My story "The Appraisal" was published in the Jan-Feb issue of Reading Hour. Since the requisite 6 months have passed, I'm reproducing it on my blog for you to read.
Ningavva walked with unsteady steps down the road, scanning the houses on either side. Her worn rubber chappals made a clip-clap sound as they slapped the cracked soles of her feet.
It wasn't dark yet, but the streetlights had already been turned on. The distant hum of peak-hour traffic formed a background to more domestic sounds – the clang of a steel vessel, the whistle of a pressure cooker. The road was lined on both sides with houses set close to each other. Sometimes it was difficult to tell where one house ended and the other began.
Ningavva hesitated in front of a house with a jasmine plant spilling over the compound. She walked up to the iron gate and rattled the hasp.
A man came out of the house. "Yes?"
"Is this Shekhar-daaktar's house?" asked Ningavva.
"Yes. You want to see him?"
"You're early. He sees patients only after eight."
"Yes he told me, but if it won't trouble you, perhaps I could wait here..."
"Come in," said the man, and opened the gate.
"Are you Krishna?" she asked.
"Daaktar said you'd let me in."
"Where did you meet the doctor?" asked Krishna.
"At the hospital," said Ningavva, and came in through the gate. An unpaved pathway led from the gate to a garage converted into a clinic. Red plastic chairs were arranged on either side of the path. Ningavva sat down.
She wiped the exhaustion off her face with the edge of her saree.
"Water, son," she said, and touched her thumb to her lips.
Krishna nodded. He looked over his shoulder at her as he went into the house. She's from the northern part of the state, he thought. The dialect of Kannada she spoke told him that, and the way she had covered her head with the end of her faded saree. Her features too, and the heavy nose-ring. What it was about her face, he couldn't say. Was it the dialect and her dress that lent an identity to her face? Or did her features with the creased forehead, knitted brows and small eyes reflect generations of squinting in the harshness of the sun in those hot and arid areas?
Overworked, he thought. Her feet are bent out of shape – the kind of misshapenness that comes from having constantly carried heavy loads. Both physical and emotional. Bewildered eyes. Bet she's never travelled this far alone in all her life. Poor woman. Wonder what brings her here.
Krishna brought a jug of water and a paper cup. He filled the cup and handed it to Ningavva, who tilted the cup and drank it all in one go, without touching the cup to her lips.
"Are you daaktar's son?" she said.
"No, no, Ajji, I just work for him."
"Doesn't daaktar take fees from patients?"
Krishna shook his head.
"I went to the hospital in the morning. There they said he takes fees," said Ningavva.
"Yes, only at the hospital. From people who can afford to pay."
The old woman's face relaxed. She nodded.
"Tch, Ajji, what is this? Can't a man have some peace? Ever since you came in, you're going vata-vata-vata..."
"Forgive me, son, I've come from very far.... I asked in so many places, such a long time it took to find Shekhar-daaktar.... son, do you know him well?"
"I was fifteen years old when I first came here, Ajji. I have been his helper, watchman, gardener, everything for ten years. So yes, I know him quite well. Why?"
"My name is Krishna, Ajji."
"Krishna, son, they say he is a good man, is it true?"
"A pearl. A pearl among men. That's what he is."
"Does he see a lot of poor patients?"
"Just wait till you see the line. He sees them late into the night, sometimes skips dinner."
"His wife? Doesn't she mind?"
"What wife? He's unmarried."
"Is he a good doctor, Krishna?"
"Top-class. No one goes away uncured. Why ask me, ask his patients. He's no ordinary person."
Krishna paused. "He's blessed, I tell you."
Krishna paused. "He's blessed, I tell you."
"Why do you say that?"
"So many times in his life, Ajji, when it seemed that he had nowhere else to go, he received help from unexpected places."
"Yes. When Doctor was a small boy, he fell into a flooded river. They thought that his story was over, but a man jumped in and saved him. And after Doctor's parents died, his grandmother couldn't afford to educate him. So the village school teacher, himself poor, with nine children, practically adopted him and educated him, because Doctor was a brilliant student."
