Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ma ma ma My Necrosis

At work on Monday morning I see Debamitra, with whom I had tentative plans to meet at the Lajput Nagar market. She asks if I called her. I tell her yes, but I missed her. She didn’t remember seeing any missed calls. I wonder if I dialed correctly.

She did go Lajput Nagar. She shows me her very cute sandals. “200 rupees,” she exclaims. “No!” I exclaim back. She was disappointed, though, that she couldn’t find the 100 rupee kurta man. I tell her we’ll have to go back there sometime together—and just to be sure, we’ll have to take my person shopping shirpa, Julianne with us. Julianne knows that market inside and out. Better than my Indian friends at work, apparently.


I talk to Shabnum about her weekend too. She had some men work on a window that wouldn’t close on her house. She didn’t have a very thrilling time, but it’s good to have the work done.

I tell Shabnum about the bite on my leg and ask what she thinks I should do. She says she had a bite once that kept spreading, and she had to go to the doctor for it. It took about a month to go away and left a scar. She says I should have my leg looked at.

I was hoping she’d tell me it’s nothing. Ignore it and it will surely get better. Instead I have visions of tiny flesh-eating worms making themselves at home in my knee pit.

Later I visit Amar in his office. He’s talking with Shabnum. How was his weekend? He ended up not seeing The Dark Knight because there were no tickets available on Sunday. Had I tried to call him? Yes. He didn’t see any missed calls from me, but that could be because of his wireless network. Shabnum had problems with that until she switched networks.

As I’m sitting in the office, Shabnum asks me if I’d like her to arrange a doctor’s visit for me. I’m so thankful for the offer of help. She calls and gets an appointment for 3:15 at “Max’s” near the office. So, shortly, I will be able to tell you about my experience with the Indian health care system.

Amar says Max’s isn’t very good, but it’s the only place near the office. Shabnum agrees. They’re not very good, but they’re close. I wonder what “not very good” means. They say the same thing about lunch all the time, “It’s not very good,” and lunch always tastes fine to me. I hope it’s the same kind of “not very good” at the doctor’s this afternoon. I hope it’s fine.

I still have no rudder here for the Indian concept of quality. People have to tell me I’m in a nice neighborhood. Otherwise, I don’t know it from the other neighborhoods I’ve seen. People have to tell me the food is good, otherwise, it tastes like all the other food I’ve tasted.

I wonder if I’ll get a better feel for this before I leave. I wonder if there are mites burrowing into my leg.

This may sound very bad, but I’m not alarmed; I’m more interested. Everyone seems assured that the doctor will be able to give me something that will fix the problem, if there is one.

I feel about my predicament just like I feel about the Indian traffic. It looks terrifying on the surface of it, it sounds awful when I describe it, but if I have someone I trust to get me through it, I’ll be fine.

Three o’clock rolls around and Shabnum comes to my desk. It’s time to go. We walk outside and try to find Sonu. "Roti," the front desk guard says, motioning to his mouth. Sonu’s off having lunch somewhere. It’s okay. We can take a bicycle rickshaw to the hospital as it’s just outside of the industrial park gate and across the other side of the highway from where we are.

Shabnum calls, excusing herself for having to yell, “Rickshaw! Rickshaw!” The man peddles off without stopping. We find another rickshaw driver. He doesn’t want to take us.

As we walk further toward the industrial park gate, I thank Shabnum again for going with me and helping me. She says she knows what it’s like to be in a new place and not know how to do even simple things. She went to Canada a few years ago to visit her sister.

We walk almost to the gate of the industrial park before we find some more drivers. This one will take us there for ten rupees. We jump in and he pushes his bike up the bridge. I suddenly feel like a Big Fat Westerner crammed into this little carriage. I think most Indians are smaller in stature than I am.

“This place must seem filthy to you,” Shabnum tells me. I laugh nervously. It does seem filthy. I think if I lie about it, I will not sound genuine. “It’s not one of the nicer places,” she says as we pass by a busted up, rubble-filled sidewalk.

