Nice guys aren’t always nice, you know. I was reflecting on some of the not so pleasant or Samaritan acts I have indulged myself over a long and exciting life, and one incident sprang to mind, I am painfully aware that discovery of this dark act will considerably bring me down in my venerated father’s esteem, to a place normally reserved for the likes of Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler. But the die has been cast, and I am going to sail into my story tonight,my brain retelling the account as my fingers hammer out the event on the keys of a laptop, several thousand feet above sea level, traversing the skies towards another conference.
Well, my little episode takes us back to 1995, a year when the infotech boom was just dawning on a nascent Indian youth, the horrors of religious fundamentalism and terrorism were just raising their ugly heads in an attempt to tear the very fabric of a secularly woven post Independence society. However, the prevalent mood of the country was definitely upbeat, as the financial swing of the pendulum was decidedly towards a healthier future. Infosys and Wipro were then spoken about with tones of reverence, as the upstarts who took away the business from the American giant and brought it home to Indian shores,
Cell phones then cost an arm and a leg, and a visionary from Mumbai, the great Dhirubai Ambani, was planning to price a phone call on a mobile at less than 50p, which was the cost of a post card.
A new development in surgery, called laparoscopic surgery, was taking the world by storm. In principle, it replaced the conventional vicious long incisions with small stabs, called keyholes, and long fishpole like instruments permitted us surgeons to access internal body parts, and then to remove or repair them as needed.
Today, almost everyone knows about these advances, but those were the early days.
During this period, a group of visionary doctors from a town called Kumbakonam, a quaint little town in the Cauvery basin, known for a profusion of breathtaking temples in its vicinity, as well as for having birthed the mathematical genius Ramanujan, contacted me and requested me to go over and operate on their patients once a month, and I gladly assented. This gave us an opportunity to bring hi-tech surgery to the villages and towns, and the friendliness and affection of my doctor friends remains indelibly etched in my heart to this day.
Anyway, this tidy arrangement resulted in exciting monthly visits on Saturday nights,boarding the Rameswaram Express around 8pm, to reach Kumbakonam at 5am, operations from 7am until 7pm, and a hasty departure by the 8pm train, or on some occasions the bus, hitting Chennai at 5am on a Monday morning, dog-tired but happy…How I slogged through the rest of the week is another story, but let’s just leave it with a statement that yawns and sunken eyes have been the legacy of many of us surgeons..
It was one such evening when I alighted on a pre-Lallu train, replete with the flaws of
The Railways, but heart-warming in its sheer volume of effort. Too often, it is deemed fashionable to blame all public sector services, an attitude that is to be strongly discouraged. How many of us are aware, for example, that the Indian Railways is the largest single employer of personnel in the world, looking after the welfare of 1.7 million families? The compartment being a second AC one, the blissfully airconditioned cubicle housed 6 of us. Within seconds of entering the compartment, I saw him, the most obnoxious fellow passenger I have ever come across.
The demeanour of this otherwise unprepossessing gentleman was one that suggested that the entire world, all citizens included, functioned for the express purpose of satisfying his every desire. The other pronounced property of his was the strong signal of omniscience . If he did not know something, it was not worth knowing.
It was amazing , how quickly he antagonised everyone of us. The details of at least three of the others remain identifiable in my memory, and they were a middle aged couple and a retired headmaster, lovely people , and quite harassed by the unceasing soliloquy of self selling that our protagonist was busy with.
We learnt that he was working in the Electricity Board, was an electrical engineer by profession, and was in an “important “ post, which undoubtedly meant that he spent a lot of time doing nothing or making sure others successfully did nothing. I remembered the joke about the patient being advised rest for his system, and when he said that he was a Government servant, he was told to go back to work as soon as possible, because the maximum rest was to be obtained at his office, and not at home.
Back to our nauseating dreg of humanity, and his antics on the train. He had obviously mastered the art of insulting several people at the same time, and , fully aware that the retired principal sitting with us was a Brahmin, launched into a vicious attack on his caste, simultaneously decrying the educational system. The governance of the state lacked imagination, which he had, of course. It is said that there are a number of people who know exactly how a Government should be run, up to the minutest detail, but unfortunately they are all busy, either cutting hair at the saloon, or driving taxis.
