I know there are many worlds out there. It is a bit like Hugh Everett’s ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics.
There. I show you, in one stroke, that I am a sophisticated ass, brainy in a physicsy way, and yet I took Medicine as a career.
But here, in this country of almost one and a half billion, that is reason enough to take the stethoscope in your hands, and to hang it around your neck.
Also, you have to be in the right world. Parallel worlds exist. I am in mine, by a combination of ancestry, accumulated privilege and a sacred something that was never spoken of, stretching monotonously, impossibly, for four thousand years or so.
Ha. I clenched my teeth in anger, and I felt the temporalis and the masseter bulge on either side of my head, twin paddles of pressure, like those of obstetric forceps, sending bolts of migraine into my tired rice-gruel brain. I hadn’t slept for twenty-four hours.
To claim our inheritance, as medical princes, we had to pass through purgatory. I could get there. Be a crowned head in one of those cooled hospital bubbles that did not let in the blistering heat or the blinding dust. Where the thin creamy crust of our people could get the best treatment in the world, blatantly unaware of their own stratospheric elevation; bitching about the terrible taxes and affirmative action and the great unfairness of it all. The major part of purgatory was residency in a government hospital, if one was smart enough to get in.
I could be in a numerous superposition of states, as Schrodinger pointed out. I was an optimist, a realist, and a pessimist, all at the same time. When I was in the pessimist superposition, I felt that I would fail to complete my residency, and I was only six months into it.
I had my jeans on, and my brown corduroy shirt, and I had them on for a week now. Clothes like these were suggested by survivors of the purgatory. Online forums are quite helpful. Some had advised to keep mouthwashes handy, as on most days, one wouldn’t find the time to brush one’s teeth.
I went to the corner of the ward where I had spread a sheet to sleep, last night. I had managed an hour or so. I ate a few biscuits from the tin. Oh! Don’t forget the gargle. The astringent taste of mouthwash filled my mouth as I washed my face at the tap in the corner. Pee; yes, and that was it. Maybe a quick crap was possible after the ward rounds, and before the dressings.
It was five in the morning. I read the letter that had arrived last day one more time. I had been posted to a primary health centre in one of those rural areas. It was the only real hospital a quarter of a million people had access to. I had forgotten applying; it was during the final year of medical school.
It was unthinkable. A GP in a place of constant want. There is a misconception that doctors ran healthcare. No. Systems did. Heroes are rare. The Universe doesn’t depend on heroes. It ran on an ordered substructure of laws. Most of these posts remain vacant. It was too scary to contemplate.
The early morning twitter of birds greeted me with their gloom. They weren’t happy in the big city. The Sun sent a few harried rays through the large corner window. A milky stream of melancholy trickled in. The familiar sickening dip in the pit below the xiphisternum announced the arrival of a new day.
So many things to do. I started going to the beds, with my backpack in tow. For each patient in a bed, two or three were on the floor. I kneeled down when I had to. Ran back and forth between the nursing station and the patients, carrying supplies. Collected blood in small bottles and labelled them.
“Who switched the lights on, dammit?” A patient swore. “A fellow cannot get any sleep in here!”
“Shut up, you ass! Want to be thrown out into the street?” I shouted back. I used to be a polite and quiet chap, but those days were over. I would have got swallowed up, had I remained so. This was shark infested waters. Even the worms sprouted nasty stings. Survival was all.
I came to Ramlal. He had a huge inoperable ulcerated sarcoma on his thigh. He was dying from it.
Latha smiled at me. Was there a hint of the seductive? I remembered that she came from the place where I had got an appointment to run the rural health centre. I smiled back. I felt a faint warmth of pleasure. As if a blanket had descended from heaven, hugging me, however temporarily. Yeah. I couldn’t let it engulf me. My world waited, outside these walls, away by a few years.
I looked at her. She was Ramlal’s daughter. She was doing her degree when the pandemic struck. Then her mother was found dead in the hospital’s toilet. Yes. This one’s. hundreds had been admitted. Hundreds had died. Latha and Ramlal had lurked in the shadows around the hospital for weeks, as she died.
Life went on. But so did the sarcoma. As Life did not allow him to stop and look at the troublesome swelling in his thigh, it had buzzed along merrily, worming into arteries, nerves, and had breached the skin and greeted the world with its foul breath.
Naturally, Latha had stopped her studies and was stuck here. None knew how she managed. I offered her money once, and she had said- “I will ask you, doctor, but not now.”
I was halfway through the dressings. Ramlal’s was left. But then I had to go to the toilet. As I came back, the corridor was dark. Latha stood there, faintly lighted by the incipient sun at the window. It was a superposition of dark and light. My skin was lighter, and hers was quite dark. Her eyes were dark, and the teeth, white and perfect. She came to me, and I could smell her. I held her, and she let me. The kiss came naturally, as it had, quite a few times before. She left me, and hurried back to the ward. I followed, very slowly. The feel was like a mixture of chat masala and strawberry kulfi. The aftertaste was incredible longing.
In the middle of the ward, by Ramlal’s bed, stood the anal orifice. Prasad, the final year resident.
I approached him, and stood.
“Did you finish the pre rounds? All dressings done?” He barked.
“Yes” I nodded.
“Liar! You bastard! The consultant will be here for rounds at any minute. You lazy fool. Standing there, lying. Is Ramlal’s dressing done?”
He lunged, and slapped me across the face. It stung. Tears appeared, moistening my eyes, and I blinked to conceal them.
“But he did!” Latha spoke up. Prasad spun around and faced her.
“He did, did he?” His tone was dry.
“Yes. He did.” She said, and slightly pushed her chin out. Her eyes gleamed, though a teardrop threatened to breach its banks. The lips trembled.
“Lying, whoring bitch.” He spat.
Suddenly, everything stopped. Sounds ceased. The light from the sun stopped its streaming midway. I could see individual photons. A shiver of quantum quintessence passed through the soles of my feet, traversed the spine, and emerged through the top of my head, and caused each individual hair to stand erect, like porcupine quills, and I could feel each one of them.
I knew that there was a breach in the space-time continuum and my mind had shed its dimensionality. I could see all possible worlds. I was in quantum superposition. The wave function hadn’t yet collapsed.
The optimist me clearly saw what was going to happen. I saw myself leap and land Prasad one solid blow on the chin. I saw his glazed eye as he fell back, limp and in slow motion. Then I saw me taking my bag, the appointment letter, my certificates and leaving the hospital. There was the flavour of chat masala and strawberry kulfi in this world.
The realist me saw nothing dramatic. The slap stung. Latha shut herself up, and the consultant came, the rounds started and Ramlal died and Latha disappeared into the bowels of the thronging, milling human mass from where she had emerged, and I plodded on, and entered my waiting, cocooned world. I saw my children and Latha’s children, and then their grandchildren. Our grandchildren were playing together.
The pessimist me saw eternity. A barren, bleak eternity. Parallel worlds stretched horribly, unchanging in its murderous intensity.
I stood, waiting for collapse.