Hitesh was beyond startled to see Tanuj walking towards the car with an injured and unconscious woman in his arms.
“What the hell, man? Who is this? What happened?” he asked.
“No questions Hitesh. I don’t know anything. She needs immediate treatment. We need to take her to the nearest hospital in the city. We will figure out the rest when she comes to her senses.” Tanuj was out of breath. “You hold on to her in the backseat, and I will drive as fast as I can.”
Hitesh realised there was no point questioning Tanuj further because he seemed clueless as well. As they drove through the falling darkness, Hitesh felt proud of his friend. He saw Tanuj driving fast but with care, not talking at all, totally focussed on the road and the destination, and he understood that nothing was more important to him right now than getting proper treatment for this unknown village woman.
They reached the nearest hospital on the outskirts of the city in about twenty minutes, and made sure that the woman was admitted in a few minutes.
“What now?” asked Hitesh. “We don’t know anything about her.”
“I will stay back in the hospital, and wait for her to wake up. The doctor said she will soon, as the blood transfusion has been started,” said Tanuj.
Hitesh wanted to ask his friend to go home and rest, but he decided otherwise. He could understand how involved Tanuj had got in the whole incident, and didn’t want to take away from him this rare chance of feeling confident of himself by helping out a stranger. More than anyone else, he knew how much Tanuj needed this. He had seen Tanuj drowning himself in self-pity for the past few years, desperately trying to do something worthwhile in life, and he thought that staying back in the hospital might be a step towards rising up from the depths of hopelessness.
“Alright mate, you stay. But don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything,” said Hitesh as he walked out of the private ward. “And please do call at home and tell your parents that you won’t be coming home at night. I know you are pissed off, but they are your parents. Okay?”
Tanuj nodded and smiled. But he didn’t know if he should tell his parents the truth. He was afraid that he might be criticised rather than applauded, for bearing the ‘burden’ of someone he doesn’t know, that too a villager. After a few minutes of contemplation, he dropped a text in his father’s phone.
“Crashing at a friend’s place tonight. Will be back in the morning. Sorry for the behaviour last night. I just need some alone time. Hope you understand.”
Tanuj sighed and read the text few times. He was sure they would not understand. He felt like a teenager all over again, having to hide things from his parents, although he felt happy that he was doing something noble, and not lying about smoking or skipping lectures as a teenager would do. But he observed how uncomfortable he still was about talking face to face with them. He would rather text them and get done with it, instead of calling them up.
Tanuj tried not to count the hours passing by as he sat by the hospital bed, and tried to avoid falling asleep by flipping through magazines and listening to music. Occasionally he would stare at the woman’s face, trying to imagine her story, and what might have made those men beat her up so mercilessly. He had not had the chance to actually look at her before. But now that he could, underneath her bandages he saw a face that was hard to decipher. Beautiful or pretty aren’t the words that came to his mind at once, but all he saw was a face that seemed to have fought many odds, the face of a person who has been through some unpleasant phases in life but has managed to stand through all of them. Somewhere beyond her dry lips and the dark circles under her eyes, he felt the presence of a strength that could burst out any instant. And despite all of this, she didn’t seem to be older than himself.
Tanuj had not realised when he had fallen off to a slumber, when he heard soft groans beside him. The woman’s eyes were half open and she was trying to move her head, but she couldn’t.
“Don’t!” Tanuj was on his feet. “Don’t move your head. Bandages on. I’m here. You are safe.”
“Who? Where am I?” she said.
“My name is Tanuj, and you are at a hospital in Lucknow. Don’t think too much now. I will tell you everything. Let me call the doctor.”
He was just about to go look for the doctor when he heard her muttering something.
“They will kill me. They will… “
Tanuj stood there for a few seconds, unable to think what to do, and then went out of the room. The doctor decided that she was delirious and needed to sleep, and injected her with a sedative.
“You may go home if you want, Mr. Nanda. She will be fine,” said the doctor. “You have done a great job already.”
“No doctor it’s fine. It will be dawn in few hours. I will doze off on this chair.”
The next morning Tanuj woke up to find the woman staring at him with an expression mixed with awe and gratitude.
“Namaste!” she said. “Sorry I can’t bring my palms together. These tubes… Thank you Tanuj.”
Tanuj was very surprised, and forgot to reciprocate to her greetings. “How do you remember my name? You were hardly in your senses when I mentioned it!”
“Because I wasn’t delirious,” she chuckled through her bandaged face. “By the way I am Ragini. Nice to meet you.”
(To be continued)