Midnight is approaching. The pungent smell of medicine again reminds me that I am in a hospital. I look up. My head has drooped on my chest in exhaustion; from morning to afternoon I was on the move in search of a rare medicine and finally found it in a small medicine corner in Old Dhaka. The expiry date sealed on the bottle was only a month from then. I hesitated. But there was no option. I came back with the medicine at around 3:00 pm when the hospital itself seemed drowsy and less crowded.
My mother got admitted to this hospital in the morning today. She suddenly fell ill yesterday night, as her blood sugar level was fluctuating every now and then. I called up her physician. The phone was switched off. In the morning I brought her to the hospital. She was given a strong painkiller, which caused drowsiness. She spent most of the time today sleeping. Some of our relations, distant and close, came to see her. None of them waited for more than twenty minutes; some waited even less than ten minutes. She did not wake up. They left with a sour face. Maybe because they came and killed their valuable time but the patient was sleeping unobtrusively. Disease-free ones want to talk to the diseased ones in an artificial voice full of transient sympathy. They go out and heave a sigh of relief thinking how beautiful it is that they are still breathing and not attacked by any disease.
My uncle came in the afternoon. He was a gentleman of around 55. Immaculately dressed, he walked into the female Ward and approached my mother's bed with steady steps. His first query was why she was kept in a ward. We (my father and I) should have been more concerned about my mother's comfort and should have managed a cabin, he added. I said that she always preferred a ward as the doctors and nurses were always available there. On the other hand, a cabin isolated the patient and confined him to a room, where the doctors went only on their rounds, though it offered comfort for the attendants and visitors. Hearing this he kept quiet but did not look very satisfied. He was staring at the patient wearing a grave face for a minute or two. Then he asked about my career plans.
I am an English graduate from a private university. My decision to study literature at a private university appalled all my close relations including my parents and uncles. They commented that it was nonsense. After I had come back from Rajshahi, I did not have any choice but to get myself admitted to a private university. Though, I was a student of the department of English, my admission was cancelled for not attending the classes for the first two months. The rule was that if any student did not attend classes for the first two months without any information, his or her admission would be cancelled. This rule came into effect in that year and put me in jeopardy. Momen, a student and myself were the first two victims of the rule were a myself. Momen had an operation in his waist and I had been suffering from jaundice. At first I applied to the Chair of my department, Dr Antor Ali, informing him that I could not attend the classes as I had been suffering from jaundice for two months and was not yet fully recovered. Moreover, I added that I had informed the department about it after two weeks of my illness. The Chairman told me that he did not have any role to play here as this was a new rule implemented by the administration. He told me to apply to the registrar. I requested him to recommend me but he refused. I applied to the registrar and it took him four months to tell me that he did not have any intention to meddle in such a complicated matter and I should apply directly to the Vice-Chancellor. I did so and the VC, suspicious about his order's coming into effect, told me that without the chairman's accepting his order, he was helpless. Then the honorable VC took five more months to decide that he would like to talk to Dr Antor of the department of English to resolve it.
After two weeks the much-awaited meeting took place and two of them talked for half an hour to decide our fate. Momen I and had been sitting in front of the Shaheed Meenar for the whole night. We were told the following day that it was a 'no'. I produced the application I sent earlier informing of my illness, which reached the department and was received by the chair after two weeks of my illness. I had not posted it. I had sent one of my relations to the university to hand it to the chair of English department and collect one copy of the received application. The Chairperson received it putting the date below his signature.
On hearing everything, Dr Antor told me darkly, "How dare you charge me like that! The decision has already been made. Now get out of my sight."
In response to my uncle's question regarding my career plan, I stammered. My mind flashed back to my Rajshahi days. I smiled awkwardly. I kept mum after a few false starts.
He said, " We all told you to Study BBA or Computer Science, which are in demand. You wasted one valuable year in Rajshahi and then coming back you chose to study English Literature. Before choosing a subject you must ask yourself how much it will earn. Anyway now it is useless to talk about it. It was your decision. Now you have to face the music." I felt very embarrassed. What he said was true. I never denied that. But it is also true that BBA or CSC is not my cup of tea. I wanted to study something. I would enjoy studying. Studying was like swimming to me. I wanted to swim in an endless sea. Maybe I wanted to be a writer. A word was not only a mere signifier to me. I felt like twisting it, and playing with it. I ended up studying literature at East West University, as the admission tests of all other public universities were over by the time I came back to Dhaka. Little by little I started exploring a very different world-a world of ambivalent understanding, a world of literature.
I am pacing up and down the wide corridor in front of the female ward. My mother is lying on bed 25 and on saline. It is strictly forbidden for men to walk into the female ward at night. The light was still on. I can see two nurses sitting inside and chatting casually. One has buried her face in her hands and the other is arranging some phials. I feel very tired and feel like collapsing on a bed. But can't do that. The thought of her illness disturbs me in sleep and in wakefulness. Her presence never seemed extraordinary before; it was as natural as breathing. Now a silence has taken possession of our home. An awkward, unusual silence. My sister called up in the evening and said that the house looked ghastly and deserted. She wanted to come to the hospital and take over. But I did not agree. She persisted. I hung up.
It is 2:30 am now. I have taken out my notebook and glanced over the jottings scattered over the pages. I feel like writing, working on my jottings. I have jotted down everything, that has taken place today, from morning to night. I did that without being aware what I would do with them. I just did it. Actually I don't know how to write and why to write. I frequently asked myself, "Do I have the makings of a writer?" Maybe I do. Maybe I don't.
Some diificult-to-answer questions frequently haunt my mind:
What is art?
What is aesthetics?
Why do people write?
Why do I want to write?
I do not have any book for writing. Suddenly I feel helpless. I fumble in my pockets for a piece of paper. No use. A kind-looking nurse is passing through the corridor with a tray in her hand. I approach her and ask for a piece of paper. At first she is confused, then asks me to come to the enclosed place she is sitting in. I follow her to her room and she hands me a sheaf of white papers. I thank her. She does not say anything and turns her back on me.
I come back and sit down on a vacant orange-coloured chair in a verandah-like space and look at my jottings. After thinking for some time I start writing. I keep on writing without deciding on the genre. After half-an-hour, it occurs to me that the fragments of a story are scattered in my notebook. Gradually a skeleton of a story emerges--people are swarming in to see a patient without any genuine feeling for her. Their honeyed words, and sympathetic smile sooth the patient. But she is going in and out of sleep and cannot always reciprocate to the care and concern of her beloved ones. Some of them try to wake her up by talking a bit loud so that she takes notice of them and smiles at them gratefully; then they would wear a priestly face-it's our duty; we didn't do anything except our duty. The patient is assured of her importance. She is needed. By everyone.
In the middle of my writing, it starts raining. I am greeted by a gust of wind containing small droplets of rain. I stop writing and look into the ward. The light is off. A shaft of light from the verandah partially lights my mother's face. She is sleeping soundly. But the rain has woken up some patients and they are looking outside to see the rainfall.
I feel like going down and sipping a cup of tea. The thought of sitting at a tea-stall at midnight when it is raining outside fascinates me and I decide to go down.
When I wake up in the morning the rain has stopped. Coming back from the tea-stall I did not notice when I fell asleep sitting on the same orange-colored chair. I rise and enter into the ward to see my mother. I see that my sister and father have come and are talking to my mother with smiling faces. Mother is also smiling and seeing me her smile broadens. I smile back.
My father asks me to go home and get some sleep. Telling my mother that I will be back by evening, I come out of the hospital and watch at the city wake up.