“The doctor will see you now.”
A woman stood in the doorway of the clinic with a clipboard pressed into her hip where the fabric of her white-and-blue sari was wrapped thickest. One end of the simple cotton print was pulled up and over her shoulder to tent the clipboard as though shielding it from the eyes of snoops and scoundrels. She was all business.
“Come this way,” she said and turned.
I scrambled to my feet and followed. She led me down a windowless hall that smelled of cooled concrete. My eyes struggled to adjust. Her black braid hung down the center of her back to the blue band at the waist of sari. It did not swish from side-to-side but remained still because of the weight of her thick hair, because she walked like liquid moved, easing effortlessly into the empty spaces. I wished I could walk like her.
She opened the door to a room bare but for an examination table, a straight back chair, and taped to one wall, a colorful poster of cartoon hands washing vigorously with bubbly soap. A white-coated doctor stood poring over my forms.
“I’ve never been to a woman doctor before,” I blurted out as though astonished by the very idea.
“I promise you,” she said laughing, “I don’t bite.”
Dr. Khanna looked to be about thirty years old. She had a stylish short bob with black bangs and the accent and mannerisms of a British education. She was wearing pants. I’d worn nothing but skirts for two months because I thought they were more culturally sensitive. Also, my only jeans were stolen from the ashram. Someone with small hands and skinny arms had reached through the iron bars of the window to pinch my Levi’s.
The doctor asked if I’d brought a sample and laughed when I pulled the bag from the pocket of my skirt. She handed it to the woman in the sari to take to the lab and the exam began. She asked about my symptoms, nodded, wrote them down in a notebook. She kept several pens in the top pocket of her lab coat like a cartoon nerd. She checked my reflexes, looked in my eyes. She listened to my heart, listened to my lungs, and asked me to stick out my tongue and say, “Ah.” This all struck me as far too mundane for a patient who was clearly crawling with cancer or maybe dying from a rare worm infestation. The examination continued.
“Do you boil your drinking water?”
“Yes," I answered. This was mostly true because I only drank tea.
“Even the water you use to clean your teeth?”
“Yes," I lied because I knew I was supposed to use sterilized water and I had at least given some thought to the notion.
“And to wash fresh fruits and vegetables also?”
“No, ” I admitted, because I could sense her skeptism on my drinking water report. "I peel them."
“OK,” she said scribbling notes. “You are doing your best. The truth is, it is difficult, no matter the precautions taken, to avoid contaminated water. You could be taking a shower when a small amount of water trickles into your mouth.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s why I don’t shower at the ashram. I bathe in the Ganges.”
Doctor Khanna, in a response not taught in any medical school anywhere in the world, practically gagged.
“There is your problem,” she said pointing her pen at me. “The Ganges is absolutely teeming with bacteria, disease and amoeba. Why would you ever go in there?”
“But I thought the Ganges were holy,” I said, hating how I sounded like a kid discovering the truth about Santa.
“For goodness sake,” she said, exasperated. “They throw dead bodies in the Ganges!”
“But they’re cremated.”
“Yes, they are cremated but people cannot always afford enough firewood to do a thorough job of their loved ones. I have seen dead body parts many times floating in the river,” she shuddered. “Why would you go in that water? Why? You have a shower. You are educated. You know better. Why do you young travelers throw aside intellect when you come to India? Why do you embrace the superstitions of our country even as you reject the superstitions of your own traditions?”
In less than one minute, Dr. Khanna has reduced a few thousand of years of theology and eight agonizing years of education at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a black cat crossing my path, a walk under a ladder, a broken mirror of bad luck. Superstitious? Me? I considered myself a skeptic. Even as a first grader under the fearful command of Sister Ramona, I'd silently questioned the old nun’s lesson on unbaptized babies sentenced to an eternity of limbo which I pictured like a perpetual waiting room where one never got to see the doctor. Even at that tender age I thought for myself and decided God couldn't be so petty as to condemn my best friend Karen just because she was born to Lutheran parents. What had happened to me? Where had my reason and logic gone?
There was a knock on the door and the woman in the blue-trimmed white cotton sari returned with the results of my test. Turned out, she was also a lab tech and had looked through the microscope herself and declared the evidence conclusive. The doctor’s suspected diagnosis was confirmed. I had amoebic dysentery. She prescribed ten days of antibiotics. She said it was important to finish the course even if I started to feel better. The doctor looked at me for confirmation that I understood what she was saying.
"You're not going to throw it over your shoulder like spilled salt, are you," the doctor teased "Because that will do you no good."
“Do you have any other questions,” she asked.
I hesitated. Her kind eyes, dark brown and almond-shaped, encouraged confidence. She’d seen a lot of young foreign travelers like me.
“Can I also get tested for . . . ,”
“Leprosy!” she laughed. “Don’t worry about leprosy. You should concern yourself with clean drinking water!"
From OVERLAND memoir @ellowrites #memoir #nonfiction #write IMAGE from @194angellstreet