Kristyna Litten + Rahul Panda

What Killed Dr. Ebadi?

He lurched into the room; pushed by the armed guards who followed. In the two years that I have served as surgeon in the facility, never had someone so young been brought in for the procedure. Working there is my punishment for having gone to America to pursue post-doctoral research. And when the Regime bids you to do something, you just obey. Dissent means death.

The boy’s hands were tied at the back and a dirty rag was used to gag him. He seemed inordinately pliant and offered neither resistance nor reaction to the unnecessary jabs the guards seem to direct at his ribs with their rifle butts. Only his eyes spoke. He looked at me with those bright green irises. This isn’t just, his eyes seemed to say.

He was made to lie down on the stretcher. The guard who stank of tar all the time said, ‘We got this one early in his career, doctor. Treat him. But you know what, I feel sorry for this boy, he is too young to even have made good use of his hands.’ He moved his hand to and fro holding an imaginary penis. His partner, a giant, let out a laugh which shook the delicate instruments on the table.

I went about preparing the optimum dose of local anaesthesia which would do the job. Why all this fuss, you might wonder. Well, in the face of widespread protest from human rights groups all over the world and mounting international pressure the Regime had decided to make the punishment more ‘clinical’. The law is what it is. That can’t be altered. So they refined the process.

Tears spilled over the corner of the boy’s eyes when I inserted the needle into his forearm. He did not even wince. He kept staring at the ceiling.  I don’t recall a single incident when a person lying there on that stretcher had not tried to disrupt the procedure in some way. Once, a man even managed to kick the injection out of my hands. The guards then beat him till he was unconscious and forced me to proceed sans the drug. ‘If he doesn’t want it, he will have to do without it,’ is what the tar-man had said on that occasion.

A few hours later I walked into the room. The boy sat upright on the blood-stained stretcher examining the stumps where his wrists had been. He looked at me standing at the entrance, raised his right bandaged stump close to his head and said, ‘Assalam Alaykum, doctor. I couldn’t greet you earlier.’

I couldn’t look into his eyes and pretended to rummage for something on the table. ‘Why did you try to steal son? Didn’t you know that you would lose your hands if you were caught?’

‘Our parents were killed in the bombings last month. Nobody helps us, doctor. My three year old sister was hungry….’ He choked as he wept. ‘My sister will be waiting for me.’  He wiped his eyes, got off the stretcher, touched my shoulder with his stump and walked out.

‘Wait…,’ a belated reaction prompted me to run after him but he was gone.

The police will find my body with this bottle of smuggled booze. The autopsy, if the Regime orders it, will show that I was dead long before the water filled my lungs.

The Day Dharma Died

Dharma died without a fuss.

His body was found resting against a low boundary wall surrounding what was once a house. His rickshaw stood parked just beyond the summit of the steep climb where the road leveled out. He had managed to conquer one final summit.

He had propped the upper half of his body against the wall, his head tilted upward at an angle. His hands lay on his sides, palms facing the heavens. The toned muscles of his outstretched legs that had peddled him through life lay motionless. He wore neat khaki shorts under a tattered vest besprinkled with holes. A coarse cotton towel was wrapped around his head. Slippers made of stripes of old truck tyres held together with rivets were neatly arranged close to his body. He died without a fuss.

The abandoned house mourning its own decay stood in between a mosque and a small Hindu shrine. Nature had taken over the work of adorning the façade with ferns and moss. Rain and wind lacerated the walls to reveal bricks red like fresh wounds. Painted on the wall against which he rested was an advertisement for rat-kill. The caption, his epitaph, announced in red: THE WAY TO DUSTY DEATH.

A rapidly growing pool of people looked on. They knew his name, but Dharma was still a stranger. His lifeless form caused a small ripple in their inert collective conscience.

Was Dharma Hindu or Muslim? How is his body going to be cremated? Is someone going to claim his corpse? Does he have a family? The questions asked what he was and not who he was. After all, the only connection that people shared with him was that of being human.

Dharma’s inanimate were still open.

A police officer, Dharma’s custodian, stood facing the dead and regarded him with as much disdain as he did the garbage lying a few feet away. He twirled his baton impatiently. This was never going to be a profitable assignment. He longed to go back to his traffic post.

What did the police have to gain from Dharma anyway?

An opportunistic groundnut seller returning home after a day of tepid business noticed the clot of people. Here was a chance to make some quick bucks. He set up shop below a margosa tree on the opposite side of the road. He faced in the general direction of where Dharma lay. People blocked his vision. He brought his palms together and bowed his head and mouthed an inarticulate prayer seeking forgiveness. Then, he hawked his wares. People thronged to the vociferous vendor.

Dharma could not have cared less.

The police officer was piqued at being left alone with the corpse. At least the crowd was a solace. He sauntered over to the other side. He deftly parted the curtain of people with the baton to make his way towards the vendor. His eyes lit up. Here was a prospect right before his eyes. The vendor noticed the odd glint in the officer’s eyes. He surreptitiously slipped a few notes into the protector’s hand. Business continued.

Dharma lay forgotten.

A few hours later a gleaming white car rolled into the scene, kicking up enough dust to entomb Dharma. The mayor of the city stepped out. He was on his way to a party meeting but that could wait. This was the real podium. The officer stiffened, greeted the leader, bowed as low as he could and doled out a catalogue of the pains he had taken to keep scavengers at bay. No one objected. The mayor made an irrelevant speech listing his party’s achievements and promised to raise the issue of unclaimed corpses in the assembly. And for this he beseeched the wise electorate to vote for him. He left.

Dharma had never been interested in politics.

Evening was descending upon them. People were in a hurry to dispose Dharma. They had done their bit for Dharma. They had stood and watched. What else was expected?

Dharma had never asked for anything but compassion.

Dharma’s eyes, still open, were now focused on the constellation of seven stars: seven great sages according to the Hindu mythology. He had thought of the sages wandering for ages to look for answers. And how at the end of their protracted search they had come together to form a crude question mark in the sky, as if to pose the cosmic question: why?

Dharma only posed simple questions.

An ambulance from the mortuary made its way to the spot. So this was it, thought people with reprieve. A few documents exchanged hands between the police and the morgue officials. The morgue boys dressed in white put Dharma in the van. He was to be taken to the Government Medical College where students would study Dharma’s anatomy.

Dharma obliged.