As a young medical student in the 70s, I dreamt of becoming a surgeon. Everything about surgery fascinated me: the long hours, the sleepless nights, the unmistakable adrenalin rush and sense of satisfaction of saving a human life.
Three decades later, I had reached the pinnacle of my success. I had a reputation as an accomplished and compassionate surgeon and was wooed by fancy private hospitals with even fancier pay packages and perks. I selected the best the city could offer: a plush corporate hospital with the best equipment and where operating was a luxury itself.
But something was missing. Despite the state-of-the-art equipment and fat pay packet, doubts and a sense of unease remained. The place was too sanitized! Everything was spick and span, and worked with clock-like regularity. Even the patients - well-dressed and well behaved - exuded wealth and leisure.
I missed the milling crowds of my public hospital days; the teeming mass of humanity that constituted a hospital, the thousands that came from far-off villages and thronged the corridors waiting for treatment. Missing were the families living beneath tarp sheets, the emaciated young men carrying frail elders in their arms, and anemic expectant mothers struggling with broods of howling, hungry children while coping with the demands of pregnancy. I missed the vibrant kaleidoscope of the myriad of activities that made a public hospital.
Those who have visited India have seen urban slums, straggling hutments, and shanties standing cheek-by-jowl with glittering, imposing mansions and skyscrapers. There, those regarded worse than human excreta, make their home. They are the invisible poor - faceless and voiceless - of no use to anybody. The well-off regard them as carriers of filth and disease. Politicians ignore them because they have no vote. Some have huts made of cardboard boxes covered by plastic sheets. There is no running water and there are no toilets. There are no roads: only miles of dust tracks where humans live in subhuman conditions.
One day, I gathered my courage and entered one such slum. The stench was unbearable. I had never seen such a harrowing sight. Women and children scrabbled through mountains of garbage with their bare hands, picking up food and putting it in their mouths. I was close to tears, nausea, and anger. I ran in panic, trying to shut my eyes to what I had just witnessed; the infinite degradation of mankind.
But I went again, and again. The next time with cartons of protein biscuits, and then with a stethoscope, a BP apparatus, and a prescription pad. I sat on a pile of stones and treated patients for diarrhea, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, skin infections, eye infections, cuts, burns, whatever. With great reservation, I admitted some and operated on others, worried about who would pay for the admission and medicine.