Himalayan Hospital, Dehradun, India
“Who is with Siddiqui?” an irate voice calls out on the microphone. I flinch briefly at the absence of a respectful of a respectful prefix before my father’s name. My sister nudges me and I rise from the hard plastic chair in the waiting room and swiftly walk towards the voice.
“I am—Mr. Siddiqui’s daughter.” I hoist myself on my toes to reach the speak-hole in the giant polycarbonate window around the mustached man with the angry voice.
“Is there a man with you? Brother? Who’s going to make the payment for Siddiqui’s admission?” he says inspecting my face like a detective. I quickly unzip my cross-body purse and hand him my debit card and he diverts himself to the computer screen in front of him.
I want to yell yes, I have brothers but today we sisters are here to take care of our father. The gender discrimination here is going to be stronger than the antiseptic smell but I am not going to complain or challenge. Not here.
If father wasn’t lying helpless in the steel stretcher, his commanding voice would have put this sexist man in place. He had raised daughters like sons against all societal barriers and kibitzer advices. He had cordoned us off the kitchen and sent us out of town for higher studies—which was unprecedented in the extended family.
“Room number 309 attendant, report to the nurses’ station,” a woman’s voice thundered on the loudspeaker. My sister and I slipped on our shoes and ran before the “I repeat….”
“Is there a man with you? This medicine has to be bought from outside,” the tall head-nurse stared at us from her kohl-rimmed eyes bulging out of her oval glasses. I grab the prescription, ask her where it could be purchased and we run towards the sign saying exit.
“Siddiqui attendant, report to the ICU immediately!” a hurried voice calls out before quickly jumping to the next announcement. We brace ourselves, take off our shoes and enter the otherwise forbidden territory.
We stand face-to-face with a senior resident doctor beside father’s bed. “Is there a man with you? Someone has to sign this high-risk consent form,” he pushed a paper towards us. I detect some intimidating words with translucent eyes and sign at the vacant underlined space with stone fingers. He continues to say something we could neither hear nor discern which ends with “Understand?” We nod our heads like puppets and stare at father’s rising and falling chest beneath the stark white sheet.
My brother helps the driver ease the stretcher into the rickety ambulance. My sister and I sit on the opposite wooden bench. “Is Bhaiyya (brother) not riding with you? Any other man?” the driver asks with an astonishment that could be meted out to a road splitting open autonomously.
“Bhaiyya will follow in his car,” my sister curtly tells him. “You can start and drive carefully.” I am amazed at her mountainous courage to still speak but am thankful she does because my lips are sealed. We pull the bench close, bolstering our father against the bumps and potholes en route his last journey home. We were the women he raised.