The cars parked on the narrow lane have begun to nod in the surge of jostling men who have come to see the fallen building. Behind the walls that flank the lane, in the tall residential buildings, whole families have gathered in their little balconies, looking in one direction. The ones on the higher floors can probably see the rubble.
Akhila walks towards the knot of fire engines, ambulances and television vans. She can see the dwarf mountain of debris, about twenty feet high. There are swarms of firemen and civilians on the debris, shovelling. Near the barricade there is a tight group of reporters and photographers. She stands with the journalists so that they can smuggle her in.
There are about a hundred people inside the compound, most of them residents or relatives and friends of people who are still trapped in the debris. Some of the survivors have fresh bandages on their bodies. On the debris mound, as firemen and residents dig with machines and rods, fights break out between them. The firemen are only appearing to search for survivors to keep everyone happy. They really do not believe they will find one. At least not with shovels, rods and ropes.
Then there is a development. Soldiers arrive and swarm the debris. They are wearing huge military-green headphones, and life-detectors as backpacks. They are just a dozen, but they look as though they have stood on the ruins of lives before, several times. They walk around the debris with metre-long probes. The crowd murmurs, then a sudden silence falls. A soldier stands on a massive slab of concrete. He is still for several seconds, then he adjusts his headphones. Two soldiers rush to his side.
There is a live person in the debris.
All activity is concentrated around a small dark hole on the slope of the debris hill. The soldiers have taken hours to make the tunnel. Three soldiers have been taking turns crawling in and out with heavy equipment.
A soldier who had crawled into the tunnel about thirty minutes ago is yet to emerge. When he finally appears he is covered in white dust. He almost runs to the leader of the squad from the Air Defence Unit, a large jovial man whom everybody calls Major.
‘There is a man, sir,’ he says. ‘About thirty feet into the tunnel, there is a man lodged in the debris. He is conscious but he is in a very bad way. He is in a lying position, sir, his back resting on a fridge, legs straight. A bit of him is buried in debris. Across his legs is a heavy concrete beam. Between the beam and his legs is the leg of another person. A smashed leg. It looks like the leg of a woman, it is wearing an anklet. Must be his wife. The rest of her is buried in the debris. She is surely dead, sir. I think he knows. His eyes are open, sir, he is half-conscious and speaks a few words. I could not get close to him, sir, because there was no space for me to go past the concrete beam on top of his legs. I can see his face but I cannot reach him. But, sir, I know he is mumbling something. I can’t hear him but he is saying something.’
‘What do you suggest?’ the Major asks.
‘We should begin scraping the beam to extricate him. Then we tie a rope around his feet and pull him out.’
‘Let’s get down to it, then.’
‘There is a problem, sir. He has been in there for nearly six hours without food or water. We need to first feed him glucose. I will not be able to reach his mouth. I can only throw the packets on him, but I don’t know if he can move his hands or if he can even follow instructions. I think he has to be fed, sir, I don’t think he has much time.’
‘You’re saying a soldier would not be able to crawl over the beam and reach his mouth.’
‘There is not much space between the beam and the roof of the tunnel, sir. But a little boy would be able to crawl in.’
‘We can’t send a minor in.’
‘We can send a little man in, sir, a civilian midget or something? A civilian midget who is very fit. Or…’ The soldier’s face brightens. ‘Or a woman, sir. A strong, small woman might be able to crawl over to him, sir, but if she is not very flexible she could get stuck inside.’
The Major makes some calls. There are no women in the first place in the reserve force of the Indian army in the entire state of Maharashtra. There are no women in the city’s fire department. They now try to trace a female cop.
Akhila takes another look at the dark hole. It is terrifying. There is a good chance that the rescuer, too, will be buried. It would take just another mild tremor. But there is a man deep inside, he is dying slowly, fully aware of that perhaps and of the fact that his wife’s lifeless limb is over him, and he has no space even to thrash about in fear and desperation. She can give him a long shot at survival. All she needs is courage. Or she can just walk away, which would be a reasonable decision, even a smart decision.
She goes to the Major and says, ‘I can try.’
The Major takes a good look at her. She had thought she would have to be persuasive but the man does not dismiss any idea thrown at him.
‘She might be able to crawl over the beam, sir,’ the soldier says. ‘She is small.’
‘Are you sure?’ the Major asks her.
‘I’m an athlete, a trained rock climber, a doctor.’
‘You’re a doctor?’
‘I’ve never practised but I am as good as a doctor.’
‘Crawling into a tunnel is not as easy as it seems,’ the Major says. ‘Things can collapse, things can fall on your head. There is probably a gas leak.’
‘I’ll do this, Major.’
‘How many push-ups can you do?’ the Major asks. She laughs. He is serious.
‘Twenty in one go,’ she says, which is a fact.
‘Man push-ups or woman push-ups?’
The soldiers laugh, but that is because they believe her.
The lean soldier draws a diagram for her. The tunnel is a gentle gradient of varying width, but towards the end it gets a bit steep and at the very end it gets so narrow that she will be able to pass only sideways. Then there is the pod where the man is stuck under the beam. Once she clears the beam, there will be just enough space for her to crawl over him and feed him. The good news is that the soldiers are carrying impressive Israeli medical kits. They even have bone marrow syringes. This means she does not have to find the man’s veins to give him intravenous injections.
