In the wee small hours of Wednesday morning, before the cock could sing its cock-a-doodle-doo, the alarm went offin a harsh crescendo, and Kushal Sharma, for the umpteenth time, forced himself awake. Hammering the clock shut with his hand, he sat on the edge of his bed, his drooping eyelids battlingbravely against the dreamy waves of sleep; the temptingbed and pillow seemed to be inviting him back into their cosiness.
“C’mon, Kushal…today’s the last,” he mumbled to himselfas he stood, stretched and yawned widely, cracking his knuckles.“After that, I’ll doze off like Kumbhkarana!”
Reaching out for his rimless glasses on the stool beside his bed, he put them on, walked over to the window, and gazed out up at the greyish, predawn May sky; a surreal sight: Few stars dimlydotting the skyalong with the fading moon, and far in the eastern horizon, a tinge of red could be seen.
Stepping into the bathroom just outside his room, Kushal looked at the mirror. An unshaven,black-haired, twenty-two-year-old boy with round shoulders stared back. Young Baba!His mother often teased him. What with dense stubble, grown over the past six months, and a funny, half-formed goatee, if he put on saintly clothes, he would definitely pass as a young yogi! He chuckled at the thought as he washed his face.
Back into the room, he glanced at his study table: piles of books, notes and copies lay strewn in a tangled mess along with torn papers, pens, pencils and other odds and ends. As he sat in his favourite wooden armchair and opened a fat book titled Indirect Taxation, he felt a thrill of trepidation with a twinge of excitement: Today, after months of sleepless nights and restless days, it would all be over!All’s well that endswell, he recited the mantra in his head and launched himself to revise the eighth and the last subject.
It was Kushal’s long awaited dream to prefix his name with the ornamental two letters: CA, abbreviated form of Chartered Accountant. Chartered Accountancy Final Exam was nothing less than plunging into the hot crucible. As Kushal had secured all-India ranks in the foundation and inter-level exams, expectations of his family, friends and mentors were naturally high. And so was the consequential burden to prove his mettle once more. The eight papers of CA Final were gargantuan like giants, and required oceanic depths of expertise and tact. So far, he had fared well in the seven papers; the last paper, Indirect Taxation, was to his liking and he was confident he’d score high.
It was five am and the exam would begin at two in the afternoon. As Kushal began revising as much as he could, he muttered his favourite quote: “Throw yourself in,if you wannawin!”
Well, little did Kushal know that life would throw him into a tangy twist just few hours from now…
“All the best, son!”
“Make sure to answer all the questions! Complete the paper on time!”
“Even if you don’t know, at least write something!”
“Have you taken your calculator? Your admit card? Your wristwatch? Okay, all the very best!”
With these blessings and blandishments from his well-wishers, Kushal, feeling all edgy yet excited, trotted down the stairs towards the parking. Slinging the bag onto his back, he mounted his bike, put on his helmet, mouthed a practiced one-line prayer, revved up the engine and rode away. It was a thirty-minute journey from his home to Guwahati Commerce College of Assam. The day was bright, traffic thankfully less, and Kushal began mentally revising tough formulas of custom-duty, a habit strongly criticized by his parents who often scolded him to keep his eyes and mind on the road, particularly in a congested city like Guwahati.
Valuation under section nine…hmmm… Kushal mused, as he took a right turn onto the main road. That’s pretty ugly formula! Yeah…ex-price value has to be added to –
It happened all of a sudden. Kushal felt his bike skid obliquelyand before he could even begin to fathom, the bike collided with the divider with a sickening crash. He was thrown into the air, his bag flying along, all sense of direction lost, and landed on the hard road in a heap, his helmet rolling off.
Kushal lay frozen with raw fear, his senses numb, even as he felt a throbbing pain in his left leg. As senses came pouring in, he saw people around him, shouting and muttering. Two men pulled him to his feet and helped him sit on a bench of a nearby tea-shop; a few yards ahead, a man picked up his bike that was blocking the way and parked it safely off the road, near the footpath.
“You all right, chap? The road was slippery…you should’ve noticed…” someone was saying even as another one handed him a water bottle, his bag and helmet.
“Yeah…I am…am fine…just my leg…” Kushal said, accepting the water bottle, quite dazed by the accident.
He profusely thanked the good Samaritans for their help. Soon, the crowd dispersed.
