This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
When the patient named Victor walked into Dr Desai’s office, the eye specialist thought he was looking at a ghost.
Though it was 7.15 it was still quite muggy. Far better, thought Desai, to stay in his air-conditioned office at the hospital. The work was a tonic: after his surgery and post-op reports, he would leave to check on his admitted patients. And when that was complete, it was sometimes easier to make a bunk at the office and spend the night there instead of returning to his Juhu apartment.
Six years back, firmly entrenched at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Desai would never have contemplated leaving Delhi. But Divya’s death had changed that, and at 50, a man whose expectations and dreams had been shattered overnight, the offer from this hospital had seemed a Godsend. Six years had been enough to establish himself as a leading ophthalmologist, but not enough to erase his anger and bitterness, not enough to dispel the emptiness in his life. At 56, he had built a great reputation and was making a load of money, but all for what?
It was times like this, with too little paperwork or few patients that Desai fell into his spells of despondency. He remembered how he had clutched at this offer. Why had he been so quick to react? Why had he allowed himself no time to mourn his loss, to observe the protocol demanded? His answer had always been the same: had he remained in Delhi he would have somehow have located the man responsible for Divya’s suicide.
And then what? Desai simply didn’t know. One of his recurring doubts was if his negligence had lead to her straying. Heaven knows his job at AIIMS had been demanding. He had devoted himself wholly to the center, never dreaming a man named Victor had entered her life. The first he heard of Victor was after her suicide. In the household of a practicing doctor, she had found the right tablets. Her note explained it all: her affair, her blossoming love for Victor. She discovered she was pregnant and that Victor would suddenly have nothing to do with her. Life without Victor was not an option, she wrote.
Desai had found the photograph later in a drawer. And at the back: Darling Divya, be mine forever, Victor. With the photo he could have found Victor and exacted revenge. He had instead stepped on an aircraft to Mumbai. No room for revenge, he had thought. Until this evening…
Tuesday. 7.15 pm. His office door opened and an elderly gent walked in. “Dr. Ram Desai?”
Ordinarily, Desai would have been annoyed at the intrusion but today he had run out of work.
“My name’s Vellam Ghosh. I’m a director at Delhi Petrochemicals. As you can imagine, I’m a busy man, always on the move.” He sank into a chair. “Obviously it’s an eye problem and since you’re the best, I’ve come to you direct.”
“What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“Not me. My son.” He turned, frowned. “Where the- damn that boy! Victor – get in here!”
A figure appeared at the doorway, hesitating before entering. Desai felt his breath go tight and even though an alarm flared within that he could be suffering a heart attack, the overwhelming thought was: it can’t be…
But it was. be-mine-forever Victor. The man in the photo. Divya’s lover. Her killer. And now he was here, six years on, seeking Desai’s advice. It was clear Victor had no idea who he was, but then he had no reason to, guessed Desai: his inquiries had led Desai to believe that Victor had never been to their flat; apparently their liaison had been conducted elsewhere.
Desai’s attack cleared and he took a deep breath. “So- Victor… what’s the trouble?”
Victor looked away, sullen.
Ghosh clicked his tongue impatiently. “He’s complaining of blurring of his vision. How long back it started he has no idea. I didn’t even know about it till last night when he stumbled at a business meeting. I thought it was alcohol, but he claimed it was his eyes. And we’re going to be in Mumbai for at least 8 days so I thought to get the matter looked into right away. I called friends back home and they were unanimous, you’re the best.”
“I’m not ignoring it.” Ghosh assured his wife over the cell-phone. “Desai’s inside with him, running some tests.” He saw the door open, and Desai beckon to him. “I have to go now.”
Inside the ER, he saw Victor seated. Desai cleared his throat. “I’ll give it to you straight: Victor has a 2-cm malignant melanoma in his left eye that is encroaching on his retina.” Both father and son looked simultaneously confused, turning to each other as if that would help achieve comprehension. Desai went on: “Put plainly, his blurring is being caused by a cancerous growth. The treatment is removal of the full eye.”
“Removal…” Victor’s face had gone deathly pale.
“Our surgical skills are not so advanced to excise just the growth; and even if we could without damaging the retina, we wouldn’t be able to repair the defect. So we cleanly remove the whole eye and replace it with a glass replica.” He paused. “If we do nothing, the cancer will spread to surrounding tissues, even further if it hits a blood vessel.” He took out his phone. “Let me page my number two. She can be here in thirty minutes.”
