It’s hard to have a hereditary system that produces the competencies required
—J. Mark Baiada, founder of a health care firm which he intends to leave to a charity
Dr Ruma Sen hid a secret sadness. She and her husband Rudra would occasionally talk about it when they were alone, out of the earshot of their only son Tomu. It bothered her a lot nowadays, gradually becoming an obsession which she could not shake from her mind.
Ruma was the daughter of a police constable, the oldest of three sisters. She grew up in interior Kasba, and studied at the local Bengali medium school. Unlike the people around her, she had always dreamt big. These dreams and her own hard work and work ethics had driven her through medical school, where she met Rudra. They were a happy and optimistic couple who married soon after graduation.
Rudra was the only son of a well-known high court lawyer and had lived all his life in Ballygunge place. His mother was not particularly impressed with her son’s choice—Ruma was after all dark and awkwardly tall. She felt he could have done better but accepted her fait accompli with a sad face.
Ruma could feel her mother-in law’s silent disapproval, but outwardly the relationship remained smooth and friendly, though not warm. Luckily, Rudra more than made up for it in many ways. He stood by her like a rock—her anchor on unchartered territories.
But he lacked the professional drive of his wife, which he compensated with his flamboyance and a pleasant demeanour. However, he did sound a bit upset when Ruma told him that she had secured a MD seat in Gynaecology at Bhopal and that she would shift there to live alone for the next three years. She looked at his face with a mixture of anxiety, hope, depression and trepidation. But the factor which really weighed more on her mind was how her one year old mother-in law would take it.
Rudra looked grim and upset. However, he settled down after a few minutes and congratulated her. Then he became very quiet and morose. He left the house alone without mentioning where he was going. He himself had not cleared the exam.
Ruma sat in her room by herself, switched on her Walkman and inserted a Kishore Kumar CD at high decibel trying to drive the feeling of dread from her mind. Was Rudra feeling inadequate? How would he take it? Would their marriage be rocked?
A little later Rudra came in with a box of chocolates and a bunch of roses which he handed to her with a smile. He had hidden these carefully while entering the house as open display of affections were not the norm in the Sen family.
Rudra could not clear the exams the following year either. After much discussion his parents pitched in financially to get him into a recognised private medical college in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, in anaesthesia. Rudra did not look back from there and went on to get several prizes during his MD including the best thesis submitted in the college in that session.
Thinking about these thirty-year old events brought a smile to Ruma’s face. All the to-ing and fro-ing on buses, trains and flights between Coimbatore and Bhopal.Completing her MD in Bhopal with distinction. And then subsequently, joining Rudra, still a final year MD student then, in the post graduate hostel. The single room that they shared and the meals at the hospital mess. The nights he would be on-call. Her nights on-call as a senior resident at Viswakarma Iyer Hospital. The first day of Rudra’s senior residency at Ganga Hospital when he started working in the trauma department. Her attempts at learning to cook a perfect dosa in their small rented flat just a stone’s throw away from the infertility department she worked in.
It was a collage of experiences of the friendships she shared with Uma, her co-resident. The shopping trips they made. The first facial she had with Uma’s encouragement. Even Rudra liked it and picked both of them up for the coffee and KFC afterwards. It was Uma who had taught Ruma how to straighten her hair, how to dress and accessorise. Uma was the daughter of a famous gynaecologist, Dr Sharma from Indore. She had much more exposure to affluence. Very soon Uma would be joining her father’s busy hospital where she would set up an infertility unit.
Other busy experiences crowded in. Like, the night Tomu was born after a prolonged and difficult labour. Her boss, Dr Iyer, had not gone home even for a minute. Uma too had stood by her – the only constant beside her during the entire period. Midway through the labour, Rudra could not tolerate her pain any more. He looked like he himself would need some treatment soon.
‘Go and have a beer with your friend Ravi. We are all here. Buy some good cigars when you come back. I like a puff occasionally.’ This was Uma. She pointed to the bar a few hundred metres away.
Ruma too was relieved to see him go. His head down, praying. She blamed herself for convincing everyone that she wanted a natural delivery. What an idiot she had been.
It was past midnight when the healthy baby, Sangram Sen cried out. Dr Iyer’s personal chamber was adjacent to the labour room. The first thing Dr Iyer did after the delivery was to close the door and make a phone call. He shifted the new mom to her own room with the ward nurses and RMO. And then signalled to Uma and Rudra to pull up chairs. Rudra’s friend, Ravi had left a while ago to drop off his own staff nurse wife for a night shift.
The door opened and Mrs Iyer came in with a bag. She was wearing her trademark simple cotton sari and a big bindi on her forehead. To Rudra’s amazement, she pulled out a bottle of champagne and several fancy glasses. Dr Iyer opened the cork with a flourish but in absolute silence and a poured a bit for everyone.
