ABOUT THE STORY The prolific and controversial novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Upendranath Ashk (1910-1996) was one of the titans of 20th-century Hindi literature, best known for his six-volume novel cycle Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls). Although that book has not yet been translated into English, Ashk makes a long-awaited appearance in the world of Indian literature in English this year in a book of translations of his short stories by Daisy Rockwell, a scholar of Hindi literature who has also written an acclaimed critical biography of Ashk (Katha, 2004).
The new book of translations is called Hats and Doctors (Penguin), and it showcases Ashk in all his vitality and variety—a stylistic legerdemain that parallels, in this story, the sartorial stylishness of the hat-loving yet hat-hampered protagonist, Mr Goyal. The many shades of Ashk’s humour are revealed in this gently satirical portrait of middle-class life in the new Indian republic, with its unselfconscious hierarchies (the separate spaces for middle- and lower-class patients in the doctor’s waiting room), its relish for long, morbid descriptions of personal symptoms and conditions (an attitude taken on here by the narrator too in his descriptions of Mr Goyal’s ailments and travails), and its great debates (allopathy or homeopathy?).
Rockwell writes of her translation project, “Perhaps a translator should hope that her readers will develop a taste for the author in English, so that she can bring out more of the author’s works in translation in the future. My hope, however, is the opposite: that some of these stories will induce a few readers, even just one or two will do, to turn their feet toward a Hindi bookshop one day. Out shopping in Old Delhi, they might stroll into The Hindi Book Centre on Asaf Ali Road, and say to one of the booksellers, ‘Yaar, do you have anything zabardast in stock by that amazing author, Upendranath Ashk?’”
“Hats and Doctors” was first published in Hindi in 1966 as “Topiyan aur Doctor”.
MR GOYAL WAS the local representative of the Bharat Times (Delhi-Calcutta) in Lucknow. His friends generally considered him a dapper man. In their school days, they had seen him attired in a turban decorated with a plume. In college he had dressed the dandy, wandering about bareheaded, a light splash of water on his long, curly hair. During the Congress movement, he had preferred milky-white homespun kurtas and dhotis, topped off with a Gandhi cap at a rakish angle. In later years, he had appeared decked out in a black achkan coat and a black cap, or, on occasion, resplendent in an English suit and hat. A number of years back he had gone to Russia with a delegation of journalists. He brought back a large and beautiful velvet cap. For a couple of years the dignity of that expensive (one hundred fifty rubles) Russian cap reigned triumphant, but in 1954, he went to Kabul, and from Kabul he had returned with a Qaraqul hat. For almost a year, his costly Afghani hat had been the subject of constant praise among his friends. But two years later he went to Kashmir and returned with three or four boat-shaped caps (which were at some point called “Jinnah caps” and nowadays are called “bakshi caps”). It was because of his hats, a new one every day, that he was famous for his dapperness, and because he was always changing hat styles. But no one knew of the secret weakness that lay at the root of his penchant for hats.
THE SECRET WAS THAT Mr Goyal’s head was extremely sensitive to cold. If he could find any way around it, he wouldn’t wear hats: his hair was so beautiful, black and curly, wearing any hat on top of it felt singularly unpleasant to him; but his sensitivity to cold gave him no option. If there was just the slightest chill in the air and he left his head bare, he would get a cold. He had hidden his weakness behind a veil of dapperness; maybe he had gone about bareheaded for a few years in college, but as the years had gone by he had made hats his constant guardians. He liked the hat he had brought back from Russia so much that if it had been in his power he would have worn it every day for the rest of his life. The only problem with that hat was that he could not wear it to meetings or social gatherings. Whenever he sat around bareheaded he ended up battling a cold for weeks. The Qaraquli hat was useful in the extreme cold, but it became uncomfortable when there was only a slight chill in the air. It was a very warm hat. His head always became drenched with sweat even when it was cold outside. But if he took the hat off he started sneezing. The trip to Kashmir had eased that problem. The boat-shaped hats there cost between five and fifty rupees. They were the kind of hats that could be worn in the middle of the summer, not just when there was a slight chill in the air, and he had bought all kinds of hats; less warm, medium, very warm; white, black, brown, speckled. He always wore a hat that matched his suit; if his friends praised his suit or his hat, Mr Goyal always smiled and accepted their praise with a thanks: but sometimes, deep down inside, he felt terribly sad. The realisation that he couldn’t live without a hat dampened his enthusiasm. Whenever he went for a walk in the evening in Hazratganj and noticed that even when it was very cold people were not only walking around with their heads bare, but tearing around on bicycles and motorcycles bareheaded, he wished he could take off his hat and fling it in the street. He would not let anyone pick it up; he would just watch it get crushed and torn to ribbons beneath the wheels of the cars and bicycles and tongas, and so become a happier man. And now that he had passed his fortieth year, he was beginning to have to wrap a scarf around his neck as well, just below his hat. If he felt a cold breeze on his ears when he was driving his motorcycle, his nose started dripping. He had to stop the motorcycle, wrap the scarf that was around his neck over his head and ears, tie it under his chin, put his hat back on and continue on his way.
