In October 2012, I was in India for a couple of weeks on my annual leave. The dramatic events that unfolded over this period and spanning two continents is what I shall relate in a series of write-up.
Part I: Mind over matter – from West Africa to South India
From Sierra Leone, where I am currently posted, I had flown to Ouagadougou (the dry, dusty and blazing albeit beautiful capital of Burkina Faso in East Africa), via Monrovia (capital of Liberia), Accra (capital of Ghana) and Lome (capital of Togo) to attend an important regional meeting. The meeting was held at the outskirts of Ouaga in a nice, down to earth eco-resort run by an old French couple, by a lake. After the meeting, from Ouaga, I was to take my flight out to India, take my nine year old daughter at her boarding school in south India by complete surprise and then escort her from there to Kolkata for her autumn holidays.
Very second day into our meeting in Ouaga, I came down with fever and chills, which I assumed was a case of ordinary flu. Popping in a few Tylanols, I continued with the meeting and managed to deliver an important session the next day. Being in an area that is endemic to Malaria, two spot tests of malaria were done and both came out to be negative. I had also by then begun to have cramps in my stomach, lost my appetite completely and had stopped eating anything substantial.
By the fourth day when things got worse, my concerned colleagues insisted that I seek medical attention and I was hurriedly escorted to our clinic in the city. Diagnosed with Malignant Malaria, I was promptly put on treatment with Artefan 80/140 – the latest generation anti Malaria drug. Curiously, I noticed that the drug Artifan I was taking was manufactured by Ajanta Pharma Limited in India!
On the morning of my flight out of Ouaga the next day, in what can be said as a case of mind over matter, still under treatment and in the scorching heat of Ouaga, I went to the central crafts village and two other curio shops to pick up seven extraordinarily beautiful wooden masks and three bronze sculptures. I almost missed my flight out of Ouaga because of this. My legs were a bit shaky, but I made it just on time to the airport, with a sense of bravado.
I was still having mild fever when my Kenya Airways flight took off from Ouaga for Nairobi (the capital of Kenya in East Africa), where I had a nine hour halt. From Nairobi, I took the evening flight out and arrived at Mumbai early in the hours of the next morning. From Mumbai, after a halt of 5 hours, I took the flight to Bangalore.
Landing at Bangalore, I realized for the first time that something was not going right. I was not very stable and was vaguely beginning to lose my memory, my sense of orientation and purpose. Strangely, my thoughts, as never before, were beginning to get clouded and I found myself asking – “where am I, where am I going next?” I could feel a sense of panic and fear arising deep within me, but I told myself, come what may, I am not going to lose control of the situation and on myself.
Leaving my luggage with an ex colleague and friend (Nagendra Varada) who had very kindly come to see me at the airport, I went straight to the airport clinic. My blood pressure had fallen to 110 / 70, compared to my regular 130/90. I asked for a dextrose drip, which was administered by two friendly and friendly Malayali nurses.
While taking the drip, to suppress my nervousness, I chatted with the nurses and told them that I had spent my childhood in their State – the beautiful state of Kerala. Their concern for me grew even more after knowing this and they implored me to be careful and eat something before I embarked on the next leg of my journey. I picked up two packets of biscuits.
From Bangalore, feeling a bit better from the dextrose drip, I bid good bye to my visibly worried friend. Thereafter it was a three hour drive by car through the picturesque hills to reach the remote location of Rishi Valley, the boarding school my nine year old daughter is into. My physical condition begun to rapidly deteriorate once again and in what was one of the most harrowing journeys I have made so far, I threw up twice, first time the few biscuits I had had and second time, just some water. Throwing up on an empty stomach was very painful.
Part II: Repose and Delight, Rishi Valley
By the time I staggered into Rishi Valley around two in the afternoon, I was a complete physical wreck, suffering from dehydration, fatigue, lack of food and steadily falling blood pressure. When I met the school Registrar who was expecting me, I could barely stand properly and speak coherently. Without much ado, I was admitted into the school hospital where over the next three days of observation, rehydration and food, my blood pressure was brought to normal level. My stomach cramps however did not subside fully because of an enlarged spleen.
I shared the hospital ward with four other students, the oldest of whom was in 9th grade. The rest three were in 5th grade and all down from some form or cold or mild fever. It was indeed an unusual, if not curious and funny feeling sharing a hospital ward with kids. I refused to act my age and befriended by ward mates. We chatted from time to time, completely oblivious of our age differences.
