“ The last human freedom is to be able to choose one’s attitude to any given set of circumstances.” Dr. Vicktor Frankl.
Leena lay asleep at last, the tears still glistening on her eyelashes. She had spent the better part of the night at her window, looking across to the house of Dr. Pankajam. The porch had been brightly lit with festoons of colored lights, and the lawn converted into an open-air dining room, with bearers in starched white uniforms moving between the tables, serving the guests. Almost all senior medical staff on the campus had been invited. Leena was the lone exception.
The occasion was the homecoming of Panky’s nephew Milind. He had returned from one of those prestigious American universities, after specializing in Cardiology. It was rumoured that Panky had already selected a bride for him. This was the occasion to make the news public, and throw a subtle hint in the direction of hopefuls who might have designs on her beloved nephew. To Leena, that chapter had been closed long ago, even before it had begun. Not just nipped in the bud but decimated to its roots, never to sprout again.
“I wish him well,” she thought, as her tired eyes finally closed in sleep.
The silence of the night was shattered by the blaring of the Intercom.
“Dr. Rajan, please report to Emergency immediately.”
Leena jumped up with a start, rubbing her sleepy eyes. Hurriedly draping a sari, she ran all the way to the Casualty Department. The Registrar rushed out pale and frightened.
“What is it Ravi ?”
“It’s Dr. Pankajam, She’s unconscious. Probably a concussion.”
“What? She’s at her party. How can this happen?”
“I was told that a ladder in her pantry collapsed right on her head when she was doing something there. I think you’ll have to take her to theatre. Milind is beside himself.”
Leena winced at his name.
The Chief of Neurosurgery was on holiday.
“Oh why does Dr. Verghese have to be away? Why do I have to deal with this woman?” Leena sighed.
Their animosity went back to almost a decade. Leena and Milind were freshers at the Mercy Medical College . Though Dr. Pankajam was away at John Hopkins in the USA , she had made certain that her nephew would be selected. Whereas Leena had got in through her own merit.
The college was affiliated to the Madras University , but being a Minority institution, had its own method of selection. The entrance tests were tough. Those who had passed the written examination had to submit to three harrowing days of tests, to gauge intelligence, personality, elocution skills and even manual dexterity. During those days, they were known just by a number, and subjected to close observation through all their waking hours. Only the best were selected.
On the final day, the ‘hopefuls’ were herded into the auditorium. Only thirty- five would be selected from a group of one hundred and twenty.
The tension in the auditorium was mounting. The hall was jam packed with senior students anxious to see who the new comers would be. Many had wagered bets on their favourite candidates.
“Can we take off these number badges now?” someone asked. “I’ve been feeling like the inmate of a jail for too long.”
“Not yet. Just a little while more,” another replied.
The Principal climbed on to the dais.
“Friends, I am about to call out the numbers of those who have been selected. Unfortunately we can select only 35, though all of you are exceptionally good. For those who are unsuccessful, we have our Career Guidance cell, where you will receive information about other courses available in this College.”
He began calling out the numbers.
As each successful candidate went up on to the dais, she was handed an envelope with the results.
Milind Devanandan was in. It was a foregone conclusion. Dr. Pankajam would have killed anyone who stood in the way of her nephew.
Now that Milind had been selected, he listened anxiously for the number Twenty- one. He had taken an instant liking to Leena. She was clever, friendly and good- looking.
“God, I want her to be selected,” he muttered under his breath.
He fidgeted as he waited for her number to be called.
“Twenty one. She’s in. We’re to be class mates,” he thought, running towards her. “Congratulations! Gosh! Am I glad! “ he said, extending his hand to a beaming Leena.
“And the same to you!” she answered, whipping off her number badge. “No more of this.”
The Principal had left the dais, and a senior student took over. He announced, “The freshers will be giving us a variety entertainment tonight.”
“ What? Entertainment? We need a good rest after this ordeal,” they grumbled.
“ But we aren’t prepared,” one of them made bold to say.
“ You’ve got two whole hours to prepare. You may have passed the entrance test, but you’ve still got to pass the admission requirements of your worthy seniors.”
