by ABRAHAM VERGHESE for The New York Times
Observing my patient through the chicken wire, I saw that the front half of his scalp was shaved — and the long gray hairs behind that equator were gathered in a kudumi, or knot. He was a temple priest. All these years later I can still see that tuft and the three broad white stripes of vibhuti, or holy ash, smeared across his forehead, proclaiming his Shaivite faith, a reminder that the world was all maya — illusion. But his discomfort was real. In my recollection, he sits cross-legged on his mat in that locked room, groaning, restless, his trunk swaying, his features anxious, grimacing as if he’d tasted something bitter.
Anywhere else in the hospital, you would stumble over relatives congregated around a tiffin carrier of food or patients catching the breeze on a veranda. But here it was just me and the seasoned orderly who ran the ward. All that chaos and cacophony of Government General Hospital in Madras, India, was mysteriously kept at bay; even the crows didn’t venture close. The orderly assured me that this was classic rabies: The patient had asked for his cup and plate to be removed from his room. He had symptoms of hydrophobia — the sight of water, the thought of swallowing, caused excruciating throat spasms.