Of Cabbages and Kings

October 16, 2009

Death of a watchman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Chinmayi @ 8:41 pm

It has long been the great Indian tradition to break rules. The more flagrant the violation, the greater one’s consequence. Queue jumping, commandeering of regulated items like LPG (or ‘cooking gas’ as we called it when we were seven), refusing to be frisked at airports, illegal pollution and cutting down of trees…you name it and people fall over eachother to do it.

Several proud upholders of this tradition live on the same quiet tree-lined street as my mother. In keeping with its spirit, their children are happy to regale the neighbourhood with their startlingly loud firecrackers late into the night. They have been at it for almost a week.

Among their rather impressive range of loud nerve-wracking sounds are the ‘atom bombs’ that I particularly loathed as a child (they make all the windows in the vicinity vibrate), which I am informed are banned these days. But India being the way it is,  prohibition make the celebrations particularly enjoyable.

My mother and I are almost accustomed to jumping out of our skin every now and then, and we take care to sit on well cushioned surfaces to ensure that our landings are comfortable. I imagine that the rest of the neighbourhood has also decided to grin and bear it. And so we went on.

This morning, the elderly gentleman who is the building’s security system, gardener and odd-job man rolled into one, returned from his long visit to his village. This evening, after completing his chores and locking the building gate, he dropped dead.

I was told that he has had a hole in his heart for years. Perfectly healthy people complain of minor palpitations after each rude blast from the neighbourhood brats’ illegal bombs. I can only imagine what effect the sudden explosions may have had on a man with a heart problem.

As his heart started to seize and flicker, his teenage daughters ran out on to the road to see whether they could get him to a hospital on time.  There is an excellent hospital 2 minutes away, but fate and the Indian disregard for rules intervened. Another neighbour bent on upholding the great Indian tradition had constructed a gate on the road to the hospital, and locked it up for the night. So the car rushing the dying man to the hospital took a long diversion and ten unnecessary minutes to get there. He gasped his dying gasp just as they were carrying him out of the vehicle into the hospital.

Until he died, it had never occurred to me that amidst all this (illegal) racket created in quiet places during festivals, there live several indigent and powerless people that cannot handle the shock. Even if K had known that the explosions were bad for his heart, there is very little he could have done to stop the rich kids that were making all the noise. Even if his wife knew that he might need to be rushed to the hospital from time to time, she could have done very little to ensure that the gate blocking the road to the hospital was kept open. A rich man would have has the operations necessary to fix his heart. A rich man would call the neighbour and threaten to report him to the police.

And so it happens that on a day that a bunch of rich children decide to break rules and have fun, a poor man dies. A vigilant watchman, an excellent gardner and above all one of the best fathers that ever was, he will be missed. His wife was in hysterics and his young daughters were looking after her. My mother’s landlady was close to tears.

And I sit here wondering – if we followed rules…if we thought about the elderly before breaking regulations about noise, if we thought about the desperately ill before blocking the road to the hospital, if a poor man and his family were allowed a voice, would this man be alive?

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