Even the greatest writers of the world, according to me, produce one immortal work which stands the test of time. When you think about the author, you think about this particular work as it stays with you long after you have read it. Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace, Hemingway – The Old Man and The Sea, O Henry – The Gift for the Magi, P G Wodehouse – Lord Emsworth and the girlfriend, Jerome K Jerome – Three Men in a Boat, V S Naipaul – House for Mr Biswas and the list goes on. In India we have Premchand – Godaan in Hindi, Tagore – Gitanjali in Bengali, Vi Sa Khandekar – Yayati in Marathi, Sriramana – Mithunam in Telugu, Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai – Kayar in Malyalam. I have not included Indian writers in English in the list. In Tamil, I have my list of favorites but this is about Sujatha, the most versatile of Tamil Writers. He breathed a fresh lease of life in story telling in Tamil and has published many novels and hundreds of short stories. But his best work would be this short story – Nagaram (City). Published in 1974, I would have read the story several times and even today, when I read the story I shed a drop of tear.
City – நகரம்
The Second Capital of Pandiyan Kingdom was Madurai. Madurai was mentioned as Madra in ancient maps; the British called it ‘Mathura’ and the Greeks called it ‘Mothara’ ‘A comparative Grammar’ – Robert Caldwell
Big graffiti -all jumbled up, adorned the damaged walls of the city, dark blue and black letters -one foot in size. ‘Nizam Lady Tobacco – R K Cut bodies (Bras) – Caution! Revolutionary Fire! Christian Prayer Meetings- Haji Moosa Cloth Sea (Cloth Shop) – fire pots to be carried by atheists on 30-09-73.’
An ordinary day in Madurai! As usual, plastic pots were in queue instead of people waiting for water to flow in ‘hand-pumps’. Children were playing in dirt without any worries about tetanus. Corporation buses were belching smoke on the streets. Protein deficient policemen, in stiff khaki dresses, were controlling human and vehicle traffic going here and there. City’s people movement reminded one of ‘Bownian motion’ (ask people who understand physics). Thin people in handloom shirts were going slowly on the left-hand side of the road (not a long line), shouting slogans against government about price hikes on essentials. People with headgears but without footwear, amazingly tall towers of Goddess Meenakshi Temple, Vaigai river running dry and the bridge across: Madurai City!
Our story is about a lady who has come to the city today. Valliammal with her daughter Papathi was waiting in ‘out-patient’ department corridors in Madurai General Hospital. (Government Hospital or GH, where essentially everything was free). The previous day, Papathi had fever and her mother took her to the Primary Health Centre. The doctor there scared her, “Take her immediately to GH in Madurai”. So Valliammal took the early morning bus, reached Madurai Hospital……
Papathi was lying in a stretcher. Six doctors were surrounding her. She must be about twelve years old. She had pierced her nose on both sides; her poverty stricken eyes were like glass which gleamed in hospital lights, holy ash on forehead. Even under the blanket which covered her up to the neck, one could see her hands were like thin bamboo sticks. She was in a feverish sleep, mouth open.
The chief doctor looked at her. Lifted her eye lashes, poked her chin, felt her skull with his fingers. He was well qualified, had studied abroad and took classes for post graduate students. The entourage was his students. He uttered:
“This is an acute case of Meningitis! Note the …..”
Amidst this conversation which she could not understand a word of, Valliammal kept looking at her daughter with anxiety. The student doctors, one by one, looked at Papathi’s eyes through an ophthalmoscope. They checked if her eyes were moving under the torch light and took notes.
The chief said, “Get her admitted immediately.”
Valliammal looked at the doctors. One of them said, “Look here. You have to admit the child immediately. Go to that man sitting over there. Where is your out- patient chit?”
Valliammal did not have the chit.
The doctor continued, “OK go to him. He will give you one” and he shouted at someone else, “Come here!”
Valliammal looked at the chief doctor and asked him, “Will my child get cured?”
Chief said, “First you admit her. We will take care” then he looked at the doctor next to him, “Dr. Danasekaran! I will take care of this case personally. See to it that she gets admitted. I have to take class now. Will come back and have a look at this kid again”.
He left with his entourage as a Minister would leave the scene. Dr Danasekaran told someone standing nearby, “Srinivasan – get her admitted” and ran after the chief.
Srinivasan looked at Valliammal.
“Hey come here! What’s your name” and shouted at someone else, “Hey stupid! Get me the register!”
“What’s the name of the patient?”
Valliammal did not understand the word patient. She said. “He is dead”.
Srinivasan translated the word, “patient means the one who is sick. Whom do you want to ‘admit’?”
