It was a two storey house; decrepit and old; large and sprawling. (yes, semi-colons are cool). It had started out nice and small, but the arrival of kids and money had led to random additions of bedrooms and bathrooms, and by the time the kids had stopped arriving, the house looked outlandishly ugly – decreipt and old; large and sprawling.
Soon the kids grew up, jobs and marriages happened and the house was too big for just one couple. So, they decided to rent it out. Even though they didn’t ask for a lot of money, there were no takers: Who would want to have to go through a bathroom to get from one room to another?
No takers but one, that is: A doctor who was just starting out wanted to turn the house into his clinic. There were heated negotiations (my mom said), and finally Dr. Lakshmanan, who had inherited a lot of money from his dad, ended up buying it outright.
I didn’t know any of this when I was a six year old prone to falling off bicycles. All I knew was that I hated every minute I spent on the hard wooden benches in the Doctor’s waiting room – filled with dread, the unpleasant smell a sure precursor to the painful shots that would follow.
The clinic followed a unique model of queuing: every few minutes the doctor would come out of his room and scan the people waiting to see him. Then, with no apparent reason, he would pick someone and say, “You come in!” It didn’t matter if the guy had just entered the clinic or had been waiting there for ever: that was that. If my mom was with me, my turn would come sooner (“Teacher, Vaanga”), if I was with Ayyamma it was always “Hold on for a few more minutes, kid!”
When my turn did come, I’d enter the room, sit on a chrome-topped stool next to the Doctor and wait for him to begin the examination. He’d brusquely ask me a few questions (“Eat well?” “Pee ok?” ), and bark out a few instructions (“Open your mouth” “Breathe deep”) that didn’t seem to have any immediate relevance to my bleeding elbow, and tell whoever my adult accompaniment on the day was: “Everything looks ok, no problem.” We’d then pay him five rupees.
He’d scribble something on a piece of paper and ask me to take it to one of his nurses. Sometimes, there’d be no paper, and he’d just come out of his room through another door and yell, “White Medicine, small syringe for Babu.” A painful shot, a muted scream and then I was free to go home.
I hated the whole experience and thought the doctor, his clinic and the nurse sucked royally.
But strangely, not many people shared my low opinion of the doctor. Patients came from all over to see him and rumor has it that Cheran Transport Corporation introduced a special bus that took a circuitous route through several villages just to accommodate his patients. The house was always packed, and every square inch of it that was not a bathroom had a bed. Every bed had a patient of one flavor or the other – delirious with fever, screaming in pain, drips attached to arms, just waiting out a night to catch the first bus tomorrow. When I asked my mom why he was so popular, she’d always tell me the same thing – “He’s a good man, that’s why.”
As I grew older, a few more doctors sprung up in the neighborhood. My dad and I were tired of the long lines, and the no-frills service, so we switched to another doctor who had better waiting rooms and used thinner needles. My mom though was stubborn – “no one but him for me.”
So, I still had to go to Dr. Lakshmanan’s place with my mom, but times had changed and I was her accompaniment. Even though it had been nearly ten years since I first went there, times hadn’t changed at the clinic- the same questions, the same diet, and the same white medicine (penicillin, I knew now). And the same five rupees for a consultation.
I was starting to understand.
Later, on one of those days she felt like it, my mom told me that just before he died, the doctor’s dad – rich landlord – asked his son to use his education to serve the poor. And just like that, he did. Never asked for more than five rupees from anyone, even when syringes started to cost more than that, even when they were in the hospital for months, even when they couldn’t afford to buy foodand he had to pay Devi Tea Stall to deliver them barley kanji every day. She also told me that the queuing method wasn’t as random as I thought – the doctor had a timetable at his desk of whose bus left when.
Last year, Dr. Lakshmanan died. It was abrupt, my mom said. He went home for lunch, and died of a heart attack after his meal. His two daughters were around when it happened, but it happened all too suddenly and it doesn’t look like that there were any promises extracted. The daughters run a boutique in the house now.