To Feel Guilty or Keep Wondering?
This pandemic is an era of separation when many people have faced the excruciating pain and never-ending guilt of being away from their loved ones as they were taking their final breaths. All the social groups of expatriates are filled with posts on how to reach their sick parents or siblings when many countries have closed the boundaries. I have also felt this pain and guilt many years back when my grandfather suddenly passed away when I had just moved to another country after my marriage. But has it ever happened to you that a death of a complete stranger makes you feel guilty?
This happened a long time back when I was studying dentistry. It was the final year exam time. For the practical exam, we needed to find patients with specific dental problems. My college was one of the biggest dental hospitals in the city. All medical and dental students were probably very lucky because the hospital was always very crowded and students could get very enriching practical experience even during their student life. Like many other students, I was pestering my seniors and teachers at the outpatient department to find the patient for the practical exam. Usually, patients used to beg for an earlier appointment but now we students were in need. Finally, after days of waiting, I got a perfect case for the exam. I was relieved because now I didn’t have to worry about finding a patient on the day of the final exam. My patient was a young man in his early twenties. I asked for his contact number but during those days most people relied on landlines and the patient didn’t have one. Cell phones were the future. So, I gave him a very good idea that he was going to be my exam patient and he was supposed to come on time on the day of the appointment. He was going to receive free dental treatment on that day. He agreed to it.
Finally, the day of the most dreaded practical exam came. It was the last exam of the final year. I was waiting for the day eagerly but anxiously. The patient came on time which was not always the case. So, I was very happy. There was going to be the practical work on the patient first followed by the case viva (orals), and then the final viva or main oral exam. Both the examiners came and approved the patient and my workstation. Everything was going on as planned. Just when I was going to start working on the patient, he started talking. He asked for my personal phone number and birthdate. I was totally unprepared for something like this. The patient owned a business of making leather purses in Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. This part of Mumbai is house to many leather product manufacturers. My patient was one of them and he wanted to gift one leather purse to me on my birthday. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but also was scared to say anything to him for the fear that he would suddenly get out of the chair and go away. What a dilemma… On any other day, it would have been a lot easier to explain to the patient how I couldn’t share my number and private information with him. But he waited for the right moment… just a few seconds before my final exams. I told him that I would talk to him about that after the exam. I urged him to cooperate as it was my exam. With this added tension, I finished his work. It came out perfect. Both the examiners checked my work. They loved it. I finished up my work and gave the patient post-procedure instruction and scheduled his next appointment. After the appointment, I thanked him. He hadn’t realized my hesitation yet. So he again asked for my number. Now, I was out of the exam clinic so I explained to him politely how we were not supposed to receive any gifts for our work and didn’t feel comfortable sharing my phone number or personal information. He appeared slightly deceived, hurt or embarrassed, I’m not sure, but I had no other choice. There was no way I was not going to share my personal information with a complete stranger. I had to get back for my exam interview. I went back to the clinic and finished my exam. I was happy with my performance and absolutely relieved.
Other students finished at different times, so I just left for home about 20–30 minutes after I sent the patient. It was around 2 pm and I was very hungry since I hadn’t eaten anything since morning. But I rushed home first. I had completely forgotten about that patient by now. I came on to the railway station. The platform was almost empty in the afternoon. It was hard to believe that thousands of people were standing on that platform either getting down or waiting for their train just a few hours earlier. I waited near my compartment still thinking about the exam. The train arrived at the station and suddenly a young man sprinted just maybe 8–10 feet away from me and jumped in front of the arriving train. My hand rose up hardly maybe a foot up in a futile attempt to stop him but it was already over. The Mumbai local train was very slow but still so powerful. The only thing I could see was his separated head rolling in the track along with the stopping wheel. The body was under the train. If you know people from Mumbai, you will know how resilient they are. It is a busy city where every second counts. People don’t have time to stop for anyone or anything. Whether it be rain, flooding, bomb blasts, or terrorist attacks the clock never stops clicking in Mumbai. A few men jumped quickly into the tracks and lifted his body. Some brave man lifted the head and put it on the opposing platform. For a second, I felt that the man who lifted the head felt excitement or adventure. Most people there were so emotionally detached that they didn’t feel the pain of life getting lost. The train also moved on without any delay. Everything was back to normal as if nothing happened, except me.
I kept thinking about the person who was next to me and I could just notice the color of his shirt. The patient whom I denied the number, also was wearing the same colored shirt. Other than that I didn’t remember anything else about him. I was so focused on his teeth, I didn’t even pay much attention to his face that morning. I kept wondering if the person who committed suicide was the same person. I kept wondering he got angry and decided to take extreme action. Or was he just trying to display his so-called bravery by crossing the track while the train was approaching, and he misjudged? Or if he was just some other guy who was tired of life. By the looks of the incident, it was very clear that it was either done intentionally or overconfidently. Both things are absolutely wrong. Whatever it was, I had no way of knowing since I didn’t even have any contact information of the patient. I could have gone back to the hospital and then searched for the patient’s address may be. But doing that would have brought me more frustration whether it was the same person or not. I went home shocked. Every day many people lose their precious lives in an attempt to catch running trains to save few minutes of their lives or end their personal miseries. He was one of those John Doe for me. Sadly, I was never going to know the truth and It was my choice.