The word pilgrimage came into my mind like a flash when I was coming back home from the CGHS. I met one of our neighbours and he asked me where I had been. Without a doubt, or a second thought, I came out with, 'My weekly pill-grimage'. When I explained, he had a good laugh. Going to the CGHS and getting one's medicines or pills was as religious and tedious as going to the famous temples of Guruvayoor or Tirupathi and having a darshan of the Gods and getting the prasadam. Let me explain.
The CGHS, that is the Central Government Health Scheme, came into existence in the 1950s. By this scheme, every Government employee was entitled to check-ups and free medicines in these centres for a nominal fee of rupees eight per month. I have no idea whether this scheme is still going on and if so, how much money one has to shell out, or what are the privileges. I stopped availing of this facility some twenty five years back.
Every Government employee was given a card with a number for identification. This was a boon to every Government servant, particularly for those with some serious illness. Hospitalisation and surgery, if necessary, were also taken care of. House calls were also made by the doctors if the patient was too ill to go to the Dispensary. Every Government colony had one CGHS centre and in every centre there were three or four doctors, including a lady doctor. There was always a doctor on duty at night also. This scheme was well applauded by everybody.
In 1955, I had been to this centre in Pandara Road once or twice for check-ups when I was expecting Raja. The lady doctor was very efficient and friendly. I do not remember her name. She was the only doctor resident of Pandara Road at that time. In the beginning in these centers everything was ship-shape. The patients were treated with kindness and care, not only by the doctors but also by the registrars who handed over the tokens after entering the name and the card number in their registers. The compounders were quick at dispensing the medicines, sometimes with instructions on how to take the medicine; and if it was a lotion, how to apply it and how many times.
As time went on, a kind of apathy and carelessness became part of this system too. I noticed the difference when we came back to Delhi in 1963 after a period of eight years. Raja was born in 1956 when we were in Trichy. Gowri was a seven-month-old baby when we returned to Delhi. She was born in Pondicherry, where Babuji was working for nearly six years. Soon after our return to Delhi, I had a nervous breakdown. Because of this, my blood-pressure shot up. I was put on lifelong medication. This started my weekly pilgrimage.
We were in West Kidwai Nagar and the CGHS Dispensary was just across the road -- just walking distance. As I entered the dispensary for the first time, I was wondering who the doctors would be and what kind of treatment I would get. I was surprised at the indifference of all the workers there. The lines of patients (one for men and one for women) at the counters were ten deep. Both the registrars were busy discussing important world matters or narrating to each other what took place among their children the previous day in school. The sweeper, a belligerent woman, was adding her views and comments in between, with one hand at her hip and the other holding her broom readily poised over her shoulder as if to hit any body who dared to disagree. All this while the patients had to wait -- patiently -- for the registrars to come back to do their duty. There was no point in becoming impatient. Once a registrar started to do his work, it took not even a minute for him to enter the name and number and hand over the token. Without the token, one could not enter the doctor's room. Mentally, I started calling the Registrars the 'dwarapalakas', that is, the figures guarding the entrance to every temple.
The doctors were really kind, friendly and efficient, listening to the patients' complaints with much patience. If there was not much of a crowd waiting outside, they even exchanged a few pleasantries with one. I still remember Dr.Mrs Singh, a very nice, pleasant and wonderful person. Whenever Gowri accompanied me to this centre, during her pre-school days or her holidays, this doctor used to admire her frocks and sweaters, all made at home.
After getting the prescription, one had to go to another counter for the medicines. Here also, a lot depended on the compounder's mood. If he was in a good mood, the medicine would be handed over in no time. But if he was tired and resting his feet after attending to one or two patients, the poor, tired, listless patients would have to go on waiting for a long time. Sometimes the compounder could be very curt, flinging the prescription back at you with 'Come in the afternoon!' or 'Come back tomorrow!' or even 'Come after two days!' with the excuse that it was either closing time or 'Stock nahin hai'. Because one was entitled to the medicines and because some of them were too expensive to buy, one just had to make another trip.
There is a saying in Malayalam which translates 'Even if God bestows his blessings on his devotees, the pujari stands in the way.’ In the CGHS, the compounders always reminded me of the pujaris and doctors of gods. Don't you agree with me when I call this my weekly pilgrimage?
I used to make this trip for many many years. When Ammaji was there, I took her with me every week to the centre for she too had hypertension and the various aches and pains of old age. Ammaji really loved going to the centre and having her BP taken, and she was fascinated by the multicoloured capsules and pills prescribed for her. She was not that old when she passed away. She was only sixty-seven.