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.