Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Couple

The traffic was inching forward, and end-less lane of angry cars stretched as far ahead as the eye could see. The evening rush was worse than usual. He glanced at the clock impatiently, not wanting to reach home late. His wife would be waiting.

She was dressed and ready when he reached. A quick shower and they were off. He had advance tickets to the latest flick. More than the movie it was the memory of the old times that they wanted to relish. Somehow the seats seemed smaller now than they used to be just a few years earlier. Funny, she thought, how time comes to settle around the waist, like a tree’s girth around the trunk would tell the age. Then he took her hand in his and she forgot all about trees.

She had wanted to go to the road-side eatery they used to frequent. He thought they had outgrown it. They settled for a new restaurant that had come up in the vicinity of their old college campus. She liked the wine.

They went for a walk afterwards. A passing police-man recognized him and saluted smartly. He looked embarrassed. She smiled to herself, perhaps from memories of another time. Different memories.

A mild breeze blew from across the lake. Her smell still sent a chill down his spine after all these years. She slipped on the pavement, having worn heels after a while now. He caught her. She held on to his arm for one moment longer.

It began to drizzle. The evening was past. He called for his driver. They went back.

Then he dropped her and went home to his wife.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Kahlil Gibran, the Arab mystic poet, has been one of the most profound influenzes upon my life.

He wrote about longing and belonging, of the pain and suffering of existence, and of love.

He knew that there was a being inside Man that rode the skies with the angels, but that there was also a beast inside of him that was not yet human. And he loved all three of them.

In my days of madness, I would find refuge in the utterences of his 'Madman' and find solace. I can now see that those who understand us, enslave something in us.

In Love, I drew her to me with his words, and her gibberish made me laugh.

He taught me to be at peace with my soltitude, and I could finally come to see my place on the earth.

Cautioned me not to measure the strength of the ocean by the fraility of its foam.

He suggested that to see faces, one has to learn to look beneath the fabric that one's own eyes had woven, and behold the reality beneath. I have since come to realize that its a cruel thing to deny people of their deceptions, to try to see the man beneath the mask. I know, now, that the mask is the man.

Bread baked without love feeds but half a man's hunger, and I have tried to be brave enough that my work might indeed be love made visible.

Too bad, he didn't have armies spreading his word. The World would've been so much a better place.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Remembering Bubu..

Bubu died.

I was at Manjeswar, getting ready for the afternoon shift, when the telephone rang.

It was Amma. She sounded shaken.

"Did you know someone by name Babu?"

I could think of more than one person who had that name, in full or in part. I said as much.

"The one working at Thenmala. Was he your classmate?"

"You mean Bubu? Yeah he's my classmate alright. What of him?"

"M_____ called just now. Says he's dead."

Pause at both ends.


"Bike accident. At around 10 this morning."

I glanced at the wall clock. It was just past 11.

His body would still be warm.

*** ***

Bubu was always in a hurry.

During first year in college, when we were all green-behind-the-ear freshers, Bubu was one of the few people who were undaunted by the (literally) Latin terminology that we had to familiarize with, and the sheer volume of information we had to process. He jumped right in, spending long hours and money in voluminous standard textbooks, while many others took the easy way out by going for handed-down Xeroxed notes from seniors. He never scored very highly in any exam, but he was undoubtedly the most respected student of our class at that time. There used to be legends spun around his person. Some said he had started with medical studies before commencement of the course. Others said he had won some 60000 rupees worth of scholarship, all of which he had invested in medical books!

To put it simply, we were awed by Bubu.

Most people start seriously preparing for post-graduate studies after graduation. Bubu had already cleared his first stage exams for continuing education in the US before final year.

He wanted to be a specialist surgeon, and is said to have spent 40 minutes every day practicing his knots.

More legends!

*** ***

Thenmala is a hill-area, a tourist site situated in the Western Ghats, on the highway connecting Punalur in Kerala to Shenkottai in Tamil Nadu. The road uphill is as scenic as it is dangerous, the road cutting across cliffs and boulders at places, the Kallada River at its feet.

Thenmala is 20km from my home. The primary health center there is the closest to my home where I could expect to be posted during rural service period. Dr.M_____, who was the 'permanent' MO (unlike the CRS people who were on contract), was our neighbour at Punalur, from where she commuted to work everyday. Her husband is a magistrate serving at the local court.