“Why is that necessary?” demanded Ghosh forcefully. His breathing was labored. “Aren’t you sure of your diagnosis?”
“My evaluation is not at fault, sir. But in light of the harsh news I have delivered, I’d say a second opinion is warranted.”
“That’s not necessary.” Ghosh pressed a hand into his temple. “No less than three specialists recommended you before I came in this evening. If you say there’s a cancer in Victor’s eye that has to be cut out, I believe you.”
“What?” exploded Victor, making the others start. “He’s talking about removing my bloody eye!”
Desai coughed, looking at the father. “I admit I’m surprised by your complacency, your almost total acceptance in this matter. Having a son lose an eye is not an every-day affair…”
Victor turned from doctor to father, disbelieving that they could be discussing the issue so casually.
Ghosh did not reply immediately. He looked contemplative. His eyes lifted to Desai. “My father died because he ignored a cancer of his foot. He paid it no heed because it was so small. When the foot began to swell, it was too late. If there had been someone to warn him, he would have been saved. Spared the absolute hell of his final months.” He turned to Victor, forlorn. “Now it’s happening again – to you. But this is 1999, there are options. If surgery –and the loss of one eye – can save the life of my only son, how can I not embrace the option with all my strength…”
Victor ran a hand through his hair. He looked at Desai. “What about radiotherapy or chemo?”
“Chemo would harm your retina, costing you your vision. And radiotherapy is useless here, like hitting a brick wall with ping-pong balls. Laser is still experimental; again, the heat itself would damage the retina. Surgery’s your best bet: it would be faster, more effective, cleaner and safer. I can introduce you to patients who thought they couldn’t manage without one eye, living comfortably today.”
Victor turned away, tight-faced.
Ghosh looked back at Desai. “How soon can you operate?”
Victor Ghosh looked through his remaining eye at the doctor who had entered his private room. It was late evening and the surgery had taken pace that morning, on schedule.
Dr. Anita was the consultant doing the rounds that day. How was he? She asked, checking his order charts. She hoped Desai had mentioned he might have to watch out for sympathetic blurring in his right eye. It could happen when one eye was removed.
“Isn’t Desai on duty tonight?”
Anita smiled. “I may be his number two but I’m perfectly capable, Victor! Not to worry: if I can’t manage, I can always call him.”
The door opened and Desai stepped in. Seeing Anita, he stopped. “Why are you here, Anita?”
Victor noticed her stiffening. “Night rounds. Since you weren’t on duty-”
Desai was curt. “I’m here now. That will be all, Anita.”
Anita took a deep breath then turned and exited.
Desai smiled at Victor, and for some reason the smile made him uneasy. “Feeling fine, Victor?” he asked softly. “What’s it like to have one eye less? Feeling depressed? Shattered? Thinking suicidal thoughts?” He held up the photo he had found in Divya’s possessions and saw bewilderment spring to Victor’s features.
“Darling Divya. Remember Divya? It’s been six years now… your lover, Victor. You invaded our lives, corrupting her mind. You made her pregnant and then…” His words came out slowly. “She took her own life.
“For 6 years I dreamed of the vengeance I would exact should you ever cross my path. And yesterday, you came to me. This morning, I put you under the knife, Victor.” He looked hard into Victor’s one good eye. “So what did I do, Victor?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “What did I do?” He left the room.
Victor realized he was trembling. His forehead was bathed in sweat, and his breath was coming in sharp gasps. Desai was crazy! What did I do? Victor was suddenly very afraid. He stabbed the call button, terror bubbling up.
The night nurse responded quickly. “Get Anita here now!” blurted out Victor.
Used to pampering to rich patients, she was quick to oblige. Anita was there in under five minutes. “What’s wrong?”
He caught her wrist. If Desai had falsely diagnosed him as having a cancer, then he had removed a perfectly normal eye! “My left eye – which Desai removed. I need to find out if there was anything wrong with it! Can you do that?”
She frowned. “Victor, there was a cancerous growth-”
“But can it be verified?”
“Yes. We send all samples for post-op histology studies. Since yours was a routine case, there was no hurry. The report should be with Pathology.”
“I need to find out…”
Looking troubled, she used the bedside phone to contact Pathology. When she put down the receiver, it was with a shrug. “As expected: malignant melanoma confined to the inner layers of the eye. What were you expecting?”
