8.05.2014

Kya Hua?

Returning from office, it was the start of a regular evening walk from the main road to home for Aman. Not too long back, he had started pooling with a colleague and the fifteen minute walk was a welcome side effect.

Hardly had he walked a few steps, when he noticed a small group of people crowded around something that lay on the ground. Such sights were not new for Aman. Situated strategically near a liquor shop and a municipal garbage can, the stretch was the the de facto public toilet for people in the vicinity. Consequently it emanated a perennial stench of urine. He had often seen people - men & women alike - in their most drunken state. Some walked in a dangerously unpredictable manner; some of them, stumbled down, struggled to get to their feet; others, drunk way beyond their capacity, lay on the ground - possibly enjoying one of the most peaceful sleep they may have had in a long time.

Usually, Aman used to walk past wondering about what he saw and thinking about the motivations that made someone forget everything and find solace, laced with humiliation, in liquor. On many occasions, he had wanted to help them get to their feet, but something held him back. Maybe the sight of everyone else going about their work provided a normality to the scene which made helping the person look like an aberration.

Today though, he stopped and peeped through the cracks between people milling around. He saw the back of a woman, in a green saree, lying on the ground. What made the, otherwise routine, scene unforgettable, was the sight of two children sitting right beside their mother - expressionless. The elder one looked around 3 years old, his own daughter's age, Aman realized. Clutching a half eaten samosa, she stared blankly, trying to avoid eye contact with the strangers who stood staring at the immovable mass that lay unconscious on the ground. The younger one was too young to fathom the situation. Both the children stuck close to their mother putting one hand on her trying to gather strength from her mere presence. None of them cried. Maybe too scared of the crowd or maybe too dazed to know what was happening. Maybe unfazed by normality of what was happening or maybe just on the verge of breaking down.

As Aman stood there, he couldn't help but notice a pattern that manifested itself. Almost every other moment, a person would stop by near the crowd, inquire with someone who seemed to have been at scene long enough; and pose a question in the exact same two words "Kya Hua?" (What Happened?). To which they were told that "a woman got very drunk and lay unconscious but had two small children with her". Some people wanted to know if the woman was dead, unable to comprehend the fuss over a living person. Most, in a strange display of humanity, exhibited relief that she was alive and moved on.

Normal situations of emergency warrant a call to 108 - the number which could summon an ambulance, a fire engine or the police, depending on the nature of the emergency. In a country like India, the high number of casualties, across any kind of eventuality, force upon emergency services the need to prioritize peoples' miseries. In such a context, the case of a person lying in drunken stupor is very interesting. Some years back, Aman had used 108 to summon an ambulance for a man who was lying on the footpath, drunk! Unfortunately, what he viewed as a responsible act was seen as wastage of precious resources at the cost of more genuine emergencies. The ambulance doctor explained to Aman that calls like his prevent emergency services from reaching those who actually need them, in a sense implying him to use his discretion next time around. The man in question would wake up in the morning, stagger to his feet, dust his clothes and walk away, maybe at the cost of a life he prevented from being saved.

This time, though, it was different. While we could ignore the woman, as we did usually, her two children presented a dilemma to which none had an answer. Hoping to outsource our problems, as is our wont, Aman called up the emergency number assuring himself that the current situation warranted their presence. Strange as it may sound, if they could somehow get her to stand up and take her children home, it would bring a sense of proper closure to those present. This is a variant of the head in the sand approach that the ostrich takes. As long as we do not have to witness anything wrong or sad, it is easy to keep such things beyond the radar of our psyche.

Near the scene of action, people constantly poured in like water heating in a vessel - the warmer molecules moving outside giving space to colder ones. One lady, in particular, looked very agitated - she either knew the woman in question or was too piqued by the sight of a woman lying drunk with her two helpless children. She slapped and hit the woman many times to get her back to senses. As a finale to her act, she picked up the woman, holding her hair with all available force and shook her violently. Horrified, the elder daughter broke down, the half eaten samosa still in her hand.

After a call punctuated with long silences, the ambulance arrived, sirens blaring, with a sense of authority. A young doctor disembarked, wearing a crisp white coat emblazoned with 108 and a motto which sought to assure people of their mission. Putting on cheap disposable plastic gloves, he took stock of the situation. His expression gave away that his apprehensions had indeed come true - this was a call which he could not do anything about and should have avoided.

The young doctor did try a few things to get the woman to respond but to no avail, something that he himself was not very surprised or disappointed about. He did seem amused and, then frustrated with bystanders who wanted him to do "something". The doctor mustering all sincerity in an effort to hide his irritation asked them to tell him what he should be doing and that he would do it. The driver of the ambulance doubled up as an attendant and was busy trying to disperse the crowd of curious onlookers. Finally, when repeated requests did not work, a lathi manifested it from inside the ambulance and was waved at the bystanders in an effort at some serious crowd control.

At this point, the woman too gained consciousness, jolted into sanity by another bout of vigorous hair pulling by the well-wishing woman. Aman too resumed his walk home. His thoughts went to the visibly drunk man who offered his unsolicited counsel "If you want to drink then drink at home". As someone who lived his life insulated from the perils of poverty, Aman wondered if people who drink themselves to unconscious levels do so out of irresponsibility or as a carefully deliberated choice in face of their ever-shrinking range of options.

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