Krishna waited for Ningavva's reaction, but seeing as she didn't respond, he continued. "And then he got a seat in the medical college, but had no money to join. So the headman of his village personally went from village to village, until he found a rich, generous man who funded Doctor's entire education. Whenever Doctor is in trouble, a solution comes looking for him. Like I said, he is blessed."
Ningavva was silent.
"What Ajji, lost your voice?" Krishna grinned. "I'll be inside. Call me if you want anything."
Krishna turned to go, but stopped. "Ajji, sit on this chair. Less wind this side. It's getting cold. I'll ask my wife to bring you some coffee."
Krishna left. Ningavva sat for a long time gazing at the ground, while her restless fingers twisted and untwisted the pleats of her saree. Then she looked at the small house, the overgrown garden with its jasmine plant, the lemon tree, tomato plants and a healthy Tulasi plant. Then she concentrated her attention at the road, and watched the few people and vehicles that passed by.
In a while, Krishna's wife came out of the house with coffee in a steel tumbler. Ningavva cupped the tumbler with both hands, sipped the coffee and waited.
The doctor's patients started arriving. Old and young, alone and with their families, they were thin, ragged, with hollow, sunken cheeks. Some talked quietly amongst one another. Some stared at Ningavva. Mothers spanked children who dared venture too near the tomato plants. Men clustered at the gate, talking in low, guttural tones.
A skinny, voluble woman with a bindi the size of a two-rupee coin sat down next to Ningavva. "You don't seem to be from around here," said the woman, opening a small cloth pouch which hung from her waist. From it, she extracted betel leaves, rubbed them with slaked lime, put some areca nuts on it, rolled the leaves up and offered it to Ningavva. When Ningavva shook her head, she popped it into her own mouth.
With the roll swelling one side of the mouth, she kept up a barrage of words praising the doctor and how he had cured her and her entire extended family from various ailments over the years, and how he even gave them medicines himself.
She showed Ningavva a small bag of gooseberries. "He doesn't take money. Not that I can afford to pay him," she said. "So I always bring something for him."
She put away the gooseberries. "He is the poor man's saviour. How many good doctors do you think there are in the city? And how many care about the poor?"
"If he really cared about the poor," said Ningavva. "Why doesn't he work in the villages? Why does he live in the city?"
The woman drew herself up. Her nostrils flared.
"How dare you say such things?" she said, chewing her betel leaves ferociously. "Do you know, every Sunday, he goes to a different village on the outskirts of the city, sits in a primary school, and sees patients there?"
The woman wiped her mouth with her saree. "Sometimes he doesn't even sleep at night – that many people come to see him.
"And do poor people live only in villages? Is there no poverty in the city? If all doctors go to the villages, who will look after the poor of the city? And tell me," she continued. "If he doesn't work in the city hospitals and take money from rich people, how will he eat? How will he give free medicines to people like us?"
She frowned. "Think before you speak about the doctor," she said. "I am being polite to you because you are older than me, and you have come from afar. Otherwise..." the woman turned away, making it clear that the conversation was over.
But Ningavva's features arranged themselves into an expression which people who knew her would have recognized as a smile.
The doctor arrived a little after eight in an old car that he drove himself. There was a scramble as everybody stood up and joined their palms in respect. The doctor, his dark face unlined, and his temples tinged with silver, smiled, nodded and exchanged pleasantries with his patients. He patted a man on his shoulder, ruffled a child's hair, and nodded at Ningavva. He then went straight into the clinic.
In minutes, Krishna came to the waiting crowd and picked out Ningavva. "Ajji, go in, you arrived first," he said.
"I'll go last," she said.
He shrugged. "Your wish. Such strange people in the world..."
Ningavva waited for two hours until the doctor had seen all the patients. She watched with eagerness everybody's face as they came out after their consultation. And then it was her turn. She stepped into the clinic.
"Come in, Amma,"said the doctor. "You've been waiting a long time."
"Yes, daaktar, I have come from far to see you and talk to you."
