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The Tale of a Burning Jacket

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

It was the evening of the first day of January 2019, when we first heard about him.

A young relative of a staff on campus, had slept off around a fire in front of his home, wearing a jacket.

The Church services for auspiciously entering the new year had just gotten over, and the family had assembled round the fire for some fun and laughter. One-by-one, as the night crept on, slept off around the fire. This was the norm, on cold winter nights in the villages here. However, for this 30 year old man, unmarried, devoted to his parents and to their fields and cultivation - that night would always be a nightmare. During the long spell of the cold night, nobody knows exactly when the sparks caught onto *Ajit Bhai's jacket & he woke up screaming in terror and pain. By the time his relatives had extinguished the fire, his back was a testimony to the ravages of flames.  The new jacket had melted off his back. We had to go out-of-station the next day morning, and so were unable to visit him. We however, conveyed the matter firmly to Anil Bhai (our staff) that *Ajit Bhai needed regular dressings and prompt treatment.  It was nearly 4 weeks later (we returned in 3 weeks) to be truthful, that we remembered to inquire after *Ajit Bhai. Anil Bhai hesitantly told us that they weren't taking care of *Ajit Bhai well, and that he wasn't going for any dressings whatsoever. The same evening we decided to check on *Ajit Bhai, without any further ado. We made the trip to his village nearly 12 kms away in our small Alto, as we knew that the family had no means of transport. Alighting before a rather tall house, with thatched roof and mud-caked walls, the first thing we noticed as *Ajit Bhai walked towards us, was how frail and old he looked. The time was 18:40. As he slowly came out of the house and settled on a coir-rope bed on the verandah, all we could see was that *Ajit Bhai had not just become skeletal, but there was an eerie yellowish tinge to his skin. *Ajit Bhai had become anemic and jaundiced, to boot!!! As he unwrapped the tattered old saree around his chest and back, it was the smell that hit us first, even before we saw his charred back. 4 weeks, a month... time wasn't just rushing by, but for*Ajit Bhai, it was like time stood still. His condition was getting worse, day after day..  With no electricity in the house, no earnings now with this misfortune... the family was like... had just given UP (Pun intended - as they felt that Him Above (UP) would heal him, if He wishes!) With infection spreading wide, combined with the lack of hygiene and nutrition, it wouldn't be long before *Ajit Bhai would succumb to the infection ravaging his back. We gently explained that he needed a dressing done, ASAP, along with strong antibiotic coverage to start the healing process.  *Ajit Bhai just sat mum, not an expression crossed his face, the entire discussion. Finally Azariah addressed him, and that was when he looked up, with the first flicker of emotion and spoke softly, "Wouldn't it pain?" THAT was his fear, that he wouldn't be able to bear the pain of clearing up the charred flesh to apply the silver sulphide ointment, all over his back. We assured him that we would be as gentle as possible, but pain was inevitable, even with pain-killers. Finally he agreed to be taken along to the nearby Health Centre to get his back cleaned up. The time was 19:35. It was in the car, his older brother explained that they had heard that the Govt PHCs wouldn't treat *Ajit Bhai and would only refer him to higher centres for treatment. This prevented them from seeking any treatment, as they wouldn't be able to afford the travel and expenses of that journey. So they relied on the plants and herbs in the forests nearby, that was now liberally coated (and putrefying) over his back. When we reached the Health Clinic, there were already 3 patients waiting and the lone nurse seemed too harassed to be bothered. It would be a long wait. It was then Azariah decided to do the dressing himself. After seeking the necessary permission and arranging the instruments and materials necessary for the procedure, he started the job, with Anil Bhai. The time was 19:50.  It was a slow and painful task, for *Ajit Bhai and the doctor and his assistant. Clearing up the dried herbal paste that now mixed with the pus-oozing sores...that took more than an hour. Then came the part of excising the dead tissue and scabs that had formed over his back. At 21:15, when I peeked in for a look, *Ajit Bhai's back seemed like a raw mass of flesh in varying grades of pink, tinged with black eschars. The pain must have been ineffable, but the faith that he placed in us was humbling.

Many-a-time, he would clamp down hard on any sounds escaping from his mouth, but as I held the torch for Azar to see better, I could see *Ajit Bhai arching his back in pain. Finally at 22:05, his back and the back of his fore-arms were cleaned and dried. Now all that was left, was to apply the medicine and roll him up, literally, in cotton. Taking a minute to stretch and decide how economically and prudently to use the available cotton bandages, Azar then started wrapping *Ajit Bhai with cotton gauze-pads first, to soak up the serum that would ooze out of his burns on healing. Finally wrapped in cotton gauze, looking like an extremely frail Mummy of Egypt, *Ajit Bhai finally stepped down from the table. The time was 22:30. The saline drip, along with the analgesic infusion, was long over.  It was now time for *Ajit Bhai to go home, and for us too. We dropped him back at his home, with all the medications and strict instructions to go for atleast alternate-day dressings. Anil Bhai was requested to visit him twice a week to monitor his healing. Just the last day (nearly 2.5 weeks later), we visited *Ajit Bhai to finally see him for ourselves. It was naught but His Grace, that we could see a different *Ajit Bhai, now smiling slightly at us. He looked much healthier, with all the yellow tinges having disappeared from around his mouth and eyes. It was as we left, along the farther side of the field, that I noticed the remaining melted sad vestiges of that new jacket.  And so ends the tale of a Burning Jacket.

* Name changed for privacy


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