The last time I had touched a horse was when my kid daughter was learning to ride in Haiti twenty years ago. My memory had leapfrogged over that recollection and hurtled into a past, much further.
My mother came from a large family and three of her brothers were doctors. My favorite was a balding, bespectacled man of middle height and professorial mien. He had a large house, named lovingly after his mother, in downtown Bhagalpur, in eastern India, where lived his wife and children.
He spent much of the week, across the river, in a small town called Bihpur, where he had a pleasant ranch-type house with a large orchard and an extensive hospital next to it. His aging mother presided over the house with the able assistance of a mayordomo, Aziz, who was also a capable chef. The hospital was the responsibility of Munshiji, a corpulent mustachioed man, who also acted as the chief pharmacist and was officially called the Compounder.
During summer, while father toiled in the city, mother and I took a vacation with her brother’s family. I loved my aunt, a sweet even-tempered woman, and I enjoyed my high-spirited cousins. Together we went to markets, movies and parks and I had fun. But nothing could hold me in the city. My heart longed for my uncle, his ranch and his hospital across the river. At the first opportunity, I left my mother in the city and took a ferry boat across to Bihpur.
Grandma was old and feeble, and seldom moved far beyond her room. Since uncle was mostly at the hospital, I felt like the master of the house. I wandered about the rooms and uncovered their secrets. I explored the room in which special medicines were stocked; the smell made me think of exotic diseases and mysterious medicines. I liked the room where uncle kept old magazines; there were endless stacks of Life, Readers Digest and National Geographic, not to speak of medical journals. A covered verandah ran around the house, with long comfortable library chairs. I felt like royalty as I occupied one with a couple of my books or uncle’s magazines and waited for Aziz to bring me a cup of tea.
My kingdom extended beyond the house, for I could just put on my boots and saunter into the orchard. It had an unkempt look, with all the bamboos at the edges and the cluster of mango trees at the center. It was large enough to get lost in and yet not large enough to stay lost for ever. I loved walking in the utter silence of the groves, hearing only my footfall, smelling the smells I never smelled in the city and watching the colorful birds whose names I did not know.
When I tired of solitude, I just walked over to the hospital. It was always buzzing, with thirty to fifty people. It would not occur to anyone in the village to let somebody go to the hospital alone. Yet it was a remarkably quiet place, for the villagers clearly believed that the doctor should have the peace to do his work well. I often sat unobtrusively in the waiting area, listening to patients talking of their respective pains and problems and watching the children playing together despite their bandages and crutches. Sometimes I sat with Munshiji, see him prepare the red cough mixture and pour it in a bottle marked on the side with the requisite dosage. He would let me prepare the yellow ointment that seemed in great demand and ask me to distribute it into small containers in the right quantity.
The biggest adventure was when there was an emergency in another village and uncle had to rush there. Often he combined the occasion with his visit to patients in adjacent villages who needed his attention. There were no proper roads, only mud tracks. Uncle would go on horseback, accompanied by the compounder or an assistant. He had three horses for the purpose, one being the spare. Munshiji, being the heaviest, got the big brown horse; uncle rode the black one, because I – coming along for the outing – had told him that I fancied the white horse.
The poor villagers received my uncle like an angel, Heaven-sent, and I shone in reflected glory. Uncle was a simple, earnest man, who never accepted gifts or favors from patients. So the villagers insisted on my drinking a cup of tea with them. At first I disliked the tea, because it was made with smoked milk (the only way they knew to preserve the milk), but as I kept drinking their tea, eventually I began to like the smoked taste. Later, when I returned home, I missed it and told my mother that her tea wasn’t as good as what I had with my uncle.
When I finally returned to my city home and was asked about the vacation, I could not say enough of my uncle’s saintly conduct with the villagers. However, I never forgot to mention my triumphant journey on a white horse.