Quid Pro Quo

    by Roxy Arora

    When people would ask me. And sometimes they did. To write about them. I’d reply, First break my heart. Robert Gluck.

    ‘I understand it’s been a grueling week at work. However, as a doctor, this is your duty. Come to think of it, having the sisters consult you in the study on a Friday night, was your brainchild. I never was keen on the idea.’ Dolly insisted.

    The doctor remained quiet. When they had moved up to Cumbria and kept house next door to his hospital, he had wanted to learn the ropes. At that time, he had been a promising house-surgeon. The two sisters, who resided in extremely close proximity, would make excellent patient practice models. It had been an opportunity to embellish his clinical acumen and narrative. Blessed with the same ethnicity as his, the young ladies beat him, in the knack of language parlance. In exchange the sisters would receive his fine ministrations. Frequently, emotional counsel, too. In all honesty, the doctor respected the young ladies’ perspective on life. Which had been nurtured through their experiences and whatsoever enterprise. However, since the past several weeks, the doctor had been battling his own demons. The writing on the wall was clear. The whites didn’t find him wanting as a clinician, they wanted him to leave. The efforts he had made to fit in, had been met with a pervasive alienation. 

    Hence the diatribe at work, the thinly veiled barbs that slipped through thin lips. Interviews for higher posts, when people of his origins were sternly advised to return to their native province. 

    The doctor had taken Dolly into confidence, yet he didn’t want his children to get wind of it. 

     

     His wife looked at him, squarely. She had stared at him, similarly, the day he had first met her, in  her parent’s living room. When her sleepless eyes hunted for an answer. Are you the one?

    She was pursuing her masters in ancient Indian languages and had been in the midst of exams.  

    Yes, his eyes had replied. After several minutes, Dolly had excused herself.

     

    They had gotten engaged after her exams. What followed were canal side-walks, her brothers, and his, their constant shadow. At one stolen moment, when the chaperone squad had played truant. The doctor had confessed he would sail the seven seas, soon and had received a robust support from his fiancé. 

    After wedlock, Dolly had firmly announced she would like to go back to her father’s house for a while. She found the matrimonial loos unalluring. The doctor had not sensed caprice in her remark, since lavatories in his father’s house had been bereft of toilette. 

     

    That being said, he allowed himself a self-congratulatory smile at his faultless narrative. He was almost there. So, why…. 

    His trail of thought was halted as the pressure cooker snorted, enthusiastically. The aroma of Rogan josh from the kitchen held little appeal that evening. Racism had reduced his appetite to a fleeting residue. 

    ‘What are the children having for dinner?’ The doctor enquired. Since, they weren’t keen on Indian curry.

    ‘Lamb chops with mint sauce.’ Dolly replied. 

    Her husband’s concern for the children was endearing. When he would return home after night duty, he would linger at the children’s door. Often to tiptoe near them and draw their quilts close.

     

    Dolly placed a tea cup with its saucer on the table while he waited for his patients.  

    ‘Cuppa!’ He remarked, nostalgically.

    ‘D’ya wanna cuppa, tea, lovie?’ The kind lady at the bed n breakfast in their early Britannia weeks had enquired. Yet, today he longed for sheera, not in a cup, but in an earthen bowl, served by his mother. His mother, who had raised three sons, but would set out four bowls of sheera. A deliberate error in the head count was mandatory to thwart the evil eye, she would state. 

    ‘The besan is over.’ Dolly spoke, understanding the unspoken question in his eyes.

    ‘Will plan a trip to Newcastle soon.’

     

    He remembered their first time as hosts. It had been in Newcastle. One of his consultants had been a Burra Saheb’s son. Who had saddled many a horse at the Patiala palace, and exulted at the colors of Rajputana. A time when India was better known as Hindoostan. Before the Peshawar Chapli Kebab had set forth on its exodus. Dolly had set her heart and soul to the meal, and the doctors had delighted over the Mughlai cuisine, graced with Ahmed pickles, flown in from Pakistan. The Brits had divided their land but not their legacy.

    The older sister entered his study. She was a sensible young woman, keen to venture across the pond, pursue medicine, along with her master’s. This evening her complaints were blood pressure, and acne. While he prescribed her some medicine, an image of post wedding salad days funneled its way, into his mind. Dolly, her bangles jingling, teasing him, fondly. While she boasted about being more qualified than him. Since, she held a Master’s degree and he just a plain MBBS. 

