An Indian Civilizational Perspective

The Phantom Limb

A short story by Suresh Naig

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I lost count of the miles I have traveled in the metro train of Chennai and the smiles encountered. I was traveling in it when it was Madras and meter gauge. In spite of so many years of travel, it never bored me. I have watched many of my co passengers growing older, but not the train. My favourtie pass time during the train journey is watching people, which never bores. Each one would be unique. Some would open a book or newspaper, immediately on getting a seat. Some would keep talking, as if they would never have the freedom of speech at home and office. But the ones who interested me were the people who followed “Dynamic” sleep. Staying alert even in sleep, for they would come out of their slumber, upon the train reaching their destinations. Perhaps the tagline of a hotel conglomerate fit me perfectly “WE ENJOY PEOPLE”.

Among the sea of faces, one face in the past five years was remarkable. I have been watching him curiously for some time. He used to come in impeccable white dhoti and a white khadi shirt. I have not seen a stubble on his face any day, for he shaves his face regularly.

However, he had a stubble, which never showed on his face. His right leg was amputated just above the knee, and he used to board the train, three stations from the origin, from where I board every day. He used to skillfully board the train, throwing his crutches first and jump into the train holding the handle, with athletic adeptness. Many a day, I have offered my seat to him in the crowded train, which he would accept politely with a smile. In the entire five years, we never had any conversation. His presence in the compartment had a positive tilt, for no beggar in crutches, would venture where he sits.

For nearly three months, I did not see him boarding the train, and I did not attach much importance to it. In the past years, I have seen so many people retiring from work, retiring from life, but the train continues to run without any retirement. I used to think that the metro rails are the modern day rivers, on its banks, so many new civilizations are born and so many have perished.

On a Sunday evening, when I was traveling back home after making a social visit, I saw him boarding my compartment. The train was sparsely crowded. He was looking pale and appeared to have lost weight. He came and sat opposite to me. With concern, I asked him ‘What had happened to you? Are you OK?’

He lifted his shirt and showed his back. There was a telltale evidence of a surgery, on the right side of his spine, in the lumbar region, the wound, sutured and healed. He said without a tinge of sadness on his face, ‘Some one must have thought I am a useless beggar on crutches, and tricked me. I have lost one of my kidneys to a trickster.’ I was shocked. I asked him, ‘who was it and why didn’t you do anything about it?’

He said, ‘I couldn’t identify the persons, because all of them were wearing surgical masks during the surgery,’ and gave a wry smile on his own joke. I was seething in anger and offered to help him in identifying the culprits. ‘At least you must have known the hospital, where the surgery was performed. ‘Why don’t you prefer a complaint?’ He said, ‘just relax. No records would exist there, as to my admission and the surgery. More over I don’t see any purpose in doing so. At best, my face may appear in media for some time. I am not the first person to lose a kidney, it had happened in the past, it has happened now, and it may happen in future too, in spite of the laws to protect such acts.

‘Had some one approached me for my kidney, I would have volunteered to donate it. Living with one organ is not new to me.’ He sounded philosophical, ‘It’s the “greed” in every profession, which breeds the weeds.’ He continued, ‘the irony is, when you add an “A” to “greed” it becomes agreed. I would have most willingly agreed to part with my kidney, as I don’t have any blood relations. I would have been happy to have a ‘kidney’ relation instead’ and smiled. He said, ‘did you notice one thing? The right organs have left me’, he pointed towards his amputated right leg and right kidney, which he lost.

Looking at my curious face admiring his language and philosophy, he said, ‘I have a small shop, assisting people in drafting letters and affidavits, in the vicinity of High court. After loosing a leg, I borrowed some money from a bank, citing my disability and invested the same in a modest computer system and a photocopier. Now that I have lost one more organ, I think, I can expand my business’ and brightly smiled.’

Looking at my grim face, he suddenly changed the subject. ‘Do you know what a phantom leg is?’ I mumbled, ‘I heard about it.’ He said, ‘yes, you must have only heard about it. I have experienced it. At times, I get an itching on my right toe, which isn’t there, reminding me where the leg was. I am happy there is no “phantom kidney” phenomenon, and my brain would not remind me of the absent kidney by an itch.’ He gathered his crutches to alight with a genuine broad grin.

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