OP at Thenmala begins at 9 in the morning. It was 9.30 and Bubu hadn't reached yet. Dr.M______ had started without him and was now beginning to get annoyed. Bubu had only been transferred in a month ago, and it was unlike him to be late. Just then she received a phone call. The caller identified himself as a policeman, and said Bubu had lost his balance at a curve that was well known to be one of the more difficult stretches. He informed her that her colleague had sustained minor injuries but would be ok in a short while. She immediately sent her jeep and driver to fetch him to the hospital, and tried to raise Bubu on his phone.

It went on ringing.

The driver returned shortly. There was no Bubu with him.

"It was more than a fall. Bubu Saar's motorcycle was hit by a bus at around 9. They have taken him to Punalur in a forest dept jeep."

*** ***

I realize that I am the first person in my batch to have known. It falls upon me to inform the others. And yet I had to be absolutely sure before I would pass on news like this. Then there was the question of arranging leave and replacement. You just don’t walk out of a hospital.

I contact my partner. He was a classmate to both Bubu and I. We agree we can’t both attend the funeral service. I offer to travel. He agrees to stay back. That's the way it works in the profession.

I start contacting others - one from each district - our entire batch of 200 having been literally spread along the length and breadth of the state, 'doing our time' as my partner once put it. I try to sound sufficiently vague: Heard that Bubu has been injured...did you hear you confirm...thank you..yeah am fine...yeah you too...bye..

*** ***

Mr. B________, the magistrate, was in the middle of a hearing. A court official slipped him a note from a Sub-Inspector. There was something that might be of interest to the honourable magistrate, so would he please call him at the given number at the earliest, the note said. Given below was a cell no. This was unusual, and therefore had to be serious. He calls the officer immediately.

"Sir, I am sorry to disturb you, but isn’t your wife the doctor at Thenmala Health Centre?"

"I was at the Taluk hospital today morning. There was a rumour that the doctor at Thenmala has been involved with a motor accident and is now being brought to Punalur. Thought you would like to know."

*** ***

Dr.M______ had just talked to one of the doctors at Punalur. She could feel that the other doctor was keeping something from her. She was afraid to push, afraid of what she might hear if she did.

Her cell rang. It was her husband.

"Heard you were dead!" he exclaimed, in a mixture of relief and delight.

She knew.

*** ***

Bubu was late. He didn't like to be late. He had only recently been transferred to the hill-station, and for some reason that seems inexplicable in retrospect, started using a motorcycle. Usually it is people who use a car in the countryside that start using a motorcycle when they move to the city because of the traffic congestion. Here he was, switching his car of 3 years for a motorcycle that he had seldom used after first year. He did wear his helmet, but - may be because he was late - probably didn't strap it down. As he neared the curve, there was a bus in front of him ever so slowly making it down the ghat roads but - again uncharacteristic of him - he overtook it right at the curve and ran face first into an oncoming interstate express bus. The bus didn't have much room to maneuver, and Bubu who swerved sharply glanced off its fender and fell. His helmet fell away from his head, and he fell face first onto the sharp end of his motorcycle handle. The front portion of his face caved in on impact. We call it a Le Fort fracture, classically seen in road traffic accidents. Bubu would have known.

He died instantly.

*** ***

My good friend, the station master at Manjeswar, has arranged a ticket for me at such short notice. I will get a berth nearly half the way, and then with luck, get a seat for the rest of the journey in another train. I would reach in time.

I reached at daybreak. Went straight to his home. Bubu was laid in an air-conditioned coffin. Someone had done a neat job on him - the caved in segment had been restored - yet his head was still like a half-inflated football. I stand for a moment, uneasy and unsure of myself. I had until now only thought of getting here. I bring my hands together in prayer and stay that way for may be a minute.

I start looking around. A few of my friends are standing to one side. Death might be everyday business to people in the profession, and truly there was the reserve and restraint that one would expect, but I could see that they were rattled. Am sure they saw the same in me.

I hadn't seen any of them after commencement of CRS. We exchange news about one another. We don't talk much about Bubu.

I lingered for a little while longer, and afterwards started looking for an autorickshaw.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Inheritance of Loss

The temple of Devi Sri Mookambika at Kollur in southern Karnataka is quite well-known in this part of the country.

People who visit here, also try to visit the hill-adobe of the Goddess at a place called Kudachadri, high and deep inside the forest, the road itself motorable only by 4-wheel drive jeeps and drivers experienced to drive through it. At the top, the jeep drivers wait for an hour and a half, to allow those who are interested to, to trek a few kms further on foot to the point called Sarvajna Peedam (The Seat of all Knowledge), which is where the sage Shankaracharya, whose name is associated with the legend of taking the Goddess from her hill-adobe down to the banks of the Sowparnika river, is supposed to have meditated.

