The Healer & the Drug Pusher
Kita’s eyes followed the slow, majestic glide of a sea gull. All around him was the dark blue sea, calm, silent and almost motionless. The sky above was a lighter shade of blue. An occasional white cloud would drift by, breaking the monotony of the world around him.
He was a tall dark skinned boy of about thirteen years, with a piece of rough gray cloth wrapped around his waist. His father, Minda, was dressed in a similar fashion, but with a piece of cloth to cover his bolding head from the sun. Kita did not mind the sun. His thick crop of hair was ample protection.
Kita knew that if he turned his head to look at the shore, he would see the colossal statue of the Buddha, rising above the green belt of the Palmyrah trees on the coast line. This was their only link with home and Minda made sure never to move out of sight of the Buddha.
Suddenly Kita’s eyes caught a small speck in the glittering water. It disturbed the beautiful picture of the calm sea and the sky. Kita wanted it to disappear so the beautiful picture in front of him would not be marred.
He guided the boat as Minda directed, but hated to disturb the water with his oars. He did not like to see anything that would disrupt his peaceful world, on such a calm day like this. He watched his father’s steady hands flicking his rod and would help him to fix a fresh bait once in a while.
He wondered if he should draw his father’s attention to the strange speck on the horizon, but decided against it. They still had to catch a few more fish for the hospital.
Kita looked at the object once more, and then all around him, for any other signs of disturbance. Everything was as it had always been. He turned towards the statue of the Buddha. Though he could not see Buddha’s face from the boat, he knew that those gentle kind eyes would be fixed on them, and would protect them from any danger they might encounter.
The statue was at the monastery near the town of Badakara Atana1. The hospital was a part of the monastery. And it was Minda’s duty to keep the hospital supplied with fish. Someday Kita would inherit that duty, when his father became too old to go out on the boat. Once they had caught the quantity required by the hospital, any extra fish left over could be taken to the market to be bartered for their other needs. The smaller fish or those of least value would be taken home for dinner. It was their only income, because they did not have any land for farming.
The gentle breeze was drifting ‘The Thing’ closer, and soon he could make out the shape of a small boat. A boat was something that was worth his father’s attention. He was certain that it was not from any of the neighbouring villages. Any strange boat would always interest Minda.
Minda stared in the direction of the boat and then told Kita to row towards it, because it appeared empty. He knew it was not from their village or from any of their neighbouring villages. It had probably been washed overboard from a ship. Then he remembered that the weather had been very calm for several weeks, and only a storm could have swept a boat over from a ship or torn it from a mooring if it was from a village further down the coast. If it was a strange boat with no one to claim it, then Minda could keep it, with permission from the hospital authorities.
The boat grew larger in their sight, as they rowed closer towards it. It still appeared unoccupied. There were some markings on the side, which they could see now, but the characters were unfamiliar both to the father and the son.
‘It must be from a ship that was passing by’ Minda explained to his son.
‘There is no one in it’ Kita said.
‘Let’s see when we get closer’ Minda told him, with years of patience learned from fishing.
Then Kita noticed something inside the boat. He felt a stab of fear when he realized it was a heap of clothes. Kita’s fear was growing, as he remembered all the stories of ghost ships and other mysteries and horrors, related by elderly fishermen, at evening gatherings on the shore, in the flickering light of a log fire. He looked at his father, who was calmly rowing, with his eyes on the strange boat.
Was it a haunted boat? From where had it come? Where were the people who had been in it? Questions raced through his mind. The heap of clothes was resolving into a clearer shape, with what looked like a pair of legs sticking out of the clothes, then the outline of a body could be traced under the clothes. Head and face could not be seen yet. Kita thought he saw a movement, but realized that it was the breeze, mischievously stirring the clothes. He wondered what his father would do, once they reached the other boat.
Minda took a piece of rope and tied the other boat to their own, and stepped into it, careful not to disturb the body, while Kita tried to keep the two boats steady. Minda bent down and slowly lifted the cloth covering the head. Kita could see that the dead man had his hand over the face, as if in a last attempt to shade his eyes from the burning sun. There were white patches all over the skin and Kita’s first impression was that the flesh had been eaten away by some creatures. Kita shivered as if a cold gust of wind had wrapped around his body.
Minda touched the body hesitantly, and then with more interest he touched the forehead, the neck and then placed his hand over the heart. Kita watched, wanting to tell his father that they should leave the boat and head for home, but he was also curious about the dead man. He knew his father would not leave just like that, leave a man who was possibly still alive, or even if the man could not be saved, he would not want to leave him to die. The villagers could arrange a decent burial, if the man was already dead or would die. Kita knew that the opportunity to keep the boat would not be a priority for his father, at this time.
‘He is not dead’ Minda looked up at his son.
‘How do you know?’ Kita asked.
‘We have to take him to the hospital.’ Minda ignored the question. ‘They should be able to save him’. He carefully covered the body with the cloth and moved over to their boat. Kita did not want to look behind at the other boat or the man in it. Kita felt a tingling at the back of his neck, as if someone was watching him. He still could not accept that the man was not dead. He thought that if he looked behind him, the dead man might suddenly sit up, and then jump into their boat.
Rowing was not easy, with the weight of the other boat dragging behind. Kita was panting now, though he continued to row as fast as he could, the shore was not getting any nearer to them.
Kita kept looking at his father, whose eyes were fixed on the other boat, perhaps worried that death would still beat them. Minda, finally tore his eyes to look towards the shore.
Kita followed his father’s gaze, and his fear abated when he saw the Buddha looking down on them. But he still did not dare to look behind, even though he knew that Buddha Deepankara would protect them, as he looked after all seagoing men.
Kita’s arms were aching, he had never rowed the boat so fast, for such a distance without a stop. He had not realized that they were so far away from the shore and tried to row faster.
