‘She was mute. But I could hear her sobs as she was burnt alive’

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Illustration: Raishabh Arora
Illustration: Raishabh Arora

I COULD see her suddenly sit up and gasp for breath. My mind was numb. It had been over four hours into this ordeal and my body and mind were exhausted.

Just a few hours ago, a regular day had ended. I was in Ellenabad, a mofussil town on the border between Haryana and Rajasthan, working on a disability project with the village youth. It was my last day of work in this town. The next morning I was to pack my bags and move to another town.

It was 10 pm and I was preparing to sleep on the terrace of the dharamshala, it being a hot June night. As I lay down on the mattress, I looked at the star-lit sky, stretched, and then closed my eyes. Suddenly, a scream pierced the silence. It was followed by incessant cries of a child. I also heard voices of some panic-stricken people.

I could no longer pretend to sleep. I went to the edge of the terrace and saw a group of people running towards a house. I decided to follow them. There was animated talk and people had filled the courtyard. As I pushed my way forward, I saw a figure helplessly tossing and turning on the ground. All I could hear then was “Jala diya” (she has been burnt). My mind went numb. Even though it was too dark to see anything clearly, it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that a woman had been burnt and was struggling for life in front of my eyes.

A few moments later, I found myself taking charge. “All men out of the house, douse the body with water. I need two people to go with me so that we can take this woman to the hospital.” I have often observed that in times of emergency, we often wait for a leader to emerge, someone to give directions. No wonder my instructions weren’t challenged by anyone.

I then ran to the dharamshala. A young man and an old woman put the injured woman in the backseat of the car. We also got someone to cover the woman as I drove off to a private hospital.

The hospital was more like a two-room house with some first aid. It was unlikely that the woman would get proper treatment there. The doctor advised me to take the victim to the district hospital, about 45 km away.

I had no choice but to drive to the nearest district hospital in Sirsa. Once we reached, it was left to us in the car to lift the woman on to a stretcher. As I supported her back, her skin felt charred.

It was 3 am and I went in to check on the woman. It was like breaking out of a trance when I saw her suddenly sit up and gasp for air. It was the first time I saw her, rather whatever was left of her. She was totally burnt and her body was covered with anti-burn cream.

The doctor walked in a few minutes later. “Nothing more can be done beyond what we have already done, so why don’t you leave and take rest,” he said. I looked at him blankly. “But what if I am needed?” He sensed my concern. “These are fourth-degree burns, the chances of her survival are slim, soon her kidneys will fail followed by other organs.”

By this time, I was exhausted both mentally and physically. So I drove back to the dharamshala. At 6 am, the news came that she had died. The locals informed me that the woman was mute and had a one-year-old daughter. Her husband had burnt her after a petty domestic quarrel. The last I heard, the husband and his relatives were making a case that the burning was caused by a stoveburst.

Two hours later, I packed my bags and drove off from Ellenabad, never to visit it again. The incident will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life.

Abhay Chawla is 46. He is a lecturer in University of Delhi

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