London 2012: Farewell, my friend Raj Mongia

Now,  no more,  Raj Singh  Mongia,   as he was three weeks back when I met him in his quarters  at a retirement community in Northwood, England. He died in sleep a couple of days back.

The bloke betrayed no signs of excitement on  seeing me,  a visiting friend from India.  Raj Singh gave us a deadpan look when Nangia and I dropped in on him, unannounced,  on our way to the neighbourhood pub for dinner.  I had expected him to drop whatever he was doing and join us to dinner;  or else,  ask us to drop our plan, and join him for beers at his pad.  He did neither.  We spent 15 meaningless minutes,  making small talk.  The Raj Singh, that  bear-hugger pappe  type sardar that I had known 45 years  back was nowhere  there to be seen,  that day.

For the record,  the   Raj Singh I knew  had beard, a faceful of it and not the goatee he sported (as in Photo) ;  had mischief in his eyes.  He wore turban as the Sikhs do,  lived in a Shepherds Bush bed-sitter,   relished his daily pint at the neighbourhood  pub, and the saag & phulka  made by a generous landlady,  who was Bhenji  to us all.  By  ‘all’,  I mean self  and a couple other bachelor  friends who visited Raj Singh for beer and home-made phulka  on weekends.

Bhenji  is 84,  and still around at her old place.  So I heard from Nangia.  Raj Singh moved on in life,  to work on oil rigs as engineer;  to marry and to divorce;  and then to came and  live in a retirement home, where I met him on a recent visit to London.  Somewhere along the way  he had  his left leg amputated  following   infection  he acquired during  hospitalization  for something else.  Raj Singh was diabetic.

During our 15-minute meeting,  my friend on wheel-chair seemed hard put to make conversation with me –  a long forgotten friend from India.  He seemed uninterested in nostalgic natter.  I withdrew into my shell,  leaving Raj Singh to  ask questions ,  about my London visit, and make small talk about  his life in a  retirement home.  Nangia distracted him by flipping a cigarette-end  out of the window.  ‘He’s incorrigible,’  quipped Raj Singh.  They had known each other from New Delhi  coffee-house days in early 60s.

Nangia,  in a mood to  make amends,  went out to Raj Singh’s  backyard  to retrive the cigarette butt. While he was gone  Raj Singh filled me in on how strict the  matron was .   Raj Singh said she  would fine him if she were to find the discarded butt  outside his window.  We left a few minutes after Nangia returned and restored  the butt to its rightful place – the ash tray on the coffee-table.

Outside,  in the car,  I couldn’t help but  share with Nangia my disappointment on our meeting with Raj Singh. Here I was, all geared up to surprise an old friend  with a visit after four decades and a half;  and all that he could find to talk about was the cigarette butt tossed out into his backyard.  Maybe our visit held him back from watching Olympics.  The TV remained  switched on to the sports channel through our brief visit.

In retrospect , now that Raj Singh is gone,  I reckon I was harsh and went horribly wrong in judging him.  He was deadpan that day because of suffering of some kind;  because he was bottling up  something that nagged him . Though long-time friends, we weren’t, presumably, worthy of his trust so  that Raj Singh could have unburdened whatever it was that weighed  on him, that evening.

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Bhopal, before 24×7 media

Todays’ media people,  fed on 24×7 news channels,   may find it hard  to imagine that there was a  24-hour delay in the Bhopal gas tragedy  making media headlines.   TV those days was limited to a few hours  of evening telecast.  Bhopal 1984 was in B G era (Before Google) ;  and the gas leak that killed over 2000 overnight  happened on a  Sunday night,  well past the  newspaper  deadline (time at which an edition  goes to print) .

I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent;  and the English  print media of  that time  meant a  handful of dailies –  Hindustan Times Indian Express and The StatesmanPatriot of Delhi, and  The  Hindu ,  Madras ,  didn’t even post full-time correspondents in Bhopal in the 80s ;  a media outpost,  to which no senior TOI reporter from New Delhi  was happy  to be  posted.  I went to Bhopal, as staff correspondent,  from the Delhi news service desk.

Bhopal  was a city of  ‘stringers’,  in media parlance.  Stringers are locally influential reporters retained by major dailies to file news reports for them.  And then we had carbon-copy hacks, reporting for several media outlets.  They are paid by the column inches they get published. The  complaint some outstation newspapers had was that they got from their stringers  fourth or the fifth carbon-copy  that was barely visible to the naked eye.

Bhopal reporters on media junket to Sagar. The face under the strawhat is Tarun Bhadhuri of The Statesman

This was the media scene in Bhopal 1984.   There was  camaraderie among reporters of major outstation dailies.  We moved together on assignments,  often pooling information,  while respecting  the right to ‘exclusives’  a reporter was obliged to put out now and  then to please their editors.

Reporter at work in back-seat of a car

Barring a few major newspapers that maintained an office with teleprinter connection,  reporters  relied on Post Office telex to send  news reports.  I have once sent a report to New Delhi from a post  office in remote area that still used Morse Code telegraph.

