A million dollar question (and answer)

The millionaire got out of the car feeling slightly disconcerted and out of his league. He couldn’t remember the last time he had got out of his car in a public place. He felt weirdly naked. There were small houses on the street, so small he found it a tad psychedelic. It was ages since he saw houses so close to each other, almost sharing a wall. People stood around and even their physical closeness to each other appalled him slightly. Personal spaces, as he was used to, were necessarily wide. In the street where he stood now, people could shuffle their feet and they would be touching each other. The millionaire hadn’t realized it earlier, but  just the thought of rubbing shoulders with people, even those he knew, made him feel distinctly creepy.

Still here he was, in the middle of a small street in him town, just because some chit of a girl had gotten his fancy and because her notion of how the world could be changed had gotten his attention. He wasn’t enamoured with the idea, but it was at least something different from what he was used to doing. Holidays – even to different countries began to bore him several years before he stopped holidaying. He had so much money that all he had to do was plan on how to spend it. He could spend and spend and not make a dent in his bank balance. He had ensured that in his youth. All he youth he spent saving for his old age. He didn’t want to be like his father. Age made you dependent and the millionaire hated dependence. He knew he would grow old and he had anticipated many different possibilities – him growing demented or ageing gracefully without a single embarrassing illness – whatever the type of life he would have, the one thing he had ensured was that he would have enough money to pay for it. If he was going to be debilitated, yes, his bank would adequately pay his bills. If he was going to become mentally unstable, he would still have the dignity of a well paid carer. He wouldn’t be hobbling around naked on the street because he wasn’t worth anyone’s time or money. A well paid carer would work hard to maintain his job……….

After he got off the car, the millionaire walked slowly towards the government hospital the girl had referred him to. She worked for some charity that had a forgettable name. The charity believed that if the rich and middle class started using public services, the poor would benefit. Their request to the rich such as him was simple enough. “Go to a private facility if you must, but take a detour to a public one first. Raise your voice and demand services – good quality services and then be on your way if you must.’ The girl who visited him was completely taken by the idea. She had been animated and excited and had literally begged him to visit any public facility that he possibly could. Visiting a school was out of the question as he had neither child nor grandchild to enroll, so they had narrowed his visit down to a government hospital. He would get his diabetic ulcer dressed at a government centre. The girl had offered to accompany him but he had insisted that she didn’t. He didn’t want anyone peeking at his ulcer – the expression on their faces demeaned him and he hated being demeaned.

Later it surprised him that he had agreed to her badgering. He could have given her money for her charity and sent her on her way, he could have argued with her about the stupidity of the idea, he could have even asked his secretary to ‘deal’ with her. For some reason that he vaguely regretted he found himself going along with her and even agreeing at the end of the half hour discussion, to visit a government hospital. The girl was sure that if a rich man like him went into this facility, it would bring a new face to the clientele of the centre. In anticipation of similar other rich and elite people, the centre was envisaged to improve itself – a user driven standard. This idea made him uncomfortable because it meant that those who were using it currently i.e. the poor didn’t play any role in ensuring the quality of the system. He didn’t like the idea that had lodged itself in his head – that he had privileges that others didn’t have. It also made him vaguely guilty – as though he had used his privileges only for himself and to his advantage. Having never explored any kind of altruism within himself at any earlier instance, now he felt vaguely compelled to – part curiosity, part boredom, part altruism – that was the only three part explanation to why he was here right now at this moment at the door of a government PHC.

The building itself didn’t look as bad as he expected. He thought he would be overpowered by the stench of urine but fortunately this wasn’t so. Thanking his small blessings, he went into the centre. There weren’t many people at all. This surprised him. Again he had expected the place to be teeming with poor, dirty and sick people. The girl had mentioned something about government services being so bad that people just never used them anymore. He being rich and elite, was now expected to set right this sorry state of affairs. A woman dressed in a white sari, most probably a nurse was screaming at someone. Her voice was shrill and unkind. She had her back towards him and was gesturing towards an elderly man, quite likely his own age.

She was asking him to sit at another seat. The millionaire thought the elderly man would have obliged even if she had spoken in a kinder voice, but she seemed to have brought in the voice and tone into her day to day dealings. She probably was just used to talking down to people, and badly.