"From where, Amma?"
"From beyond Davanagere."
"But why, there are good doctors in Davanagere."
"I wanted to see you, daaktar."
"What is the trouble, Amma?"
"My knees ache, I can't walk sometimes, and my knuckles..." She held out her hands, gnarled like the branches of the gulmohar.
The doctor examined her. "You've led a hard life, Amma."
"My husband died very early, daaktar. Left me with two children. You can't imagine how difficult it was... I was young, widowed...." She passed her palm across her eyes, as if erasing the unpleasant images that appeared before her. "My brothers were too poor to take me in, nobody else was there to help me. God knows how I managed, cleaning other people's houses, cooking for them... moving from village to village... But I sent both my children to school, daaktar. I got the girl married. The boy, he is slow, but he is a good boy, looks after me well – he keeps a shop in the village. I am not able to get him married. Girls of today, they are particular, not like in our days..."
Krishna, who was hovering about, butted in. "Ajji, enough of your life-story. You think doctor has time for all that?"
The doctor waved Krishna away. "Krishna, please go and tell Vimala to make some dinner for this lady too... where will you stay tonight, Amma?"
Ningavva looked confused, as if the thought hadn't even occured to her.
"I might get a night bus back to Davanagere..."
"No. It's very late. Sleep here in the outhouse, you can leave in the morning tomorrow.
"Amma, your knees are weak – due to abuse, and old age. Take rest, don't work too much. You said your son takes good care of you? Good. Take this oil and rub it on your knees at bed-time, you might find some relief.... what is it, Krishna?"
"Vimala has already rustled up something for Ajji."
"Good, good. Krishna, the lady will sleep in the outhouse. Go, Amma, take rest."
Ningavva drew out a patched cloth purse from between the folds of her saree, put the bottle of oil carefully into it and tucked it back at her waist, away from sight. She followed Krishna to the back of the house, squatted near the back door and waited. Vimala, Krishna's wife, gave her a plate heaped with uppittu, and two bananas. Ningavva ate, and finished with a tall glass of buttermilk.
"What will daaktar be doing now?" she asked.
"Reading," said Vimala. She led Ningavva to the outhouse. It was a small, unfurnished room with an unused kitchen and an attached toilet. Rolls of mattresses stood in the corner, and folded sheets and blankets were placed above them.
"Make yourself comfortable, Ajji," said Vimala. "Here is a pot of water. Let me know if you need anything else. We sleep in the house, but if you knock at the back door, I'll hear."
"I'll manage, child. "
Ningavva made her bed, turned off the lights, and was asleep in seconds.
Ningavva awoke just before dawn, washed, and stepped out. She shut the door of the outhouse, shivered a little, and drew her thin saree tightly about herself.
As she approached the gate, she heard the doctor call out from the verandah. He was sitting in a yogic posture. She waited until he got up, threw a woollen shawl around his shoulders, switched on the porch light, and came out.
"Daaktar, I'm leaving. Thanks for all that you've done..."
"Amma, something is bothering me. Why would you travel three hundred kilometres just to see me about your knees? Tell me the truth, Amma. Why are you here?"
Ningavva looked up. The lamp on the porch threw its light on Ningavva's eyes. The doctor saw them fill up with tears.
"My husband, daaktar... he died young. He...he gave his life saving a small boy from drowning. My life was very difficult, daaktar. Many nights I have lain awake wondering how different life would have been would have been if my husband hadn't bothered saving someone he didn't even know. Very often I have cursed that boy... and wondered, always wondered.... if my husband's death was worth it..."
The doctor stood very still.
"Now I'm satisfied, daaktar. Finally... last night I slept in peace for the first time in many years...."
The doctor tried to say something, but made a choking noise.
"You're doing good work. I've seen it now with my own eyes – I can go back to my village with my heart full. God bless you, daaktar."
The doctor took the shawl from his shoulders, and put it around Ningavva. She hesitated, and then wrapped it closely around herself. She opened the gate, hobbled out and disappeared into the mist.
The doctor stood at the gate for a long, long time.