And now a new factor had come into being which made his problem even more upsetting. Since last year, in Lucknow’s annual exhibition, a Kashmiri shopkeeper had started stocking piles and piles of boat-shaped hats: right before Mr Goyal’s very eyes, practically all his friends started wearing exactly the same boat-shaped hats he wore; maybe not quite as expensive, maybe they were actually less expensive; but still, his feeling of originality had been completely done in. No one praised his hats anymore.
Then the Basant holiday came. Mr Goyal was Punjabi, and although everyone else in his household had already said the last rites for the turban and turned their backs on it forever, his father still wore one. Though he was seventy by now, he always had it dyed yellow for the day of Basant. This year, when he saw his father dying his turban, something got into Mr Goyal. He ordered a terrific-looking muslin turban, had it dyed yellow, wrapped it around his head with the greatest of care, and on the day of Basant he roamed around all day long on his motorcycle, his Basant turban flapping about in the cool breeze.
When his friends praised his turban to the skies, and said that in comparison to all other hats, a turban looked the very best on him, and when they asked him with curiosity why he had never worn a turban before, all Mr Goyal’s listlessness turned to dust and he decided to himself that from now on he would always wear a turban. He went to see a friend of his in the market, and on the way he dropped in to speak with a hand-dyer. He told the dyer he would bring him three or four turbans if he could dye them for him in one day. In his boundless enthusiasm he even chose the colors: fawn, dark gray, pearl and light ochre.
But right around four o’clock he started to get a terrible headache. He hadn’t worn a turban in a long time. His long hair had gotten badly squeezed from being tied up in that suffocating knot. He was sitting in the coffee house with his friends, when suddenly he felt he wouldn’t be able to take sitting there any longer if he didn’t take some medicine. So he called for an Irgapyrene tablet and took it with his coffee. But instead of getting better, his headache got worse, and to top it off, he started feeling nauseous. So he left his friends and went home.
From outside his house he could tell that his wife had gone to the Gomati River to celebrate Basant with the neighbour ladies. He rushed noisily into the bedroom. He took off the turban and flung it onto the bed as hard as he could. When he looked at his face in the mirror, he saw that the coils of his constricted hair had formed a sort of a bun on the top of his head because of the twists of the turban; his eyes were squinty, the veins of his forehead were taut and on his face there was etched an unparalleled exhaustion. He went to the bathroom; he splashed his face with water; he smoothed his wet hand over his hair and combed it; he folded his handkerchief and tied it like a bandage around his temples; he pushed the bedclothes and the turban onto his wife’s bed, next to his. Without changing his trousers, he crept under the quilt.
Even though he had tied the knot of the handkerchief right over his temples, he did not feel any better. Bang-bang, bang-bang...someone was ceaselessly hitting his temples with a hammer. He felt incredibly suffocated. He got up and drank a glass of water and then stretched out across the bed again.
After a little while he began to feel extremely hot. Still lying in bed, he took off his pants and threw them on top of the Basant turban and the bedding on the bed next to his. He felt like putting on his pajamas, but instead he just lay there in his underwear.
He still did not feel any better. The rays of the setting sun fell in his eyes through a crack in the curtain that hung in the door across from his bed. He felt as if the sun’s rays were operating the hammer banging against his temples. He no longer had the strength to get up and fix the curtain. He turned over and began to moan softly with his face to the wall.