When he heard that I was a doctor, a violent tirade followed against all doctors and their ilk,Of course, the present company was excluded, he said,it was only the rest of the doctor fraternity he was talking about. He thought Kumbakonam was too crowded, and Mayiladuthurai was dirty, Chennai too large, Villupuram too small , and so on.No city was good enough, no minister wise enough (sotto voce, he implied to us that he was actually the decision maker in the Electricity Board) and no judge was clean enough.
At this point of time, he brandished a new cell phone,bringing out gasps of appropriate admiration, admixed with more disgust when he said that it was a “gift” in return for an “under the table “ favour he had done for another Government official.In short, he sickened us with each passing minute with a new revelation about his successful but sordid life. Indeed, when the adequate astonishment was not displayed, he even evinced annoyance.
Fortunately for all of us, the time soon came to sleep, and after a series of acoustically resonant belches that made the lady in our compartment dive for cover, our hero announced that he would sleep in the lower berth. Initially, the rightful owner, the husband of the belch shocked lady, feebly protested, but citing the doctors’ advice about a slew of terrifying diseases, the humble servant of the Government of Tamil Nadu browbeat him into acceptance, quickly grabbing the berth.
And then came the unkindest cut of all…. We all had a twenty minute lecture on his new Bata slippers! Treatise followed, on the leather content, how shiny they were, and how nobody else in his office could afford a pair of slippers at that price.To emphasise his point, he was waving his slippers around , showing off various hues in the leather, etc.,something that the headmaster, in particular, found very offensive, probably because his face and nose were the closest to the waving slippers. Two belches later, he grabbed the poor fan mounted on the ceiling, and twisted it towards him. When I protested, he said that he would allow repositioning of the said instrument after thirty minutes, confident, I was sure, that we would all be asleep by then. I told him that it was unfair, and that he could have the direction of his choice after the first thirty minutes, but the lady, who was the affected one, intervened quickly,and requested me to not make an issue of it. I backed off, and was further angered by his mutterings about “ doctors who should keep their mouths shut and mind their own business.”
Anyway, I retired after that, to the quietness of my berth and the companionship of Wodehouse, my fellow traveller during those travelling years.
The night’s peace was once more rudely interrupted by Mr.Nasty talking on his cellphone, and neither the decibel level nor the content of the conversation was remotely close to pleasant.
I was woken, by the helpful train attendant , to the strains of beautiful music, announcing our arrival at Mayiladuthurai, a few minutes from Kumbakonam. Quickly, I got my stuff together, and walked to the door, to await the arrival of the station. The stopover time usually being four or five minutes, that was the norm, to stand at the exit. The loud snores of the sleeping electrical engineer made me glance at the fan. Sure enough, it was working for him only, pointed in his direction.
The evening’s events with this distasteful man replayed themselves in my mind’s eye.
A gleam of wisdom shone through. Purposefully I strode back into our compartment.It was a moment to act, not think of the consequences. I gently
Turned the fan towards the lady. No reaction from anywhere. Time flying by. Heartbeat hammering. I bent down, and like Bharatha of yore, lifted one… yes, one new slipper, and carried it to the door. Prudence and upbringing formed a coalition- the order of the day, I guess…. And protested at this act.
Now time stood still.A quick battle of ethics raged on inside me, should I really do this? Or should I once again be the class monitor in DonBosco school , the carrier of moral values?A decision made, I turned towards the door and opened it, allowing a cool whoosh of morning wind to rush against my face. Quickly, with an eye on the corridor scanning for approaching passengers, I chucked the gleaming slipper out towards the fields that rushed past.In a few minutes, the hospitality of lovely Kumbakonam had enfolded me in its arms. The day swamped me in a blur of passionate speed.
The years have passed by, but I am unable to ever think of the little temple town without a flash of memory of the incident chronicled here, and , despite the decades of value systems driven into me, I must end by saying that strangely, I am never contrite about what I did. Actually, the thought of the gent concerned scrummaging around desperately on the floor of the train compartment, and bemoaning his lost slipper,undoubtedly to the delight of his fellow travellers, always brings a smile to my face.
I told you… nice guys aren’t always nice.