I had finished adding the manure to the cauliflower bed and then watering it. Just then a long blue coloured car cruised to a halt in front of the gate.
“Father shouted, ‘Babu, see who’s come?”
With soiled hands and feeling the least bit conscious I came out clad in the same lungi and kurta I had been wearing. I looked at the visitor – his face seemed familiar – as if he was a dear one. But I could not quite remember where I had met him. Braving the December chill who could have come to my house, in remote Bangariposi, this early in the morning?
The unknown visitor suddenly exclaimed, “What yaar! Can’t you recognize me?”
I could never have imagined that suddenly one morning Subendu would land up in a car at my door step.
It was almost fifteen years ago….We were studying medicine together in Banaras and staying in one room. I can even remember the number – 116.
Subendu had become very plump and very fair. However, his thick hair had given way to a shining bald pate. Seeing my old friend after such a long tem I exclaimed, “Arrey! You are Subendu no? How come you are here? It all seems so strange. You were settled in Mumbai no?”
“What yaar? You will call me inside or send me away from the door itself?”
I called Subendu in, asked my wife to make tea and went inside to wash my soiled hands.
When one meets a friend after a long time there is so much to talk to – so many topics crop up in the form of questions –How many kids? What is the wife doing? What is your income? How are the kids studying? Have you bought any land, constructed a house etc, etc. Of course these kind of personal questions can be asked only in our country. If such questions are asked to people of England or Australia they will get upset. The reason being in those countries the children build their and own lives and get married according to their own choice . And the less we ask about their wives the better it is.
While we were discussing these issues I introduced my wife and kids to my old friend.
I found Subendu a trifle agitated and asked him – “Do you need anything?”
“Ya, where is the telephone?”
“Sorry. For the last two days the phone is not working. The cable has been stolen.”
“Why are you wasting your talent in a place like this?”
Of what use is your gold medal in MBBS and MD in Bangariposi?”
I just did not want to have any discussion with him on this issue.
“First you tell me how come you are here? Who gave you my address?”
“I had come to Bhubaneswar to attend a seminar as a the guest speaker. I had to leave for Delhi today. I had to give a lecture at another meeting there and leave the next day for Mumbai. However, the entire program got upset. Don’t you know? Yesterday they hijacked an aircraft at Kathmandu and took it to Kabul. For security reasons all the flights from Bhubaneswar have been cancelled. I had no choice. I was going to Kolkata. At Jharpokhori crossroads I enquired about you. You have earned a very good name in this region. Tomorrow instead of going to Delhi, I’ll return to Mumbai.”
“All this expenditure is borne by you or by your company.”
“Arrey! Idiot! God knows in which world you are living! To and fro journey expenses, hotel bills – every thing is borne by the company. . Nether one can afford to fly by spending money from one’s own pocket, nor can one stay in five star hostels by spending Rs. 8000 per day. All I have to do is to prescribe the medicines of that particular pharmaceutical company, whether they are required by the patients or not.”
He looked at me waiting for the information to sink in and then asked, “Where is the loo? Do you have a commode?”
I showed him the Indian style lavatory behind my house.
“You manage with this today,” I said and brought a bucket of water.
“In our house you can’t go to the toilet wearing a pant and shirt. If my father comes to know he’ll throw me out of the house. Here take this towel and tie it. Late you can go to the well and take a bath. After your bath we can take breakfast together.”
“Arrey Tathagat, can I get a little hot water?”
I told my wife to heat a bucket of water and completing the task interrupted by Subendu’s arrival, finished my bath.
Anyway Subendu managed to take a bath in the bathroom shouting hoo-hoo, haa haa – apparently due to the cold water. After that we two friends started taking our breakfast.
My wife told Subendu, “You had to face a lot of difficulty in our house today?”
Putting a rosgolla in his mouth Subendu once again said, “Don’t you feel bad leading such a primitive life style? God knows how you pass your time. You come over to Mumbai, you can enjoy a modern life style and play around with as much money as you want. You are practicing medicine here or spending your time tending to your cows and your garden?”
Even though I was hurt by his sarcasm I was not sure what I should say or what I should do – after all he was an old friend and more so we were meeting after such a long time. Even then at the end, perforce I said, “Subendu listen, I get up at five in the morning, and during summer even earlier. I take the cows outside, collect the cowdung and dump it in the manure pit. The young fellow who stays closeby comes and milks the cows. By the time I finish tending to the cows and garden, it is six. I then take a bath using the cool water of the well. Now I have got so used to taking cold water bath that if ever I use hot water I start feeling feverish and my head starts aching. At exactly eight I leave for the missionary hospital on my scooter. I work till one-one thirty and then come back home. I have my meal and then take a nap.
“Do you have cable here?” Subendu enquired.