    His fascination with land of the white man, could be dated back to childhood. When his love of geography had made him plaster a map of Great Britain on his wall. That phase had been shadowed by the Velayat returned Doctors at Srinagar Medical College. Who had brandished testimonials from Royal College of Physicians.  The doctor had set his sight on that scroll of paper ever-since. For him it represented the sweetest salvation. 

    ‘Pardon.’ He asked as he realized the patient was speaking.

    ‘I am reading Death on the Nile,’ by Agatha Christie.’ She repeated. 

    ‘Wonderful book! It has lots of suspense.’ The doctor praised. 

    Both the sisters were ardent readers. He listened while the patient rambled about classics, and the enigmatic Edward Darcy. That was fairly common place. He promised to read Pride and Prejudice. Unarguably, such a book title would make suitable fodder conversation for further interviews. The doctor mused, bitterly.

    ‘Has your mother read A train to Pakistan?’ She asked. 

    ‘The book by Khuswant Singh,’ he clarified and she nodded her head.

    ‘I don’t think so.’ 

    ‘You said your mother was from that part of British India.’ 

    ‘Yes, she was.’

    ‘So, isn’t she fond of reading?’ 

    What would be a suitable reply? That for his mother and thousands of Indians, A train to Pakistan, was akin to visiting a grave yard, which echoed with blood chilling screams. Since innocence and lives lay slaughtered in its soils.

    ‘My mother is fond of reading. She reads the letters I send her.’ He spoke.

    ‘Do you write to her in the Indian language?’

    A brief pause before the doctor answered.

    ‘Yes.’ 

    Partially true, he thought. Since, there was no such thing like an Indian language. His countrymen had endorsed individualistic linguist variations over a homogenous identity. 

     The patient begged him to chastise her little sister. As she had been nabbed revamping her essays to claim copyright. 

    ‘She’s a thieving bleeder and a copy-cat.’ The young lady cried.

    This was the emotional component the doctor had been dreading. Yet, he would have to intervene, without riling her sibling too much. As that had proven dangerous. Oh yes! Coal flung out of the coal room. There had even been a leftover snowman, pining for his decapitated head. 

    The doctor requested her to calm down.

    ‘I know it didn’t go well at the interview.’ Her eyes bored.

    Had the patient been eavesdropping? It was quite likely, as he had found the sisters lurking around his garage, last week. 

    The patient confessed to be subjected to some color-related challenges, too. Her brilliance wasn’t appreciated. The N word, P word and the F word. She had heard them all. 

    ‘Ghastly business.’ The doctor sympathized.

    The patient raised her brows. ‘You’re a quick learner. So, do what he said.’ 

    ‘He?’ 

    ‘Your maker.’ She emphasized.

    ‘Do you mean my father?’

    ‘Yes.’ 

    Live your dreams. Your mother and I will never get in your way. However, one day, your heart will let you know when it’s time to return home. His father’s words at the airport. When the doctor had touched his feet for the last time

    Ironically, the doctor couldn’t recall what his father had whispered in his ear last night. Was it penance he had to pay for not saying goodbye? He was a competent doctor in land of the white man, but he wasn’t good enough. He was the son who had chosen an impoverished richness, over his father’s words. 

    She glanced at his stethoscope, greedily. The Littmann, his brother, Dilbag had sent him from America. He smiled tenderly at the image of his first-born playing doctors with it at as a toddler. 

    His mother proudly announcing the next generation doctor of the family had arrived. His mother’s never-ending prayers, when he had announced his travel date. So many bananas offered to innumerable idols. 

    This is a stone, not God. He had crossly told her at the Bawe Wali Mata, temple.

    The raw hurt on her face had torched his conscience. He would bring her here, and ensure she offered mountains of bananas to all her Gods. With one banana priced at 50 p, how many would he buy?

    Dilbag came into this world after his mother had offered scores of bananas to scores of Gods. Especially to the Bawe Wali Mata. When Dilbag had embarked on Seera to America, she had prayed for months with bananas. She hadn’t been alarmed, at all. As years ago, a weary traveler had foretold her, Dilbag and he would be consumed with an appetite to travel. A wanderlust.

