I think I wear mine like two beads in a necklace. There are other beads in the necklace as well, and grief and loss are mostly the silent, subdued ones. They don’t make much a of a noise really, but they are always there.
That is perhaps not the best way to describe grief and loss. But it is how the words came. Perhaps this is also not the best post to start 2019 with, but in the year gone by, I have come to know of several losses – someone losing his mother, a young woman her husband, someone else grieving the sudden death of his father, another who has plunged into great sadness at having lost a younger sister.
While I know in some capacity – as a former colleague, a friend, or as family – the people who are grieving, I haven’t necessarily known their loved ones who have passed away.
In their tributes to them, I get a sense of both – the grief for one – as if I am tracing my own experiences, an invisible finger on a carbon paper going through the familiar curves of a well known pattern underneath. And the person lost to death – what was he or she like, the ways in which you miss them and remember them.
In the years since I have lost my father, I have thought a lot about what I really wanted to concentrate upon when I think about him. I think I know now that it is kindness. The ability to be kind and compassionate and the ability to see that in others.
In my most trying moments, it is an act of kindness that has brought me comfort. It could be from a friend, family member, at the point of contact while availing a service or from a stranger – but it has made those things that were unbearable, a little more bearable.
So here is how I will remember my father – through the acts of kindness he witnessed and those that he was part of. Perhaps one day I will also write about how he died and how he could even in face of death, appreciate the little things and gestures around him, and what I discovered that day.
But for today, it is an attempt to draw out some of those experiences that I gained from his interactions with people around him, and ones that have stayed with me. If you have similar stories, I would love to hear them.
The dog and the cobbler
In Baroda, my father went to the Gujarat Electricity Board’s (GEB) Gotri Road office every month or two to pay our electricity bill. It was just off a gully on the main Harinagar road, and it was about a 20-minute walk from where we lived.
My father always walked. One summer afternoon, he came back after paying the bill and he had a story to tell us. It was about the cobbler who was a regular in that lane. He would usually lay out a flat sheet of plastic on the road and deposit his tools and open shop for a couple of hours everyday. But my father noticed something unusual that day. As the cobbler sat around doing his work, a street dog came up to him and held out his paw. The dog’s leg (the front-right one, I think) had a thin strip of wooden board attached to it and there was also a bandage of some kind.
The cobbler examined the dog’s foot, patted him on its head, and the dog hopped away. It had caught my father’s attention and curiosity. So he went to the cobbler and asked him – what did you just do?
So this is what had taken place. A couple of days ago, the cobbler had noticed that the dog was limping. It was a stray dog but one that frequented the area. The cobbler knew a bit about bone setting. I think he told my father that he had picked it up from a traditional bone setter in the old city. So when he called out to the dog, it came to him. He could make out that the dog had a broken bone and also a few open wounds. He set his bone in the way he knew it would heal, also applied a paste of turmeric to fight off infections and gave him a biscuit. And the dog came every day – it would lift his foot to be examined by the cobbler, get a pat on the head, something to eat and then go away on its business.
The dog knew he could trust the cobbler. The cobbler knew the dog trusted him and wouldn’t bite him when he was examining his leg or changing the bandages, even though the foot hurt and it was in pain.
My father was touched by the compassion, skill and kindness of the cobbler. Something about the incident must have made a great impact on me, because I have told this story to my husband several times. It is as much about the cobbler as it is about my father, and to me it is a way of introducing my father to my husband – they never met, but I think they would have loved to.
The man who sold peanuts
My father loved peanuts, and a variety of them called Bharuch khari sing. Also the yellow kabuli chana. Especially the ones that were roasted and salted.
There was a man who had a sort of an inverted conical bamboo kiosk – something that he would carry on his back, strapped to his shoulders, and go from one residential society to another and sell the assortment of nuts and seeds he stocked. He would often stand at the busy road across our tenement. It gave him good business – so many people walked past that road, and those who liked a nutty-snack would stop, and if they wanted something to munch on immediately, he would give them the roasted nuts (and watermelon seeds – those were very popular) of their choice in a paper cone or he would pack them for you if you wanted some for later.
My father usually bought the nuts from him. He said, it was better to buy from a small, local business like this one than from a store. One day as he went across the road to buy the nuts, he saw that the man seemed to be in pain. He was shifting from one foot to another. So my father asked him if he was okay.
He said, everything was alright except for his feet – they were swollen. My father, who was a doctor, took a look. He was concerned at what he saw. He asked him to go and see a doctor at the SSG hospital immediately (the SSG is a government run hospital and most consultations and treatments are free for those who cannot afford them) and not to stand on his feet for long hours at a stretch. He asked him to buy a portable stool.
