On a day like this, 33 years ago, I became a man. To be precise, on November 28, 1987 at 12:10 pm in the emergency ward of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), I became a man. On that day, I changed my phrasal verb status from "growing old" to "growing up". Just ten minutes before that the Indian opening batsman Dilip Vengsarkar had hit a century in a test match against Pakistan, receiving a standing ovation from the TV audience full of doctors at the DMCH canteen. Ten hours earlier, I was memorising the question bank for the forthcoming medical college test, while my mother was attending to my father's pain. He was on the fourth stage of his cancer, undergoing chemotherapy. Three more bottles to go, as prescribed by his doctors from Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai. The doctors in India had tried to arrest the tumour of "half the size of a cricket ball" that grew in his pancreas with radiotherapy, and told us to mentally prepare for the eventuality with a predicted life inning of seven to eight years. I wanted to make my father proud by joining a profession that would save the lives of many others. He himself had been ill-fortunate to suffer not only from the malignant growth in his personal body but also from the dangerous growth in our social body that lacks empathy.
Just two weeks earlier, on November 10, 1987, one of the most known pro-democracy martyrs Noor Hossain was shot dead at a place near DMCH. There was a countrywide curfew to arrest the spread of political violence. While Bangladesh was battling against a cancerous dictator, my father was engaged in his personal battle. The doctor in Mumbai was surprised that his counterpart in Dhaka did not remove the tumour when he had the chance to do so while operating on my father for his gallbladder stones. A very renowned surgeon of Bangladesh saw the tumour, touched it with his knife expediting its spread—but did not remove it as it was not part of his "treatment package". During a post-operative session, while handing us a bundle of black stones wrapped in surgical gauze, the surgeon suggested that we should take him to India for further check-up if we could afford it.
And the doctors at Nanavati screamed, "Is he a real doctor or what? How can you open a body, touch a tumour and not remove it? He has simply limited our option." First ray, then chemicals. So, on that fatal morning, following a series of other complications over the next six months, my father had his intestinal obstruction. My mother woke me up early in the morning stating his discomfort. I went to the oncologist's house through the alleys amid curfew; he told me to take my father to DMCH for an enema. And my younger brother, who was 15 at that time, ran to the Rajarbagh barrack, with police guns being pointed at him during a shoot-to-kill curfew, to get an ambulance. And when we took my father to the DMCH, the intern doctors chided us saying, "Do you really need to bring a silly enema patient during this emergency?" Then the only senior doctor started getting busy demonstrating the CT scan plates of my father to the juniors which was an unknown technology in Bangladesh in 1987.
After a while my uncle took me to the canteen, while the ward boys started preparing him for the enema. The doctors in their white aprons celebrating sports in such close proximity to death made me aware of the greatest paradox of life, and of death too. By the time we returned to the ward, it occurred to me that my father was in the process of breathing his last. There was no monitor or anything—just the stethoscopes of some intern doctors hovering around "a man" who would soon become "a body" with no BP. I did not cry. I kept on staring at the man who said, why did you bring such a silly case? Meanwhile, there was a guy whispering in my ears, "please buy the shroud and coffin from me. I will give you discounts."
To cut a long story short, I did not become a doctor. That was the last day I stopped learning the names of the chemical components of human cells or labelling the parts of human bodies. You can call me a quitter. But on that day, I realised how helpless the doctors were in the grand of scheme of things. I also realised how inhuman the system could be. For most of us, we find comfort in raising our hands to the divine almighty thinking that the soul has passed on to a better place. The suffering body has come to an end. We pray for the soul's journey to the next level to shift focus to an earthly journey involving the others who depended on the man who had just died.
I am sorry to bore you with personal details of something "silly" that had happened so long ago. Every day, my Facebook newsfeed is being flooded with such "silly" death news of people or relatives of the people I know or don't know. There is a viral hearse, an endless procession of funeral news during this pandemic. Some touch us like feathers, some hit us like stones. Losing a loved one is never easy. Trying to comfort someone who has lost her or his loved one is even worse. Trying to make sense of death is probably the worst of the lot, especially in a country like ours where death is silly, seeking medical services is sillier, and falling ill is the silliest!
Imagine a father going to the Supreme Court with an ambulance carrying his twin newborns because three city hospitals refused to admit them for treatment. On November 2, the wife of court staff Md Abul Kalam Azad's wife Saira Khatun gave birth to two babies in a CNG-run auto-rickshaw on her way to Islami Bank Hospital in Mugda. The hospital authorities informed the couple to take the babies to Dhaka Shishu Hospital. They got an ambulance and went to Dhaka Shishu Hospital only to learn that the ICU was occupied and that the newborns would have to be admitted for normal beds costing Tk 5,000 per child per day. A lawyer from his office advised him to meet the director of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital with his reference. The director, however, was busy attending a meeting and later went home, forgetting to attend to Azad's children waiting in the ambulance. By the time a doctor inspected the newborns inside the ambulance, the children were dead. The news of an aggrieved father showing up on the court premise with his two dead children appeared on the TV scroll bar like a snake crawling under the news of the world. I would have cried had it been Priam holding the body of Hector in an episode of a Greek epic. The snaky news can be easily ignored.
There is bliss in ignorance. Not knowing, not feeling the pain of the others, can be blissful. Such bliss is for hypocrites like me who did not take up the challenge of knowing the medical mystery and trying to heal the world; instead, finding comfort in hurling criticism every now and then. The 'Dr.' prefix I have before my name makes the irony even more acute. Then again there are the others, the real 'Drs.', who took the oath of Hippocrates stating that they will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm. How can a doctor intentionally endanger the life of a patient sending him on a wild hospital search without giving primary attention?
Silly! Life is silly. Death is sillier. Our existence is the silliest.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.