"He is an artist," I said. In fact, for me at that time, he was not an artist but an angel. "What?," the American asked. He was watching him work and me sitting on a low stool with an amused look. I said, "Yes, look at the passion with which he is working. Only an artist can conjure up so much passion in whatever he is doing." The roadside cobbler was working on my prosthetic leg and the American standing there had probably never seen a broken leg, prosthetic of course, and a shoe repairer trying to join broken pieces together.
In the morning at 6:30 am my wife Anjali and I were walking from our hotel to the bus stop to catch a bus for a sight seeing trip. It happened all of a sudden, without any warning, just two clicking sounds and next thing I realised that I had fallen down on the sidewalk. My prosthetic leg was in two pieces. It snapped from where the adapter connects the socket, in which I insert my stump, with rest of the leg. Anjali was shocked. She hadn't seen anything like this before. An old cleaning woman, sweeping the road, was almost in tears to see my leg broken. A security guard standing nearby came to help me. More than 4000 miles from home, in a country where I know nobody, my primary concern at that time was to get up on my legs. And that too immediately as I didn't want to miss my bus. Previous evening, we had booked this trip and I was very keen on seeing these places and shoot some pictures.
Sitting on the sidewalk I inspected the broken leg and decided to put my Swiss Army Knife and the roll of duct tape that I always carry in my backpack to some good use. The overhang of the socket that keeps the adapter secured in its place, was completely torn. I slashed off the torn portion with my knife and using the file smoothened the jagged surface before sticking a generous amount of duct tape to join the two pieces together. Feeling satisfied with my effort and having enormous confidence in the strength of the duct tape I stood on my legs. I walked a few steps taking support of my wife and realised that the leg was wobbly but still I could stand on them. Had I a pair of crutches for support, probably I could have walked much better. It was too early for a surgical equipment store to be open and also it was time for our bus to leave, so Anjali walked and I hobbled with her support to the bus stop.
We were on a fortnight's vacation to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. We had seen Bangkok and Hanoi. Here we were in Ho Chi Minh City when this happened. We still had Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Phuket and Singapore in our itinerary. In Ho Chi Minh City I had made lots of plans to see Cu Chi Tunnels, which was an underground city developed by Vietnamese to protect themselves from American air raids at the time of war.
Another place we wanted to see was Mekong Delta, the place where Mekong river drains into the sea is home to world's largest floating market. With so much information we had booked a tour for the whole day to take us to these two spots.After reaching Cu Chi Tunnels I walked some distance and realizsd that with this leg it was a no go situation for me. I sat down at a place near the entrance of the tunnel and let Anjali continue with the trip. I took off my leg to inspect and found that the duct tape was not as strong as I thought it to be and was unable to hold it together. Sitting there, I applied some more duct tape to the joint and made my plans to repair the leg. First thing I needed was a pair of crutches and the rest I could do after that. I thought that a strong epoxy resin based adhesive like Areldite in India should be able to hold it together. I found that there were four holes in the adapter and thought that if I could drill corresponding holes in the socket and put a rivet or screw through them, perhaps it should hold more strongly.
I sent these plans to my close friend CN Satish, who is a prosthetic surgeon and is posted in an Air Force hospital in Assam. His first reaction, as usual, was "what the hell have you been up to". He is well aware of my antics. In fact, many of these have been with him as an accomplice. However, as a friend he was genuinely concerned. He advised that I do all three, that is, have crutches for support, join broken pieces with some epoxy resin adhesive and put screws through the holes to secure it further.
Anjali came back in an hour's time after seeing tunnels. With me sitting with a broken leg, she was not enjoying the trip at all. We decided to drop out and take a cab to go back to our hotel. After reaching hotel I asked the receptionist to guide me to a store where I could buy a pair of crutches. With the address given by her in my pocket, we reached this store, which was outside a big hospital in the city. This store didn't have what I was looking for, but after a brief look around I found a place where crutches were available, albeit of a poor quality. I visited a few more stores but didn't find a good quality pair. I was rather surprised to not to find a decent pair of crutches as I always thought that Vietnam, with its violent war history, would have a large number of amputees and mobility support equipment would be in high demand there.
Another big issue was communication. In Vietnam not many people understand and speak English. Finally, I picked up the best among whatever was available from a store, where I met a young doctor who could speak English. I asked him if he could suggest a place where I could get my broken prosthesis repaired. He guided me to another hospital, which was looking more like a trauma center. I knew that what I needed was a workshop and not a hospital. Any mechanic worth his auger and vice could have done this job easily. After getting further directions from a bunch of excited non English speaking staff of the hospital, we thought it was time to call off the wild goose chase and start looking for repair materials so that I could try doing it myself. With nobody able to understand what I was looking for, we went back and started to walk around the block opposite our hotel, which had many stores, though most of them selling garments. With crutches, now I was able to walk more confidently, albeit not very comfortably. These were ill designed pieces and were tiring my hands. After a lot of futile conversation in two different languages, I was handed over KO-502, which turned out, not an epoxy resin adhesive, but a liquid super glue used for joining smooth surfaces together. By now my hands were very tired and blisters had started forming on my palms. We started walking towards the hotel to get some rest before we could embark on another errand to look for rivets and screws.