“My goodness! What’s wrong?” shrieked his wife from the doorway when she saw him lying there, moaning.
Mr Goyal didn’t turn over. He moaned.
Mrs Goyal was wearing a gorgeous spring-yellow silk sari and a silk blouse of the same color. She had a yellow Aurangabadi shawl with really beautiful silk embroidery wrapped around her shoulders. There was a garland of yellow marigold flowers wrapped around her bun. Her face, which always looked yellow because she was sick all the time, was pink and glowing with holiday cheer (or else from walking outside in the sun), even though she was wearing a spring-yellow sari (which was usually reflected onto her yellow face, making it look even yellower). She threw her shawl to one side and sat down at the head of his bed. Smoothing her hand over her husband’s head, she asked him again:
Mr Goyal turned over. “I have a terrible headache, my temples are bursting.”
“You should take four Belladonna 30 tablets.”
Mr Goyal wished he could guffaw loudly, but because of his headache, all he could do was smile. He said, “What’s your Belladonna going to do, I already took some Irgapyrene.”
“Now how can I explain this to you,” Mrs Goyal said, rubbing his forehead with her right hand, “I’ve seen Dr Avasthi cure the most extreme headaches with those pills.”
“Oh my god, what does your Avasthi know about anything,” said Mr Goyal, pushing away his wife’s hand and pressing both his temples at once with his thumb and middle finger, “That clerk who treats patients by examining their astrological charts...”
“But I’ve been feeling better...”
“But you start feeling better every time you change to a new doctor.”
“Why do you always have to make fun of everything. Dr Avasthi is famous all over the city, are all his patients fools?”
Mr Goyal fell silent. He considered it pointless to argue with his wife.
His wife had an old intestinal complaint. She had already tried out almost all the doctors in the city and she had put her faith in every single one of them. Nowadays she sang the praises of Dr Avasthi.
Dr Avasthi was certainly not a degree-holding doctor. He was a senior clerk in the education department of the Secretariat, but he had started practicing homeopathy along with being a clerk, and slowly he had become more of a doctor and less of a clerk. Cheerful, friendly, a lover of literature and art: he had earned quite a name for himself. The other clerks handled his work, and when he wasn’t being called before very important officers to listen to their complaints and dole out pills, Dr Avasthi spent his time at the office studying big fat books of homeopathy. Everyone was his patient, from the ministers right down to the errand boys. His practice had done so well that he really didn’t have any need for a job. But when it came right down to it, he was a clerk at heart. He was about to retire in three or four years, and the lure of his pension had kept him stuck to the office. There was a popular story in the Secretariat about a particularly strict superintendent who had scolded him once, and told him that if he came to the office late, or did any other non-office work on the job, he would be dismissed. But only one month later the superintendent’s son had fallen very ill. When all the other doctors in the city had forsaken him, he took refuge with Dr Avasthi. He fell at his feet, pleading, “Do whatever it takes, just save my son, please.” Dr Avasthi had made him fit as a fiddle again with just four powder packets.
Mrs Goyal praised this story rapturously, “That day, same as today,” she would say when she was telling the story, “not just the Superintendent: not even the Secretary, or the Minister, has had the courage to say a single word of complaint against him.”
These days she advised her acquaintances to consult with Dr Avasthi for every sickness imaginable and was constantly praising the virtues of homeopathy as compared to allopathy, “Sister (or brother), homeopathy hits the mark like an arrow,” she’d say. “Illnesses that even important surgeons can’t fix can be cured by these teeny-tiny homeopathic tablets in just days.” And she would tell them how Dr Avasthi had fixed a tumour in the uterus of a girlfriend of hers with just one round of medicine: after the birth of her child her friend had started to feel a heaviness below her navel, and when she started feeling pain even when she was sitting in a jolting rickshaw, her husband had taken her to the hospital. The doctor had said, “It’s a tumor; we’ll have to operate. Come during the cold season!” She had practically died right then and there just hearing the word “operation”. In the midst of this, someone gave her Dr Avasthi’s address. He gave her four doses of medicine. But she lived in Chowk and Dr Avasthi lived on Park Road. She took the medicine but she didn’t go again. Her husband was a little eccentric. Right in the beginning of December he took her to the hospital, thinking that if she had to have an operation, they should book her a room in time. When the doctor examined her he was astonished, and said in English, “It is not there. It has completely vanished!”
