• Mohana Prabhakar

C for Charlie or J for Jaaly

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things. The trees everywhere, the bare branches of some waiting for spring, glimpses of the flat, luscious green of the golf course behind, the resident heron on its morning constitutional at the tee-off mound. And suddenly, life feels like it could be normal again.

I am waxing lyrical probably because it was the first time in a few rather busy, rather nervewracking days that I had time to sit back and gaze out at the world with a perfect pot of tea. If rollercoaster was an adjective, it would fit the last three weeks, during which I have also been missing from my usual Tuesday spot.

As always, a different city and different people leave me with so many small, often irrelevant, memories that are all interesting in their own way. So there I was in the city where I grew up, in India, and had to stay back a lot longer than I expected. Much of this time was spent at hospitals.

On a particularly frazzled morning, I met this shy little girl with giant dark circles and the sweetest face. An intern at the hospital, she was given the job of ferrying us around and we got talking. I asked her what had brought her to a hospital and her answer was totally unexpected.

“Actually ma’am, I was interested in studying hotel management, but my father wasn’t happy. My parents talked, and then fought, and then they looked for something else under ‘H’ and found Hospital Management. So they sent me to study that.” I was too speechless at the time to wish the soft-spoken Oindrilla all the luck in the world on her career-by-alphabet path.

Then there was Mumpy. She worked in the catering division, brought around tea and coffee and meals, and I never once saw her without a 100W smile. I watched her chat with patients, with their families through the day: It didn’t matter how you were feeling, but when Mumpy smiled at you, you just had to give her a big smile back. And I’ve no idea how she did it, but she also never forgot how we liked our tea.

Then late one night, there was this elegant, elderly lady in the hospital lift who broke my heart. It was just the two of us going up and she unexpectedly started talking. “You know, hospitals are really scary places. My husband has been here for ten days now and it has cost me R10 lakhs (R1mn). How do you think I will manage any more?”

With that, she got off at her floor and I never saw her again and hoped and prayed that it meant she had taken her husband home. To deal with a critical illness of a family member all the while wondering how you can get the money to pay for it - that is an awful, depressing truth.

And soon it was time for us to return home and in the middle of everything else going on, I settled down one night to call the airline’s local call centre. After hanging on for exactly 18 minutes the first time, when their payment system wasn’t working, they asked me to try again. When I did, a half hour later, the chap notes down my PNR and then says, “There is no such reservation Madam.” “That’s impossible,” I replied, “I just spoke to someone and changed our dates and all that was left was for me to pay.”

“That is not possible Madam, as you have no booking.” Now I am sitting in a hospital room, the last night in there and I have a 100 things to organise, everything’s quiet besides the cricket on TV which my husband’s watching with closed eyes, and for a moment I wonder whether I am imagining all this.

I took a deep breath and tried again. “I spoke to a gentleman called Amit - ask him.” “Do you mean Namit? We have no Amit. Hold on.” A few ding ding dings later, I hear, “Namit says he has never spoken to someone called Mrs Prabhakar. Your booking reference doesn’t exist. Madam are you sure you are flying with us?”

So I have two options. Admit I am trapped in some Hitchcockian plot or I just repeat my PNR again. “Can you please check again? Unicorn Zulu Yankee November Lima Charlie. “Jaaly right?” he asks. I say yes, Charlie. C for Charlie. “Oh sorry ma’am, I thought you said J for Jaaly. I found it now.” Did I tell him that Jaaly is not a word and J should be Juliet?

Of course not. I wanted a normal life. This was it.

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