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.


  1. interesting post!
    ...Yes multi-variety can pose serious problem,in this case language.keep writing :)

  2. Great doctor...! So finally started the work you must be dreaming all these years..! Its amazing that you've been able to see the other side of those burqa clad women!

  3. Off on a great note, Gopu! or rather, Dr.Gopu! I am sure you will utilise all your spare time exploring the countryside on the good ole Bull! Have a great time and keep us posted!

  4. @Shivi: Thank you. Wish you a great year ahead!

    @Imagination: I first got the idea when I saw a signboard outside a tailor shop with the words, 'specialists in burqa fashion'. Now, who would've expected to find those two words in the same sentence!

    @Bala: I will. In the meanwhile, why not plan another Goa or something? May be a Kudajadri. Have always wanted to do that on good ole' Waterlilly

  5. Great one! I enjoyed your description of the town and felt I was reading the opening chapter of a book with all its mysteries yet to unfold.
    I am often curious to know how women survive clad in a burqa. Do they feel safe? Do they feel restricted? And how do they feel going to a male doctor wearing a burqa?
    Seems you are beginning to settle down. I will be looking forward to your posts describing the life of a doctor in a small town.

  6. I always wonder what these women must be feeling inside their burqas. A lot of them dress really well, colour their hair, wear lipstick and hide it all behind a burqa! Seems like you are having a different life altogether in quaint little Manjeswar....

    Wishing you a very happy new year :)

  7. Happy New Year Doctor!! The description of manjeshwar is detailed in every aspect, balanced complete and yet devoid of negetive or positive emotions. Yet again this piece amazes me to your great objectivity, your balanced approach and your terrific writing skills!! Burqas or abayas as they are called in the gulf are very common, they veil and yet they see, the eyes of the lady sees the world but she chooses whom she wants to show her face..thats a view too right? I have seen girls in shorts just wearing the burqa as a coat before they leave the indoors..its not really that bad!

  8. @Aparna: Most women unveil their faces, although some would rather not, during a consultation. There is an element of chaperoning involved, and it is not merely for company that they usually bring a friend or neighbour or even a child along. Outside of immediate family, the dr should be the only male with whom these women allowed personal interaction. As for the actual nature of interaction, there are differing comfort levels. At least one lady came with her husband, and after 'checking the dr out' with talk of 'fever', went on to ask for advice on contraception.

    @Destiny: Hi and happy new year. Yeah I too saw some very well made up faces under the burqas.

    @Sujatha: Hi there old friend, hope you had a great time being a 'kid' again for a month (saw your latest one). I do not have anything against a person choosing to wear a burqa or a bikini if that suits them. But I am wary of a value system that places high value on 'burqa-isation' (how abt that for a word!). Therein, a woman wearing a sari might appear as inadequately dressed, as happened to Hindu women in Pakistan and more recently Bangladesh. There goes the dis-passioned objectivity you mentioned, right?

  9. You 've touched each n every possible adverse chords of NEW Place so be it food , culture , language , people etc subjects thereof stimulating exertion rather strain ,that every novice on a new board faces .........very well knitted......

  10. @ Anju: I did not mean to refer to the characterestics of the place as either being 'adverse' or 'good'. I have to confess I didn't quite follow your comment. Thanks for dropping by.

  11. Dear Bluebird, I was not pinpointing anything in ‘characteristics’ respect My sole moto message was only to convey that u as any sojourner was going through new observation and cognition of New place which is so very expected .. well reflected in varied description of Majeswar , so be it place ,people , language , food etc ……'that perceptible indication of city inspection was my admiration’…………………………

    anyways as for comment u r always welcome.

  12. @Anju: Thanks for dropping by and taking the trouble to tell me again. Please keep in touch.

  13. Hi, I'm not quite sure how I found your blog but I'm glad I have. I'm enjoying what I've read so far and will return anon.

  14. Nice post.

    Though i don think those muslim women suffer too much in their burqas. They're used to it...its like their second skin. They're conditioned to think that it is the normal way of life .

    In fact , i'd say they'll feel weird if made to take off their burqas. They will not think of it as great empowerment or some such. It will be just breach of modesty for them.

    Conditioning is such a strange thing. Just like it is normal for me to walk burqa-less , so it is for them to cover themselves like that.

    So instead of giving them all the talk about "leaving the burqas" .

    Cant we just let them be ?

  15. Hi gymnast.

    A valid point.

    Since you asked, I don't have an opinion regarding a person wearing or not wearing a piece of cloth.

    But I do object to a value system that causes a woman to feel guilty for showing her face to the world, for wanting an education, for wanting to have a say about whom to marry and how many children to have.

    I do not buy the argument that burqa is a 'second skin'. It may be to some, it may not be to others. When we say 'them', are we referring to all the many millions of them?

    As you rightly said, conditioning is a strange thing, to all of us.


    this is what i object to.

  17. Hey bluebird, landed on your blog from balan sir's page. So you've got your bull along with you. All the best for your new assignment. Still remembers how you helped out that ailing fellow during our ooty trip :)

  18. hi Subodh! great to see you here. do drop in if you are in the area. Ride safe.


Thanks for giving me this moment of your life.