by Shirish Thorat
Sparsh and Nikhad were discussing the surge in followers for ‘Samaritan’. They now had almost 100,000, averaging 2000 new followers every day for the last 2 weeks.
“I think it’s because of the 5 signs poster,” Nikhad said.
As usual, she was draped over the chair with her right leg hanging over the chair’s arm while she used the base of the long-stemmed wine glass to draw slow circles and punctuation marks on the table. Nikhad had long, exquisitely formed fingers and classic Kashmiri features which contributed to her being a ravishing beauty.
Sparsh was sprawled on her stomach across the diwan with its collection of ethnic print covered pillows. Her glass stood on the floor within easy reach.
She nodded in agreement and remarked, “You did a great job with the fonts and design Nikki.”
Nikhad smiled, both women had been close friends since they had first met in medical college and shared a large 2 bedroom apartment in the posh Seminary Hills area of Nagpur. Sparsh was an orthodontist while Nikhad was an ENT specialist, they were young and unattached and the money was good.
Indeed life had been good to them, even in the COVID pandemic. A time when mental health issues were cropping up everywhere. Both Sparsh and Nikhad felt strongly on this topic and had created the ‘Samaritan’ Instagram account to spread awareness about suicide prevention.
“You know, people say they had no idea… after the person is gone,” said Sparsh, shaking her head. But more often than not, they had simply missed the signs.
Nikhad’s poster highlighted the 5 red flags in behaviour:
- social withdrawal
- persistent drop in mood
- disinterest in maintaining personal hygiene or appearance
- giving away sentimental or expensive possessions
- saying they feel worthless or alone
The poster had been widely circulated and indeed, gone viral. But the ‘Samaritan’ helpline had, so far, received nothing but general enquiries.
Just then, the helpline rang and as she reached for it, Sparsh glanced at the clock. It was 8.13 pm.
“Hello,” she said, switching to speaker mode. “Samaritan helpline here, how may we be of assistance?”
“Hello, hello – can you hear me?” said a young, female voice.
“Yes, I can hear you,” assured Sparsh.
“I have a friend who exhibits all the 5 signs in your poster,” said the caller.
Her pulse quickening, Sparsh looked across at Nikhad as she simultaneously reached for a notepad and pen to take down notes.
Nikhad took the pen from her and gestured for Sparsh to keep talking.
“What is your friend’s name?”
“His name is Debashish Mohanty and he is a 1st year intern at Sassoon hospital.”
The caller spoke rapidly, her tone conveying the urgency.
“He gave an attendant his wrist watch… it was gifted to him by his father after his 12th board examination. Madam, it’s an expensive watch, and he has been talking about how useless he has been his entire life….”
“Can I know your name,” Sparsh asked. “Are you a friend of his?”
“No no, I am…it’s not important who I am. What I wanted to tell you is that he was supposed to do the evening shift from 4 to 12 and he hasn’t reported yet. I tried his phone but he has switched it off.”
Sparsh looked again at Nikhad who scribbled address on the notepad
“Can you give me his address?” she asked the caller.
“I don’t know where he stays madam, somewhere in Kothrud I think,” the caller’s voice became more hurried, almost frantic now. “I don’t know anything much about him but I had seen your helpline poster and number so I called.”
“Can’t you call your hospital dean or rector, they can actually act much faster.”
“Madam, they are big people and besides, if I am wrong then it is sure to create problems for my job, so you please enquire and help?”
“Can you tell me the name of your Rector? That would be helpful,” Sparsh said.
She was being infected by the urgency in the caller’s voice and was making an effort to control her tone. Be calm, breathe.
“The Rector’s name is Dr Praveen Sabnis, I have to hang up now madam, I hope you can please help and do something.”
There was a brief pause and a final “please” and then the caller hung up. The two friends stared at each other, the time was now 8.22 pm.
Sparsh was the first to speak.
“Let me call our old Rector Dr Bijlani. He might know who the Sasoon Hospital Rector is… why don’t you call the Pune police?
“And tell them what? We don’t even know the address of this intern. For all we know it might be a prank call. Let’s verify if the basic information first.”
Nikhad was already scrolling through her contact list. A brief text on her whatsapp group of ENT specialists was responded to and in 5 minutes Nikhad had the contact details of Dr Sarala Venkatesam, pediatrics department of the Sassoon Hospital. She dialled the number and started counting the rings.
Meanwhile, Sparsh had her old Rector on the phone and she explained the situation, Dr. Bijlani was now 70 years but still sharp as a hawk.
He promised to make a couple of inquiries and revert within 10 minutes.
Dr. Sarala answered on the 5th ring.
“Dr. Sarala? This is Dr. Nikhad Afreen from Nagpur, I wonder if I could have a couple of minutes chat with you?”
“Yes,” the tone was reserved and cautious.
“You see, my colleague and I run a suicide prevention and mental health account on Instagram.”
“Excuse me but is this some sort of a sales call?” Dr. Sarala interjected sharply.
“No, not at all doctor. Actually it is something that may be very serious,” as Nikhad started explaining she got out of her chair and started pacing around the apartment.
Meanwhile, Sparsh had called up Pramod, a member of the college student union. She knew Pramod would go out of the way to help, as he had always had a crush on her. Something she was determined never to encourage or exploit… but this was different. Perhaps Pramod knew someone in Pune who could be of assistance?