A normal report, thought Victor, baffled. So the eye was diseased. Desai had removed the correct eye. What was going on?
Anita pulled up a chair. “Talk to me, Victor.”
He told her what Desai had said.
Anita was shaking her head. “I still don’t see Desai doing something like removing a good eye. He’d be caught out. He’s too smart to do something that dumb.”
A thought struck Victor. “My right eye vision is fuzzy.”
“Sympathetic blurring.” said Anita. “Like I told you.”
“But what if there’s something wrong with my right eye too?”
She sighed. “Like – cancer? Okay, Victor, I have my scope – I’ll check.” When that was done, she smiled. “Perfectly normal.”
“The implant!” he said suddenly. His hand went to his glass eye. “What if he contaminated it?”
Anita shook her head. “Every object going into the OT is sterile. The OT staff take care of that.”
Victor looked agitated. “What has he done? He says it’s something terrible but everything seems okay…” His eyes widened. “My God! He’s planted seeds of doubt in my mind. He knows I will check and find it all normal but still continue to worry. He’s trying to drive me mad!”
Anita looked doubtful. “That would be perfect for him. No proof of foul play. But you seem sane – if that’s his plan, it’s not going to work.”
He nodded. “But it’s brilliant. Imagine my state: I’ve lost an eye and suddenly he frightens me witless. If you hadn’t been there, doctor…”
“You’ll be discharged tomorrow. My advice: go home, find a doctor you trust. Forget Desai and his threats. It will be your word against his.”
On the way back to the hospital five days later, Victor told his father about Desai and the threat he had made. Ghosh looked at his son in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
Victor explained how Anita had come to his assistance, and they had discounted Desai’s words as a bluff. Ghosh looked troubled. “If that’s the case, why is your right eye troubling you now?”
At the hospital, they headed to the office of the Director and unloaded the story on him.
The Director was clearly disbelieving. “I’m going to call Desai up here.”
Ghosh nodded. “Get Anita too.”
Desai reached first. He was adamant. “I have done nothing even remotely improper.”
Anita walked in, halting as she saw who was there.
Ghosh beckoned to her. “I want you to check Victor’s right eye.”
The Director nodded, his expression carefully neutral.
She took out her scope and approached Victor. The silence was so complete that everyone in the cabin heard her gasp. She straightened slowly. Her face was drawn. “This can’t be.” She said hoarsely.
Ghosh took an unsteady step toward her, hands clenched. “What?”
“Malignant melanoma, impinging on the retina.”
The Director sucked in his breath. Ghosh sank into a chair, shattered. The Director looked stricken, looking from Anita to Victor’s faces. Desai left the room.
Then Victor started laughing. “Payback. This is payback. Both my eyes! All because of that bitch, Divya! So ironic really, she was nothing to me.” He stumbled out of the room. Calling his name, Ghosh followed.
The Director stared at Anita, who returned his stare stolidly. He picked up the receiver. “Give me Pathology. Hello- Sinha? I want to know about a patient’s specimen. Victor Ghosh – yes, that’s right. Who prepared the slide? Ram Desai – I see. Is it still there? Please check. And is there any gross specimen leftover? Incinerated…” He cut the line.
“I begin to see how this happened: the cancer was always on the right side. The left eye was normal. Desai diagnosed the fault in the left side and removes that eye. He takes the eye to Path and citing ‘special interest’ in this case, asks to perform the studies himself. He destroys the tissue, and prepares a slide of MM from another patient’s sample. His tracks are covered. When Victor asks you to check, you are told yes, the left eye did have a cancer. You then check his right eye, the affected one and you tell Victor it’s normal.
“Victor returns, right side vision bad. You check him again, and now he has a growth in the right eye, which wasn’t there 5 days ago.” He lowered his gaze. “You’ve ruined that man’s life. As good as killed him…”
She found Desai in his office, at his desk. Closing the door, she was only a foot away when she realized something was wrong. She rushed to him and felt for a pulse. There was none.
She knew instinctively it was his heart. Two attacks in four years. His time had finally run out.
She sank to her knees, and turned the chair toward her. A she did, his hand fell to his lap. In it was a newspaper cutting, dated six years back. Anita did not have to look at it; she knew the words by heart.
Doctors’ daughter suicide: Divya Desai, 24, daughter of noted eye specialists Dr. Ram Desai and Dr. Anita Desai, was found…
With a heavy heart, Anita Desai put her arms around her husband and began to cry.