“What’s the name?”
“Are you playing games with me? What’s the name of your daughter?”
“Thank God! Take this paper. Go straight and climb the stairs. A man would be sitting there who would register your income. Give this paper to him!”
“What about my child?”
“Don’t worry! Nothing will happen to the child. Has anyone come with you? You go and come back.”
Valliammal was not interested in leaving the child alone. She had not eaten anything since morning. The queue and the smell of the hospital were making her faint. She felt anger towards her dead husband.
She took the chit and climbed the stairs. The chair was empty and dirty. She showed the chit to the guy who was sitting in the next chair. He glanced through it with quarter of his left eye and dismissed her, “Wait! He will come back!” he showed her the empty chair. Valliammal wanted to go back to her daughter. In her uneducated mind, the debate whether to wait or go back to her daughter expanded to fill up the universe.
She wanted to ask, ‘will it take time?’ but was afraid to ask anyone.
The guy who was to note down her income on the chit was coming back leisurely after admitting his nephew in the hospital. He took a pinch of ‘snuff’ folded his handkerchief into a rope and rubbed himself and became active.
“Look here! Stand in queue” he shouted at everyone “If you swarm me like flies, I cannot attend to anyone.”
After a thirty minute wait, the chit was snatched from Valliamma’s hands. He looked at the chit and said, “There is no signature in this paper. Go and get the signature from doctor!”
“Where should I go for that?”
“Where did you come from?”
The clerk was laughing at her. “Hi Moonandippatti! What’s your husband’s income?”
“My husband is not alive”
“What’s your income?”
Valliammal did not understand this. She stared at the clerk.
“How much you will make in a month?”
“If I go for harvest work, I get some paddy and raggi”
“No money? OK I will put ninety rupees!”
“Don’t worry! The hospital won’t charge you! Go straight and take left. There will be an arrow on the wall. Follow that. Go to room number 48.”
Valliammal took the chit with both her hands. The direction given by the clerk confused her more. She was loitering in the hospital like a kite freed in air. She was an illiterate. She could not remember the number 48. She was afraid to go and ask the clerk again.
Two patients in one stretcher were crossing her; half sitting and half lying down with tubes in their noses. A big trolley was moving with food. Lot of white caps appeared. Women doctors in white coat and make-up, stethoscope adorning their neck like a chain were walking past. People with coffee flasks and nurses were walking in all directions in a hurry. She did not know what to ask and whom to ask. In one corner, a man was collecting lot of brown chits just like the one she had. She gave him the chit. He took it without giving it a glance. People were sitting on the benches; waiting. Valliammal started worrying about Papathi again. She was alone. The man who collected the chits started calling the names one by one. He sat them on the bench in an orderly fashion. When he read ‘Papathi’ he looked at the chit and looked at Valliammal. “Why did you bring this here? Go straight!” He handed over the chit back to her. Valliammal said, “Sir please help me. I don’t know the place”. The man stopped someone and instructed him, “Hey Amalraj – take this woman to Room Number 48” and told Valliammal, “Go behind him.”
She had to run behind Amalraj.
There were some more people waiting on the benches. Someone took the brown chit from her. The hospital smell coupled with her hunger was nauseating.
She was called after half an hour. She went inside room number 48. Two people were sitting opposite to each other and writing on a big ledger with pencils. One of them saw her chit. He studied it at an angle.
Are you coming from O.P department?
She could not answer the question.
“It’s written please admit. There is no vacant bed now. Come tomorrow morning at 7 ‘o’ clock sharp. OK?”
“Where should I come?”
“Come here straight. OK?”
As she came out of the room, her worries increased as it was close to two hours since she left her daughter alone. She could not figure out how to get back to her daughter. All rooms in the hospital looked same to her. It looked like the same person was sitting in different rooms. In one ward, there were many patients lying with plastered hands and legs. At some other ward many children were lying on beds most of them crying. With all the machines, patients and doctors crowding everywhere she could not figure out where she was going.
“Madam” she called a lady doctor and described the place she came from. “Lots of doctors were there. Someone asked my income. He told me I don’t have to pay anything. I have left my daughter there madam.”
She followed the route the doctor explained her. The gate was locked there. Her fear became a shock now. She started crying standing in the middle of the corridor. Someone asked her to stand aside and cry. Just like the aseptic smell, everyone must have got used to crying as well.
She started talking – half wailing to herself, “Papathi! Papathi! Where should I go? Where would I see you?” She saw an exit gate. People were being allowed to go outside. She remembered she had seen the gate.