A further few km up ahead is a place called Chitramala, literally 'picturesque hill', which is rumoured to be a place to go to if you wish to leave civilization behind. But the drivers advice you against it, partly because the terrain is too risky, and because it will take too long a time that they were not willing to wait for your return. Whatever it might be to you, it was for them also a matter of time and money, though I am sure for each of them, who had to scale those treacherous hair-pins many times every day, the Goddess was as important as to the best of pilgrims. There are no atheists in fox-holes.

I have for long been drawn to the temple, the river, the hill adobe, and the seat of knowledge. More than once my travels, aimless though they were, have culminated here: the restlessness that might not have been satiated anywhere else would finally be quenched, and I would return back to routine, content.

Each time, as I stood at the top of the Sarvajna Peedam, at the culmination of many a long journey, I have felt a sense of complete tranquility, of belonging, of having belonged for long. Each time, I would want to come prepared to go to Chitramala, but desist, not sure I was ready to take the final stretch, yet. At the Peedam, there is a small idol of the sage, inside a small temple-like room made of blocks of stone.

The first of couple of times I had been up there, the Peedam, though not a deserted place, was largely part of the landscape. Travelers there, only a few of them pilgrims in the strict sense of the word, would silently sit and savour the moment - try to take as much of it into them as they could. I remember having sat inside the stone structure, barely a feet from the idol of the sage, my shoes off, and feeling a profound respect fill inside me. I might have plucked a wild flower or two and left it there.

When I went there a year and half ago, for the first time with family and hence in a slightly mellowed mood, I could notice the early signs of change. There were enterprising young men perched at regular intervals along the trekking trail, selling refreshments to the travelers, who were now beginning to form into a crowd, with a more pilgrim-like way to it. At the top, someone had cleaned the idol of the sage and there were flowers strewn around like there had been a proper puja. People had already begun observing a respectable distance around the structure.

I went there again this weekend.

There was a priest conducting full-fledged rituals, people queuing up to have them performed. The idol looked all neat and polished, almost happy. I stood there wondering what to do, feeling like one might, when, having come to visit an old friend from afar, finds that man a millionaire now with people fawning over him.

Just then a boy of 10 or 12, dressed in a priest-like red and white dhoti, came over to where I was standing, ten feet away from the structure, which had started resembling a temple by now.

He told me that the ground on which I was standing was sacred, and authoritatively asked me to remove my footwear.

I remained on the spot for a while, realizing I did not belong here anymore.

After a while I removed the shoes, stood in the queue obediently, and when I got to front, completely ignored the priest (to his surprise), spent a few moments gazing at the decorated idol, took a little of the saffron kept in a dish nearby, said a silent good-bye in my heart, and started back.

I doubt if I will ever visit Chitramala now.

With apologies to Kiran Desai, for having used the title of her novel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Googling on Manjeswar

I tried google maps on Manjeswar last night, and boy, was I amazed!

There is this small trail that I had seen branching off from the main-road, not far from my quarters. So unbecoming to the adventurer in me, I had not ventured down that path even once in my one month here so far. I had tried to do some exploring during the first week, but after having driven off a cliff, the road suddenly having ended into an open gorge while I was still cruising at 60, had more or less decided not to go on any more wild goose chases.

That might have been a mistake.

There is a river running through the village (brother who came down from Delhi last week helped me with that: the old part of town is more appropriately called a village, I have since decided), a shallow stretch of water meandering in between wide sand-banks, typical of a river in its final stages before joining the sea. In retrospect, I wonder how it could never have occurred to me that I should have a look down the road that led in the direction where the river might join the sea.

In Google maps' satellite imagery I saw that the narrow river that I had known was actually only one of three or four, that formed a common delta before leading onto the Arabian sea. Due to the peculiar course of the rivers joining with each other and the sea, the land was carved into a broken chain of islands arranged in a gigantic C shape, the open ends barely 50 feet from one another across the water, but separated by at least 15km if one was traveling by land.