“The voltage is so low that till night nine the picture is hazy. There is no transmitter close by and except for Doordarshan nothing can be seen. We can only hear the sound just like in a radio. Out of disgust I have kept the TV in the attic. Half the day there is no light here. That is why father listens to the news in various languages, on his old transistor.”
“How do you pass your evenings? Must be very boring?”
“Where is the time to get bored in the evenings? By the time I go to bed sometimes it is eleven.”
“What do you do then?”
“Patients from nearby villages come to me with their myriad problems – someone’s child is sick, someone’s father or he himself. By the time I finish with them it is ten. Along with this I also have to take care of my children’s studies.”
“Anyway, you are able to carry on a lucrative private practice.”
“How much do you manage to earn? At least you must be able to take care of your household expenses?”
“Here the reason for illness of 90 per cent of the people is malnutrition. They don’t get enough to eat. Most of them manage to survive on the bare minimum. When they don’t have money to eat where will they get money to pay the doctor’s fees?”
“What about medicines?”
“I hand over samples or buy medicines and give them.”
“What a great way for a doctor to practice his profession? Buying medicines with one’s money and distributing to the patients!” Subendu said.
“If I don’t do that they’ll die.”
“Does your father knows all this? Why doesn’t he object?”
“He himself takes out money from his pension and gives it to me for buying medicines for these poor villagers. Father’s eyes are also infected. He can’t see properly after dusk. And so in this manner the day passes – one doesn’t even know how.”
“And what about your medical research?”
“Diagnosing, studying and treating the typical diseases these people suffer from is research in itself. In which book will I get all this? This apart, I subscribe to 3-4 medical journals. Sometimes I contribute an article or two on the typical maladies prevalent here.”
“And how much salary do you get from the hospital per month?”
“What did you say? Eight thousand! My driver gets more than that.”
“Yes, baba, you people are very rich.”
“You come over to Mumbai, you’ll get a good job in no time.”
“If all of us settle elsewhere then where will the suffering populace of this place go? Who will treat the ill of this village? Don’t they have a right to healthy living? Don’t their lives matter? You know 50 per cent of the population of our country lives in the villages. I see that your value system and my value system are completely different. Anyway suppose I take your advise and go to Mumbai and even earn a lot of money – what next?”
Subendu started once again, “God knows how you live here. After working for sometime in Mumbai you will be able to buy your own car – and you won’t have to travel by a local train or a bus.”
“After that you will be able to buy your own house and take your wife and kids to Mumbai.”
“Hey! You are becoming a bore. You have not given up your old habit of repeating what next, what next?”
“And so what next?”
“You can go to Dubai or Muscat. Within 2-3 years you will earn lakhs of rupees. After that you will open you own clinic. You will buy the latest equipment and open your own nursing home. You will become a crorepati…yes, definitely a crorepati.”
“I’ll have to work very hard to achieve all this?”
“Yes, from morning five to night eleven or twelve at least. Of course, after a few years even if you spend a little less time outside the house the money will keep coming in. I am attached to a number of nursing homes. By working part time there you can earn enough to take care of your life’s daily expenses.
“How many years will all this take?”
“Not many – around 15 to 20 years.”
“Arrey! You will live in your house like a king. If you are lucky and a few VIPs become your patients or if you get to know the stars from Bollywood – then sky is the limit. Bhabhi will only be counting the money.”
Before Subendu could say anything more I asked, “What next?”
“Once you have made a name you can buy a farm house in Pune or Bhubaneswar and can lead a relaxed life just as you are leading now. The only difference is that you will have servants in your house, a generator set and every other modern amenity you need. You can enjoy your life and whenever you feel like you can go on a foreign jaunt with your family.
After listening to Subendu I made a mental calculation.
“That means the way I am living now, after going to Mumbai and spending 15-20 years I’ll come to the same position. By then my kids will have got married and settle down. My father would have passed away. We two husband and wife would somehow be passing the days of our old age.”
I laughed inwardly and said, “I really liked your thought process. Okay Subendu, have you ever asked yourself this question? By amassing so much of wealth are you able to live life in peace and comfort?”
Before Subendu could reply I added, “Tell you driver lunch is ready. He can have it. He has to drive another 250-300 kilometres.”
“No, he will make his own arrangements for food, after all I have got him on contract.”
It was past three. Subendu said, “Friend, I am leaving. Where is Uncle?”
“Father goes to sleep after lunch. He will get up at four and picking up his harmonium sing bhajans. And today there will be a market in Bangariposi. He will definitely go.”
Before getting into the car Subendu asked my phone number, address and visiting card.
“God knows how you will contact me after reaching Mumbai?”
Seeing Subendu reaching for his walled I held out my hand and said, “Okay, give me your card.”
Original in Oriya by Dr. Sanjoy Satpathy