Excerpt: Nautanki Diaries by Dominic Franks
Soon enough, I began to feel hungry. I warned Nautanki she’d have to go at top speed after lunch. Naveen suggested freshly slaughtered nati koli. “Don’t you still have another 40 km? If you are planning on putting in 120 for the day, don’t you need the strength?” he prodded. But the great problem with having a farm fowl slaughtered and cooked is the time involved in the operation; an hour waiting, the better part of an hour eating (polishing off one chicken between three people wasn’t easy), and another half an hour to laze around digesting the chicken. It was two o’ clock and with 40 km left, it was touch and go, but I remembered Naveen’s crestfallen face from the previous night.
The chicken was ordered; Naveen took great delight in inviting us to watch the slaughtering. A group of four men was involved in the capture. One of them who chased our meal as hard as the others caught my attention because of an immobile arm limping by his side. The hand stayed motionless as he ran, swaying slightly despite his left hand preventing it from swinging too much. Out of medical curiosity, I made a mental note to examine the prosthesis later. Fowl being caught, it was time for the fowl to be killed. Naveen made himself welcome in the dhaba’s kitchen to supervise preparations — no doubt to give directions too. The TV was tuned to what the crew wanted to watch. I stretched on a charpoy.
When I was done, I invited the man with the motionless arm over. It wasn’t a fake hand after all, it wasn’t even a prosthesis; the darkness of the limb and its relative immobility had made me think so. The skin was tense, and it stretched over the swollen hand that had hardened by degrees. The skin shone ominously, it peeled in places; it was cold to touch. Where the man’s shirt-sleeve ended, a soiled piece of gauze bound his broken wrist tightly to prevent the fractured bones from slipping. It was a foolish non-scientific way of alignment that would leave a permanent disability.
The man sat there impassively, his right hand positioned on his thigh with the palm facing upwards, his left hand supporting it. He moved his fingers slowly, gently, inquiringly, like an experimental cyborg testing out a robotic arm in a science-fiction movie. The hand moved, but not at the wrist — it moved above the wrist, but only fractionally and with the aid of the left hand. Any more movement and the man would scream with pain. It was a dead hand already, or maybe it was a dying hand; I didn’t know. I had come too far from the vast shores of medicine to pronounce anything with any certitude. I listened, shocked at the man’s ignorance, his naiveté, his gullibility.
His story was this: two months ago he’d been riding his scooter on the highway at eight in the morning when a Maruti 800 tried to overtake him. The side rear-view mirror of the car had clipped his hand as it overtook him. He hadn’t been driving fast, maybe around 20 km/h. He hadn’t even fallen off the bike; when he came home he had a terrible pain in his wrist and couldn’t move his hand. He had visited a local medicine man who had applied a salve made from jadi butiyaas to the broken wrist. Thankfully, it wasn’t an open fracture. Then, the medicine man had boiled two eggs and had bound them to the broken wrist; the treatment had been concluded by positioning the broken ends of the bones against one another and fastening them together tightly with supposedly sacred black thread. When the man had gone back in a month, the quack had told him things were fine, given him some more jadi butiyaas and asked him to come back after another month — broken bones took time to heal after all. I asked the man, like we had been tutored in medical college, how much he had improved if improvement was measured on the scale of a rupee. ‘Ten paisa,’ he replied. It was the prototype of the sad story that must surely be replicated continually in the villages in our country because India’s healthcare system is porous and poor.
As kindly and firmly as I could, I told the man that he would have to go to a hospital. He needed an operation, he would need to be admitted for a week, maybe two; but it was the only way he could save his hand. The man sat expressionless; the only time his face glimmered with emotion was when I told him if he left his hand that way it would get as useless as wet firewood — it was an expression I’d picked up from an attender in the government hospital where I had done my internship.
I watched the man’s face and knew he wasn’t going to take my advice. He had stopped watching TV, he was lost in his thoughts. When I repeated the advice, he looked at me with the same blank expression and asked, “Where will the money come from?” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “I’ll manage, it will get better.” Blind faith had made him foolish, while poverty had made him obstinate and helpless. He left to go back to his work, his broken motionless hand hanging like dead weight by his side.
I marvelled at how (in two months) he had learnt to live a one-armed existence. I thought about the pain he must have suffered when the village quack had tied the fresh fracture. I should have asked how he had dealt with that. But the man was back in the kitchen earning his keep, mixing the curry with his left hand. Throughout the conversation, he hadn’t evinced any anger, neither at the man whose car had clipped him, nor at the village quack who had rendered his hand useless, nor at the government hospitals where the bribes that turn the machinery scare away poor people. He was resigned; it was his fate.
Achyu said he wanted to shoot me chasing a fowl. I did a few cursory runs (laughing to myself ), imagining I was Stallone in Rocky II, trying to get fit again. I was acutely aware of the fact I was wearing the T-shirt Gopichand had gifted me. Achyu’s concerns were far greater. His was an orthodox Brahmin family who did things strictly by the book. ‘If my parents get to know I am filming chickens being slaughtered and cooked, they might never speak to me again,’ he said.
I set at a good pace. The quality of the road was patchy — all road markings and signage were gone, the road was rutted in places, potholed in others; the rain had whipped it to loose gravel, the elements had amplified the bruises of time and shoddy craftsmanship. I watched the road carefully, concentrating, senses alert, listening to the vehicles coming from behind, watching and waiting to see if they might run me off the road. We were on a two-lane highway with no median and the trucks and buses were looking to overtake, with Naveen driving at the same speed as me (which couldn’t have been more than 20 km/h). I could sense the annoyance when the lorries had to tailgate him because the oncoming traffic was steady. They stalled at the speed we were going at, honking. We rode in this clamour for a while. It gave me tremendous thrill because to cycle in jostling traffic at a high speed demanded fervent concentration.
Read more: Like leaves tossed in the wind
As a child, I’d stay awake at night when we travelled in buses, looking out of the windscreen at the road unfurling in the marauding light of the headlights. We always booked the front seats because they had the most legroom and my father’s double knee surgery had left his leg bending only that much. I would imagine myself as the bus driver and try to negotiate the turns before they happened. I was always surprised when the road curved without me seeing it beforehand, and watched in awe at how close buses went to oncoming traffic without losing speed, negotiating all corners with the same nonchalance.
Now, I was riding with the same men I’d goggled at, negotiating the same curves as them with the same nonchalance, not letting up speed when they honked, but making them wait their turn because the roads were so bad I didn’t want to impede my progress by cycling in the ruts at the edge. For one of the most gnawingly difficult things on a cycle is to go clattering through a persistently scratchy strip of road — the joints get rattled, the muscle fibres vibrate like plucked strings, the hands grip tighter, the fingers grow whiter, the shoulders hunch together as the road seems to administer an endless series of punches that brush the skin and bruise the muscles. I marvelled at Shikaari doing the same trip 28 years ago. I’d only had a few bad stretches of road: his entire journey must have been like this one — all 2000 km of it. I had to make it to Doodgaon in two hours; it was a fitting goal for a solid evening session.