|Victor setting off for work|
Wednesday, 31 August 2011
At the time Victor began his practice in Saraya, the uneducated villagers had no concept of birth control. They believed children were a gift from God and HE would provide. Women would produce eight, ten and in one case sixteen children, making the physical condition of both mother and child extremely pitiable.For a devout Hindu family having a son was imperative, since besides being a source of income later on in life, it was believed that only a male child could perform the last rites of his parents, granting their souls Moksha, which literally means release for the next cycle of reincarnation.
The local government Block Development Officer was trying to spread awareness about the use of contraceptives and he and Victor would go into the villages to talk with the male population, most of whom had no idea what a condom was. They would gather the men around and give a demonstration by digging an upright stick into the ground and then proceed to unfold the object on to the stick in the proper manner. All this was accompanied by a very detailed explanation, at the end of which Victor was gratified to see that the villagers seemed quite receptive to the idea of using this method of birth control.
Months later, Victor realised to his disappointment, that there was no difference in the pregnancy or birth rate.He spoke to some of the young men who claimed to be doing exactly what he had instructed, but that it was simply not working.He decided it would be a good idea to make another round of the area to find out was was going wrong.
On walking into the hamlet, Victor was confronted with the most amazing sight.Outside most of the huts was an upright stick dug into the ground with a carefully unrolled condom flopping around over the tip! That was what had been demonstrated, and that was what they were faithfully doing while carrying on the business of reproduction in the darkness of their shacks!
On another occasion a young couple arrived at the hospital claiming they had no children and needed help. While examining the pathetically weak and run down woman ,Victor could tell that this was definitely not the case. He demanded an explanation from her and she sorrowfully divulged "Hanji, panch beti hai par beta nahin".Yes I have five daughters but no son.
Victor was furious and immediately summoned the shameless husband into the examining room. Picking up a pair of lethal looking scissors, he threatened to cut off the body parts that had been responsible for this criminal behaviour. The terrified peasant ran screaming from the room with Victor in hot pursuit, brandishing the menacing weapon over his head, yelling in gruesome detail about what he would like to do with aforesaid body part. The panicked man took two rounds of the hospital complex with Victor galloping along behind him, before streaking off into the fields, leaving his dejected wife behind. He returned to fetch her only after making sure that Doctor Sahib had left the premises.
Monday, 29 August 2011
About five kilometers from Saraya lies the township of Chauri Chaura. It has the dubious distinction of going down in history as the place where twenty three police men were burned to death by volunteers, participating in Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Cooperation movement in 1922. By the late 1940's Swedish missionaries had opened an orphanage there and were trying to convert the local Hindu populace to Christianity. The missionaries would often drive over to Saraya to consult Victor about a sick child and he in turn would make the occasional trip to Chauri Chaura to ensure all was well at the mission.
One hot summer afternoon Victor was called to the hospital for an emergency case. He found a woman cradling a limp child in her arms. She was incoherent with grief but somehow managed to convey that her son had been bitten by a cobra.
Victor laid the lifeless body on the operating table where he quickly administered a dose of anti-venom. The little boy responded well and soon could utter a few words, much to the disbelief of his family. They had never seen anyone recover from a cobra bite, and in their ignorance were convinced that Doctor Sahib had performed a miracle and somehow resurrected their son from the dead.
Word of this incident spread like wild fire and Victor found, much to his dismay, that villagers were bringing him dead bodies of children and loved ones, begging him to just put his stethoscope on them and bring them back to life. It took months to convince people that what he had done was not magic or a supernatural act.
The missionaries at Chauri Chaura had also heard rumours of the wondrous miracle and dropped in to tell a story of their own.
They would regularly organise village meetings to educate the locals in the ways of Christianity and the Bible. At one such gathering they were talking about how Jesus Christ would put his hands on sick people and heal them and how he had bought Lazarus back to life. They exhorted the squatting throng to put their trust in the Lord to make their lives better.
While sermonising furiously, they noticed a little old woman in the front row, listening with rapt attention and a broad smile of understanding on her face. When they asked her if she had grasped what they were trying to say she glared at them in indignation and snapped "Hum Yesu Masi ko jaante hai! Vo Saraya mein rehte hai!" I have met Jesus Christ! He lives in Saraya.
The dumb founded missionaries claimed it had taken them only a second to realise that to the simple village folk, Victor could definitely be mistaken for Jesus Christ!
Victor set up his practice in Saraya and was paid a salary of Rs 180 per month. All employees of the Saraya Sugar Mill and Saraya Distillery, owned by the Majithia family were treated free of cost. Apart from this he built up a sizable private practice and was inundated by patients from the surrounding areas, some from as far away as Mustang in Nepal. He often made house calls to the big "zamindaars" of the locality and it did not take long for him to gain a most impressive reputation.
