The R. M. O.

Berjis Desai

The gaunt young man stared at the high ceiling from his hospital bed. His parents sat on the opposite bed, looking despondent and broken. A middle-aged Parsi, wearing a red cap, mumbled prayers and ran a white handkerchief across the patient’s emaciated body. It was late evening and the dinner service was expected to begin within a few minutes, when ward boys, bearing large aluminum trays laden with small aluminum boxes containing Parsi food (fairly delectable), would serve supper to the patients and their relatives. Often the fare included chicken drumsticks, meaty pieces of fried pomfret and succulent meat balls in masoor (lentils). The giant corridors bore a deserted look, with some ladies speculating on the contents of the next meal. Suddenly, a stentorian voice shattered the silence.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


"Dhootam dhatam bandh karo (stop this hocus pocus)! If I see you again in my hospital, I will call the Gamdevi (police station)!” the voice boomed. It belonged to a short, stocky, dark complexioned, balding man. Despite his rather pedestrian looks, there was an unmistakable sense of authority about him. The trembling faith healer, uttering a thousand apologies, beat a hasty retreat. "Sorry, doctor saheb. But what other hope do we have now?” said the sobbing mother. The doctor patted the head of the nervous young man who even managed a feeble smile. The chief R. M. O. (Resident Medical Officer) then marched to the nurses’ station at the end of the corridor and fired the nurses for permitting the faith healer to enter patients’ rooms.
RMO was a rather strange designation for a man who was the monarch of all he surveyed in this (then) august hospital, jam-packed with Parsi patients. Often there was a long wait to get a bed in this spick-and-span outfit. Ward boys, nurses, junior doctors, even consulting doctors, were fearful of this diminutive man. He was the boss. Why, just a few years ago, he had engineered a bloodless coup to oust the entire managing committee except the chairman, for whom he had a grudging respect. The dismissed elite, shocked out of its wits, hit back. He was corrupt, they said. Guilty of nepotism. High-handed and autocratic. Vernacular media, controlled by them, ran a systematic vilification campaign, in days when investigative journalism was an unknown commodity. Evidence was scarce, though. His sister managed several services of the hospital. His brother also received some retainership for work. Hospital bedsheets and towels (with embossed initials) were found at his home, where all the unmarried siblings resided. Maybe a few chicken drumsticks on his dining table. The community, by and large, continued to respect the doctor.  
So did the Bombay police. He was a celebrated former police surgeon. More than that, one of India’s foremost authorities on forensics in general, and hold your breath, poisoning in particular. His unshakable testimony nailed many a murderer. Prosecutors loved him and defence attorneys hated him. He loved to be cross-examined. He was more than conversant with criminal laws and processes and fancied himself to be half a detective. He enjoyed his long days, working for the institution which he had made so popular. Yet he also had some strange pastimes.
Doctors claimed they found him sitting in his chair with a rooster between his knees, whom he was trying to hypnotize. He was an avid reader of books on magic, occult and spiritualism. They said he and his siblings organized seances and summoned spirits. He experimented with various kinds of poison. Yet he would not tolerate the faith healer attempting to heal the terminally ill.
If he was prone to angry outbursts, he also had a soft corner for old pals. One Sunday evening, the editor of the newspaper which had led the campaign against him, was admitted to the hospital in a highly dehydrated condition, battling for his life. He summoned eminent Parsi doctors attending a high society navjote, moved heaven and earth, to save the life of his journalist friend. Days later, the grateful journalist tearfully thanked the doctor, apologizing for the past. "You were compelled to write, my friend; but if I ever get my hands on your bastard boss, I will surely (expletive deleted) him,” he observed with a sardonic smile.
He was more than zealous in preserving the Parsi character of the hospital. The then chief minister of Bombay, Morarji Desai (not very happily inclined towards the community) wanted to examine the possibility of secular user of the vast hospital complex. The RMO reportedly took Desai around in the hospital compound but prevented him from entering the hospital, reportedly on the ground that there was a virulent outbreak of meningitis and he did not want Desai to contract the disease. By dint of his personality, he avoided many such mishaps.
It was never a great medical institution. Apocryphal stories abounded about crows and kites flying away with removed prostates lying in kidney trays on window sills; or a tiny rat curled up in a urine collection bottle in the male geriatric ward. However, it bestowed solace on the sick and their attendants. It was home away from home. Parsipanu rippled from every pore; a little oasis from the overwhelming brutalizing cosmopolitanism outside. Sev and ravo, liberally sprinkled with high quality dry fruits, brought a smile to the ill on festive days like Parsi New Year and Jamshedi Navroz. One could visit patients any time of the night and day; and even share an evening tipple in between administration of saline. Or sneak across to Scandal Point to eat bhaiya-ni-bhelpuri. It was a hospital with a soul. For which the chief RMO was greatly instrumental, notwithstanding his many eccentricities.
As his health deteriorated, power slowly ebbed. After his death, the chief RMOs looked like caricatures whom even the sweepers did not respect. As medical insurance became commonplace, and more modern hospitals cropped up in South Bombay, occupancy fell, as Parsis preferred to frequent hospitals with state-of-the-art technology. Mere ambience and masoor ma gos was not enough. The exit of a strongman always ushers in a decline in the fortunes of an institution. Roosters were no longer hypnotized. Poisons were not mixed. Chicken drumsticks disappeared. The aura dimmed. Faith healers were no longer hounded and the Gamdevi police were never summoned.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.