Dysentery in Delhi, Chills in Chennai and Vomit
Dont ask how I am!
Colin Todhunter our
man in India
I was shivering,
sweating, freezing, and baking. It was nonsensical. I felt like some kind
of refrigerated oven.
Metal beaters from
the street below were pounding away with huge hammers, tailors were busy
at their sewing machines with sharpened needles, and barbers were scraping
faces with cut-throat razors. I couldnt get them out of my head.
My brain was pounding, my skull was being scraped and needles were being
pierced into the back of my eyeballs. The more I thought of the activities
on the street below, the worse I felt.
I stood up; I fell down. I collapsed onto my bed. The fever was agonising.
The body pains excruciating, and the vomit and diarrhea, relentless. In
a nutshell, I felt bad, absolutely awful. I had to get to a doctor. I
could hardly move. When I moved, my head throbbed - almost to the point
of explosion. My kidneys were on fire and to attempt to lie still seemed
to be the least painful option. But I couldnt lie still. I still
writhed in pain, and it was going to be fruitless in the long-term. I
needed medical help.
It took fifteen minutes to put on one shoe. Bending over was torture;
straightening-up was more tortuous. I required constant respite both during
and after I put on a piece of clothing. It took forty-five minutes to
put on the barest essentials, and considering it was 44 degrees, the essentials
werent much. Then the worst part - leaving my room, going to the
hotel reception, and somehow trying to get to a doctor. It all entailed
not making a pit-stop to the toilet or sink! It was a daunting prospect
a mission impossible?
I felt like hell; I probably looked like hell. I past a chirpy Australian
guy on the veranda in the hotel -Hows it going mate?
- OK, thanks I mumbled as I staggered past with head bowed
and one hand holding the rail. I asked the hotel manager to get an auto-rickshaw
to take me to the nearest doctor. I was in the Triplicane area of Chennai,
and was told that the best doctor was in Mylapore. The thought of being
shaken and stirred inside a rickshaw for fifteen minutes did little for
me. Anyway, it had to be done. I fell into the rickshaw, fell out of it
the other end, and tumbled into the clinic barely able to stand. Before
I got into the rickshaw, I thought that I couldnt feel any worse,
but after ten minutes of stomach churning traffic mayhem, I did. I was
shivering, sweating, freezing, and baking. It was nonsensical. I felt
like some kind of refrigerated oven.
I wedged myself against a post and a nurse asked if I had a sore throat
just about everything else was sore, except my throat. She persisted
in asking me. Maybe she thought that I would finally give-in and admit
to something that didnt exist. But there was a purpose to her badgering,
as I found out later that the only available doctor was an ear throat
and nose specialist. What I needed was a doctor who specialised in raging
fevers, burning kidneys, and throbbing heads.
The nurse went away. I clung to the post which was now soaked in the sweat
pouring from my hand. In the meantime an impeccably dressed young man,
speaking in newly learnt clipped English asked - How are you today
sir? I wanted to say Just leave me alone. But
he looked so proud that he could communicate in English and was clearly
trying to impress. It was an effort to raise my head. Very well,
thank you I replied. He expected me to say this it would
be the standard reply that he had learnt from his textbook, and I didnt
have the heart to say - How the hell do you think I am? Go away.
thing about experiencing severe illness when thousands of miles from home
and alone, is that it brings with it an acute awareness of personal isolation.
No one cares. Thats probably not true, but at the time the belief
is intense. I know this because Ive experienced the feeling on the
several occasions that I have been seriously ill in Asia. There is a terrible
feeling of helplessness and humility, and its a humbling experience
that I wouldnt wish on anyone.
How are you? - Its an innocent enough question, which
demands a civil answer. But there is a problem. Most times the questioner
doesnt actually care how you are. It's just a throw away phrase
which really means Hello a benign form of greeting.
So if this is the case, then why dont they just say Hello".
I have no problems with the Hello or Hi form of
greeting. I can just return it with another Hello or Hi.
But if someone enquires how I am, I usually say OK or Very
well even though I might be feeling depressed, seriously
ill, homesick, at deaths door or whatever. Its a more demanding
and ambiguous greeting. If I told them how I really felt, they would switch
off and become bored within seconds. Imagine the scenario: a stranger
says, How are you? Well Im feeling down,
Ive got diarrhea, the vomits and a terrible feverish headache.
Most would probably not use How are you? as a greeting to
anyone else ever again. In that case maybe I should tell them how I am
actually feeling next time.
I have been sick all over India. Ive vomited in Varkala, had dysentery
in Delhi and have had the chills in Chennai. And yet on these occasions
when some stranger has asked how I am, I have always replied with an OK
or such like. I dont want to disappoint, particularly when they
seem so perky or have made the attempt to communicate. Even when I have
spent the night hanging over the sink throwing-up and feel like hell the
following morning, I usually oblige with a polite and positive response.
Friends are different. I can tell them if Im feeling bad, but not
strangers or casual acquaintances. Well I now found myself in the local
clinic after having spent half the night hanging over the sink throwing-up,
feeling like hell and having been subjected to a one How are you?
Finally, the nurse returned, provided me with a bed, connected me to a
drip and gave me an injection. An hour or so later I woke feeling a little
better. The pain was now just about bearable. How are you?
she asked. For the first time in a long time, that phrase was a genuine
enquiry. And for the first time in a long time I gave an honest account
of how I was feeling. For once, there was no ambiguity or irritation.
It was a comforting experience.
The next day I was feeling a lot better. I passed the Australian guy on
the veranda. He looked ill. His head was bowed and he was staggering along
gripping the rail. I spoke but he looked a little irritated, even perplexed.
All I had said to him was the commonly used English acknowledgement -
© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India, 2002
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- our man in India
people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they
didnt want to be there in the first place or at least want to be
somewhere else - somewhere better'.
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