Nurse Yoda Sangay stood rooted to the ground like a statue. She was afraid she’d collapse if she tried to move.
“Hey Nurse, don’t stand there gaping. Can’t you see there’s work to be done?”
The small hospital in Gunturcould not accommodate another patient. But the ambulances were bringing them in droves – some unconscious, some dying. They were dumped in every vacant space available – in the wards, in the corridors and some even in the hospital garden. The morgue was overflowing with bodies that had long grown cold.
No more, no more,” Sister Pearl shouted to the ambulance drivers, “We cannot cope. Take them elsewhere.”
“Yoda,” she called, “Come here and give me a hand.”
Yoda wanted to run and hide – escape from the hospital where the wards and corridors smelt of death. Tears ran down her cheeks as she thought, ‘What a catastrophe! Must it happen today of all days?’
It was her birthday – the 26th of December 2004, and her very first day as a fully qualified nurse. Only yesterday, she and her friends had a double celebration for Christmas and also her success. Who would have thought that a quake hundreds of miles away in theIndian Ocean would trigger a devastating Tsunami! It had churned up white walls of water that beat, thrashed and carried away both animate and inanimate things lying in its path.
Only a few hours ago, Yoda had watched on TV the rage of the tsunami that had ravaged the east coast. As the hospital was far inland, she didn’t imagine that it would affect her in any way. Brushing her tears away, she put on a brave front and set to work.
‘No time for tears,’ she thought,’ I have plenty of work to do.’
She worked silently, making patients comfortable in the available beds and on improvised mattresses on the floor. There was one man – she couldn’t tell his age- who was bleeding profusely from open wounds. The bones of his lower limbs appeared to be fractured. He was writhing in pain and his breathing was heavy. She could actually hear the gurgling in his chest.
‘Perhaps he has swallowed a lot of sea water and sand,’ she thought, and gently turned him to the side, hoping he would regurgitate whatever he had swallowed. The man groaned in pain and Yoda whispered, “Be brave. The doctor will be here in a minute. You’re going to be well.”
When she got up to move to the next patient, he grabbed her arm and wouldn’t let go. But she couldn’t stay, and had to get on with her work. Almost every one of the patients was in a sorry state. Their groans and moans alternated between fits of screaming. – a bedlam she had never experienced before. As several gave up the struggle, their bodies were moved out to let other patients in. Yoda wondered if that young man would pull through the night.
“Will he live?” she asked the doctor.
“Only God knows. We can only do our best.”
The man was connected to a ventilator. Antibiotics coursed through his veins, His cuts were cleaned and sutured, and temporary splints were applied to his broken bones. That night, his temperature soared, and stayed that way for the next few days. He was in and out of delirium. The doctors diagnosed Pneumonia brought on by inhaling salt water with sand. On the eight day, he opened his eyes and looked vacantly at his surroundings.
“Hullo! You’re awake at last?” Yoda asked.
“Where am I? And who are you? Am I in hell?”
She had to bend closer to hear his feeble voice. Then as if it was too much effort to stay awake, he closed his eyes.
He did not know his name or where he had come from. As he could not understand the local language, it was presumed that he was not from these parts. He had a stormy recovery. There were fits of screaming and flailing of arms as if he was struggling to break free. Tears flowed down his cheeks like rivulets. Whenever Yoda was on duty, she would run to his side and hold his hand.
“Quiet….quiet,” she’d whisper. “You are safe now and you’ll soon be on your feet.”
As he grew stronger, his lucid intervals became more frequent.
“Do you remember your name? Where do you come from? If you give us some information, we can contact your relatives and tell them you are safe.”
“It’s all a blank. My mind is one big vacuum. I can’t remember a thing. Who am I? Where did I come from? All I can see are those gigantic waves bearing down on me. I see dead bodies floating all around. I wish I were dead too.”
“Don’t say that. You’re still alive and there is surely a purpose for your life. Your memory will return gradually.”
The staff named him Viraraj –the brave survivor! At the end of two months Vira could hobble around on crutches. But one of his legs was still in a plaster cast. His memory however, still remained elusive. Meanwhile, his bills were mounting and the hospital could not afford to keep him indefinitely. The day his cast was removed, he was shunted out to the Relief Camp. He was assured that his memory would gradually return as he grew stronger.
In her spare time, Yoda had started making a patch work quilt. It had taken almost a year to stitch the pieces together, adding new bits as and when the hospital tailor discarded remnants. Now it was almost complete and looked quite colourful.
‘I know that I’ll soon have to go home to Dharamsala. Dad has already got me a job at the local hospital. Then he will start looking out for a suitable bridegroom for me.’
Yoda was very soft-spoken and always ready to help the patients unlike some of her colleagues who were brusque and sometimes even very rude to them. The patients loved her.
“Such a kind hearted soul!” someone said.
“I healed quickly because of her ministrations,” someone else said.
Yoda would miss the hospital and all her friends. The quilt would remind her ofGunturand the happy years she spent here.
‘Many of my friends have contributed material for my quilt. Some have even helped with the stitching. This will be a part of my trousseau when I get married. I will treasure it for sentimental reasons.’
On her day off, Yoda persuaded her friend to accompany her to the relief camp. She often thought of Vira and wondered if he was progressing well.
“I want to see him. Perhaps he has recovered his memory and has already left the camp. Or he has lost it permanently and is languishing in that overcrowded place. They say the conditions there are awful,” she told her friend.
As expected, the camp was overcrowded with refugees. Most of them had been left destitute by the tsunami. Of course they were all given food to eat and a little patch of ground to stretch out at night. But they longed for some place to call ‘home.’ Many housing colonies had been hastily constructed by the government and the NGOs. People were raring to move there.
