Krishna’s Story

 Posted by Ines at 6:49 pm  India
Feb 122011

A couple of weeks after I started teaching in the slums of Jaipur, a new student turned up in my class. Her name was Krishna and she was eighteen years old. Standing as tall as she could the top of her head reached my shoulder. Her soft loose clothes were red and yellow and her long hair was tied back. When she walked she bent at the waist, and with one hand supporting a leg that stuck out sideways she hobbled across the room to find a place to sit. I asked her some questions and she replied “Yes” in very fluent and convincing English. In fact she could read English and seemed to understand quite well. She was happy to call out when I asked the class a question but if I asked her directly she would smile and shake her head in a paroxysm of shyness. I started her on the computer and she was able to find the letters on the keyboard and copy out a few sentences about herself. We changed to the Paint program and she tried writing her name in free form on the screen. A couple of weeks later I happened to look up and see her using the tools of the program to make a picture. She had learnt to do this herself by watching the younger girls in the class.
Part of my work is to do home visits. In this way Idex can build a profile of the families they are assisting. Soon after her arrival I paid a visit to Krishna’s home. She lives with one of her six brothers and his wife and has done since she was four years old, when her father died. This couple now have three small children, one of whom is Sita, a little girl with short cropped hair who sometimes accompanies Krishna to class and who watches with interest everything that goes on. It turns out that the family only moved to Jaipur six months ago, after the death of Krishna’s mother. The accommodation resembles some sort of bomb shelter, except that it is above ground. There is a large dirt courtyard, surrounded by a low wall, and the building is set back off the lane. I ask what happened to Krishna’s leg and am told that she got polio at the age of ten. Can’t anything be done, I ask. Oh yes they reply. For about 4000 rupees she could have a plastic leg and for the unheard of sum of 20,000 rupees (about $400) she could have an operation to remediate the problem in the leg, without amputation. I make a note on the home visit form to the effect that Krishna is in need of urgent medical attention.
Fifteen years ago when I was in India I stayed at Puttaparthi, in the ashram of one of India’s most famous holy men, Sai Baba. I remembered that the hospital he had established there offered free medical treatment to Indian people so I sent an email enquiring about polio cases. I received a reply directing me to a different specialist hospital. Now I needed someone who could speak Hindi to make a phone call for me. Shuchi from our volunteer organisation (Idex) came to the rescue. She is passionate about the work of helping the largely unrepresented and uneducated women of India. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact this hospital she suggested another that is in Udaipur and closer to where we are in Jaipur. It would provide free treatment, accommodation, food and medicine for Krishna and for one family member to be with her.
Now it was up to me to inform Krishna. Did I really want to get her hopes up? I didn’t know whether she really could be cured. Was I prepared to take her to the hospital myself if need be? Was there a family member who could be spared to stay with her for as long as it would take for her to be cured? The question that most baffled me was why the family hadn’t done something to help her before now,considering that help could be had free of charge. Why had she been left to suffer like this for 8 years?
I visited Krishna’s home and was greeted by her sister in law. She was unable to make this decision. Krishna’s six brothers must be consulted. (Krishna also has three sisters.) By the time a week had passed Krishna’s family had agreed to let her go to hospital and it seemed that there was a young brother that would be able to accompany her. Some of the other volunteers in the house were talking of sightseeing in Udaipur the following weekend. Great! I booked a car to take us to Udaipur. Krishna and her brother would be able to come with us. By Friday things were not so clear. The family was undecided. The brother was not free to go but another sister in law, who had no children to look after may be free. My fellow volunteers had changed their minds about the trip so I went to Udaipur alone. I had the driver find the hospital when we arrived and I visited to make sure it was all as I had been told. I was granted an interview with Doctor P, who manages the hospital. He encouraged me to bring Krishna to the hospital. I could see for myself how busy and well run the hospital was.
