By Rekha Ghosh
My father cut quite a figure with his Marco Polo cigarettes in shaheb tins, and the ever-present smell of Dettol. He was the only doctor for 25 villages in the area. We lived in a village called Kanphala, near Nabagram, Murshidabad in West Bengal. Patients came from miles away in cattle-drawn carts and palkigaris. Some would even row over the Ganga in boats.
I was fascinated by my father’s work. This was a time when malaria and cholera were floating around, and a medicine for typhoid hadn’t been invented yet. There was a tall tree in front of the house, and my father used to hang his bottles of medicine on the branches and do the saline for cholera patients while I held their hands.
But you could only study up to class IV in my village, and then you would have to walk two miles to do V and VI. My father was very fixated on the idea of us studying in Kolkata, where he believed the education would be far superior, and so I went there in class VI and stayed in a hostel. My resolve to become a doctor became stronger while studying there.
I enrolled for the pre-medical course in Presidency College, Kolkata in ’61. Our batch had about a 100 students, 26 of which were women. Six more dropped out in the first two years and 20 went on to do the five-year medical course.
I became the second girl in the entire district to study in medical school, but the journey wasn’t an easy one.
The most fervent objections poured in from the family and people in the village; apart from my father, no one was keen on the idea of me as a doctor. Their quibbles were, let us say, less than logical.
Take my didi ma’s (mother’s mother) objection. She had a theory that all doctors smoke cigarettes. If a woman was to study to become a doctor, taking up smoking would be a necessary rite of passage, she believed.
Another widespread belief was that only women who weren’t good looking were fated to become doctors. Then there were the people who imagined that all women doctors would inevitably end up as midwives. There weren’t many female doctors around in those days so I supposed it was hard to imagine what you hadn’t seen. (There was one in Baharampur hospital, in fact, but she was European. I observed her one time when she came home to do a check-up for my didi, and was enthralled by her bag and equipment. I remember deciding that if I grew up to be a doctor I would have a bag like that.)
But everyone’s biggest grouse against medical school was that I’d have to sit next to boys in class, cheek-by-jowl to boys on wooden benches.
Little did they know.
Having been to an all-girls schools, for many of us it was the first time we had any interaction with boys, anything to do with boys. But you couldn’t really call what we did ‘interaction’ at all.
We women students would either enter class with the professors or wait around outside until they came, and then stomp up to the head of the class in our saris. Either way it was ensured our ever-shrinking flock was never unchaperoned among male students. The Kolkata girls weren’t as shy around the boys.
But we wouldn’t breathe a word to the boys. You lived in different hostels (in fact, rumour goes that at the height of the Naxal movement in ’69 and ’70, fighters would land up to eat at the women’s hostel in Calcutta hospital because they wouldn’t be watched that carefully). There were separate canteens for boys and girls.
For the most part, the boys behaved really well, but senior girls would terrorise you if a boy talked to you, even if it was just to give you his notebook. “Ei Rekha khaata ditey cheyechhe?! (Hey Rekha, he’s giving you his notebook?!) Have you come here to study or to get a boyfriend and squander your parents’ money?” they would demand.
While our own bodies were fiercely guarded, medical school ensured some unguarded and embarrassing interactions with other bodies. Dissections. It was often eight people huddled together in a cramped space. I wonder what was worse, shoulders touching that of a boy, or shoulders touching that of a boy while standing over a naked body. Often us girls would wait until the boys were done with the dissection, and then do it on our own.
Things changed somewhat in the third year, when we began the clinic work for surgeries, psychiatrics, and studying venereal diseases. I had a hard time because we were split up according to our surnames, and I ended up as the only girl with seven other boys. It was intensely uncomfortable, and if I reached class early I would just keep mum. Often when I was taking the case histories of a TB patient, or noting the sexual history of another patient alone and with no nurse present, I wished and wished there was just one other woman.
As much as I wished for more women in my class, my professors’ attitudes were not encouraging. Our male professors would make off-colour jokes about women taking up surgery to be able to cut fish better, or pharma to learn how to cook better. Almost all of them believed that women must become gynaecologists, and that women didn’t have what it took to venture into surgery or any other non-lady-like branch of medicine. (Dr Anjali Mukherjee was the only woman surgeon in our medical college, and you could count the women who weren’t gynaecologists on your fingers.)
Even the house staff period (when medical students train at a hospital and care for patients under the direction of doctors) — when you consider yourself a raja because patients think you’re an esteemed doctor already and your only interaction with the bosses is in the morning — was more difficult as a woman. We had a senior with a roving eye who would harass all the single women around, including the nurses, and your senior didis wouldn’t take you seriously if you complained, and most people didn’t complain anyway because they were terrified about their futures. I’d stay put in the labour room or with the nurses.