She came out. She remembered that she went some distance from that place and entered the hospital. She started to run. She came to an entrance. She remembered the wooden stairs. She remembered the guy, sitting in a chair, asking about her income. There!
But the entrance was locked. Through the grill she could see Papathi lying on a stretcher, sleeping.
“Sir Sir please open the door my daughter is inside” she started crying
“Come at three ‘o’ clock. Now everything is closed.” She begged him for about ten minutes. He said something but she could not understand. And he could not understand what she was saying amidst her cries though both were talking in Tamil. Suddenly she saw him opening the door after taking money from someone. She just burst inside and went to her daughter and picked her up. She came out, sat on a bench and started crying.
The chief doctor returned to his room after his classes. He remembered the meningitis case he saw in the morning. He remembered the new treatments mentioned in an article recently in B.M.J. (British Medical Journal). He called someone.
“I asked you guys to admit a twelve year old meningitis case in the morning. Where is she?”
“No one got admitted here doctor.”
“What? Not admitted? I told specifically to admit her. Dr. Danasekaran don’t you remember?”
“Paul you go and find out.” Paul went to enquire with the clerks.
The clerk said, “You keep writing ‘admit’. How can we? There is no bed. There is no place to stand in the wards.”
“Hey the chief is asking!”
“Is she someone he knows?”
“May be! How do I know?”
“I dint see any 12 year old patient. I told all the others to come at 7 AM tomorrow. Two or three beds may get vacated tonight. If it’s an emergency you should have cautioned me. You should have told me the chief is interested. Is the patient his relative?”
Meanwhile Valliammal was getting confused as to what she could do till the next day. The hospital surroundings were making her afraid. She was not sure whether the hospital would allow her to stay with her daughter. She started thinking again. She picked her daughter up and put her over her shoulders, the child’s limbs dangling near her hips. She stopped a rickshaw and asked him to take her to the bus stand.
The chief was asking, “What nonsense? Tomorrow morning 7 ‘o’ clock? The child will be dead before that! Dr Danasekar you go to OP and check. She must be there. If there is no bed in that wretched ward, admit her in our department ward. Ask them to allot”.
“Chief that bed is reserved for someone.”
“I don’t care. I want the girl admitted now. Right now.”
No one has ever seen chief shouting like that! Dr Danasekaran, Paul and Miranda (nurse) all started rushing to OP department.
‘Only fever! Let me go back to Moonandippatti. I will show her to a village doctor and not to the primary health centre doctor. He has unnecessarily terrified me. She will be alright. I will just tie a white band on her wrist after prayer and apply some holy ash on her forehead. She will be alright.’
As the rickshaw was going towards the bus stand Valliammal started praying to God with a promise to offer handful of coins to the temple when Papathi gets well.
Sujatha (3 May 1935 – 27 February 2008) was the pseudonym of the Tamil author S. Rangarajan, author of over 100 novels, 250 short stories, ten books on science, ten stage plays, and a slim volume of poems. He was one of the most popular authors in Tamil literature, and a regular contributor to topical columns in Tamil periodicals such as Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam and Kalki. He had a wide readership, and served for a brief period as the editor of Kumudam, and has also composed screenplays and dialogues for several Tamil movies.
Penning with his wife’s name, Sujatha’s Tamil literary career spanned more than four decades. An engineer by profession, he was proficient in the language of technology. Widely read and knowledgeable, he presented his knowledge in simple Tamil.
His works stood out during a time when Tamil composing was dominated by social/family dramas and historical novels. His identification with the masses, and his uncanny adoption of their way of talking, behavior, mindset and slang, helped make him popular across multiple demographic segments.
His popularization of technology was one of his greatest contributions – starting with his Silicon Chip composing in Dinamani Kadhir and Yen, Yedharku, Eppadi in Junior Vikatan. At one point, his composing was appearing in numerous Tamil weeklies and journals simultaneously, including Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam, Kungumam, Kalki and Dhinamani Kadhir. Later he contributed as script/screenplay author for several Tamil movies. His notable movies included Vikram,Thiruda Thiruda, Boys and Sivaji. Most of his early novels/stories were made as movies, including Priya, Gaytri, Karaiyellam Senbagapoo and Anandha Thandavam, among others.
In his later days he restricted his composing to essays such as Katradhum-Petradhum. He began to spend more time reading, especially old rare Tamil composings and composings on the latest developments in information technology and computing.
As an engineer, he supervised the design and production of the electronic voting machine (EVM) during his tenure at Bharat Electronics Limited, a machine which is currently used in elections throughout India. As an author he inspired many authors, including Balakumaran, Madhan, Charu Nivedita. – Wikipedia