Our teleprinter operator in Bhopal worked four hours daily, from 4 p m ; and stayed beyond 8 p m on request, but rarely more than an  hour or two.  I could phone in  brief reports,  but  you can’t expect to  get too popular with the steno at the news desk  in New Delhi,  if you  phone in your reports too often. Besides, there was STD cost to be
considered.  The phone bills you submit to New Delhi for  reimbursement were liable to be sent back with query as to why and what-for certain phone calls were made,  and if they were  necessary.

Bhopal gas leak happened late on a Sunday night. I was woken up from sleep by a phone call from N Rajan, a media colleague and neighbour who edited local daily Hitavada, and also filed news  reports for Patriot, New Delhi. He had heard from a contact about a  major gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticides factory. The gas  had already drifted our way, though our  Professor Colony residence  was about 5 km from the factory.

As I looked out  from our first-floor balcony I saw residents in our  neighbourhood out on the street, fleeing from the gas spread.  Rajan  and I  – with my wife, son and our dog –  joined the crowd.  It ddidn’t  require a reporter’s nose for news for one to realise that we were amidst a major developing story. Our frustration was we couldn’t report it to our New Delhi offices at that late hour.  No cell phones then.

Our priority was  survival ;  making it  somewhere away from the gas,   which had by then spread to much of Bhopal . We spent the night  with Narasimhan in Arera Colony.  He is a relative and was then a  Bhopal bank official whose house was on  higher ground and unaffected.  On our way up to Narasimhan’s  place we found several gas victims  who collapsed on the street after inhaling the toxic gas  methyl isocyanate.

The morning after the gas leak I started phoning colleagues and contacts, but found them equally in the dark on details. The 8 a m  radio news wasn’t much of a help, by way of hard news. Meanwhile our colleague in The Statesman Tarun Bhadhuri (Jaya Bachchan’s  father) phoned to say he heard from a Union Carbide factory official  that the gas leak was under control and the casualty figure was five deaths.  This was what a Union Carbide official would have us believe that  morning .Anyway we still had the entire day to work on the news report.  That night TOI news desk kept open the Page One lead slot till 11 p m.

At Bhopal, when Rajan and I went to the government hospital – Hamedia – around 10 a m we found a spill-over of gas victims from hospital wards,  to the corridors and scores more were being brought in to the casualty in vans,  three-wheelers and even push-carts. Many of the victims collapsed right on the drive way.

Driving through the town later that day we found dead cattle with bloated belly lying on the street,  waiting to be disposed of.  The army had moved in  and their trucks helped disposal of the dead.  We still  had places to  visit, and contacts to be tapped – at the railway  station (where gas victims, dead and dying, were being taken out of  platforms and waiting halls), at  the police headquarters,  the P R  office,  and the hospitals.  I made a final round of phone calls to other  reporters to exchange notes before filing my news report for the day.

In the absence of an officially declared tally of the gas victims, reporters  worked out a consensus on a figure  –  500 dead .  But then the  headline writers sitting in Delhi  had other   calculations. Upshot was that no two newspaper headlines carried the same figure. We in Bhopal based our guesswork on a  report that all nine cremation grounds in town worked  round the  clock during the  24 hours after the calamity struck.

This was how the Sunday night gas leak in Bhopal made it to  print  on Tuesday morning.

Related write-up –  The night Bhopal turned into a gas chamber

A Sunday afternoon with Ila

BerkeleyAug9 057Her parents had asked us over to Berkeley Marina to picnic with 16-month-old Ila.  On a clear day, they say, if you look hard,  and far enough into the waters,  you could even catch a glimpse of San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge from the spot where we picnicked. To be precise, the picnic  invite was for my grandsons – Nikhil,18 months, and Sidharth,three years – and I tagged along, as live-in cheer leader,  always at hand to marvel at their playfulness.

On this Sunday afternoon, however, the person I came to marvel was Ila –  her ever-smiling face, her observant eyes, indeed, her very presence among us on the outdoors.  The last time I saw her, nearly an year ago, Ila was no more than a breathing bundle of tissues and bones,  with a smile nonetheless, sustained by medicines, and sheer tenacity of her parents.Her father Srinivas attributes Ila’s remarkable recovery to  “too much fight in the little girl to let adversity, unspeakable pain, and a constant threat to life interfere with her sense of fun”. 

I had little knowledge of Ila’s medical condition till I read her father’s blog.  Last updated in April, the blog gives a perceptive account of Ila’s state of health and the state of mind of her parents.  When she was barely eight weeks old Ila was diagnosed,  and she went through a five-hour surgery for Biliary Atresia,  a medical condition pertaining to malformation of the gall bladder and bile duct. The liver fails to drain the bile salts into the intestines, resulting in cirrhosis. The surgery Ila had to go through,when she was no more than two months old, was a “frighteningly long (5 hours) marvel of medical procedure” with an intimidating name – Kasai’s portoenterostomy.  As she was undergoing this surgery Ila’s father, waiting it out at the lobby, ‘went through a thousand kinds of hell’  at the thought of her pain and heartbreaking predicament.

