As I said in the last column, I was very happy in Miraj.
Once again, I found myself in a Christian institution with one difference: While St Agnes Convent in Mangalore and St Xavier’s College, which I briefly attended before joining medical school in Miraj, were staunchly Roman Catholic, Miraj Medical Centre was established and run by American Presbyterians, as the full name — AP Mission Hospital — implied.
As a result, beautiful statues of Mary and Jesus, religious sculptures and artistic frescoes were missing but in Miraj I saw evangelism pragmatically conducted with the Bible in one hand and a bottle of medicine in the other. The mending of body and soul was intertwined.
The most vulnerable group in this connection was the ‘untouchables’, the lowest caste among the Hindus, who were looking for dignity and respect.
Conversion to Christianity gave them both and as a result had enough scope to make healthy inroads into this disadvantaged group and conferred on them equality which they richly deserved. I could see that some of my teachers in the medical school were happy converts from the humble, humiliating huts inside which they were born.
Like Mangalore, my stay in Miraj was sullied by a bereavement, which unhappily happened in the first year when I hardly knew my way round the clinical corridors of the institution. My father returned to Belgaum from Karachi soon after I settled in Miraj and since it entailed only a four-hour train journey from Miraj to Belgaum, I used to travel often to visit him.
On my visit in September 1948, he complained of pain in the chest on swallowing for which he had seen Dr Kamath, a general practitioner, who had diagnosed it as ‘heart disease’. “He has given me a ‘mixture’ for two weeks without any improvement,” my father lamented. So I decided to take him to Miraj to give him the benefit of a large mission hospital with its diagnostic facilities and experienced teaching staff.
CARING FOR MY FATHER
I placed him under the care of Dr Ranbhise, a senior physician, who became my role-model when I progressed to my clinical years and taught us medicine. He admitted my father and after a lot of investigations reached the dismal diagnosis of cancer of the oesophagus or the food-pipe. He referred him for surgery to Dr Jones, an American chest-surgeon.
I was in the theatre when the surgeon operated on my father. The lesion was inoperable because it was eroding the adjacent windpipe. Tubes to insert into the growth so that he could swallow had not been devised yet, so Dr Jones did a gastrostomy, which meant making a hole in the stomach and putting a tube in through which he could be fed. My job was to pour milk, porridge, fruit juice and flipped eggs in the tube every four hours and watch the agony on his face when he could not swallow even a drop of water or moisten his parched mouth.
The family in Karachi was concerned but could not come because relations between India and Pakistan had deteriorated and it was impossible to get visas. Despite that, they managed to send Sattar. In the meantime, the owner of the students’ mess in the hospital started regularly visiting my dying dad and even brought semisolids for me to pour into the tube.
Sadly, on December 6, 1948, we lost my father and Sattar and I buried him in a cemetery near the hospital in the company of a few classmates, whom I had befriended and a Memon gentleman who had a shop in the town. Suddenly the owner of the students’ mess arrived on the scene just before the funeral Namaz or formal prayers. After the service was over, we all moved to the students’ mess for refreshments, which I had arranged. There, in the relaxed atmosphere, I tackled the owner of the mess. “While I am grateful for the kind attention you gave my father during his terminal illness, I am curious to know the reason for this interest,” I said.
“I knew your father from the time he came to see Dr Airon every week to promote your candidature for admission,” he explained.
“He came here for refreshments every time he visited the Dean. He used to sit outside his office for hours and barged in when an opportunity arose and the usual frown left Dr Airon’s face. Holding his red Turkish cap in his hand, out of respect, his bald head shining with perspiration, he would utter the crammed sentence, written by me for him. ‘I beg you to please grant a seat to my son in your medical school.’ He was heartbroken when he did not see your name in the list of successful candidates.”
As he saw my tearful face, he dropped the bombshell. “Then a miracle happened. Two weeks before the October term was due to start, news arrived that the Christian boy admitted from Junagadh died of typhoid fever. There was no time to look for another Christian boy. I happened to be with the Dean when the news was conveyed to him. Wondering how to fill the vacancy in the short time at his disposal, he looked outside his office. Lo and behold, your dad was standing in the doorway, cap in hand and head bowed.”
As he saw the impact of his disclosure on my face, he continued. “Obviously, he had not given up hope and turned up on the off chance that something unexpected could have happened and indeed it had!” Then the owner of the mess gave his reading of the new situation. “The Dean thought that instead of converting the converted, this time he might give a chance to a heathen so that out of gratitude he might join the flock and spread the gospel!”
As the significance of the red smudge opposite my name on Gharpure’s list became clear to me, he added. “This was the 26th visit by your father here.”