I was standing in front of 214, Ardeshir Baug in Gamdevi. An imposing door of Burma Teak stared at me. It was the residence of Dr Jehangir Sethna, and the letters MD MRCOG, stood proudly on the door. Dr Sethna was one of the leading Gynecologists and Obstetricians in South Bombay. It was a Thursday, 21st of November 1968. The clock showed 2 am. I had to see Dr Sethna for a patient of mine. It was an emergency which very urgently needed to be attended to.
Dr Sethna was seven years my senior at the Grant Medical College. We would look up to him in admiration. He was our ideal. He was compassionate, committed and caring towards his patients during his residency, as well as when he was a Consultant in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at the JJ Group of Hospitals. A thorough gentleman, a great teacher, a wonderful clinician with an astute mind! He was a mentor to many students who were trained under him. He was one of the few teachers who taught his residents how to think. He showed them where to look for but never told them what to see, a hallmark of an inspirational teacher.
He had inherited his father’s Nursing Home and goodwill and had a large practice. He had named his Nursing Home as “Hospital for Women” which was situated on the Laburnum Road. Dr Sethna, being a Parsee, was easily absorbed by the Hospital meant for Parsees and he was a visiting Consultant to many Hospitals nearby. Dr Sethna’s “Hospital for Women” had fifteen beds, some private, some semi-private and some general, with a well equipped operating room and a Room with a gynaecological examination table where he would conduct his out-patients clinic. It was a very neat place, spic and span, a place with very courteous and disciplined staff in attendance. It was a busy place, and yet there was certain calmness around itself. It was one of the few places which gave out positive vibrations to patients and their relatives who visited the hospital.
The administrative part of the Hospital was looked after by his doting and loving wife, Aloo. She was Dr Sethna’s first cousin. Aloo Vazifdar, before her marriage to Jehangir, she had done her BA in English literature from St Xavier’s college. She was my contemporary but from the Arts side. We often found ourselves travelling together by the ‘C’ route almost every day. She was petite, lively, had short curly hair and she moved around with an air of sophistication and class. She was a very polite and likeable young lady. She had that sharp, typically “Parsee” nose and a pair of dazzling eyes. And at the college day celebrations, when she sang “Que Sera Sera”, oh my God! She had brought the whole house down.
Always dressed in whites, Jehangir was tall, fair and handsome and possessed pair of very soft hands and a soft heart; it made him a very affable, endearing obstetrician-gynaecologist in our area. He had an impressive and imposing personality. Yet, he was very humble, modest and unassuming. Jehangir and Aloo made a very dignified couple and when they attended weddings and Navjyots in the Albless Baug and other Fire Temples, they would be a centre of attraction and a cynosure of all present at those Parsee social gatherings. They would be greeted by almost everyone. I believe both of them were conscious of that adulation and the silent applause that they were receiving from the guests. They deserved it.
After passing my MBBS from Grant’s, I did two house jobs in Pediatrics and skin after which I set up a Family Physician’s practice close to Dr Sethna’s Hospital. I would always refer the ladies with Gynecological problems as well as pregnant women, for registration for confinement under his care. Dr Sethna being a senior Gynecologist, morally upright and ethical, a very soft-spoken gentleman; the women would feel very relaxed and comfortable in his presence. Whenever I referred a patient to Dr Sethna, I knew that the patient would be in very safe hands and therefore I had no hesitation or second thoughts when I would ask him to see a patient of mine.
It was 1.30 am that day. I was woken up by the harsh sound of my doorbell. It was not unusual for me, being a family physician, to be woken up at night. I switched on the light outside on the landing. I peeped through the keyhole and saw Ramprasad Kanojia. Kanojia had been given a spot just below the stairs of our building where he ran an ‘ironing place’; he was our ‘istriwala’. I opened the door and saw Ramprasad trembling like a leaf, his face, ashen with anxiety and concern.
“ Kya hai Ramprasad?’”
“Saab, meri patni Kamala bahut serious hai.”
“Woh chhe mahine se thi aur aaj achanak bachcha gir gaya. Woh leti padi hai aur uska vaar phas gaya hai.”
“Hospital me leke jaana padega,” I told him, “Idhar kyun aye ho?”
“Nahi saab aap hamare mai baap hai aur uski haalat achhi nahi,’ pleaded Ramprasaad, “aap kripa karke hamare saath chaliye.” Ramprasad wept inconsolably.
“Jara mujhe sochane do.” I took a long pause and I asked, “Kamala hai kidhar?”
“Gharame hai saab”
“Kahan rahate ho?”
“Yahin paas me”
“Paas mey? yaney kidhar?”
“Grant Road station ke paas.”
“Theek hai. Mereko sochne do.” I thought about it for a brief moment. “Chalo, main aata hun.”
While Ramprasad stood outside, I went in, changed, took my car keys and my visit bag and we went down. Before starting the car, I thought to myself, what would the difficulty would I face when I see his wife? Would I need any help? This was a home visit of an unusual kind. And suddenly it dawned upon me that I should seek Dr Jehangir Sethna’s opinion. We had been close associates and friends for the last thirty years. I decided that I would take that liberty of disturbing him at that unearthly and an odd hour. I wasn’t sure of the outcome of our meeting. But that was a chance I was willing to take.
