He was a tall man. With well -groomed dark hair, an uprising moustache and a sturdy built, he looked much less than sixty. There was hardly any confusion regarding his age – he insisted, he was born three years before the flag festival started in his village. It was a while before we realized that he was referring to the Independence Day.
Madhusudan Jana or Madhuda (in his locality, he said, he was addressed as Madhuda by the young and old alike) was a proud man. In his dhoti and kurta, he had the looks of a village Pradhan (chief). From a distance you would never notice he had one leg. His right leg was amputated just below the knee long ago, “just after the arrival of my long cherished moustache.”
Madhuda was born in a poor family in Contai in Midnapore district. But even as a child, he was taken by a more affluent relative in Sundarban area and admitted to a local school. He never went past class eight. When he grew older he started working in the fields – ploughing, sowing and reaping the harvest. But he had a lots of free time to play around, “no source of water except the rains – seasonal crop, you know.”
“We had a great time. Four or five of us would take country boat and row around the mangroves near the reserve forests. Have you ever been to the Sundarbans? No, you should never go in a launch. You should go in a country boat. Otherwise you lose the sound of the forest. When the sun dips towards the horizon and the shadows lengthen, the hetal, sundari and garan trees create a magic of their own.
“No, I have never seen a tiger in the forest,” Madhuda smiles at my foolishness, “there is a saying in Sundarban, if you see a tiger, you don’t survive to talk about it.
“In the loneliness and the lurking shadows, there is no sound except the rhythmic clap of the three pairs of oars in water – chap, chap, and the chirping of the birds. We stop the oars and listen. At times for a few moments, the birds also become mute, and then you have this creepy feeling in the stomach.
“Oh! It’s great fun. We are on the lookout for a kite’s nest. We spot one and row near it in between the trees. I climb up. I was an expert climber you know, and one of us take up an oar, pointing it up like a gun.The scared kite hovers over while I steal the eggs. After a dip in tea liquor these can easily be sold off as poultry eggs. Well, you always have the option of frying an omelet.”
Sunderban slowly comes alive as we sit mesmerized listening to Madhuda weaving his tales.
** ** **
His “misfortunes and fortunes” all belonged to the Sunderbans. Catching shrimps in the river was a good source of “side income”, and during one of these exercises, “my leg vanished”.
“I didn’t even feel any pain,” he said, “it was a kamot (crocodile) that did the job.”
He was taken to the subdivision hospital in a bhatbhati (motorized boat) bleeding profusely through the knots his friends had tied.His recovery, however, was uneventful. After a stay in the hospital for about a month, he came back to the village in a pair of crutches.
If he was a popular boy earlier, he became a hero of sorts now. Finally he married into a rich family – his wife was the only daughter of a well-to-do farmer. By this time he had already acquired an artificial limb and discarded his crutches.
In a nearby village there was a carpenter, migrated from North Bengal, famous for carving bamboo. He crafted a “peg” stump for Madhuda who has been using it for more than last 30 years.
** ** **
When Madhuda heard about our rehabilitation institute, he came to us for a proper artificial limb. We were quite fascinated by his peg stump. Made of bamboo, it was a beautiful creation. Well designed, it had a straight conical shape, “attached” to the stump by leather straps – somewhat like those you must have seen in the pictures of pirates in children’s books (The Treasure Island). Madhuda walked tall and erect in his peg stump.
Fabrication of prosthesis takes a little time, seven days at least. So patients are sent back after measurements are taken and are admitted for trial and training when the prosthesis is ready. During the trial adjustments are made and the “finish” is done after the patient is comfortable with the new prosthesis. Madhuda, however, was admitted before the measurements were taken as he stayed far away. During the afternoon rounds it was a pleasure to see Madhuda sitting on his bed, and other patients, some in wheelchairs, clustered around, listening to his tales or having philosophical discussions on life and disability. Madhuda invariably brought a few smiles in the faces of even the most depressed of the patients.
Madhuda had no problem adjusting to his new artificial limb. He walked gracefully in his new prosthesis. The evening before he was due to be discharged I sat down at his bedside to have a talk.
“Well Madhuda, are you satisfied with your new leg?” “Yes, sir it is perfect,” he said, “nobody will notice that I have a false leg.”
“Now Madhuda, we would like to take your peg stump and preserve it in our museum,” I said. This was our practice -preserving the innovative things people develop in rehabilitation.
And then Madhuda laughed. He roared with laughter, leaving me confused and a bit foolish. After an indeterminate long wait, he replied, “and how will I work in ankle deep paddy fields? Your artificial limb will breakdown in no time.”
He was right of course.
“Then why are you taking this limb?” I asked as my confusion increased.
He smiled now – a knowledgeable smile. “I will use my old peg stump for daily work,” he said, “and this beautiful artificial limb you have given me will be kept for special occasions – marriage ceremonies, Sir.”