoes.” Madhuli’s brow wrinkled with concern. “Shall I give you something for the stomach ache?” she asked, cursing herself. They had run out of potatoes so she had plucked spinach from their vegetable patch and cooked it. She should have been more careful. Amma’s digestion was not so good. Where was the herbal remedy Basanti kaki gave her last time, when Amma had the same problem?
But the medicine didn’t help. Amma’s groans grew louder. What was she to do? She tried to recall what Amma did for her when she had a stomach ache. Quickly she warmed a lump of asafetida and put it on Amma’s navel, it was supposed to be good for the pain, then she heated pads of cloth on the dying fire and applied them too. But nothing worked. Soon Amma was writhing in such agony that frightened, Madhuli ran to her neighbor's house and banged on the door.
“Who is it?” a voice called, slurred with sleep. It was Bishan kaka, Basanti’s husband.
“It’s me,” Madhuli tried to gulp down her tears. “Amma’s sick. She’s in terrible pain.”
“Have you given her that medicine I gave you last time?” Basanti kaki asked, opening the door.
“Yes, but it didn’t help!”
“Let me bring something else.”
Soon they were hurrying back through the darkness.
“I’m afraid nothing’s working.” Bishan kaka’s face was grave.
Madhuli gazed at Amma’s leaden face. Half an hour had passed. They had given her the other medicine, kept putting heating pads, more asafetida, but to no avail.
“I-I’ll be all right,” Amma gasped, trying to smile. “Just give me some more of that medicine.”
But Basanti kaki’s gaze was somber as she looked at Madhuli. “We’ve tried everything,” she whispered. “She needs a doctor…But it’ll take too long to fetch one from town, even if someone agrees to come.”
Madhuli’s heart seemed to stop beating. Was it that serious? What would she do if anything happened to Amma? Who would take care of her? She wanted to wail aloud. The sight of Basanti kaki’s gloomy face, as she stood in a corner whispering to her husband made her feel worse. It took an enormous effort to keep from breaking down.
Her anxious gaze traveled back to Amma. How could she let her lie there suffering without doing anything? No, no, she couldn’t give up like that. But what could she do? She tried to think, hard though it was with Amma’s low moans resounding through her head. Desperately she racked her brains for any idea that might help.
And then, like a miracle, Bhagya’s words came back to her—the new hospital! Couldn’t they take Amma there? There might be some doctors available. It was worth trying!
But just as she was about to speak, another thought made her hesitate. Surely her kind neighbors knew about the hospital. Bishan kaka went to work in town…he must pass it every day. Why hadn’t he suggested it? She glanced at their troubled faces. Maybe…it hadn’t struck him…the hospital was so new…But, was it right for her, a mere girl to speak up and tell her elders what to do? Didn’t they know better than her?
Amma groaned again. Madhuli shuddered at the sound. It was so agonized. No, she couldn’t stay silent, while Amma lay there suffering? She would have to speak up, even if it might appear rude!
She ran to Basanti kaki and said diffidently, “Kaki…kaki, do-do you think we can take her to the new hospital—the one that’s come up near Sehrapani?”
Bishan kaka stared at her. Madhuli’s heart shrank. Was he offended that she was telling them what to do, instead of waiting for them to decide? She was about to say, “I’m sorry, my anxiety for Amma overcame me!”
But Bishan kaka clicked his tongue. “The child is right, Basanti,” he cried. “The new hospital! I’ve heard about it—it’s close by and they say it’s excellent. It’s our only chance. Why didn’t I think of it? Let’s get two men and take her there in a dandy.”
He stepped out at once, pulling his muffler around his head. It was freezing outside. Soon he was back, accompanied by two other neighbors. Gently, they helped Amma into a dandy, a kind of palanquin. The two men hoisted it on to their shoulders and they set off.
Madhuli would never forget the walk through the darkness to the hospital. Her heart thumped madly all the way wondering what would happen next. Amma’s groans were so alarming. The movement of the dandy seemed to make the pain worse, though the men tried hard not to jerk it. But it was a steep climb from the village to the main road, the path was rough and it was hard to maintain an even pace.
The sight of the bright new hospital made her perk up. It felt like a haven of hope, with its cheerful red roof lit up by the row of lights that surrounded it. A white coated doctor appeared soon after Amma was carried in. He examined her carefully and said, “I’m afraid it’s an attack of appendicitis, she will need to be operated upon right away.” Madhuli thought she would faint with fright. But the doctor said kindly, “There’s no need to worry. She seems to be in good health and will recover fast. You brought her just in time.”
In a daze Madhuli watched them hurry Amma away.
“That was good thinking, Madhuli,” Bishan kaka said. “Even I couldn’t remember about this hospital. It’s so new—it just didn’t strike me.”
It had been a long night. They had dozed on the seats in the corridor. Madhuli lost track of time but the clock showed twenty past five when the doctor came out and told them Amma was okay. And now they were sitting in the hospital canteen, gratefully dipping biscuits into glasses of hot tea.
“I should thank Bhagya for telling me,” Madhuli smiled. It still didn’t feel as if the terrible night been a real experience.
“That may be so,” Basanti kaki said. “But you remembered, at such an anxious time, when we could hardly think straight. That was the most important thing.”
“Even your Babuji and Haria were quite amazed when I telephoned them,” Bishan kaka continued. “Our little Madhuli has become a smart girl, Haria said. She is taking good care of Amma.”
Madhuli felt herself go all warm inside, despite the bitter cold.
“Child,” Amma still sounded weak. Her eyes filled up as she squeezed Madhuli’s hand. “You saved my life.”
“Not I alone,” Madhuli was quick to reply. “If Bishan kaka and Basanti kaki and the others hadn’t helped, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”
“But they said it was you who came up with the idea of bringing me to this hospital,” Amma insisted.
Madhuli just smiled and squeezed Amma’s hand back. Soon she would tell Amma about another idea. She had asked the doctor if Amma’s eyes could be operated upon here too and he had said they could, without any trouble at all.
That’s what they would do when Amma got better. She wouldn’t have to wait till Haria came. Madhuli could manage too!
From the collection Not Just Girls published by Rupa & Co.