One of the boys who had a relative in the college confided, “ It doesn’t matter what kind of show we put up. They are sure to boohoo us down. The Initiation week has started. Let’s accept it like good sports.”
“You mean ragging?” squeaked one timid girl. “Oh my God! Do we have to go through all that?”
“Don’t be a sissy,” said Milind. “Let’s show them we can take it. Besides, it’s not going to last forever. They want to have a little fun at our expense.”
That evening, the auditorium was crowded to capacity. Not only the students, but the interns from the hospital, and whoever had time to spare, had gathered to see the fun. The freshers were first asked to introduce themselves one by one, while the seniors interrupted with choice comments. Each had to perform individually, and were jeered and hooted at, until they fled the dais blushing to the roots of their hair.
It was Leena’s turn now. She stood tongue-tied before the noisy crowd, not knowing what to do.
“ I hope I don’t faint and make an ass of myself. My knees are beginning to knock against each other. What shall I do?”
The young Galahad Milind couldn’t bear to see her discomfiture. He sauntered on to the dais and whispered, “ Join me if you know the song. Otherwise, just move your lips and pretend.”
“Hey you, beat it. We want the girl to perform.” they shouted.
Milind held his ground, and began to sing an old sentimental song.
“When I grow too old to dream…..” His deep baritone reached out across the hall.
Leena forgot her shyness, and her voice blended perfectly with his. There was a poignant silence long after the song ended.
“Encore, Encore,” they yelled.
Leena and Milind returned to the stage. This time it was a livelier number. Their voices harmonized perfectly as they sang “Counting colours in the rainbow…….”
They had made an impact, and for that evening, the seniors forgot their plans of ragging. But from that day onwards till the end of their student life, no College function was complete without a song from the duo.
Though Dr. Pankajam was far away in the States, there were many who kept a close eye on Milind, and faithfully relayed news to his aunt.
“ Your grades haven’t been too good in the weekly tests,” complained the Anatomy Professor. “ You had better watch your studies instead of counting colours in the rainbow.”
One evening, Milind had gone to the movies. It was a James Bond thriller, and he had enjoyed himself thoroughly. He was rushing back to the hostel, when a stern voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Is that you Devanadan?”
It was the warden.
“Been taking a breath of fresh air?”
“No Sir, I’ve just come back from the movies. I saw “ From Russia with love.” Sean Connery is superb! He’s out of this world.”
“Indeed!” said the warden.
A few weeks later, there was the usual aerogramme from his aunt. She told him in no uncertain terms, what she thought of Sean Connery’s interference in Milind’s studies.
“I hear that you are not exactly at the top of your class. I’m spending good money on your education, and if doesn’t bring in dividends, I won’t hesitate to call of the deal.”
“To hell with her!” he thought, “ Why does she have to treat me like a kid? I’ve a good mind to throw everything in her face and walk out.”
Yet he knew he would never have the courage. His father was a postal clerk, with half a dozen children. It was a great effort to make both ends meet. Panky was his father’s sister. Her husband had deserted her soon after marriage.
“I don’t blame the poor guy,” thought Milind, “ Who can put up with such a tyrant?”
Panky had no regrets. Her husband would have been a millstone around her ambitious neck. She had plenty of wealth, and held the coveted post of Professor of Cardiology in the Mercy Medical College . Milind was the son she never had. She had great hopes for him and would stop at nothing, to see him top the ladder.
“If you are as enthusiastic about your studies as in singing duets,” the next letter read, “ I’m sure you would get better grades. You poor fool! She is trying to enchant you with her voice, and while you keep dreaming about her, she bags the first place in class.”
“The hateful creature! “ Milind thought, “She is doing Leena a great injustice. I’m sure she’ll change her mind when she sees her.”
In the third year of their medical studies, Dr. Pankajam returned from the States. The stories that preceded her arrival were enough to make one’s hair stand on end. She was supposed to be a Gorgon personified, and the students prepared themselves for the worst.
She was to meet them for their first clinical session, in the wards. The students waited at the bedside of the patient assigned for the day. They tensed as they heard the sound of her heels move closer.
