Raj Kamal Jha’s recent novel, The Patient in Bed Number 12, brings back not just the stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also its paranoia, isolation, and mental paralysis. Jha’s bare prose, relieved—if that is the right word—with bleak snapshots, recalls vividly the bizarre feeling we had, over two years, of playing our lives on a loop while simultaneously wondering whether this was the end of the world.
Patient in Bed Number 12
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Jha writes his story circularly. He begins with a patient playing back a video of his granddaughter, as he lies dying, in isolation. The significance of that video is hidden till we are nearly at the end of the novel.
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If we do not count what is happening entirely in his own head, the first relationship that emerges in this novel is that of the patient with his nurse, who wants very much to keep him alive long enough so that he can meet what remains of his family. The patient’s world is now the monitor that displays his blood pressure, pulse, and oxygen levels. He is reduced to the sum of the data on that screen. He sees the world through glass kept sparkling with sanitised wet wipes by two women. He cannot hear or speak to other people, so he has only visible fragments by which he might understand their lives.
One evening, looking at the road outside the hospital, he sees a father with his younger child slung, sleeping, over the back of his bicycle, while his daughter pushes from behind, making sure her little brother does not fall. Where is this family going? At least they are together, some of them.
Among Jha’s people are a mother who has lost her son and is still haunted by the automated messages from his school about his lunch dues, about the fact that he has not taken the bus. And there is the son who cannot resist ringing his mother’s various phone numbers, though she died three months ago. He could not see her body, and no one answers his calls, but his phone feels warmer, so to speak, when those numbers are listed as recently dialled.
The waves sweep along not just the sick, but also the well, who struggle to get back to a safe perch. Getting back to normal is not even in their sights. Their stories should have had a gentler ending, but death stalks humanity in untold forms. A child, curious and happy, trusts that his father will get him home on this long, long walk. But he is also drawn irresistibly to the dead, whether a cat or a man lying on the street. And in the end he is drawn to death itself, while his father lies sleeping.
A husband sees his wife fade into a shadow, sleepwalking for the short time left to her, unwilling to eat, and not aware that he is there, watching over her.
“The reader observes these characters as we might see people in the windows and balconies of the building opposite. Once they have walked out of the frame, we cannot know more about them.”
The reader observes these characters as we might see people in the windows and balconies of the building opposite. Once they have walked out of the frame, we cannot know more about them. The characters themselves have lost bits of their identity, and much of their agency over their own lives. Their minds are now full of what must be avoided.
Stories behind the story
Jha uses no ready-made phrases. Instead, he places each word individually, in a workmanlike way, like bricks in a wall. It gives his prose immediacy, it forces us to read each word, so as not to lose any meaning. And yet so much passes by the inattentive reader: the video in which a child is watching something awful, the 75th year of our Independence, the three parts of a woman’s name, the title of a painting that glorifies the worship of women—all hint at stories behind the story. And there is the imagined voice of a Prime Parent who lauds the control of women, who seals the patient’s mouth and eyes, zaps out disturbing realisations, and puts in reminders about duty and loyalty.
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It is not till we reach the vignette of the policeman alone one night in the station, looking again and again at the refrigerator in the evidence room, that we recall the other things that happened before, during, and after the COVID years. The fridge came to the evidence room eight years before, and it is to wait there until someone examines whether it contained beef or mutton. No matter what it contained, the owner of that fridge is dead, and he may be proved innocent one day of a deed that was not even a crime. The fridge sometimes haunts the policeman when he sits down to dinner.
It is not just the reader of the novel who is inattentive till it is probably too late. All of us have been inattentive. In the two-three years of the pandemic, when we were looking at infection rates, rules, requirements, and vaccination dates, there was another plague that continued to rage. And while our society and our system were fighting one plague, they seeded the other, which may never end. That plague, too, has left us lame, and wary of what is allowed and not allowed. Still, the circularity of Jha’s prose offers us hope that we may find our way back to ideals that now seem lost.
Latha Anantharaman is a writer and editor based in Palakkad.