Some great doctors, some strange patients

Berjis Desai

The Parsi penchant for litigation has a serious competitor — our propensity to be hospitalized, at the first available opportunity. Decades ago, a legendary Parsi physician, even though in robust health, would check into The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital (PGH), to enjoy a free annual vacation, undisturbed by ubiquitous night calls from paranoid patients. His wife would solemnly inform the caller that the doctor himself had been hospitalized. The grateful Hospital management, for their prized patient’s valuable services throughout the year, would pamper him with king-sized meals, rivaling Oliaji’s Hotel in Daman. In the evening, a loyal ward boy would massage his feet, as the doctor downed a whisky or two.
It is no secret that Parsis prefer Parsi doctors and the reason may not be entirely communal. Only another Parsi can appreciate the peculiar constitution, habits and idiosyncrasies. Being pregnant and not consulting Dr Rusi Soonawala was sacrilege; and who could understand our unique Kyaani tokham better than Dr Farokh Udwadia. These legendary medicine men are only a notch below the Ameshaspands (angels) in the Parsi consciousness.
A Parsi lady of aristocratic lineage became obsessed with dolls. She possessed more than a thousand dolls of various shapes and sizes; and with some of them, the good lady shared a rather intimate relationship. Apparently, her dolls had a propensity to run high fever at midnight. The feverish doll would first be dabbed with cologne water sponges, and despite this, if the temperature remained high, the old lady would phone one of the community’s best doctors and fervently plead for a home visit. Such was the influence of this dowager that the tired doctor, trying to recover from a hard day’s work, would pick up his medical case and drive down to the lady’s bungalow. In all seriousness, the sick dolly would be examined thoroughly and occasionally injected (at which point, the old lady would look away, in distress). Next morning, the doctor would receive more than five times his normal fees for a night visit to examine less malleable patients.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


We knew two Parsi sisters, again of aristocratic lineage, who were extremely pleased with the services of their young general practitioner but rather distressed at his "dismal bed manners” ("He actually sat on my bed!”), and insisting on addressing his patient as "Aunty” ("I do not think, doctor, that we are related. Please call me Miss W”). One of these sisters had to undergo a cataract operation and consulted one of India’s best ophthalmic surgeons (Parsi, of course) hailing from a family of eye specialists. The surgeon explained the do’s and don’ts for the surgery, after which the doltish sister enquired whether she can wear her bra during the surgery. "Darling,” said the smarter sister, "he is operating on your eyes, not your boobs.”
This famous eye surgeon possesses a great sense of humor but a rather short fuse. While examining a middle aged Gujarati lady, post her surgery, he was extensively questioned by the patient’s husband as to what were the dietary restrictions for his wife. Initially, the doctor patiently answered his questions ("Can she have tea?” "Yes!;” "Can she have coffee?” "Yes!” "Can she have milk?” No answer. "Can she have cow’s milk?”). The last question resulted in the good doctor, who has a slight American accent, shouting the forbidden word at the stunned Gujarati couple, who made a hasty retreat.
The ultimate eccentric doctor though was Dr Hormusji Mehta, resident medical officer of the PGH, ex-police surgeon, eminent forensic expert and toxicologist, who ruled that institution for many years. According to his fans, he built a first class Hospital and ensured that Morarji Desai (when he was chief minister of Bombay State) did not grab the additional land for secular use. To his critics, he was a bully who treated the Hospital as his backyard. He managed to oust the entire managing committee of the Hospital barring Sir Dinshaw Petit, by packing the electoral college. We have seen him manhandle a Parsi faith healer in the corridors of the Hospital, and then himself trying to hypnotise a rooster, with the bird in great discomfiture between his knees.
One of our acquaintances, who enjoyed robust health and merged his ravaan (soul) with Ahura Mazda at 96, was a classic hypochondriac. Unlike today, when there is a glut of hospital rooms, those days securing admission was not easy. He was a voracious eater ["Gaikalé raatè mè ék dozen oysters afaari kaarya (I walloped a dozen oysters last night)!”] and believed that every bout of indigestion he suffered was either a cardiac episode or serious food poisoning or galloping cancer.
He would be in and out of hospitals every other month. I love the antiseptic smell of hospital corridors, he told us. If he was bored of PGH (late evenings, he sneaked out to Scandal Point to polish off some bhaiya-ni-bhelpuri, and upon his return, make a few chicken drumsticks vanish) it would be Masina (he regretted that he couldn’t be admitted to the Tehmulji nu suvavarkhanu or the Parsi Lying-in Hospital) or Breach Candy or the St Elizabeth Nursing Home [hop, skip and jump from my house, dikra (son)]. A gentleman of leisure, with a tidy fortune, he spent a considerable portion of his wealth on hospital stays. He knew every doctor’s birthday and which town of Kerala every nurse hailed from. On Jamshedi Navroz he distributed malai na khaaja (fresh cream puffs) and Parsi Dairy sooterpheni (white candy floss) to the cleaning staff of the PGH who would anxiously wait for his return. As he was a liberal tipper, many unnecessary enemas would be administered unto him, which he said he enjoyed immensely.
Then there was this aunt of ours, who spoke so rapidly that she was breathless mid-sentence. A mild diabetic, she loved to undergo blood sugar tests every month (in those days, no pathologist came home and there were no easy blood sugar detection jabbers). She had lost her father on Hormazd roz and mother on Bahman. Every month thus, she visited the agiary on these first two days of the month for the aafringaan-baaj prayers for her parents who had departed during World War I.
And then, on the third day of the Parsi month — Ardibehesht  she went for her blood sugar test to PGH’s out patient department. As soon as the sample for her fasting sugar was taken, she would open a huge tiffin containing papeta pur eendu (eggs on potato), a cup of malai (fresh cream), half a ball of Edam cheese, Polson butter on three or four small paavs (home baked bread), a quarter kilo of Mohanlal Mithaiwala ni barfi, Kissan jam or Dippy’s dodhi no murrabbo (sweet made from bottle gourd). No prizes for guessing her postprandial sugar reading. She died in her 80s and required six pallbearers on her final journey. Believe it or not, she passed away on the fourth day of the Parsi month — Shahrevar.  That is what you call timing, dikra!
Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.