And reversing the sentences, Mrs Goyal would repeat that part of the story in her thin voice with her convent-English accent, “It’s true! The doctor said, ‘It has completely vanished. It is not there!”
EVERYTHING HIS WIFE had said about Dr Avasthi passed through Mr Goyal’s mind as he lay there on his bed. Despite his headache a smile spread across his lips. A few moments later he said, “Give me two Aspro tablets.”
“But there’s no Aspro in the house,” said his wife. “I’ll call Dr Avasthi and ask him what he thinks.”
And before he could stop her, Mrs Goyal had gone into the office and called Dr Avasthi. When she came back, she said, “That’s what I said, didn’t I, why don’t you just take four Belladonna 30 tablets, that’s exactly what Dr Avasthi said too.”
“Could you just call Dr Chatterji, please,” Mr Goyal said, mentioning his favourite allopath, whom his wife had taken leave of long ago.
“Did he ever tell you what medicine to take over the phone,” Mrs Goyal said with irritation, “that he’ll tell you this time. If you want I’ll call him, he’ll come and take a look, but if I call now he won’t come until nine-thirty. He leaves his Care Center at nine o’clock. Just do what I say, I’m going to give you four tablets of Belladonna. If you don’t feel better, I’ll call whatever doctor you want.”
Before he could object, his wife picked up a small bottle lying on the portable coal heater and tore off a scrap from the newspaper. She dropped four pills into it and said, “Open your mouth!”
Mr. Goyal opened his mouth reluctantly. He tasted a light pungency on his tongue along with the sweetness. The pills must have been soaked in the medicine, because one or two marks were left on the paper.
Half an hour later Mr Goyal’s headache had disappeared.
THE NEXT DAY, Mr Goyal, wearing one of his old boat-shaped hats, went with his wife to Dr Avasthi to get some more medicine. While he was making up the medicine, Dr Avasthi asked him how he was feeling and how the pain in his head felt now. Mr Goyal told him that he had taken the Belladonna, which had made him feel much better. Then Dr Avasthi began to enumerate the merits of Belladonna.
He was praising the miracles of homeopathy and telling him which deadly illnesses he had cured for whom, when Mr Goyal revealed to him the real reason behind his headache and said, “All the world wanders about bareheaded: I’m the only one who has to walk around wearing a hat, not just in the winter but even in the middle of summer. Let’s see if you can cure me of that.”
They say that even a rock will get worn down if a rope moves back and forth across it often enough. His wife’s chatter had finally made an impression on Mr Goyal.
“Hmm,” said Dr Avasthi, as he made up the powders. When he was done, he placed a large book in front of him and began turning the pages. After a few moments, he said, “Here we go, found it.”
And he read aloud in English—“A Person Who Wears a Headdress Even in Summer”.He closed the book, took some pills out of a bottle, shook another bottle, dropped one or two drops of medicine onto the pills, and said, “Open your mouth.”
Mr Goyal opened his mouth. Dr Avasthi poured the powder into his mouth and told him, “There. God willing, your hat will come off in three days.”
In three days Mr Goyal’s hat did come off, but he started feeling so jumpy he had to go back to Dr Avasthi. Dr Avasthi made him up another powder, told him to open his mouth and poured it all in.
After three days he didn’t feel any better: the jumpiness had increased, his appetite had completely died, his urine had turned yellow. Mr Goyal moved on to Dr Chatterji’s Care Center.
There was always a large crowd there. The round table and the round bench around it in the middle of the big hall outside was for the middle class, cultured, educated patients: it was packed to the gills. There wasn’t an inch of free space on the benches on either side of the door which were set aside for the lower class patients; in fact, some women were even sitting on the floor next to the benches. Mr Goyal stood his scooter near the door and went inside. He took an old edition of a weekly paper from the round table, and propping his elbows on the right side along the counter, he stood and waited. He had opened the newspaper, but he couldn’t get himself to read it. All his attention was focused on his turn.
