I have known Fatima since her school days. Never a bright one, she struggled through school and it was no surprise to me that she couldn’t finish school. I felt she was very relieved when the marriage proposal came, not because of the forthcoming bliss of married life but at the prospect of relief from the tedium of school. I was fond of her because of her sunny nature and whenever she came, I was assured of a laugh one way or the other. Either she laughed at me or I laughed at her. She went away to distant Coimbatore and I saw less of her then on. But each year she returned to her father’s house either to a deliver a baby or to spend the school holidays. Her husband, I saw little of but the father who is also my friend a great deal, during the days when she and her children were here with him.
Not quick on the uptake [she], I used to have a hard time explaining why and what of her illness whenever she fell ill in the years before her marriage. But she was not a difficult patient and she followed instructions to the letter whether she understood the advice or not. Inevitably, during her time spent in Bangalore, she would see me, now more for her children’s sake that for herself. As to her own health she cared a damn and was becoming fatter by the month. That seemed bother no one except me. Whenever I pointed this out to her, she would retort ‘it is not healthy to be like you, thin and skinny [those days, twenty years ago, I was much thinner than I am now]!’ I had no answer to this because this misconception of health that being fat is healthy was also shared by her father and her husband and against this trio I was helpless.
Let me get back to the incident I was trying to recall. It was a worried looking Fatima Begum [Now she is respectfully married and a mother to add] who came with her two year old toddler. He looked fine to me as the boy wasted no time in attacking the strewn odds and ends that usually can be found on my table which are a child’s delight. The nakko, nakko [no, no] cries of the mother went unheeded as the boy proceeded to throw these on to the floor. Hearing the commotion, the grandpa, my friend, rushed inside only to see the grandson at his usual best [I forget his name now]. The boy became quiet as he had my knee hammer with him and he was giving it a close look.
The mother told me the reason why she was here to see me. ‘Look doctor, my son is bringing milk out of his ear since three days. This is despite my stopping milk for the last three days’ I was a bit taken aback. Without asking her any further questions, I tried having a good look at the ear. Like mother like son. I couldn’t believe a child of that age being so cooperative. Embodiment of docility. The only interest he showed was in trying to inspect my autoscope. The ear was full of whitish pus which my friend, his mother thought was milk. I was curious to know how a reasonably educated girl could believe that the milk given orally can find its way to the ear. I made enquiries and true to form, Dr Seshachalam, her Coimbatore doctor, by the way of explanation had told her that. In a way he is a better doctor than I. Dr Seshachalam did not waste time trying to explain the intricacies of chronic ear infection to a person like Fatima. She needed a simple, easy to understand explanation and he had given her one. This was not the first time he had done one better on me and I have accepted defeat quite gracefully, as his treatment[unlike his explanations] for any given ailment was always correct.
Now the difficult question, what should I do? If I agree with Doc Seshachalam’s advice, this simple woman will starve the boy each time he has an ear discharge. I asked her, ‘did Dr Seshachalam ever ask you to stop giving him milk?’ She said no. ‘He did not say that, he said only little goes to the ear and the rest goes to the stomach, it is only I who took this precaution’. I saw a silver lining and caught on to it. Told her to restart milk feeds and despite the knowledge that she will not believe me, spent some time explaining why and how of ear infection.
Out of respect and for old time’s sake, she listened to me patiently, took the prescription and snatched the knee hammer from the wailing child’s reluctant grip, placed it back on the table, thanked me and went away.
I was sure she would return again to provide me with some other form of entertainment.