     ‘Dilbag, mere chan, look what I have brought. Come down the tree.’ He heard his mother’s beseeching voice as a basket of bananas lay nestled in her hands.  Dilbag had been perched on the tree’s sturdy branch. His nose buried behind a book. Their mother’s head was veiled, the winds were bone numbing, yet her smile was warm. Dilbag, her first born, had to climb down the tree. He had an insatiable appetite for bananas. Dilbag who had embarked on Seera for America at the age of twenty-two. 

    The older sister wished him good night.  The doctor blinked his eyes, furiously as the younger one entered.

    Better be careful with that one. She can hood wink a judge. Dolly had once cautioned.

    He cringed as he witnessed the killer heels and large bag. If her petite frame gave way, she would wail from here to high heaven. The doctor had a suspicious feeling the bag wasn’t hers. Could she have done the unthinkable? 

    Last summer she had the gall to inform him, she required an appendicectomy. So, it was only right, he as her neighbor, and doctor for free, race her to the hospital. Out there, she had chatted nineteen to the dozen with everyone, especially with the geriatric in-patients. Unsurprisingly, her abdominal cramps had disappeared.  This evening her chief complaint was feeling poorly.

     ‘Feeling poorly.’ His tongue rolled over the expression, softly. It probably trickled down from the Austenian era, to be used in modern times. He knew quite a lot about the illustrious Miss Austen now. 

    The doctor returned his attention to the patient, and understood she was discussing Perry Mason. The lawyer and his secretary, Della, going around, and the marriage proposal. 

    ‘It’s like you and your wife.’ The patient declared.

    ‘But Dolly has never been my secretary.’ The doctor gently corrected.

    ‘You sound pompous. It’s not derogatory to be a secretary.’ 

    He reassured her of his humility of station, being minus of pride, and prejudice was unaffordable.

    ‘It’s good you don’t have a pretty secretary or you might have wanted to marry her.’ She flashed him a warning look. 

    The doctor reassured her, he had no intention of ever leaving Dolly and his children for his secretary. He kept a distance from risqué. 

    ‘Doctor patient boundaries are never to be trespassed.’ The doctor advised.

    ‘Well, you haven’t told me how I am supposed to stop feeling poorly.’

    Sheera.’ It slipped out of his mouth. 

    ‘I beg your pardon.’ She looked at him, intently. 

    ‘Why do you have gloves on?’ He asked. 

    Could she possibly be feeling cold? Dolly always, turned the heating on at dinner time. 

    ‘I don’t want them to look at me, when they sing your hand is black but mine is white.’ She blinked, furiously. 

    The doctor let out a long sigh. He wasn’t the only one with his cross to carry. 

    ‘I will have mum knit you a pair of gloves.’

    ‘What?’ He spoke absently.

    ‘Sorry, I meant, I beg your pardon.’  

    ‘I couldn’t fetch you a rose garden.’ She rhymed.

    He gave a lukewarm smile.

    Dolly insisted the younger sister sought refuge in frivolity. It burst forth when she was hurting deeply. 

    ‘Why do want your mother to knit me gloves?’ But he already knew the answer.

    ‘The patient told you to get your black hands off her son.’ 

    ‘But my face is dark, too.’

    ‘You can wear a hijab. And turn into a purdah nashin man.’

    ‘Okay.’ He relented. What would his father have to say about that?

    However, whenever his father did offer his opinion on those rare occasions, the doctor found it incomprehensible. 

    The patient chatted, incessantly, and predicted shy Di would soon get the Indian diamond. She pronounced bulimia nervosa would be the next big thing. 

    ‘Will you leave that for your children?’ She pointed at his stethoscope.

    ‘Yes?’

    ‘Which one?’ She persisted.

    ‘Whoever becomes a doctor first.’

    He grabbed the stethoscope over-protectively. 

    She observed the gesture, and smiled mockingly. The doctor felt small.

    The patient rescued a slim volume of the BMJ from her bag and handed it over to him. 

    ‘I forgot to give you this. It was in the back of your car.’

    He remembered Dolly mention the sisters needed help getting to their dentist.

    ‘I read what you had written in the book by David.’

    ‘You mean Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine.’

    ‘That’s what I meant.’ She was defiant.

     ‘When did you read Davidson?’ He was surprised.