I parked my car outside his house which was on the ground floor. I climbed three steps which brought me to a large wrought iron gate. I paused for a moment before pressing the doorbell, rehearsing of what I was going to speak to him when he would open the door within. I pressed the bell once. No one answered. I waited for half a minute, which felt like a long, long time, and rang the bell again. I could see through the French window of the house that a light had been switched on.
“Kon chhe? Who is it?” he inquired from inside.
“Jehangir, I am Dr Kersi Batliwala.”
The great man opened the door and I wished him a good morning. He was in his pyjamas and a typically white Parsee kasti.
“Bol dikra, soon chche? Avni under, avni.”
I went into his house; a house of aristocracy and splendour.
“Soon thayu?” he made an inquiry.
“Jangu, this is Ramprasad our istriwala”
I narrated Ramprasad’s sorrowful story. Ramprasad meekly stood there with folded hands, rattled and shaken up.
Dr Sethna pondered over Ramprasad’s story for a while and it seemed that he had made his decision.
“Chaaloji, let’s go,” he said abruptly. I felt relieved but I could also feel the pressure building up inside me. For that moment, I thought, Dr Sethna was like a messenger of God for both, Ramprasad and for me.
“I will just change and come,” he said.
He came out in his usual white attire, took the house key from the top drawer of the hat stand and the three of us entered my car.
“I hope Aloo has not been disturbed,” I tried to break the silence.
“No worries, she is used to it. She has a price to pay when she has chosen an Obstetrician to be her husband.”
I smiled sheepishly.
“We shall go to the Hospital, pick up Marian, the on-duty nurse and also pick up the instruments’ drum and a hand light. I asked Ramprasad to accompany Dr Sethna to go up to the Hospital and help to get the things down to the car.
We left. We passed the Gamdevi police station, took the roundabout at Nana Chowk and entered the lane which led to the Grant Road Station.
“Bas bas, idhar hi, bilkul idhar,” said Ramprasad pointing at a spot. I stopped the car and opened the trunk and asked Ramprasad to pick up the drum and the hand lamp.
“Ramprasad, kidhar hai tumhara ghar?” I was getting impatient.
“Bas, isi gali me,” and pointed towards a small deserted lane leading to the railway lines.
The lane was desolate, dimly lit and eerily silent. There were a few people, perhaps local residents sleeping on their carts which were meant to carry vegetables and fruits for the day’s sale. There was a gang of strays continually barking and following us at a close distance. Ramprasad was used to all this and was least concerned. He picked up a stone in his hand and hurled it towards the dogs. It hit one of them because the dog momentarily yelped in pain and then stopped. The other dogs then quickly disappeared.
Finally, we arrived at Ramprasad’s “house”. It was a thatched hut, situated close to the railway line. Men could be seen walking towards the railway line with a lota in their hand for their morning ablutions. I was acutely embarrassed and felt woeful.
“Ramprasad, saabko kidhar leke aya re? Mai bola tha Kamala ko Hospital leke jao” I spoke sharply. Ramprasad was in a daze.
Dr Sethna held his hand out to cool me down. “Kersi, we have taken the responsibility of coming here and deliver the goods. We shall not back out now and we shall leave only after our job is over.”
“Ramprasad, darwaza kholo,” I ordered Ramprasad. I was seething by now.
He opened the makeshift door and the three of us and Marian entered the hut. It was morbid and sullen. It measured eight feet by ten feet and the reality of India was mocking at us. There was a night lamp hanging from the thatched roof. Kamala, frail and undernourished, lay on the floor, covered by a dirty saree and a stillborn fetus was lying between her feet in a pool of blood. The cord still attached to the womb.
“Kersi, emni pulse check kar ni.”
I had checked her pulse on her right wrist. “Kamala, jeebh batao.”
She pulled her tongue out. Everything seemed under control. I looked at Dt Sethna and waggled my head to suggest an okay.
I found a socket for the plug of the hand lamp and switched it on. The hut suddenly lit up. It appeared as if the hut was never used to bright light. Dr Sethna donned his plastic apron, knelt on the floor, wore a sterile pair of gloves and with a pair of sterile Mayo scissors, severed the cord and handed the stillborn fetus to Ramprasad. I asked Ramprasad to wrap the stillborn in a clean cloth. Dr Sethna gave a gentle tug to the cord and asked Marian to massage the uterus to expel the placenta with the clots.
Job had been done. Dr Sethna asked Marian to clean up Kamala and we were out in twenty minutes. It was a humbling, a chastening experience for me. Dr Sethna was unruffled, unshaken and unperturbed. He had done his job to the best of his ability and that was it. As we approached the car he shrugged his shoulders and spoke in his usual soft tone, “Say Kersi, this is the real India, isn’t it? The rest of it is all sham!’