As he was giving him the instructions, and writing down the name of the doctor, my father had an afterthought. He was worried that the man may not buy the portable stool for it may be an additional expense for him.
So he offered that apart from buying the normal stock of nuts, he would pay him to buy a stool. It could be a gift, a loan – whatever the nut seller was comfortable with.
The nut seller thanked my father, promised him that he would see a doctor immediately, but refused the offer of more money than what it would cost to buy the nuts. He said, ‘Saheb, look I have money,’ as he lifted off a newspaper lining his kiosk to show my dad how he had tucked the notes safely underneath. ‘I have made good business over the days. I will buy the stool. It was just the time. I didn’t want to take the time away from my normal vending hours, and I didn’t go to the doctor, but now that you say that I must, I will.’
So my father took that promise from him and came home. For a few weeks afterwards, my father didn’t spot the peanut seller. So one evening he went looking for him. He asked a few vendors and went a little further – he knew the usual spots that the peanut seller had frequented.
One vendor was able to help. He had known the peanut seller. Apparently, the peanut seller had had a heart attack – perhaps not very many days after he had met my father and had died as a result of it.
We didn’t know whether he had taken my father’s heed and had gone to the hospital. Maybe he could have been saved. We don’t know who he left behind and how his death had impacted his family. But I remember vividly, my father’s sense of grief coupled with a sense of admiration. He said, our vendor was such a honest man. He could have taken the money I was giving him, and really I didn’t mind giving him that sum irrespective of the fact whether he had some savings on him or not, but he didn’t. He wanted to pay for the stool himself and even if I was happy to give it to him as a gift, he didn’t accept it. That sort of pride in your work and honesty is rare. I think my father said that we had lost a great man. Which was true.
This story too – my husband has heard it at least five times. The fifth time was just last week. He couldn’t sleep, and I said, I will tell you a story and it was the peanut seller who came to my mind.
A pregnancy and a boiled egg
I know this sounds like an odd title. But bear with me.
So even after my father retired from the Sir Sayajirao General Hospital (known locally as SSG or as the mota davakhanu (the big hospital)) – he was a professor of paediatrics and a child specialist, he continued to be sought out for medical advice. That is, he never practised outside of the government hospital, as in, by having a private practice or a clinic of his own, but we had friends, family and lots of other people who would seek him out, and because he never charged a rupee and would never prescribe a medicine or a line of treatment that wasn’t really needed, apart from other things – there was always someone at our door.
For instance, on the other side of the road that ran parallel to our house was an unofficial rickshaw stand. Rickshaw drivers would park their rickshaws there in between their rides, sometimes even catching an afternoon nap. They knew my father. They knew he was a doctor. So once, when a rickshaw driver’s toddler fell ill, he consulted my father. The word spread. Other rickshaw drivers would come. Domestic helps in and around our society would come and seek him out.
One of our neighbours sent his driver and his wife. The wife was pregnant. She had been consulting a private clinic and had just recently been told that she wouldn’t be able to deliver naturally and that a caesarean would be the best option for her.
They were a couple of modest means. A caesarean delivery meant more expenses – you had to pay for the fees of the anaesthesiologist as well as other consultation fees on the top of an extended hospital stay payment. They were very worried about meeting these costs and came to see my father in the hope that there might be a way out.
My father took a look at the scans and from what he could make out, though he wasn’t an obstretician – was that that was plenty of scope for a normal delivery and he couldn’t really see anything in those scans and reports that called for a planned caesarean.
In India, there has been a rise in caesarean deliveries – and sometimes it is a case of doctors trying to put profit before the patient. My father didn’t say anything of the sort to the man and his wife. He instead directed them to approach the SSG hospital where they would be treated for free, and he wrote a letter that they could hand it to the doctor there.
A month or so later, the man came home to see us. His wife had given birth to a healthy baby and she didn’t require a caesarean. The man had come to thank my father. He didn’t incur any hospital costs toward the delivery and he had something to add. ‘Saheb,’ he said, ‘They provided free meals to my wife. There was even a boiled egg that came with the meal.’
He was so grateful about his wife having a normal delivery, the absence of great costs that would have plunged him into debt, but also about the boiled egg/s that his wife got as a part of her meals.
A boiled egg isn’t a big deal for so many of us, but it was an important and much cherished detail of this man’s experience of his wife’s hospital stay. I have never been able to forget that. And the fact that as a doctor, my father was able to understand his patients, and could help them find solutions that were honest and affordable.