As she dialed Pramod’s number she went to the balcony. Behind her, the two wine glasses stood forgotten.
The clock showed 8.43 pm.
Pramod called 5 minutes later and gave a number for Rector Praveen Sabnis. By then, Nikhad had concluded her rather animated conversation with Dr. Sarala.
“Oof, that lady!” exclaimed Nikhad. “So many questions! She promised to call back asap after talking to Rector Sabnis, but simply refused to share his number – what the hell?”
“Well I have a number for him,” said Sparsh.
“How did you manage that?”
“Pramod,” Sparsh deadpanned.
“Aha! Bahoot yaraana hai,” Nikhad poked her friend in the tummy; Sparsh swatted her hand away with a “shut up”.
They called Dr. Sabnis but his phone was busy – was he talking to Dr. Sarala?
“Looks like your Pramod got the correct number,” said Nikhad. Sparsh pretended not to hear her as she was checking her whatsapp group texts.
The Samaritan phone rang and Nikhad scooped it up – it was Dr. Sarala.
“I just had a chat with the Rector and he confirms that we have an intern named Debashish Mohanty, let me give you Dr. Sabnis’s mobile number.”
She rattled it off and Nikhad thanked her before disconnecting.
“God, I hope this guy is alright, try the Rector’s phone again,” Nikhad said.
Sparsh was about to dial when her phone rang, it was Dr. Bijlani.
“Ok I have managed to contact Dr Sabnis, it turns out we had met at a conference last year at AIMS Delhi and he tells me that this intern…Mohanty is it? Well this intern hasn’t reported for his shift so you seem to have a problem on your hands. Young people these days..no resilience at all tsk tsk.
Anyway, you may call him up and see what can be done, there seems to be some confusion about where this young man resides but Dr. Sabnis is on that right now.”
“How can they not have his address?” Sparsh interrupted.
“Well, he shifted a few months ago and never furnished his new address. And to top it his mobile is switched off…. So irresponsible.”
Sparsh managed to politely conclude the conversation and sneak a look at her watch. It was now 8.58 and she felt with inexplicable certainty… that time was running out.
Nikhad was on the phone with Dr. Sabnis – he had instructed a couple of interns to verify and furnish Debashish’s current address. He also said that fellow interns had noticed that the young man had become morose and withdrawn but his colleagues had put it down to the blues that every intern suffers occasionally due to work pressure.
However they had now confirmed news that Debashish had lost his elder brother to Covid a few months ago and there was some talk about a failed relationship too.
Sparsh was suddenly aware that her phone was ringing and it was Pramod again.
“Hey I managed to track down a corporator who knows a lot of the local police officers. Once you have the address pass it on to me and he has promised to send a PCR van… don’t worry Sparsh it’s all arranged.”
Sparsh smiled at this typical Pramod approach to every situation – “Don’t worry and everything is arranged”.
He was so positive, resourceful, confident and not bad looking either, what was wrong with her? Shrugging that train of thought aside she told Pramod to standby.
Nikhad rushed over and said that Rector Sabnis and another intern had got the address of Debashish and they were on their way now, he lived in Kothrud. Sparsh texted the address to Pramod and then they both waited, or rather sat, stood and paced around for an interminable next 15 minutes.
The Samaritan phone rang and Nikhad fumbled for a long agonizing moment before the speaker phone mode was activated and the voice of the Rector Dr. Praveen Sabnis filled the room. He was obviously in a moving vehicle – they could hear the wail of a police siren in the background – but Sabnis had one of those deep, carrying voices.
“We broke down the door and found him, unconscious. We’re on our way to the hospital to get his stomach pumped….let us see, I will keep you informed, doctors.”
Both friends looked at each other and Sparsh let out a long sign before slumping at the dining table chair. Nikhad sat opposite her and said, “I hope he makes it.”
Sparsh looked at the wine glass and asked, “So is this one yours or mine?”
“Mine I think but at this point does it matter?”
“Naah, I guess it doesn’t,” Sparsh smiled and gulped the contents. “I am ready for a refill – how about you?”
“Bring it on, bitch,” replied Nikhad.
Rector Praveen Sabnis called some time later – Debashish Mohanty had made it, though it was touch and go for a bit. According to the Casualty Medical Officer if they had arrived 10 minutes later, it would have been too late. They compared notes and found out that Operation Samaritan had taken 1 hour and 3 minutes, from start to finish.
Debashish was now conscious and asking, “Who saved me?”
“So whom shall I say saved him young ladies?” Dr. Sabnis asked,
The two friends looked at each other and Nikhad said, “We all did Sir, we all did.”
“Did we?” asked the Rector and disconnected the call.
Much later when the adrenalin had worn off Sparsh lay in her bed, having changed into her pyjamas, She and Nikhad had said their good nights and retired to their respective bedrooms rather unsteadily. Sparsh’s alcohol befuddled brain tried to eke out a satisfactory answer to the Rector’s question – who really did save Debashish?
She tried to process the whole hour and 3 minutes of events that evening and found questions questioning other questions in a labyrinth of what-ifs.
Long before she could even come anywhere near a possible answer fatigue overcame her and she succumbed to the small death of sleep.
Shirish Thorat is a former police officer and expert on terrorism and money laundering. He has authored 3 books – ‘The Scout’, ‘Twisted’ and ‘A Ticket to Syria’.