Recollections of a strange night in a train

It was in early winter of 1995 , in late November if I remember right. I was returning from a cousin’s wedding in Mumbai, many years before personal travel by air became a possibility. I had taken a Mumbai-Delhi train and then the Lucknow Mail.  It had been a short trip and I was traveling with a small bag containing a few clothes including a couple of silk sarees and a little jewellery. An elderly couple got in and occupies the lower berths (I think it was 2-tier coach) and  I remember noting that they had a lot of luggage with them! Somewhere late into the night, I was woken up by a lot of activity below (I always opted for the upper berth in those days) – and listening to the talk, gathered that the gentleman was not well. On enquiring what the problem was, the wife told me that he was asthmatic, and was having trouble breathing.

I scramble down and checked on him, to find that he was going into a status asthmaticus. They were traveling with a nebulizer (a rare device even in our hospitals at the time), but there was no question of an electric outlet in the train. By then, we were chugging into Bareilly station and the time was around 2AM. I suggested to the lady that they should get off the train, as they could get medical help in Bareilly.

The co-passengers around us helped to carry the patient, a tall and heavy person, on to the platform.  I tried to enquire from  the few people on the platform about the location of electrical  outlets – fortunately the halt at Bareilly is longish. The tea stall vendor was most helpful, he dashed to get the station master. In the meanwhile, the wife was anxious about her luggage, and the co-passengers were unloading all 18 0r 20 pieces on to the platform. And as I rushed to board the train, she clung to me and was in tears not letting to board the train. As it chugged off towards Lucknow, I realized that my own bag was going with the train to Lucknow. The Station Master, assured me that he would talk on the  Rly line and inform the Lko Sation Master to collect the bag.

In the meanwhile,we could not find a single electrical outlet on the platform or a working one in the waiting room and the patient was struggling to breathe and getting drowsy. There was a railway hospital next door, and the station master called the doctor from there. The doctor refused to come  – he was for the railway employees and not for passengers!! He also said that the Railway hospital would not take the patient. The tea vendor, in the meanwhile, was hanging around and trying to be helpful. He knew of a nearby hospital that took emergencies.

So, the tea vendor got some others to help to carry the patient into a tempo (there were no taxis outside the station) and went with us to this hospital – which turned out to be a few beds arranged in a kind of shed, dirty, lit with a naked bulb,  withe nails on the wall for hanging the intravenous fluid bottle etc… and the ‘doctor’ who came out in his pyjamas and kambal (blanket) did not invoke too much confidence. I decided to go elsewhere, and got inputs from the ‘doctor’ about a hospital with an intensive care unit. I think it was called Bareilly Cardiac Center or some such thing. Even then Bareilly was famous for its large number of doctors and nursing homes.

Fortunately, we had not moved the patient (and the 20 odd pieces of luggage) out of the tempo and so we headed to this place. It turned to be acceptable with a receiving room for emergencies and a reasonably smart young doctor in attendance. He got the hang of the situation and immediately took charge, for which I was grateful, as the patient was slipping from drowsy into a deeper state! He was carried out of the tempo by the clinic staff and the wife was finally willing to let me go, with profuse and emotional expressions of gratitude

And then as I boarded that tempo with the tea vendor who was still with me, I suddenly realized that it was close to 5 am and the train was chugging towards Lucknow without me, but with my bag on board. Subhash was to meet it at 7 am.  As we were heading to the station, I spotted a PCO (the original telecom revolution in this country) was just opening. I called Subhash to update him of events, and once we got to the station, enjoyed my friend’s fresh cup of chai. As I was wondering as to how I would get home, the station master came out to assure me that he would put me on the next train going to Lko, which was a couple of hours later. And with a day ticket for the AC 2-tier, and a platform breakfast of poori/aloo sabzi I boarded the train to Lucknow.

So, why am I recounting this episode now? Yesterday, while rummaging though some old papers to locate a particular one , I came upon this letter. I was not even aware that I had stored it away.

Letter JudgeAs I read this almost 20 years later, it struck me that so much has changed and yet so much is the same! The letter itself (certainly not being flashed to display the very flattering words) was written by someone unknown to me or the couple who were helped. The paper, the printed simple letter head and the old manual type writer are part of nostalgia. But so is the language!! Who writes at all anymore? The old world charm of the gentleman, who I never met, comes through in his letter. Today, if at all such courtesies happen, it would probably be a cryptic WhatsApp message!

Certainly many things have changed for the better.The second telecom revolution has put instant connectivity  in our hands 24X7, and in a similar situation  today I could have Googled to find the hospital with the facilities and called them to have an ambulance at the station! I do not know about the electrical outlets in platforms, but have been charging my phone in the Shatabdi during recent travels.

But I am also aware that many things may not have changed – I am certain that the attitude of railway doctors have not and the railway hospital would still not accept an emergency, even from one of their trains. But on the other hand I am not unhappy to think that the platform chai and  poori-sabzi  may not have changed, not having had either in a long while.

The thing I hope would have changed, is that the sleazy, garage run nursing homes may have disappeared. But I doubt that, as it is a section that has been resisting any kind of regulatory supervision.

What I am ambiguous about is my attitude – how would I act today, in a similar situation? I distinctly remember that I did not feel insecure for one moment that night – and all the people around were helpful and supportive.  It is a sad reflection on my own transition, that interactions with a wider cross section of people has been severely curtailed and so I honestly would not know if the simple, trust and good-nature of the railway station chai-wallah would be the same today! I sincerely hope that it is and maybe I would surprise myself by responding to a similar situation just as I did 2 decades ago.



7 thoughts on “Recollections of a strange night in a train

  1. it is so wonderful narration of an incident that indicates the rare but yet not so rare professional ethicisim. I am sure majority will not show that kind of gratitude and presence of mind as you did Ma’m. It deserves many salutes as it comes as a lesson not only to doctors but any human being…I feel elated to have known you so closely…

  2. So proud of you, Ma and of the values that are your legacy. This is a great story to remember that humanity and empathy always comes first. Even if it had turned out to be a nightmare (luggage lost, etc), you would have had the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

    • Well, I forgot to add the bit about the luggage. Subhash was at Lko station at 7am (lko mail was seldom late) and went to my coach to claim the luggage. The railway staff was already there and refused to hand it over (remember, no cell phone for a quick confirmation!) till S threw his Professor at SGPGI spiel!!!

  3. I wish there were only a few more people like yourself, Dr. Naik! I see my parents in those people. The state of medical profession is in a very sorry state in our country. Hope some young folks recognize this and do the right thing.
    Priyam Sharma

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