‘Have you brought the cigars?’ Dr Iyer asked Rudra. Rudra lit one and handed it to his wife’s boss. He was again surprised when Mrs Iyer took a deep puff and blew it out of her nose. Rudra knew it was called retro haling which can be done only by practised cigar smokers. Uma also blew perfect smoke rings in the air from her mouth. ‘Try this, Rudra,’ she challenged.
Rudra tried but the smoke got into his chest and he coughed violently and tears came out of his eyes. He felt his pocket to check if he was carrying his steroid inhaler and salbutamol.
Uma raised her glass and toasted to the future Dr Sen.
‘I have given you Dr Sangram Sen,’ Ruma told Rudra when she heard the story later. ‘He will take the fight to the next level. We will build a strong platform for him. We will have our own hospital in Kolkata, like the Iyers. We have chosen a good name for him to live up to.’
‘Possibly,’ said Rudra. ‘But can you retro hale cigar smoke like them? I definitely cannot.’
Dr Majumdar’s eye hospital was well known throughout Asansol. It had been started by his dad, a diploma holder, as an eye clinic. Gradually more rooms and operating theatres were added. The lines were endless and he had to employ two MBBS assistants to help him besides technicians and optometrists. He was delighted when his son Mohit Majumdar decided to be an eye surgeon as well. His son was trained in the regional Eye Institute in Calcutta Medical College and spent a year at AIIMS as well as a few months in Vienna University, which was an internationally famous eye centre.
Armed with his fresh knowledge, Mohit soon set up a phaco cataract centre in the hospital. He dreamt of the day when his daughter would in turn, be an eye surgeon. Not an “ordinary” specialist like him or his father but someone who was a “super specialist” in retinal surgery.
Retinal surgery was a sore issue with him. He had obtained a seat in a fellowship program at Shankar Nethralaya in Chennai. But his father had dissuaded him from taking up the retinal specialisation. There was no takers in Asansol for super specialisation at that time. Mohit knew that his father’s assessment of the market demand was correct. He concentrated on phaco surgery.
But when the new millennium started, Mohit began to realise that India had changed. Many people now had money and were demanding “cutting edge” treatment. It was not only a local demand from Durgapur–Asansol region. Even people from the coal belt around Dhanbad and resource rich Ranchi were crying for better services. There was enough money sloshing around in this part of East India for the brave of heart and first movers.
Trains were leaving every day full of patients for Kolkata and Chennai. Like a helpless spectator, he watched them go by and looked forward to the day when they would be patients of his daughter, Dr Shona Majumdar, the renowned retinal surgeon. There was only one problem. Shona Majumdar was still in high school.
Rudra’s dad suddenly passed away without warning. His mother had mellowed over the years and her relationship with Ruma had improved gradually. The shared care of Tomu had been an ice breaker. Ruma was no longer the constable’s daughter she had known, rather an urbane and sophisticated young doctor who looked and dressed well, could hold an intellectual conversation or whip up a biriyani or a risotto in a jiffy.
‘Ruma, Rudra, why don’t you move back to Kolkata now? Will you spend your life in Coimbatore working for other people when our sprawling ancestral home in Ballygunge is falling apart’She asked one day over the phone.
Ruma bit her lip, not mentioning that the old lady was the reason she had not returned.
Rudra however changed her mind. ‘Mom is getting old now. Why not convert half of our old house into an infertility centre. Childless couples are crying for children. Ask Uma to help you set it up.’
Suddenly, Ruma knew that the old lady had given them a viable choice, a lifeline. Like the day they had enrolled Rudra in a private hospital seat. That one step had definitely saved her marriage.
From then onwards the Goodeve Infertility Centre (GIC) became the focus of her life, the centre of her dreams. And this dream mingled with another one. That one day, Dr Sangram Sen would expand this infertility centre into a major Mother and Child Hospital.
GIC took off with a bang. The time was ripe. The Sens were well known in the locality as a bonedi paribar: an old, affluent and decent family. Rudra and Ruma had supporting friends and college mates. And the spectre of infertility was a major issue among the prosperous middle classes.
There were many reasons why infertility had become the “in-thing” in obstetrics. Couples were marrying late. Often the girls were already in their thirties, on the last leg of their reproductive clock. Those who were marrying early were delaying their families. Diabetes, obesity and hypertension is endemic in modern Indian society. Poor diet and lack of exercise does not help either.
Couples were smoking and drinking more. Abnormal work hours and omnipotent stress meant a disturbed conjugal life. And due to an unknown reason, the sperm levels of men were plummeting. No one quite knew the answer to that—perhaps it was a combination of all the other factors. And a disease called PCOD was rising in Indian women. This disease or disorder was again of unknown origin and caused an imbalance of female hormones making it difficult to conceive.