    ‘I visited the study last week when you were in Dublin. We were coaxed to help with the dusting.  I liked what you had written in the beginning. Let not the fruits of action be your motive. Bhagavad Gita. What does that mean?’

    ‘I’ll let you know next time.’ 

    ‘Does it mean, perform acts of compassion, selflessly?’

    ‘Correct, but not entirely so.’ The doctor replied.

    ‘I have taught myself some Latin.’

    ‘Really? What have you learnt.’ 

    ‘Quid pro quo.’

    ‘What does that mean?’

    ‘Next time.’

    ‘Okay.’ He relented. 

    ‘Doctor!’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘You’re trapped between the life you left behind, and the one you are living.’ 

    He remained motionless, speechless and helpless.

    ‘I know you are having Rogan Josh for dinner. Do you know what I am having?’

    ‘He hesitated before replying as Dolly called her name, from the bottom of the staircase.’

    She bolted out of his room. The doctor heard a loud thud. 

    ‘Lamb chops.’ Yes, thank God he could remember.

    As the doctor made his way downstairs, he carefully avoided the sandals discarded in the corridor. When he entered the kitchen, his daughters, R and R, were relishing their lamp chops. He stopped breathe and feel their over-powering innocence.

    ‘I did mention lamb chops in the study.’ He told his younger daughter.

    ‘Correct, but not totally so. Rack your brains a bit.’ She instructed, cheekily. 

    ‘I give up.’ He sighed.

    ‘It’s lamb chops with mint sauce.’

    ‘You are not supposed to talk to your father like that.’

    Dolly admonished.

    ‘Quid pro quo means, a favor for a favor.’ His younger daughter triumphed.

    ‘Why are you discussing Latin?’ His first born piped. 

    ‘That’s something personal.’ The younger one insisted.

    The doctor loved this camaraderie. As he found himself at home amidst the wholesomeness of his surroundings. He would integrate, seamlessly with the system till he was part of it. He chose not to be boxwallah, but to appear for the next interview with a renewed vigor. The show must go on. If his daughters could battle sniggers, so could he. 

     

    The mail lay on the dining table. He spotted a letter from his mother, and slit the envelope open.

    His mother sounded cheerful in the letter. He couldn’t see any traces of the depression, his younger brother insisted, she suffered, occasionally. Towards the end she wrote, Dilbag is trapped in the tree. 

    Trapped! The doctor cried as he recoiled in shock.

    Could you send me some money? I need to buy bananas to lure Dilbag down the tree? It’s not right for him to remain trapped. 

    The doctor clutched the letter and rushed into the living room. He read it again and howled, as if crippled by a raw and visceral pain. The living room with its mantel-piece seemed suffocating. His smugness in his ability to adopt mantel-piece in his narrative seemed ugly. It was an unattractive sentiment that belonged to a world that didn’t favor him. He longed for the rustic simplicity of his father’s bathroom.  His heart lay where his mother needed money to buy bananas. He would take his mother to the Bawe Wali Mata. She would pray there, with her head veiled in reverence. And he would find solace in redemption.

    The doctor wouldn’t be boxwallah, he would always be Indian. 

    The two patients entered the living room, and stared at him, in surprise. He found himself smiling through his tears.  His daughters ran into his outstretched arms. The doctor held on to them, tightly, and recalled what his father had told him, last night. 

    The day you feel trapped between the life you left behind and your present life, it’s time to come home. 

    Had his daughter hoodwinked the cosmos into making her a messiah? As for Dilbag, would he come home, too?

    Roxy Arora is a dentist and writer. Her background in Dentistry juxtaposed with her passion for writing makes her works of literature informative and poignant. Her debut novel, ‘Jihad In My Saffron Garden’ was set against the onset of insurgency in Kashmir. She has written several short stories which have been published in digital magazines. Her story ‘Prabhat, as he was called’ was published by Usawa in December 2022. That has been followed by ‘Vitamin -C for Comfort’ and ‘We Shared Ma,’ which have been published by Kitaab. 
    Roxy writes from the heart and explores themes like familial relationships and personal growth. She prefers to shed light on various aspects of life using her exposure to various cultures in her formative years.
    The author belongs to Jammu and Kashmir and currently resides in Faridabad. Roxy Arora practices Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism which believes in the happiness of self and others. She claims this life changing philosophy has enabled her to bring forth her talents and evolve as an impactful story-teller.

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