After crawling for almost 15 minutes whilst passing through the city, the cab started speeding as soon as the highway started. I nudged Rohan, who was sitting next to me, to ask the driver to slow down. He just shrugged.
Now, the driver also started checking his phone intermittently. I was getting very anxious.
“Please drive slow.” I told him. He looked at me in the rearview mirror and did not bother with a reply. He kept going.
“Drive slow please.” I insisted.
“Madam, relax. I will take you to the hospital in one piece.” He laughed. And again started looking at his phone.
I started sweating and Rohan held my hand as a gesture to relax. But, I just couldn’t. And suddenly I felt a thud and was lurched forward as the cab braked.
The scene before me took me back two years, when I was the one lying on the road.
Two years back
I woke up unusually late and was feeling extremely bubbly that morning. I was finally done with my postgraduate exams the day before. I had promised myself a few days of free time before I got back to studying for another entrance. I wanted to be a cardiologist. Slogging for the rest of my life was something that I had chosen willingly.
I got up, greeted mom and dad, enquired about Rohan and started helping mom to prepare lunch.
“Rohan is being very secretive about his work these days.” Mom started. “Just ask him in your way.”
“Why would I do that? He’s your favorite progeny after all. You do the honors.” I joked.
I knew he was seeing a girl, but I wasn’t going to rat out on my little brother’s secrets. We were getting along lately and I had no intention of turning our revelry into rivalry. I might need him to guard my secrets as well, in the future.
I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to meet Divya for lunch at the new mall adjacent to the highway. I rushed to get ready and at the same time gave the details of my day to mom.
It was a twenty minute walking distance. Saturday afternoon was a quiet time and I decided to brave the sun and walk it up. I reached the highway and could see the mall across. There was just a single car that I could spot coming and the signal was red. I assumed it would stop. But, the next thing I know is that there was a thud and I felt myself flying high up in the sky before hitting the ground with a sickening crunch. The last thing I saw were approaching footsteps before everything turned black.
I woke up to hushed voices and beeping machines. As the fog in my brain cleared, I figured that I was in a hospital attached to a ventilator. The tube stuck in my throat would not let me make any sound, so I began thrashing my hands and legs. That got the attention of the nurse and also made me realize that my legs weren’t moving. The panic must be evident on the furiously beeping machines because the last thing I saw before going back in slumber was the nurse injecting something in the intravenous set.
The sleep wake cycles continued for a few days. Every time I woke up, I remembered that my legs weren’t moving. Gradually, I also became aware that the tube from my throat was out and I could at least speak.
I saw my parents and Rohan. I wanted to hug them and talk to them. But the only sound that came out of my throat was a muffled cry. The very act of breathing hurt. I pointed to my legs and that got them sobbing. They weren’t helping me at all. All I wanted to know was what exactly happened to me.
A day or two later, I was more alert. Finally, I could speak with the treating doctor and discuss my case. I had never imagined myself discussing my own case.
“The impact of the car caused a direct injury to your spinal cord. You have a complete spinal cord injury. And a few broken ribs from the impact of the fall. No other fractures as such. A few bruises here and there.” Dr. Sharma said. “Akriti, you need to be strong to face this. You will be having a long rehabilitation course ahead. And being my most hardworking student, I have full faith that you will bounce back in no time.”
I was happy that my favorite teacher and guide was treating me. But I wasn’t happy about my state. I would never be able to walk again. My bladder and bowel function would be compromised for life. I would never achieve my dream of becoming a cardiologist. How could I be happy?
The two police officers who were looking after my case visited me regularly, too. If only I could remember the driver’s face! He ran away after hitting me. And hardly any eye witnesses. The people who came to my rescue couldn’t get the number plate as the car had already sped. Just my bad luck, that there were no CCTV cameras at that particular junction. It was like the driver with his car had vanished into thin air. It was all up to me now.
But, I couldn’t remember. It was a shock to me as well. One moment I was crossing the road, and the next, I was here!
The days at the hospital dragged on, when finally after a month, I was discharged home. I would have to visit the hospital regularly for physiotherapy and counselling. The accident had drained us financially and we couldn’t afford a home visit by the physiotherapist.
I was confined to the wheelchair. I found it difficult to accept. Anyone would. But, accepting it was kind of expected out of me because I was already in the medical field. Just that, I couldn’t.
The months passed at a snail’s pace. I got increasingly agitated with the slightest provocation and isolated myself from the rest of the world. Rohan tried a lot to convince me to go and live my life. All in vain. He called me a coward for running away from my problems. I ignored him. As I ignored Divya, Rakesh, Saloni and all my other friends who visited regularly to cheer me up.
They were all preparing for the entrance exam. And I was stuck on the wheelchair listening to them.
“Akriti, you should start studying too. It will keep you occupied.” Divya said one day.
“And what will I do by studying? Compete with you guys for the seat? Be happy that you have one less competitor.” I snapped.
Divya looked upset and left. I smirked. At least I had gained a new hobby of upsetting others. My counsellor had given me a new exercise. To write down two things that made me happy every day. Today it would be:
1. Irking and taunting my friends.
2. Ratting out Rohan about his girlfriend to mom and dad.
I had become a sick human being, literally.
A year passed.
