Existential Ironies: With Honors
No one had been inside Abhi’s room for the last three months, spare Abhi himself and the maid. There was a sharp film of dust on the bookshelf, wardrobe, and windowsill, even though the window hadn’t been opened for three months as well. The table, however, was clearly regularly used; books had been opened and closed and then neatly stacked, papers lay scattered with pens as paperweights. The bed also showed regular use, with the mattress cover wrinkled and disheveled, also dotted with the requisite papers, pens, and books. Everything else had remained untouched. And it was dawning on the rest of the family, that it would be very hard for anyone to touch. In fact, simply entering the room would likely give his mother a panic attack.
His mother was not a woman with the strongest of psyches. That was conveyed to the emergency doctor by the attending nurses as soon as he decided to break the news. He took one last look at the boy, just 22 years of age, lying on the powder blue hospital bed, wires and tubes extending from his body to various machines. He left the operating room into the hallway to see his parents.
“Doctor, what happened? Will he be okay? Can he still work?” His mother yelled out frantically.
“It’s not that easy, first you need to tell me what happened,” The doctor replied. He needed to stay calm. His mother already had flush, tear stained cheeks and couldn’t get an intelligible sentence out.
“I don’t know! I don’t know! I was at home and then his friend called and I came here, I don’t know!” She was struggling to speak.
“What friend? Where was he, you need to calm down, and explain what happened.” The doctor said. He signaled an orderly to get a bottle of water, and had the mother sit down in a chair next to her father and he sat down next to them. After managing to have a few sips in between sobs, the mother was able to talk.
“He just got his results yesterday. He graduated college, got his degree. Just yesterday, with honors, that too.” She looked at the ground intently. The doctor stood tall in front of both parents, looking at them back and forth.
“He went out with a friend, sometime near 5:00, you know, to celebrate and around 7:00, I got a call saying that he was blindsided by a truck and was rushed here. That’s all I know.” She said before crying again.
The doctor turned around and looked through the window at the boy. His mother cried feverishly behind him, with the occasional “Abhi!” or “He just graduated!”.
Abhi’s degree hung on the wall right next to the door, proudly presented in the wooden frame with a gold lining. It was displayed with the utmost care to be illuminated perfectly when the light on the wall across from it was turned on. It proclaimed Abhinav to be a bachelor in medicine, with honors.
The mother got up and approached the doctor.
“Doctor, what will happen? I know you can do something, cost is not an issue at all, isn’t that right?” She turned to her husband, who for the first time looked at the doctor’s face, and then his wife. He looked as if he was going to object to her, but he just tilted his head back down.
“Doctor, he just graduated. He was such a hardworking student. Day and night, for the last so many weeks. He graduated with honors, sir, please do something. He just got his degree,” His mother talked like she was pitching her son as a candidate for a job. It was hard to determine what Abhi’s mother was trying to say. Either she was trying her best to appeal to death with a merit based approach, on why her son shouldn’t die, or she was recounting her son’s educational prowess to the doctor in front of her.
“Oh, and he used to play cricket so well also! He used to go everyday, and all his friends used to tell us. I remember the first match he played, he was so proud of himself with his bat and pads,” She recalled.
In fact, Abhi’s cricket gear hadn’t been touched for the past three months. His bat was under his bed, a feature of interest for ants in the room, along with the piles of discarded food wrappers. Before his exams, Abhi essentially closed himself off from whatever existed outside his textbooks. Returning from school, he would lock his room door and sit at the table, gripping his pencils, and dreaming of the degree that would soon be on the wall.
The degree came, but Abhi would go.
His mother continued on with her impromptu publicity event on her critically injured son. She talked about the percentages in exams, and how well he would study and teach his friends too.
The boy wouldn’t survive, that was certain. It was the tone that the doctor had to choose wisely. A lot was at stake, it seemed, to his mother who had seemingly memorized her son’s resumé. To the doctor, it looked like she was grieving for the death of the degree rather than the death of her only son.
The doctor didn’t interrupt, both for the lack of the right words to say, and because the boy’s mother prevented anyone from getting a word in. She eventually did sit down and rest her tongue. There were a few moments of silence under the pale yellow lights, the air filled with secrets, and hidden motives. The doctor stood, just waiting for his brain to formulate the right thing to say.
“His job offer. That’s gone too now. No one will hire him in this state,” said his father, speaking for the first time since he arrived. There was the pang of jealousy, and bitterness in his voice. It seemed he was angry at his dead son, who he of course didn’t know was dead at the time, more than anything else.
The doctor waited in shock. Perhaps it was a joke, perhaps it was a moment of levity. He expected the mother, who was apparently the best character witness for her son, to rebuff him. Instead, she said, “Yeah, that moron Mehta’s son will probably get the job. Our Abhi got 94% and he got 92%. Now he will get the job.”
The doctor went wide eyed, still not saying anything. He felt his blood boil in his chest. He understood what was happening, no more clarifications needed to be made. To them, their son was little more than a degree, a chance to taste a lick of luxury. A highly educated man, a doctor himself, lay dead on a hospital bed, and his parents see only a glamorous future unravel. He would surmise most of Abhi’s life without another word being spoken. Likely pressured into taking up medicine. School till four, and extra classes till seven. “No such thing as too much studying,” his parents likely had told him. Probably spent the last few months of his life cooped up in a room, staring at the light at the end of a tunnel.
The doctor deduced this because he had known. This was how the ‘successful’ children spent their childhood; chasing prowess at the cost of their own humanity. Exams, grades, numbers, and foreign currency signs. That’s what they looked forward to, and if they didn’t? Well, they were the lazy ones, the children who didn’t have ambition. A system packed to the brim with intensely educated demi-humans who could recite the periodic table by heart, but not their parents’ birthdays. And in the end, the very end, all they looked forward to, whether it came true or not, didn’t matter. Death’s gaze doesn’t differentiate a topper and a backbencher. His degree now was as useful as the death certificate that his parents would receive, except it wouldn’t hang on a wall.
The doctor, partly in rage, and partly in impatience, decided to tell Abhi’s parents of the news.
“Listen, there’s no point waiting longer. Your son is dead. There’s nothing we could do.”
Finally, the father replied, “Well, do I still have to pay, or…?”