Just a couple of days ago, I was conversing with a friend (well,as much as one may converse when concentrating on devouring muffins) when the talk turned to common job-interview questions. We mutually deplored the one asking for one’s strengths and weaknesses ( I decided I could probably bench-press 5 kilos and my weakness would be the rowing machine!) and we decided that the most annoying ones (common ones here) would be the ones asking for examples of specific instances where you were an asset to your employers or you weren’t and how that was perceived and followed-up etc etc! My friend then said that she had been asked a couple of times about who she admired or was influenced by ( in the wider world) and asked how I would have answered that.
Well, that quite threw me and it’s a good thing that nobody has asked me that before as it would have been a very long pause which would have ensued! Of course there are plenty of people I admire -in the Arts,in politics,among writers or sportspersons. But I don’t think any of them have really influenced me in a conscious way although doesn’t everyone have subconscious influences,either from a collective memory or a specific one that work themselves into one’s being? But I found myself strangely foxed and despite my friends’ prodding,could not single any one person out as a mentor or role-model. I mean, I do admire say ,Golda Meir,Van Gogh or Shrek,but I probably couldn’t even admit to the last one in a job interview!
My friend then asked curiously if there was anything I could specifically say I had learnt from someone in my life and when couched in those terms, I could instantly think of something -an incident from my 20s which I did share with her and on reflection,would like to mention it here too. It may not sound profound but I have often reflected on the “lessons” learned from it.
In my early 20s,as a young doctor fresh from internship, I went to work my bond in a fairly good-sized Mission hospital built by the Irish Presbyterian Mission mainly for the Bhils -the local tribe who were a nomadic and extremely poor and backward community. My boss there ,was an Irish Gynaecologist & surgeon (surgeon by necessity) ,a lady about 3 decades older than me. I will call her Joan here although that was not her real name. As both of us were single and had no families to pander to when we were not on call, we would spend many evenings playing Scrabble, exchanging or discussing books ,sampling her delicious baking or just chatting. She was definitely a mentor to me then as that was my first job and we were just 3 doctors manning the entire hospital. I would sometimes take an Xray or case-notes or an ECG to her for a second opinion and she would patiently go through them.
Many of the hospital staff were Bhils as well and lived on the campus. Often a single family would have multiple members working there holding a variety of posts from cleaner to watchman. Mission hospitals did not pay well and some of the staff/workers ( many with dependents) would live a hand-to-mouth existence.
Both Joan and I would often find ourselves invited for celebratory meals to staff houses if they had a special occasion or if a child passed an exam and so on. We would then be the guests of honour and get special treatment. As I said, many of the non-nursing staff lived on very little and like in the case of my OPD ” ayah” , they would have none or little furniture at all and would eat and sleep on the floor. So when we arrived, we would find their best sheet folded and laid on the floor on which we would sit cross-legged and eat. The family would never eat with us but would stand at the ready around us with second helpings urging us to have more. No amount of entreaty would make them sit down with us! We were their honoured guests and I would feel terrible at times because practically everyone was much older than me and yet because I was one of the doctors, they would treat me reverentially!
I would never know how to dress for these occasions. The family themselves would be out of hospital uniform and very very simply dressed. I felt that to dress-up in my ” outing ” or dressy clothes would be to arrive grossly over-dressed and perhaps draw attention to the contrast in our clothes and be inappropriate for the setting and occasion. So I would be neatly but simply dressed in my everyday clothes.
Joan on the other hand would come emanating perfume in her prettiest dresses ( she only wore Western clothes) with matching shoes and handbags and her good jewellery. She would take her high heels off at the door and we would both sit cross-legged on the sheet and have gleaming steel “thalis” laden with steaming ,delicious food laid before us. Often she would have Elective students from Belfast visiting and there would be a lot of merriment as they attempted to eat with their hands!
On one such occasion,we all had been invited to dinner at the home of the watchman as his younger brother ( the only one getting an education) had done very well in a final exam. The watchman’s mother worked for me as a maid,his sister worked as an O.P.D assistant and his middle brother worked as an orderly in the wards. Joan had just returned from Northern Ireland after a conference and medical school reunion with two elective students in tow. She arrived resplendent ( as usual) in what she had bought for her reunion-a lovely emerald green dress, matching emerald green shoes and handbag and pretty green earrings. Everyone oohed and aahed! Leaving her shoes at the door,she sank onto the sheets on the floor provided for us. We watched amused as the two med students struggled to tuck their long legs away somewhere!
As the hosts bustled away to get our food organised, I remarked to Joan how lovely her dress was and how much of an effort she made to dress for these occasions. She took a quick look at the med students who were still twisting their legs into pretzels and said softly, ” Well,when our hosts invite me into their homes to share their joys like this, they are honouring me and showing me tremendous respect. I think it’s the least I can do to show them how much I in turn appreciate this and respect them. They all know my everyday clothes. I don’t want them to think that I feel it’s ” just them” that I am visiting and that they are not important enough for me to make an effort.”
Well, I can tell you that what she said struck me so forcibly that I dwelt on it for the rest of the evening! It made perfect sense. Although I always felt honoured to be invited to these occasions, to my various hosts, it must have seemed to them that I was just performing a duty by attending dressed very ordinarily . How tragic! I was not showing sensitivity by dressing down; I was actually showing disrespect!
Needless to say,thereafter I would arrive for all dinner/lunch events all dressed up and bedecked with my favourite bling!
Joan will probably never read this but the lesson she taught me was not really one about dressing suitably for occasions. I could see in all her encounters with patients,staff and friends alike that they were all individuals of great interest to her. There was never an iota of condescension or patronage in her dealings with them. They enriched her life and she enriched theirs. She came to India as a young missionary doctor,turning down marriage. She was never the sort to preach at anyone but in the years I worked and socialised with her , she taught by example in many ways that one must love thy neighbour as oneself!
Joan made the long journey from Gujarat to be at my wedding in the Nilgiris. When I introduced her around as my ex-boss, she exclaimed in exasperation, ” Do stop saying that. We were more like sisters you know! Just say I am your friend!”
My friend Joan, left soon after to go back to Belfast and when I last communicated with her,worked as a Prison doctor there. I am sure she visits them in her emerald green dress!