A young, ambitious doctor who attended a couple of private chambers over and above his job in a reputed nursing home once told me, “Patients needn’t expect that all of us will be like Agnishwar Mukhopadhyay.”

 “Have you read the book?” I asked.

 “There&’s a book? I was referring to the Uttam Kumar film,” was his haughty reply.

The conversation got me interested in fictional doctors. Robin Cook&’s Coma is about corruption in the medical profession. Somerset Maugham&’s Of Human Bondage skims a doctor&’s travails but primarily highlights the protagonist&’s sexual bondage to the bitch-nurse Mildred.

The doctor as inspirational figure rarely appears in fiction these days. We could do well to reassess some of the characters that have come our way in fiction. In his memorable novel Agnishwar, writer-doctor Banaphool, alias Balaichand Mukhopadhyay, draws an unforgettable portrait of Agnishwar Mukhopadhayay, a general practitioner of the old British school, revered for his fiery temper, blistering honesty, withering tongue and unparalleled medical skills. Among Bengalis, Agnishwar is synonymous with the foul-mouthed, idealistic doctor. Agnishwar&’s medicine is potent, his diagnosis flawless.

Banaphool&’s Agnishwar is also a historian who leaves a personal assessment of his life and experiences with a student to whom he says, “You have become a doctor. By default you have joined the tribe of those who are the greatest rebels among civilised, rebellious peoples. In order to be civilised, man has gone against the rule of nature. Doctors have taken up arms against the strictest and most inevitable rule of nature.

Their war is against death; a war that is killing them in hordes, but is replenishing their forces, too. This has been going on for a long times. You have now joined this tribe… A doctor knows the truth about his countrymen, for in times of crisis a man reveals his true colours.”

Indeed, Agnishwar&’s time is one of crisis. He begins his career in British India. He ends it in a nascent nation that has newly achieved freedom. Independent India disappoints Agnishwar to the extent that he abandons civilised society to cure the ailing among strays and fays.

Agnishwar&’s account of the five women who remind him of the five satis (virtuous women) of Hindu mythology – Draupadi, Ahalya, Kunti, Mandodari and Tara; an unusual quintet since none of them is chaste in the conventional sense — is also the chronicling of his times. We are afforded a glimpse of the unsung and uncelebrated contribution of countless women to India&’s freedom struggle, the sexual and emotional generosity of lower class tribal women, the obsessive devotion to family among Bengali middle-class women, the sacrifice a courtesan/baiji is capable of, and the perseverance and intelligence of a common prostitute.

The chronicle also brings to light the unprepossessing picture of New India; the rampancy of syphilis and gonorrhea, the social stranglehold of dowry, female trafficking, caste system, subsistence wage and meager pension that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the government official to keep body and soul together.

Interestingly, the chronicle also brings to light the medical beliefs of the time; that health lies in consuming a whole chicken every day — as well as the relations between the British and the educated Indian that are marked by arrogance and obsequity, but also mutual respect and love for fair-play in certain cases.

The other doctor Banaphool depicts in his novel Haate Bajare is Sadashib Bhattacharya, who keeps a journal of his travels and experiences among the working classes of Bihar-Bengal borders. Sadashib, an eccentric, idealistic loner, mirrors Agnishwar on a smaller scale.

Compared to Agnishwar and Sadashib, Jibon Dutta, who rises to become the Moshai of Nabagram — a title reserved in Ayurved for the best and the supreme doctor — is more of a medicine man than a true-blue medical practitioner. In depicting Jibon Moshai&’s tale in Arogya Niketan, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay pens a saga of changing times and values.

Deeply committed to the Ayurvedic medicinal beliefs of his forefathers, Jibon is, nonetheless, a liberal who realises long before his patients do that Ayurved will soon be supplanted by allopathic treatment. In Dr Rangalal, an eccentric GP who comes to Nabagram in Jibon&’s youth, the latter seeks his mentor. Rangalal teaches Jibon certain rudiments of allopathic treatment, which Jibon deeply values and uses in tandem with his knowledge of Ayurved in treating the villagers of Nabagram located in the Raarh region of Bengal.

At crucial points in the novel, Ayurved joins hands with allopathy to ease the sufferings of villagers. In Jibon&’s youth, Rangalal&’s strong allopathic medicine that the former student begs from his teacher helps the former to combat a cholera epidemic that all but decimates his village. In his extreme old age, having lost his fame and glory to the medical supervisor of a new nursing home of Nabagram, Jibon yet helps Dr Protyot Mitra to fight a rare kind of typhoid that almost slays the young doctor&’s wife. The strength of the respective schools is made manifest in this unique closing episode.

Allopathy has effective drugs that strike the death-knell of killer diseases but lags in diagnosis. Frequently, it relies on dangerous guesswork and experiment. The Moshai or Ayurvedic pulse-reader, through experience and wisdom, can faultlessly diagnose the disease, often predicting the day/hour of recovery. But beyond a point, ayurveda is helpless to battle the virulence of disease.

Agnishwar, Sadashib and Jibon respond best to trust and respect. To each, lucre without social recognition, however small and humble, means nothing.

Dr Larch, the obstetrician-protagonist of John Irving&’s The Cider House Rules (1985), though a New Englander, bears a striking similarity to the above protagonists in the larger-than-life tragic stature he bears. Like them, he, too, is largely driven by conviction and conscience rather than social norms when it comes to practicing his craft.

Also a cusp character, caught in the conservatism of turn-of-the-century America, Dr Larch is an abortionist at a time when abortion is illegal in the USA. His early familiarity with the gruesome predicament of pregnant prostitutes who, in the absence of medical help and guidance, use venomous chemicals and hurt themselves irreparably, often mortally, sets him on a lonely path. An obstetrician unusually skilled in delivering babies and performing almost painless abortions — “delivering the mothers”, as he refers to them — Dr Larch is an unsung hero whose contribution to the community goes unacknowledged.  

Referring to the exploited and marginalised mothers who come to his orphanage, Larch says, “I give them what they want; an orphan or an abortion.” Mothers who are too far gone for abortion deliver their unwanted babies that are then kept back in the orphanage to be given out for adoption. Others who are not yet “quick” as per the parlance of the times, are quietly operated on and relieved of unwanted foetuses.

Under the circumstances, it is impossible for Larch to find recognition for his work, since even a whiff of his beliefs and activities — “the Devil&’s work”, as abortion is termed in ’40s America — will result in a cancellation of his licence. Here is a doctor who toils in the light of his convictions that “a society that approved of making abortion illegal was a society that approved of violence against women… Always, in the background of his mind, there was a newborn baby crying… even when it was ghostly quiet Wilbur Larch heard babies crying. And they were not crying to be born, he knew; they were crying because they were born”.

What, in the final count, is the religion of a doctor — religio medici? What should be the religion of a man who sets himself up as a soldier against human suffering, against pain, anguish and ailment? Dr Larch&’s taciturn reply would be, “You have to help them because you know how. Think about who&’s going to help them if you refuse.” The only religion a doctor can subscribe to is no religion at all. The only enemy he recognises is human suffering. The only clause he honours is being of use as opposed to standing and watching while the hapless suffer.