Srikant anxiously glanced at the time displayed on the HMT Sona strapped on top of a sweaty handkerchief wrapped around his left wrist. People all around him squeezed and pushed each other in a pile of obnoxious human fumes, sweat, and breadth. Beads of perspiration trickled down his forehead and nostrils falling on the shoulder of an old man stuck in front of him like a siamese twin. Travelling on a local train of the Kolkata Suburban Railway system at peak office hours was a daunting task and Srikant was one of the 3.5 million passengers who did it every day.
Well, not every day, Srikant took the Lakshmikantapur Sealdah local at around 7:30 AM from the Baharu station five days a week and after around two hours of jostling with fellow passengers in the locomotive, which travelled fastest at a snail-speed of around thirty-six kilometres an hour, he would arrive at his destination, the Sealdah Railway Station in the city of Kolkata in India’s West Bengal state.
This was if everything was okay, which was not the usual case. The Indian Railway system in 1990 still had a punctually nonpunctual reputation. For that reason perhaps, the IST or the Indian Standard Time was aptly referred to as the Indian Stretchable Time for ages. This unpunctuality was, however, not a gift bestowed by the British, the father of the Indian Railways, who were real sticklers with time. It was something that the Indian’s developed on their own merit and came to accept as a normal occurrence.
So Srikant’s train would usually be late. Then there were the occasional strikes leading to railway blockades, congestions at busy signalled crossings, cadaver clearance of suicide cases and runover cattle, neverending track maintenance work, and a load of other things, which delayed the train.
Further, the locomotives would be packed with passengers like sardines in a can, who lived in the suburbs and villages and had to travel to the main city to earn a living every day. Not everyone could afford a residence in the heart or within the happening periphery of the metropolis.
On top of it, the hot and humid Kolkata weather merrily contributed to the anguish of the travelling people. Overall, it was not a comfortable experience to journey on a local train of the Kolkata Suburban Railway system.
The coaches themselves were optimally unkempt and uncomfortable. Of course, there was no airconditioning, only caged ceiling fans provided air circulation in the middle. With hard and torn seats, dirty floors and walls, and open windows with rickety shutters, which hardly closed properly, journeying on one of these electrical behemoths were not easy for a traveller on any given Sunday.
By the time Srikant got on the train from the small suburban-town station of Baharu most of the seats in the locomotive would already be occupied with passengers who boarded from the four stations prior to his stop. The young man would hardly get a seat and had to complete the wretched journey standing on his feet and nudging for space with fellow passengers at the start of his day.
The man had been working hard for the past year and trying to save money to be able to take up accommodation in the city itself. He was fed up with journeying by the local train.
Hailing from a suburban village, most of his life he had to travel on the local railway system to come to the city to access the very scope for a better life, such as visit a library, buy a book, attend college and higher education, and now for work. He hated travelling on the train, but there was something that he hated even more, which was causing him much anxiety and internal turmoil.
Srikant glanced at his watch again. On one hand, he was anxious to meet his patients and on the other, he hated working at the private hospital, which was nothing more than a money-making machine that exploited human health – this was the prime cause for the physiological tempest that pressed his heart and rattled his brain.
This was not what he had imagined the noble medical profession would be when he was studying hard to be a physician. Only after completing his education and starting a job, the young doctor hailing from a rural village realised how unjust and exploitative the Indian medical system really was, and especially for the poor and the middle class, who had to beg, borrow, and steal to pay for treatment.
Medical Insurance was another farse with a million hidden clauses, which primarily benefitted the Insurance houses. Further, in most cases, one had to pay the insurance premium every year to avail of the benefit. This meant that if one’s earning stopped so did his or her capacity to afford and access insurance if needed. Years of paying premiums in the past would not help one in the sick and ailing December days at life’s end.
He looked at the passengers around him, mostly middle-class folks with hard lives and meagre fixed monthly incomes. He wondered how helpless and harassed these people were whenever they succumbed to sickness. They were the multitudes of prey for a gargantuan group of predators who gnawed and gormandised human lives in the name of health and wellness.
Srikant felt disgusted thinking about the medical profession he was in. He felt abhorred to be a doctor, to be a person who worked like a blood-sucking leech only to exploit the sickness of middle-class men and women to make wealth for individuals who owned hospitals that were just money-making businesses.
It had just been a year that he had been a doctor, and he had dreamt of becoming one since he was a toddler. He thought, was it a wrong decision. The pay at the private hospital was great but his bosses needed him to be unethical. He was a good person with noble intentions, who wanted to serve others. How on earth could he live a life preying on the sickness of poor and helpless people, draining their life’s savings and filling his own pockets.
