© Copyright 2022 by Noel Moitra
Photo courtesy of the author.
Early one afternoon in 1987, while at Fergusson College, Pune, India, I noticed a close friend and classmate, Sarah, in tears. She had put on a brave face, but I could tell something was wrong from her body language.
I went up to her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“C’mon, let it out. You’ll feel better. You know you always have my shoulder to lean on.”
“It’s Lara. She has this headache that just won’t go away. We’ve tried everything, taken her to nursing homes, hospitals, and specialists, but the headache won’t go. I’m scared and going home.” Now that I knew why she was depressed, I thought I’d try and cheer her up.
“I’ll come with you, if I may. Lara might find my company uplifting.”
“I sincerely hope so. It really hurts, to see my little sister in so much pain. Let’s go, Noel.”
Twenty minutes of silent cycling and we were at her home. I went in directly to see Lara. An elf of a girl had an ice bag on her forehead, and her red-tinged eyes were impossible to ignore. She was unable to speak either. I felt sad for her, in pain at such a young age and stage, and said,
“I’m going home too. I’ll come back with my mom. She knows a bit and might be able to help.”
“That’s great. Sure, bring her over. I’m quite fond of her. Now, she’ll get to meet my folks too.”
mother was the local agony aunt, with ancient homemade cures for
illnesses that plagued adults and children, mainly the latter. More
importantly, she was straightforward in such cases. If she did not
know about a specific malaise, she would say so immediately and
advise the person who was unwell to seek professional help.
My mother and I were soon back in a cab. She was formally introduced to the family. She then went into the sisters’ room to see Lara. I followed and noticed that the curtains were drawn. The sun was beating down on that room now, and only one low-powered light bulb was on.
“She’s uncomfortable with natural light; she often gets a stiff neck also,” explained her mother.
A minute later, my mother, who was holding a three-to-four inch circular piece of fully plastic-rimmed glass, said, “She needs hospitalization. These are all symptoms of meningitis, and every minute is vital.” She pulled out a pen from her handbag, wrote something on a piece of paper, and gave it to Lara’s mother, saying, “Please come to this hospital. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Sarah’s parents seemed nonplussed. “Please, just follow me. I’ve seen this before. Come with me, Sarah. You have a cold, best stay away from your sister. Noel will come with Lara. Noel, please get her to sip pure but watered down lemonade; don’t force her, just wet her tongue every couple of minutes. Plain water will also do.”
took us a few minutes to get organized. Time was of the essence. Lara
had to change, put on dark glasses, and lie down on the back seat of
their car. Her parents also had to get dressed. I got a small bottle
of water from the fridge, and we moved out as fast as possible. I
carried Lara; she was so light. The cab was gone, so I knew my mother
and Sarah must have left. There
wasn’t too much traffic and it took us about ten minutes to get to the hospital. Sure enough, my mother and Sarah were waiting outside the Emergency gateway with a gurney, and as soon as we arrived, Lara was eased onto the gurney. My mother seemed to know her way around and ducked into a small alley leading to a closed door. She knocked lightly on the door and opened it, beckoning us to bring the gurney in to get Lara into the chamber. She evidently knew the doctor and must have forewarned him. There was no small talk either, just a direct referral. “Doc, here’s your patient. Her parents are also here. I’ll take leave.”
My mother turned to Sarah’s mom and said, “Your daughter is in the best hands available. Just pray for her. I can’t be of much help now. Noel will keep me updated. I’ll be home in half an hour. Good luck. Bye.” She disappeared into the corridor. I stayed on with Sarah, but had to leave half an hour later as Lara was moved into the Intensive Care Unit, where visitors were not permitted. I was truly worried back home, but my mother went through her routine chores without breaking into a sweat. I took that as a positive and heartening sign.
I was at Sarah’s house by 7.30 a.m. the next day. A visibly upbeat Sarah told me that the doctor had given her sister only a 10 percent chance of survival the day before. But the girl had fought back, and soon after midnight, her medical team had raised her chances to 50 percent. Now she was on the road to a speedy recovery. She couldn’t thank me enough, but I looked up to the heavens and said, “He works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.”
Sarah and her family moved to Tanzania the next year. We hosted them on their last dinner in India. As Sarah left, she gave me a warm hug and a kiss. She then presented me with a small green male thumb-sized stone that had strange lettering on the smooth and shiny top.
“Keep this with you. It’s jade and will come to your rescue sometime. The underside has a groove into which you can insert your thumb. Rub it and make a wish. Remember me then.”
I never saw her again. That piece of jade, however, was always in my pocket wherever I went.
A dozen years later, I was a married man. I’d found a lovely girl who was both bright and full of elfin humor. She could cook exotic dishes and cope with grouchy me. The years just flew by and I was a father to a cute son, Rohan. I was studying with the Royal Air Force at their College, located in a town called Bracknell, some twenty miles west of Heathrow airport, London. We’d gone for a short winter break to Paris, then Brussels, fetching up in Holland, with two-year-old Rohan in a wheeled pushchair. It was Christmas Eve and our ferry was the last out of Holland to Harwich, UK. We were to be picked up by the High Commission staff car and driven home.