Mr Goyal liked the cleanliness and order of Dr Chatterji’s clinic quite a lot. What he didn’t like was this crowd. Whether you came first or last, you would definitely have to sit and wait for your turn for an hour and half to two hours. Dr Chatterji was on duty from eight in the morning until noon, and then in the evening, from six to nine o’clock. He never saw anyone out of turn, no matter how important they were. He never went on visits during clinic hours. If someone got there early to take the first turn, he would most definitely have to sit and wait just as long for the doctor to get there, and if he got there late, he would have to wait for him to take care of the other patients.
After an hour and half, Mr Goyal’s turn came. Dr Chatterji was sitting all neat and tidy behind his little table in his little room. The books on his little table were arranged in order, and he wrote out his prescriptions (which only his compounder could read) very quickly on small slips of paper. Under the piece of glass that covered his table he had pasted three typed directives for his patients:
—Please do not rest your elbows on the table!
—Please do not touch anything lying on the table!
—Please keep your children away from the table!
Behind him there was a partition, on each side of which were two doors that led to the two examination rooms (one for the middle class patients, the other for the lower class patients). Mr Goyal was always amazed at the speed with which Dr Chatterji took care of his patients. When he came out of the examination room after looking at a patient he always hit the bell before writing out the prescription, and then motioned to the next patient to go into the other examination room. He would write out the prescription and give it to the previous patient and then go in to look at the next one. As soon as he heard the sound of the bell, the compounder would send in two more patients.
Sometimes Mr Goyal felt truly amazed by Dr Chatterji’s speediness and he wondered how many miles the doctor must cover in one day, walking back and forth between his table and the examination room.
As soon as he entered Doctor Chatterji’s room, he greeted him; the doctor acknowledged his greetings without looking up from writing out the previous patient’s prescription.
A fake cockroach had been pinned to the partition behind the doctor. Under the cockroach hung a lizard with its tail crooked. The first time Mr Goyal had come to Dr Chatterji’s clinic both these creatures had looked completely real to him, and for quite some time he had waited for the lizard to leap up and seize the cockroach in its jaws. Even though he had since learned that both were fake, he always found himself riveted by the cockroach and the lizard when he went to Dr Chatterji’s clinic.
As he sat gazing up at them now, Mr Goyal nearly rested his elbows on the table without thinking about it, when his eyes fell upon the directives under the glass. Quickly he sat up straight. Just then the doctor addressed him, “Tell me, how can I help you today?”
Mr Goyal told him his problems: his heart felt all heavy, his appetite was gone and his urine had turned yellow.
The Doctor motioned to him to go inside. Mr Goyal went in and lay down. After a few moments the doctor came inside. He checked his pulse, looked at his tongue, felt his stomach a little and then said, “You work night and day, you travel around on a scooter. You need to do a little walking.” He left the room. When Mr Goyal came back outside Dr Chatterji put the prescription in his hand and said to him, “I’ve prescribed medicine for three days. You’ll have to get injections of calcium and vitamin B. Take your medicine, take the injections, do some walking, everything will get better.”
And he got up and went into the other room, where a lower-class patient was lying on the brown oilskin spread over the rough table. He stepped inside and pulled the curtain shut.
Mr Goyal went outside and gave the prescription to the compounder, for which the compounder took five rupees and sixty paise. It was ready after half an hour. When he was walking down the stairs of the Care Center, Mr Goyal cast a glance at the sweepers and labourers sitting on the benches, those lower-class patients for whom Dr Chatterji made no concessions. And he laughed involuntarily at the name of that clinic which announced its so-called caringness.
It had recently snowed in Kashmir, Shimla, Nainital and Mussoorie. A cold wave came through town and even though the days were getting hotter and the sunlight was unbearable, it was suddenly so cold that people had to dig out their overcoats. Mr Goyal seldom went out when it was cold, but recently, according to the doctor’s orders, he had been going out walking every day. Sometimes he felt so overheated he would walk without an overcoat, muffler or hat all the way to Gautam Palli, and sometimes even as far as Shivaji Street. But despite all the walking he didn’t feel the slightest bit better. His heart felt even heavier than before, and his appetite was almost gone.
He had already been given three rounds of injections, when one day his wife exclaimed, “Your eyes look all yellow!”
Mr Goyal made it to Dr Chatterji’s that evening, and told him he had jaundice. The doctor pushed down the skin beneath his eyes a little and looked carefully. There was no way he would be able to see that pale yellow in the electric light. He said, “You people have very active imaginations. There’s no jaundice here at all. Come in the morning, we’ll see.”
