Friday, February 24, 2006

Home Again

It's been raining ever since I got here. Abbu's bought a brand new PDA. I got my first ever credit card. And Baskin Robbins is, once again, just down the road.

See ya!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


The Doctor

The doctor took my shirt away;
He did it for the best;
He said, "It's very cold today,"
And took away my vest;
Then, having nothing more to say,
He hit me in the chest.
Oh, he did clout my ribs about
Till I was bruised and red,
Then stood and listened to my spine
To see if I was dead,
And when I shouted "Ninety-nine!"
He simply shook his head.
He rather thought that rain would fall,
He made me hop about the hall,
And savagely he said,
"There's nothing wrong with you at all
You'd better go to bed!

"Oh you must eat no scrap of meat,
No rabbit, bird, or fish;
Apart from that have what you please,
But no potato, bread, or cheese;
Not butter, alcohol, or peas;
Not sausage, egg, and ratafias
A very starchy dish;
Have any other foods but these
But at and after every meal,
And twice an hour between,
Take this -- and this -- and this -- and THIS
In water and quinine,
And wash it down with liquorice
And nitro-glycerine.

"You must not smoke, or read a book,
You must not eat or drink;
You must not bicycle or run,
You must not talk to anyone;
It's better not to think.
A daily bath I don't advise;
It's dangerous to snore;
But let your life be otherwise
As active as before.
And don't imagine you are ill,
I beg you not to mope;
There's nothing wrong with you -- but still,
While there is life, there's hope."

I woke and screamed a hideous scream
As greedy children do
Who eat too much vanilla cream
For I was having 'flu;
And it was just an awful dream
But, all the same, it's true.

- A P Herbert

I'm the Urban Spaceman

I’m going to be leaving in a few days so I went in this morning to speak to the Chairman of the department and ask if he could give me a certificate of experience.

“Sure, just write one and I’ll sign it,” he said.

I hate it when professors say that. Write your own recommendation letter. I cannot write my own recommendation letter. I don’t know what to say. Do I act all reserved and modest, offering only slight concessions of approval to suggest my competence (“his performance was found to be satisfactory”) or do I go all out and emblazon the certificate with undeniable proof of my staggering genius (“I wish he was my son”)? It’s a tricky balance that I’ve never been able to master.

Uhm, OK.”

I went upstairs to the library and sat down in front of a computer. It’s best to start off by describing the institute you’re working in, I thought. Gives the reader an idea of the sort of professional work environment you were part of and the levels of commitment involved.

I wrote a paragraph introducing the institute and all its various facilities. The different departments, the patient turnover, the structured academic environment. Set down on paper it sounded very impressive. There is a sort of mental filter that operates during these self-congratulatory exercises. You’re careful to omit prickly little details, like a thermometer left overnight in an armpit. Or a broken-down blood gas machine and attendants running around in the middle of the night, clutching blood samples and asking for directions to local laboratories. None of this is written.

Dr KK worked on the busy nephrology service at our hospital.” At least this was true.

He demonstrated a wide knowledge base.” I thought of the day on rounds when the consultant asked something simple and I was the only one who knew the answer. Though unfair, the consultant had appreciated me and scolded the others for being lazy. I toyed with the idea of inserting a commendable in there somewhere.

His data-gathering and clinical skills were good.” A few days ago, Dr Faraz and I were practicing our physical exam skills on one of the patients on the ward. We both have exams coming up and we wanted to brush up on technique and time ourselves to the requirement. Our patient was an old gentleman with chronic hepatitis and metastatic cancer who had very graciously allowed us to examine him. We spend a good twenty minutes on him, digging into his abdomen to locate the liver, beating out percussion notes on his back to demarcate the fluid collection in his lungs. It must have been an uncomfortable experience. When I thanked him before leaving, he looked at me gratefully and said, “No, thank you, doctor. You examined me so thoroughly, I feel half my illness is already gone.”

He shared a good relationship with his colleagues.” They spoilt me. They taught me, they took care of me, they paid for my food. They were an indefatigable source of friendship and humor.

And worked well with paramedical staff.” Especially that one nurse who woke me up on call one night, sobbing helplessly into the phone, “Why won’t his seizures stop?!” She was referring to a young boy with hypocalcemia and refractory seizures. He died a few days later.

“What are you doing?” I heard a voice behind me.

It was Dr Anwar, one of the senior residents.

“I’m writing a recommendation letter for myself.”

“Oh, let me read it.” I let him have a look.

“What does didactic mean?”

“Academic, related to lectures and book learning.”

“Oh, ok,” he said. “This is good.”

“It doesn’t sound too fake, does it? You think he’ll sign it?”

“Sure,” he said smiling. “You’re a hard worker, Dr KK. You will be successful.”

“Thanks, Dr Anwar. Nice of you to say that.”

