A couple of years back, on a Saturday morning, I found myself at a leading Delhi hospital with my husband. My husband needed some blood tests done and then we had to see his doctor with the reports. There were only three counters for outpatient payment and the queue before each of these was long. In between the queues at two of these counters was a parked wheelchair, occupied by a tall, large-built African man and flanked on one side by an equally tall, hugely-built African woman. While the queue snailed forward, a hospital attendant came by and tried to move the wheelchair with its occupant to one side. The African gentleman screamed.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman, dressed in what has perhaps become urban India’s middle-aged uniform- Kurti with a pair of trousers- with a boy perhaps just past his teens and dressed in what were perhaps his school shorts, walked up to the payment counters and asked, rather demanded of me, whether there was any other counter for payment. Yes, I wanted to say, and we are all bereft of brains and gifted with eons of time to kill when there are time-saving options available. No, I said aloud. Of course, it was unfair, the sentence of standing in a long queue that had been just handed out to Her Highness, and quite outraged, she proceeded to the counter sideways demanding to know again whether there was any other counter for payment. No, she was informed by the counter staff. Resignedly, she settled for standing in the queue behind us.
The African gentleman, by now, was in the middle of a major temper tantrum. He was screaming and screeching. Language played the biggest baddie in all this drama. The hospital attendant, through gestures, was trying to explain that he just wanted to move the wheelchair aside so as to clear the passage and to ensure that its occupant was not hurt by the crowd milling around. By then the row had been escalated by the active participation of the wheelchair occupant’s companion. The Africans seemed quite agitated and ready to hand out a punch or two to the hospital attendant, who then started backing off, and finally gave up and slipped away. Bystanders like us watched and heard, but did not react, for there were no cues in this drama for us. But Her Highness from behind me could not help herself. In the most sophisticated and Anglicized English she could manage, she advised the African couple that they must complain to the hospital management. Not once, not twice, but thrice she reiterated that the hospital authorities must be informed of how innocent foreigners were being harassed in their hospital. “Money. All that these hospital attendants want is money. They will harass foreigners all they can to squeeze some money out of them,” she pronounced with offended dignity.
My poor husband, the loyal Indian that he is, could not take it anymore. He opened his mouth to say, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but the hospital attendant was not at fault. He was only trying to clear the blocked passage. The patient’s and his companion’s reactions were extreme.” Prompted by this support from unexpected quarters, the manager of the outpatients payment counter came out from behind one of the glass counters and said, “Sir, you have rightly said it is not our attendant’s fault. This particular patient is quite a regular visitor here. He is generally violent. He has once bitten a nurse and assaulted a lab technician”. “Oh but then, if the hospital attendant was not harassing him, why were the Africans shouting and screaming?”, Her Highness wanted to know of my husband. “They are troubled enough by whatever health problems life has given them….woh apni bimariyon se pareshan hain. But please don’t complain against the hospital attendant for no fault of his. The poor man may lose his job and livelihood, and his family will suffer”, my husband said with utmost politeness. His turn had come and he moved up to the counter to pay. I felt immensely proud of him. Trust him to always speak up for the truth.
“Such bias….”, Her Highness kept whispering behind my back, “…only because they were Africans! Had they been Americans, people’s reactions would have been different. We would have been bending backwards to please them”, she said indignantly. The “We” that she had used was very obviously meant to exclude herself and her overgrown teenager. By then my husband had already walked off and I followed suit, concentrating all my energies in avoiding the African gentleman, whose wheel chair was again found parked in the busy, crowded corridor. Who knows when he would decide that a bite on my plump arm or plump neck is what I've been asking for. I even hid behind a paper cup of cappuccino in the hospital Café Coffee Day outlet while my husband kept walking up and down the corridor, checking the status of his token number. Of course, he is a greater mortal than me and I’m never ashamed of it.