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“I always thought you looked so very like her,” said Asha Devi. “But it seems you have also inherited her spirit. You must do what you truly believe in, Gargi Shona. Or else, your life’s efforts will be in vain.”
When Gargi entered her father’s chamber after six years, not simply as his daughter but as a graduate from Harvard Medical School, there was a flutter in her heart. Although the beaming face of her father filled her soul with pride, her mind kept wandering to that letter she received this morning.
Dr. Debroy looked at his daughter with benevolence. It was befitting that he should welcome his daughter here, in his chamber which was his father’s before him, and his grandfather’s before that. Is was not just a room for practicing medicine, it was the testament of his family’s legacy, the shrine of their unfailing devotion to medicine and service.
This was the first time the torch was passed on to a daughter of the family. To be honest Dr. Debroy had reeled with trepidation at his decision in the beginning. Would she be able to live up to the standards of excellence set by them?
But the old and venerable doctor had not much of a choice. His two elder sons had not shown the slightest inclination to follow his footsteps despite cajoling and ruthless disciplining. But fifteen years after marriage, when he was blessed with a daughter, he saw it as a sign.
He rallied his forces to chart his daughter’s path from the day she was born. She lived under her father’s watchful eye. She had the best tutors in town. Instead of fairy tales, he told her glorious accounts of how his grandfather sailed across the seven seas to study medicine in England, when the best that an Indian could hope for in those time was to be a petty clerk. He named her Gargi, after the Vedic scholar, all the while hoping that she lived up to her name and her father’s aspirations.
Gargi, since childhood was awestruck by her father’s persona. For her, he was the most incredible person on earth. She soaked in his words with unquestioning loyalty. She stood in his library for hours, staring at the pictures of her grandfather and great-grandfather, at their medals and trophies. It was not a surprise that she soared to the highest horizons and got selected in one of the best medical schools in the world.
When the time came to send her off, Dr. Debroy had ushered her into this very chamber and said to her gravely, “You have done me proud my girl. But the pursuit of medicine requires not only intelligence but devotion and passion for service. It is no less than a tapasya, and it has no room for distractions or homesickness. Therefore I would want you to stay in Harvard for the next six years. It will be your only home”.
And that is why, in the last six years, Gargi had spent her every single moment in the pursuit of her vocation. When her friends rushed home for summer break, she spent her time in the library honing her skills. And now finally after six years, she was back, after what seemed like a journey of a lifetime.
This was the moment she was waiting for her entire life when she had finally earned her place amongst the ranks of her father and grandfather and great-grandfather. But then why was she not elated? Why did her heart keep whispering the same words to her at unsuspecting moments? “Medicins sans frontieres.” Gargi shivered as the words reverberated in her mind, pulling at her with an umbilical force.
“What is the matter, my child? You look preoccupied?” asked her father.
“Nothing baba. Nothing at all. ”
“You must be tired and jet-lagged my dear. I have been a hard taskmaster all these years I know, but you have done me proud. And you deserve a break. We will leave Kolkata for a few days, visit your grandmother and after you are rested and rejuvenated, we will start practicing together in this very chamber. I can’t put in words, how much I have looked forward to this day”.
Her father was a reticent man, given to a few words and even fewer emotional expressions. She knew how much this meant to him.
She pulled her wandering mind back to her present and said, “Yes Baba.”
While Gargi was in her final year, she came across Medicins sans frontieres. Doctors without Borders. An organization run entirely on a workforce of volunteers, they were a band of doctors who traveled to perilous areas where medical care was not accessible to the local people. From the dense jungles of Africa to the strife-torn areas of the Middle East, to countries struck with calamities and famine, these doctors truly knew no boundaries.
Hearing a volunteer talk about how she and her team delivered essential medicines to an obscure village in Cameroon, Gargi was mesmerized. It inspired her to find out more, and the more she read about the change they bring across neglected communities through their efforts, the more she was convinced that this is where her heart belonged. Try as she might, she could not shake off this idea, that kept pulling her with a relentless force. She could imagine the unanimous verdict of her family on this, even though she hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone.
‘This is no life for a girl. Running across the globe, to God-forsaken places! What if you get killed! It would be madness to give up your family’s established practice to chase a foolish and dangerous dream’.
So for the next one year, Gargi stifled her desire, allowing herself to only daydream in her leisure. But the dream kept growing, and she couldn’t altogether give up on it. After she graduated, one day on an impulse she applied for a position with MSF, telling herself, it’s not like she was actually going. But now that a letter arrived back with Acceptance written in bold, her heart reeled between desire and duty. She read and re-read the letter. She held it like a precious parchment. She contemplated tearing it up. And today she had thought she could at least, talk to her father once. But she couldn’t after seeing his happy and tired face.
So, it was with a heavy heart that Gargi trudged through her short vacation after which she would have to submit to duty.
Gargi’s grandmother Asha Devi was a feisty woman of ninety-seven who could see your soul even through her cataracts. It wasn’t long that she sensed something was troubling her prodigy of a granddaughter. Soon Gargi found herself shedding warm tears and pouring out her anguish.
Asha Devi was silent. Once Gargi told her all, she tottered up to an ancient looking cabinet and brought down a dusty old photo album. Gargi was puzzled, but she assisted the old woman to bring the gargantuan thing over. Her grandmother didn’t say a word but flipped its moldering pages cautiously to one particular picture. It was a family picture with her great-grandfather. She recognized her grandmother, a sixteen-year-old bride with frightened looking eyes, but beside her, there was someone whom she hadn’t noticed before. A woman almost as tall as her grandfather, with the same arched forehead as his. She was not smiling, but there was a determined expression in her eyes as if she was standing in a regiment. She was wearing a starched cotton saree unlike the other women in the picture who were draped in their finest Banarasee. She wore no ornaments.
She looks a little bit like me, Gargi thought.
“Who is this Thamma?” asked Gargi intrigued.
“This is your Grandfathers sister Malati, my child.”
“I have never seen her before. Why I didn’t even know Thakurda had a sister!”
“Yes, not many people know her. She was a bit of a rebel. Not something the Debroy family was used to at that time.”
“Why, what did she do?”
“You know, Gargi Shona, our family had always been bestowed with good luck. Even before independence when people suffered from so much misery. Your great-grandfather belonged to a rich Zamindar family. They were in the good books of the British. Your grandfather was given the title of Rai Bahadur. He lived life like an Englishman, not a native. So, it didn’t go down very well with him, when his only daughter decided to abandon her life of comfort and become a freedom fighter. He persuaded her, threatened her, but her heart was set. She saw her luxury as shackles, and she broke away from it. Her father disowned her. Broke all ties with her. But she stuck to her path. She took part in the Dandi march, she wrote vociferously for Nationalist newspapers. Here I have a newspaper cutting, which I have saved hidden from all.
Asha Devi brought out a yellowing scrap of paper.
“My countrymen awake, arise. Listen to the chatter inside your head. To the reckless thrum of chaos in your heart. The British fill you with an impenetrable noise. They pull a curtain of haze over your vision. Be still. Subdue your senses. Close your eyes. Shut out all that is outside of you and turn your mind inwards. Only then can you hear that voice. THE VOICE OF FREEDOM. A voice which is only the shadow of a whisper right now. Soon it will grow into a thunderous roar. Like a war cry, this will be the voice of your calling. Arise, awake.”
Gargi listened to her grandmother, her words lifting a weight off her heart. She found a new brand of courage in herself.
One week later, she entered her father’s chamber with the letter in her hand.
“Baba, I have something to tell you.”
Dr. Debroy nodded, trying to decipher this strange glow in his daughter’s eyes.
“Baba, I have decided to join Doctors without Borders. I have thought about this clearly and for long enough, and I feel this is my soul’s calling. ”
“Doctors without Borders?”
“Yes, Baba. I cannot sit in a chamber waiting for patients to come to me, when half of the ill and suffering people in this world, cannot even make it to one.”
So, you mean to say, what I do, what our family have done for years, is frivolous?”
Gargi blanched but kept her voice steady.
“I wouldn’t even dream of implying something like that. What you do is honorable and indispensable. But what I am trying to say, is that despite doctors practicing day and night, there are still so many people living in desperate circumstances who need medical aid but can’t get it. There must be some doctors who are willing to scale borders and go to them.”
“And why does it have to be you?”
“Because of who I am. Because this is what I want to do. This is what will make me feel fulfilled.”
Gargi had tears in her eyes, and her voice trembled but she felt a strange sense of liberation when she said those words.
Dr. Debroy sighed. It was he, who had named her Gargi.
When the Gargi of Vedic times had expounded her knowledge and led a philosophical debate with Yajnavalkya in the royal court of Videha, she spoke with such intellect and erudition that it left a roomful of scholars stumped. Dr. Debroy realized his daughter was truly living up to her name. He felt a sudden paternal surge of anxiety at the prospect of letting her go, but he knew it would be the right thing to do. He smiled at his daughter, not only with pride but new-found awe.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the Muse of the Month January 2019, but not one of the winners.
Image source: YouTube
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