Working week after hazy week of graveyard shift for TheNewspaperToday.com (and that meant 2 AM to 9 AM, it being a 24-hour website) in late 2001, I lived in an otherworldly dimension. I would leave for office around 1.15 AM, drive stuporously through the desolate roads, my arms and legs going through the driving motions almost in reflex, until I saw the familiar bulk of Videocon Towers looming eerily from out of the winter fog; and then I knew I’d reached. Those in the evening shift (6 PM to 3 AM) would mentally start switching off as soon as they saw me walking in, by 2.45 they’d all be gone and I’d get down to the business of surviving long hours alone in a ghost world. At those times, even Net-surfing held little attraction (wasn’t blogging then). There was nothing to do but wait for the PTI ticker to flash the news that someone important had died. I’d change the front-page template once in a while, just to check that my faculties were still in working order. Or I’d take a 5-minute break to go to the Aaj Tak canteen two floors up, wake the scowling attendant, get something to chomp on. (This’ll sound dramatic, but to date Kurkuras make me shudder because they carry uncomfortable associations with those days.)
No one in the morning shift would come in before 9.30. Around 10 AM, if I was lucky, I’d commence driving back to south Delhi, the sun in my eyes (it hurt, seriously!), feeling like a vampire who’d misread the clock. I’ve never been as aware of time as a tangible presence, of silence as something that was living and breathing around me, as I was back then.
This has turned into a blog about my graveyard days when it was meant to be something else altogether. I brought it up because I’ve had occasion to think about the people who work similar shifts in hospital intensive care units, and for whom these problems are just one small aspect of a much bleaker job. I was at the ICU the other night, around 8.30, just as some nurses/medical staff were coming in to begin their shift. Watching their pallid, lined faces I thought: they live the same life I once did, a life that begins with the gloaming, but they also have to contend with the sights, the sounds, the smell of impending death all around them, every minute of their working life.
This ICU was a large, roughly circular chamber with 6-7 single-bed rooms lining its inner circumference, and a monitoring system with a desk at its centre. Whoever was sitting at the monitoring system could see into any of the rooms just by rotating their chair. Through the night, in the Grim Reaper’s waiting room, the staff take turns going from bed to bed, checking on heavily-tubed patients - groaning, inarticulate or just unconscious. They also have to contend with the endless questions of stricken, sometimes antagonistic relatives, often well beyond official visiting hours. (In comparison, about the most uncomfortable occupational hazard I had to face in my graveyard days was the knowledge that a watchman,or a senior copy editor, was beating off to porn at a comp somewhere in the back of the room.) I don’t know what kind of person one has to be to voluntarily take up a job working in such a place late at night, and to hold it for any length of time. I don’t think I want to know either.