Kushal took a deep breath to calm his nerves while thanking the heavens with all his heart; the accident could have been a fatal one but there he was, miraculously alive, without even a scratch! He glanced at his watch: 1.20 PM. It would take him only ten minutes to reach the college. He stood up only to find his left leg still aching dully. Though bearable, the pain would be a troublesome distraction in the exam, so he thoughtto take a painkiller.
He looked around for a pharmacy but couldn’t see any. There was a pharmacy, he remembered, just outside his college. So he prepared tomount his bike when his eyes fell at the City Hospital building just opposite the road. Every hospital, he was sure, had an in-house pharmacy that could be used by the patients and outsiders alike. Deciding to buy the painkiller from there, he crossed the road, entered the hospital’s waiting lobby and, sure enough, there was a pharmacy. He walked over to the counter and quickly told his condition to the pharmacist who went away looking for the pills.
At that moment, Kushal saw an old, petite, cadaverous woman in tattered sari walk sluggishly to the counter. Probably in her sixties, she looked extremely pale;her haggard, wrinkledface, sunken eyes and chapped lips made her look quite ill. As she came nearer, Kushal thought that there was something very melancholy about her as if she had been suffering for a long time. And as if to accentuate this observation, she suddenly began to sob, tears streaming down her pale cheeks.
“Get a grip on yourself,Mataji.” The pharmacist saidsolicitously to the woman, as he handed Kushal the medicine. “We all are trying…there’ll surely be a way out.” Apparently, the pharmacist knew of her predicament.
“Wh-what wr-wrong has my son d-done to anyone?” the woman stammered in weak voice, “m-my only son…please…Suresh ji…f-find someone…anyone…” the woman wiped her tears on the back of her hand and suddenly beseeched, “won’t the doctors help? They m-must know someone! Please! Talk to them! P-Please…”
“I’ve talked, Mataji,” the pharmacist, Suresh, said, “What more can I do? Indeed, there must be someone…you’ve to wait –
“Wait…no…m-my son…if anything happens to him…no, no…God will help, God will help, God must…” she kept saying to nobody in particular, shaking her head and wobbling back and forth fretfully, like a marionette. Muttering to herself, she shuffled away towards the waiting lobby.
Kushal, who had been watching, asked curiously, “Who’s she? What happened to her son?”
“Mrs. Kalita…” Suresh said with a sigh. “Poor, old widow; she lives in my locality, works as a maid; her son, a young boy, had a road accident two days back; a car nearly ran over him…lost much blood. She’s trying to find a donor. Blood group: AB negative, a very rare type. So unfortunate….even the blood banks can hardly help…you see, her son is her only family…” Suresh’s voice trailed away.
Kushal paid for the medicine and walked out of the hospital, deep in thought. He glanced at his watch: 1.25 PM.
“Forget about it. I’ve an exam to give,” Kushal muttered as he tore the wrap and took out a pill. But for all in the world, he couldn’t take his mind off the helpless woman. He wanted to help and yet at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to reach the college; time was running out.
Take the pill, keep calm, go the college, you don’t have much time…his mind told him even as his heart whispered:you ought to help her…don’t you see the pattern?God had planned for this…
Kushal knew very well that his own blood group was AB negative, the only one in his family.
A conflict raged inside him. The blood donation process would take at least fifteen minutes which meant he would miss his exam. No, no…never…How could he ignore the exam…it wasn’t just an exam; it was his career, his ambition, his dream…If he missed this paper, all his previous seven papers would become invalid. He should be rushing to the college…
Then another idea, a wonderful idea, struck him. Of course, he could donate the blood after his exams were over. Oh yes, that was it! After the exam, he would come straight here. But first, he must tell her.
Ignoring the pain in his leg, Kushal dashed inside the waiting lobby to find the woman, Mrs Kalita. She was there, sitting in a chair, her face in her hands.
“Mrs Kalita…” Kushal spoke.
She stirred and looked up blearily, her eyes unfocused and bloodshot. Kushal quickly explained how he could help her.
Mrs Kalita leapt up so suddenly that Kushal recoiled. A drastic change came over her. Her eyes shining brightly with hope, she implored, “I beg you! Oh…Oh God!…Oh! Please help my son! I beg you…” She folded her hands and began to cry. People around watched.
“Mataji…” Kushal began, “I-I told you, I’d come straight from my college…”
“Mrs Kalita!” A high-pitched voice rang forth. A middle-aged nurse was striding briskly towards them.
“Your son’s condition is weakening…if the blood is not arranged soon…it mightbe, God forbid, too late…” she warned.
