Like most eighteen-year-olds of my time, I didn’t know what career to opt for. ‘Dekh lenge (We’ll see),’ I’d think. It was not an unreasonable approach. For a teenager, it was acceptable to go through early college years without a final destination in mind. After college came the time to make a decision.
I was fascinated by the glamour of the hospitality industry. To get a first-hand experience, I was sent to meet a family friend, Ravi Ghai, who owned the Natraj Hotel, now The Intercontinental, on Marine Drive. The Ghais were also the proprietors of Kwality ice cream and restaurants.
Ravi was a young man himself, a second-generation owner. He had recently returned to India after graduating in hotel administration from Cornell University. He enjoyed golf, horses and cigars. Ravi cut a sharp figure and generously gave me his time and advice.
After we shook hands in the foyer, Ravi took me to the kitchen and the housekeeping departments and showed me the grubby, behind-the-scenes picture of the business. Huge mounds of vegetables and several pink-white slabs of frozen meats were being washed, cut or thawed by the kitchen staff. Behind a wall, dozens of dishes were being washed. This was restaurant standard washing with no margin for error. The crockery had to be spotless. The dishes and cutlery were among the first things a customer saw, even a small stain would be enough to cause a public relations disaster.
Next, we rode up the elevator to see the rooms being cleaned and beds being made. Once again, there was no scope for even a slight mistake. The sheets had to be clean and smell fresh. The floor had to shine. Ravi turned to me and said the words that drove home the message. ‘You will be married to your hotel.’ I had seen my parents working as doctors with very little family time. I didn’t want that for myself. I thanked Ravi and walked out of Natraj into the sun-blasted street. The hotel industry was off my list. I realized that hotels were like icebergs. We only saw the tip and not the gigantic mass that lay beneath. In a different way, medicine was like that too. You think a doctor gives you only ten or twenty minutes during a consultation and charges a hefty fee. But behind those few minutes are years of study and knowledge.
Another career that appealed to me was the armed forces, but as a medical doctor. A senior friend from the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune waxed eloquent about the wonderful army life—a good salary, free rations, housing and a uniform to woo a pretty maiden. It sounded like a great deal.
I went to take an entrance exam at INS Ashwini, the naval hospital in Navy Nagar. I got through the theory papers and made it to the final interview before a panel of top military brass with curly moustaches, booming voices and starched uniforms. Medicine apart, I was asked out-of-the-box questions. ‘How many steps did you climb to reach this room?’ ‘Did the water cistern down the corridor open to the left or the right?’
I don’t know if it was because I was vertically challenged, had glasses or had simply blown the final interview, I didn’t hear back from the forces.
The army’s loss was homeopathy’s gain.
Homeopathy came to India through an Austrian doctor, Dr Johann Martin Honigberger. A combination of circumstances placed Honigberger in Lahore and other parts of erstwhile Punjab in the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, he treated soldiers of the East India Company, and then Maharaja Ranjit Singhji for the paralysis of his vocal chords. It took almost 150 years after that for homeopathy to be officially recognized as a system of medicine in India, thanks to an act of Parliament in 1973.
By 1969, when I finished my graduation at Jai Hind, homeopathy was still finding its feet in the country. The homeopathic college in Mumbai had moved from Sion to a larger property in Vile Parle West and the trustees were looking for students from good families. Dr Edul Behram, one of the trustees, visited us at home and invited me to join the college. To be asked to join a college seemed special. Since my father was a homeopath, I also thought it would be an easy option.
The flip side was that my dad was the principal of the college and I would now be under his strict watch at home and at college. The two years of freedom that I had enjoyed at Jai Hind would soon be lost. But it had to be done. By this time, we had moved from Grant Road to one of the lowest floors in one of the tallest buildings in India, Land’s End in Malabar Hill. It had twenty-eight floors and our home was on the first floor, closer to land than sky.
Land’s End was almost the last building on the winding, tree-lined Dongersey Road. Near the building was a large bungalow called Cosy Corner. It belonged to the wealthy Cama family, which owned the largest-circulating Gujarati newspaper, Bombay Samachar. Their famous collection of vintage cars had started growing by then and you could catch a glimpse of a Ford, Mercedes or Cadillac in their yard.
Behind our building was the Saint Elizabeth Nursing Home where, much later, both my sons were born. The area also had the odd rough edge. Near our home was a dark alley where almost every day drunks would get into brawls.
From Malabar Hill to college in Vile Parle was a long trip in terms of distance as well as culture. I’d take a bus to Grant Road station, then a train to Andheri and again a bus to Vile Parle. It was a two-hour commute one way. Public transport was crowded, even in the 1970s. An empty seat was rare and coveted. It was easier to get a seat on the way back from college. Sitting by the window and having the breeze blow into your face as the train picked up speed, often lulled you to sleep. One day, I found myself being woken up rudely by a train attendant. I had overslept and reached the yard, where trains were serviced. It was a long walk to the nearest bus stop.
Another day, when I was in a hurry to get to college, I crossed the railway tracks at Mumbai Central station. The railway police caught me and I was taken to a magistrate’s court nearby. With me in the court were petty thieves, sex workers and the sort. Standing in line for my turn, I imagined the typical courtroom scene from a Hindi movie, ‘Champabai, Chhotubevda, Mukesh Batra hazir hon!’ I was let off with a warning and a fine of ₹100. Not only had I missed my class but I was out of money too. Home was 4 km away and I had no choice but to take the No. 11 bus, i.e., walk back.
Excerpted from The Nation's Homeopath with permission from HarperCollins India. The book, which is on pre-order, releases on 15 July.