|The bus starts out empty.|
“Pranay, like it or not, you will be a gringo in India.”, Dr. Guerrant warned me. Gringo is the picturesque term that Latin Americans use to describe foreigners to their culture. Personally, I had felt slightly outraged at the suggestion that I, a passport carrying citizen of India, could be accused of being a foreigner in my own land, a sort of “brown sahib”. Brown sahibs, of course, were the educated Indians who served the British raj in India and were oftentimes more english than the english. I thought about this exchange as I boarded the bus this morning. I paid the Rs.3 for the ticket and silently took a window seat. I never read on the bus in India. Not only is it hard because of the colossal jerks that are strong enough to give you a concussion, but doing so deprives me of an opportunity to commune silently with those I seek to serve: the populace of India. These daily bus rides and my interactions with over three hundred patients from impoverished homes around Vellore have dragged me very unwillingly to the conclusion that Dr. Guerrant’s right. I have come to accept, more fully than ever before, that their India is so very different from mine.
|And ends up looking like this.|
I gazed out at a passing park and saw a sight I had seen thousands of times before. A lady, in a gorgeous saffron sari, was squatting behind a bush. She was defecating. When she saw the bus approach, she made a few perfunctory moves to conceal herself, but she knew as well as I that it was futile. I averted my gaze partly to give her some privacy and partly because it reinforced my conviction that I was a foreigner to the vicissitudes of the majority of my countrymen, incapable of fathoming their struggles. India is one of the speediest and largest economies in our world. This is the proud boast of a very tiny proportion of the Indian population, the proportion I belong to, that suddenly has the capacity to patronize brands such as Bvlgari and BMW. You know you’ve been left out of the prosperity party when you cower behind bushes as you carry out you basic bodily functions, clutching at the last vestiges of your dignity. Sadly, this is true of around 638 million people in India (55% of the population), if the UN is to be believed. The essential tenet of democracy is the equality of its people. If we, wealthy and educated Indians, stand by and act fashionably desensitized to the poverty in our faces or apathetic to the creation of a permanent economic underclass, our claims of being the world’s largest democracy will ring unforgivably hollow. Make no mistake, history will judge us harshly for this denigration of our fellow humans.
|What do I have in common with these men?|
“Doctor sahib, can you help me?”
My reverie was suddenly broken by the young chap next to me. He had spotted my stethoscope. I clarified that I was a lowly med student, but agreed to look at a wound that he wanted to show me. He had gotten injured and hadn’t been keeping the wound clean. A fly promptly buzzed in and started feeding on the exudate. I waved the fly away with my hand and advised him to clean the wound twice a day and suggested an antibiotic ointment he could use. You don’t need prescriptions for antibiotics in India.
At first, I felt glad that I could help him a little, but then I realized that he was having a tough time fully comprehending my accent. My english is inspired by Wodehouse and Wilde. His was inspired by necessity. So, I broke into tamlish (a hybrid of tamil and english) and gestures to counsel him. It was then that I felt a confirmatory twinge: I truly was a wretched brown sahib. I spoke,essentially, a different language. The rupee had a completely different meaning for me-- the 3 rupees I had paid thoughtlessly to the conductor are almost 10% of the daily earnings of hundreds of millions of Indians who subsist on 99 cents a day. The lack of malnutrition and access to athletic facilities made me look physically different than the emaciated poor that comprise the bulk of the Indian populace. In that moment, I resented and despised everything from my expensive education to my posh-sounding accent. They were exposed as the products of inequalities deeply ingrained in Indian society, the same inequalities I constantly and vehemently decry. I felt like I had somehow cheated the man next to me.
|We need the optimism and perseverance of this man. He knows the street will be dirty within hours and yet he sweeps undaunted.|
|If you want to meet an optimist in India, shake hands with a traffic policeman. They deal with chaos beyond imagination.|
Having identified the deep chasm between me and the majority of my countrymen, I entered the hospital with a very heavy heart. There was, however, a glimmer of hope. My brain was unimpaired by malnutrition. My education wasn’t discontinued at an early age due to lack of funds. My body was not crippled by preventable diseases. I realized that I can devote them all to ameliorate the stark inequalities I had witnessed and speak up and agitate for those of my countrymen who cannot. I, and my fellow privileged Indians, owe our country and our fellow citizens at least this much. In Vellore, I have made a microscopic start. It must be continued. Yes, that’s my only chance at atonement.