I had to force myself not to get on the motorcycle and go over to the edge of the water then and there. I remember how a friend and I had once been sitting idly watching it rain outside our balcony at the medical college hostel one midnight, when just like that we felt like going to a water theme park near Kochi, that was supposedly the largest in Asia. I don't remember who originated the idea but we dug up some moth-eaten rain clothes (that did a very fine job of keeping us wet even after the rain had stopped many hours later) and started off in our two motorcycles to reach Kochi at around 6.30 in the morning, checked in to the cheapest hotel we could find, caught 2 hrs of sleep before going to the park. It is another story that we were both of us so NOT amused at being asked to step into a shallow pool of water smelling of urine, vomit and alcohol, with a bunch of school kids, and asked to imagine that we were having fun, all for Rs 350. Its just that when you have rode all night braving a thunderstorm and made it across 250km, your benchmark for what counts as adventure is slightly higher. I think theme parks are considered funny because, having paid for the entry ticket, people would better start imagining that they are having a good time!

The night passes, and early today morning I got on Old trusty and went down the narrow lane. It took me past the sand-mining banks and the fishing harbour, to end against a lane of boulders cutting across the road and continuing into the sea. Leaving the bike there and having climbed over the obstacles I found myself in a stretch of sand-bank, the edge of the 'C' that I had seen yesterday, the Arabian sea to my right, the combined pool of the four rivers on my left.

An infinite stretch of water: the rivers tranquil; the ocean, turbulent.

A little out into the sea, isolated boulders could be seen propping out of the surface, part of the chain of rocks. At one or two of the highest points, someone had put up a couple of green flags, signaling that, like me, the local Muslim fishermen also thought this place had the hand of God upon it.

The other shore appeared even more thinly inhabited, with no signs of commercial activity. It would be wonderful to swim across the channel to the other side, and may be set up a fire and spend the night there.

I just couldn't help wishing I had chanced upon this place while going down an unknown road, rather than having a satellite tell me what was practically on my own backyard!

Folks, try google maps around where you live. Who knows what we might find!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ghost of the Christmas Past

Many years ago, I read an abridged version of the 19th century classic by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’. Put simply, it is the story of the miraculous transformation of the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge into a kind philanthropist over the night of Christmas eve. Mr.Scrooge, is visited in his sleep by three ‘ghosts’, the ghosts of the Christmas Past, Present and Future, that showed him the life he was missing on account of his avarice, and what lay in store for him in the future if he did not change his ways.

The literary maestro that he is, Dickens’ description of each ghost is calculated to arouse in the reader’s, as well as Mr.Scrooge’s mind, the right mixture of fear and confusion and dreadfulness, and at the end, hope.

The Ghost of the Christmas Past is described as having a face that might have belonged to a man or a woman, to an old person or a child. It is dressed in flowing white robes, and has a cap that she never wears. It shows him scenes from his childhood and early adult years, his tender side that he had forgotten long ago.

Last week, I saw a face just like that.

It was one of the crowded days at the OP. Even as I am attending to a patient, I do try to be generally aware of the presence of people around me, a wandering casual eye that would constantly be on the look out for anything that didn’t fit into a pattern: something that might suggest a person in need of immediate attention. I hate it when someone collapses while waiting for their turn after having come to the hospital from afar.

I had a nagging feeling then, that morning in the OP. A couple of times I stopped what I was doing and looked around, yet could not see anything out of the ordinary, amongst the largely burqa-clad crowd. Yet the feeling remained, and so I suddenly turned round, just in time to see an emaciated hand hastily bring down the veil over a face, that could have been young or old, or for that matter could even have been male or female. A look of almost unbearable suffering, of fear, of shame. In the infinitesimal moment that our eyes met, I knew: the haunted eyes of the HIV-AIDS patient, especially in a young woman, is hard to miss even for someone having only the most rudimentary acquaintance with human suffering.

Hastily she covered the face, retreated into the security of her robes, and slipped away into the crowd. Perhaps she had memories of other times, of being chased out of other places.

After an hour or so, when the crowd at the OP had begun to thin out, I could make out the familiar outline at the back of the queue. I called out to her, and the others moved to either side to give way as she hesitantly came up to the front.
With some difficulty, I cleared some space around the table, pushing the others out of the consultation room. She visibly relaxed, and for the first time, began to laugh and talk normally like the 28 years old that the OP ticket said was her age.

She might’ve been 70, but for the laughter.

Just so there was no doubt left, she told me her HIV status, like a responsible patient, and proceeded to describe a plethora of symptoms, suggestive of a worsening immune status. I asked about the duration of the disease.

She had been of ART (Anti Retro-Viral Therapy) for TEN YEARS.

She got it from her husband, who was then undetected (or so it was claimed), when she was married to him AT THE AGE OF SEVENTEEN.

