“Can you ask your son to wait outside the room for a few minutes ?” asked the doctor. A wave of trepidation swept over my wife and myself. In all the years that we had known him we had never seen him display such depth of feeling. He seemed grave and puzzled at the same time and had the air of someone about to communicate very bad news. He looked at us quietly for what seemed like an eternity and then asked “why is the boy so stressed ?……….” Looking at our confused expression, he said vehemently “There is NOTHING wrong with him ! This whole pain has been brought on by stress and worry – nothing else”.

Imagine our relief when he said this. For the last couple of months we were in and out of the nearby hospital and clinic – what started as an innocuous swelling on the finger metamorphosed into unbearable pain in the abdomen, especially at night. The sight of our son writhing in pain was pure torture and there seemed to be no answer in sight.
Though he was on the threshold of entering high school, and not a child any more we still took him to Dr.Subramanian, our paediatrician of many years. And the doctor didn’t once evince surprise or refer us to someone else.
Slightly relieved after his gentle admonition to us, my thoughts went back in time over the years to our first visit to his clinic. The summer was particularly bad even by the standard of Madras summers. My family was still trying to come to terms with our return to Madras on my joining a new company after years spent in Baroda and Bangalore.
And added to the rigours of shifting from one city to another and setting up house, my son fell ill and was vomiting. As luck would have it, before I could even think of which doctor to see, my co-brother referred me to Dr.Subramanian , whose clinic was luckily a few streets away from where we lived.
A high gate led us into a residence cum clinic with a large garden-cum-sit out – obviously the place had been bought in an era of benign real estate prices. The waiting room looked like a converted garage with inviting red oxide flooring with a fish tank in one corner and themes from all religions adorning the walls dominated by a poster with a translation of the Gayathri Mahamantra.

We didn’t have to wait long before one of the pillars of our existence, the doctor’s receptionist, motioned to us to go in to his room-clinic. In that first meeting I found him to be quietly and fiercely focused until the diagnosis presented itself like another minor station on a long train journey.

“You should have brought a towel” he said, somewhat irritated when my son vomited on the chair. And that was my introduction to dehydration as a cause of vomiting. When he heard that I’d recently joined the World Bank, he nodded and mentioned another patient of his who was also employed at the Bank. When he enquired what I did at the Bank, my answer which had its source in half frustration (I was going through a rough period at that time) and half self-mockery seemed to amuse him.
In fact that’s one of the things I’ve come to associate with him in the years that followed, his air of mild amusement. Nothing seemed to surprise him or cause depth of feeling. His concentration was well disguised by a far away look which seemed to border on carelessness but he’d catch you off guard with his next remark which put paid to any doubts on that score.
I could never figure out if this was relaxed concentration or concentrated relaxation !

I like to think of the years that followed as the wheezing years.

We were constantly in and out of his clinic due to my son’s respiratory problems and like an experienced opening batsman enjoying the variation in the armoury of a veteran fast bowler I had the opportunity to see a master at work from close quarters.

He had a constant no-nonsense air about him and his instructions were peppered with healthy doses (pun intended) of common sense.
Quite unlike what one would expect of a paediatrician, he never changed his manner when communicating with the children who visited his clinic. He probably felt it distracted him from the more serious business of diagnosis. In fact he seemed to speak both to parents and children in the same way !
And the children also responded to him inspite of the absence of empty endearments or misdirected attempts at fun and games to get an “in” with them.
Though not given to over the top displays of emotion he did have his pet ideas about which he was quite passionate.

He was an advocate of steaming in addition to the prescribed medicine and religiously worked it into his prescriptions.

When my wife once asked what medicine to take, he replied sternly “First steaming. If you do steaming then No medicine required”
On one occasion, I mentioned once that getting caught in the rain might have caused the severe cold, he launched into one of his rare lectures. “Jalaththunaala Dhosham Varaadhu “ he stated. (Doesn’t translate well – means plainly that the water (Jalam) is not the cause of disease – it was a play on the word ‘Jaladhosham’ meaning cough & cold in Tamil). “It is the impurities in the water which are the cause of disease and not the water itself”.

He was also vehement in his denunciation of fruit juice. “How many fruits go into making a fruit juice ? In a country where scarcity is abundant, why take the fruit out of the mouths of so many poor people ?” Realizing that logic doesn’t sell as much as raw emotion, he just plainly admonished the parents of his patients “Avoid fruit juice, its VESHAM (POISON) !!!” He spat it out like some Sicilian swear word, knowing that he held some influence with this audience especially the influential female side of the parent equation.

On another occasion, when I was about to leave for Washington amidst the swine flu scare and asked him what kind of mask I should take with me, without answering me directly, he just sneered that he had just come back from the airport “what nonsense ! People trooping around in masks everywhere – as if that’s going to protect them”.

For the first time that I knew, he reluctantly wrote out a list of medicines more as a fall back option as he could foresee that I’d never get to use any of them on my short trip.

Amidst all this was the humour which defined the man and his innate curiosity about people and machines like his beloved Enfield Bullet from his student days. At times he would talk enthusiastically for uncountable minutes when the mood seized him and when he found a patient with similar interests. Sometimes this irritated the women who felt the doctor was being unfair to the crowd of patients waiting outside his room.

I fell sick once and though Adyar is heaven if you’re looking for any kind of specialist, strangely there are no general practitioners who immediately come to mind. So, it didn’t strike me as odd to visit Dr.Subramanian and wait outside along with other child patients.

“Next batsman” he quipped without batting an eyelid when I trooped in – his lips crinkling in an amused smile, eyes half closed.

On another occasion when my wife asked him one doubt too many and as an after thought suddenly asked him when she should discontinue the medication, he replied without looking up from his writing pad “after the case is finished” (a reference to the Shankar Raman murder case which dominated the news at that time). Then quick not to give offense to his constituency of patients’ mothers, he quickly smiled “I’ll let you know when”.

Jonathan Swift , the author of the classic Gulliver’s Travels once said that the three doctors most essential to one’s well being were Dr.Diet, Dr.Quiet and Dr.Merryman.

#Dr.No #Dr.Subramanian #Shastrinagar
And a certain Dr.Subramanian too perhaps ?


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