They called me by many names. For some who were my friends it was a white boy. For some others who were not so friendly it was white cockroach and for some others it was cat’s eye. With my thin build, fair complexion, green eyes and red lips, I stood out like a sore thumb in the sea of brown and black. Occasionally a snide reference was made to my ancestry. The small town I grew up had schooling up to high school and it was not very pleasant to be constantly reminded of one’s body and colour. Occasional physical encounters ended in my getting the worse of them. Though unpleasant, most of the times they meant no real harm.
It also rained cats and dogs for almost six months in a year and I frequently fell ill during rainy season. Attacks of asthma and bronchitis were constant companions. I must have suffered all the childhood illnesses like whooping cough, diphtheria and any number of episodes of diarrhea and dysentery. These illnesses we hardly see these days thanks to the successful immunization in childhood. Looking back I sometimes wonder how I survived this illness ridden childhood
This was the negative aspect of my life but the positive side was also there. There was plenty of open places to pay and virtually no pollution. You could play to your hearts content and not worry about regular school attendance. The school was run by the government and the teachers were not very particular about attendance. And my illnesses came in very handy to bunk school. Few teachers were even indulgent because of my frail build and disease prone nature. There were other attractions like the local cinema and cheap eateries. There was also a major weekly attraction which we all looked forward to. That was the weekly fair.
The fair was held on a large piece of flat land [this was difficult to come by in that hilly terrain] located on the outskirts of the town. To the fair came villagers from nearby villages to buy and sell produce and products. It also attracted travelling salesmen of all kinds who set up their stalls where ever they found a place. It was a kind of haphazard mela and our weekly delight. We children preferred some stalls to others. There was one guy with a bioscope which showed magnified photos of distant lands and famous people and also some weird and exciting scenes that interested us. There were wrestling matches where well built men wrestled in specially made sand pits. This was special to me, being physically thin I liked watching these wrestlers. One of them was called Mutton Usman and the other was Dhobi Bojanna. One was Mussaleman and other was Hindu. What was surprising was the Mussalman wrestler trained with Hindus and the Hindu with the Mussalmans.The rabid differences between the two communities which have come to the fore recently were not that visible those days.
There was another who sold medications and I must tell you about him because I was his victim.This person was dressed in a coat and trousers which in itself were a novelty. He also had an impressive belly. He usually held court under a tree and I was a regular attendee till the narrated incident occurred which made me avoid him. He hung several large banners with pictures of well built men and women. There was also picture of a skeleton next to the picture of human anatomy showing what lies under the skin. Muscles in pink, blood vessels in blue and red, bones shown as white and a skull with mouth open. This gave the face a curiously melovelant grin. The sales man would wait for some thirty or forty people to collect and then would get his assistant to distribute handbills to the adults. These handbills proclaimed the sales man as a doctor with many degrees and accomplishments and miraculous cures. He had a cure for arthritis, snake bite, phlegm, impotency, head ache and to build one’s body. He would then proceed with his sales talk which would last for about ten to fifteen minutes. He held his audience spell bound with a mixture of demagogy and humour. This done, he would go around with various pills and his customers would choose whatever they thought was good for them. This done he would get his assistant to collect all the hand bills from the audience for reuse next time.
Once he was demonstrating the effects of his medicine for body building, repeatedly showing the picture of the well built body and the skeleton and how he would make the skeleton look like what is shown in the other picture. I had occupied the ringside seat and was so engrossed with this superman’s talk that I did not realize being caught by the arms and dragged to the middle of the ring by his assistant. Now he had a living skeleton to show his power. He asked another who was well built to come forward and comparing us he said he would guarantee the result if I took his pills that I would become like the other person. This sales talk brought many forward to buy his pills as many in that crowd were under nourished and thin. His work done he let me go and that was the end of his show for the day and he started winding up. He sent his assistant for his much needed cup of tea. I stood there waiting. He turned and saw me standing alone with the entire crowd having gone and what business I had to be waiting. He asked me. I told him I need to have some of his body building pills for free as he had used me as an object for public demo. He became very angry and gave me a shove with a shout to get lost. I walked away with some disappointment and lots of anger and after having reached some 50 yards or so took a piece of stone and hurled at him and was rewarded with a strike and a cry of pain from the doctor. He of course could not match me in running and his assistant was away. I stood there for a while as though to challenge him to catch me if he can and seeing no challenge forthcoming went my way. Then on I carefully avoided visiting this travelling doctor.
Some years ago there was a product launch and I attended that meeting. A well known doctor was hired by the Pharma company for the talk with many colorful slides the doctor made his case. He was impressive and his talk was punctuated with lots of wit and some wisdom. He never once used the pharmacological name of the drug but repeatedly used the trade name being promoted by the Pharma company to drive home the message that we fools in the audience will be better off using this magic pill on our hapless patients. The additional bonus was the cocktails and dinner that followed.
I wonder if there is any difference between the itinerant salesman cum doctor of my childhood and the hired qualified professional who promoted the product of the Pharma company.