Letter from North Bengal

From a dream of burial, I wake up to the wailing of yet another ambulance on the main road, some distance from my window. Siliguri, named after a heap of stones, has been in Covid lockdown for months. The second wave is on. The snow-clad Kanchenjunga hasn’t been seen in a long time. As dark clouds mass against the hills on the outskirts, it’s easy to think of apocalypse. Double-masked, I seek it out.

Along a service road, shops rigged from corrugated sheets bridge an open sewage gutter. A madwoman squalls her morning litany. A scrawny drunk lurches by in a black T-shirt emblazoned with psychedelic skulls. He waves a hundred-rupee note, asks for a cup of tea. I duck away into an alley strewn with empty Phensedyl bottles. Two dead rats noosed with cord lie in my path, blood and pink innards bright against grime-tufted fur. I imagine a frenzied god trampling down mountains, flailing this town with vermin.

Tossing about on his bed, my cousin groans that he cannot take it anymore. He’s a chronic kidney disease (CKD) patient. Doctors say the kidney donated by his wife, which has kept him going for fifteen years, is failing. He needs frequent hospitalization. His blood pressure is haywire, and fluid often builds up in his lungs.

Doctors have refused to see him till he submits a negative Covid report. We’ve had the test done after much running around. The result takes four hours, so we’ve brought him home. Breathless and aching all over, he responds to us and his wife and aged parents by mere habit. Foolishly, we prop him up with pillows, but he protests with grunts and whining breaths. Hugging a pillow to his belly, he kneels and bends over like an agonized sphinx in prayer. It’s the only position in which he can breathe with some ease.

We get the result by evening and drive him to a hospital. With pleading eyes, a young doctor tells us they cannot admit him: they are short of oxygen because of the Covid crisis. “To admit him here would be murder,” he says, hands folded. I ask if turning us away wouldn’t amount to the same. He tells us to try another hospital, which he says has an oxygen plant.

By the time my cousin is admitted there and doctors tell us he’s stable, it’s well past midnight. We’ve used up the phials of hand sanitizer we carry in our pockets. Our clothes and masks are grubby with weather and sweat.

The makers of Dettol liquid soap have honored Sisir Deb Nandy by using his portrait in a WhatsApp promo image. The caption says he has selflessly dedicated his time and resources for those in need during a national crisis. When I first see him at a leading diagnostic center, he’s managing scores of people who have turned up for Covishield shots. He’s plump but compact, has gentle, narrow eyes behind rectangular glasses, and wears a golf cap. Given his attentive manner, everyone seems to need him—patients, their relatives, even staffers seeking advice or instruction.

When I speak to Nandy over the phone later, he says he’s blessed that his family is in Kolkata—else, he’d be smothered by their anxiety. He tells me he’s primarily a business development manager and soft-skills trainer who had never worked with doctors or patients before. “But when the pandemic broke out, I was asked to handle the rush of patients coming for tests, vaccination, or other procedures, ensure orderliness, and keep them and our paramedics safe,” he says.

The work didn’t challenge him so much as the protective gear, stifling in the heat and humidity of a Siliguri summer. Every day, before leaving for home, he’d leave his white coat with a washerman outside the center.

“The second wave,” he says, “was purely caused by negligence. People wouldn’t mask themselves. And did we have to hold elections and have campaign rallies?” He found comic relief in how some busybodies who wanted to get on the dais with top political leaders would pester him for a negative Covid report, even offering bribes.

The pandemic, he says, has changed him, made him far more patient and empathetic than he was. A pregnant woman turned up one evening for an urgent Covid test. A report from another lab had said “indeterminate,” so hospitals wouldn’t admit her for delivery. “I was very worried. Her amniotic sac had broken and she felt she might deliver any time,” he says. “When the test gave her a clear negative, I was happy and relieved.”

Another time, he rushed to break the fall of a pregnant woman who had fainted, and revived her by sprinkling water. He’d forgotten he wasn’t wearing protective gear—only a mask.