He employed a compounder, Baleshwar Prasad ,and an Indian Christian nurse, Mrs James (I don't think anyone knew her first name!). Baleshwar was a pillar of strength at a time when Victor was trying to familiarise himself with an alien country, an unknown language and strange customs, traditions and beliefs. Mrs James was a birdlike woman with the strength of an Amazon. She would work tirelessly by his side for the next forty years, till she collapsed during a particularly complicated delivery case, struck down by a massive cardiac arrest which killed her on the spot.
One of the first things that struck Victor about this rural countryside was the horrifying condition of women, especially when it came to labour and childbirth. Most deliveries were done by the village "dai" and the mortality rate for mother and child was extremely high. Victor decided to build a maternity wing adjacent to the hospital and he and Baleshwar sat down to draw up plans and choose a suitable location. After plenty of deliberation a spot was proposed and agreed to, but when the time for construction came everything ground to a halt since an insurmountable problem had arisen.
A gigantic "peepul" tree would have to be cut down for the work to begin and this was something that could not be done since the "peepul" was held sacred by popular belief.. Victor was disappointed since it would mean building the maternity block a distance away from the main hospital. Baleshwar told Victor not to worry and that he would find a solution.
A couple of days later an old sadhu was found ensconced under the problematic "peepul". As was usual, the villagers would gather around to air their grievances or seek a blessing. The old ascetic had them stupefied because he seemed to know everything :- whose child was ill, who was fighting over a land problem or whose cow was not producing enough milk. He solemnly recommended a "pooja" to rid the village of all ills.
Over the next few days the sadhu was seen lighting smoky fires into which he threw unidentified objects amidst much rolling of eyes and intoning of prayers. He apprised the village elders with a glum face that the tree was inhabited by a malicious "bhoot" who was the cause of all the problems. He claimed to have found a solution and told the gullible folk to gather around the tree the next evening .He instructed them to all carry axes as he would undertake one final "pooja" to rid them of the evil entity.
At the appointed time the terrified villages gathered to witness the final prayers. After the usual chanting and eye rolling, the sadhu let out a dreadful shriek and screamed to the villagers to start cutting down the tree "jaldi jaldi" since the evil spirit had fled to the "peepul" tree in the next village. The simple folk sprang into action, chopping at the gnarled trunk with all their might, until it toppled over with a massive groan,.
The relieved inhabitants showered the holy man with praises and gifts before returning to their huts with much lighter steps. They were free of the dreaded "bhoot" and now all would be well.
After calm had been restored, Victor found Baleshwar and the old sadhu standing expectantly before him. Baleshwar grinned and said he hoped that now the construction of the maternity ward could begin. The villagers had cut down the sacred tree themselves so there would be no objections.
The sadhu, looking like holiness personified, quietly extended his hand for a baksheesh of two rupees which quickly disappeared into a fold of his loin cloth. With a blessing of long life and many children he walked away with quiet dignity.
The maternity ward was ready to receive its first patient six months later.
Saturday, 27 August 2011
Most will recall Victor Egan (my father) as Amrita Shergil's husband. Though volumes were written about her controversial and colorful life no one was particularly interested in him as a person. After she died life went on for him as a village doctor in Saraya and the Majithia's became his friends and family.
He devoted his entire life to the backward people of this area and was revered almost as a god-like figure by the illiterate and superstitious. This worship led to many strange, bizarre and hilarious situations which were sometimes quite unbelievable. He had the most phenomenal sense of humour and believed that if one could see the funny side of a situation one would survive anything. He had a deep compassion for animals and our house was a veritable menagerie most of the time. One of his favourite quotes was "The more I know man the more I Love my dogs".
Victor first met Nina Hydrie (my mother) when she was six years old. He was extremely fond of her parents Ghulam Safdar Khan and Anna who were living in Lucknow at that time. He was a very eligible bachelor and would drop by to visit on his way to and from Nainital, always with a different young lady on his arm!
Safdar and Anna eventually divorced though always remained the best of friends and Nina grew into one of Lucknow's legendary beauties.
When she was twenty one Nina met Victor in NainiTal after a gap of a few years and fell completely in love with him.She did the proposing and he the discouraging of what he believed was young infatuation. He told her they would wait a year and if feelings were still the same would think about the future.He returned to Saraya and she to Lucknow but six months later decided not to wait any longer and were married in 1954.
The event sent shock waves through Lucknow society. The gossip mongers had thought he was pursuing Anna (her mother), who was two years older to him and when he announced he was marrying Nina, who was twenty three years younger, predictions for the union were full of doom and disaster. They were married for forty three years until the time of his death in 1997 and it was one of the best partnerships I have known.
One of the conditions Victor put down for the marriage was that there would be no children. The age gap was so large and he thought if something were to happen to him he did not want Nina to be bringing up children alone. I was a mistake made in 1959, a fact I was reminded of once in a while, and since the rules had been broken my sister Juliet came along in 1964.
