My brother had been in Khoula hospital’s general surgery ward for weeks, recovering from a procedure whose recovery time seemed more unbearable than the actual procedure itself. He was already paralysed below his chest, but now he couldn’t even turn on his side on his own lest he disturb his dressings and had to lie for hours on one side until a nurse came to help him change. So for weeks he lay in bed, never leaving it, staring at the grey ceiling or the vomit-coloured curtains he preferred to keep drawn around him. We’d visit him every evening for the permitted 2 hours, but that only increased his feelings of being left behind when it was time for us to go home without him.
To make things worse, my brother couldn’t sleep. Two of the other patients in his ward were noisy, even while drifting in and out of sleep/consciousness. The old man across the aisle from my brother was in for yet another lower limb amputation. His leg had gangrened again. He was a diabetic and also a heart patient. But he was a tough old Omani, like an old seadog. His tan leathery skin made his greasy white stubble and chest hair stand out, and he enjoyed talking at other’s patients’ visitors in his rustic Arabic dialect. I would try to hide behind the curtains around my brother’s bed; it was odd to have the old man with the broken grin looking at me and constantly saying things I wasn’t sure he was saying to me or himself. It was a bit silly but strange at the same time. The old man would always speak in Arabic, nomatter if the nurse or doctor or passerby was replying in some other language. That’s how his conversations would go, both sides speaking in different languages, no side understanding the other, but the most lively conversation you’d ever heard. He never seemed scared on uncomfortable or homesick. He sat perched on his bed like a king, observing his kingdom and subjects with a proud all-knowing alert eye. His face always looked like he knew the unspoken secrets of men and women, and that he very much enjoyed that knowledge. That’s what the unageing twinkle in his eye told me.
The man at the other end of the ward in my brother’s aisle was in his 30s. A dark South Indian man who’d only come in after my brother. He had been the victim of a hit-and-run, as in a car had hit him, the pedestrian, and driven off, leaving him with a brain injury. He was an expatriate and a bachelor and had no family or friends in Oman; he’d only recently moved to the country for employment. The only people that ever came to visit him were his friends from Church. Dark-skinned men and women would visit him everyday without fail, but all they could do was look at him and talk to each other because their friend’s brain injury confined him to bed and bouts of incoherent howling. We couldn’t make out what South Indian state he was from from the random words he used, mangled as they were. All day and all night he’d lay there, shaking his head from side to side, crying and gasping and talking and calling out in turns in an unnatural guttural voice that reminded me of the possessed girl from ‘The Exorcist’. There was only one word I could make out from all his ramblings – “Amma”.
My brother couldn’t sleep. The South Indian man never stopped talking to unseen visitors in a very normal tone, asking questions, complaining, discussing problems in a garbled language. It was like hearing one side of a telephonic conversation. Sometimes he’d laugh at a joke only audible to his ears, sometimes he’d rage about an unheard insult. Sometimes he was loud, and sometimes he spoke softly to himself. As the weeks went by, he began to seem familiar. We wanted to know his name. Even the old grinning Omani began talking back loudly to him in Arabic from his bed, clearly enjoying himself no end. And the South Indian man would talk back to him from his bed on the other end of the ward, making no sense at all but to himself. And they’d carry on. To outsiders, it was like being in a monkey cage at the zoo – sweet and somewhat crazy. After a while it felt normal, and I began to feel like I knew these people that I didn’t know at all. And that was comforting.
That one particular evening had been unusually quiet and calm. The visiting hours were drawing to an end, and my parents were not yet back from their trip the hospital canteen. I was sitting on a chair at the edge of my brother’s bed, reading a magazine as my brother lay napping, taking advantage of the rare quiet day. But it was too good to be true. Suddenly the South Indian man began talking. “Amma? Amma.” He giggled a grating giggle at something he found unbearably funny. “Amma?”
The old Omani couldn’t resist. “Meow!” he chuckled from his bed. The South Indian replied.
The Omani played along. It was their personal game. “Meow, meow!”
The South Indian laughed. The Omani laughed. I smiled and shook my head at their inside joke as I turned the page of my magazine. How had we all ever ended up here?
Khadija Ejaz is an internationally published and translated poet and the author of four books. She also the editor of an online magazine called The Exhibitionist (http://thexzbt.wordpress.com). Khadija was born in Lucknow, India, raised in Muscat, Oman, and lived in America for 10 years (and had a brief stint in Toronto, Canada, and New Delhi, India). Her background includes IT and broadcast journalism, but she also dabbles in filmmaking and photography. To learn more about Khadija, visit her web site at http://khadijaejaz.netfirms.com.