Abdul Salaam stared at the monotonous and unending corridor that was filled with patients and attendants of all kinds. It was 11 am on a Monday morning and not exactly the time when the corridor should have been full but then a hospital is always an unpredictable place. He sat cross legged on a black tattered woolen blanket outside the ICU. A neatly folded dark brown blanket lay on one side. It was used as a makeshift backrest during the day. His back was sore from the last one month since he had been waiting for his daughter to return, Saima, as she was called with love.
Peer sahib had told him that the name would bring her luck and Saima had never fallen sick for eleven years of her village life. They lived in a place far away from the hospital and it was the inaccessible kind of far. Sometimes during winter, they would be cut off from the entire civilization but it hardly mattered to Abdul Salaam, a father of four boys and the youngest, Saima. She was the fruit of his prayers, he would tell his wife. A gentle, sweet, energetic and soft spoken child that was Allah’s blessing on his little household for as soon as she was born, he had come into the possession of some long mortgaged property, two kanals of apple orchard land, which now had been sold for Saima’s treatment.
Saima had suddenly collapsed while playing kho-kho with the girls and she refused to wake up. Abdul Salaam had gathered everything that he had and managed to bring her to the biggest hospital in the State.
She had a tumor in her brain, they told him.
Abdul Salam knew nothing of the misfortune that awaited him but even after surgery and 25 days in the ICU, she still hadn’t moved a muscle. He had promised to stay at her door till she moved. She had to move. He thought.
Every morning he gazed with hopeful eyes at the senior doctors who came for the rounds. They would pat his shoulders and move on. The ritual had remained the same for the past few weeks and with each passing day he had begun analyzing their gestures looking for a ray of hope or a hidden meaning in their words.
‘Hope for the best,’ they told him. And he would spend the rest of the day deciphering their body language when they said these words.
They hadn’t given up so he hadn’t either.
This morning was no different. He had received the usual remark with the same enthusiasm.
The corridor outside the ICU was occupied by attendants of different ranks, communities and casts. Some sat on a mink blanket with a soft fluffy pillow to rest their head at night and some slept on tattered blankets like Abdul Salam.
He looked at his neighbor; the mink blanket kind, who had just received some good news. His son would be out of the ICU today. He would be shifted to the general ward.
The man and his wife had tears in their eyes when the doctor told them the good news. Abdul Salam felt a pang of jealousy rising inside his chest. God favored the rich. Their son had healed in five days, what had taken his daughter so long?
He looked at the mother who had a big smile on her face though her cheeks were drenched with tears. Grief is a strange emotion he thought and so is happiness.
Tomorrow they would be gone leaving an empty space besides him.
He would wait for little Saima to be okay and then he would too leave this space empty for someone else.
The man brought a box of sweets to him.
‘Take one.’ He pointed towards the ladoos.
He took one without asking anything. The corridor outside the ICU was a strange place. People knew that they had to be cautious with their questions and equally cautious with the answers as well.
‘Alhamdulillah for you,’ He smiled
The man patted him on his shoulder. ‘Saima too will be okay insha Allah’
Abdul Salam winced in pain. He had somehow started hating this pat on his shoulder and back. He had never received so many pats in his entire life till now. Somehow, he would always associate a pat on the back with the ICU from now on. He knew he would never pat anyone on the shoulder again
A Sturdily built man in a black suit and a colored tie came rushing towards the ICU door.
He was followed by two policemen.
An oblong and fat woman with arms full of jingling gold bangles rushed behind them.
A Child about Saima’s age was wheeled into the ICU.
They, probably, were the parents.
The guard at the door didn’t allow them inside.
‘How can you not let him enter?’ One of the policemen accompanying the man in the black suit, argued with the Security guard
‘I have my orders. He can’t enter the ICU right now.’
‘Do you know who he is? It is his Daughter. She had a bad accident.’
‘Leave it, Shakeel.’ The man told the policeman
He leaned against the wall, unable to take hold of the situation. The fat woman stood beside him. She had a blank expression on her face
Abdul Salam knew this expression too well by now. He had seen it on many faces in these corridors. They were in denial but soon realization would dawn and then they would break down.
The police man procured a folding chair from somewhere and the woman sat down on it.
Abdul Salam wanted to ask him about his daughter but an invisible barrier prevented him from doing so. He appeared like a very important man and there was a folding chair between them. He stood on a higher ground.
He wished their pain would go away. Somehow it didn’t make sense to him to see rich people in pain; they could buy everything with money. Couldn’t they?
The doctor came out of the ICU.
He talked to the man for a while and then went inside to get a sheet of paper. The man signed it.
