This post is dedicated to Annette N and Nancy H for encouraging me to write about my personal life.
He drove a Vespa scooter, was a little portly and older than all of us, but he was the quiet mature background persona in our class. He was an unpaid intern doing his pre-requisites to get the practice certificate which required a housemanship of a year, half in medicine and half in surgery. Being unpaid meant he was not in the top students.
We had worked together in the wards and I often felt his assessing gaze on me as if evaluating my skills. I had the honor of being a paid intern i.e. I had first choice of where I would do my internship. I was the proud recipient of 200 Rs per month of which I had frittered away my first paycheck by taking my cousins to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate, after which my mother said since she provided everything, I had to save that money in my bank account for my future plans. My future plans were like Ebru they drifted into each other like paint on oil. I had plans that were according to the logistic reality that I lived in and the dream plans which were unreal but so much fun to delve in. Often, they collided and then moved away into their own zones.
I can say easily now without embarrassment that we had been dropped into middle class poverty of Karachi when our family split. We went from living in the affluent upper middle professional class single home with a large garden, several servants, a British made car, to a small rented double story home where the neighbors were so close that we could hear their arguments and watch their affairs.
I never felt poor because my mother never let us know her financial straits. My siblings were sent to the most prestigious colleges and universities with no expenses spared. I went to a private women’s college, which was subsidized by the government. Thus, occasionally I would hear grumblings of lack of money from some of my siblings which would surprise me but never phased me. I had everything I needed. I was by nature fun loving but not a great spender on myself. Thus, I never felt the pinch of poverty, my main joy came from being with my friends and my cousins and my surrogate Grandmother whom we called Khalaji. She was my mother’s Aunt. The rest of my time I spent dreaming and writing.
The real pinch of poverty was felt by me in transportation. Karachi is a large widely spread city. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood away from the hustle and bustle of the center of the city but our medical college was in the heart of the city. This entailed transportation and that is where the rub came.
We had one car which one of my brothers drove to the University. One day I asked him why he got to take the car and the rest of us had to take the public bus? His reply was that he could not stand the “smell” of humanity on the public bus.
My mother overtly seemed to be favoring him and drew resentment from some of my siblings and me. She knew more than she let on of the reasons why she treated him as “special” for after she died, we realized that with all his intellect and double degrees from prestigious institutions he was “ a special child” and a “special adult” in every sense of the neuropsychiatric definition of the word.
I had learned to walk and enjoyed walking when I was in elementary school. Walking allowed me to dream and weave stories of people and places that I encountered.
Every morning I would walk out of our house, with a fellow student from my neighborhood and a servant trailing behind us as we headed for school. This was before the family split.
In the morning I would quickly don my blue school uniform, and exit the house from the back gate. the gate was shaded by the mulberry tree that always seemed to be laden with sweet juicy fruit some of which I took to taste on the way to school and that always seemed to stain my crisp school uniform earning the ire of both my teacher and my mother. I soon learned that mulberry stains cannot be washed off and are permanent.
I would walk across a field where a house was yet to be built, meandering through the streets lined with large houses of the rich with high compound walls dripping with lush bougainvillea and sentries at the gate. I would soon enough come upon the hill overlooking the commercial area that we had to pass through to get to school.
The hill was made of rocks and the soft yellow sand and clay called “baloo rait” raising my uniform frock I would slide down the section where the soft part of the sandy descent was cushioned with the golden sand and climb down the rocks for the rest.
I would deliberately detour a bit to pass my favorite used bookstore “Taj” which also sold Cadbury chocolates which cost an arm and a leg as they were imported from England. I had to save my pocket money for weeks to indulge in them. I would ignore the small shops selling all kinds of household things which did not interest me and I would arrive in school ready to enjoy recess with my friends of which I had plentiful.
However fast forward to my joining the Medical college, walking to it was not an option. Thus, I would wait for Bus number 36 which was one of the oldest most rickety buses but it was the only direct bus to the Medical College from my residential area.
By the time it would arrive to my stop which was in a residential area it would already be filled with women laborers with bright colored blouses, no bra, floral skirts, a bare midriff and head chadors covering part of their hair and flowing to their backs. They would be chatting in Sindhi carrying their digging utensils and I could smell the aroma of “humanity” that had labored every day but had not bathed in a long time.
Here came the dreams as I would lean against the hot engine which provided some buffer from the laborers. the bus driver would ignore that I was too close to the forbidden area near the driver giving respect to my white coat.
I would be let off a block from the College and getting off the bus and crossing “Bunder Road” which has now been renamed to something else was like the feat of an obstacle runner. while I weaved between rickshaws which had stopped to drop someone, camel carts slowly lumbering on their way and sometimes holding up all traffic if they were crossing which was great for me. People did not honk in those days or I was deaf to them. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and seemed determined to get where they were going and yet they were totally resigned to the fact that they were not going to go anywhere fast.