Friday, 26 August 2011
My darling and me Through Sick and Sin
My father was an extremely practical person with thought processes much too revolutionary for his time. Like everything else his views on the institution of marriage were also quite cynical. He was of the firm opinion that it was the most unnatural thing for two completely different people to live together for the rest of their lives in peace and harmony. He likened marriage to cogs in a wheel grinding together. For them to move in synchronisation it would take a a lot of wear and tear to eventually mesh together smoothly.
When I chose to marry a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force he was not too happy. He was of the firm opinion that fighter pilots were womanisers who drank too much, had no money and eventually would die in a plane crash!
Just before the wedding he called me for a heart to heart and this is exactly what he said:-
" Darling, whatever happens, remember marriage is through sick and sin. Only the first twenty five years are difficult. If you can survive that it will be smooth sailing"!
The Hungarian language has no "th" sound in it and as he never lost his accent he would substitute the "th" inflection with "zuh" or "suh". What he was saying was marriage was through thick and thin but I always look back at the phrase he used as being so much more apt for the whole marriage game!
|Victor and Amrita|
"Through Sick and Sin" was originally the title of the book I once thought I would write about my father. That never materialised but I must give a brief background about him as much of the writing in this blog will revolve around his amazing experiences and his humour
Victor Egan (my father), was born on Oct 5th 1910 and grew up on a country estate in Dunaharaszti,, thirty kilometers from Budapest in Hungary. His mother Blanca had one sister Marie Antoinette who married Sardar Umrao Singh Shergil, whom she met while travelling as a companion to Princess Bamba of Patiala. They had two daughters Amrita and Indu.
Victor and Amrita grew up together and were always the best of friends.He was studying medicine and she, the ever eccentric artist claimed he was the only one who kept her grounded and understood her. She was the one who proposed they get married much against the wishes of her parents. Her mother Marie Antoinette hated the idea, as apart from the fact that Victor and Amrita were first cousins, Amrita was much sought after socially and Marie Antoinette thought she could have done better than marry her first cousin who was a young inexperienced doctor with no money.
Victor and Amrita married in July of 1938 and a year later journeyed to India where Amrita wanted to travel and paint. They lived for a while in Shimla with Amrita's parents but things got more and more unpleasant so when Amrita's uncle Sardar Kirpal Singh Majithia invited them to stay on his estate in Saraya in Gorakhpur,Uttar Pradesh, they leapt at the chance to get away. They set up house, though neither was very happy with the prospects in a small village so finally decided to move to Lahore in September 1941.
Shockingly, on December 5th 1941 Amrita passed away after a brief illness. Much has been written and speculated about the circumstances of her tragic death. Her mother held Victor responsible and accused him of murder, sending vicious letters to everyone accusing him of killing her.
WWII had broken out and Victor was declared an enemy subject in the British Raj. Kirpal Singh knew people in the right places and took guarantee for him, so instead of being sent to one of the camps for foreign nationals Victor found himself back in Saraya only a few months after leaving. He thought he would return to Hungary after the war but that was never to be. It lasted five years and by the time it was over he had built up a good medical practice in Saraya. Hungary turned communist and he never went back to the land of his birth.
Thursday, 25 August 2011
My husband of twenty eight years suddenly asked me why I did not create my own blog. I glared at him and declared that I had nothing to say to anyone any more.When I was young and enthusiastic and wanted to change the world with my radical thoughts no one seemed particularly interested and through the years I began to keep things to myself more and more.
Lying awake last night and seriously thinking about this whole blogging thing I wondered if it was worth giving it a try.I wondered if anyone would really be interested in the ramblings of a middle aged woman who did not travel or have a strong political opinion,who did not socialise much and had few friends and who had become a bit of a recluse.
Sure, I had an unconventional upbringing with a Hungarian father and a Muslim mother. My father was Victor Egan who had been married to Amrita Shergil (the controversial Indian artist) and we grew up in a village in the backwoods of Uttar Pradesh. Sure,I went through the traumas of teenage years more traumatically than most and survived. Sure, I married an amazing fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force and travelled the length and breadth of the country, but was an unconventional wife who smoked and drank long before it became socially acceptable. Sure, I raised a daughter in sometimes trying and lonely circumstances and think I did a hell of a good job on that one. Sure I wrote poetry, loved to read and was completely besotted by animals in every shape or form.
Actually, on second thoughts,maybe putting all of it down in writing would be quite exciting. Stories about my father and his experiences as the first "white" doctor in the 1940s were sometimes unbelievable and always fascinating. Travelling as an air force wife put me in some crazy situations as well and rearing a child "my way" might also be interesting. I have always guarded my poetry as being too personal but what the hell,,,,maybe someone out there would appreciate it.
So here goes....this is the first of what I hope will be many blogs.
And an apology to my darling husband for snarling at him when he suggested it.