The soldiers fit Akhila with a helmet, a headlamp, a walkie-talkie and they attach a small bag to her stomach that contains fluids and medication. There is a discussion among the soldiers about tying a rope around her waist, but they eventually decide against it. She is warned several times that she cannot be in the tunnel for more than a few minutes because the oxygen levels are very low. As she kneels outside the hole, the Major says, ‘Forgot to ask you. Do you know how to crawl backwards?’
Akhila crawls into the hole, scraping her arms on the rough debris. This is a rare reversal of social roles in the republic. A few feet into the tunnel her shoulders begin to ache. There is a powerful stink in the tunnel. The air is particulate. There are electric wires hanging from the roof and she hopes the firemen cut off the power supply. Her chest moves over something stiff, something hard and rubbery in a very human way. She feels as though she is being groped. She looks down to train the headlamp on the object.
It is the hand of a buried human.
In her panic she bangs her helmet against the roof and thrashes her body about trying to turn around. She begins to feel giddy. She stops moving, and calms her breath. It has been only seconds since she entered the tunnel and if she passes out now it will be a while before the soldiers realize something has gone wrong.
She begins a slow backward crawl. When she emerges from the tunnel the soldiers help her out and make her lie on her back. She glares at the soldier who had drawn her the map of the tunnel. ‘There is a human hand jutting out, you know,’ she says.
‘Yes, yes,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I forgot to tell you.’
‘Tell me everything.’
‘That’s the only thing I forgot.’
They are surprised when she prepares to crawl again. This time she is a bit faster. She shuts her eyes to endure the moment when her body will slither over the hand. The moment passes, she crawls on. She hopes the roof will not cave in. Everything above her is an accidental arrangement of loose slabs of concrete.
Her walkie-talkie crackles. ‘Okay?’ the Major asks.
‘Okay,’ she says.
‘As you get deeper, we may not be able to communicate,’ he says.
When she spots the far end of the tunnel she realizes that it is narrower than she had imagined. A few feet from the crevice she sees the man in the light of her headlamp. He is exactly as the soldier had mentioned. Lying with his legs straight, a concrete beam over his knees. Squashed between him and the beam is the naked leg of a woman. The rest of the woman, if it exists, is buried. The man’s head is covered in dust and blood. He has a moustache. His head is raised, which is lucky for him. His aimless eyes stare at a spot that has no special meaning. He looks calm and lost. There is not much room above him. This has to be the worst that can happen to a person.
When she reaches his naked feet, she shouts, ‘Can you hear me?’ She says it first in Marathi, then in Hindi. No real Indian would use English to break ice with a man buried in debris; it is as though such calamities can happen only to the vernacular. His lips move but she cannot hear him.
His feet are cold and the pulse is slow, but not as slow as she had feared. She has a clear view of only inches of his lower limbs. The rest is under the beam. She tries not to look at the leg of the woman, but then she stares at it to get used to the corpse. She wonders if the woman was his wife or his child.
She feels a portion of the man’s tibia, sprays antiseptic and stabs the bone marrow needle into the bone. And she twists the syringe’s grip until she feels the needle has reached the marrow. There is no reaction from him. He continues to mumble as she slowly injects the saline. She repeats the procedure on the other leg.
She takes out a packet of glucose water from her pouch and throws it over the beam, to his side. She discards the pouch, and crawls over the beam one leg first. She clears the gap just about, slithers on to the other side of the beam, and crawls over the man. There is space just for two tightly squeezed bodies. She has never crawled over a man without a sexual mission.
His body does not appear to register the weight, but his lips stop moving. She does not know the extent of his internal injuries; she might be killing him by bearing down on him. Her face is now just an inch over his. His eyes are wide open but they are not focused on her. It is as though they are observing something deep within himself. Despite the layers of dust and dried blood, she can tell he is not very old. He is probably in his late thirties or early forties, and in good shape.
‘Can you hear me,’ she says in Hindi. ‘What’s your name?’
Maybe he is from the south? She speaks to him in Tamil, and in such bad Malayalam that it would be a torture to a dying Malayalee.
‘Blink if you hear me,’ she says.
He does not respond. His breath is shallow. She cannot be on top of him for too long. She is also blocking his air supply. She squeezes the glucose from the Tetra Pak into his mouth. He drinks, which is a relief. His body figures that sugar has arrived and it shudders in desperation. He gulps it down, and begins to mumble. He is certainly saying something. His voice has no strength, he speaks from his lips, there is no movement in his throat. He is probably saying, ‘Get off my chest, bitch.’ She puts her ear to his mouth.
‘What time is it? What time is it? What time is it?’ That’s what he says. He mumbles in lousy Mumbaiya Hindi with a heavy slur, but he says ‘time’ in English.
It is odd that he must ask her a question. Of all the things he can say, a question. There is no doubt in her mind that he is delirious and non-responsive to instructions. He is in no position to follow commands, let alone ask a question, because a question seeks an answer and his mind cannot be at that level of communication. Yet he asks, again, ‘What time is it?’
‘One in the afternoon,’ she says.
As she had expected, he repeats the question. She yells the answer. That makes him go silent. But then he repeats the question one more time. Then his lips deliver a different set of words. She puts her ear to his mouth. At first she feels he is not making any sense, but slowly his words gather force and meaning.
From by Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph. Used with the permission of the publisher, Myriad Editions. Copyright © 2019 by Manu Joseph.