The rickshaw driver finally starts pedaling and I don’t feel as bad—until he grunts. Then I feel bad again. As we turn out onto the highway and begin biking into oncoming traffic, my guilt is replaced by trepidation. Busses and autos and motorcycles are headed straight for us.

Shabnum says, “Now we’re on the wrong side of the street.”

I consider some responses: “Yeah, holy shit.” No, that’s not good. “This would be the right side of the street where I come from.” No, that’s lame. How about, “Um, are we going to live?” Once again, I decline to comment. If I didn’t need a doctor when we set out, I think, I’ll surely need one by the time we get to the hospital.

But, once again, the rickshaw driver gets us through the traffic safely. We don’t tip over when I think we’re going to tip over. We don’t get sideswiped when I think we’re going to get sideswiped. And apart from the metal bar that hit me in the back when I leaned against the cushion, I am completely unscathed. Shabnum’s apartment is right across the street from the hospital. She gets to and from work via bicycle rickshaw every day.

Shabnum gives the man ten rupees even though I offer to pay, then we walk into the hospital. There are rows and rows of people patiently waiting in the main lobby (no pun intended). The hospital lobby looks like a hospital lobby: wooden paneling and a religious medallion, only this one is Hindu. I think it might be Vishnu the Sustainer. I'm glad it's not Shiva the Destroyer. I wouldn't want to go to that hospital.

I give my name to the woman at the front desk, spelling my last name: K-R-A-J-E-W-S-K-I. She gets to the “W” and types in “UU.” I try to correct this, but have no way of explaining that “double ewe” doesn’t mean two U’s. I figure it’s no harm done.

She types in my information and sends us to a second desk around the corner where another woman asks for my birth date and marital status. She then leans back and says, “Four hundred rupees.” I wonder how they know how much to charge before the appointment happens, but four hundred rupees is about eight dollars, and who am I to argue with an eight dollar doctor appointment?

The woman behind this second desk tells Shabnum in Hindi that there will be a wait. Shabnum asks how long, and the woman tells her the doctor has a list and will take people in the order their names appear on the list. We sit down in a warm roomfull of people. A giant banner says, “The best thing you can do for Mother Earth is to plant a tree.” There are many such ecological messages scattered about the city.
I ask Shabnum more about the work she’s having done in her apartment. There are termites in the window frames, she says. She’s been waiting forever for these guys to come fix it and hoping the bugs don’t spread to her new furniture. “Couldn’t you get your landlord to pay for that if it happened?” I ask, knowing that the Indian legal system is labyrinthine and not good at ensuring anybody’s actual rights.

“I could,” she says, “but there are all kinds of loopholes.”

“Victoria,” a man steps out of the door and calls my name.

Shabnum stands up with me. “Do you want me to go in with you?”

“Would you? Just in case?” I ask her, then tell her I feel like a baby.

Inside the office Dr. Mukesh Girdhar tells us to have a seat, then he takes a gander at my name. “How do you say your surname?” he asks.

“Krajewski,” I say.

“Krajewski,” he repeats, then takes a big, deep breath, staring at the name. “Double ‘u,’” he says, “very unusual.”

“No,” I tell him. “It’s a W.”

“Yes,” he says, “double u.”

I give up.

“What is the problem?” he asks me. I tell him I think I have an insect bite, then I roll up my pant leg, stand up and show him the back of my left leg.

“Your diagnosis is correct,” he says, smiling. “But that is not why you came to me. I need to add something more.” He tells me the name of the bug that he thinks is the culprit. It’s a beetle with very venomous wings. So it’s not actually a bite. The irritation comes just from contact with the wings. I’m glad this thing only crawled across the back of my knee.

He says I have necrosis (or cell death) in the tissue that came in contact with the beetle.

Whatever you do, don’t Google necrosis or look it up in Wikipedia. You will throw up.

The doctor says it may take a month to heal, and it will likely scar. But he says it won’t scar as bad on fair skin as it would on darker skin. If I have to have a scar, I tell him, I guess the back of my knee is a good place for it. He laughs.

He tells me to take Allegra and an oral steroid. He also prescribes a topical steroid that I can use twice a day. He writes this all up in a legible prescription, and we are on our way. Shabnum says he was a good doctor. He seemed like a good doctor to me, but again, it's India; it’s hard to tell.

