A light sleeper, Ninka (personal aide to the Chief of Ministers), was awake after only two rings. His hand reached for his phone. “Hello.”
“Ninka, this is the Healthfulness Minister speaking.”
Ninka opened both his eyes at the same time. “Sir?”
“You must wake the CM. There is an emergency.” declared the Healthfulness Minister.
“Sir, what’s the emergency?”
The HM cleared his voice. “Well, a couple of hours ago, the Captain of Ports received a distress call from a foreign based cruise liner, the Gluteas Maximus. She was en route to Mumbai from down south; Goa was not intended as a port of call. So the captain of GM suddenly calls up for help. They’re off our coastline and they have about fifteen cases of fever with chills. Their medical officer is overloaded, he can’t handle the crisis, and they want to off-load their patients to shore hospitals for evaluation and treatment.
“Now our Captain of Ports is a sharp lad. He’s loaded with brains, all the way up to the big toes of his feet. Uh – he’s my brother-in-law, by the way… So, he’s thinking: fever, cruise liner, that desperate tone of the Captain’s voice. Hey-y-y, swine flu!”
“Swine flu, Ninka! What if all those sick passengers are actually down with swine flu? Oh, he’s a smart one, our Captain of Ports – my sister’s so lucky! I mean, I wouldn’t have ever thought of swine flu – and I’m the bloody Healthfulness Minister!” He chuckled down the line, making an array of sounds that reminded Ninka of – well, swine. “So he tells the liner Captain that he doesn’t have that kind of authority, and that considering the fact that the corridors of power are all fast asleep and that it would actually be close to noon before anything actually started to get moving, shouldn’t the liner Captain make a run for Mumbai where there are better medical facilities available?” He sighed.
“What a man, our Captain of Ports: trying to spare our State from a terrible crisis in the making, using his grey matter in the manner our Maker intended. Even I wouldn’t have thought of trying a clever ploy like that, and I’m a damn Minister!” His frenzied chortling suddenly gave way to a grave tone. “But then that ship Captain says he can’t move his vessel. The propellers have broken down, and he’s anchored Gluteas Maximus off our shore. Our Captain of Ports has been outwitted; there is nothing more he can do, except to call me.” He exhaled. “Ninka – we need the CM…”
When the CM was fully awake, he snapped his fingers at Ninka. “We need to have a crisis management meeting. We’ll need the Healthfulness Minister, the Lawfulness Minister, Minister for Surface Transportation.”
“Sir, what about the Minister for Ports?”
The CM looked surprised. “Minister for Ports? We have a Minister for Ports? Since when do we need a Minister for Ports? Make a note, Ninka: sack the Port Minister and transfer the portfolio to me. If there’s any port wine-tasting to be done, I’ll be the man to do it.”
“Uh, sir – ports. As in harbours and airports?”
The CM frowned. “You trying to be funny, Ninka? All this wordplay at 4 AM is not making me laugh.” More knitting of temples. “There’s someone important we left out…”
Ninka looked thoughtful. “The Deputy CM?”
“Someone important, Ninka…”
The Healthfulness Minister got there first. The Lawfulness Minister stumbled in, disheveled and groggy.
The Minister for Ports looked shocked. “What happened? You looked like you’ve been hit by a hurricane!”
The Lawfulness Minister sighed. “I’ve been up all night. Lost just about everything except my clothes. I’m lucky I’ve still have my dignity left…”
The CM winced. “Ah, we’d rather you spare us the details of your sex-life, okay?”
The LM shook his head. “I’m talking about gambling… Those damn casinos!”
The CM cleared his throat. “Let’s get back to our crisis. We need to decide how to respond. First, do we allow these sick people to get to shore?”
The Surface Transport Minister rose, indignant. “Sir, I would rather allow all my blood to be spilled that let a single swine-flu passenger disembark to infect the shores of my beloved land.”
The Healthfulness Minister stared at him stonily. “There are no television cameras here, you mutt, and no reporters either. And speaking of spilled blood, you’ve never turned up at even one of the blood donation drives my department has conducted in the Secretariat…”
“How do we know the liner captain won’t sneakily try to launch lifeboats with the sick passengers?” said the Lawfulness Minister suddenly. “We should have somebody out there watching the vessel!”
“Well, you’re the Lawfulness Minister. Get the Harbour Patrol out there.”
The Lawfulness Minister looked cross. ‘What Harbour Patrol? This isn’t Miami, USA. All I have are four rubber dinghies!”
“So get them out on the water. They could be launching the lifeboats as we speak!”
“But all I have are the dinghies. We don’t actually have anyone to drive them, you know…”
“Well, what about the Coast Guard? Ask them for sailors!”
