He wasn’t much to look at, sinews and bones covered with wrinkled leather. And his right eye was milky from some old injury. The old man’s attentive wife had dangling earlobes, the kind which used to hold large chunks of gold. Now they were empty and she wore a faded sari, maroon with tiny checks, and no blouse like many of her generation.
“What brings you to the doctor?”
“His ears don’t work well,” his wife said. Her ears worked just fine and she still had all her teeth. I tried again, louder.
“What’s wrong with you today? Why did you come to the clinic?”
“My ear hurts.”
“I SAID WHICH EAR!”
“The northern one, of course.”
“Which one is that?”
“The one in the north.”
“But what if you turn your head, like this?”
“Then it will be the one in the east.”
I marveled at this man. Clearly even inside the examining room, he knew exactly where the Cardamom Hills rose from the thorny plains to greet Kerala and where the Palani Mountains loomed blue in the north. I glanced out the door, past the neem tree to the western coconut grove. He was spot on. This was obviously a man who knew the land intimately.
I took a look in his ears, They were both blocked by hard wax, the color of burned clay.
“We’ll try flushing your ears out. Maybe you’ll be able to hear again.”
“Tell him about the other thing,” His wife directed her words into his southern ear.
“Forget it! It’s nothing.”
“Doctor, he’s lost a lot of weight and coughs all the time, especially at night.”
“Is this true?” I asked him.
“Well, I can’t irrigate the coconut trees as quickly as before. I’ve been doing it for fifty years, you know.”
“You’re still working?”
“How else can I earn money to buy us porridge?”
“But don’t you have kids to look after you?”
“Our only son died years ago,” his wife said. “The owner lets us live in the watchman’s hut in his grove. As long as we can work.”
“But how does your husband manage when he’s so weak?”
“Just give me some cough tonic and an injection. I’ll be fine.”
I asked him to lift his shirt so I could listen to his chest. The collar was tattered and the starched white fabric was tinted with blue. I ordered sputum tests and blood work and after an hour had diagnosed TB of the lungs. The nurses irrigated his ears with warm water and produced several pencil eraser-sized chunks of wax. He was delighted that his hearing had improved.
“You’re going to need to take medicines for a full six months.”
“What do I know about these things? Whatever you say.”
“Have you ever had TB before?”
He considered my words.
“No TB, doctor.” His face lit up. “But we have one very nice transistor radio.”