This is when we found this artist, barely hundred yards from our hotel, sitting on the sidewalk, repairing shoes. In his fifties, the man had calloused hands, used to manual hard work and a face straight out of a Hollywood Western movie. He had a big cowboy hat on and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his lips. I asked him if he had screws and if he could give a few to me. Looking at him, somehow I felt that he was a man who would not say no to trying out something new. I took off my leg, removed the thick wad of duct tape I had rolled around the joint and showed two broken halves of my leg and asked him if he could try his hands on it. We were having a perfect sign language conversation. He understood my requirement. After finishing whatever he was doing, he started working on my leg and this is when the American noticed him with two parts of a broken leg in two hands. The artist stuck the broken pieces with shoe glue that he was using for repairing shoes and after drying it for some time put screws through three holes in the adapter. Through the fourth hole he was unable to pierce the material and it was left just like that. But this seemed good enough for me. In fifteen minutes of work I was back on my legs again. We paid the artist, thanked him, tipped him and started walking towards our hotel, initially a bit cautiously but more confidently after a few steps.
Back in the hotel we were elated. All those thoughts of abandoning our vacation mid way and flying back home, had vanished. We even were making plans of calling our daughter to Vietnam with the spare leg lying at home. With the agony of disability a matter of past, we celebrated that evening and raised a toast to the artist.
We reached Siem Reap after spending two days in Phnom Penh. By now, although I had my crutches with me, my walking was back to normal. In Siem Reap at 4:30 AM we were driven by our friendly tuktuk driver Yeth to a large complex, where we had to buy tickets for our trip to Angkor Wat. Spread over 162 hectares, Angkor Wat is a complex of temples, considered the largest religious complex of a single religion anywhere in the world. We got out of the tuktuk, took two steps and it happened again. I was on my knees with my leg broken once again. This time it was not an "Oh my God!" situation for us. We got back in the tuktuk and asked Yeth to drive us back to our room. Yeth, who had not yet realized what had happened, was bewildered as to why we were going back without seeing the monument. When he saw the broken leg in my hand, he realized the enormity of the situation. Anjali was frustrated by now and was making up her mind to fly back home. This was certainly not her idea of an overseas vacation.
After reaching our homestay I removed the socket from my stump and got back in the tuktuk in less than a minute on my crutches. We went back to the ticket counter and after having bought tickets, reached Angkor Wat in time to see the temple at sunrise. We had been planning to be here at this time for quite a few years. I knew I would go crazy shooting pictures of Angkor Wat and had purchased an extra SD card for my camera the previous evening. I wasn't ready to give up so easily. After walking for about fifteen minutes to the temple on my crutches my hands were completely tired and I knew it would not be possible for me to do the complete monument like this. Again I was getting blisters in my palm. I took some pictures of the temple with sun coming up behind it. Whatever I lacked because of my restricted mobility, I tried to make up by using long zoom lens. Having satiated my eyes and heart, I sat down in front of the temple and let Anjali go inside and take some more pictures.
Walk back to the tuktuk was most painful. By now my hands were dead tired and I already had many layers of blisters in my palms. We tried padding up the hand grip with some napkins and scarves we were carrying in the backpack but that could hardly relieve me of my agony.
Back in the tuktuk, I asked Yeth to take me to a place where I could buy some repair material. Good thing in Cambodia, unlike Vietnam, was that people understood English. In the market we chanced upon a big store selling electrical fixtures. On entering the store, I found almost everything I was looking for. I purchased epoxy resin glue and different sizes of screws. There was a pharmacy next door and from there we purchased a roll of cotton bandage. Armed with these items, we drove back home to make an attempt at repairing the broken leg.
On inspection I found that the glue used by the artist at Ho Chi Minh City was not the appropriate thing to join uneven jagged surfaces. Out of three screws he had fixed, two were broken and the third had not gone in at all. So these last three days I was literally hanging on two screws, that gave away eventually. This time, using my swiss army knife's reamer, I bore proper holes in the socket for screws to fit in. A bit of filing was done to smoothen surfaces which had to be joined together. After preparing the glue, I joined two broken pieces together and while the glue was still wet, fixed in all four screws in place.
Then on my friend CN's advice, I applied a generous amount of glue on a length of cotton bandage and wrapped it around the joint and left it to dry. Siem Reap in February was hot and the idea of a day time excursion among those stone monuments wasn't too inviting. That gave us time for a nap and for the repair job to dry up.
When we started for the second set of monuments at Angkor Thom and Bayon temple in the evening, the repair job had hardened like rock solid cement. I called CN and told him about the successful operation I had performed. He said that perhaps we would need chisel and hammer now to separate these two pieces when we have to. Smug with my handiwork, I was back on road again, a little gingerly initially but as time passed, I was almost sure that this time it is for good. I clicked as many pictures of Bayon temple as I could. Most deservedly, a few extra beers and cocktails were downed in the evening. One needed that extra alcohol to wipe the pain of those blistered palms from memory.
My wife is not sure whether trouble chases me or I chase trouble. Whatever it may be, but we are at peace with each other, at least for the moment. No no, not my wife and I. That can't happen. I'm talking about trouble and me. Let's see, for how long!
(Col Satish Malik is war amputee injured during Operation Vijay in Kargil. He was commissioned in Maratha Light Infantry Regiment. After serving 21 years in Army, he too an early retirement. He did a certification in business management from IIM Calcutta and is now a Risk consultant working with several Fortune 500 companies.)