Journeys and Back

Bornali Datta, age 17, New Delhi, 1989

When I was 17, there was a tremendous dichotomy in my mind about the path I would be taking after school. The two clear and disparate paths were those of Medicine and Art. In those times, in middle class urban India, most of us would choose a firm path – medicine, engineering, law, commerce, etc. A firm path leading on to a firm, tangible destination. In keeping, I chose Medicine. But also, I chose it for I felt it was my calling. Twenty-five years later that dichotomy still exists. Medicine is a hard and exacting task master who flogs me, and while most times I take to the flogging very kindly, every now and again, I rebel and dream of art. But my skills have eroded over the years, even though my creative instincts are alive and keep me going.

I learnt the core of my medicine in one of Delhi’s busy government hospitals, located in the rift between old Delhi and new Delhi. On one side the world opened up into the wide boulevards of Lutyens Delhi and on the other side the world closed in into the shambles of old Delhi. The hospital was a maddeningly busy place, with unwell people pouring in through the door. Very busy and very intense.

My zeal was fulfilled in its entirety in this hub of medicine, where all our skills as trainees were developed to a high level, as much by the volumes of patients that we saw as by the excellent teaching by the professors of the institute. Government hospitals were free and the patients we catered to were poor and unable to pay for medical care. They got good medical service from good doctors in these hospitals, but the infrastructure was lacking and the hospitals tended to be somewhat run down. That notwithstanding, I remember those years as being the best in my life. I remember working for 36 hours on the trot as a resident in Medicine and then coming home and disappearing into the oblivion of a deep dreamless well earned sleep. Of course that was much later on during the years of post graduation.

In my very first year in medical college, on the contrary, I remember being stunned bored whilst sat in the lecture theatres listening to lengthy meaningless jargon from different teachers. The subjects, I found bone dry, and although complemented by practicals, they did not interest me. After a year and a half of these dull pre-clinical subjects, finally our visits to the hospital started and with that a feel of why we were all there in the first place, came to me. The hospital with its moving shades of illnesses and pathologies fascinated me. As did the tasks of a doctor. The trend amongst all doctors in those times was to go abroad. USA mostly, UK sometimes. Once you completed post graduation, there were virtually no options. The government hospitals had very limited jobs and there were hardly any private hospitals.

So the only option was to sit in a small clinic, which most doctors found uninspiring and poor paying. Most were bright and ambitious, and the West drew them all in like iron filings to a magnet. The West spelt professional satisfaction and economic liberation. I was no exception.

In the start of the 21st century, we arrived in England. So, then, from having to deal with Medicine only, now there was medicine, medicine in England and England; not all the same. Medicine was relatively easy, Medicine in England was a bit harder and England was very hard indeed. Medicine in England consisted of crystal-clear concepts and approaches, so that no one could go wrong or at least the system minimised the chances of anyone going wrong. Lesser academic discussions and many more discussions on how to get it right. Analytical and argumentative. The time spent in England would refine and hone our existing skills like a fine-tipped pencil.

Life was stable and secure in the structured environs of the West. Most got well entrenched in the way of life, however different and even alien sometimes. And again, most would stay on for the rest of their lives. This time, we broke away. Ten years and we were back. Intending all along to return to Delhi, into the arms of the wide boulevards and roundabouts, flush with winter blooms, all of which I remembered so well and so clearly. Except that we were actually tossed into Gurgaon.

Ten years ago when we left, I had been vaguely aware of Gurgaon as a suburban settlement just outside Delhi, no more. We had hardly ever come out to Gurgaon. But now, it had transformed beyond recognition. Delhi had spilled itself, over-flowed into Gurgaon. It was the millennium city. High rises, buildings with glass facades, metro, eateries, breweries, everything you could think of.

Having been away for so long in the regimental order of Western existence, coming back to the utter irrevocable chaos of India was not easy. It often felt like we had driven into a concrete wall and then lay in a stunned crumpled heap, not knowing what had hit us, very much Tom & Jerry style, with sore red bumps erupting out of scalps!

The first thing on returning that strikes you is the complete dissolution of or possibly non-existence of the boundaries that exist in the West. In every single aspect of life. Then the heat hits you hard. And then the deluge of people out on the roads, out everywhere, a constant presence of people, the hum, the buzz, the whirr, the screech of life around you. Constant background noise.

The very thing, the absence of which in the West had been so hard to get used to in the beginning. I remember, very often, waking up to this intense quiet around me, unbroken by the twitter of birds or the distant hum of traffic. Very unsettling till the stillness becomes part of your sensory landscape. And therefore when you come back, its an assault on your senses by the same background noise and simmering unrest. Settling in became a process of unlearning certain things and relearning certain others.

The cities had grown enormously and gleamed with wealth. Huge malls and shiny cars. But if you stepped out of the cities and not even too far out of the cities, there were the districts in complete disarray.  The roads led on further to the rural settlements and villages, which had quite obviously remained completely untouched by the march of time and progress. And Medicine? Again it had changed beyond recognition in the cities. Big private hospitals had come up attracting doctors, giving good service and care and available for all those who could afford it. Step out of the cities though and again nothing had changed really. Derelict, apathetic government service.

Medicine here often did not reach those who needed it most. Those living in faraway remote villages, deserts, mountains, with no real access to healthcare, who by the time they reached the hospitals in big cities were already ravaged by whatever disease they had. A huge disparity and dichotomy, of a different kind.

And Art? Buried in my mind under the giant called Medicine.

Bornali Datta

New Delhi, 2016


Essay “It Doesn’t Touch Us” appears on page 100. Art appears on cover and pages 14, 98-99, 101.