Just after 10 pm—though by then Dr Anil Bansal of Ward A’s Tripoli Hospital had lost track of time— Nurse Jacintha John walked into the consultation room. Anil was seated, his forehead on the table in front of him. He was exhausted.
‘Doctor, are you okay?’ ‘Yes,’ he said without lifting his head. ‘Send the next patient in.’
‘No more, sir. All finished.’ Anil sat up. ‘Really?’
The nurse nodded. ‘How many did we do today?’ ‘Eighty-six.’
‘It felt like 800. Dr Arvind?’
‘He finished ten minutes back. He has already gone home. Doctor, you should also return home now.’ ‘Yes. Finally. Give me ten minutes to clean up.’
Jacintha trotted back to her chair behind the reception desk, stretching as she walked. Never, inall her years as a nurse, had she experienced a situation quite like this. Usually the Bansals had thirty patients a day, forty on a bad day.
She was relieved it was over. But Jacintha was also worried. Of the eighty-six patients the two doctors had treated that day, roughly sixty had come in with coughs. The cough apart, the symptoms seemed to vary a great deal. Some spat out blood, some didn’t. Some had fever, while others seemed to be developing dark skin rashes. One patient, a taxi driver, had severe stomach pain. Whatever this disease was, it wasn’t one of the usual suspects.
Must be something new. This city is always creating new ailments. Always finding fresh ways to give doctors business. Jacintha began to work through her daily winding- up ritual. She cleared her desk, emptied the rubbish bins, switched off all the air conditioners and double- checked the cash register. She was just about to take the cash box to Dr Anil when the main door flung open—pushed with such force that it swung all the way around and crashed into the wall. Jacintha shoved the cash box into a drawer and pushed it shut. She reached for the glass paperweight on the table.
A young man in an autorickshaw driver’s uniform staggered backwards into the waiting room, dragging another man in his arms. Just as the door swung shut again Jacintha noticed an autorickshaw waiting outside. It had been driven right over the kerb and into the courtyard. The driver gently placed the sick man on the floor. The patient was dressed in a waiter’s uniform that was soaked in sweat, blood and urine. ‘I think he is dying,’ said the driver. ‘Please do something. Please.’ The sick man, his eyes partly shut, coughed feebly. A thick red fluid dribbled out of his mouth. He moaned, semi-conscious.
‘Dr Anil!’ Jacintha screamed as she ran towards the consultation room. ‘Dr Anil!’ Through the blood-soaked fabric of his shirt, the embroidered logo of the Somerset Hotel on his chest pocket barely showed.