Back in college too there were lecherous and moody professors, who would insist on having women accompany them on night case watches and misbehave with them. When I was contemplating doing my MD under the guidance of one such professor, he said I should be a resident. I objected to living alone on campus because I was already married and living with my husband at the time, (I got married in ’65), and he said, “Why are you wasting your life over a classmate?”
I remember perching on dhekis (an agricultural tool used for threshing) and trying to convince people about infant mortality and immunisation, about eating iron and folic acid tablets, and finally, about condoms.
One time we were instructed to do a field-visit in an area called Jhingrimalla, and the village residents locked us into the school because they were suspicious about our intentions. Eventually my colleague called the Assistant Deputy Magistrate, whose wife was a friend (I had delivered their child at the government hospital). Then the police came to rescue us.
I spent 7 years in Asansol and then left for IISCO, an industrial hospital in Burnpur, in 1977.
Working as a woman doctor for employees at IISCO was a whole new ballgame. The emergency rooms were intimidating to say the least, because during night duty there’d be alcoholics, suicide cases, gang-related knifing incidents, mentally unstable people in one room and pregnant mothers in the next room. I had to do everything from sterilisation (the most sterilisation operations I’ve done is 50 in a day but unlike the horror stories you hear today, we were firm about always doing them on sterile hospital premises) to anti-natal checkups, health and family planning, and immunisation for kids.
Once AIDS broke out in the ’90s, we conducted awareness camps for the workers and all the villages within five kilometres of the hospital, which were funded by the central government.
Suspicion of lady doctors and their interference remained a staple of my life. My husband always warned me that one day I’d get beaten up by the women patients’ husbands and in-laws, because they hated me for my suggestions about how women should be treated during their pregnancy, and the fact that I would refuse to do forced abortions. Men would come to fight with me about my recommendation that their wives drink milk, or insist that I must be a bad influence somehow on their wives who were now refusing to do housework while pregnant. What made the women’s relatives really furious was that I refused to hand over any money to them — because the government provided the fee for each patient’s sterilisation operation, as an incentive and to ensure they got enough food after the operation. Often husbands or in-laws would take the money while the patient was unconscious, but I never agreed to that. I had no way of knowing whether the money was forced out of them later, but I would wait for them to wake up and hand it over.
What did I feel about departing from beliefs that I too had grown up with? I think I felt my way through them. I remember my first MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy) vividly. It was the early ’80s. A woman from Itthoragram, a village in Asansol district, came bawling to me. She was three months’ pregnant, and said she’d had three daughters already. “I know this one is a girl too, and my husband will kick me out.” She requested an abortion. I was up all night wondering if I should go through with it — one of the reasons I had been apprehensive about being a gynaecologist was having to do MTPs where women were under pressure to abort — but eventually I thought long and hard about her situation and decided she didn’t have a viable alternative.
It wasn’t the first or last case. One time a woman, the wife of an IISCO employee, who was too old to have a safe pregnancy, came to me early in her pregnancy and I told her not to go through with it. She went back to her village and then returned when she was five months’ pregnant. She said she had three daughters and had been told this one would be a boy. By then it was too late to do anything. She was adamant on going through with the pregnancy despite my protestations. She bled to death on the delivery table. I was devastated. I couldn’t eat for a few days.
Soon after, I heard that the husband was planning to marry again to raise the child (it was a boy), his logic being that they were from a Purohit family and needed a boy to be raised the right way. I dragged him to my boss and said I’d provide a certificate stating that he killed his first wife if he dared to get married again. Unsurprisingly, my boss told me that I had acquired the notorious reputation as a doctor who is “very good for the patients but bad for the in-laws and husbands”.
I was awarded the best medical officer in the district in Asansol, before leaving for IISCO. My father was extremely proud of me and wanted me to transfer to a hospital in Baharampur. After I left, many more women doctors joined the Asansol hospital. By the ’90s, almost all the health centres in villages had women doctors too. But no other woman from my village has become a doctor yet — I would love to hear of one before my time is out.
Not that my decision to venture into a medical degree was instantly applauded. It was only after I got my MBBS in 1965 that people from my village believed that I really was studying to become a doctor. Until then, they’d been sure that because I had left the village for Kolkata, the hotbed of sin and vice, I had got into the film industry.
Daktar babu’r mein toh cinema korchhen. (The doctor babu’s daughter is an actor), they used to tell each other.
(As told to Maya Palit)