Should he give up his job, should he start a private practice, but then nobody knew him, and it would take ages to make a name for himself. Where would he open his chamber, who would be his patients? Was money more important than his morals and ethics?
Internally torn with a million questions, Srikant rhythmically swayed with the other passengers journeying towards his destination, to a job that was tearing him up from inside into a million pieces.
At that very moment when the young doctor in the local train contemplated the unethical injustices in the Indian medical system, he heard an unusual commotion a few feet away.
“Someone please help my dad, he is unable to breathe and nearly fainting,” screamed an anxious young boy in his early teens as his father collapsed on the passengers around him.
“Everyone move aside, I am a doctor, I can help,” spontaneously reacted Srikant not thinking about anything else. The genuine physician in him came out to help. Pulling out his stethoscope from his attache the young doctor got down on his knees on the dirty train floor to help a suffering man see the light of another day, while scores of passengers surrounded them in a murmuring human circle, some comforting the man’s son, some talking among themselves, and others watching helplessly as the calamity unfolded.
After a few minutes of CPR and administering a life-saving injection, which luckily Srikant had in his suitcase, the young doctor was able to stabilise his first-ever locomotive patient.
“The man is out of danger, but we need to shift him to a hospital as soon as the train reaches the Sealdah station,” announced Srikant, with a satisfactory smile across his relieved face. At that moment everyone in that train compartment of the 7:10 Lakshmikantapur Sealdah local cheered the young doctor with volleys of applause and shouts of praise.
On reaching Sealdah station, a group of helpful passengers volunteered to carry the sick man and help him and his son along with Srikant get on a taxi to be taken to the nearest Government hospital. The young doctor did all he could to get the man admitted and access emergency treatment and left the hospital after a few hours when some other friends and family members of the man came.
Satisfied with what he had done, as Srikant was coming down the stairs of the hospital, the young boy ran up to him from behind and stopped him to say, “doctor I have no words to express my gratitude. If not for you my father would not be alive today. I have not much, but this ten rupee note that I was saving to buy a chocolate bar today. It would make me very happy if you accepted this as your fee for providing treatment to my father on the train. After all, being a doctor is your profession and there should be remuneration for your services.”
Srikant stood speechless clenching the ten-rupee note in his hand as the boy bowed in respect with a clasped hand namaste and went away. That day Srikant did not go to work. He went back to the Sealdah station and sat on a bench deeply thinking about the day’s event. He blankly glanced at the trains arriving at and leaving from the platform, gaped at the thousands of men and women moving all around, and finally looked at the ten-rupee note still fluttering in his hand. It was the greatest reward, the most satisfying money that he had earned as a doctor to date.
At that moment Srikant clearly saw the purpose of his existence. At that very instance, the young doctor decided what to do with his life from that very moment.
The next day Srikant submitted his papers to the hospital and quitted his job. For the next three days, he arranged himself – got some handbills printed, bought essential medical supplies and a big suitcase to embark on a life’s mission very unique and perhaps not experimented by anyone else.
From the following day onwards Srikant dedicated his life to providing medical services to passengers in various local trains of the Kolkata Suburban Railway system and other local railways in the West Bengal region. Initially, it took him some time, but slowly he gained fame.
He divided his time to board on various local trains from the station of their origin so that he would get a place to sit and opened his suitcase of medical paraphernalia to treat patients in moving trains. With printed handbills and word of mouth, he advertised his services and soon his name became famous.
He would take whatever payment the passengers could afford. He did not mind it, making money was not what he ultimately wanted, however, over time he started seeing so many patients that his service became quiet financially viable as well. He even started receiving support from philanthropists and organisations attracted and convinced by his innovative breakthrough in providing medical access to the masses.
After providing medical consultations to passenger-patients for more than ten years on the local trains Srikant was able to motivate many other doctors to join his quest. Following this, he was able to form a conglomeration of like-minded visiting doctors from all over India and other parts of the world, who came to volunteer some of their time to experience treating patients in a moving local train. By 2020 Srikant’s services spread to other regions of the country as well.
So today by any chance if you happen to travel on a local train in India, do not be surprised to see a doctor checking a patient and an anxious queue of people waiting to get treated. It is just a ‘Doctor Train’ a name originally bestowed to Srikant by one of his passenger patients, now used to address all the other dedicated men and women of the medical profession who motivated by Srikant’s cause and calling devote their time and services to treat people in the local trains of the Indian subcontinent.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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