Ruma Sen was a godsend to these couples. She was the hard working girl next door who could be your sister, boudi, or best friend. Sincere and charming. Tough as nails when the situation demanded. The ever-smiling Rudra would drop in after spending the morning at AMRI Dhakuria, after working with the trauma team. He was Ruma’s anaesthetist as well, and did the honours during laparoscopy and other surgical procedures related to infertility.
In the evening both of them would go to the gym to work up the sweat. Rudra took up golf on Sundays. Rudra’s mother, now all of seventy pitched in. She looked after the nursing home books and the house-keeping. Tomu too was under her charge. Of course, Ruma was always around since technically she “worked from home”.
All was perfect. An idyllic life built with hard work, motivation, aspiration and dreams of an even better shared tomorrow.
Tomu Sen enjoyed cricket and hardly ever studied. Every morning he was up at seven doing push ups and then out for a run. After school he was reluctant to sit with his books, spending hours practising hitting a ball which was tied to the top of the door. Someone had told him that Sachin Tendulkar had perfected his batting defence in the same way. Over weekends, he was in great demand. Local clubs were willing to pay him money to join their Sunday leagues.
Tomu was slightly better than average as a student. He was bright and engaged and seemed to grasp difficult concepts easily. But he just did not put in the hours.
“Hardly doctor material,” his mother noted.
‘He will get better when he grows mature,’ Rudra reassured her. But that maturity never seemed to come.
‘I don’t think he has had it in him to be a doctor’” Rudra told Ruma one day.
‘What should we do?’ She replied with a worried look on her face.
‘What can we possibly do? You can’t force him in this day and age. Marry him to a gynaecologist!’ he said flippantly.
Ruma’s face lit up. ‘What an idea, Sirji’
‘I am not serious. How can you fix who his wife will be in this day and age? Besides he is only in school’. But he could see that Ruma’s mind was furiously at work.
Soon the inevitable happened. Tomu told them that he wanted to study anthropology in London, after finishing school. But there was no scholarship—it would have to be self-financed.
The Sens had enough money but Ruma thought she could influence him.
‘How about studying for a medical degree at Manipal, Tomu?’ she coaxed him. ‘We can get a seat for you there. It will cost same as the seat in London. I promise you medicine is an interesting line, you just don’t realise that.’
‘Mom, I told you many times. I don’t like medicine. And I definitely don’t want to be a doctor.’
‘You are being very selfish. You are only thinking of yourself.’
‘No, mom. You are the one being selfish. You are the one only thinking of yourself. If it’s a money issue, I will study in India. In a subject of my choice.’
She left the room in tears but realised that he was right. Rudra too took Tomu’s side. ‘The boy is not cut out for medicine. It will end in a worse disaster if you force him.’
Rudra was awakening his last patient in AMRI Dhakuria when he got a call from an excited Ruma. ‘When are you coming, home? Can you pick up some good cakes and pastries from the Hindustan road branch of Cookie Jar?’
Tomu had brought four friends from school. It was the last day before their ISC exam.
‘What’s the excitement?’
‘You’ll see. Don’t delay!’
He entered the living room to find five eighteen-year olds drinking fizzy drinks and coffee. Ruma was all over them handing out chocolate biscuits.
Tomu introduced them. Among them was a pretty girl called Shona Majumdar. ‘She wants to study medicine’ Ruma added for Rudra’s benefit. Her father and grandfather are both doctors. Rudra could see his wife’s mind furiously at work.
‘Aren’t you taking my suggestion a bit too literarily? Why are you trying to arrange Tomu’s life?’
‘You’ll see. Dilli door hai! Anyway I like the girl already. She is so pretty and soft natured.’
‘But Tomu is going to the UK.’
‘Arre, don’t worry your little head about these things. Leave everything to mommy.’
‘I’m already having a bad feeling about this.’
Rudra knew that his wife was a determined lady. But the level of determination surprised him. Soon Shona shifted to Calcutta National Medical College hostel,and Ruma started making frequent trips there with food and little gifts like toiletries. Branded perfumes, soaps and shampoos which girls find hard to resist.
Then Shona had a very bad bout of dysentery in the hostel. This time Ruma managed to convince Shona’s parents to let her shift to Goodeves Infertility Centre. There was a spare room next to the room for junior doctors. Ruma did it up lavishly and tastefully for Shona.
Mohit Majumdar had been trying to buy a flat for his daughter in Calcutta but the promoter was delaying the handover. He agreed to let her shift temporarily to GIC in view of the poor water supply of the medical college hostel. But he looked uncomfortable.
Whenever Tomu was in town, Ruma would force him to take Shona out at least once. For a movie, a meal, once even a cricket test. She would use all sorts of ploys to make them meet. Sometimes the four of them would have meals together on some pretext or the other like someone’s birthday or success in a semester exam.