Nothing changed. Neither my attitude, nor my physical condition. I hated going to those physiotherapy sessions. I stopped going to the counsellor. I remember the last visit. Both my psychiatrist and the counsellor were blabbering nonstop. Something about depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of it I told them, “I’m not going to visit you anymore. I’m not yet suicidal. When I feel like dying, I’ll come.”
My friends stopped visiting me because of my bitter words. But, Rohan never left my side. He continued pestering me about living my life and not giving up and all that crap. I turned a deaf ear. I hated being dependent on anyone. I wanted to be kept in a care centre for paraplegics, but I also knew that we couldn’t afford it.
One day, I saw something interesting. When mom poured me some juice in the glass, I saw how it made a swishing sound and the orange-red liquid twirled like a ballerina on the surface of the glass. It made me smile.
“This is your snack for today. Carrot juice. Finish it off.” Mom had ordered. And I did as I was told. I had to follow a strict diet so that I wouldn’t put on weight and the life of those who were nursing me would be easier.
I asked Rohan to shift my bed next to the window. It didn’t offer a great view as such. All I could see was the congested street and the food vendors selling their stuff. But the minute details that I had failed to notice before, kept me glued.
The way the man behind the bhelpuri counter would mix the ingredients and toss them, the smoke arising out of the boiling tea that went up in spirals, the splattering sound of the dosa batter when put on the huge pan and the bubbles that formed in it; it was fun watching all of that. Some days I would even count how many people would come and eat from those stalls.
Sometimes, I would hear different types of sounds coming from outside. Different rhythms of laughter floating in the air, some deep rumbling ones, some superficial; different pitches of crying, low muffled sobs which I assumed were of my mother and the howling ones, of the neighboring aunty whose son had failed in his exams.
Once, mother came to me asking about which ornaments would match with her dress. That’s when I noticed her. Really noticed. The dark circles, the smile that did not reach her eyes. I looked exactly like her, except that she cared for me and I had become a sadist.
Then she started talking about the different functions of the wedding that she was going to attend. I tuned her out. They should carry on with their lives. I hadn’t told them about Dr. Sharma’s offer to make me his assistant in his clinic. He had called a few days back. Divya must have got that cardiology seat. Rohan never updated me about his girlfriend. What was her name? Sia? I had to ask him.
“Akriti… Akriti!” Mom’s snapping of fingers brought me out from my train of thoughts. “Did you listen to what I was telling you?”
I did not say anything.
“Akriti, what are you doing? Why are you spoiling your life like this? It’s going to be almost 2 years now!”
Mom started crying again and I ask her to leave. That’s how I had become.
Rohan had informed me about the next physiotherapy session. I only went twice a week now. He had also fixed an appointment with the counsellor. I was going to show her the book in which I had written about two things that made me happy every day. I was surprised at the entries myself. From outright offensive to a little more positive. I wrote about all the sensory experiences that I gained over the months by watching and hearing others. I was sure she would be happy.
“You moron! I told you to drive slow… son of a …!”
“Sshhh… Calm down, di. I’m going to check on that girl.” Rohan said, as he went out of the cab.
“Get me out of here too!” I yelled.
He helped me out of the cab and settled me on the wheelchair. I rushed towards that girl. She was standing up and had miraculously escaped. I sighed in relief.
Then, looking at the driver, I yelled, “Two seconds of your inattention would have cost her, her entire life! What was so damn important on that phone? Do you even know how and why I’m here like this? It took just two seconds for that moron who is still roaming free, to cost me my dreams!”
I cried incessantly following that outburst. In between sobs I told him, “You will not drive now.” Turning to Rohan, I asked him to drive. After being absolutely sure that the girl was alright, we left towards the hospital. I shed tears all the way. I cried for my dead legs, my shattered dreams and all the pain that I had caused to my loved ones.
I told my counsellor everything that happened. She looked delighted that I was coming out of my grief by letting it all out. And strangely, I was feeling better.
On the way home, Rohan said, “That girl was lucky, di. And so are you. You have a wonderful life. Look at the positive things. You are surrounded by people who care for you. You have a pair of perfectly functioning hands and a brilliant mind. Don’t let it go waste. Unshackle yourself from this mental trap that you have created. Break free, di… break free…”
Rohan’s words kept echoing in my head. And as I looked back at the two years that had gone by, I realized that he was right. I was running away from my problems rather than facing them. It took an almost similar accident to wake me up from my self-induced slumber.
But I wouldn’t sleep again. I was going to fight and emerge victorious.
Over the next couple of months, I resumed my regular physiotherapy sessions and visits to the counsellor. Physically, there wasn’t much improvement, but I was in a much better place mentally. I took up Dr. Sharma’s offer and became his assistant. I had to brush up my dormant skills before starting on my own. I would use my knowledge to heal others.
It was my first day as an independent physician. With a smile on my face I said, “Nurse, please send the next patient.”
I had finally broken free.
- Bhelpuri: A type of snack consisting of puffed rice, vegetables like boiled potatoes, onions, tomatoes and a tangy tamarind sauce.
- Dosa: A type of pancake made from a fermented batter. Its main ingredients are rice and black gram ground together in a fine, smooth batter with a dash of salt.
- Di: Elder sister
This is an entry for the event #BreakFree, ArtoonsInn’s signature Short Story Writing event, #ArTales-16.
Check out event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/break-free-artales-16-open-event/
Check out Arva’s space here: https://artoonsinn.com/author/arva-bhavnagarwala/
Photo by William Malott