I had help design the girl’s common room, replete with a prayer area behind a beautiful carved screen which a friend’s family had donated and a full-length mirror to adjust clothes before going back out into the student body. It served as my first stop to shake of the dust and smell of the bus before I joined the elite of the Medical College campus.
In third year, medical college the rich students in my group decided to study for the ECFMG Examination which was taken to qualify for a position in the US.
They would disappear into the “Doctors Library” which was really the Professors Library ( which they never used) but it had all the foreign text books that were used for Medical schools in America and UK.
My practical side knew that I did not have the resources to go to America or England to specialize but my dream side said I needed to prepare and not take anything for granted.
Being with my group studying together but individually in this elite luxurious library was like being in a spa for a few hours of respite and then back to reality and riding the public bus home with the laborers.
Being in the hushed silence of the Doctors library stoked the Dreamer in me. The only reason I am studying these foreign books I told myself is to be in the company of my closest friends.
It was a shock when the ECFMG exam results came out, I had passed but some of the finest students had failed. I was stupefied, as I had not even taken this exam seriously knowing that I probably would not have the resources to go to America unless I went as a stowaway on a cargo ship like one of my great uncles but that is a story for another r time.
I looked at my results, I could not believe my eyes where it said Result : PASS.
Visions of freedom assailed me, I could see myself driving my sports car, top down in the winding mountain highways of America, music blasting from the speakers……….
It was at this juncture that I met him. He was parking his scooter, near the American Impala that belonged to our neurosurgeon. we had often stopped by the faculty parking lot and drooled over it knowing full well that it belonged to the chamber of unrealistic dreams.
I had just come out of the operation theatre and was exiting the corridor to find a rickshaw to take me home, dog-tired after assisting a six-hour operation.
I heard my name called and I turned to see him standing next to the vespa he had just finished parking. Stodgy, confident and irritatingly self-satisfied as always.
He stood in the faculty parking lot as I turned back and came towards him. After the usual polite banalities, he asked “ are you interested in a job” we both knew that in a few months our internship would end. My surgery chief had offered me a job in surgery and my Pediatric chief was severely disapproving of me taking that direction. I hated wearing scrubs all day long.
“ I have a private practice in…………….” and he name an outskirt of the city where the lower middle class lived.
“ I really like your work ethic I think you would do great in my clinic………….” And he paused. ‘We would offer you 60,000 Rs per month” He was looking at me and became silent, his eyes shrewdly assessing me.
My jaw fell and I was stupefied………….my next thought was “what do I have to do to earn that kind of money?” and I realized I had spoken it aloud.
“ Don’t worry about that” he said, “we will teach you the practice: we have a range of vitamins and supplement and antibiotics that we give by shots and they are all provided in the clinic”.
I asked him more questions and with every answer my dismay increased………….
Basically, I would be giving vitamin (taaqat ki dawa) to poor people and charging them for the shot or giving them supplements orally which were color coded………….and charging them for it knowing full well that those do not treat the disease………..”
I was appalled and my mouth opened and closed. “ you could work for a couple of months and have enough money to go to anywhere in the world if you wanted” said my logical voice.
“ let me think about it and I will let you know” I said and walked away appalled at the idea of taking money from the poor in lieu of vitamin shots and vitamin colored water………. I was educated and trained to be an allopathic physician and knew nothing of this world of alternate medicine. To me it seemed a bit of a charlatan practice.
It was April the sun was hot I was drenched in sweat by the time I got to the bus stop, the boys of the engineering college hostel located opposite the bus stop were probably too hot to lean out and catcall. A friend had walked with me as her driver had not come today to pick her up in their family car, and she was going home with me. “ Let’s take a rickshaw” she said. I declined; I did not have money for a rickshaw which I did not divulge to her.
A white Mazda slowed down, it was one of the rich boys from our class who had a crush on her, he stopped in front of us …..” come on I will drop you home” he said leaning on his elbow at the car window. My friend caught my arm and started to walk towards the car………” “I can’t” I said, knowing full well that I would never be able to return the favor ever. “you go” I said.
The bus was already packed when I got on, the smell of old sweat mixed with new sweat was pervasive, the image of my brother perfectly groomed riding to the University in our only car loomed in front of me, the job for 60, 000 Rs per month danced in front of me. Imagining a life full of public buses, the stubbornness of my father, and the obnoxious hostility of most of my brothers towards my friends, the continuous” in my face” favoritism of my mother towards my “special” brother, kept pushing me into my dream zone of freedom.
I got home and looked at the contents of the envelope again…………..ECFMG RESULT: PASS, it said and I could see the door open sunlight streaming through it and the breeze carrying the scent of freedom assailed my senses and I made up my mind……………….