The next day Mr Goyal came again. Looking at his eyes this time, Dr Chatterji remarked carelessly, “Yes, it seems like a little bit of jaundice; this medicine won’t work! You’ll have to take another injection.”
Mr Goyal was going to tell him, but he had already told him several times before, that his urine was looking yellowish! Doctor Chatterji never listened to what he said. He wrote out the prescription on a slip of paper and gave it to him, instructing him not to have any milk or ghee or bread for a few days and to eat plenty of fruit and boiled vegetables. Then he went into the examination room to examine the next patient waiting for him.
In the meantime Mr Goyal had already thrown away twenty-five or thirty rupees. He felt extremely angry with the Doctor, “I told him, the color of my urine is yellow now, I feel jumpy, I’m overheated...and you gave me vitamin B injections!” And for the first time Mr Goyal felt irritated by the speed with which Doctor Chatterji managed to take care of three patients at once, that speed he used to admire so much.
WHEN HE CAME HOME he cursed the doctor up and down, picked up all his medicines and dashed them to the ground and told his wife that from today onward he would drink only sugarcane juice and eat only fruit and boiled vegetables. His little brother had once had jaundice, and he had found some relief from drinking only sugarcane juice. He was going to take the same cure and he would never let his head be turned by another doctor.
Mrs Goyal remarked once in a subdued voice that perhaps Dr Avasthi had given him some high potency medicine, maybe he should just ask him for an antidote.
But that suggestion prompted such an enraged glance from Mr Goyal she did not have the courage to say anything more on the subject. She quietly sent the servant out to get some mosambis and oranges, and some vegetables.
Mr Goyal’s health had become particularly terrible by now. His entire body had turned yellow along with his eyes, but he would take refuge with no doctor. His wife sat in the chair next to his bed all day, constantly embroidering or knitting something, and talking about this and that; but she never ever mentioned Dr Avasthi or the word homeopathy even by accident. Slowly Mr Goyal’s health started getting a little better, he started getting hungry, the yellow in his eyes began to fade. Then one day his wife mentioned Hakim Mehboob Alam Chishti.
Mrs Goyal was knitting a wool beret for her nephew (every year her nephew went to the mountains and she wanted to knit him a warm suit and send it to him on time). Suddenly she said, “Pandey’s wife is really taken with Hakim Chishti. Her sister got typhoid, then somehow so much heat went to her head she went crazy. All the doctors tried to cure her and failed, even Dr Avasthi was treating her for a few days” – she said that just to make Mr Goyal happy – “but nobody could do anything. In the end he suggested they send her to Agra, Bareilly or Kankey. Everyone recommended Kankey. Her sister was so young and so beautiful—they were planning a huge wedding for her. That summer was the most auspicious time for the marriage to take place. Mr Pandey was not prepared to send her to Bareilly or Kankey, but there was no way she could be looked after in the house.
Just then someone told them about Hakim Chishti. He is seventy years old and he is a very famous doctor. He travels all over; from here to as far as Calcutta and Amritsar. He made her all better in six months. If you want I’ll call for him.”
Mr Goyal wasn’t listening to a word she was saying. He was watching her hands knitting the almost finished red hat. All of a sudden he asked, “Can’t you knit one or two berets like that for me?”
“Hats!” His wife looked at him with surprise.
“That color is too flashy, it would be best if you could knit me two hats, dark blue or dark gray, to match my suits.”
“I’ll get some wool and start today.” Then she again suggested calling for Hakim Chishti. She said, “You’ve grown weak. I’ll have Hakim Chishti called here, he’ll give you such strong medicine you won’t feel hot anymore and your body will get strong again.”
“I’m better now,” chuckled Mr Goyal, “because my head just started to feel cold again. You didn’t notice, today I sneezed two or three times. Why don’t you just get some wool the color of my suits and knit me a couple of hats?”
ONE WEEK LATER, when Mr Goyal, now healthy, emerged from his home wearing a blue suit, there was a beret on his head which drooped a little to the left, and matched his suit. His friends were sorry he had grown so thin, but their admiration for the new hat he sported made Mr Goyal forget all his abuse at the hands of doctors.