At the Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad (SSG) Hospital in Vadodara, patients queue up to ride across wards in the blue medical buggy, run by NGO Deepak Foundation. Sporting bright pink jacket, Ishrat Patel, one of the two women buggy pilots, is busy attending to an emergency call. She attends to 90 emergency calls in a day.
As she guides patients to their designated wards, carefully marking every trip of the day in her register, Ishrat often passes by the building housing the Burns Ward — the same building where she spent 10 days to regain consciousness after suffering deep burn injuries when her home was torched, a day after the Best Bakery was burnt down by a mob on March 1, 2002, killing its 14 employees, including 11 Muslims.
The scars linger, but Ishrat has decided to face her fears by returning to the hospital to serve the patients in her own small way.
Before joining the NGO’s buggy service, Ishrat worked with various social organisations for women. Her task at SSG, however, has not been easy as it has brought back the memories of her nightmare. Ishrat says, “On many occasions, the scenes of that dreadful night simply flash before my eyes and freeze me. We had taken back nine bodies from here (SSG hospital). When I joined as a buggy pilot, I recently bumped into my old Muslim neighbours (from the Best Bakery area who now live in Ekta Nagar). They had come to SSG for treatment. They asked me, ‘Oh, Kya tum zinda ho?’ (‘Oh, so, are you still alive?’).”
A trained nurse, who worked in various hospitals for several years, Ishrat says her heart lies in providing service to patients. While taking up the job of a nurse was out of question due to her commitment towards her 7-year-old daughter, Sofiya, Ishrat says her association with Deepak Foundation ensured that she could be part of the buggy service programme. “I decided to take up this job in August as the idea of being a woman buggy pilot made me feel I could do my bit in helping patients. I see how so many suffer and are relieved that they are transported from one ward to another. It makes me happy,” she says, adding that she trained to operate the battery-operated buggy before taking up the job, inspired during a Satsang of Nirankari Baba, a Sikh spiritual guru. “I attended many satsangs of Nirankari Baba during these years of struggle.
In one of his satsangs, he spoke about facing one’s fear to overcome it. When I heard of the opportunity to ferry patients in SSG, I was reminded about my own fears.”
Back in 2002, Ishrat, then 24, lived in Ansuyanagar with her parents and two younger siblings, near the Bhathiji Maharaj Temple, about 100 yards away from Best Bakery. On March 2, Ishrat’s home was torched by a violent mob in the communal riots that followed the burning of the Sabarmati Express coach on February 27, 2002. Her father, Tafajjul, mother Noorjehan, sister Beena and brother Maqbul, escaped unhurt, but Ishrat sustained severe burns.
The next morning, the police rushed her to government-run SSG Hospital where she regained consciousness after 10 days. Months of treatment saved Ishrat, but with lasting scars. She was then shifted to a relief camp and eventually married Rajesh Parshottam Patel in 2004.
Rajesh embraced Islam and is now known as Abduljabbar Patel. He works in a hotel to earn a living for the family. Ishrat says that in her employment as the buggy pilot so far, she has not yet ferried a patient to the Burns Ward. “I think I am yet to face my biggest fear of going to the Burns Ward on a buggy trip. It has not been possible to forget what has happened,” she says.
Ishrat, 40, credits her husband for “being largehearted” to marry a “girl with burn scars”. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done some good work by introducing development schemes. But I wish that something could turn my life back to what it was 14 years ago,” Ishrat says, adding that she aspires to see her daughter become an IAS officer.