Jun 10, 2015

A billowing shirt

My brothers headache had gotten exponentially worse within the space of a few hours that hot afternoon in 1986. Things were not going well.

My parents were not due back until late evening and my aunt and uncle (who lived with us) were becoming frantic. My aunt cradled Dada's head in her lap as he groaned, cried and occasionally passed out from unbearable pain. My uncle compulsively called the doctor whose office phone rang on and on with no answer. There were no cell phones in Calcutta, India in the 1980s.

At 15 years of age all I could do was watch and writhe along with them until the point where the hopeless faces of my desperate, helpless elders registered: my brother was visibly deteriorating and the ambulance and doctor were not going to come in time. Using a short gap in my uncle's phoning, I quickly dialed my brother's best friends from college. 

I can't remember clearly anymore but imagine Fiji arrived first (since he lived around the corner) followed by Praveen, Rajiv and Amit. They were a solid bunch of college juniors, brothers-in-arms and a part of our family by then. The doctor arrived shortly after - probably physically fetched by one of the guys.

My parents and the rest of our frantic family squashed into our little red Maruti and trailed after the vehicle, its lights and sirens blaring. Beside the ambulance rode Praveen on his motorbike. When the awful Calcutta traffic forced us to fall away from the ambulance vanguard, Praveen would slip through the crevices between stalled or crawling cars to continue riding by his friend. The relief it gave us all to know he was there, up ahead, escorting the vehicle was as unreasonable as it was reassuring. He had no real power and wouldn’t be able to actually DO anything. Yet it was somehow important that my brother, trapped in his agony, not be alone. Though he didn’t know it, on the other side of the ambulance wall was his friend.

It turned out to be a partcularly potent attack of viral Meningitis and though help had come in the nick of time, he wasn't out of danger for a few anxious days. He eventually returned to full health and we turned the page on that awful experience.

From the darkness of that phase, a visual comes back to me repeatedly through the years: Praveen's full sleeved cotton shirt ballooning with the wind as he raced alongside the ambulance on his bike.

All the boys (since at 20, that’s till what they were) seemed to barely leave the hospital for the next few days and even then, only because our family had shooed them away for rest or college classes.  Praveen though, went beyond expectations, defying all parental injunctions to focus on his own life now that the crisis had passed. He came over almost every evening that my brother was convalescing at home. He ran out to get medicine, to pick up test results and even run miscellaneous errands for our family that my brother would usually do. My mom ended up in tears of gratitude one day to the young man and I'll never forget a term that Praveen then introduced us to.
Par seva.

In Hindi, it loosely means 'caring for others'.
Praveen is from the Jain religion where this tenet quietly informs every move. But he clarified that it wasn’t just his religion that made him do it. It was his Humanity. Because no one can walk alone through life, we need to be there for each other. It wasn't a special gesture or extra effort to him. It was a basic, unquestioned, reaction.

All these years later, as I try to nurture the budding heart and mind of my young son, Praveen regularly flashes across my mind. We volunteer our time as often as we can for environmental clean ups,  Oyon donates some of his birthday gifts (to homeless shelters), does an annual fundraising walk to help food programs and participates in as many acts of caring as we (and he) can think up. Our motto has always been "A little bit of something is MORE than a whole lot of nothing". Because we can’t solve all problems but we can change a little bit at a time.

We can only try to do our part: I've no idea who my son will grow up to be. How he will think and feel. Yet, I've seen a young man in a billowing shirt ride along an ambulance on a motorbike.
Just because he could.

I think it'll turn out alright.

May 2015, 8+
Telling me about an incident at recess involving a beetle, a twig and a boy named Frankie...
O: Me and Timmy decided to move Mr. Bug so he wouldn't get stomped on
Me: Good idea 
O: Yeah but it fell off our twig and Frankie stomped on it!
Me: Oh no! Did it die?
O: No it just got all dusty and its wings got kind of creaked. We peeled it off Frankie's shoe and took it near the flag pole.
Me: And did it end well for Mr. Bug?
O: He survived. .....or got eaten when we weren't looking. I'm not sure.
Me: Well, you tried.
O: I told Frankie "Dude, it's a bug. Imagine if you were a bug and got stomped!" Know what he said?!
Me: What?
O: He said he never stomped on it even though it was stuck under his shoe!!
Me: Hm. That's odd.
O: No! It's a little to the side of a bag of nuts!
Me: Huh?
O: Coo-coo! Crazy!

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