Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ghost of the Christmas Past

Many years ago, I read an abridged version of the 19th century classic by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’. Put simply, it is the story of the miraculous transformation of the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge into a kind philanthropist over the night of Christmas eve. Mr.Scrooge, is visited in his sleep by three ‘ghosts’, the ghosts of the Christmas Past, Present and Future, that showed him the life he was missing on account of his avarice, and what lay in store for him in the future if he did not change his ways.

The literary maestro that he is, Dickens’ description of each ghost is calculated to arouse in the reader’s, as well as Mr.Scrooge’s mind, the right mixture of fear and confusion and dreadfulness, and at the end, hope.

The Ghost of the Christmas Past is described as having a face that might have belonged to a man or a woman, to an old person or a child. It is dressed in flowing white robes, and has a cap that she never wears. It shows him scenes from his childhood and early adult years, his tender side that he had forgotten long ago.

Last week, I saw a face just like that.

It was one of the crowded days at the OP. Even as I am attending to a patient, I do try to be generally aware of the presence of people around me, a wandering casual eye that would constantly be on the look out for anything that didn’t fit into a pattern: something that might suggest a person in need of immediate attention. I hate it when someone collapses while waiting for their turn after having come to the hospital from afar.

I had a nagging feeling then, that morning in the OP. A couple of times I stopped what I was doing and looked around, yet could not see anything out of the ordinary, amongst the largely burqa-clad crowd. Yet the feeling remained, and so I suddenly turned round, just in time to see an emaciated hand hastily bring down the veil over a face, that could have been young or old, or for that matter could even have been male or female. A look of almost unbearable suffering, of fear, of shame. In the infinitesimal moment that our eyes met, I knew: the haunted eyes of the HIV-AIDS patient, especially in a young woman, is hard to miss even for someone having only the most rudimentary acquaintance with human suffering.

Hastily she covered the face, retreated into the security of her robes, and slipped away into the crowd. Perhaps she had memories of other times, of being chased out of other places.

After an hour or so, when the crowd at the OP had begun to thin out, I could make out the familiar outline at the back of the queue. I called out to her, and the others moved to either side to give way as she hesitantly came up to the front.
With some difficulty, I cleared some space around the table, pushing the others out of the consultation room. She visibly relaxed, and for the first time, began to laugh and talk normally like the 28 years old that the OP ticket said was her age.

She might’ve been 70, but for the laughter.

Just so there was no doubt left, she told me her HIV status, like a responsible patient, and proceeded to describe a plethora of symptoms, suggestive of a worsening immune status. I asked about the duration of the disease.

She had been of ART (Anti Retro-Viral Therapy) for TEN YEARS.

She got it from her husband, who was then undetected (or so it was claimed), when she was married to him AT THE AGE OF SEVENTEEN.

Two children, both not infected, thanks to availability of costly medicines through a centrally funded project. She lived with her husband, and they got along by rolling beedis.

Talk to me about equal opportunity and percentage stats in govt employment, the IITs and the IAS. I’ll tell you what it means to have never had a chance.

A cold rage.


  1. I am speechless. May be I will come up with a suitable reply later.Right now all I can feel is helplessness and anger, mostly directed towards the girls' parents. Why would any body want to get their daughters married off at such an young age? Why is education such a low priority for our population? Why should the innocent suffer for somebody else's mistakes?
    And we complain about trivial issues...

  2. One can understand Aparna's rage - and yours. There is no point in blaming anybody. Maybe her husband didn't know. How can one blame her parents, when the society which includes you and me demands a heavy price for a female child? Dowries, Gold, position and prestige.Those who are financially well off wouldn't know the fire of anxiety of the poor parents, ensuring a married life for their child. Are you, are we ready to break away from the vicious circle? There was a time when I thought AIDS patients deserved it, having little knowledge of the social dimensions of the issue. And the innocent ones who beget the disease. What we can do is like Gopu, offer them a little love and care...

  3. I dont feel rage, but a lot of sorrow, the image still haunts me.."she could be 70, but for the laughter" so many women of truck drivers in Punjab get infected with AIDS, so many young blood transfusion patienst also get infected, the hollows in the lightless eyes of kids in hospital wards, the dejection in the eyes of young infected girls and the fear in the eyes of young infected men are all that kept coming to me every time I read this post of yours.

  4. @Aparna, Bala, Sujatha: Thanks for dropping by. I really cant think of anything appropriate to say. I think I shall not be replying to any comments in this post.

  5. The rage, sorrow, helplessness and the like did persist but what caught my attention the most was the empathy you as a doctor had for the patient and the laughter she had in spite of all odds. Over time what I feel is a kind of numbness...Ultimately people enduring this need empathy and not sympathy,and that empathy can make them face realities bravely when the past is irreversible.


Thanks for giving me this moment of your life.