How doctors make sense of their life is hardly a mystery. Their profession gives them a high social status. Regular opportunity to put their knowledge into practice gives them professional satisfaction. In addition, there is personal satisfaction in healing or at least helping people when they are feeling miserable. No matter what branch or type of medical practice they are in, doctors follow a stressed routine and carry on their work, no matter what the circumstances or state of the patient. Surgeons are probably more stressed than general practitioners, but the difference is only of degree. Anyone who sees people in pain and discomfort on a daily basis cannot avoid the feeling that he or she is carrying a burden. The range of human misery a doctor encounters daily and attempts to address by choosing appropriate remedies is vast and therefore, stressful. Doctors who serve in wars are perhaps inspired by the same kind of positive emotions and sense of duty that soldiers have. The injuries suffered by the latter have a rationale — in the idea of the nation and its borders.
No such thing can be said about injuries suffered in a communal riot. It troubles me to think how doctors feel when they face people wounded during a violent riot such as the one Delhi witnessed in the last days of February. A sense of duty alone cannot explain the relentless effort many doctors made to treat people brought in from riot-ravaged Northeast Delhi with wounds caused by guns, knives and fire. Surely, these doctors must have wondered whether their long and demanding training in health and medicine deserved to be utilised in this way.
A riot represents a breakdown of social order. While the police can wait and watch till they are ordered to intervene, doctors and nurses cannot wait. They just get into action when they come across a patient. Nor do they ask anyone why so much violence was unleashed. I am not sure if they have the time, as the rest of us have, to wonder what anyone achieved by letting so much malice get expressed through physical attacks on ordinary people, looting and arson.
When the news of these riots started arriving, one could hardly believe it. My association of February in Delhi is with flower shows. I realise the spring was late this year; nevertheless, I had imagined that there must be a lot of flowers. That a considerable part of Delhi could erupt into bloody fights and arson at this time of the year came as a shock. The other reason why I found the news of riots in Delhi unbelievable was because in certain matters I trust tradition.
It is a cultural fact that we Indians will do anything we can to put up the best possible front when a guest visits us. That is how we are socialised since childhood. You learn early in life that if a visitor is about to show up, you put out of sight anything that might bring the family a bad name. That the riots could occur when a prized national guest was scheduled to be in Delhi made absolutely no sense. How could this be, you wanted to know. Perhaps it was fake news, I first thought. Soon enough, I had to face reality, and it had many ironies in store. The one I found most difficult to digest was the visitor’s wife being taken to witness a special class at a government school. While Northeast Delhi was facing raw hatred and violence, the first lady who accompanied the American president was attending a so-called “happiness” class.
Whosoever was teaching in that class probably has the same immunity that doctors have. Teachers carry on with their duties, just like medical staff, no matter what crisis engulfs the world around them. The only difference is that teachers face questions; doctors don’t. A number of my former students who now teach in Delhi’s schools have been asking how to address children’s queries about the riots. Some of these are: Why did people become so violent? Why couldn’t the police stop them? When will normalcy return?
These are all difficult questions to answer. Moreover, no teacher feels comfortable facing such questions. They know that after a riot as violent as this one, one can anticipate a new normal to descend on the social ethos. For children who witness public violence, directly or indirectly through television, there is no easy or quick fix for inner disturbance. Unlike doctors, who succeed in healing the wounded and burnt, teachers can at best engage and relate, hoping that higher understanding will some day take over. The corona virus has denied this opportunity to Delhi’s teachers. They are now being asked to inaugurate the new session and cover the expected syllabus for April by giving e-lessons. The riots have lost what relevance and value they might have had as objects of enquiry and contemplation.
This article was first published in the print by the title ‘Doctors and teachers’ on April 24. The writer is a former director of NCERT and author of The Child’s Language and the Teacher