“What a sad disappointment !” thought Leena.
She had expected a tall, imposing personality, with a pleasant face like Milind’s. But the creature that stood before them now, and eyed them with haughty disdain, was anything but impressive. Panky stood four feet, eight inches tall, in her high heels. Her sari though of an expensive fabric, was draped high above her ankles. She was well into her fifties, but the strands of grey were carefully camouflaged with dye. However, she could not hide the bulges under her eyes, and the telltale wrinkles on her forehead. She let her imperious gaze travel over the class, until it rested on the prettiest girl.
“You – what’s your name?”
“That’s not the one,” though Panky, “ That’s the beauty without brains. Scraped through the entrance tests because of influence.”
“And what about yours?” she asked, picking on another.
“I’m Katy Edwards.”
“Wrong again,” thought Panky.
“And yours?” A small stubby finger pointed at Leena.
“I’m Leena Rajan.”
The black gimlet eyes stared back at the unsuspecting girl. The hostility in them was undisguised. Milind felt a cold shiver run through him.
“Vicious creature!” he thought, “Leena is going to have it tough. I must warn her.”
The course of things to come was revealed on that first session with Dr. Pankajam. The case history was read out by one of the students. Panky took her time over the preliminaries. She questioned several students, but did not pay much attention to their answers. The stage had been set for the drama. She pointed to Leena.
“Come forward and examine the patient.”
After a while she asked, “Have you finished? We haven’t got the whole day to spare.”
Leena meekly repeated her findings. The woman was making her nervous. But she was clear about her examination, thanks to the Registrar who had patiently taught them all, how to do a thorough clinical check up. Panky burst into a loud guffaw.
“Indeed Miss. Rajan! You have made a brilliant diagnosis. Milind step forward, and examine this patient.” She waited for a few minutes. “Now what is your diagnosis? Miss. Rajan fancies she hears a murmur. She thinks he has a cardiac problem.”
“I am not sure,” said Milind, “I’m not good at detecting murmurs.”
“Oh yes, you are quite sure that your findings don’t concur with Miss. Rajan’s. Meanwhile, she has made a rash diagnosis. She thinks he has a cardiac problem. ‘Fools always rush where angel’s fear to tread.’ Isn’t that how it goes. Now just from clinically assessing the patient,
I would think the man suffers from a chronic lung ailment.”
She looked around to see if her words had sunk in. Her sole aim had been to embarrass the girl.
“The class is dismissed. We will meet again tomorrow.”
Two days later, the patient died. The diagnosis said it was Cardiac failure. Panky’s desire for revenge had made her careless. No staff or student would dare confront her.
So began three endless years of humiliation for Leena.
“Why does she hate me so much?” Leena asked her friends.
“It’s because of Milind. Your name has been coupled with his once too often.”
“But what have I done except singing with him on occasions? Why, I haven’t spoken even a dozen words to him since her arrival.”
“May be she’s jealous that you are ahead of him in class.”
“I can’t help that. He ought to try harder.”
“Anyway Leena, you better stay clear of Milind. No good can come of it. He is like clay in Panky’s hands.”
Leena was miserable. Not a day went by without some kind of reproof from Panky. Leena had reached such a stage of nervousness that she refused to answer any questions which the older lady asked. This irritated Panky further. As for Milind, Leena didn’t so much as look in his direction.
“How she must hate me!” thought Milind. “ I can’t stand this much longer. I must speak to her.”
But there was no way he could do that. Her friends stood on guard, and showed open hostility towards him.
“Aunty’s boy,” they jeered, “ He doesn’t have a backbone of his own.”
The next University exams once again saw Leena at the top. Milind had just managed to scrape through. Panky was furious.
“Your marks are disgraceful, Milind. You’re not trying hard enough. It’s that hussy you’re dreaming about. Do you think I can’t see through you?”
Panky didn’t realize that her constant carping was getting on his nerves. He was fast developing a mental block towards studies. He was also astounded at her capacity to hate an innocent girl. But what could he do?
