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My doctor, my friend: The Great Bengali Dream takes a beating

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock  

That a Chief Minister should compare a doctor’s job with a policeman’s is preposterous. Self-defence is not part of the MBBS curriculum yet

Once Mamata Banerjee as a can-do rail minister organised a special train from Kolkata to Bengaluru for students stranded by an Air India strike. The students were heading out there for medical college examinations. At that time, Bengal had 1,205 medical seats on offer. Karnataka, despite a smaller population, had 4,500.

I don’t know if the irony of organising an exodus from Sonar Bangla struck Banerjee at all. Now, it feels doubly ironic that Didi who likes to think of herself as the guardian angel of all things Bengali should be presiding over the slow-motion shattering of a cherished Bengali dream: a child becoming a doctor.

Ever since I can remember, all middle-class Bengalis have dreamed of a doctor in the family. If not a son, at least a son-in-law. In these more modern times, daughters were also allowed into the dream. Doctor, lawyer, engineer were all desirable but a doctor in the family was at the head of the list.

Family pride

My parents’ and grandparents’ generation knew the names of famous doctors the way we know the names of rockstars. Cardiologist Sunil Bose. Surgeon Panchanan Chatterjee. Gynaecologist Sarat Mitra whose famous ‘twilight sleep’ injections would entice even memsahibs to come from England for delivery. Bidhan Chandra Roy, doctor and Chief Minister. My great-great-grandmother’s sister was married to doctor and philanthropist Sir Nil Ratan Sircar. It was a matter of great pride in the family. Now NRS is better known as the hospital where truckloads of angry people attacked junior doctors, leaving an intern with a head injury that could keep him on epileptic medicines all his life.

I didn’t become a civil engineer like my father because he couldn’t go to anyone’s house without being shown a leak in the ceiling. I certainly didn’t want to become a doctor and have some uncle corner me at a family wedding, pull up his dhoti and show me some weird rash on his leg. When you are a doctor, there is never a free dinner but there is always a free consultation. It doesn’t matter if you are a neurosurgeon. You are expected to be an expert in the digestive woes of sundry aunts.

A couple of my closest friends did become doctors. My only contribution to their slog was doing a few of their histology diagrams for some project. But when my mother fell sick while I was abroad, my doctor friend assumed all responsibility and risk. When my father had a heart attack, the medical college friends kept vigil at hospitals, talked to their “sirs” and “ma’ams”, and deciphered test results and X-rays.

On our school WhatsApp group, it’s the doctors who have deservedly become the Most Valuable Alumni, not long-ago class toppers. Everyone needs a “doctor friend” especially as parents age. I am just lucky that my doctor friends were always friends first and then doctors.

Justified frustration

It is perhaps a sign of the failure of our healthcare system that it is so important to know a doctor up close. In an ideal world, every patient walking into a hospital should warrant the same attention, the same service. But in an overstretched system, it is a reality that your doctor friend gets you that coveted appointment with the busy specialist or extra care in the hospital.

That is the source of the justified frustration of those who don’t have a doctor cousin/ friend on speed dial, those who have to depend on the whims and vagaries of an overburdened system. However, that can never be an excuse for thrashing junior doctors or for political silence on the assault. That doctors should have to march on the street with placards reading ‘Stop Violence Against Doctors’ is shameful. That a Chief Minister should compare a doctor’s job with a policeman’s is preposterous. Self-defence is not part of the MBBS curriculum yet.

This week, Banerjee finally played kindly Didi, instead of bullying Big Sister, and ended the strike. “I know a thing or two about hospitals because I’ve been beaten enough in my life,” she said, disarmingly. But there is more healing to be done. As a doctor noted bitterly, the Chief Minister rushed to the rescue of a statue with a broken head but not to the bedside of a young man left with a dented skull. Thankfully, she’s done that now. But the Hippocratic oath about doing no harm might need a new corollary of doing no harm to the doctors as well.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 7:39:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/my-doctor-my-friend-the-great-bengali-dream-takes-a-beating/article28098530.ece

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