In the narrow bylanes of north-east Delhi’s Pratap Nagar is a humble office on the ground floor of a residential building. It is such an unassuming office that chances are you will miss it after mistaking it for any other Delhi house. Except, the number of ambulances parked outside the office gives it away.
This office belongs to Twinkle and Himanshu Kalia, more commonly known as the ‘ambulance couple’. They provide free ambulance service to anyone in need in the capital. During the second wave of COVID-19 that ravaged Delhi between April and June this year, the husband-wife duo played an instrumental role in ferrying patients to hospitals and also arranging for cremation of abandoned bodies.
It was a personal tragedy that sowed the seeds of humanitarian work in a young Himanshu’s mind. He was just 14 when his father’s road accident devastated his family in 1992. While the accident had occurred at 7 pm, the family managed to get his father admitted only by 2 am, losing crucial time. Himanshu’s father slipped into a coma because of the delay.
“Our neighbour came and informed us that he got a call about my father meeting with an accident. I, along with my mother, rushed to the spot and began ferrying my father to nearby hospitals in an auto but no one gave us admission. Finally, we reached Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital at 1:30 am but they asked us to go to AIIMS. I asked a doctor, ‘Yahan itne ambulances khadi hain. Kya koi ek bhi nahi mil sakta jis mein papa ko le ja sake (there are so many ambulances waiting here. Is there not one in which I can take my father)?’” Himanshu recollects.
Luckily, his father got help and recovered after two years of complete bed rest. But it didn’t change Himanshu’s determination to stop others from suffering the same fate.
In 2002, Himanshu married Twinkle and after much persuasion by her family, agreed to take an ambulance as a wedding gift. Thus began Himanshu’s mission to ferry the sick and the needy. He spread the word through hospitals and chemist shops.
Fuel expenses, however, were a problem. Himanshu started ferrying his wife’s siblings to school and asked his in-laws to pay him for the service. “Twelve more kids got added and I was able to manage my petrol cost,” says Himanshu. Soon, his ambulance fleet increased to 16.
Five years later, Twinkle was diagnosed with Hepatitis B, a year after the birth of their first daughter. Doctors said it was a rare, fatal medical condition and that she wouldn’t survive beyond six months. Twinkle was advised to undergo an LFT (liver function test) every week to assess the extent of liver damage. But Twinkle miraculously overcame the fatal disease.
She believes the miracle happened because of her husband’s good deeds. Twinkle is also a BJP spokesperson for Chandni Chowk, says.
As a woman ambulance driver, Twinkle raised eyebrows. “Once, I was taking an injured child to a hospital and people asked me, ‘Will you be able to manage?’. I dropped the child at the hospital in 3 minutes and 52 seconds,” she says proudly.
Twinkle was conferred the Nari Shakti Puraskar in March 2019 by the President of India. Later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite several rounds of chemotherapy leaving her severely weak, she was on the ground helping patients reach hospitals as well as helping with the last rites of the dead.
Our chat soon gets interjected by a call. Twinkle assures the caller that she would reach in 10 minutes. She says something about a government hospital admission. “This person’s sister is due for delivery. They have kept aside Rs 10,000-15,000 and are ready to take her to a private hospital if they don’t get admission in a government hospital. I have assured them sarkari mein hi hoga (it’ll happen in a government hospital only). Sorry, mujhe nikalna hoga (I have to leave),” she aplogises.
Our chat remains incomplete as she drives off in her ambulance.