We stop at the chemist counter on the way out of the hospital. I hand over the prescription and they begin pulling pill packets from their shelves and counting them out. I rifle through my wallet and count the 500 rupee bills, hoping I have enough cash.

“124,” the man behind the counter says.

I think he may mean one thousand and twenty four rupees. That would be about twenty five dollars. I ask Shabnum. “No,” she says, “one hundred and twenty four rupees. Do you need to borrow some money?”

That’s two dollars and fifty cents for all the medicine.

“No, I’m fine. But thank you,” I say and fork over the two fifty. I tell Shabnum how cheap that is. Sadly, she says, a lot of people living here still can't afford medical care. "People like us can," she says, but not others. Many others. They have to go to government hospitals where the care isn't so good.

Outside we have trouble with the bicycle rickshaw drivers. They want to charge fifty rupees to drive us across the street, which is ridiculous in Indian terms. We go from driver to driver and they all refuse to take us or ask too much. I tell Shabnum it doesn’t help to have a whitey with her. They’re probably hiking their prices because of me. She says they do it to her too, though, because she is from Assam (another Indian state). Her native language is Assamese and she speaks Hindi with an accent. “They can tell I’m not from around here,” she says, and they charge accordingly. It’s not just because she’s got a white friend today.

We finally find a driver who will take us back for 20 rupees. Shabnum climbs into the little carriage. I follow close behind and bang my head on the way in—but not too hard. Just enough to feel awkward and dippy.

Back at the office, I email my friend who works in an ER about my adventure in Indian health care. He spreads the story around the ER and emails me back. I should take an antibiotic, too, to prevent infection. No problem, I tell him. You can get antibiotics at any chemists here without a prescription for a little over a dollar.

After work, I tell Sonu my story as well. “Madam, what time?” He wants to know when I went to the doctor. “About three o’clock,” I tell him, and he starts touching his forehead with his fingers over and over. He wrinkles his eyebrows. He’s upset. “Only five minutes I gone. I eat. Only five minutes all day.”

“It’s fine,” I tell him. “The hospital was close. We just took a bicycle rickshaw. It’s fine.” He looks a bit relieved.

“Is pain?” he asks about my bite--or whatever it is.

“It hurts. Yes,” I say. “But I have a lot of medicine for it. It will be okay.”

“Okay, good,” he says, and smiles.

Back at the Defence Colony I decide to walk to the market to get my antibiotic. I walk into the chemist’s and am greeted by the doorman. “Ma’am?” he wants to know what I want.

“Cipro?” I say. He points me toward the back counter. “Cipro,” I tell the two men there. They take out a packet of about ten pills. It’s marked 68 rupees. About a dollar fifty. I look at the packet for dosage information, but there is none. I remember the last time I took antibiotics. I had to take them twice a day, twelve hours apart, a breakfast/dinner kind of thing. I decide to do the same with my Cipro.

Because I have to eat a good dinner in order to prepare my stomach for the drug bomb it’s about to get, I decide to check out a restaurant I’ve had my eye on. It’s called Liquid Kitchen. I’ve been staying away as the place is intimidatingly nice. The guard outside looks like he got picked up at Buckingham Palace and dropped off here. The host outside stands behind a dark wooden podium. I ask him if I can see a menu. He shows me two. One is Asian fusion, the other is Italian. I wonder if the Italian will be any better than the stuff I tried with Susie on Saturday night. We ate above this bakery called “Angels in My Kitchen.” I ordered “Pasta al Fungi” and got rotini noodles in a thick, tasteless floury paste. It was a sad tease for someone who is addicted to Italian food.

The prices here are exorbitant compared to the prices at Sagar. Dinner will likely cost me ten dollars. I decide to splurge. Inside I ask for the bathroom so I can wash my hands. They send me upstairs where there is a staff of about ten people standing in a circle. They part like the red sea and make a path to the washroom for me.