A few more weeks went past as I waited to hear when Krishna would be ready to go to hospital. As my time in India was drawing to a close I enlisted the support of more and more of the Idex staff. Krishna’s family were inveigled into freeing up family members and although an Idex member of staff would have come with me if there had been time to organise it, I had the company in the end of a fellow volunteer, a young Canadian girl called Andrea, a fearless mountain climber who at the age of 18 could not only scale mountains in Nepal but was also practised in using trains and buses in India!
Through an interpreter Andrea and I had finally coordinated our movements with Krishna and co. We set off in a tuk tuk to collect them on our way to the train station. It was the first time I had been in the slum at night. It was strange to rattle through the dark, empty streets and stop in front of Krishna’s home. Her slender sari-clad sister in law came out to greet me and I clasped her arms to reassure her. A starless night in a bombed out ghetto, and I was smuggling out one of the battle injured. Krishna smiled happily, the tears and fears of the past week forgotten now that she was actually on her way.
Somehow I survived a night on a bare bench in a compartment of 6 benches that made up a sleeper. On the top bunk I hid my eyes from the lights with my shawl and contemplated the ceiling fans and the discomfort of travelling in the heat instead of this bone numbing cold. The next morning I shuffled down from my bunk and out into the continuing cold blackness. The tuk tuk driver we hired must have been used to the walking wounded arriving in the wee hours as he took us through winding lanes, directly to the hospital, where we sat on the footpath with other supplicants as the sky lightened. By the the time the hospital gates opened we were hemmed in by the lame and crippled and their families.
As the curiosities we no doubt were, the hospital staff came and singled us out with the result that Krishna was first in line to see a doctor. Andrea and I were led to a room with relatively clean plush seats and offered chai and eventually we were interviewed by Dr P who remembered my previous visit and made us a promise to admit Krishna to the hospital today. Only later did we find out that many patients are examined and booked in a year hence for their operations.
The doctor arrives and we are ushered down to his room to hear his verdict. Krishna lifts her pants leg to reveal her thin leg with callouses from the pressure her hand makes as she supports it to walk. “Three operations” he pronounces and the interview is over except that Gokol who is with us looks outraged and says “No”. Andrea and I stare at him in amazement. There is no time to consider his feelings as we make room for the next patient and cross the road with Krishna for an examination by the physiotherapist. This is the blind man in the hospital’s promotion booklet. He was helped to his present position by this hospital. It is fascinating to watch him manipulate Krishna’s legs, all the while pronouncing “Plus 3” o “Minus 2” as his assistant fills in a chart. Krishna, being shy, nods at one of his questions and is rapped on the head by a nurse, to make her speak.
We cross the road again and the first doctor inspects her chart. Perhaps Gokol had thought he must make this epic trip again, from Village to Jaipur, from Jaipur by train with foreigners to Udaipur. He has had to ask for time off work. There are no holidays, sick leave or compassionate leave to fall back on. He has left his wife and one year old daughter for the first time. Anyway he seems to have no objections now to Krishna remaining at the hospital. Andrea and I are offered a tour of the hospital. After seeing where the prostheses are made we put on scrubs and walk into the operating theatre. Unlike hospitals that I have seen before there are no bright ceiling lights and not many shiny stainless steel trays. Patients under general anaesthetic are being operated on. The first patient is a small girl with her leg open at the shin. A doctor has her hands in the incision, gripping the bones as if to break them.
Krishna’s first operation is scheduled for ten days hence. Andrea and I head off for lunch and a spot of sightseeing before we catch the night train back to Jaipur. By the time the train departs I have vomited and have a fever. Delhi belly! It had been going around at the volunteer house. Andrea finds the waiting room and the correct spot on the platform to wait for our sleeper. I huddle with a blanket around me and over my head and wish I could lie on the platform and hide under it as so many of our fellow travellers are doing, oblivious to the feet of other passengers.
The Delhi belly seemed better for my last day in India and I went to a dinner with all the volunteers from the house. We celebrated Andrea’s 19th birthday and I said my farewells. That same night the Delhi belly returned and I began the long haul back home; Jaipur to Delhi on a plane delayed 4 hours; from Delhi to Singapore with an 8 hour stopover and finally, aching all over, from Changi airport back to Sydney where my dear dear partner was waiting for me with a bunch of red roses. The heat wave in Sydney hadn’t broken yet and I hurried to the air conditioned car and the privileged existence that is my everyday life here.


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