Amsterdam was brightly lit up for Christmas. All shops were closed and it was lonely out there. But window-shopping was fun as we strolled about leisurely, explaining to Rohan that the bearded fellow dressed in red in each shop was Santa Claus. My son had heard plenty about Santa Claus and was puzzled that there was no live Santa and his reindeer. He kept asking if
Santa would appear by midnight and before he fell asleep. We answered as best we could.
Suddenly, three parka-clad men jumped out in front of us. One of them was brandishing a knife. Oh no, not on my last day in Europe, I thought to myself. I put my hand into my pocket and rubbed the jade stone with my thumb, praying that Sarah had been right those years ago. I made a wish that these three hoodlums would have a change of heart and leave us alone.
“Out with it. All your money and jewelry,” said one. “Hurry up,” added another.
“Get lost, you scoundrels.” A burly figure dressed in a Santa Claus costume came flying out of a doorway and launched himself feet first at the rogue with the knife. The muggers fled the scene and were absorbed into the darkness. Where did Savior Santa come from? All I could recall was that an angel appeared opportunely from thin air, forced the muggers to flee and kept us safe.
He knelt and said to Rohan, “Hello son. Were you looking for Santa Claus?”
“Yes, Santa, I was.”
“Well, here I am. What gift would you like from me?”
“A lollipop, please.”
“Here are three. I must leave now. And a Merry Christmas to all of you.” Before we could react, Santa was gone.
I pulled out my jade stone. It seemed to have lost its sheen! My wife and I were astounded. We checked it under all types of lights, but the original sheen was missing. With nothing more to do, we silently moved on to board our ferry. The journey home was uneventful. But in those cold long hours that the ferry took to cross the Channel, I was lost in reflection. My mind went round and round in circles, but I would invariably get stuck on just the one question that had only indirect ties to what had happened to us: “What's your first reaction when you and your family are suddenly endangered?”
We have all grown up in families where, as children, we were blessed with affection and showered with love, hugs and kisses. In the eyes of parents, the happiness of their children is paramount; perhaps the only thing that matters. We were told that we were always at the forefront of our parents’ minds. As parents, we’ve said much the same to our children and shown it to them by walking them safely across roads, coddling them when ill, singing lullabies or reading stories aloud to get them to sleep. We’ve heard about occasions when a snake was seen right next to a toddler, who was in his own world and oblivious of his surroundings, and how the mother put herself in mortal danger to rescue her child.
Would such a reaction be universally true? Your answer will most likely be, “Yes, of course.” I beg to differ. When faced with sudden danger, your first thought will be to save yourself, not your kith and kin. The key word here is ‘sudden’. In the case of the snake and the baby, there was a moment or two to think, perhaps time to even weigh options. Looking back, it had to be my introspection during that cold night-long ferry from Amsterdam to Harwich that ultimately led me to this conclusion. I’ll quote two examples; I strongly believe that after reading them, you will agree with me.
My family had grown to four, with the birth of a daughter, some four years younger than Rohan. We were on holiday in the USA and had gotten used to driving on the other side of the road, when compared to both the UK and back home in India. We were staying with my younger brother. He was driving me to his grocery store one Saturday morning, and I was seated to his right. But a car coming towards us suddenly switched into our lane. A crash was inevitable. My brother, our driver, turned sharply to the left to protect himself. I bore the brunt of the crash and picked up a fractured collarbone and two broken ribs in the process. The instinct of self-preservation had kicked in, brother or otherwise.
In the second case, I had taken my wife and two kids on a picnic to a village called Shivpuri. This spot was in a natural bowl-shaped depression, about one hundred feet deep, with a small pond at the base. I parked at the rim of the depression, and we all went down a gentle slope easily. Except for the entry area, the rim was lined with trees and we were generally having a good time in the shade. Rohan, now six years old, was playing with his slingshot and aimed at a beehive. He must have hit it, because a swarm of bees came buzzing down and my son ran towards us. Before we knew, the swarm was upon us.
My wife and I ran blindly uphill for the safety of the car, leaving our son and two-year old daughter behind. I realized this when I was a quarter of the way up and heard my daughter screaming. Sanity prevailed as I turned, ran back down, and yelled at my children to lie flat on the ground and keep absolutely still. I did the same. My wife was in the car by now and the bees went away on their own. All of us were badly stung and needed medical treatment, with my kids detained in the Intensive Care Unit overnight. We haven’t yet lived that memory down-it torments us. Parents thinking about themselves before their small children, almost abandoning them till better sense prevailed!
am aware that most of you out there will call us cowards. That is
just not true. The desire for safety is so strong and deep-rooted in
the mind that the first thought that comes to you when faced with
sudden danger is Self Preservation! Always and every time.