Ila Trust has been running medical mobile vans in different parts of the city on a regular basis for many years now
Our car slams to a halt as the owner of the vehicle, a lady sitting calmly next to me all this while, lets out a small scream. The driver jams his brakes. It turns out she spotted a young boy – no more than a child – lugging a massive load of sacks, probably cement-filled, on a cart pulled forward by a pulley. Reeta Devi is indignant at the sight: how can people be so cruel as to allow a mere boy to lug so many kilos of load? You could see his muscles straining from the effort.
The driver sighs (he’s used to the eccentricities of his employer) and I look at her in disbelief. Is she for real? Does she actually live in the capital of India and is still troubled by such instances? Far worse happens, anyone who reads the daily newspapers can attest to that. Most of us are in fact immune.
We find ourselves in Delhi’s Paharganj a few minutes later, many worlds away from the one where we had just met at her home-cum-office in serene Sujan Singh Park. All the stray dogs of the area seem overjoyed. Many of them surround our vehicle, jumping up and pawing at the windows and I refuse to get out, frightened by the sheer number and their frenzied excitement. Ms Reeta Devi, however, exits unperturbed and like the Piped Piper of Hamelin, she is followed by a line of dogs of varied shapes and sizes, but all unkempt and having suffered different levels of abuse and injury. I’m alone then and exit the car quietly, ignored by the pack, all of who have eyes, ears and wags only for her.
The driver (who is carrying some food for the dogs and feeds them subsequently) meanwhile sets up two chairs at a slight distance from a mobile van (Ila Trust has been running medical mobile vans in different parts of the city on a regular basis for many years now) that is like a mini-hospital on wheels, only far more cheery than any hospital I’ve seen. I suddenly notice a set of chair and tables next to us and another weighing machine with a line of scraggly children (mostly accompanied by mothers, many in burqas), a few older men and women and a few really old people all standing to be weighed. The mobile health clinic starts to function. After being weighed, the patients are examined as best possible by the two doctors who are seated on the chairs, making notes on the symptoms, after which the patients head into the mobile clinic if any tests are needed, which are conducted there and then (the van has many computers inside). Medicines are prescribed and collected through another window of this retrofitted van.
Out of thin air, a whole bunch of children suddenly line up before the two of us. The children are mostly Muslim, with boys wearing their skullcaps. Ms Reeta Devi’s hand dives every few seconds into three large bags the driver had unloaded and hands out a bar of soap, a packet of glucose biscuits and a skull cap for the boys and the line before us grows longer and longer. She chats with the children, asks them if they used last week’s soap and sometimes asks them for details about their school and studies. If a child appears unkempt, she admonishes the mother lightly. She tells me it’s important they care for their children, why else did they bring them into this world. She appears to know many personally. Almost all the mothers greet her and update her on details about their lives that strike me as rather personal and only relevant if she were keeping a close tab week after week. She was!
A smiling gangly boy, wearing glasses comes up with his mother in tow and her eyes light up. She pulls out a large bag full of goodies – I even spot a Coke bottle – and hands it to him (I’m happy to note she’s human like the rest of us and has her favourites). Babu, as she and his mother call him, is a young 12-year-old with a prosthetic leg. The second child of Sayeeda Bano, Babu was born with a heart ailment and with one leg that tapered off into a fishtail. When Ms Reeta Devi first met him, he had been given two months to live. His mother – desperate to save the boy’s life but with no means at her disposal – brought him to the mobile health clinic in her area and, fortunately for her and her son, encountered the grand lady herself. Reeta Devi decided to raise the money for his heart surgery that was expected to cost a large sum even at AIIMs due to the complexity of his problem. She had put together Rs 80,000 (11-12 years ago) when she happened to mention the boy to Madhu Trehan, known to her (her immediate neighbour and a dear friend was the late Khushwant Singh). Trehan organised the surgery at her husband’s hospital Medanta, where they treated him both “royally” and for free. Even the small amount of money she’d raised for Babu was turned down by them. She contributed the amount for the next patient who couldn’t pay for his or her treatment.
Babu’s heart was functioning fine but his leg still presented a problem. At this stage, Reeta Devi says India Today’s Koel Purie (Trehan’s niece) appeared like an angel and took charge. She even sat through the boy’s entire six-hour leg surgery. A year or two later, when the time came for Babu to join school, Reeta Devi asked her friend Khushwant for an introduction and camped every day outside the office of the principal of DPS, Mathura Road till she secured admission for him and his sister. The two children now study there and whenever the mobile van is the area, Sayeeda brings them to meet Reeta Devi.
We sit at the spot for around three hours and she tells me nuggets of the lives of many who come to either show themselves or to get free medicine for their continued treatment. Delhi’s July heat is oppressive but she’s unfazed, sipping something from a flask that she offers me too. On the drive home she tells me the story of Muskaan, a young girl who has had multiple spinal surgeries (again Reeta Devi helped find sponsors) since birth and her widowed, HIV-positive mother and countless other stories that she’s come across and seems indignant about. At times, she sounds bewildered, almost like a child who can’t quite comprehend the injustice of it all.
I leave her reluctantly almost six hours after we met, but she stays with me for days, even months. The day I accompanied her was July 4, 2019 and I write this a year later on July 4, 2020 – a coincidence, I realise, when I look at the photographs of Babu, the van, the dogs, her and the patients I took with my phone - in the midst of the pandemic. How must Reeta Devi’s patients be managing today with India’s frayed medical system that fails them even in the best of times? How must they be managing without her services, her love and her vast empathy. I’ll have to ask Babu next time I meet him.