Soon the final year exams were to take place. Panky was delighted when she received news of her selection to be one of the examiners in Medicine.
“I’ll teach her,” she mused with glee. “If I have my way, Leena Rajan will not beat my Milind this time.”
The thought pleased her so much, that it brought about a change in her attitude to Leena. The class noted with relief, that she was almost cordial to the girl.
“I’m glad she’s got over her dislike for me,” thought Leena. “It’s a great load off my mind.”
But Milind had reservations.
“She’s up to something,” he thought. “She’s a real snake in the grass. If I were Leena,
I would not set much store by her gestures of friendship. I must warn her.”
In the library, he managed to find a seat beside her.
“You again? Leave me alone. All I want to do is get through this exam, and as far as I can from the likes of you. So just let me be.”
She pushed her chair back, and stomped away angrily.
As expected, Leena did brilliantly in her theory. The practicals and viva were to be held at the Madras Medical College . She sailed through her viva and the examiners were very pleased.
Then came the practicals, and Leena was horrified to learn that one of her examiners was none other than Dr. Pankajam. But she had a fairly straightforward case, and she soon became engrossed in her work.
The other examiner looked bored. He was restless for a smoke and a breath of fresh air. There were still two students to be examined before the coffee break. Panky kept watching him through the corner of her eye. She must somehow try to get him out of the room when Leena was questioned. The examiner stifled a yawn.
“Feeling sleepy eh? Run along and have a cup of coffee. You’ll feel refreshed.”
He knew it was definitely against the rules. But he was sure that he’d be back in ten minutes well before the girls finished, and in time to quiz them.
“Thank you, Ma’am. I’ll be back in a jiffy,” he said, and rushed out.
Leena had still five minutes to go. She was looking at her notes to see if she had missed anything when she was summoned by Panky. They were alone together in the cubicle. Panky glared at her in silence. Suddenly Leena knew what terror meant. She had been complacent these last few months, sure that Panky had changed.
“Here is my chance at last,” Panky said. “I’ve waited a long time for this moment. You must be punished for stealing a march over Milind.”
“But Madam, I’ve not done anything wrong…..Besides, I’m here to be examined on my case, and not to be punished because of your prejudice against me.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. You’re not going to make it. For all practical purposes, you cheated. You were helped by the invigilator. He told you the diagnosis and you cooked up the rest. Now get out.”
Leena ran sobbing out of the room, as Panky scored her paper and wrote, “Helped by invigilator.”
The examiner returned to find that one candidate had already left.
“I sent her off.”
“But the rules say we both have to examine her.”
“Never mind the rules. She cheated, and that is the end of it.”
The examiner looked through her paper.
“It’s impossible. She’s done a remarkable job. Besides, she doesn’t need to look for help. We already have her marks in theory and viva. They are exceptionally good.”
“The matter is closed, Doctor. Otherwise I may have to complain to the Board that you were out for a coffee break and a smoke, when you should have been here.”
Leena was desolate. Would anyone believe her story? It was best that she remained silent.
“It doesn’t matter, “ consoled her father, “ Three months will go by in no time at all.”
But Milind knew, and so did many others, that this was Panky’s vengeful work.
And the other examiner knew too. His conscience bothered him no end, until he wrote a letter to the Board, confessing his blunder in abetting the mischief Dr. Pankajam had engineered. She was taken off the list of examiners for any future exams. But that didn’t bother her.
“I couldn’t care less. I’ve done what I set out to do. My nephew will not take a back seat to anyone.”
Those three months were the darkest days of Leena’s life. She forced herself to smile even when her heart was breaking. It was torture to see Dr. Pankajam gloat over the success of her coup . The pitiful glances she received from her friends and their well-intentioned words of advice were driving her to depression.
But her father’s words were finally beginning to get through.
“The trick is to respond positively and constructively to things that effect you negatively. It was all so petty, in addition to being unfair and mean. Who would have thought that a famous doctor mature in years, would stoop to such pettiness? But it takes all kinds to make the world. You must snap out of this self pity. I remember a psychiatrist saying that the last human freedom is to be able to choose your attitude to any given circumstance.”