‘Run to the village first and ask some men to come here, then you go to the hospital and tell them that we are bringing a sick man found in a drifting boat. They will know what to do’ Minda told his son, even before they reached the shore, and Kita jumped out of the boat into the water and began running, glad to be away from the ghost.
Minda watched Kita run across the rough sand and through the palm grove and disappear behind the shrubs around the village, as he guided the boat to the beach. He jumped out and pulled it a little further up the beach. Then pulled in the strange boat, and waited for assistance.
In a short time several men came running towards the boats, followed by a few children and women. The first men to reach the boats helped Minda to drag them in further up the beach, while asking him questions about the man they found in it.
‘We have to carry him to the hospital, he is dying’ he told the other villagers, without going into detail.
An elderly man bent down into the boat, looked closely at the body and wrapped his fingers around the wrist for a pulse beat.
‘Mmm..’ he paused, stroking his gray-bearded chin, ‘The skin is coming off. It must be due to sunburn and the salt water.’ He looked around. ‘You fellows have to be very careful when you move him’
‘Ramu, bring a large banana leaf.’ He told one of them. ‘Sunder, you find a plank of wood from your front door. Hurry up’ the old man told another, and shooed the children away from the boat.
Minda heaved a sigh of relief as the old man took over the responsibility of the sick stranger. He tried to keep the people away from his boat, refusing to answer all the questions put to him by the women who had now arrived.
Ramu came back with two banana leaves, holding them carefully so it would not get torn. Then Sunder appeared carrying a wooden plank, with the help of another man. It was a plank used to close the front entrance to their house. In their villages, in the night, a plank was just kept across the entrance and no one bothered to secure them closed and no one even had ever thought of locking them.
The plank was lowered on to the beach, next to the boat and the banana leaf was placed on it. The old man directed the younger men to lift the body carefully and place it on the leaf. Kita, who had returned from the hospital, thought he saw an eye-lid flutter for a moment, but did not want to draw any attention to it. He still thought it was a ghost. He watched as the men lifted the plank. They were careful not to shake the sick man too much. Then they started walking slowly towards the village. Kita fell in behind, with the other young boys, wondering why they wanted to bother with a dead man. Several other men walked alongside the makeshift stretcher, to take over the burden when the men who were carrying it got tired. The old man walked alongside the stretcher, keeping an eye on the sick man.
As they walked through the cluster of houses in the small village, women and children watched them, asking the people following, who the man was, and where they found him. Kita saw some of them pointing at him and at his father. Was he a hero now, that he had rescued a man from the sea? Would they be talking about this for years to come? The other boys would be jealous, he thought, and so would the men be, when the hospital allowed his father to keep the other boat.
The hospital was not far from the village. But on the narrow path from the beach, through the palm trees the men found it a little difficult to carry the stretcher and others had to come to their assistance several times. The going became easier when they reached the road running from the town to the hospital.
There was a wall around the hospital premises, and a gate, which was always open. Kita had often wondered why they have a gate if they do not close it. Even though the gate was open, only the men carrying the stretcher, Minda and the old man went inside, while the others waited outside.
Kita had never entered the hospital through this entrance, and had never been inside the main hospital buildings. He had always used the side-entrance, and had gone direct to the kitchen buildings, to hand over the fish.
He had to answer a lot of questions from the men gathered at the gate, who were curious to know what had happened that day. Kita first told them that they had found this dead man, but before he could finish what he was trying to say, he was admonished by some of the men, for saying a man was dead, while he was still alive. Then he simply told them what he had seen and done. He did not tell them anything about how scared he was, not even when he was asked.
After a while Minda came out. Kita, who was watching his face closely, noticed a faint smile.
‘The physicians say he will recover’ he told Kita, ‘but he has lost his eyesight’ he added in a sad voice. ‘He is blind’.
The other men gathered around Minda now, forgetting Kita, wanting to know more details. Kita walked back home slowly, then remembered the boats still on the beach and headed towards them. He untied the two boats, and pulled the boats on to higher ground, one by one. Then he collected the fish they had caught.
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine how the stranger would feel, unable to see anything. When he closed his eyes, he lost his sense of direction. He had to open them again to make sure he was facing towards the land. He tried to walk with his eyes closed, but stumbled immediately over a piece of driftwood, hurting his toes, and he looked around to see if anyone had been observing him. Kita picked up the fish he had dropped, brushed the sand from them before heading back to the hospital, this time from the side entrance to the kitchen. He was tempted to try to see the man they had brought in, but was scared to ask anyone for directions.
Kita ran home from the hospital, wanting to get back before it grew dark, because he was still afraid of the strange boat and the man they had picked up. Could he be a ghost, he still wondered.
‘Will the monks be able to save him?’ Kita asked his father in the evening, seated on their front porch.
‘I am sure he will recover. By now the physicians would have examined him and be able to say how long he had been without food and water and exposed to the sun’
‘Is there anything we could do for him?’
‘We will have to find out from the hospital. If they need some special herbs or materials for the preparation of medicines, I will tell them that we will search for the things’
‘I want to help’ he said again.
‘We will go to the temple and pray to the Bodhisattva’ his mother said.
‘He is not one of our people, is he?’ Minda’s wife asked, a short while later.
‘No. He is not from our country. And not from the mainland. He must be from a far away country, sailing in a trading vessel’ Minda replied.
‘Then what was he doing in a small boat?’
‘That is what I also can’t understand. May be he was trying to escape from the ship, or the captain may have cast him off as punishment’
‘He was very lucky that the boat drifted towards our shores’
‘It is time for you to sleep’ Minda told Kita, ‘we have to start early morning.’ Kita reluctantly went inside the small one roomed house, leaving his parents on the porch.