C'est la vie
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
The trauma of passing out on a sub- urban train, being kicked by a pas- senger — “Wake up, wake up, you drunken bum,” he said, without knowing I have not touched alcohol for decades — and taken to a hospital in
an emergency van and subjected to endless
questions was eating me even as I was waiting
for an angelic doctor to soothe my nerves.
The doctor assigned to me in the New
Jersey hospital near Hoboken was in her mid-
50s, and seemed very professional. I thought
I would put off discussing my medical condition for a few minutes. I told her that I am
from India, and was curious to know where
she was from.
“Skopje,” she said, a bit sternly. “I bet like
most people in America you have not heard of
I told her how some 35 years ago, while
traveling across Europe on an Enfield motor-
cycle, my friend and I — I was the pillion
rider — had spent three days in Skopje, two of
them in the barn of a farmer who had put us
up next to three horses, four donkeys and half
a dozen cows.
“It is in Macedonia, isn’t it,” I said, forgetting for a moment my throbbing headache
and aching body and the suspense over my
medical condition, reliving the pleasure of
visiting little-known places.
The doctor was not in a mood to talk about
her country. “I am an American now,” she said
in her Slavic accent. “I don’t think of Skopje
No one really likes visiting a doctor, even if
the news could be good, or surely waking up
in hospital after a sudden collapse on the
street or in a train car. Nervous people like me
try some conversation with the physician.
I know doctors have limited time. I also
know they are in a hurry to discuss my medical condition. Yet, I will seek some distraction, hoping the bad news could wait, or disappear!
But you are not successful all the time.
What could I do with a doctor of Polish origin
who seemed totally unimpressed that I had traveled across
his country some three-and-half decades ago and heard
jokes about the Soviet Union, a nation the Poles hated?
I had no luck with the story of how a Gujarati prince who
had met a few exiled Polish leaders in Switzerland during
World War II had welcomed over 100 Polish orphan children to Gujarat from the camps in Russia. They were the
children of Polish army officers killed by the Russians as
they occupied a large chunk of Poland.
As the war dragged on, and Russian resources were
depleting, Stalin was in a hurry go get rid of some 2,000
orphans. Many were sent to countries like Australia and
South Africa, in addition to Gujarat in British India.
On another occasion recently, an older Polish doctor
asked, “Do you remember any of the jokes?”
I remembered a medical student in Warsaw telling me
about the Russian leader Alexei Kosygin’s visit to India.
Other Soviet leaders including Leonid Brezhnev were at
the airport to receive him. Brezhnev was perplexed to see a
bright bindi on Kosygin’s forehead: ‘Comrade, what do you
have on your forehead?’
Kosygin did not grin when he said, tapping his forehead,
‘Mrs Gandhi said I should have something up here.’
This was one of the jokes I
had written in an article which
was to be published in the
Illustrated Weekly, but it was
banned during the state of
Emergency imposed by then
Indian prime minister Indira
Gandhi. The article was published soon after the free press
was restored in 1977.
The Polish doctor laughed heartily. “You know, I had
heard a version of that joke too,” he said. He was also curious about my first visit to Warsaw and what I remembered
I mentioned the sprawling Stalinist building called
Palace of Science and Culture constructed by Stalin using
forced war labor. You could never miss the building. It was
meant to be Stalin’s gift to the Polish people, but knowing
its history of forced labor, the Poles hated it.
A medical student had pointed to the building and said
with a deadpan face, “So small and so beautiful.” Then he
had broken into a wan smile, “If you want to get a good pic-
ture of Warsaw, anything in Warsaw, you must take it from
the top of that building. That way this mon-
strosity is not in your picture.”
Even when I interview doctors who are in
the news — for winning something like a
MacArthur Genius award or writing a note-
worthy book — I am keen to know what they
read, what kind of films they see, and the
kind of food they like.