The woman had started crying by now, those silent tears that do not make any noise. She couldn’t scream like the women in his village. She had to stay dignified.
The man gestured the woman to leave. She left without another word. One of the policemen accompanied the woman, walking behind her at a decent distance that was considered appropriate of a bodyguard.
He measured his steps according to her pace that was more laborious than that of an old woman.
Abdul Salam winced.
The man in the black suit had his head against the wall. The policeman stood watching over him. How long could he wait outside that door?
The girl had been inside for a couple of hours now and he had been here for 25 days.
His daughter might be on a bed next to Saima. There wasn’t any difference inside the ICU and here the two fathers who shared a common pain had a world of difference between them.
He wanted to console this man who sat there lost in some deep thought.
Twice he looked at him and then he looked away. He had hardly noticed this man sitting on a tattered blanket by his side. He was preoccupied by grief.
The Doctor came outside again and asked the man to step in with him
Abdul Salaam got up in a hurry and went near the policeman
‘What happened to the girl?’
The policeman looked at him with apparent contempt. This man stank. He could smell the sweaty armpits from this distance.
‘She had an accident.’
‘She will be okay.’ He told him. ‘Accidents are easier, It is the tumors that take longer.’ He analyzed
The policeman didn’t answer. He looked at his wrist watch in some anxiety He looked agitated. Probably his duty hours had been prolonged by this sudden mishap.
Abdul Salam went back to his place.
The man came out with the doctor who patted him on his shoulder. He felt anxiety rising in the stomach pit.
For the rest of the day, he saw many important people coming and talking to the man who sat there on the chair outside the ICU. He had refused to move.
At 10 pm, when Abdul Salam came back after a dinner at the hospital Canteen, He found the man sitting alone on the chair.
He had tears in his eyes.
He quietly took his place next to him and sat down on the tattered blanket. The mink blanket family next to him had left.
The man hadn’t moved all day.
Abdul Salam took out his jacket and placed it under his head. He them pulled up the blanket up to his chin. Tomorrow would be the 26th day, he thought. Maybe there would be some improvement in Saima’s condition, He hadn’t given up hope
He wouldn’t. He promised himself
He couldn’t sleep. The presence of an honorable man in pain adjacent to him unnerved him. He wanted to share his sorrow. Maybe that would lessen his pain as well but somehow he couldn’t.
About past 2 am, he suddenly jerked awake to find the man on the chair sitting next to him. He had his head in his knees and he was sobbing.
Abdul salaam quickly got up and held his hand
‘It will be okay. Don’t worry, please. She will be fine.’
‘She is all I have.’ He replied
‘Like my Saima.’ He answered ‘She is all I have’
For the first time the man realized that the man in tattered clothes sitting next to him was also here for the same reason that he was.
‘What happened to your Saima?’ He asked
‘She had a tumor in her brain. They took it out but she is still lying there not moving a limb and today is the twenty sixth day.’
‘Oh,’ was all that he could say.
‘I heard your daughter had an accident.’ He asked him
‘Yes,’ He replied. ‘She fell down from the stairs.’
‘What do the doctors say?’ He asked him
‘She can’t be flown out of the state in this condition. I feel so helpless.’ He said ignoring his question
It wasn’t something that he would understand anyway so he kept quiet.
‘Will you have some water?’ He finally asked the man
‘No, thank you I have it in the room with me.’
‘You have a room in the hospital?’ Abdul Salaam asked him in apparent surprise
‘Yes.’ He simply replied
Abdul Salaam knew that the man wouldn’t move an inch from the door of the ICU. Somehow it felt safe as if his mere presence would ward of all bad news.
The doctor came out of the ICU and looked at the two men sitting there in some confusion
Abdul Salam looked up at him.
Maybe the man’s daughter had improved. He thought.
‘Abdul Salam,’ He called
‘Yes Sir,’ he got up in a hurry.
The doctor patted him on his shoulder. He jerked his hand aside. Something wasn’t exactly okay with the pat tonight. It was misplaced
‘Look, you have to be patient.’ He said,trying to steer clear of his line of vision
The man in the black suit got up in some hurry
Abdul Salam didn’t have to be told the meaning of this sentence. He collapsed on the floor. The world swam in haze before his eyes.
‘But today was the twenty sixth day.’ He finally said, his voice choking on tears ‘and I sat and waited here for 26 days.’
‘For 26 days, I had it on my fingertips and I waited here and I thought it would keep her safe. I didn’t move, you know’
The man in the black suit looked at him with tears in his eyes and then he hugged him tight,
He suddenly realized that he had been counting the hours. His daughter had been there for 15 hours now…