The Lawfulness Minister was indignant. “Hey, if you think I’m giving those blue-jacketed flunkies my rubber dinghies-”
“The Coast Guard has got big, proper ships. And they’ve got helicopters too.” The CM turned to Ninka. “Get the Coast Guard Commandant on the line.”
The Lawfulness Minister scratched his unshaven chin. “It would be a good idea to station a police force on the beach. We don’t want any local fishermen getting any ideas about boating out to see why a great big ocean liner is parked outside their front yard.” He looked about. “Two squads of police in riot gear should do. Seal off the beach-front.”
“Why riot gear?” The Healthfulness Minister wanted to know.
“Well – we don’t want it to look like it’s a police picnic. The riot gear will make people realize something serious is afoot.”
“On the other hand, it might create panic. That’s the last thing we need: pandemonium breaking out. I vote for a low-key police presence, something not blatantly overt.”
The Lawfulness Minister frowned. “And just what do you mean by low-key: two cops in Bermudas sipping Bacardi Carta Blanca in a beachside taverna?”
The Healthfulness Minister glowered back. “Yeah! That way they would blend right in, wouldn’t they?”
“And how am I supposed to respond effectively with just two men if there’s a crisis?”
“Crisis? You mean like if they run out of liquor?”
Surface Transport rose like a phoenix. “My friends, my friends – let’s all take a deep breath and try to calm down-”
The Healthfulness Minister gave him an icy stare. “You stay out of this! Just because you’ve been on a steady diet of anti-depressants for the last ten years doesn’t give you the right to tell us to calm down.”
The Lawfulness Minister looked surprised. “Anti-depressants? Really?”
The HM looked equally surprised. “You didn’t know? What kind of Lawfulness Minister are you anyway?” He turned to the Surface Transport Minister. “And why are you here in the first place? What idiot invited Surface Transport to this meeting?”
The Chief Minister turned puce, and Ninka quickly put up his hand. “Sir, the Coast Guard is in a bit of a spot – they don’t have any vessels available to assist us. Three of them are under repairs and one of them has been leased out.”
“Leased out? Can the Coast Guard actually do that?”
“Apparently they can. With the budget cuts going so deep, everyone is trying various ways to raise funds.”
“Well, can’t they get it back? Who did they lease it out to?”
“Some casino operators. One of the casino vessels developed a technical snag, and their clientele was already airborne and en route, so they did some quick negotiating with the Coast Guard and now it’s being used as a makeshift casino.”
The Lawfulness Minister nodded. “Oh, no wonder the casino boat looked different…”
The Chief Minister was annoyed. “Well, this is a domestic emergency. Tell the Commandant we need that boat urgently.”
Ninka sighed. “No can do, sir. The vessel is out of commission: seems someone peed in the engine room. They’re investigating as we speak, trying to rule out terrorism.”
The Lawfulness Minister went pale. “You mean, that was the engine room…?”
The Healthfulness Minister looked at him, incredulous. “Are you saying you just incapacitated a state-of-the-art defence vessel by emptying your bladder on some mechanical parts?” He got up, grinning widely. “Bloody hell! Come here, man – I want to shake your hand!”
Ninka had a suggestion. “Sir, since we are stretched for time, why not use the police dinghies with some local fisherman piloting the vessels. We can have two policemen along with the fisherman in each vessel, keeping an eye on the shore and the ocean liner. That way we don’t have to station any cops on the beach, thus avoiding any unpleasant panic scenarios. And by asking for the fishermen to help us out, we are showing there the situation is under our control. That will further stabilize things until we get a lid on the whole matter.”
The Chief Minister raised an eyebrow. “I see my great intellect is rubbing off on you, Ninka. Make it happen.”
The Lawfulness Minister nodded. “I’ll need some help transporting the dinghies to the beach from our main stationhouse.”
The Surface Transport Minister spoke up: “I can help out there.”
The Chief Minister nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Now that we’ve drawn a net round them, curtailing their ability to move what’s our next response? How do we respond to their request for medical assistance?”
The Healthfulness Minister sat back, steepling his fingers. “We cannot delay any cry for help indefinitely. Remember: we are a world-renowned tourist destination. Any callousness on our part will reflect very badly. At some point of time, we will have to respond, and more importantly, be seen to be responding. I have got my people alerting all our senior medical staff. As luck would have it, we have an urban health center right on the beach at that site. We can discreetly fill up the place with medical personnel and supplies. The infrastructure is in place already, we just have to people and stock the center.
“Meanwhile, someone will have to go on board Gluteas Maximus to ascertain what exactly we are dealing with.” He looked around. No one said a word. “I volunteer for the task.” There was a flurry of exclamations. He waved them down. “Listen to me for a minute: we can’t just send some low-level medical officer to eyeball ground zero. Someone in authority must do it. We have to quickly decide what our response to this is, gentlemen. Delay will cost us dearly, in terms of fatalities and in terms of bad publicity.