Dr. Roma Rana, too, speaks of change, one that disturbs her: the diminution of touch and trust, both vital in the doctor-patient relationship. She is a physician, child health counselor, and hospital administrator, and works at one of the bigger hospitals in town. When she meets me in the waiting area, she is masked, capped, gloved, and bundled in a light blue PPE gown.

She’s aware these are the trappings of psychological distance, of alienation. “In Delhi, where I was working at an army hospital when the pandemic broke out, we found it very difficult to understand what masked patients said. Also to make ourselves understood, especially when the patients were retirees,” she tells me later, on phone. “We’d wonder if we sounded rude, or seemed to take them to be dull-witted.” She speaks of the immense strain of establishing rapport and empathy with patients while always being on guard. Like the Katha Upanishad warning about the path to salvation, it’s a walk on a razor’s edge.

“On getting home from work, a ritual of thorough cleansing begins,” she says. Bath, change of clothes, steam inhalation, ingestion of kaada (a herb-and-spice decoction in water or milk, reputed against viral infections). Her husband and daughter serve as cheering checklist keepers. “And of course, there’s prayer,” she says. “To ward off fear, to find strength to do one’s duty.”

The Mahamrityunjaya mantra, a verse from the Rig Veda, has been the inner shield to many like Dr. Rana. Addressed to Rudra, a thundering, three-eyed god, it seeks freedom from death in the curious image of a ripe gourd detaching itself from its vine.

Kiran Sewa, a nurse who was posted at the Tribeni Hospital, dedicated to Covid patients from the hill districts of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, has been chanting the mantra as many times as possible daily since the pandemic broke out. She’s a Covid survivor herself, soldiering on after recovery.

She tells me she cut herself off completely from her family while on duty at Tribeni. “Otherwise, scared as I was, I wouldn’t have been able to focus at work. I had worked out a self-care routine—physical, mental, and spiritual,” she says. “So, no phone calls, no WhatsApp messages. I would call my husband and kids when I was free just to say I was well.”

She had mostly worked before at small government health centers in hill towns and villages, and had only dealt with occasional deaths. At this hospital, during the worst days, there were a few patients dying daily. Chanting the Hanuman chalisa, the Gayatri mantra, and the Mahamrityunjaya mantra mentally, she’d attend to the living and the dead.

“One day,” she says, “an old woman who was alone died. She had no immediate family. It would be days before her relatives took the body from the morgue. I prayed for her atma (soul), caressing her body as if she were my mother.”

On the way up to Sakyong, our village in the Kalimpong hills, I detour to take a look at Tribeni Hospital. It’s a tin-roofed three-story building with gaudy blue-and-yellow melamine trimmings, set in a forested area near the confluence of the Rangeet and the Teesta, mythical lovers gushing down the mountains to meet in a gorge. The gates are shut; they turn me away; only patients are allowed in. On one side of the narrow road from the hospital flows the Teesta, rain-muddied and hung with vaporous mist. On the other, sal trees crowd a mountainside so sheer their canopies can’t be seen from the car. They seem like mottled vertical beams of crucifixes reaching high into the sky.

The road uphill is wearying in the rain, slushed in places by mudslides. Here and there, drooping datura flowers—white, yellow, and pink, all poisonous—weep like umbrellas half-folded after use. Drivers and wayfarers warn me about deaths in villages like Kagay, on the hill opposite Sakyong. They speak of quiet cremations in the paddy terraces, and of stolid grief. But the mountains are green and dark, the foliage washed fresh. Women set upturned crates by the roadside, piling them with chayotes, baby pumpkins, bright cherry chilies.

In the village, children run into cornfields, to where the mayflies lie dead in clumps. They come back with mushrooms tinged with beige areolas, and toadstools broad as palms held in supplication. Every rock cranny is fringed with ferns.

Back in my town house, early one morning, I look out my window at a plot next to the Sikkim bus terminus, lush with shrubbery. The ground looks mulchy. It’s raining lightly. A doel (robin-magpie) flashes black-and-white. From somewhere beneath the large, heart-shaped colocasia leaves, like a thousand carpenters sawing and scraping and planing together, frogs croak out the raucous, rhythmic work ethic of life.

SB Easwaran