I come from a family that can only be described as bonkers.
Come April, amma would ask (I wish I could capture the exact tone of the original Tamizh in English; alas, it’s not to be!), “All right. When does your drama start?”
Fact was that come May, I would suddenly, without any preamble or warning, fall ill with high temperature – ague, the works. Standard Operating Procedures would kick in with clockwork precision.
I would gather up all the blankets and rugs I could find, make a multi-layered protective covering with them, and go to bed, shivering. I would be swathed in this except for my eyes and nose. I could never abide having a musuku – fully covering my face. I had to breathe ‘fresh air’.
Amma would make a mild version of pepper-jeera rasam (the elixir!). Appa would walk in, take one look, and without missing a beat announce, “I am going to the Iyengar bakery.”
He would return in due course and grumble about the Iyengar maama (uncle), “Who does he think he is? Again, he called me thaaththaa (grandpa)! Gives me a piece of cake while an underling was packing things for me, and says, ‘Here, thaaththa, eat a piece of cake’.” The piece of cake was gratis. Appa would eat the cake, but grumble about being called thaaththa, claiming it was rich coming from that oldster! Amma’s response: “Yeah. What are you? A 16-year-old kumaara?”
In the bag would be half a kilo of rusk, a loaf (for some reason always called ‘a pound’) of milk bread, and a dozen moosambis. These delivered and his complaints off his chest, he would take a small clean bottle, and trot off to his old pal’s house in Jayanagar 4th block.
Said pal was Dr (Capt.) P N Raghavan (Retd.), our family GP. A very methodical, neat, clean, precise, and compassionate man. Being a Palakkad Iyer, his Tamizh had a soothing lilt and always comforted any of use who went to him.
“What are the symptoms?”, he would ask. As each symptom was listed, he would respond, “I see…”. As we neared the end of the list (he always knew when that was), his hands would open the bottle that we had brought. And The Procedure would begin: rinse bottle with water kept in his own clean decanter. Measuring beaker. Left hand goes automatically to a particular bottle; he would not even turn to the shelf to look at which bottle he was picking up. Measure amount of red or pink or whatever colour fluid it was. Pour into bottle. Measure appropriate amount of water by the same beaker. Swirl it a little, pour into bottle. Repeat with second liquid. Close bottle cap tightly, shake (not stir!) it a bit. Keep aside.
Similar, un-looking picking-up of a bottle of tablets. Lay out neat, pre-cut piece of paper. Onto this paper, tap out three tablets. Methodically fold that paper into a packet. A very neat packet!
Then the soft-spoken, soothing, lilting Tamizh instructions: “Three doses of medicine, three tablets. Take the medicine 10 minutes after a meal. After each dose, 5 minutes later, take one tablet. No diet restrictions, but don’t eat anything too pungent. Tomorrow let me know how you are faring.”
Two doses and you would sweat like crazy and the fever would vanish. The third dose, you took because he had told you to. A few days to convalesce and one was as good as new.
Meanwhile, in the late afternoon, the older siblings would return home from their various occupations and bedside sympathy would be expressed.
“What is this here? Oh! It’s the hit bird!” Check for breathing by placing back of palm near nostrils. “H’mmm… it’ll probably make it.”
“Oho! Is he out? Back to the pavilion-aa?”
“What I say? What is your plan?” The “your plan” imbued with ominous tones.
Come night, a small fight with amma over the vile kashaayam she would want me to drink. Milk boiled with turmeric, pepper, and pachcha karpuram.
“You do nothing that is good for you!”
“It is disgusting.”
In the end, I would drink a little of it to placate her. Appa would sportingly guzzle the rest!
And so it would go.
One year, mid-1970s, two rounds of Dr Raghavan’s treatment did nothing to address the issues. The temperature raged on. Brother Numero Dos (B2), says, “Go to Murthy’s clinic and see him. Tell him you are B2’s younger brother.” Supporting vocals by the mater, “Yes, go to Murthy. Tell him you are maami’s son.”
I resolve firmly that I am a patient, he is a doctor. He treats me. I pay him. I take the medicine and hope for the best.
Except… this was not so simple in practice.
You see, this Dr Murthy was a son of a neighbour family in N R Colony, from when I was a baby till my age 5, when we moved to Jayanagar. I had been entertained, baby-sat, and otherwise hugely pampered by this family, as by several other neighbours, during that period.
So, with an 800-degree temperature, I got on the bicycle and biffed off to the clinic. Soon it was my turn. Doc examined me. Wrote out a prescription.
I asked, “How much should I pay?”
I take the money out and offer it to him. He keeps it on the examining bed and says, “Wait. You are not done yet. I have to write down some particulars.” So, it goes. Name. Address. Such and such, this cross, that block, Jayanagar. “Oh!”, he pauses, “I know someone who lives there. B2. Do you know him?”
I was cornered. “Mmm… yes. I am his younger brother.”
Closes pen. Turns to me. “Sit down.”
I sit down. Then proceeds the rollicking of a lifetime. “You are too proud to say you are B2’s brother? You are a big man now that you will pay me fifteen rupees?” Volume rises, “You remember this: I have seen you and carried you around when you were a little baby without even a chaddi on…”
“Uh, Murthy, there are other patients outside…”
“Let them be! Who do you think you are, h’m?” He stuffs the money back in my shirt pocket and shoos me out of there.
Back home, I mention none of this to the old mater, and go to bed under my 239 layers of blankets. Suddenly I hear raised voices.
“I know! I specifically told him to tell you that he’s my son. Teenagers these days! Arrogance! That’s what it is!”
“When he wakes up, you scold him, maami!”
“Oh, I will!”
Appa walks in. Instant action replay. “Arrogance” (dur-ahamkaara) is mentioned several times, the Modern generation is excoriated in no uncertain terms.
It is Dr Murthy on his way home for lunch. He has stopped by to report to The Authorities on my dur-ahamkaara!
That conversation is replayed and amplified with the arrival of each sibling (four times in all). More mentions of dur-ahamkaara.
I pretend to sleep most of the day.
The episode was often dredged up to teach me a measure of humility!