The Salt of the Earth

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

He is 70, ‘going on 71’ he told me, adding ‘I am very happy, very happy’ – in English. He walked in with his wife and two grandchildren, bringing me a big ripe guava from his garden, and palm pickle. He walked slowly, making small steps at a time, and had to be supported by his wife at times, lest he stumble as he was slightly unsteady on his feet. He also had some tremors in his upper limbs, which caused some difficulty in grasping or opening a door for example. His speech was somewhat slow too, and the articulation not always smooth, but he was quite coherent, because his mind was still lucid, and he was clear about what he wanted to say.

The source of his happiness was that he spent practically his whole time in his garden, and went to the Durga mandir nearby three times a day. He slept around 10 pm every night, and woke up at 3 am daily to do yoga. He was a follower of Baba Ramdev’s yoga demonstrations, which he put into practice to the extent that he could. No doubt that is what kept him going despite his diabetes, which was under control, a reflection of his simple way of living and performing natural exercise (gardening) regularly together with his yoga. His wife was concerned that he spent too long a time in the garden, that he ought to stop in between. As long as he does not complain, I advised her, let him be – but I did tell him to have some rest at midday after his meal. ‘I am very happy, very happy,’ he repeated. Who were we to gainsay?

He had a minor problem in his leg for which he needed some advice, but our first encounter goes back nearly ten years. He had come all the way from a village in the east, travelling by bus, which meant changing buses at Quartier Militaire, entailing another wait. He had developed an ulcer on the back of the heel near where the Achilles tendon is attached to the heel bone and stands out like a thick cord. It was the result of being bitten by ants while he slept – I have also come across a patient who was bitten by rats, he too was a diabetic – and he had to be admitted for undergoing a skin grafting procedure to cover the ulcer and make it heal.

By the by I got to know about his life: he had retired as an accounts clerk in a government department, and he was very fond of reading, especially English. It was the late 1950s, and he had done GCE ‘O’ level. He wanted to continue and do ‘A’ levels, but his parents did not have the means, and so he accepted a clerk’s post in the Civil Service. Because he did not have any additional qualification he could not rise in grade, but this did not deter him from his passion: the reading and learning of English.

As he could not buy any books, he became a regular reader of Mauritius Times from the beginning, then the only English medium newspaper in the island which he could afford, and which – like many others of his generation I have heard from – he liked both for the opportunity of reading English and the contents as well. This habit continued after his retirement, and he still takes pleasure in going through the paper at leisure every week, and also discusses what he has read with his friends in the local gathering place. Upon his asking me directly, I had answered that yes, I am the one who writes in the Mauritius Times. And knowing this seemed to have pleased him tremendously.

After he had recovered from his small operation, he asked me whether I would come if ever he invited me for a Rambhajanam at his residence, partly too to render thanks for his recovery. I assured him that I would indeed, and one day he called up in the morning to find out whether I would be at home for him to visit and hand-deliver the invitation. Once again, I marvelled at his resilience and courage, especially that this was not too long after his ulcer had healed. He and his wife had brought fruits from their garden, carrying them all the way, and travelling by bus from so far away at his age.

But he was very happy to come and invite me personally, and indeed I made it a point to attend the ceremony. The affection and respect with which I was received left an indelible imprint in my heart. To this day when I think back I realize how lucky and proud I am to belong to a profession that allows me to relieve people of their suffering, with the added dimension that the interaction during the time the healing process takes leads to a bonding in many an instance that transcends all barriers and reveals our common humanity – and that is what defines such relationships across time and space.

That venerable gentleman ceased to be a patient in the usual way: instead, he became for me an exemplary elderly full of nature’s wisdom, a disappearing breed, and towards whom I felt a great sense of respect and special duty of care, and from whom I had great lessons of life to learn. He certainly towers far above many others that I know, and whose gloss, ambition and position make them as superficial as they are artificial, devoid as they are of any moral stature in spite of loud declarations to that effect.

I pay homage to this son of the soil who lives an honourable life, comfortable with living within his means, and more a giver than a taker despite his humble situation, and who remains close to Mother Nature in whose lap he experiences daily fulfilment. For such plain living, high thinking souls, there can be no more fitting words than the following from Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.

Except that such a person to me would not qualify as Poor, for his heart is so rich. And there is no price for this kind of richness. May he live long and healthy!

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2011

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