“Of course, I will go in taking all possible precautions: rubber gloves, disposable face-masks. I won’t take any chances. I will take two senior physicians with me, along with a laboratory staffer. Once I am on board, I will remain there indefinitely. If it is the swine ’flu, I wouldn’t want to come back and spread the bug around, would I?” He peered through the windows. It was turning bright beyond. He looked at his watch. “We have to start moving soon.” He looked at his boss. “Any chance of a quick bite before we leave?”
The Chief Minister slammed the table with his fist. “Damn it to hell – I knew we’d forgotten to call someone important…”
By mid-morning the newshounds were on the beach, along with their microphones and recording equipment. The Healthfulness Minister spoke at length to the assembled, explaining what had transpired in the early hours and going on to state that he would personally be leading a team on board. He introduced the team of medical experts individually. Each man nodded but behind their masks, their expressions were far from social. When the boat bearing the team left the beach, more than a hundred cameras were trained at them. As least two newscasters fell silent, allowing their cameras to do the talking.
Ninka watched from his car as some of the reporters walked towards the urban health center which was being readied for the possible influx of cases. There were two policemen at the entrance but the news people were careful not to intrude. It was as if everyone knew which boundaries had to be respected. Here, medical personnel were doing their best to prepare for who-knew-what. And their boss, the Healthfulness Minister had just made a sacrifice that went far beyond any man’s call to duty.
By afternoon the situation had changed. The doctors on board had carefully checked all the cases on board the cruise liner. Their verdict was unanimous: food poisoning. Not wanting to ‘take any chances’, the Healthfulness Minister summoned another team of physicians to the vessel. By three in the afternoon, the news was out: an outbreak of food poisoning. Doctors already on board would help treat the less serious cases. The more serious patients would be transferred to the shore health center, and if necessary, shifted by ambulance to the core hospital in the capital.
Ninka was in the urban health center, watching as the boats brought in the more serious patients. He suddenly saw that the Captain of the ocean liner was among the newcomers being brought to shore. He went up to the Captain as he stepped out onto the sand and quickly introduced himself. “Are you not well, Captain?” he enquired kindly.
The other man laughed. “I’m as fit as a fiddle, sir! I wanted to be on hand to make sure my people were alright.” He shook his hand tightly. “I’m vastly indebted to you and your government, sir! The speed with which you have responded. I’m taken aback! And sending a Minister of your government – that’s got to be unprecedented, sir…” He was shaking his head. “I will take it upon myself to see that my company is made aware of the level of co-operation your government acceded us.”
Ninka suddenly felt warmly towards the Captain. “You would have done no differently, sir. Of course, it’s a good thing it wasn’t this swine ’flu thing.”
The Captain looked somewhat puzzled. “I’m not sure how this swine flu rumour started really. I mean, when I spoke to your Captain of Ports, I mentioned very clearly it appeared to be an outbreak of food poisoning to our medical officer.” He shrugged. “But, I guess with this swine flu bug going about, one really can’t be too careful… Still, your doctors came on board and they’ve confirmed that’s just a food poisoning outbreak, clear and simple, so-”
The evening and late night news bulletins brought out the full story. They were profuse in their praise for the Healthfulness Minister who had bitten the bullet and plunged on where few others had dared to tread. The reports in the morning papers were more detailed, and they all hailed the Healthfulness Minister as a true statesman and a champion of the people. The Healthfulness Minister had faced a daunting task: if he simply allowed the ailing passengers ashore and they had been suffering from the swine flu, so many locals would have been at risk. But to simply turn away the cruise liner would have smacked of callousness, and the repercussions on the tourism sector might have been extreme. So the Healthfulness Minister had done the unthinkable: he had personally gone on board the ship. The results of his heroic deed were there for all to see. For that indeed was what he was: a true hero.
Ninka got to meet the Healthfulness Minister only at 9 that night. The Minister had been busy the entire day, giving interviews and receiving goodwill calls, and garlands and bouquets and messages from every corner of the state.
When Ninka entered, it took the Healthfulness Minister by surprise. “Ninka, what are you doing here?”
Ninka smiled. “I just came by to shake the hand of the smartest operator I have ever met.” He held the other man’s gaze firmly. “The Captain of Ports is your brother-in-law. He received the SOS from the ship’s captain: an outbreak of food poisoning. Your brother-in-law calls you – obviously. You see an opportunity, and oh, what an opportunity!” He chuckled and held out a white card. “This is my business card, sir. When you become the Chief of Ministers, please – give me a ring.”