“No! No… He’s there…” Mrs Kalitaseized Kushal by the shoulder and pleaded, “Help this poor, old mother! M-my son…he-he is my only family…I’d die…”
“Are you the donor?” the nurse asked.
“Yeah, but –
“Well, better hurry up, time’s running out,” the nurse said tersely.
Kushal found himself in a great dilemma. The idea of missing out his career-deciding exam was unbearable. But seeing this old mother in anguish, knowing that her son was hovering between life and death, Kushal was lost for words.If I come here after exam and it is too late, I’d never be able to forgive myself! Guilt gripped him at this thought.
“I beg for your help…I-I will give you everything I have…. I beg…” the old woman went on, folding her hands in supplication.
“Okay, okay…please don’t cry, Mataji…I will…I will donate…” Kushal said, holding her gnarled hands with assurance.
As the nurse led them through a corridor, Kushal thought to call his parents but he didn’t want to trouble them; instead, hecalled his close friend, Rahul, another examinee, and told him everything. Rahul, who had already reached the college, agreed to talk to the principal for granting any exception for this urgency although there wasn’t any surety. CA regulations were extremely strict; even arriving late for unavoidable reasons was no exception.
Halfway, Mrs Kalitastopped in front of an ICU-room and peered through the round-shaped glass on the door. Kushal followed and saw a young boy lying on ventilator, heavily bandaged.
The nurse beckoned them urgently and led them past, into a blood collection chamber. After a quick paperwork, Kushal had his blood and blood-pressure checked, and laid himself on the bed, whereby a syringe was injected into his forearm. His blood siphoned off through a tube into the blood-holder. Mrs Kalitasat in a chair beside him, closed her eyes and began mouthing a silent prayer.
Now and again, Kushal kept glancing at his watch. He closed his eyes, trying to revise those formulas but couldn’t. He wouldn’t be able to reach the exam hall on time. Even if he was allowed, he wondered if he could fare well. His focus and peace of mind had been put off.
Had I been alert on road, this wouldn’t have happened! He admonished himself. But as he saw Mrs Kalita chanting silently, a curious thought occurred to him: But then the woman might not have found a blood donor...He was impressed by the woman’s unwavering faith on God and awed by how the divine forces had answered her prayers. I think that’s the way life is; funny and unpredictable. He remembered his father’s wise words long ago: Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and questions papers are not set.
After sometime, Kushal again checked his watch and realised with an uneasy jolt it was 2 ‘o’ clock. The exam had started! The question papers had been circulated; his friends had begun writing their answers, perhaps wondering where he was. Restless, fidgety, he looked up at the blood-holder; it was almost full. As if on cue, the nurse breezed into the room, removed the syringe and gave him a glass of glucose water and few snacks which he took in hurriedly.
“Feeling alright? Weak? No? Ok, that’s fine…” the nurse said as Kushal got off the bed and swung his back on his back to leave. Mrs Kalita stood up too and simply folded her hands in wordless gratitude, smiling tremulously. Feeling a sudden rush of compassion for her, Kushal held her hands, looked into her eyes and said gently, “Don’t worry, Mataji…your son will be fine…don’t worry…” Kushal earnestly wished for her son’s quick recovery.
“God sent you to help me…you are a good soul…God will help…” she muttered, placing her hand on Kushal’s head in blessing.
Bidding her adieu, Kushal sprinted out of the hospital towards his bike; his legs ached but he didn’t care about the pills anymore.He mounted his bike when his phone rang. It was Rahul.
Rahul?He was supposed to be giving his exam, how could he call in the middle of the exam? Gingerly, Kushal took the call.
“Kushal! Where are you?” Rahul sounded excited for some reason. Before Kushal can answer, Rahul spoke, “Guess what?! The exam has been called off!”
The words took a moment to register before Kushal gasped, “Wh-What?” He could not believe his ears. Exam called off?
“Yes!” Rahul went on animatedly. “The paper leaked out in another examination centre. The CA institute took action, postponed the exam until the next week! Good heavens! What a surprise! Isn’t it? I haven’t had the time to revise the service-tax chapter. Now I can! Ha! Okay…call you later, buddy!” He hung up.
Dazed, Kushal began absorbing what he had just heard. A second later, an overwhelming wave of relief washed over him. As he drove home, pondering over the bizarre turn of events, he felt oddly happy as if he had just cleared a tough exam with flying colours…