An overpowering smell of disinfectant hung like a pall over the hospital ward. Attendants lay on the floor, oblivious to the crowds milling around their heads. I had gone there to see an old retainer admitted for a host of problems ranging from high blood pressure to incapacitating backache. She lay on the crumpled bed, the lines on her face deepened by suffering and worry.
“It is very hard when poor people like us fall ill,” she said. “We can’t go to work anymore, and medical expenses mount instantly.” Government hospitals required them to run around too much. “In such times, when one is sick, running around to get a file made and wait for consultations that could take days, even weeks to come through, is too hard,” said her daughter. Didn’t private hospitals also offer free treatment to the needy, I asked. “They all do,” she said. “But only for people with BPL (below the poverty line) ration cards; we don’t come under that category.” So instead, they’d brought the old woman to a private hospital in their neighbourhood, where doctors had said that one of the nerves in her spine had become compressed and required urgent treatment. They estimated that the treatment would entail a spinal surgery, at least a week of hospitalisation and months of medication.
“The ailment is suddenly looking less painful than the treatment of it,” rued the old woman. It turned out this was a private hospital and her treatment expenses would be more than Rs 3,000 per day, not including the cost of surgery. “Given that my monthly income is Rs 10,000, I’m looking at a huge outlay of money that I can ill afford,” she fretted. What did they plan to do, I asked. “We don’t really know what to do,” said the daughter. “But my mother has made up her mind.”
The old woman had decided to return to her village near Ranchi that very day. Some relatives there had government jobs, and they would organise her treatment at the local government hospital. “Also, my younger daughter lives there and is in a position to look after me,” she said. Given that she was hooked on a drip of painkillers, was using a bed pan and was incapable of sitting up on the bed, the idea seemed suicidal to me. Moreover, to eschew Delhi’s medical infrastructure for Ranchi’s didn’t make sense. When I said as much, the old woman smiled sadly at me.
“You don’t really think like us,” she said. “But understand that this is the reality of our lives. When one is poor, one has to always weigh the costs and benefits of every decision.” She was a widow, who had lived her life and had grown-up children. “Why should I expect my daughter and son-in-law, who work so hard to make a decent living in Delhi, to take time off in unpaid leave to look after me,” she asked. The money and effort involved was simply not worth it. “Given my age and the extent of health issues, anyway there’s a chance I may not survive this,” she said. “And then the money and effort they’d put in would be completely wasted.” In comparison, back in her village home, the support structures were way better and she wouldn’t have to spend money on treatment either.
“Whatever fate has in store for me, I’ll accept it at home, not as a migrant,” she said, gripping my hand. “You don’t think like us, I know, but pray for me.” Off she went that day, and I guess she’s at home, whether or not she made it through the journey.