Just before we got into our car, I very politely asked Dr Sethna about his fees.”Give whatever you feel, it’s okay with me.” And he smiled. I placed an envelope in his hand and he simply kept it in his shirt pocket without even glancing at it. He asked me to hand over a death certificate for the fetus, mentioning the cause of death as Still Born and nothing more. I nodded a yes and I dropped Marian to the Hospital and Dr Sethna to his home. When he said “Bye, avjo,” I was left speechless in admiration. My esteem for him had hit the roof. “Emne Iron ane Calcium aapi de, trun mahina matey,” he instructed me, as I left.
It was nearly a quarter to four in the morning. The streets were starting the morning activity with the milk and the vegetable vans, the newspaper vendors going up and down the Gamdevi road. I reached home. I wanted to lie down for some time and grab some sleep before my day began.
I reached my Clinic by half-past ten. Parshuram, my compounder, who had been working with me for many years, had opened the Clinic, cleaned and dusted his counter and refilled some of the varied and assorted bottles in the dispensary. He diligently went through his checklist, kept a fresh towel on the hook behind my chair, placed a soap cake in the soap dish and switched on the sterilizer to boil the glass syringes and needles. Three patients had already arrived in the outdoor and were waiting for their turn to meet me. I entered the clinic, wished a “good morning” to Parshuram and with a stethoscope around my neck, I settled in the Doctor’s chair.
I had thought of speaking to Dr Sethna in the morning to talk to him about Ramprasad’s wife and at around eleven in the morning, I dialled his hospital number.
“May I talk to Dr Sethna, please?”
“Yes, who is this?”, a gentle query was made from the other side.
“I am Dr Kersi Batliwala.”
“Hold on for a moment, please. I shall see if he is free”, and she connected me to the Operating Room extension.
“Hello, who is speaking?”
“I am Dr Shirin Billimoria, the anaesthetist.”
“Hello, I am Dr Ketsi Batliwala here. May I speak to Dr Sethna, please?”
Shirin placed a hand on the mouthpiece because I heard a muffled “Dr Kersi Batliwala wishes to speak to you.”
“Please tell Kersi that I shall call him later”, I could hear Dr Sethna.
Shirin was back on the phone line. “Dr Sethna is operating at the moment. He said he will call you later.”
“Okay, that’s fine. Thank you,” I said and hung up.
I did not receive any call during the entire afternoon. I was resting at home and at around 4 pm my telephone rang.
“Kersi, this is Jehangir here. Good evening. How is that Ramprasad’s wife doing? Sorry, I couldn’t call you earlier. I was operating almost up to 2 pm.”
“I have not heard anything from Ramprasad. That means, she must be okay,” I said.
“Kersi, let’s go and see her.”
‘What? Soon boloch soon? What are you saying?” I was astonished.
“Yes, let’s go and see her. I shall ask Narayan, my driver, to take us there.” That was most unexpected for me.
I got ready and waited at the gate for Dr Sethna to arrive. In about ten minutes, I saw his Navy blue Ambassador from a distance. I got onto the rear seat and sat next to Dr Sethna. Narayan drove us towards Grant Road Station. He parked the car on the main road. The street was a contrast to last night. It was deserted and quiet the night before, today it was bustling with activity. We passed through the lane leading to Ramprasad’s house and arrived at his door. It was locked, that too with a cheap one, the ones that are available with the roadside salesmen near the station. My heart sank. Ramprasad’s neighbor, Shyamji was sitting on a bench outside, smoking a beedi.
‘Arre, Shyamji, Ramprasad kahan hai re?”
“Idhar paas me gaya hai, ayega abhi.”
Ramprasad had already seen us. Hurriedly, he ran towards us. He was stunned to find Dr Sethna standing there as he put his head on Dr Sethna’s feet.
“Sir aapki badi meherbani hai hamare upar, jisey mai kabhi nahi bhulunga.”
His eyes welled up with tears of gratitude and like a dam burst, they gave way to copious weeping.
“Utho Ramprasad, bolo Kamala kaisi hai?”
He pointed out into a distance. “Wahan jo nayi building ban rahi hai na, wahan kaam pe gayi hai. Usey reti aur cement uthaane ka kaam karna padta hai. Kya karenge, majboori hai.”
I was speechless and muted. This was so unexpected, it shocked me.
Dr Sethna looked at me. Just as we were about to leave, he put his right hand in the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out the envelope I had handed over to him last night.
“Kersi Aapi de emne. Give it back. We are a generous people and we have a moral obligation to assist those who are suffering from poverty.”
I was silent. We slowly walked towards his car. As we walked he said softly, “Kersi, it is the Society which has made me what I am today. It is my ethical responsibility to repay that debt which I carry on my shoulders. The Almighty has given me more than what I deserve and I look at it as my small contribution to help the downtrodden and the impoverished.”
He bid me a “Goodbye” and as he was getting into the car he said, “Kersi, every day I always keep on reminding myself that the meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.”
He entered his car, waved a “let’s go” to Narayan and the car disappeared, far into the milling crowds.