Friday, 24 June 2011

The Red Lights

During the time I was an intern, I was posted for a month and a half in the Emergency department of the medical college in Lucknow, known locally as “Lal batti” or “red lights” from the illuminated red crosses at the door.

Basically, the job involved checking up on admissions and routing them to various departments depending on their symptoms.

(Incidentally, as I’ve written elsewhere, this was also the time I consider myself to have been responsible for the death of a man, but this post isn’t about that.)

This posting was occasionally interesting in a whimsical way, like the time we had two kids brought in one after the other. The first one’s name was Ideal Kumar. The second was called Saddam Hussein.

Much of the rest, though, was interesting in a quite different way.

For instance, there was a guard in the admission department clinic, armed with a good stout bamboo stick. Why did the department have a guard? Well, simply put, he was there to prevent people getting violent after they brought in dead bodies and discovered that their son or brother was long since beyond help. It always became the doctor’s fault when he or she couldn’t bring back the dead.

I remember one such corpse, not just dead but so long dead that the body had gone into rigor mortis. The family insisted that the man was only “sleeping”. I suppose that was one way to put it. At their insistence I forwarded the corpse to the medicine department, and they sent him straight to the morgue. I don’t know what the family thought about that.

Then, it would be at night that the dead babies were brought in. Each week would reliably bring in at least three or four. Somehow, they always came at night, and the story was always the same; the baby “lost consciousness” suddenly, without being ill in any way. Somehow, I doubt that they were all crib death victims. One reason was that I never saw one that was brought in before nine in the evening, and the second was always that they were of an age; just about old enough to go home from the hospital. And North Indian mums of the working classes, to which these babies invariably belonged, don’t usually use cribs anyway. The kids are always in their care or in the care of an older sibling.

Now, I didn’t enquire about the kids’ gender, but I’m as sure as I can be that if I’d lifted the swaddling cloths to look, I’d have found that nine out of ten were female. And I’m willing to bet that nine out of ten of them were smothered quite deliberately by their parents as a way of ridding themselves of an unwanted female child. If they’d been richer, of course, the kid would have been aborted after a quiet (and quite illegal) sex determination test, but since they couldn’t afford that, they killed the kids and used the medical college to get a death certificate. After all, we couldn’t prove murder, could we?

Then there were the phone calls, which were pathetic really; people calling in asking if so-and-so had been admitted, or if any unknown person answering to such-and-such description had been brought in. I fielded many of these calls, and I never could tell anyone that their missing loved ones were in the hospital. I don’t know whether any of them were ever found.

Then there were the trauma cases. Some of them were accidents, like the horrific one in which a retired army officer crashed his car. I remember seeing the list of injuries in the surgery department’s report, among other things, it included open fractures of both lower legs, a ruptured scrotum, avulsion of intestines through his abdominal wall, and crush injuries of his ribs. No, he didn’t survive.

There were other trauma cases, including a remarkable number of gunshot wounds. Almost all of these were of teenage males who had taken shotgun blasts to the face, and the stories were always the same; Master X had been “playing” with the family gun and had accidentally hit the trigger. (As it happens, later in my internship I had the task of removal of bone fragments and lead pellets from a pre-teen kid who had blown his face apart with a shotgun; an eminently memorable experience.) About the others I have grave doubts where the official story is concerned, because none of them showed any powder tattooing or other evidence of close-range firing. And since they were all, without exception, from the villages, and since in the villages of North India gun ownership is a sign of masculinity, and having enemies and carrying on blood feuds is another sign of masculinity (the North Indian villager is proud to call himself a Dushmandar Aadmi, a “man with enemies”), I’m ready to wager a substantial number of them were shot in family feuds.

That’s yet another reason why I detest guns and think of gun nuts as dangerous idiots.

Then there are two cases I recall especially vividly.

One evening, about seven, I was sitting in the admission department when a crowd of people brought in a woman. She’d – in front of hundreds of witnesses – jumped into the river Gomti from a bridge, and been hauled out by boatmen who’d quite fortuitously been paddling by. By the time she was brought in, she was fully conscious, though soaking wet, covered in river sand, and trembling all over. When I tried to take her pulse and blood pressure, she glared at me, gnashed her teeth, and ground out, “Let me go.” Well, I couldn’t let her go, of course; I referred her to Medicine for observation, and they sent her to Psychiatry after that, I suppose, if they didn’t hand her over to the cops. Attempting suicide was classed as a crime in India at the time, still is for all I know.

Oh, and that was the first time I got interviewed by reporters. They came in shortly after she’d been taken away, and wanted details about her. I just told them she’d been brought in and admitted, and I’d no idea who she was.

Yeah, and there was the frog. As the woman was being stretchered off, a tiny frog jumped out of her clothes. Really miniature, small enough to sit on my thumbnail. I may be mistaken (all this happened in 1994), but I seem to remember it was purple. The poor wee thing must have had a shock, swimming about in the shallows when this whacking great mammal came down on it like a ton of bricks and began thrashing about, caught it in her clothes, and took it away to a place of bright lights and cacophonic noise. I picked it up and let it go outside. I hope it made its way to somewhere it could live in peace.

Then there was the other memorable specimen. This one must count as one of the most bizarre cases I’ve yet encountered. It was another woman, brought in about ten or eleven at night by her father-in-law and brothers-in-law if I’m not mistaken.

“She’s got a pain,” they told me.

“Pain? Where?” The woman was lying on the examination table, tossing and turning restlessly. She was in her early twenties, quite pretty, but looked spaced-out, with her eyes rolled up under her upper eyelids. She was barefoot, and in a sari with her midriff bare. “Where is her pain?”

“We don’t know,” they told me. “We think it’s the stomach, but we aren’t sure.”

“Where is your pain?” I asked her directly.

She looked up at me, and her eyes were even more spaced out. “In my…” she mumbled, lifting her legs.

“Where?” I asked. “In your legs?”

In response she bent her knees till they touched her breasts, grabbed my hand and put it to her feet. A moment later, she straightened her legs and lay back, clutching her stomach.

“Are your feet hurting?” I was completely confused by now. “Or your stomach?”

“She was saying the stomach was hurting,” the father-in-law said.

“Where is the pain?” I asked, palpating her abdomen. “Here?”

“Here!” she said, grabbed my hand again, and, quick as a flash, thrust it under her sari and right into her pubic hair. You can imagine I yanked my hand out as quickly as I could, though she still had a death grip on my wrist and seemed determined to push my fingers into her vagina.

After that I talked briefly to her in-laws. They said her husband (their son and brother) had abandoned her and disappeared some time ago, and she’d begun behaving increasingly erratically after that. I don’t know if it was sex starvation that sent her over the edge or something else, but over the edge she most definitely was. I referred her to Psychiatry, without telling the in-laws what the department was about. If I had, they’d never have taken her there, because they’d think she was “mad” and it would “taint” the family. Such were the days.

It’s been years since Emergency has no longer been an essential posting for interns in my old college, and it’s a pity, really. I learned a lot about life in there.


  1. Excellent memorabila. A collection should be made of these stories.

  2. It's amazing what one can learn working in an emergency facility. I worked for a time in an emergency agency for psychiatric patients and learned more than I ever could in a classroom.


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