Baban loved to talk about old times. He had spent nearly four decades as a Nursing Assistant at the Sion Hospital. All of residents learned basic suturing, knot tying, dressing techniques, starting intravenous drips, all essential for a surgical resident from Baban. He was very patient with us, was Baban. It was much better that Baban assisted you for the removal of a lipoma than a registrar who, most often than not snatched the knife from your hands to “finish off the case” It was rumored that Prof and some other Seniors had learned their basic surgery as residents from Baban.
Baban also made an excellent scrub nurse. All instruments and mops would be laid neatly on his table. He knew most of the steps of operations. Before you said “curved mixter, Baban” the instrument would be slapped into your open palm. “Use a number 60 linen or black silk, Doctor Baba” Baban would advise when you wondered what material to use to close the skin. “Try the hydrogen peroxide gauze. It stops the oozing” Damn! it always worked.
“Those were the days of great Doctors. They were giants walking the earth. There were very few surgeons in Mumbai of the forties, just around half a dozen. They had very busy practices outside of Sion Hospital. But they never neglected the poor patients. PJ is a product of their legacy” Baban was chewing a cud of tobacco and reminiscing about the good old days as he was wont to. The Tulsi beads that he wore around his neck proclaimed that he was a ‘Varkari’ a sect of Maharashtrians who worship Vitthala of Pandharpur.
PJ? who is or was PJ? we inquired. “Your Prof of course” Our interest was piqued. Prof’s name was Praful Joshi. He was called PJ by his close friends. “He was a hell raiser alright” chuckled Baban. The grim faced Prof, the ‘Old Pete’ a hell raiser? this was getting interesting. “Used to be very particular about patient care. Would take on anyone who he thought came in his way of his beloved patients” He had a very short fuse. He would say or do something in anger and regret about it later. He once cuffed the Assistant Matron in the, err…lower back . All because she refused to open the emergency cupboard for some essential medicines”
What? the Prof, so prim and proper, slapping a nurses derriere? It was unbelievable stuff. Tell us all Baban, we urged him. “Oh yes. what an uproar there was! The Dean summoned him and threatened to throw him out unless he apologized in writing to the AM. PJ promptly agreed and went to his fellow registrar who was known for writing excellent English. PJ asked him to help him write out an apology letter” Baban was smiling broadly now, remembering the incident. “Tell me how to say sorry without meaning it” was PJ’s demand. He was finally convinced to offer a bunch of flowers to the AM and buy peace.
The Prof came from a very poor family. At times he would not even have money for the bus ticket and would walk the five miles home. He was affected by the nationalistic fervor of the 1942 Quit India movement. He was an ardent follower of Gandhiji and joined the agitation. He was promptly arrested and jailed. The Dean was informed that one his students was in jail for ‘subversive activities’ and would the Dean take steps to rusticate him?
“That’s when Dr Kamat, our Chief Surgeon came into the picture” continued Baban, pushing another wad of tobacco into his mouth. “Dr Kamat was a tall, handsome man. Always wore three piece suits and a bow tie. Smoked one of those Briar pipes. He immediately went to the police station and bailed the Prof out. He took him to his own house, gave him some tea and biscuits and then read him the riot act. ‘you come from a family that can’t protect you unlike your rich friends who can afford to indulge in these shenanigans. Your primary responsibility is to your family. Therefore no more agitations for you. Pass your examination, become a doctor and then do whatever you want’ was his advice”
“They don’t make men like that anymore. He would put an unspecified amount in an envelope and hand it to the Dean. It was meant to pay the fees of those poor students who fell behind. The only condition he would put to the Dean was that the student didn’t know who the donor was. His wife was as generous, feeding a dozen deserving students at home.” Baban’s eyes had gone misty. “Prof is repaying the debt. Do you know that he contributes a part of his salary to the poor patients’ fund?”
“You see him now, a humorless man, married to his work. He was not always like this. He used to have an open house for Diwali where all of us were invited and fed to our gills by his wife. Those were the days! There was laughter and talk all around. They were very much in love, our PJ and Nirmalatai” What happened? we wanted to know. “She was run over by a drunk driver” Baban said brusquely getting up…
Baban retired when I became a Lecturer. One day he was spotted in the outpatients. He had developed cancer of his cheek with metastasis to his neck lymph nodes. Prof and I did the ‘commando’ operation, removing the cancer, a part of his lower jaw and all the neck nodes. He recovered and went home to his daughter and grandson.
Six months later, Baban died after a torrential bleed. . The cancer had recurred and eaten into his carotid artery……