When enough eyes had turned towards him, she looked back and at him. The change in her voice was remarkable. She stuttered a little, as though exploring a new dialect, but clearly he didn’t look like the other people who entered that centre. His muted clothes even more clearly articulated that he belonged to another class. He became conscious of the way his shoes shined and his watch glittered. He became conscious of the dull gold chain her wore and his expensive glasses. His shirt suddenly seemed to stand out in stark contrast to the nylon clothes that the people sitting around him were wearing.

He spoke the local language deliberately avoiding English. “Doctor nodu beku’ he said. This seemed to send a ripple of shock through the entire system. The patients looked aghast, as though wondering what new calamity had descended on them and whether the rich were now looking to take away even the measly services they had from the public hospital, the staff nurse had run in to get the doctor to drop whatever it was that he was doing to attend to this rich customer, the security guard had followed the millionaire inside and was now standing and gawking at him, security be damned.

The doctor came running out. “Yes sir, yes sir’ he breathed rapidly ‘what do you want sir?”

The millionaire had half a mind to ask the doctor to see the other patients first but he didn’t really want to wait. He subconsciously felt that he had  the right to be seen before the others and that he was much more important that the others.

”I need a dressing for my leg” he said, although a part of him was ready to run away.

This seemed to fluster the entire group sitting around the OPD. The patients looked at him like he had gone mad, the doctor looked askance wondering what he was talking about, the nurse looked like she was ready to faint. Only the group D staff seemed to regain her composure. She firmly took control of the situation. “Sir we don’t have dressing material. We refer all patients to a big government hospital which is in the city’. The millionaire offered to buy some of the material. “Give me a list of things you would need’ he said feeling rather faint and cursing that chit of a girl under his breath “I will ask my driver to get them

The list the staff made was illuminating – it included bandages, gloves, a blade, scissors, sterile pads, lotions, creams, even a plaster. ‘Don’t you have any of these at your centre?’ asked the millionaire, feeling the first stirrings of shock within his system. “No sir” said the doctor, and didn’t look like it was of particular concern to him that he was managing a centre without what one could easily call ‘basic’ requirements.

While the material was being brought, the doctor tried fussing over the millionaire who quickly brushed him off and asked him to tend to the other patients.

A little girl with a bandage on her arm stared at the millionaire. When it was her turn to be seen by the doctor, she went in with her mother. In a few minutes she was out again. “Where are you going?” the millionaire asked the mother of the girl. “They don’t have any of the materials for the dressing, so they asked us to go to a bigger government centre’ she said. The mother looked exhausted and she already had another baby in her arms. The little girls dressing didn’t look big at all.

“Wait here’ said the millionaire on an impulse “I am getting dressing material. You can use it for your daughter”

Once the material came, the dressing was another painful process. The doctor had clearly not done a dressing for several years, or ever in his life time. He fumbled, dropped material and looked like he’d rather be in a furnace than here doing a dressing. The cleaning lady encouraged him. “Doctor, you forgot this solution.” She said handing him the bottle of spirit. The doctor dabbed the spirit onto a cotton wool and placed it over the millionaire’s leg. A searing pain shot through his leg. His first instinct was to hit the doctor but he remembered the little girl outside. She would be going through this in a little while. The millionaire couldn’t make out if what the doctor was doing to him was right or wrong, but he sure as hell, wasn’t confident. There were high chances he was wrong. The millionaire wondered how this situation could be remedied.

 Even if the doctor had all the stuff he needed, which in itself seemed a remote possibility, the fact remained that the doctor still did not have the expertise to use the stuff. This was like a situation that was beyond redemption. Maybe the medical training itself ought to be changed. Still……. The millionaire realized something. He needed to continue using the system. Today a dressing was done that was usually referred outside. Tomorrow maybe there would be material for the dressing. A week later, who knew, maybe the doctor would be pressurized enough to want to train……. and train properly.

If his coming helped that little girl have a better life…………then maybe his miserable millionaire life would have been of some use to someone after all.

‘Millionaires after all’, he thought to himself ‘also need to feel that they made a difference…………..’



  1. The Supreme Court has turned down the petition filed by UP government to remove AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, & Homeopathy) doctors working under National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) in the state. The UP government filed petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Allahabad High Court decision to continue the services of 1200 contractual AYUSH doctors and pharmacists appointed under NRHM.


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