It worked for a little while but then Tomu would avoid Shona with some excuse or another. Even Shona would try to go to Asansol whenever Tomu arrived from the UK or feign important exams and shift temporarily to the hostel.
‘What’s mom up to?’ Tomu asked Rudra. ‘Why is she always throwing that girl at me? Does she think I will marry her? Tell her not to plan my life or she will be in for a big surprise.’
‘Are you going out with an English girl?’
‘No, I am not.’ he said emphatically
Shona really did fall in love with gynaecology. Whenever Ruma had time she would discuss interesting cases with her. She would show her surgical procedures and operative videos and even let her scrub for actual surgeries. Soon Shona became Ruma’s regular surgical assistant. This was long before she became a doctor. Her name therefore never appeared in any of the OT registers.
Shona would write the pre-operative directions and post-operative notes though Ruma always signed. She was the “Chhoto-didi” of the nursing home and the staff treated her like the boss when the Sens were away.
What excited Ruma most was the interest Shona showed in the field of infertility. Almost all couples who came to GIC had been trying for a child for several years. They carried a lot of emotional turmoil and baggage within them. “Didi” and “Chhoto-didi” would sit them down for hours counselling them. Participating in their victories and their failures.
Cutting the cake when that elusive normal child was born.Grieving the death of a premature infant who did not survive. Telling the couple to adopt a child and helping with the adoption when they realised that IVF (the so-called test tube baby) would not work. And organising an annual party for all the children born to the clinic.
Rudra started getting a little uncomfortable with the situation and asked Ruma not to get carried away.
But she ignored him.
‘She is my soul mate. She will run the running home when I retire. Even if Tomu does not marry her. Really the boy is the most selfish person on the planet. After all the struggles we have been through. After all the sacrifices we have made for him.’
‘Yes, but we did everything on our own terms.’
‘Did we not return to Kolkata when your mother asked us to?’
‘Yes but we also wanted to.’
‘We were sensible and unselfish. These kids, what are they called—‘Generation X’ are only in it for themselves.’
‘Shona too is Generation X.’
‘Exceptions prove the rule.’
The years rolled by and Shona became Dr Shona. She sat her for post-graduation examination and did rather well. She had scored a very high all-India rank.
One day, Rudra got a call in the middle of the day from one of the senior staff. Of GIC
‘Sir, madam is not well. Could you come home?’
He found his wife crying and vomiting. She smelt of alcohol and he saw some torn Valium 5 tablets.
‘How many did you have?’ screamed Rudra.
‘Just three. I started vomiting after that.’
‘How much did you drink?’
‘Just a little. You know I can’t tolerate alcohol.’
‘What is wrong with you? What happened? Should I take you to the emergency?’
‘What ?Why ?’
‘She chose ophthalmology for postgraduate specialisation. She is leaving for Delhi. Said her dad needs her help in his nursing home when she finishes. She came here crying. Said her dad would kill himself if she specialises in gynaecology. She said she hates ophthalmology but has no choice.’
Rudra looked at her and could feel her pain. ‘I told you this would not end happily. But now listen to me carefully. And look at me. This too will pass. Maybe like a kidney stone, but this too will pass.’
Ruma again started crying. ‘Since you know everything, tell me Rudra, how will this story end?’
When a novelist or a short story writer doesn’t know how to write the end of a story he usually turns to a sudden death or fire. In this case however it was not necessary to use any of these standard twists because AMRI Dhakuria Hospital provided both.
Rudra was one of the doctors who had headed the rescue operation in trying to save the patients on that fateful day when the smouldering flames killed a lot of inmates. Rudra himself did not die in the fire. But his asthmatic lungs were shot up with smoke. After that, there were several minor and major hospital admissions in store for him. Death finally came after six months, with the last fortnight on the ventilator. Even the tracheostomy did not help much. So, he did not make it on the official death toll or on the face of the memorial stone set up in the Dhakuria Lakes soon afterwards.
Goodeves Infertility Centre was eventually shut down when Ruma decided that it was time to move on. Her demented eighty-eight–year-old mother-in-law remained with care givers as the only record of a happier yesterday.
Ruma now divides her time between London and Kolkata. When in London, she lives with her son and his long-term live-in partner, Richard.
Ruma helped the couple adopt a baby girl from an orphanage in Kolkata. This orphanage was well known to Ruma from her time in GIC. Otherwise it would have been difficult for the gay couple to adopt. They named her Usha Penny Sen-Wilson.
Ruma was sitting in a chair and drinking a cup of tea on a crisp Saturday morning near her favourite rose bushes.
The seven-year-old Usha Penny, lovingly called Manik by her grandmother, stood quietly behind her.
‘Do you want to say anything, Manik?’
‘Yes, Nani. I have decided to become a nurse when I grow up. They are very kind people.’
Ruma gave a loud laugh. ‘What a great idea, Manik. Did you know that my father was a policeman?’