The long corridor was dark at places and illuminated with naked tube lights at others. The floor was mosaic, sometimes Kota stone, and had been wiped clean with a disinfectant solution. A few cobwebs hung from the roof, in the corners, and the few shuttered window frames which lined the corridor. A strange smell, putrid like decaying human waste and acrid like phenol, hung in the air. At the end of the corridor there were two doors, one to the right and the other to the left. I turned right and kept walking, hurriedly, my heart beating fast. A strange sense of urgency and unease seemed to grip my heart. Why? what was it? It was difficult to say. As I turned the corner, the door opened into a large area with several hospital beds on the left side, partitioned into cubicles by walls which reached only three feet from the floor. Several bulbs and tube lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating the patients lying on their beds. Another corridor or aisle ran between the row of beds and ended in a dead end a short distance later. A group of doctors, wearing their white-coats, or aprons, stood by the bedside of one patient, discussing something. In their center stood a very large man, bald, with graying hair at his temples and a handlebar moustache, also grey. He seemed to be their leader, teaching them, asking questions, gesticulating with his long, spindle shaped fingers. I was having difficulty remembering his name…..
All this I saw in a moment’s glance as I continued my walking down straight. On my right-hand side was the nursing station and a matronly lady, dressed in a white saree with a matron’s head dress sat in the station. I smiled tentatively at the nurse and hurried on. Up ahead was another door, leading into another corridor. I felt my heartbeat increase. The smell of the disinfectant was heavier now, assaulting my nostrils. I entered the ward that lay beyond the corridor and on my right side was a small recessed area with a few small rooms where a few doctors in white coats stood, peering inside one of the rooms. As I approached the group, they looked at me and smiled, and parted to make way for me to go inside the room.
I peered inside the room. Another tall man sat inside the room, in a crisp white apron. His hair and mustache speckled with grey, his face pockmarked and bespectacled. I was nearly hyperventilating now. As I approached looked inside the room, the doctor sitting there looked up from his work and saw me.
‘Good Morning, Sir’, I mumbled.
‘Yes Upadhyaya,’ Came the gruff reply as Prof Anand Kumar looked at me, slowly, meticulously, from up to down.
I knew he was checking if my hair was properly cut and combed or not, if I had shaved that morning or not, if the collar and cuffs of my shirt were dirty, if the apron that I wore had been washed and ironed or not. Then his eyes moved down, he was checking if my shoes were polished or not.
‘Come in’, he said, his inspection was over now, and I had passed the test. I entered the room and walked over to my designated corner of the room, poured some water into the electric kettle and switched it on.
‘With sugar, or without sugar, Sir?’, I asked.
‘You want to kill me Upadhyaya? Without sugar, of course’, He barked at me.
‘Yes, Sir’, I stammered and looked sideways. Sir always made me nervous. Why, I was sweating! It was always unusually hot here in this ward, being the top floor of the hospital.
Suddenly there was a loud honking. This was strange! No sounds from the roads below usually reached this far up and the ward was always the quietest in the whole hospital. Who was honking?
The honking persisted and I turned around to locate the source. Prof Anand Kumar, the room, the residents standing outside slowly started to fade out of my sight, as I opened my eyes and found myself back in the Traveler.
‘You will not believe what I just dreamt of,’ I said to Appu who was sitting next to me and fiddling with his phone.
‘Prof Anand Kumar?’ he asked.
‘Yes’, I was surprised, ‘How did you guess?’
‘Are yaar, it was easy. Even I have nightmares,’ he said, and we laughed. I was touched, how well Appu still understood me.
We had just entered the city limits of Varanasi and I could see the Babatpur Airport to my left. the road, which we were driving on, which led from the outskirts into the city, was a six-lane affair complete with a green belt in between, welcome arches and foot over bridges. And the road was clean and well painted and free of potholes. I was surprised. I had never expected to see such a road in Banaras in my lifetime. I did not know it then, but I was up for more surprises later.
All of us were now peering out, trying to recognize the places and remember how they looked in our ‘times’. This was a difficult job, the place had changed so much. I could only get a bearing on my location when we neared the Varuna bridge.
‘Oh we are in the Cantonment now!’, I exclaimed, and everyone turned to look at me. ‘This is the area where we have the Taksaal movie theatre right?’
Vaishali looked at me, as did Appu. Yes, there were some memories buried here too.
‘Here is hotel Ashoka,’ I said to Vaishali. ‘Remember we were here in a wedding?’
‘Yes, Manish Jindal boss,’ Vaishali exclaimed.
‘And somewhere here was Hotel India which we used to visit so frequently,’ both Vaishali and Appu nodded. ‘And Hotel de Paris, and Varanasi club and Fauji Dhaba’ I kept reeling off the name.
‘Fauji Dhaba?’ Appu asked. ‘I don’t know that one.’
‘Oh. Great non-veg’, I said, ‘I used to come sometimes with Vineet and Rahul and Dhar.’
The kids looked at us curiously as we continued to chatter excitedly, like children, till the bus turned into a side road and we knew that we had arrived at our destination.
To be continued………………………………….
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