Tabassum means smile .
One look at her reminded one of ” Alice in wonderland “, when she sees the cheshire cat -” I have seen cats without grins , but this is the first time , I am seeing a grin without the cat.”
She occupied the first bed , right next to the nursing station .That meant she was ill , as in seriously ill , and needed to be watched at all times. Rheumatic heart disease had affected her little heart so badly , as to cripple her . Her unused limbs wasted away like dry twigs.
She had a huge grin , framed by perfect teeth , and brilliant red lips . Then she had large, almond-shaped eyes , kohl-lined , full of mirth and mischief.
When she spoke , her voice was honey . Her laughter tinkled like cut -glass chandeliers swaying in the breeze.
She kept lying most of the time , with her coverlet pulled upto the neck . Neck downwards , she had wasted. Her skin was transparent , taut . You could see the blue lines of her veins and the whiteness of her bones , through the skin . Her elbows and knees stayed together, comforting each other in their knobliness. Folded legs and arms , like a pretty origami , crumpled,pale . Little exertions , like toothbrushing , or moving around in the bed ,left her breathless, blue and panting . It was heartrending.
Her bones would project from her skin and made her highly uncomfortable , lying on the bed . She had to be constantly turned , her pillows fluffed and two mattresses , instead of one, lay beneath her.
She was our pampered princess and the pea , but she was dying , and she knew it . So did we . But so brilliant would she appear when we arrived , like a ray of sun in the gloomy world of first year nursing , that we would dispel all thoughts of death to some deep , dark corner .
It was in this state of denial that we learnt about her. Fourth child , a daughter , and diseased , in a family of feudal Lords and fierce mustachioed farmers from the Hindi heartland. She was a blot for she was a daughter , and a blemish , for she was blue ,mostly .
But , there hasn’t been a more prettier blot , or more beauteous blemish than that.
Right from her birth , she couldn’t run like other kids . She would turn blue . “Sky blue !” She would recount joyfully , giggling and hiding her face beneath the coverlet. Turning her misery into a joke.
Once , a relative , probably , her father , left some boondi-ke -laddoos for her . She , as usual , saved some for us . By the time we arrived after our afternoon classes, the box of sweets was overrun with ants . We were distressed , she wasn’t . She grabbed the sweet box and placed it on the bed . The ants ran in all directions , all over her bed. Horrified , we shook her bedsheets , coverlet , free of the pests.Undaunted, she hauled herself painfully up by her elbows , and blew on each individual laddoo . till it was ant-free. Then she offered us one each . We squirmed , took the laddoos and looked away . She smilingly ate her own share.
She wore a pair of salwaar kameez , at all times . It was not required . She was covered neck down most of the time , and it was hot inside the ward . But Tabassum , she of the dazzling smile , insisted . A simple cotton frock would suffice . The parents were told so . But neither they , nor she ,showed any inclination to change the attire. It was made of polyester , gaudy blue , with pink madhumalti flowers printed on it . Perfect five petalled , pink flowers against sky blue .
Every weekend , Sundays , would be her hair washing and grand bath day. Her salwaar kameez would be washed and put out to dry outside , on the sunny verandah , while her hair dried . We took turns in oiling , combing her hair , chatting happily . She would allow , us to dress her in the loose hospital gown , for those few hours , which for Tabassum was sheer agony , for she behaved as if she was naked. She would relax and apply kohl on her eyes , only when she was dressed back in her favourite (and only ) blue and pink dress.
This , bothered us , first years , a great deal . We put our heads together , and decided to buy two more salwaar -kameezes for her , of similar material , and gift it to her . She was almost our age (late teens ) and we couldn’t bear to see her so ill-provided. One of us , more sartorially informed , took the cloth over to the tailors , and gave her minimal dimensions , as Tabassum had shrivelled to the size of a largish baby.
Then , one day , out of the blue , we came to find the bed empty . A new bed sheet had been stretched onto the grimy and stained mattress ,the extra mattress removed, the locker emptied of Tabassum’s belongings , and no Tabassum anywhere. The ward hummed with activities of other patients .
Then , one of us noticed . In a large bin , on the corner , the beloved blue and pink salwaar kameez lay , crumpled and hastily rolled , thrown in . It was accompanied by large number of hastily broken vials , ampoules and syringes. Tabassum had lost the battle , some where , around midnight , the ward report told us .
The new clothes lay with the tailor , unused.
Even today , when I see Madhumalti clusters against a blue sky , I think of the girl , with a smile for a name .