“Smile, an everlasting smile…. “, the song runs through my head, repeatedly. I realize I have had this book infront of me for like 15 mins now but somehow don’t recollect reading a single word of it. I feel funny. I feel guilty. I feel I have wronged someone. In short, I feel terrible. R taps me on my shoulder – NR ( that’s our terminology for no response). R shakes me and looks at me quizzically! “What are you dreaming about? Do you realize that I have been calling you like a dozen times now?”, she asks, her eyeballs almost popping out in surprise that I, a super senior ( not self proclaimed, this time) can be so un-professional in a place where I am supposed to show all the diligence, dedication and all good words starting with the letter d-. The hospital. The multi-rehab centre.
Actually, I myself don’t know why. Am sure, we all have days when we wake up feeling a little funny and don’t really look forward to the day. Am not referring to bad hair days or pimple-right-on-your-nose tip days but rather those days when the yesterday has left behind a not-so-pleasant feeling. But what was it that made me feel so low? Song? Tuesday? Nah! And then, I suddenly realized why. I saw her again. Yes! There she was, clutching onto her little rucksack and standing at the registration. I prayed to God that it was not what I thought would be.
But alas! My fear turned out to be true. “P, there is a case”, I heard the call. P, is me ofcourse. Tiptoe-ing ( or is it tiptoing) as though my footsteps would wake a 1 year old child sleeping blissfully, I walked to the OPD room where the file was. I saw the name on the file. “Girijamma”, it read. (name changed for reasons of privacy and ethics). I was not surprised. Was she not the “Sarojamma” who came yesterday? And the “Savithri” who had come last week? I walked out and called her name, “Girijammaaaa”, looking at her, knowing very well that her name was not that. She looked at me and smiled. The warmth and the shine piercing my heart in a painful way. This smile was so different. I didn’t feel happy looking at her smile. I felt guilty. I felt quite lost. Does she even realize what she is getting into? What will I tell her? I smiled back at her. Perhaps, there was a long latent period thanks to the sudden influx of thoughts, she looked very reassured that I had actually smiled back at her. Knowing very well that I was repeating the protcol that wasn’t necessary at all, I called her to the OPD room.
“So, Girijamma, what is your complaint this time?”, I asked not able to look in her eye. “Illa doctoravva, Girijamma is my daughter”, she said (in kannada ofcourse). “your daughter?”, I asked surprisingly. “Yes, my daughter is mentally ill. She does not understand what I tell her. She cannot carry out her activities of daily living either”, she said, fully thorough with what I would have asked her had she not told me anything. “Where is she then?”, I asked. She got up and brought her daughter inside. I looked at her daughter.
A pretty girl hidden in a very ragged outfit sat in front of me. She seemed extremely disinterested in what was going on. Except for her attire, ( she looked like she was forced into wearing something that did not fit her or that meant to hide her beauty and grace), she looked fine. And yes, detached. I caught her attention and said a hi. She looked into my eyes, and looked away. I felt funny again. I asked her if she had had her breakfast. She looked at me and nodded meekly. “What did you have, Girija?”, I asked hoping I could hear her voice. Her mother interrupted. “She can’t speak. She can’t understand. She is very disoriented, always. And foolish”, she remarked. I felt my temper rising. “Please let her answer”, I said as politely as I could, but knowing very well that I hadn’t feigned the politeness-part very convincingly. The mother kept quiet. “Girija, give me your hand”, I said. She raised her hand a bit and as though she had committed a great sin, put it down and shuddered.
Ofcourse, I knew the reason. Her mother had pinched her thigh. Thank God for R who walked in to borrow something, that I regained my cool. “You don’t need to be scared of anything. I will help you”, I tried to reassure her, afraid that the crack of my voice would give me away. She smiled weakly. ” Do you feel tired? Do you want to eat something? “, I asked, scared that I may scare her by questioning too much. She just shook her head. I turned to her mother and wrote down the complaints. The same list. No ADL. Her inability to follow instructions. h/o epileptic seizures. Total dependence. No conceptual skills intact. The list went on. I hated diagnosing her. I knew she was well. I knew she could think like us. I knew she had wanted to talk too. I knew she was just another like me. But deep down, I knew why she behaved that way.
Hadn’t her mother come for a disability certificate that entitles them to a monthly allownce of 1000 per month and free train travel for the caretaker and the person with disability? Yes, I suddenly knew why I had been upset. I had seen the same lady who had brought her daughter coming for a certificate for herself saying she had other problems related to hearing. She had then brought another elderly man with her, who said that she was mentally challenged and could not speak. When they were told that such issues do not entitle the to receive a compensation and were explained what kind of a disability would fetch such a certificate, she had told me that she’d get her daughter who is “mentally ill” and that she would claim a certificate. As I stood waiting for the supervisor to see Girijamma, I knew very well that she would get nothing that she had come wishing for. And I really feared that.
I knew what was haunting me. I looked at the lady. I saw the wrinkles and the dark circles. And the worry in her eyes. It touched me to know that a person can go the extent of calling her own daughter a person with “mental challenges” even when she was not. How much it must have pained her whenever she had to lie about her daughter! Over my years here, my perception of a person who lies has changed.To call your own with harsh terms such as “handicapped” to meet ends meet makes me feel drained out at times. I won’t pretend that am strong. I believe one needs to really see and experience these instances to grow as a person. It is just another example of learning outside classrooms and football fields. The extent to which one’s hardship makes lying inevitable is cruel. Gruelling. And knowing all this and denying a person an allowance and to send them away empty handed, leaving them a few rupees poorer ( all that they spend on travelling and food) and all the physical exhaustion they endure ( umpteen check ups and departmental visits), all the mental fatigue ( they actually try to come up with various problems to try their luck in various departments) – trust me, is a hard hard job! Knowing that the allowance is meant for persons with genuine disability and discharging your duties ethically is one thing. But then trying to justify this to your conscience that screams for attention is another. And somewhere, along, we concede; to what, is unanswerable.
I realized my file was on the table. And history would repeat itself. Like yesterday. Like the week before. And I had to see her sad face again. Whom would she bring the next time? I wished for an answer. An appropriate one, not the evasive ones. I was thrown into the perpetual dilemna again. I hated helplessness. Experience doesn’t always teach you to get used to things. Some things are meant to be the way they are. I shied and looked at Girijamma sitting in front of the supervisor. Detached. Her mother, joined her hands as mark of respect and sat on the chair, smiling as obediently as she could; trying to be her best. And I relived my fears once again.