The Doctor Without Shoes

(c) Dr. Rajas Deshpande

The practical started, we had to prick our own or each-other’s fingers to collect a drop of blood and make a Peripheral Smear : A thin film of blood between two glass slides. The technique requires practice to make a thick and thin layer from the drop of blood as you slide the edge of one slide over another. We were also ‘helping’ our batchmates, especially our own respective individual crushes.

“Where are your shoes?” asked the lecturer Dr. Chiman loudly to Laxman, one of our batchmates. Laxman was wearing slippers (flip-flops).
“I don’t have shoes sir, sorry sir, I will buy them next month” Laxman.
“Don’t you get scholarship every month? You are even exempted from paying fees.. Why can’t you buy shoes?” asked the irate Dr. Chiman.
Laxman was exempted from paying fees for some meritorious feat.
“Sir I have to send my scholarship home since last few months: my younger brother is studying and Dad is not keeping good health, so income is suffering” he answered, embarrassed in front of the class.
“I don’t know. You must wear shoes in labs and wards. It is a rule.”
Dr. Chiman was about to go on further.

We knew that Laxman’s parents stayed actually in a mud-hut. We felt hurt. It was then easy for Mahendra to drop a small rack with some empty test tubes, which broke. I started arguing with him and we pushed each other. We were both then fired in words from Dr. Chiman’s personal vocabulary, many of them from Maharashtra-Karnataka border, which have a strong phonetic component, matched only by Punjabi abuse. After arguing and defending for a few minutes, we were asked to leave the lab. Mission accomplished, as the shoes topic was over for then.

Laxman became a closer friend and a member of our late night –early morning hostel group that specialised in the extraordinary, and survived mostly upon tea and its white spouse. Be it music or philosophy or medicine, when Laxman spoke we noticed the futility and limitations of everything unless one had enough money to buy good food and good health.

I had a poster of Gabriela Sabatini (playing the French Open) upon my cupboard, and was amazed to learn that tennis or cricket or glamour did not enthral Laxman at all, he was continuously thinking about survival on merit.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

He hailed from an extremely backward area, barely reachable by road. His parents worked as labourers in that remote village, usually towing and disposing dead animals. He was unused to urban ways, and almost everything he had was either second-hand or borrowed: clothes, books, comb, bucket, pens etc. Even the slippers he wore were worn out. Even then, a boon of youth, nobody amongst us including himself much cared for his appearance, we still were good friends and tea-shop mates, and shared the same hostel. He was usually jolly and confident, however, he was often very shy and embarrassed with female students around, probably conscious of his shabbiness.
Of course there were smart-asses in the class who tried to belittle him: usually the richer class students who had to show someone else down to impress others around.

Posh-chic appearances and convent English were enough effective catalysts to attract opposite sex, but the girls were too smart even then to give full marks to only these. So these smart-asses either looked for someone to “show down and make fun of”, or to achieve something respectable somewhere.. Laxman was their easy target, but he declined to be a victim. He stayed gracefully involved in his studies., neglecting bitter mockery and hurtful high-handedness.

He walked everywhere. Good / palatable food is usually prohibited in the Indian government medical college campuses, all young growing talent is expected to survive upon cheapest filth selected via tenders. We who rented bicycles to go to the mess for meals felt far more luckier than Laxman, and often went double-seat with him. His mess was of course one of the lowest priced. He went home twice a year, for vacation, and came back with many Bajra rotis and Thecha (crushed and sautéed salted chilli dip) that we eagerly finished within a day of his arrival.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

He saw movies or went to picnics only when his group / batch covered for his expenses, that too if they insisted on his joining. He never asked for favours. All the time outside the classroom and mess, he was in the library or his room, studying. His homework, practical books / journals were always complete in time, and he was one of the favourite students of most of our teachers.

Once Mahendra bought a Rayban. As we tried those gold-dark green aviators by turn, in a desperate hope of looking better enough to impress passing girls from junior batches, the owner’s palpitations could be heard. When Laxman tried them, he became suddenly sad and quiet. Mahendra, quite a sensitive soul, immediately explained how he himself couldn’t afford them, but got them as a gift from an uncle in Dubai. “We will buy many like these in future” I tried to pacify Laxman.
“It’s not that. Those glasses are so cool to the eyes! My father and mother work hard in scorching sun all day for years, what a great relief it would be for them to wear such goggles!” he said. He took home two pairs of cheaper goggles next time.

He passed with very good marks.
He had no tears and did not become emotional when receiving the merit awards. All that happened was too matter-of-factly dry for him. He had earned it all, there was no reason to be too happy or too sad about it, these luxuries were for those who had time upon their hands.

He did his MD in Medicine too, we worked in the same unit. I once met his visiting parents. As the father openly and proudly praised the doctor’s room in the ward of that govt hospital, Laxman’s mother kept her hand upon my back. “What would you like to eat next time? Laxa says you like my Bajra Rotis” the eternal mother asked.

After his MD, Laxman chose to work in three different slums in a metropolis, charging two and five rupees (now maybe ten or twenty) per patient as his fees. He travelled to two slums per day, and worked 18 hours. Widely loved and respected, he continues to serve the community that needs healthcare most, the community he comes from.

This is also the story of many hundred doctors in India, who live and die poor, earn great merits, serve the neediest, but are never seen in any award lists, any felicitations or accolades. History is good to most heroes at least after their death, but in case of such doctors serving the poor in India, anonymous oblivion is the eternal reward. For the government and our society, he is just another ‘private doctor’.

May the new year bring upon them recognition and gratitude.

You see, the smear of the same drop has to be spread out thick and thin to tell human blood correctly.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

Real story, some identities masked. Please share with credits.

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