When you breathe your last in an unknown city, strangers become friends. Would it have made a difference if the ambulance had come 10 minutes earlier?
R Vijayaraghavan (Viji as he was fondly called) was one of the many guests, who checked in the afternoon of 30th July, at the well-reputed YMCA Club in the heart of Pune. It should otherwise have been just another name recorded in the register and forgotten after checkout a couple of days later. However, it was to leave a deep mark of sadness in the minds of the YMCA management members who stood around one of the stalwart business journalists of India, in his dying moments, as if he were their family member.
“Wake me up at 7.15am tomorrow and also send me a cup of sugar-less tea,” said Viji to Mark Yardi, receptionist, at around 8.30pm on 30th July, when he had come down to the lobby. Once again he came down from his room and reminded Mark about the wake-up call, told him that the taxi would be coming to pick him up. He also asked for sugar-less tea to be sent to his room, at that time, which was around 10pm. It was only after the taxi driver called up next morning, that Mark knew that Viji was to go to Lavasa (to participate in a bridge tournament).
Mark says he received a call from Viji’s room precisely at 12.07am, which he picked up immediately. “I found he was breathing heavily, as if he was panting. His voice had drastically changed. He only mentioned two words ‘ambulance’ ‘oxygen’. I promptly dialled the Jehangir Nursing Home for an ambulance (the hospital is about 2.5km away), called the security guy and rushed up to his room.”
Mark was relieved to find the door of his room ajar and not locked from inside. Viji was sitting on the bed, with a t-shirt on and his lungi, half-clad over him. He was breathing heavily. When Mark put his hand around his shoulder and said, “Uncle, the ambulance would be coming anytime now”, Viji said to him, “Son, I’m not going to make it, I’m going to die.” He reiterated that he needed oxygen.
Mark began dialling the numbers of the board members of YMCA, informing them about the emergency. He then got a call from the ambulance driver saying he was unable to locate YMCA (I thought that’s shocking, since YMCA is such a vital landmark of Pune). Mark asked the security guy to be with ‘Uncle’ and he rushed downstairs and on to the square of the main road so that he could spot the ambulance and guide him to YMCA. It took 15 minutes for the ambulance to reach YMCA (at that night of the hour it could have made it in five minutes. What’s the use of emergency ambulance services if the drivers are not familiar with important locations of the city?)
When Mark and the para-medical staff rushed into the lift with the life-saving equipments, the security guy called up Mark to say that “Uncle has fallen down from the bed.” He was on the floor. The doctor and his team began to work on him instantly and tried hard to resuscitate him for about 25 minutes, but he did not respond. The doctor said to Mark that he was no more. Says Mark, “I requested the doctor to keep trying or rush him to the hospital.” The doctor tried again for another 10 minutes but Uncle had already passed away, he said. The doctor gave him the copy of the ‘pulse’ sheet and said that now it is the responsibility of YMCA to call the cops and shift the body to Sassoon General Hospital.
By then several members of the YMCA management had arrived and by the time the cops came it was 2am. Deepak Londhe, secretary, YMCA interacted with the cops who did a panchnama. Viji’s wallet had Rs2,800 as counted by Mr Londhe, who was collecting all his personal items to keep it in safe custody. The cop mentioned he would require that money as he would be taking him in an ambulance. Mr Londhe said YMCA would be calling for an ambulance and sending two staff members too, so money would not be required. The cop had no choice but to nod. The body was taken to the Sassoon morgue at around 4am.
At around 9am the next day (31st July), two YMCA staffers again reached Sassoon to finish some formalities for the post-mortem. States Mr Londhe, “the panchnama had to be changed thrice as the doctor-in-charge said that the cops had not written it correctly.” (This is surprising as cops posted here would be routinely doing it. Is this a way to pressurize the bereaved family members into doling out money? My allegation.)
Sucheta Dalal, managing editor of Moneylife, called me up at 8am on 31st July to inform me about this tragedy, on the basis of a Facebook message that Viji’s daughter Lavanya had posted on her wall. Ms Dalal requested me to help out, especially regarding the post-mortem and the death certificate. I instantly understood the importance as I had gone through a gruelling time when my younger sister’s husband had passed away in an accident, several years back, 75km from Pune.
I promptly called up Additional Commissioner Anant Shinde, unaware that he had been posted to Nagpur. Being a very sensitive police officer and a good human being, he said, nevertheless he would put an inspector on the job and have him contact me. Inspector Govekar called me up and I requested him to ensure that the post-mortem is done on priority and the provisional death certificate required for the cremation is kept ready latest by 2pm, so that the family won’t have to wait endlessly when they reach Pune around 5pm. In order to be doubly sure, I requested him to send a Photostat copy of the death certificate to the YMCA reception counter, which he promptly did. Many thanks to Mr Shinde and Mr Govekar.
I also did not want the family members to face any difficulty at the cremation ground. I called up Sandeep Khardekar, a senior local politician and social activist to request him to talk to the in-charge of the Vaikunth Crematorium. I too called him. They took down Viji’s name.
When we, along with Lavanya, other family members and friends of Viji’s, reached the Sassoon morgue, the stink of human flesh churned my insides. As I stood along with Sudha Menon, my friend and a business journalist who has high regards for Viji, under the umbrella (Pune had the heaviest rains that day), I was once again reminded of humiliation and indignity to the dead here. There have been so many news reports over the years, of the Sassoon morgue which lacks proper facilities like even the basic temperature control required to store a dead body without letting it decompose, but nothing seems to have changed. It’s pathetic and agonizing.
Nevertheless, I was glad that Viji was cremated in one of the best crematoriums in Pune, embedded with greenery, stalwart trees, chirping of the birds and manicured lawns.
Pune has become Viji’s last home, which he must have least expected. Mark’s words though still ring in my ears: “I could not sleep the whole night. I kept thinking, would it have made a difference if the ambulance had come 10 minutes earlier?”
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected])
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