Downstairs I find my booth which is set for six people with regular silverware and chopsticks. I order my pasta with my fingers crossed. Please be good. A chic Buddha looks over me and the walls are done up in bamboo. Chic music plays: slightly techno, slightly emo. Two men stand nearby at the ready with fresh, filtered water. I am the only patron in the joint. But it’s early by Indian standards. Only about 6:45.

Before the pasta arrives, they bring me kim chee: a Chinese cabbage salad. It has a light sesame sauce on it. It’s delicious. They also bring me a small dish of Chinese pickles: pickled carrots and cucumber. I almost don’t try them because of the terrible, acid Indian pickle I had with my lunch the other day, but I decide to hold my nose and give it a go. These Chinese pickles are nothing like Indian pickles, to my delight. They are delicate and fresh and crunchy, also with a hint of savory sesame. I finish and the waiter wants to know if I want some more. I forego second helpings. The food is so good so far that my hopes are really up for my pasta.

The pasta arribiata arrives and I am heartened. The presentation is detailed, with a halved grape tomato placed just there, a parsley spring here and one ring each of green and black olive.

This is posh—and I don’t need anybody to tell me so, probably because it is posh in western terms, terms I understand.

The dish tastes like something I might get in the United States. Better than the Olive Garden. There’s even garlic in it. It’s heavenly.

I finish half of the large helping and ask to get the rest to go. They want to know if madam wants dessert. Madam saw the dessert menu and it looked marvelous. Madam says yes. She’d like to try the tekko. It was one of the desserts on the Asian menu. Something having to do with pineapple and banana in coconut sauce.

The tekko takes some time to prepare and two people come in to do some business while I wait: a young woman and an older man. She’s trying to talk him into buying whatever it is she’s selling. He doesn’t like her price.

The tekko comes on a platter and the waiter serves me my first helping: one breaded pineapple wedge and one breaded banana slice. The pineapple has rice noodles around the outside and is in a sweet, white coconut sauce. The banana has an orange caramel-tasting sauce on it. It’s dastardly delicious. The waiter asks me how it is and I can’t even think of words. “It’s definite… it’s definitely good,” I tell him as though English were my third language.

He waits while I finish this first helping, then dishes up a second, then a third, until the dessert is gone.

When I am done, they give me a comment card. It asks for a lot of personal information. I just fill out the rankings. “Extremely good, extremely good, extremely good.”

Eight people thank me for coming on the way out, and the host smiles at the podium as I leave through the door being held open by the palace guard.

I may have necrosis, but I also just had one of the best meals of my life. It all balances out, I figure.

Before I go home, I decide I’m going to visit a chemist in hopes of finding the one necessity I have yet to run across here: feminine products. If I can’t buy these, I’ll have to ask someone to send them to me, and that could take a while. This is something I need to figure out in advance. I walk into the nearest chemist and gaze up at the shelves full to the high ceiling. There’s hair dye, diapers, cigarettes, in no particular order. The men behind the counter ask me what I’m looking for. I know Indian men are pretty shy about matters like this, and I was hoping I didn’t have to ask. I laugh a little as I think about how to ask for this in basic English. Will any of our euphemisms work? Feminine hygiene products? Napkins? What do I ask for? Finally I just say, “For ladies…” and look embarrassed. Thankfully, this does the trick. They point at a shelf right in front of where I’m standing. If I’d only looked down instead of up I would have found it.

I’m so glad to know I can buy this stuff here and I don’t have to rely on the postal service. “Thank you,” I say, grabbing a package and heading toward the front counter.

“No, madam,” they say, reaching their hands out for my “product.” They take it and furtively place it in an opaque black bag to hide the contents from sight, as though I were purchasing a snuff movie or a dead puppy. I thank them again, unable to keep from laughing. They laugh too and nod. The man at the counter takes my money none the wiser for the illicit goods I am buying.

I walk home with my leftover food in a monogrammed plastic container, my bag of “supplies,” and my Cipro feeling pretty accomplished. It’s been a long day and I’m ready for some drugs.

On the way, I run into one of my dogs and offer her a piece of bread from Liquid Kitchen. As per usual, she looks at it like it’s garbage and lets it drop to the ground.

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