“No problem.”

I printed the letter out and took it back to the chairman’s office. What would he say to my embellishments? Maybe I should take out the part where it says I make his heart weep with joy. It would be very embarrassing if he started crossing out stuff or asked me to re-write it.

The professor took the draft from me and, without even looking at it, signed over his designation.

“Good luck.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Second Honeymoon

The blue that startled his heart has faded:
blue-grey like denim now her eyes by candlelight
across the table -- and he knows the fingerprints
of time are on him, too, though candle's bloom
is less truthful than the unrelenting sun.
He knows them both to be weathered in the cascade
of the years, beyond redress -- still, his hand
which has crept without volition over the linen
to clasp hers, touches, not the flesh time mars,
but the undimmed radiance of her love, pulsing
stronger for the passage of the years since first
he touched her. His hand tightens over hers
in that familiar reflex which has saved him,
times beyond remembering, from drowning.

- Tony Scanlon

Monday, February 13, 2006

Choti Choti Khushian

I left work early today. India and Pakistan were playing a one-day game at Gaddafi and a quick phone call meant I had invites to a corporate box at the stadium. I was told to come to the main entrance and then call upstairs for someone to escort me to the box.

The rickshaw dropped me off outside the stadium. Police barricades were restricting traffic. There was a huge crowd around the perimeter, mostly schoolboys who had bunked class to cheer their team on. Their brightly colored blazers bore emblems of the schools they were missing from. Food vendors were selling a variety of spicy treats. I walked over to the main entrance and called upstairs.

The network was busy. I tried a variety of numbers. None of them went through. It was as if the cries emanating from the excited crowds within rose as a thick wall, blocking off all intrusion, all voices apart from their own. The stadium was the world, the center of all ambition, as thousands of wills locked in place to spur their side on.

My call finally went through. My host said he would be down in a minute and could I please make myself visible.

I moved into view.

“Bhai-jaan, aap mujhe bhi apne saath andar le jaa saktay hain?” a small voice spoke up beside me. (“Excuse me, could you please take me in with you?”)

I saw a young boy, the peach fuzz fresh on his lip, looking at me pleadingly.

For a moment, I thought about exchanging my ticket for him and asking my host if he could go instead of me. And then I realized how inappropriate it would be, this young boy, sitting incongruously in a room full of people he didn’t know. No, it would be too awkward.

“Nahin beta, mushkil hoga,” I said and went ahead to meet my escort.

We went upstairs. The room was packed. Some of my friends were there. A few faces were familiar from television. I put my bag in the corner, took my lab-coat off and found a seat near the front.

“Have you had lunch?” my host asked.

“No, not yet.”

A waiter was sent to get me lunch.

“There’s a fridge in the corner with soft drinks. Help yourself, son.”

“Thank you.” The waiter returned with a plate of food piled high with pulao, karhai chicken and soft, creamy saag.

The second innings had just started. Mohammad Asif was making the ball sing around the Indians. Their batsmen were clueless. We all sat riveted to our seats, following the match both on the ground as well as the television screen in the box. Someone opened up a box of black forest cake and slices were passed around. PCB hospitality ensured a constant round of tea and coffee. Celebrities walked in and out, including, ironically enough, two actors featuring in a current biscuit commercial. “Abay, tu?” their friend teased them. Everyone was enjoying the game.

The president’s helicopter flew by and, suddenly, I thought of the boy outside. Of all the people who were in the room with me, maybe he deserved to be there the most. I thought of the look on his face when I refused him.

A camera crew came in to capture our excitement. They were followed by a group of young girls from Karachi, bored of sitting with their parents in the corporate box next door. A visiting flurry of anxiety rippled through the room. One of the girls was being bothered by an unwanted SMS suitor. “How did he get my number?” she fretted. “The phone is registered in my driver’s name!”

Pakistan’s fortunes fell. Sachin Tendulkar, playing an effortless innings, stabilized the match. When he left, Yuvraj and Dhoni came in and blasted the ball around the ground. “Dhoni ne dhunaai kar di,” the guy sitting next to me remarked. I grinned mirthlessly. What looked to be a nail-biter ended in a dismal defeat as Pakistan lost by five wickets. Not even Musharaff sahib’s good humor, complimenting Dhoni’s leonine hair, could lift our spirits. Nobody likes to lose.

And yet, the more I think about it now, the more I realize how a greater loss occurred today. Even before the innings had started something valuable and precious had been denied.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


I came downstairs the other day to look for a missing sock.

"The cheel flew away with it," Nani said.


"What's a cheel?" I asked.

"I don't know what you call it in English. Eagle, maybe."

"Why would an eagle fly away with my sock?"

"To insulate its nest. It took one of mine too," Nani informed me, pointing to a single black sock.