And a million more hells were to be endured yet,  in the coming weeks and months. I recall Meera,  my daughter-in-law and a doctor, telling me that during the weeks following the surgery Ila’s fluctuating health condition necessitated frequent spells of intensive care at the  hospital. She showed signs of mild jaundice at the age of 5 months, and also ‘a sub-optimal growth’. This was an unmistakable pointer that Ila  needed a liver transplant.

What  followed in the lives of Ila and her parents  is best described by her father:  Ila’s condition deteriorated at record speed…Maya and I were told we needed to be assessed to be live donors. Ila was admitted to the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.

BerkeleyAug9 031After scores of tests done on Ila and her parents Maya was chosen as the live donor of the left-lateral lobe of the liver.Dr.Waldo Concepsion came out of the examination room describing ‘how gorgeous Maya’s liver is’. Dr.Carlos Esquivel,who did the transplant,  pronounced Ila’s  ‘the sickest liver I have seen in a long time’.  Of the team of surgeons Ila’s father had this to say – “I would gladly surrender my ego to these Gods and offer them my life long servitude if I did not know it would only embarrass them”.

Memo to blogger Srinivas: Those concerned with the ongoing healthcare reform debate would benefit from your perspective on the functioning of the prevalent system.

Car crash on our way to airport

crash car 006Viewing this image you would not hold out much hope for its passengers. I wouldn’t,  either, had I not survived the crash. This was the vehicle in which my wife and I were going to the Bangalore airport to catch an early morning Dubai-bound flight. It happened near Bididi, nearly two hours after we had left Mysore,  at the dead of night.  Our vehicle  brushed  against a bitumen laden truck,  taking a ‘U’turn on a high-speed highway.

crash car 005We were at the rear-seat, asleep. I didn’t know what hit us, as I woke up to the crash; my wife had passed out on impact.  Stranded on a highway in pitch darkness, I felt futile and helpless. For a few agonised minutes I believed it was all over, as my wife wouldn’t respond to my frantic calls, and efforts to shake her awake.

It must have been minutes,  but seemed an eternity, before my wife  regained consciousness.  She was dazed, and kept asking what had happened, and why, and where we were heading , what for. Whatever I told her didn’t register, for she kept repeating the same questions, to a point when I lost patience. I found myself utterly at a loss as what to do next.

Our driver Mahadevan knew the drill. He informed his travel office in Mysore; called the police, and the ambulance service. Meanwhile a crowd gathered, even though it was past midnight.  Somewhat irritated at our becoming  a spectacle for curious passers-by, I gave vent to my frustration, asking the driver why he wouldn’t try to stop a passing vehicle to take my wife to hospital, instead of wasting time answering silly questions from inquisitive onookers.

I didn’t realise then that  Mahadevan, hurt and bleeding from his right ear, was doing his best, unmindful of his injury. I learnt later that he had a slashed ear. A few minutes later a policeman showed up on a bike,but there was no sign of ambulance.

Under stress I get clumsy at handling  things, even a cell phone. I managed to call co-brother Raghu in Mysore.  I had a credit card, but not much cash.  He called his co-brother Narsimhan in Bangalore, who was the first to turn up at the hospital at the crack of dawn. As it turned out, I didn’t need cash. The ambulance ride was free; and I used credit card at the hospital.  Incidentally, it came as a relief to learn that the Karnataka government has a free ambulance service in place on the Mysore-Bangalore highway. So dire was its need for me that I would have  readily paid a thousand rupees, if only I had the cash.

It was, I believe,  nearly half-hour ambulance ride to BGS Global hospital at Kengari. The approach road to an otherwise well-equipped hospital is bumpy, and bad for fracture cases. And the multi-speciality hospital,  located close to the highway receives mainly accident victims. I see repair of potholed  road to the hospital as a medical priority in critical care. 

Emergency service was prompt, and efficient. Dr Venkatesh who attended on my wife stitched up a nine-inch cut on her neck; had her right shoulder x-rayed for supected fracture; and kept up a conversation to calm our nerves.  At my request he agreed to take a call from my anxious daughter-in-law, a doctor in the US. I found Dr Venkatesh a multi-tasker with reassuring way with words in dealing with patients – the kind, I believe, would be an assset in any medical emergency room. I wonder why a hospital that has a well-functioning ER and claims to have world-class infrastructure, including helipad for air ambulance,  can’t fix its bumpy driveway.

crash car 008On our way back to Mysore, after a day in hospital, I stopped by to see,  for the first time, our damaged vehicle. The scale of damage may spell death for others. But I associate life,  my reality of it,  with that mangled mess on wheels, if only because my wife and I are still alive to see it. The image of the wrecked Sumo  tells me that at times a split-second or sheer hair-breadth is all that is there  between life and a pointless death.