They found Vira sitting on a rickety rope cot at one end of the camp. He had prematurely aged, and his stooping shoulders showed a silent resignation to his fate.
“Vira!” Yoda shouted as she rushed up to him, “How have you been doing? Why do you look so sad?”
A smile lit up his face as he recognized her.
“Ah Nurse Yoda! What brings you here? Do you know some of the people living here?”
“Just one – you! I had to find out how you were progressing.”
“Not too well I’m afraid. I’m just learning to walk again without support. But I guess I’ll always have a limp. I can get used to that. But my memory hasn’t returned. It’s awful not to have an identity I’m convinced that I don’t belong to this part of the country. So where have I come from? What is my name?”
It was a quiet desperation, and Yoda hoped he would soon be found by his relatives.
“Someone will come looking for you sooner or later,” she consoled, “Perhaps they have already begun the search.”
It was very warm outside but Vira began to shiver
“Are you feeling cold?” Yoda was concerned.
He pulled a thin sheet over his body.
“I begin to shiver sometimes for no reason. It happens mostly at nights. And I have awful nightmares too.”
“I’ll be going home soon, Vira. I do hope you’ll be reunited with your family. I’ll come and visit you again before I leave.”
Yoda decided to present him with her multicoloured quilt which she had made for her trousseau.
‘His need is greater than mine,” she thought, “I can always make another one.”
Once back home, Yoda got busy with her work. Dharamsala was very far fromGuntur, and gradually the tsunami and the devastation it had caused receded from her mind. Her parents were still on the look out for a suitable groom from among the Tibetans settled there.
“I’m in no hurry, Pa,” she told her father, “I like my job and am learning a lot. I wish I could continue my studies.”
“You’re twenty three. A good age to get married. Later, if your husband permits, you can continue your studies.”
In 2006, right in the middle of winter, a stranger arrived in Dharamsala. He was muffled up to his ears in a heavy coat, and his face was partially hidden by a thick woollen cap.
“I’m searching for a nurse called Yoda Sangay. I have a parcel for her.”
News travelled fast through the village and reached Yoda’s father, who hastened down to meet the stranger. He was seated at a small tea shop at Kotwali Bazaar, cupping a steaming hot cup of tea, more for its warmth than for its taste.
“Why do you want to see Yoda?” asked her father, “She’s at work. You can give me your name and hand over the parcel. From whom is it anyway?”
“It belongs to her and I would like to hand it over personally. I’ll wait for her till she comes off duty.”
Yoda’s father wanted to ask him many questions. But he knew it was bad manners to badger a stranger.
“You don’t have to wait at this tea shop. Come home with me,” he said, “People are inquisitive. They will start asking you many questions if you stay here indefinitely.”
Yoda’s mother who was dressed in the Tibetan costume made a bow, then went indoors to bring him a glass of herbal tea and some biscuits.
“Any friend of Yoda’s is our friend too,” she said.
“I’m not exactly her friend. I was a patient of hers.”
“Oh! Then I’ll run down to the hospital and see if she can get away for an hour or so.”
She darted out of the house like a colourful butterfly.
Yoda came in almost an hour later. These heights had put colour in her cheeks. She looked like a sprite that had escaped the pine forests and floated indoors. So petite, so pretty! She didn’t recognize him immediately
“Who are……,” she began. Then “Oh my God!……..Vira….Is it really you? How you have changed.”
Her parents looked anxiously from one face to the other.
“Come tell me all. Have you recovered your memory? And why have you travelled all this way?”
“Now, now Yoda, don’t be impatient. Give the man a breather,” her mother said.
“It took a while, Yoda. My parents eventually found me at the camp. My memory came back in bits and snatches, with a lot of support from my family, and many sessions with a psychiatrist. My name is Deepak Mukerjee and I’m fromCalcutta. I had come to Vijayanagaram on business. My partner and I had gone to the beach for a swim. One moment we were engrossed in conversation. The next moment we were running for our lives as the roaring waves gave chase. I don’t know how I was swept towardsGuntur. My partner wasn’t so lucky. His body was never found.”
Yoda couldn’t take her eyes off Vira. How different from that lost soul who had been rushed into hospital on that fateful day! Now those lusterless eyes were glowing with energy. The old skeletal body was vibrant with life like an athlete. She noticed he was young. Perhaps not more than thirty.
“That quilt you gave me….. It was my talisman…. My symbol of hope! I clung to it all through my long and painful convalescence……, the night mares….. the phantom pains….the insomnia. Oh God! I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
“It’s over now,” she said in her soft soothing voice, “You’re a new man and you’ve been given a new lease on life. Just enjoy it. But how did you find me and why?”
“I went back to the hospital hoping you would still be there. But they told me you had gone back home a long time ago. One of your friends even gave me your address. She told me how you had generously given me your quilt, though it had been specially made for your marriage bed. That made me even more determined to return it. Here – it has been washed clean and laundered. No smell whatsoever. It’s as good as new.”
Yoda stretched out her hand to receive it. But her mother jumped up and pulled her back.
“Once given, it cannot be taken back. Besides, it will be unlucky if she shares it with another man. This is our custom.”
“Have I come all this way for nothing?” Vira asked.
“Mother, I’ve never heard of this custom before,” protested Yoda.
“Even so, it’s true,” said her mother, winking at her father who also looked surprised.
Vira looked from Yoda to her mother. Her father turned away to hide a smile
“I better extend my stay at the hotel till this matter is sorted out,” he said.
He put the bundle under his arm and wondered aloud, “If Yoda cannot have it back nor share it with another man…… I guess the solution is staring in my face.”
His leg still ached as he negotiated the steps down to the road, but he was past caring.
“Your mother is a smart woman Yoda,” said her father, as he drew both of them into his arms.