Whilst living in Calcutta, I fell ill. I’d had malaria three times earlier and this felt similar, so I got rather worried. As I got rapidly weaker my Indian father decided that we couldn’t wait till the morning for the private hospitals to open. We had to visit a local overnight clinic.
With the prayers of the rest of the family we were sent off the buzzing, scented, loud, kerosene-lit night of Calcutta. The city felt peaceful to me but it was so poor that desperate acts of violence took place sometimes. My middle-classed family had a rule of always being home before nine o’clock in the evenings, for personal safety. Even the adult men of the family would not, if possible, move outside of the house after dark. With me they were extremely worried as I stood out from the crowd so much. They never let me take a walk alone, even at daytime, without a family member as an escort or their car and driver hanging along.
It felt restrictive, even suffocating to a woman who’d taken care of herself for years and years and traveled alone in much more dangerous places. But I lived with them and tried to respect their culture and manners.
So, this was a unique opportunity for me to experience the city by night. Electricity worked virtually nowhere so oil lamps were burning here and there as cars, rikshaws, cows and donkeys competed at all hours for the reign of the streets. Streetchildren and stray dogs slept on the muddy pavements.
Everyone stopped whatever they were doing as we passed by – I certainly was the only blonde there, amongst millions of locals.
Otherwise a normal seepia colored night in southern Calcutta. Beautiful in it’s own way, and so alive.
After more than an hour, we reached the clinic. A dirty tiny hut with roof and walls set up out of sheets of metal. Heavy rocks were placed on the roof to keep it in place, in case of storm or wind. The floor was soil, covered by litter – I even spotted a few used needles. A tiny oil lamp in the corner.
I congratulated myself for having carried my own needles along, all the way from Finland.
There was barely enough space for a schackled bed and a tiny chair. I lay on the bed as the doctor sat as far away from me as possible.
Quite soon I realized that although we both spoke English, we didn’t speak the same language.
He thought maybe I was pregnant. Although I had no experience on the topic I did know that high fever and cramps were not classic symptoms.
He, on the other hand, refused to consider malaria as it barely existed in this part of Calcutta. Still waters were more frequent in the North and consequently malaria was more rampant there as well. He just couldn’t understand that I traveled. Not only from one part of town to the other, but even to other cities.
Stubbornly he concentrated on the possibility of Pregnancy. But as I was an Unmarried Young Lady residing with a Very Respectable Local Family these things could not be mentioned around me. He went around the issue like a cat around some hot porridge, with coy references and veiled innuendo that absolutely infuriated me.
Finally, as he refused to consider other possibilities but the unmentionable, I got frustrated and just blurted out: “Look. I’m not pregnant. Whatever is wrong with me, it’s something else. Please figure out what.”
The good doctor was embarrassed to the core. Cleary, he wasn’t dealing with a lady.
After the very culturally shocking examination (or lack of it) I was in for another jolt.
The doctor wouldn’t discuss his diagnosis with me, but with the senior male member – the head – of the family. There I waited, so upset that I wanted to cry, as he told my Indian father that I was most likely suffering from an ectopic pregnant and was in deep denial of the situation.
Quite some lessons for a Twentysomething Finnish Woman who had taken care of herself independently since high school.
But my Indian Father wouldn’t budge. I’d told him I wasn’t pregnant and whatever a doctor told him was irrelevant.
As soon as the hospitals opened he took me to the best one.
This time, the place was huge. A clean gigantic white building equipped by all possible modern tools and machinery.
My doctor, an elderly man, sat behind his desk. He talked only to my father and never even looked at me.
His assistant, a female nurse, asked me a list of questions and felt my stomach - apparently it wouldn’t have been appropriate for a man to touch a female patient.
After this examination, the men went to another room to discuss the diagnosis. This time the conclusion was homesickness. I must have been missing my family so much that my health was suffering.
The prescription was love.
How very Indian.
But I wasn’t able to appreciate the humor in all of it as I was still shaking and shivering with high pitches of fewer.
The whole family camped around my bed determinately showering me with their love and affection. Just like the doctor ordered.
But then, very surprisingly, I did get better.
Maybe the latter doctor was right and it was all the love that finally healed me.
(PS. I’m is so boringly Western throughout that I still believe it was a mild case malaria that got cured by itself.)
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