The entire Rishi Valley campus is amidst the woods and is officially listed as a bird sanctuary. In the first evening, after we had had our dinner, it grew dark and started raining heavily. The temperature fell sharply, it became very pleasant and I drifted into a light and blissful sleep.
It was barely seven in the evening and the 9th grade student, a boy by the name Prithvi Mitra had started softly strumming some amazing melodies in his guitar. It was so soft and gentle that it felt as if the music was floating in from far as if in a dream. I stirred, looked around the ward and found that the boys had all retreated completely into their own worlds. Prithvi was strumming his guitar, self absorbed, whereas two other kids were deeply engrossed in reading books oblivious of everything else. The fourth kids had gone to sleep. The peace, tranquillity and profound beauty of the moments were soul nourishing.
With the sounds of torrential rain, thunder and lightning and the sounds of gushing winds and swaying trees along with a sudden drop in temperature, I felt transported to an ancient forest hermitage – ones that are descried so vividly in our classical literature and legends. It was truly a place where minds, young and old, could contemplate and explore the world inside themselves and the world outside, in pursuit of the bigger and more profound truths of life.
I just could not wait to see Minnie but since my visit to Rishi Valley was meant to be a total surprise and was kept completely secret from her, she did not have the remotest clue that I had arrived at the campus. I requested the school authority not let Minnie know that I had arrived and it was only on the evening of the second day, when I had recovered a bit and could walk, that I called for her in the hospital. The hospital staff played the game well along with me and information was sent to Minnie in her hostel that the doctor wanted to check her teeth (which have been troubling her for some time) – so she should present herself at the hospital soon. In a carefully planned surprise, she was not to know that I had arrived, till she actually saw me. When I finally saw her, I was absolutely delighted.
The look I saw on my nine year old daughter’s face is something that will be imprinted in my mind for long. On seeing me, at first she was speechless and then ecstatic and that soon gave way to a look of confusion and concern. She sensed that something was not really right because I was admitted in the hospital and she had not seen me so debilitated before. Her little mind could not figure out what was going on and I could sense, she was struggling to produce a satisfactory explanation for what she was seeing. She muttered in Bengali – “but Babi, tomar key hoyeche? tumi hospital-e kano?, koknon ele tumi?” (But Dad, what has happened to you, why are you in the hospital, when did you arrive).
I told her that it was nothing serious, just Malaria which is very common and reassured her that I was recovering fast. She nodded but kept asking me repeatedly – “are you sure Babi there is nothing seriously wrong with you?” and she never seemed to be fully convinced by my answer, how so ever convincing I tried to be that I was fine. For the first time in nine years, I was seeing real anguish in her eyes.
Minnie has always been a very lively, vivacious and chatty kid, particularly with me but strangely, every time she came to visit me at the hospital between her classes, she would sit by my bedside in silence, with a worried and thoughtful expression, belying her nine years. I would hold her close and try to draw her into a cheerful conversation. Her responses, very uncharacteristically would be in a yes and no. Or she would say a few words and then fall into thoughtful silence.
I realized how precious my life was in almost in an epiphany of sorts, through the eyes and body language of my daughter that day. It took the unconditional and spontaneous love and the angst of a nine year old girl for me to get a sense of self worth. I vowed that day that in the future, I would never do anything that will compromise my health and safety.
After that it was a quick road to recovery. I was treated like a child by Dr. Shubha and the nurses who kept a round the clock vigil on me, checking the vital signs every few hours. I regained my appetite and begun eating heartily and Minnie gradually and surely regained her cheer and good spirits.
We had just a day in hand to walk around the sylvan campus, hear the call of the birds and insects, enjoy the gentle breeze heralding the onset of winter in the hills and take our fill of fresh and clean air. Minnie told me about her life in boarding school, how much she loved it and at the same time missing her father and her mother. In between she also told me about making up with a friend after having a tiff with her.
I was amazed to see the profound changes in Minnie. The free thinking philosophy of the school, the learning environment and the seclusion of the place had worked on her to make her even more thoughtful, sensitive and caring than before. She had become more collected, reflective, insightful and wise than before, belying her nine years. Even more strikingly, she had become independent, confident, self contained and content as never before.