Two children, both not infected, thanks to availability of costly medicines through a centrally funded project. She lived with her husband, and they got along by rolling beedis.

Talk to me about equal opportunity and percentage stats in govt employment, the IITs and the IAS. I’ll tell you what it means to have never had a chance.

A cold rage.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In the boots of a colonialist..

Manjeswar is the northern most point of the state of Kerala.

If you are the geographically minded sort, you'll notice that the place is situated well into Dakshina Kanara (Southern Karnataka), only 20km from the port city of Mangalore. Its at just about the same latitude as the city of Bangalore.

It is here that I have been posted to as the the medical officer, my first posting after the very eventful 60 or so months at the the Medical College at the other end of the state.

I have only been here a week, and am even now getting used to the slow pace of life, the food, the language, and of course, the ubiquitous burqa worn by most women of the majority Muslim community. I am trying to not feel too irritated having to treat someone who wouldn't show me the face. But then I have started noticing that not two of these robes are all alike, differentiated as they are by some embroidery here and a splash of colour there, and I know that the women were themselves waging a battle, even if they did not recognize it as such. I have a feeling that, for many of my burqa-clad patients, going to the hospital is just an excuse for a dash of fresh air, a stroll around the market, a visit to the beautician's. Who am I to grudge them that!

The food is another story. I have known before, during my days in Northern India, how food could be very communal. There were Hindu eateries as there were Muslim ones, and where one chose to dine could be a very political statement of loyalties. As a non-vegetarian family, as most keralites are, we used to go over to the muslim part of town for dinner, and I still remember how my friends in 9th std once told me I could either be a Hindu, or eat beef, but not be one and do the other. Fortunately, as far as I have seen, there is none of the moral posturing here, but the options are nonetheless stark: either an endless parade of dosas or else its the eateries around the mosque. At least that is the way it is in the old part of town.

Speaking of which, brings us to a bit more of local geography. Manjeswar (Manjeswaram in Malayalam) is essentially divided into two parts, what I shall henceforth refer to as the 'old town' and the 'new town'.

The old part of town is situated a couple of kms off the arterial Manglore-Cochin highway, and houses the important places of worship for both Muslims and Hindus, as also the govt offices: The hospital, the police station, Post Office and Telephone exchange, public works and the railway station, etc. And yet it is a throw-back to the seventies, with its narrow single-lane alleys where children play at all hours, the general slow pace of life, apathetic shop-keepers most of whom haven't even got name-boards. It is here that I work and live in the quarters of the Govt hospital, officially referred to as the Community Health Center, a first referral unit. The town branches off from the highway, cutting across the Mangalore-Cochin railway line which, for the most part, runs parallel to it, and then after nearly 10kms or so rejoins the highway, cutting back across the railway line. It is obvious that the old town was here before the now all-important road and rail networks developed and in their wake gave rise to the 'new town'- a bustling commercial area, and an upcoming suburb of Mangalore, with wide roads and well-maintained shops, right where the old town branches off the highway. This must have been a village in olden times and is called Hosangadi. Thus, here we have the Old and the New: The Old is uncorrupted by what is new, and the New, for its part, has un-apologetically severed ties with whatever is old.

But living as I am in the old town, the language is a maze if not a total mess. People speak Kannada, Tulu, Konkini, Marathi, and last, a bit of Malayalam and no English. I have picked a couple of words of Kannada already, but am adviced to be not too confident in my knowledge of the local language before ascertaining which among the local dialects I am dealing with: they say that often similar-sounding words have exactly opposite meanings in the different dialects. Already, at least on one occassion, I almost prescribed for someone with loose stools, drugs to stop vomiting. So much for learning the local language.

But, as the doctor, not many of whom are around, the onus is upon them rather than me. It is in the interest of the local people to see to it that I understand what they got to tell, or else they might get medicines that act at opposite ends of the body like above. Its the same story everywhere - be it the police station or the water authority or public works, I am sure we must have pure-blood Malayalees sitting in the smug confidence that they can never go wrong, simply because its up to the native population to ensure that we understand what they have in mind. This is where I feel like one of the colonial officers of the Raj, with whom Indians had to converse in bits and pieces of English. Of course, there is none of the motives of exploiting or subjugating the local population, nor is there talk of 'civilizing the savages'. Quite to the contrary, the govt of Kerala has gone out of its way to ensure proper services and facilities in this far-flung part. Haven't they even sent their best doctors here, after all!!

Not to forget the Royal Enfield motorcycle cruising through the narrow alleys of the old town to complete the picture.