Dysentery in Delhi, Chills in Chennai: don’t ask how I am! – Chennai, India

Dysentery in Delhi, Chills in Chennai: don’t ask how I am!
Chennai, India

Metal beaters from the street below were pounding away with huge hammers, tailors were busy at their sewing machines with sharpened needles, and barbers were scraping faces with cut-throat razors. I couldn’t get them out of my head. My brain was pounding, my skull was being scraped and needles were being pierced into the back of my eyeballs. The more I thought of the activities on the street below, the worse I felt.

I stood up; I fell down. I collapsed onto my bed. The fever was agonising, the body pains excruciating, and the vomit and diarrhea, relentless. In a nutshell, I felt bad, absolutely awful. I had to get to a doctor. I could hardly move. When I moved, my head throbbed – almost to the point of explosion. My kidneys were on fire and to attempt to lie still seemed to be the least painful option. But I couldn’t lie still. I still writhed in pain, and it was going to be fruitless in the long-term. I needed medical help.

It took fifteen minutes to put on one shoe. Bending over was torture; straightening-up was more tortuous. I required constant respite both during and after I put on a piece of clothing. It took 45 minutes to put on the barest essentials, and considering it was 44 degrees, the essentials weren’t much. Then the worst part – leaving my room, going to the hotel reception, and somehow trying to get to a doctor. It all entailed not making a pit-stop to the toilet or sink! It was a daunting prospect � a mission impossible?

I felt like hell; I probably looked like hell. I passed a chirpy Australian guy on the veranda in the hotel -”How’s it going mate?” – “OK, thanks” I mumbled as I staggered past with head bowed and one hand holding the rail. I asked the hotel manager to get an auto-rickshaw to take me to the nearest doctor. I was in the Triplicane area of Chennai, and was told that the best doctor was in Mylapore. The thought of being shaken and stirred inside a rickshaw for 15 minutes did little for me. Anyway, it had to be done. I fell into the rickshaw, fell out of it the other end, and tumbled into the clinic barely able to stand. Before I got into the rickshaw, I thought that I couldn’t feel any worse, but after 10 minutes of stomach churning traffic mayhem, I did. I was shivering, sweating, freezing, and baking. It was nonsensical. I felt like some kind of refrigerated oven.

I wedged myself against a post and a nurse asked if I had a sore throat � just about everything else was sore, except my throat. She persisted in asking me. Maybe she thought that I would finally give-in and admit to something that didn’t exist. But there was a purpose to her badgering, as I found out later that the only available doctor was an ear throat and nose specialist. What I needed was a doctor who specialised in raging fevers, burning kidneys, and throbbing heads.

The nurse went away. I clung to the post which was now soaked in the sweat pouring from my hand. In the meantime an impeccably dressed young man, speaking in newly learnt clipped English asked – “How are you today sir?” I wanted to say � “Just leave me alone”. But he looked so proud that he could communicate in English and was clearly trying to impress. It was an effort to raise my head. “Very well, thank you” I replied. He expected me to say this � it would be the standard reply that he had learnt from his textbook, and I didn’t have the heart to say – “How the hell do you think I am? Go away”.

The worst thing about experiencing severe illness when thousands of miles from home and alone, is that it brings with it an acute awareness of personal isolation. No one cares. That’s probably not true, but at the time the belief is intense. I know this because I’ve experienced the feeling on the several occasions that I have been seriously ill in Asia. There is a terrible feeling of helplessness and humility, and it’s a humbling experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“How are you?” – It’s an innocent enough question, which demands a civil answer. But there is a problem. Most times the questioner doesn’t actually care how you are. Its just a throw away phrase which really means “Hello” � a benign form of greeting. So if this is the case, then why don’t they just say “Hello”?

I have no problems with the “Hello” or “Hi” form of greeting. I can just return it with another “Hello” or “Hi”. But if someone enquires how I am, I usually say “OK” or “Very well” � even though I might be feeling depressed, seriously ill, homesick, at death’s door or whatever. It’s a more demanding and ambiguous greeting. If I told them how I really felt, they would switch off and become bored within seconds. Imagine the scenario: a stranger says, “How are you?” � “Well I’m feeling down, I’ve got diarrhea, the vomits and a terrible feverish headache”. Most would probably not use “How are you?” as a greeting to anyone else ever again. In that case maybe I should tell them how I am actually feeling next time.

I have been sick all over India. I’ve vomited in Varkala, had dysentery in Delhi and have had the chills in Chennai. And yet on these occasions when some stranger has asked how I am, I have always replied with an OK or such like. I don’t want to disappoint or burden them with my misery, particularly when they seem so perky or have made the attempt to communicate. Even when I have spent the night hanging over the sink throwing-up and feel like hell the following morning, I usually oblige with a polite and positive response. Friends are different. I can tell them if I’m feeling bad, but not strangers or casual acquaintances. Well I now found myself in the local clinic after having spent half the night hanging over the sink throwing-up, feeling like hell and having been subjected to a one “How are you?” too many.

Finally, the nurse returned, provided me with a bed, connected me to a drip and gave me an injection. An hour or so later I woke feeling a little better. The pain was now just about bearable. “How are you?” she asked. For the first time in a long time, that phrase was a genuine enquiry. And for the first time in a long time I gave an honest account of how I was feeling. For once, there was no ambiguity or irritation. It was a comforting experience.

The next day I was feeling a lot better. I passed the Australian guy on the veranda. He looked ill. His head was bowed and he was staggering along gripping the rail. I spoke but he looked a little irritated, even perplexed. All I had said to him was the commonly used English acknowledgement – “Alright?”


Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai.

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