There were times after graduation, when she had the urge to run away from the scene of her humiliation. But this was one of the best colleges in the country, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of the facilities for post-graduation.
Soon after his internship, Milind was packed off to the States. He took after his aunt and specialized in Cardiology. Then stayed on for a few years more, until she decided it was time for him to come home.
“He’ll have to come back before some American woman drapes herself around him. I’ll be retiring in a little while, and he must step into my shoes.”
Meanwhile Leena did well for herself. She specialized in Neurosurgery, a subject chosen by very few women at that point of time.
“I’ll stay right here and excel. I’m not going to be incapacitated either professionally or emotionally by the Panky’s or the Milinds of this world. I see the morning break after the grim darkness of night……I see the radiance of a new dawn, and I fly into the day with hope…..”
Dr. Verghese her boss, had great respect for her intelligence, and gave her all the help she needed. She was privileged to serve on his team, and was well liked by all the staff. Her scientific papers were hailed by neurosurgeons in other countries.
Leena moved fast. She examined the unconscious figure on the stretcher, and tested her reflexes. She flashed a torch on the pupils, then looked at the x’rays which were ready.
“ She certainly has a depressed fracture of the skull. Prepare her for surgery immediately.”
The next half hour was spent in a spate of activity until the patient was moved to the theatre.
The skull was cleaned and draped, exposing just the field of operation. The anaesthetist gave her the ‘thumbs up’ sign. It was at this point that Leena hesitated.
“Here is this woman who nearly ruined my life. This hateful, crotchety, mean devil who has hurt and insulted so many people. I could easily refuse to operate……. I could even finish….”
Then just as quickly she was back to her senses. An inner voice spoke to her so clearly.
“You have no choice, Leena. Your job is to heal. Sinner or saint, enemy or friend makes no difference. You’re merely an instrument in the hands of God, and you better be the best one at that.”
She raised her head for a second, to see if others had seen her hesitation, and looked right into the eyes of Milind. She didn’t even know that he had come in. He must have guessed what had just passed through her mind. His eyes were imploring. They seemed to say,
“Please Leena, can’t you forgive a poor old woman? Will you stoop to her level of meanness? I beg you to help her, for my sake….”
In that flash of a second she remembered something so vividly. Leonardo da Vinci was so angry with a fellow artist that instead of drawing the face of Jesus in his masterpiece “The Lord’s Supper,” he painted the face of Judas. Later, he tried to modify it to resemble Jesus, but failed miserably, because he was still consumed by anger. The face had to be erased completely, and he could work again only after he had forgiven his enemy.
“How incredible the mind’s recall, even in a crisis!” she thought as she bent over the patient.
“God,” she prayed, “ Let nothing happen to her. I’ve worked hard for my peace of mind. Don’t let me lose it again because of this woman.”
Milind was profuse with his thanks. Leena received it cordially but very professionally. She had to get used to seeing him around, as he was to head the Cardiology unit when Panky retired. The old lady bounced back to health in a few days.
“Leena, I’d like to have a word with you sometime.”
“Now’s the best time,” she said, “We can’t work in the same institution looking away from each other.”
“How about dinner at the Ritz tonight?”
He saw her hesitate.
“Please don’t say ‘No.’ I have something important to say.”
They made a beautiful couple, he in his dark blue suit and she in a salmon-pink sari, with a string of pearls at her throat.
He ordered champagne, and the cork popped with a bang, the froth flowing over. She watched as the sparkling liquid filled their glasses.
“She’s so beautiful,” he thought, “ So elegant and composed! Do I see a faint blush in her cheeks?”
As their glances clinked, she smiled up at him.
“Leena, will you marry me?”
She looked back at him over the rim of her glass, and took her time. He could read neither passion, nor love, nor hatred in them. They were like limpid pools, so placid and cool!
“Let’s drink to our future,” he said.
“Here’s to my last freedom,” she thought. He was waiting for her response.
“To what might have been!” she toasted, “ What we had, was lost irretrievably in the whirlpool of Time. So let’s drink to Friendship, and keep it strictly that way.”