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Nights without end outside Sen gates

On Friday, I had barely woken up after spending most of last night outside Belle Vue Clinic, when a journalist friend called. “Suchitra Sen died this morning.”

For the last fortnight, my colleagues and I have been keeping vigil by rotation outside Belle Vue Clinic, day and night. For a woman who ruled the screen when my parents were my age.

The regular fluctuations of her health did not allow us a chance to relax or drop a shift.

Even last night, I along with a few other journalists, stood firm outside the gates of the clinic almost till dawn, never knowing that this would be the last night of our vigil.

My brief was to notice any unusual activity with telltale signs of something happening inside. Standing in the cold breeze under the open sky was tough. There were a few policemen and fellow journalists for company. Even the tea stall owner would wrap up by 10pm.

Sitting inside the comfort of the clinic’s reception area was barred. So, not a day has passed this year when I did not put a woollen cap and a jacket in my bag before leaving for work.

Our sole shelter were the three steps leading to the hospital’s pharmacy on Loudon Street. And then there were the two makeshift seats of the security guards at the gate.

As the mobile phone ran out of charge, I would plug it into the socket at the pharmacy or request the guards at the gate to charge it.

When the cold breeze became unbearable, a 10-minute retreat inside the office car was the only way to warm up. But sitting for too long was dangerous. Missing any car entering or leaving the hospital had its own risk. In that split second the car took to cross the gates, I had to spot who was sitting inside, treading the thin line of not violating their privacy and yet fulfilling my professional duties.

Sometimes the mind went back to my early memories of, well, knowing Suchitra Sen. I saw Harano Sur as a kid in the early ’90s. The cable TV revolution had not yet arrived and Doordarshan showed films at 4pm every Sunday. Though not actually a film buff, I did see a few of Suchitra’s movies. Saptapadi, Grihadaha, Deep Jwele Jaai....

In 2008, I watched Saptapadi again. As a post-graduate student of English reading Othello, I keenly watched Desdemona (played by Suchitra) in the death scene.

But reminiscence had no place in what I was assigned to do on those long nights outside Belle Vue.

Last Sunday, I was present outside Belle Vue from 7pm. The chief minister had come in the evening and left. Suchitra Sen was critical. I had to stay put through the night.

The journalists present outside split into groups. One at the main gate, the other at a gate at the back that many said was often used to ferry VIP patients.

At 3.47am, Raima Sen arrived, followed by sister Riya. We knew things had worsened. The next hour was tense. We didn’t move from the gates, peering into every car. The sisters came out at 5.10am, smiling. Phew! I left Belle Vue at 6am. With a weary smile.

For me, 15 days of Belle Vue duty was a crash course in medical terms, from bi-pap to saturation level. But sadly, all that jargon could not see Suchitra Sen home.