‘What do you all do in case of a medical emergency?’ That’s a question any Johnny-come-totown-lately will sooner or later fling our way.

‘Visit the witchdoctor!’ one is tempted to snap, but politely you end up biting your own tongue. That would have been true of the growing up years: there were quacks to the left; there were quacks to the right; and one felt like a waddle of ducks. Foremost among them was Dr Chawla, who left no doubts as to his area of expertise. With gentle, tender care, he had placed two billboards on the landing outside his balcony to advertise his special talents: one had a sleeping lion while on the opposite side stood the pride of Africa roaring at the sky in the manner of the MGM lion.

It only stopped roaring on the day the local police turned up.

And the reason for the visit lay in the warrant. Apparently, the good doctor had issued a death certificate to a living person, whose wife had decamped with the proceeds of the insurance. He was marched off to the local lockup and was produced before the magistrate the following day. ‘Arrey, Doctor Sa’ab! What’s happened?’ exclaimed the magistrate, having recognized the doctor as a friend from his wayward youth.

‘I’ve certified as dead a man who is alive and kicking.’

‘How did you manage to do that?’

‘One night some strangers barged into my clinic and dragged me off to a hotel room where I did see a man who was dead. They gave me a name; I wrote that down. How can a dead man tell you his own name?’

‘Ah! A typical case of mistaken identity!’ the magistrate pounded his gavel. ‘Bail granted.’

Never again did the good doctor take a house call. Instead he turned dog breeder. That too went well until one of his customers shampooed a black puppy and the washing revealed a biscuit-coloured puppy. But that’s a whole other story that I must put aside for another day.

In the 1960s, Mullingar hill had a host of doctors who made their way up here. Foremost among them was Dr. Mitra, who came from Zanzibar and set up his dispensary in a shop next to the Volga restaurant. As age caught up with him, he passed on his flourishing practice to Dr. Bagchi. It must be said that he always wore the white coat with dignity and pride. Wish I could say the same about the stethoscope that always dangled around his neck like a dead reptile. That and his monkey-cap.

The only way the townspeople could tell that summer had truly arrived was when he showed up for work without that cap. While in school, we had a doctor whom the boys called ‘Waashit.’ We had given him this name because of his habit of washing his hands nonstop. Day in and day out, he would be scrubbing his hands and wiping them dry to wash them again once again. One day the dispensary nurse complained to him that one of the new boys from Thailand was snacking on beetles.

A look of concern flooded his face but only for a split second before he dismissed it with: ‘Betels? What’s wrong with that? In my growing up years in Lucknow, everybody chewed paan!’

‘Not those, doctor!’ interjected the nurse. ‘These ones fly around at night.’

‘Why didn’t you say so the first time?’ Nibbling at his bleached nails, he murmured: ‘Now we have a real problem!’

I must say that things have changed over the years. Some well-meaning missionaries set up a hospital for the community. For over eighty years and more, it has been providing services that only a handful of our posh hospitals can hope to give. Their timely interventions have saved many a life.

Happy to report that a few years ago, a philanthropist renovated the hospital, quietly, without the customary fanfare and self-aggrandisement. And that is exactly where we head to when we need medical attention, for in the hills we have perfected the art of doing so much with so little.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.