July 20, 2009

Shoulder put back

One morning in Ahmedabad, a friend and I are in a rickshaw going over a bridge. To our right in the heavy traffic, a woman on a scooter wobbles, tries to regain her balance, wobbles some more and then, almost as if it was inevitable and in near slow-motion, she tumbles to the ground in a flurry of pink salwar kameez and flying dupatta and flailing arms and black scooter metal and streaming long hair and the blur of rushing swerving honking traffic.

We stop as soon as we can and rush back to her. A young man has run up too, together the three of us help her to her feet, pick our way through the traffic that will not slow but will gawk, to the side of the road and sit her down. She has a cut on her nose, a bump on her forehead, but her real pain and shock seems to come from her right arm, which is hanging awkwardly. She holds it and moans, twice she is about to faint from the sun and the trauma. I give her some water to drink; she takes a couple of sips but asks, weakly, if we will pour it over her head and face.

"Can you put my arm back?" she asks. The accident dislocated it at the shoulder, she says, and she wants one of us to "put it back" so she can drive home. Certainly I don't feel competent to try something like this, not least because she moans in pain every time we touch the arm. Nor does my friend, nor the young man, nor any of the others who have gathered around us. And even if we could do this, we can't let her drive home in this state.

Someone says, there's a doctor just below the bridge. So we get her to stand, then quickly sit her down again because she starts fainting. Eventually, we manoeuvre her into our rickshaw as gently as we can. Every move draws a wince and a moan. The young man says he will drive her scooter and follow us to the doc.

Down the bridge, a U-turn, drive 50 metres to a right turn, then another 100 metres down that road. It is a slow and tortuous journey. The road is mud and stones, and every bump of any size draws an agonized squeal from her. By the time we reach the doctor, my nerves are on edge. What about her?

And this is a harvaid, a bonesetter. I'm sceptical of these guys, at best, but we have no choice. She's in such agony that what's most urgent is some relief, and she'll get that here.

Inside, the man looks her over, asks some questions, pokes firmly at her shoulder drawing more squeals. Then he brings a towel, sticks it under her arm, holds it firmly and -- drawing one long loud moan -- twists and pulls and pushes, seemingly in one fluid businesslike motion. "It's OK now," he announces to her and us. And it is. She says she doesn't have the courage to try moving the arm, but he moves it for her, gently, to show her that it's back in place.

"But you've got to be careful for the next six months!" he tells her. No lifting things above her head, no driving around ... "But what will I do?" she wails. "What about my kids?"

"Tell your husband," he advises.

"Mera pati chhe mahine pehle off ho gaya", she says. ("My husband died six months ago.")

The doc says he needs to put a splint on her shoulder -- he's cutting a strip of what looks like flattened bamboo as he speaks -- which means she will not be able to put her kameez back on over it. She shakes her head. My friend tells the woman she will go buy a top for her. She shakes her head again. Eventually, the harvaid uses her dupatta and some gauze to immobilize the arm, and says we can take her home, provided she gets herself a splint within an hour.

Another long and tortuous journey, most of it on roads whose horrible state I would not notice were the poor woman not moaning in desperation every time we approach a bump, or pothole, or even a rough patch. At her building finally, she gives us a weak smile, and say "You must at least come up to my home!"

We do. We settle her on her sofa, have a glass of water, remind her gently about the splint, and leave.

I called the next day, she had got her splint. I sat for a while, thinking about my friend and the young man, both who remind me what simple humanity is. About the harvaid, who refused to take any money for his swift, gentle and effective kindness. I'm not so sceptical any more, thanks to you, and you too remind me what humanity is.

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