"Stupid cheel. It should have taken both. What am I going to do with one sock?"

"You can wear mine."

"I'll look like an idiot."

"No more than usual."


My cousins’ grandparents were over from England recently. We call them Nana and Nano, even though they’re not really our grandparents but just a pair of benevolent figures, occasionally showing up in some old childhood memory. All I remembered of them was their house in London. The small garden, wet clothes drying on the radiator, Weetabix. Who really knows their cousins’ grandparents?

Mami called me the other night to ask if I could advise her some antibiotics for her father. Nana was down with a bad case of gastroenteritis. Vomitting, diarrhea, high fever. Could I come over and see him?

I went over and found Nana lying in bed, looking exhausted. Mami had just cleared away a bag of vomit.

“The temperature’s a hundred,” she said. “He’s vomited several times today. Diarrhea too.”

Nana looked at me and smiled weakly.

“How are you, son?”

“Good, thanks,” I replied. “More importantly, how are you?”

“Allah ka shukr, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

“Would you mind if I examined you?” I asked.

“Sure, please go ahead,” he said generously, trying to sit up.

“No, that’s alright. I’m just going to check you for dehydration. Maybe take a quick listen at your heart. You don’t have to get up.”

I checked for signs of dehydration and auscultated the heart. They didn’t have a sphygmomanometer so I couldn’t check the blood pressure but he seemed to be mildly dehydrated.

“Do you like ORS, Nana?” I asked genially.

“Sure, I had a few sips today.”

“That’s great. You seem a little dehydrated to me so ORS is a good idea. Just try and drink it slowly, a few sips at a time, so you don’t throw it up.”

“Thanks, son,” he said gratefully.

“No, not at all. Just drink the ORS and you’ll be fine. If there’s anything else, I’m around.”

“Thank you so much, son,” Nano spoke up. “It’s good of you to come over.” She’d been quiet so far, watching observantly as I examined her husband.

“No, please, don’t mention it, Nano. It’s just a little viral illness. He’ll be fine soon enough.” This was getting embarrassing.

“Here, have some juice.” She pushed a glass of apple juice in my hand.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll ask the houseboy to get some more ORS for him. Listen, Naseema,” she called over the housegirl. “Ask Ashraf to run down to the pharmacy and get some more sachets of ORS. And then come back and massage Nana’s feet.”

Naseema left the room.

“I’m always so worried when he falls ill. In England, all we have to do is make one phone call and they send the ambulance to your house. It’s difficult for old people.” She looked over at her husband. “We live alone in London. A few months ago, he collapsed on the kitchen floor. They sent an ambulance over right away. It is a great comfort.”

“But he doesn’t usually fall ill. He’s very healthy for his age. Eats well, exercises regularly. We’ve been abroad for more than 50 years, have to do everything ourselves. That makes you strong.”

I nodded passively.

“When we first went there, he was working at a small grocery shop. We both worked there. I took care of the house as well. Raised children, shoveled snow, saved his money. Together, we bought our own grocery shop.”

“The children were young, we were young. It was easy to work hard. I never fell ill. Even now, I rarely fall ill. It’s just recently that I got pneumonia. It is all this artificial food. They didn’t have this back then.”

I started grinning. It was the same old litany I heard everyday from my own grandmother.

“You are laughing. But it’s true, son,” she explained. “Recently they were showing a program on TV where they asked children what they ate at school every day. Every child said potato. Roast potato, mashed potato, baked potato, potato chips. All the children eat is potato.”

“You don’t like potato, Nano?” I played along.

“No, I do but you can’t raise a child on potatoes. He needs fruit and milk. He needs a balanced diet. Not Coca cola and crisps. I used to give my children almonds every day.”

“Very true.” All grannies were the same.

“There are no shortcuts to raising healthy children. You have to work hard. Here, Naseema,” she called the girl over. “Massage Nana’s feet for a while. He must be tired.”

Naseema went over to Nana’s side of the bed and started rubbing the soles of his feet.

“No, child,” Nana protested. “I’m fine. God bless you.”

“That’s OK, Nana” Naseema replied good-naturedly. “Please let me do it. You are like my own grandfather.” Naseema is a spunky and large-hearted girl who has been with us for many years. Her grandfather had passed away recently.

“Please don’t, child. I’m fine” Nana continued to protest.

“Ok, leave it,” Nano told Naseema. “He’s very shy. Doesn’t like to trouble others for himself.”

Naseema started giggling. “Shy? From me? But I’m old enough to be his grand-daughter!”

“He’s always been very respectful of women. Even when he was younger,” Nano explained.

“Keep well, child.” Nana drew his feet under the blanket.

“Oho, Nana, you don’t need to worry. I’m here to take care of you,” Naseema insisted.

“Thank you. God bless you.” His feet stayed where they were.

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