Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dignity in death

His name was Madhavan Nayar. I must reassure the many Madhavan Nayars who are alive and kicking, and some who are my patients, that this is a pseudonym.

It must have been 30 years since I had known him and, as it happens with us general practitioners, initially as a patient and over the years, also as a friend. Now looking at him lying in disheveled clothes in a badly made bed, made me think not of the indignity of death but the peculiar personality of Mr Nayar and what drew us to each other.

I keep a fairly tidy examination room with a fresh white sheet spread over the examination couch each day and some times twice a day. Despite this, there would be a few discernible smudges, especially at the foot end of the bed. No one minded this till I met Mr Madhavan Nayar.When his turn came to be examined, he took one quick look at the table, excused himself politely, said he would return in the evening if I did not mind, and went away. When he returned in the evening he had a small bag with him. From this bag he took out a clean white sheet and proceeded to spread it on my examination couch, all the while apologizing for his action and requesting me not to get offended. I did not, having met many with much stranger personalities than this one. After the examination was over he neatly folded the sheet and put it back in his bag.

That is how we met. Since then, each time he visited me he had followed this procedure. The fastidious nature was in keeping with the general character of the man. He was one of the few patients of mine who always telephoned me before coming despite knowing the fact that I don’t follow the appointment system. He was always on time even if it meant waiting for his turn.

Since we lived in the same area and belonged to the same club, we also had the same barber. On one occasion, I bumped into him while he was coming out of the barber’s shop. His usual bag was with him and I of course knew what it contained. When I went in, I asked the barber about the bag. Like the other members of his tribe this one too loved telling a story. Not only did he have a white sheet for his exclusive use but had a whole range of barbering equipment to the last new blade, well packed in a special case. He made the barber wash his hands and dip his hands in a solution of disinfectant before allowing him to touch his head. When I heard this I wondered why he did not make me wash my hands before examining him. May be he had watched me washing hands after examining each patient and therefore did not feel the need. But I certainly don’t dip my hands in disinfectant! I had wondered then, when he would make this request of me and if he did, what must I do?

We met occasionally at the club over a drink. His order was precise. A small whiskey of a specific brand, two cubes of ice and an equal amount of water. Ice cubes to go into the glass first. When the glass with whiskey arrived he would hold up the glass to the light and give it a close look to see if there were finger prints. If he found any the order would be repeated. Needless to say the waiters were wise to his ways and his glass was always well wiped before the drink was poured.

I would often wonder whether he was an obsessive psychotic. Even if he was one, no one was unhappy, not the least Mr Nayar. He had a very happy family life and a close circle of friends who liked him. He was also a very successful business man.

But in death he was like any of us. After the certification formalities were over, I asked his son to get me his shaving kit. We gave him a good shave taking care to use a new blade. Dressed him in a new shirt and a mundu and spread a clean sheet over him after changing the old bed sheet with a new one. Now I thought he was ready to receive the mourning friends and relatives in his accustomed style.

I returned home with mixed feelings. A sense of sorrow for having lost a friend and a sense of satisfaction for having done something for him. This I am sure,he would have appreciated, had he been alive.

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