Friday, September 11, 2009

An Expert of the Highest Order (The Stench of The City, Part II)

And so I waited, while my friend left.

"Dr.Pillai, sir?"

In full dress uniform stood an official of the High Court of Kerala, though I did not know it then. Not the khakhi dress of the hospital peon but starched white with a cap with a dignified bearing. Black boots polished with care till they shone. It was obvious this man, whoever he was, took his job quite seriously.

I nodded in confirmation, and motioned him to a seat. He preferred to remain standing.

"I represent the authority of Judicial Ombudsman. A complaint has been taken into file at the Hon: High Court of Kerala against the Corporation of the City of T_____, and you sir, are hereby directed to jointly conduct an enquiry into the facts of the case with other experts and submit your recommendations to the Court."

Now, I had just the slightest idea as to who or what an ombudsman was, but as for the rest of what he had said, It might as well have been Greek or Latin.

I took a long look at the man, to see if he would just burst out laughing, and tell me this was all just one hell of a practical joke.

"Hold on one sec. What exactly is it that you are asking me to examine, and who (the hell) told you I am an expert in these matters?"

"The court has asked for an advice from the dept of SPM. Your name comes highly recommended."

"The Old man, I mean, Prof V________ told you this? Yes? I see."

"And what exactly?"

In reply he said just one word: The name of the village panchayat that housed the waste-disposal establishment that handled all the waste generated by the city. The once obscure town was now a house-hold name, thanks to the decade-old struggle by the local population objecting to the operation of the waste-disposal plant close to their homes and places of living and sources of livelihood. I had vague memories of strikes turning violent, and being put down by force.

I groaned inwardly. This was getting worse all the time. Missing lunch seemed the least of my worries just then. I was frantically trying to remember newspaper reports I'd read years ago, about corporation officials on routine visits being held captive by the people.

He took my stunned silence as the cue to go on.

The people had formed a citizen's action council and made a submission to the court to immediately halt the running of the plant. It was posing a grave public health problem to the area, they claimed, and submitted a list of people who were allegedly suffering from health problems related to the running of the plant.

My job-definition would be to track each of them down, establish the veracity of their complaints, determine if the same was due to their proximity to the waste-disposal plant, and submit a report on the same.

The corporation had arranged for four teams to investigate. They had got people with qualifications and experience in public health, and nothing better to do on the week before Onam, for three teams, but they had to send one more 'expert' to head the last one.

"Your pick-up vehicle will be here in a short while. The other doctors have already agreed upon a questionnaire and flow-chart for everyone to follow, so that work of different teams can be standardized. That should help you."

Will surprises never cease? What did he mean 'In a short while'? Was it that they wanted me to go today and now? Then I remembered, and knew the reason behind the professor's good manners. Someone had backed out at the last moment, and I was to be the fill-in.

He saluted smartly, and left. Funny, I think, that he should.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Stench of the City, part 1

The day had started well enough. The OP was rather light, and it looked like it was going to be that rare day when we might be able to shut shop before noon. It was the week before Onam, and there was a general festive mood that had rubbed off on everyone. The patients were probably bottling up all their troubles until the festive season was past. My colleague was already making plans for taking his friend out to a long-delayed matinee and buffet lunch. I was happy for him, having known one too many failed relationships amongst doctors only because he or she was never around when the other needed them. In a relationship, few things can be more damaging in the long term.

Just as we were about to call it a day, there came a call from the dept the of the rather elaborately named Social and Preventive Medicine or simply SPM. To have the officer in charge of public health calling you is bad enough, but when even she doesn't get to the point, but rather asks you to stay put and hands the phone to the professor, you get a really, really bad feeling in your stomach that this is going to be something really, really bad.

"Hi Dr! How are you? Got any plans for Onam?"

The Old bull-dog being courteous, even deferential! Who ever heard of that? Now I knew I was in trouble, probably with a capital 't'.

"Doctor, we got a situation. Could you please wait a few min until I can dispatch someone to brief you on it?"

"I know you are in some kind of mess you crusty old curmudgeon, and you want to wash your hands clean off it. Its not something you can ask me to in the normal course of things, but at the same time you need someone who you think can do the job. Well, beat it. I can see through your 'nice guy' act and I ain't buying it any more. I've done my tour of duty at more tight spots than anyone else you know, and this time am calling it quits."

How I would have loved to say that to him!

"Yes sir. Of course sir. My pleasure sir. Thank you sir".

That's what I actually said.

I looked at my colleague. He was not making eye-contact. The natural thing would be to ask what it was that the old man had wanted. That would be the decent thing too, for I could actually ask him to stay back instead of me, having already done more than my fair share of 'dirty jobs', as we both were sure this was going to be.

But if you take a good man, put him up against a wall, then put a gun to his head, and say, "Your life or your pal's", what do you expect?

I know what not to expect. I believe six years at this place has made me a good enough cynic to know better than that.

He leaves, not a glance exchanged, our greetings unsaid. Six years of friendship, probably our last posting together, and this is how it ends. I feel pity for both of us. That's the only emotion I am allowed to feel, they tell me. No anger or disgust or envy. They say its not becoming to someone in the white coat to feel any of that. So you internalize your emotions, nursing a feeling of being regularly if not constantly wronged against and not able to even say it out loud, of being alienated from the rest of society, from your near and dear, and even from yourself; of being de-humanized. And worst of all, the knowledge that you are being judged against by people without an ounce of commitment within themselves. So you put up a facade, one of impenetrable emotional stability, that often belies the turbulence just beneath. And the show goes on.

Of course, I did not think all that just right then. I don't think that well on an empty stomach. But I certainly did think of the Onam feast I might almost certainly have to miss that day.

To be continued..