Not for Real by Meenakshi Jauhari Chawla

I saw her through the glass panel, sitting on the high wooden bench. Pensive. Brooding. Holding her baby close to her chest. I returned to the numbers before me. The balance sheet had to be redone. The clerk had muddled up the columns. I sighed.

An accountant in a hospital is like a fish in Jurassic Park. Not important enough. Not big enough. Always in danger of being trampled on, or eaten up, or just being blown into bits by larger challenges. I sighed again.


My room, ‘cabin’ as the Director insisted on calling it, was small but exquisitely comfortable by the hospital standard. Air-conditioned. Clean. With a proper desk and a plush swivel chair. There were no patients crowding the doorway or urgent yells on the intercom. In fact, there was no intercom at all. Behind my table stood an old treadmill that had been discarded by the Physiotherapy section. Once when curiosity had driven me to plug it in, I found it worked. I trod upon it regularly hoping to diminish my expanding girth. Of course, before I got on it I discreetly drew the green curtain across the glass panel.


The room itself had been carved out of the corner of a corridor and from my position at my desk I could see the hustle-bustle without feeling the heat and sweat of anxiety-ridden faces. But often, when evening cast its long deep shadow across another wasted day in a patient’s life and relatives hung about the emptying corridor hopelessly, their staring eyes gave me grief. I could almost taste their sorrow then. Where all through the day I was an outsider, I could, momentarily, fuse with their skins and feel their impotence.


Life in the hospital corridor changed hue every evening and I was acutely sensitive to my dysfunctional role in it. Most times, accounting struck a stark incongruous note with the life-saving role of other hospital services. My balance sheets and account statements had no power to give succour to a person in pain … why, they could not even assure troubled parents that their life’s savings had actually saved their daughter’s life. I was superfluous to the energy flow through the hospital veins.


I watched the young mother as she sat on the white bench. Fragile shoulders hunched over the bundle in her lap, she sat there rocking gently back and forth, her legs not touching the floor. Indeed, she was no more than a girl. Her face was turned the other way and I willed her to turn in my direction so I could see her eyes. She did. The face belonged to a child. I hastily returned to the papers on my desk. I had been caught unawares. I hadn’t quite expected the girl’s face to be so young, or quite so trusting.


For the better part of the day, she simply sat holding the child to her chest protectively. Sometimes she rocked. Sometimes she was completely still. Then she paced up and down the narrow corridor, all the while holding close the bundle in a striped towel. Her sari, of a cheap flowered material, had been draped shabbily. As if she had dressed in a hurry.


I could see her gathering her sari into untidy folds around her waist as she hurried around the house early in the morning, collecting the baby’s things for the long day at the hospital. Bottles, extra clothing, napkins, a fruit perhaps. But there was no evidence of any of that now. No bag, no bundle beside her. Maybe she had put it somewhere safe.


The day wore on. My numbers got more snarled and I had to give all my attention to sorting them out. The doctors’ expenses were confused. Their petrol bills were erratic with some months showing bills running into thousands, and other months, none at all. Did they run their cars seasonally? Reconciling canteen bills was an equally arduous task – little slips of paper – sandwiches for rupees ten, two samosas for rupees eight. Audit teams were known to be fussy over the smallest of details. A bus ticket. A mysterious debit of rupees forty-seven. Both could elicit probing questions.


Long after the evening had come and gone, long after the streets outside had radiated away their daytime heat into the cool night, I shut down my computer, closed my bulky files and stretched out on my chair. The day had come to an end. But not for me.


I would now go to the canteen where I knew the evening meal was in preparation. I would ask for some freshly cooked curry and rice. The supervisor, whom I had befriended on my first day here, would dish out a large helping of curry and an extra ladleful of rice for me. The coarse rice went well with the red curry that was prepared unfailingly every evening. It was always potatoes coupled with something else, cauliflower, pumpkin or tomatoes. Straight from the stoves, the meal was good, and filled my mind with the aroma of anticipation until I actually walked into the canteen and ate. The supervisor and I would talk while I ate in hot hungry bites. He would fill me in on the gossip – a sudden unexpected death in the cancer ward, two doctors caught kissing in the linen closet and one of them married, mind you, or the sweeper’s argument with the superintendent of the ward.


I was amazed at the way news travelled to this man’s ears even though he never left the kitchen. The cancer ward, situated far from the main building, was a most sombre and dilapidated place with death draped over it like a midday shadow. But the supervisor always knew which patient there was undergoing chemo and wanted special meals. He knew which patient had a good chance of survival, sher or lion, he called the lucky person, and also, who was unlikely to survive, chicken, ‘bechare murge, marenge!’ I frequently wondered how he knew so much. Then one day he told me his sister was the head nurse of the cancer ward and that answered at least one of my perennial questions about the hospital.


Gossip went well with the piping hot meal in the canteen – it was the only time I felt I was part of the constant hum around me. For those moments that often stretched to a half hour, I ceased to be the figures-man. I got to see the hospital in its element, giving life, hope and death. After I had eaten, I left, satisfied; food garnished with gossip is soul food!


As I rode the bus back home that evening, the thin girl’s beguiling eyes shone out from the windowpanes along with reflections from passing signboards. I saw her rocking on the bench against the flickering neon lights of a giant sign hanging high above the city streets.


The next day, I returned to my arid work behind the glass. As I waded through more sheets filled with prime and non-prime numbers, I forgot about yesterday’s girl and her baby.


Around lunchtime, she appeared. With the same sari and the same striped towel for her little waif. Again, the same waiting on the bench, the back-and-forth rocking, frequent kisses for the baby, the pacing with the bundle held tightly.


I was mesmerised. What was the trouble with the infant, I wondered. I got out of my chair to go to her. I had to help her. Would the doctor not see her? Was there some other problem – medicines? Surgery? Money? Just as I turned the doorknob, the telephone at my desk jangled loudly.


That evening as I left my ‘cabin’, the hospital had doctored my vocabulary suitably, I noticed the striped bundle on the bench. Lying by itself. The thin girl, the mother, was nowhere to be seen.


I looked up and down the corridor now deserted except for the occasional ward boy trundling along noisily with his trolley. My heart began to beat very fast. I ran towards the helpless baby. It was still. I reached it and scooped it up gently. Curiously, I looked into the folds of the towel. It was a rubber doll. With staring glass eyes. With stiff eyelashes. And a dirty torn frock. Her ‘mother’ was nowhere to be seen. I waited. Ten minutes. Twenty. Then I made my way down the stairs. I wondered if my friend in the canteen would believe my story.



Meenakshi Jauhari Chawla lives and works in Gurgaon, the noisy, gaudy neighbour on Delhi's southern rim. Her fiction has been published in Out of Print, The Little Magazine and Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi). Her poems have been published in print and online journals and websites.