Dusty Daze in Triplicane – Chennai, India

Dusty Daze in Triplicane
Chennai, India

Jessica could have stepped out of a Botticelli, with her poise and beauty, but she hadn’t. All she had done was step off the madness that is Triplicane High Road and into the crippling ugliness of a third rate hospital. Jessica and the hospital in Triplicane were as incongruous as…well an early Florentine Renaissance artist and a hellhole hospital.

She had been complaining of dysentery-type symptoms (flowing vomit, raging fever and all that), so we visited a private hospital in the Triplicane area of Chennai, where we were staying. I got the impression that this hospital was on the bottom rung of the private hospital ladder and clinging on to it for all it was worth. The place was a little shabby and, as I was to find out, the equipment, what little of it there was, a lot worn. Some years before I had visited the relatively plush and expensive private Apollo Hospital, and although both hospitals are in the private sector, they are worlds apart.

Not long after entering, Jessica was in a bed in a room with an attached bathroom. Well, that was a good start. However, it soon struck me that the place lacked the almost ubiquitous smell of disinfectant with which every hospital in the UK brims. The use of disinfectant in hospitals is a very good idea seeing that hospitals positively ooze with all types of germs and disease. So it was a little disconcerting to find no smell, apart from a kind of dusty aroma created by the cleaners who patrolled the place, sweeping dust into the air in the belief that displacing dust from one area to another constitutes “cleaning.”

A nurse had connected Jessica to an intravenous drip and then an old, village-type woman entered the room to sweep some dust into the air. On her way out, she smiled, said something to Jessica in Tamil and checked the drip. We began to speculate that perhaps this woman was a nurse or even a doctor who does a bit of dust-sweeping in her spare time, between intravenous drip-checking. Anyhow, she left in a cloud of dust, leaving the drip to leak onto the bed sheets. What unit was she attached to? Oncology, paediatrics, or obstetrics? No, it had to be “Incompetency”, which of course researches into taking the formal practice of gross incompetence to new heights.

As Jessica lay with the drip dripping into her arm (and onto the bed), a variety of strangers would pass outside the door and stop to gaze at this pair of strange looking foreigners. At one stage an impromptu photo session even took place, with Jessica lying half-dead, surrounded by smiling, preening staff and bemused relatives of other patients.

Jessica had to be detached to pay a sudden visit to the bathroom. On re-entering the room she informed me that there had been a slight mishap in the bathroom, in terms of vomit and other bodily fluids having been splattered around the place. I left to inform a staff member.

“Mishap” is a very popular word in India. The media love it: “300 dead in train mishap” or “Mishap as bus plunges over cliff killing 30.” Catastrophic events claiming scores of lives are routinely described with big, screaming headlines as mere “mishaps.” I guess it kind of places Jessica’s bathroom mishap into perspective. But I could almost feel the vomit and diarrhea squelching its way under the door and into the room. The cleaner-cum-doctor-cum-drip-checker had been informed of it 45 minutes earlier, but it still lay there, festering and rotting and seeping. Hygiene was not big on the agenda of this place. It was the type of institution where you leave with more infections than you had when you first arrived. Somehow I managed to prick my finger on one of the many discarded needles that lay on the table next to Jessica’s bed.

In a way, the hospital was a mirror image of the hotel where I was staying. The hotel has definitely seen better days, and although the hospital was dilapidated, I guess that these were its “better days.” So when people look back in a few years time and say that it has seen better days, they may take some consolation from knowing that its better days were not much of an improvement on what it had become. Both my hotel and the hospital exude an air of neglect: dusty and dimly lit, the staff a little down in the mouth and the equipment tired and rusty.

So the hospital provided little change for me, given my hotel positively groaned under the burden of its own dereliction: peeling paint that had been placed on top of numerous other layers of peeling paint, rusting locks attached to rotting doors, and rickety banisters moaning under the weight of years of neglect. Certain hotels in India call themselves “palace” and genuinely try to treat their customers as royalty. Mine is based more on the dungeon model of urban living and treats the paying guest as a bloody nuisance. And the staff – a sorry group of individuals living under the terror of owners who have scant regard for workers’ rights and who have never heard of the concept of effective building maintenance.

The hotel cleaners, all village-type women, spend most of the day sleeping in the inner courtyard, waking occasionally to take a break to eat rice meals or drink tea. Yet on being informed that the owners are on their way, they suddenly transform themselves into the most effective dust displacers, bending over and sweeping to their hearts’ content. The fact that the sinks are often covered in grime matters little; sweeping dust is much more fun. They could easily get a job in the local hospital given their talent for dust cloud formation and earn a bit of extra cash on the side with a bit of intravenous drip checking.

Just around the corner, and back in the hospital, the drip had finally emptied itself into Jessica and on to the bed, and after having taken her medication some hours before, she was feeling a little dazed but a lot better. Then it was time to pay. A nurse looked at me and asked, “Three hundred rupees?” Judging from her intonation, I knew it was an arbitrary-made-up-on-the-spot-fee. After paying the bill, the head nurse asks, “Sister’s fees?” (a.k.a. tip). We left shortly after and merged into the Chennai traffic, Jessica with a newly developed dust-related cough, and I with a newly infected fingertip. In our heart of hearts we both knew that we’d be back.


Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India section of BootsnAll.

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment