The Arabic Lesson


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Each decade is a decade of it’s own. Childhood, adolescence and teenage and now into the thirties. As I ended up in my hometown, I was amazed at how things turn around. Imagination and vision was running wild. What the future holds is only to be experienced. But the difference couldn’t be more disenchanting.

The extroverted introvert that I am, returning to home turf was always going to be one of comfort, familiarity and ease of settling down. The memories reviving one after the other as old registered landmarks evoked music from the recent past.

Growing up as a non resident in the Middle East is an experience of it’s own, each markedly different in each state of the G.C.C. One of the smallest countries in the world situated in the northernmost tip of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait shares it’s borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

As a 5 year old who had little orientation of events during the Gulf War of 1990-91, I grew up having to flee the country when Iraq invaded. Two years of return to native home turf of God’s own country meant I got to go to a convent school in Thangasseri, Kollam as I learnt the basics of reading and writing my mother tongue.

Having been to an all boys school for the rest of my life in Kuwait, personality development as an introvert was terribly blunted. However the ease of scholastic performances masked the nature of individual I really was.

Escaping the barbed wires of teen life happened when I went to medical school in the beautiful southern western ghats of Manipal. Exposure to people of varying socioeconomic strata from different parts of the world and in the company of some wonderful friends, I expanded my realms of personality.

Lack of a specific direction, with the confidence to tackle any problem thrown at, I was willing to challenge myself to many things.

Pressure is a powerful thing. It can bring the best out of some and at the same time releases all your inhibitions; the cloaks of ‘learning’ done over the years can fall off one’s shoulders when push comes to shove. Post graduation was more of becoming a human being and understanding inter person relations rather than learning the trait. Of course, three years of training in work overloaded hospitals doesn’t really let you learn the trade in it’s entirety as medical school seems to be a never ending learning process. But then, so is life.

While the return to the sandy life of the Middle East was serendipitous, the developments over the next 15 months were to change my life forever.

Acclimatizing to the much better ergonomics was a boon. Working with Arabic spoken language ringing all around didn’t hurt the cochlea. Having learnt to read and write the language for three years in school, the old cards of language stored in childhood memory folders were retrieved. Striking though was how the Arabic language that was learnt was so different from the local dialect as well as the Arabic spoken around me. Surrounded by more foreign Arabs than natives I was beginning to hear words that I had never heard before.

Months of listening and learning enabled me to trace the country of origin of a person by just listening. While the Arabic taught at school was more conversational and general, medical language was a whole new set of vocabulary.

As a person born in Kuwait, I prided on the right to know, learn and speak the language. So evading the language was not an option as I set myself high standards. The water paperweight which I received from my Arabic teacher (Madam Asmaa) in 4th standard as a gift for the best Arabic student in class still remains on my TV stand at home. My Dad still prides on it.

Receiving accolades from school meant the reward phenomenon was at it’s very best. The need to perform was engraved into the competitive system of my life. Of course with fleeting levels of concentration, I still love shifting from one area of interest to another.

Three weeks into joining work here, I was offered a two year contract to work for the government of Kuwait. As a performer, I took it as a challenge. To bring the best of my abilities to the table was my strength and I was not going to shirk away.  

Having worked for a year prior to this in a semi urban town in Kerala, I found this job a luxury. Getting paid more than what I was in India, with a 2 day weekend and half day working routine, I envied all those who worked in this country for years.

Born a Libran, there are some inherent personal qualities that detest certain ways of living and corruption is simply not my forte. Having spent more than 65% of my life in this country, those were nearly two decades of my life that never really exposed me to the system.

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Data from transparency international (2015)

One year of working here was to turn my view all upside down. Things weren’t so clear anymore. Two thirds of the country’s population is non nationals. However the bulk of nationals remain employed in the government sector.

Less than a quarter of foreigners remain employed in the government sector. And the graph is heavily skewed to Arab speaking foreign nationals. Whilst Kuwait leads among the Middle East Arab countries in employing the most number of women in the public sector, the bulk of the office level jobs are held by Arab speaking expatriates the bulk of which come from Egypt. Indians and other nationals of the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia tend to work in the blue collar sector. The white collar sector South Asians work in the private sector.

As a young professional who recently embarked into his career, my experience thronging the offices of government officials was turning out to be a nightmare that seemed to never end.

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Top 5 strongest currencies in the world. 

For a country that holds the strongest currency in the world, the infrastructure still operates as though it is a century behind. Paperless life and digital records are still a distant dream. Middle Eastern countries equate to developed nation strata with maximal savings and a taxless life. And yet the systems in place in this country are regressive and fertile ground for corruption.

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Expat Insider 2016 stats. 

Studies and polls done across the world recently all favor poor ratings from non nationals living in Kuwait. Well there is enough rhyme and reason to it. Living here is getting harder. But that does not mean people will start leaving the country. It’s definitely getting more difficult. The changes are beginning to reflect as the system looks to sure up the economy with the collapse of international oil prices. The only bad news is, it is at the expense of the non national.

My entry into the government service was as straight as it comes. No agents, no hidden agendas, no backdoor entries. Purely on merit is somehow where it all began and pretty much ended. Every office that was involved in processing my papers had elements of corruption embedded into the system. What should finish in an hour finished in a day, ones that took days took weeks and eventually I got paid after 13 months.  While the superiors holding the posts of authority were either unaware or happy to lend a blind eye to all that happens beneath them, the underbelly of corruption driven system was visibly evident to me. My persistence to envisage a path of truth and integrity met with resistance at all levels. The empowerment of truth and the strength of traveling the less trodden path of righteousness made me endure a lot in the last fifteen months.

It was also a harsh realization of how difficult it is to strive a path that is built on the pillars of morality and uprightness.

Enabled by a profession of service,  it is easy to forget about the self and sacrifice is my forte. The amount of mental turmoil and financial insecurity endured by a qualified professional in a government sector, accompanied by the lack of respect for the individual, forget the profession makes all the pros of surviving in a world of luxury a big facade.

Evil never prevails. Good always wins. And you cannot change the fairytales as time changes. Kids need to be taught good always beats bad. Selflessness beats selfishness.

There are reasons why certain quotes resonate and get retweeted a lot. I really like this one. ‘If you don’t take risks, you will end up working for one who does’. As I swap jobs after another year, my brain has decided to allow my heart to make the call. Never sacrifice one’s own integrity to lead a life painted with pretense.

P.S. This rant comes out of a day of joblessness sitting by the lovely Marina beachside at Costa Coffee enjoying a hazelnut cappuccino and chocolate fudge brownie.

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Drinking-AlcoholI was reaching the fag end of a little over 60 hours of on call duty. It had been raining incessantly all afternoon and evening. I reckoned this was gonna be a rough call night. The number of road traffic accident (RTA) cases usually triple on these days with the slick wet pothole ridden roads.

I had over three patients already and was heading out for my dinner past 0915. Few minutes into my dinner, I got a call – yet another RTA. I said I would be there after dinner. As soon as I finished up, I drove through the rainy night back to the hospital.

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As I walked into the department I could hear loud noises emanating from the corridor. On reaching the ultrasound reception, I saw 4 guys on the verge of getting into a fist fight with our manager. 3 out of 4 were drunk, one absolutely tossed out. They were upset that their accident wasn’t being given prompt attention and care. In their inebriated state, they started mouthing words that they probably allow to leave their perverted mouths only when under the influence. It reminded me of the first year ragging sessions when my seniors ‘familiarized’ me with the underbelly of the Malayalam language.

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To mount one’s frustration at the lack of optimal management of a patient is one thing, but to come in a group like a bunch of goons, totally out of their minds and ready to do anything to make things happen – was a first time first hand experience for me.

This sort of anti-social behavior is on the rise and with utter disrespect to the healthcare profession, the confidence of ‘I can get away with anything’ will drive more and more professionals away to safer avenues and if the government doesn’t take measures, the doctor patient ratio will continue to take a hit.

 

That God Forsaken Moment..


Day 67

Sunday was good; I had just attended a friend’s wedding. The day was even better since I got to meet my school mates Rony and Dony, as well as some of my old school teachers.  As  I came back and crashed off on bed that night, I was looking forward to the coming weekend, when I would be travelling to Hyderabad for a conference I was long awaiting. But it all went wrong the following morning.

I found myself unusually lazy starting off the new week. Was running late preparing an assignment I had pending and quickly got ready for work skipping some of the chores in store. I reached the department and read the duty roster for the week. My eyes lit up when I noticed the seniors posted with me..not only do I enjoy working with the lot, I learn A LOT as well.

As I was going through the motions in the morning, I sat on a swivelling chair writing an ultrasound (USG) report my Sir just dictated to me. He followed this up with asking me to ‘do the next scan’. As I tried to get up from the chair to obey his orders, I felt an excruciating pain rise up from my right knee, the feeling so intense that it literally left me gasping for breath. In the exact same rapid motion with which I tried to stand up, I fell back languidly onto the chair and I immediately had that strange gut feeling.. “Oh no, this is so not good”.

My heart was racing, I tried to regroup myself. I started fidgeting with both my hands, trying to physically unlock my knee by subtle manipulations; but none worked out. At times like this, I hate the fact that I belong to this profession, I knew immediately I was in deep deep trouble!

As time wore on, I was wheeled from one department to another to find a conclusive opinion on what needs to be done, but the 2 words from my HOD (Head of Department) made the decision making easy, “It is a really bad tear, if you go in for surgery now, they might just be able to fix it!” I felt like I was sinking, with water filling into my lungs, running out of oxygen to breathe, I knew that due to one God forsaken moment, what I planned for weeks was going into a puff of smoke. I mustered some courage, tried to put a straight face as I met one familiar face after another as I left my department. The incessant queries:  ‘What happened?’, ‘OMG’, ‘Why did you go to play?’, ‘Couldn’t you take more care?’ kept coming, but my mind was fixating onto only one thought..how my plans were shattered by that one God forsaken moment..

My consulting doctor scheduled me as the 3rd case for the following day. Having done my internship in Orthopaedics from Manipal’s Arthroscopy unit, I knew what the surgical management would be. My friends and colleagues frantically ran around to help me get admitted. My pre anaesthetic investigations were well within normal limits bar the elevated blood pressure, likely from the pain.. which subsided as soon as I was on a pain killer. This experience was a first, and surely a least expected one.

I was kept NPO (0 oral feeds) from midnight and shifted to the OT complex (Operation Theatre). For long I have been at the other end wheeling patients in and out, but here I was instead lying on a trolley, watching the overhead corridor ceiling lights flash past as I headed to the OT complex. As I was wheeled into  OR-8, I shifted myself onto the operating bed. The anaesthetists took over, cannulating me and preparing me for a spinal anaesthesia. I could hear the senior anaesthetist guide the junior as she informed and prodded me with the LP (lumbar puncture) needle. As soon as she injected, I could begin to feel a numbness slowly setting in right from my lower abdomen down to my legs. Slowly my sensations were limited to vague limb movements and I spent rest of the 2.5 hrs of the operation watching the scopy live on the screen. I was surprised at the amount of damage I had inflicted on my meniscus but glad I had decided to act on it immediately and that I was in the safe hands of a doctor well versed in his expertise. In the two odd hrs of lower limb numbness, I experienced what it felt to not be able to moves one’s own legs.

Being an athlete, I always had a low heart rate; and somewhere down the line during the operation, I dozed off. The anesthetist quickly woke me and indulged in a conversation as she was beginning to worry when my baseline HR dropped to 40/min while asleep! Talking to a her ensured my HR returned to normal 55 plus :D.

The 5 hour post op ICU experience was more eventful. With the spinal anaesthesia still acting, I had no voluntary control over my bladder, so I had to physically palpate for bladder fullness on and off and apply suprapubic pressure to avoid being catheterized! The attending nurse was young, attractive and seemed somewhat familiar (?deja-vu) in my post op drowsy state. She ensured that my short stay in the ICU was as comfortable as possible and I am thankful for that.

The whole surgical experience was totally unplanned and out of the blue, though I still don’t enjoy the irony of the timing of it at all. That one God forsaken moment..


The Next Chapter


Light showers, lovely breeze, twilight as the sun sets in. As I breathe in the fresh air, the mood is set to reflect. 24 hours ago, the news came in. 2 years had passed by. The journey was tough, depressing, disappointing and marred with failures; something I was unaccustomed to.

I was not the average kid. Being born left handed, the added burden of ‘left handed people are “smart” ‘ has persisted all throughout my last 25 years [here to stay!]. The ability to toy with arithmetic was in the lineage and no surprise Math turned out to be my favorite subject. Being ‘good at studies’ meant taking Science and Math in XI and XII; which is effectively the license to write both Medical and Engineering Entrance exams.

My III std. answer to my Class Teacher’s query: “What would you like to become Varun?” was “Pilot”. The irony though was I am shit scared of heights and could never sit through take off and landing without squeezing the hell out of the arm rests and calling all the Hindu Gods I could name!

Things changed as I hit XI and XII. Probably all the hoo haa of being in the top 10 in school plus the lack of any particular ambition in life lead to the usual thought process “There is no reason to not like either Medicine or Engg; Let’s write both and take whichever that happens!

My incidental admission to Manipal for Medicine was a boon in many ways. The place did a lot to let me develop as a person and the profession is tailor made for anyone who is glad to help someone out. The addition of “Dr.” in front of the name was a moment of great honor and pride. But the realization that this was just the beginning of a journey of a lifetime tends to hit you hard.

Immediately after graduation, the next short term target is Post Graduation. In the case of girls, of course, marriage tends to come more often than not in the way or ahead of it.

I have hardly ever failed in any exam of significance. But success was something that was agonizingly difficult to taste when it came to qualifying for post graduation entrance exams. The equation is simple -> Just too many people competing for a handful of seats.. aka the terrible rat race rerun in difficulty mode!

The last 12 months have been terrible, to say the least. I did not celebrate when I turned 25; there was no reason to for a year that went totally unregistered. But here I am now, a week away from restoring order to life, eager to move on, eager to brush away all the failures and disappointments. It’s time to smell success, cherish the moment a thankful patient smiles and do my part.

P.S: All my friends whom I have not contacted for a while, my heartfelt apologies. At times, it just felt right to shut myself out 🙂