An unsettling miracle - Ayaz Amir - Friday, April 22, 2011

This has to begin with a confession. At my age – and I am of the generation which has been second to none in screwing up this country – I find myself most at ease with con artists, charlatans, long-winded orators – for whom the guiding principle surely is that brevity is not the soul of wit – and the glorious humbug. Those who say one thing and do another are an endless source of diversion.

De Gaulle came close to the truth with his insight: “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.” But this gets to be a bit too solemn. The world would be the poorer without its frauds and impostors, journalists who put too high a premium on their seriousness, pulpit-breaking doctors of the faith, tub-thumping politicians, professors who make a divinity of national security, military men who think they have a monopoly on competence and patriotism, and, if I am forgiven for including two further categories in this list, pimps and bootleggers.

Amidst all this colour and excitement, it is the accidental stumbling upon examples of genuine goodness which are astonishing and leave at least me thunder-struck. Virtue where you least expect it. Where the hell is this coming from?...I then ask myself.

Such was my astonished, almost unbelieving reaction, when, in the course of visiting Mayo Hospital in Lahore during the doctors’ strike, I happened to stumble upon the hospital kitchen. It was nothing short of a miracle. I had been through some of the wards and they had a rundown look. Some of the operation theatres I had a chance of looking into could have done with a facelift. To enter some of the toilets would have required the heart of Odysseus (“Patience, stout heart, thou hast endured far worse than this.”) And there were scrawny cats in the corridors. So if I had met cockroaches in the kitchen I would not have been surprised. But the kitchen was spotlessly clean.

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken...” This was Keats’s reaction on first reading Homer (in Chapman’s not-so-good translation). And something of the sort was my reaction when I was told that ever since 2002 for the 1600-1700 patients that are to be found in the various wards of Mayo Hospital on any given day, the food being provided was coming entirely from charity and donations.

Sub-standard food surely, I thought. When I was asked to taste the spinach-and-mutton which had just been served for lunch I was in for a further surprise. After a riotous night a party revellers would not have been averse to tasting that food. And the young doctors accompanying me told me that it was always like that.

And no one was expecting me. And if anyone had, who was I? Not the Laat Sahib of Punjab.

Breakfast and lunch are prepared in the kitchen and distributed all over the hospital, the biggest, it bears remembering, in the whole of Pakistan, and perhaps South Asia. Bread, every day, is provided free of cost by Wonder Bread. Meat for lunch comes from the Edhi Foundation. But dinner everyday, for the full complement of 1500-1700 patients, comes courtesy someone from Wahdat Road, Lahore, who prefers to remain nameless.

The more I learnt the greater my amazement. Jillani Plastic who have a plant somewhere on Ring Road send a monthly donation of Rs300,000; Gohar Ejaz of Faisalabad Rs165,000; Mudassar Masood, a spare parts dealer of Auto Market, Badami Bagh, Rs50,000; and Shahid Siddiq of Brandreth Road Rs25,000 a month. These are the regulars and there may be others but I don’t have their names. So if any are left out my sincerest apologies. Other people keep donating from time to time.

This is now. But there was a different arrangement from 2002 to 2008 when the entire food bill of Mayo Hospital was funded by the electronics manufacturers, LG. Then something happened and they stopped. But what should have been a serious crisis turned into another opportunity. In 2010 Seth Abid made a donation of Rs one crore. Others, some of whom I have named, also came on board. And so it goes on.

We constantly hear tales of national robbery and plunder, of the already well-heeled selling their souls for more riches and favours. And it is not surprising, such being the way of the world. And then a miracle such as this one in Mayo Hospital and all the wind, all the storm and thunder, from cynical sails is stolen. So much crap and misery and then something that brings tears even in jaded and thoroughly unsentimental eyes.

There is a Food Management Committee headed by the medical superintendent. The day-to-day running of the kitchen is the responsibility of the secretary, Mehmood Taj. They deserve the highest praise.

Who are the presiding deities of Lahore, whose spirit hovers over this city of legend and history? Ali Hajveri of course, and Sir Ganga Ram, and, I daresay, the ghost of Lord Mayo whose name is associated with the founding of Mayo Hospital in 1871. The pressure on the hospital is enormous but if we can’t look after it and keep it the way it should be kept then as a people we are failing in our duty.

Why do parts of the hospital give a rundown look? The road leading to the Orthopaedic Department is broken. Imagine broken bones rattling over this path. And it has been like this for some time. The new surgical ward, a multi-storeyed structure, stands like a hulk, work having stopped on it for some reason.

A huge amount of money has been spent restoring the chief secretary’s office in the Lahore Secretariat. For anyone interested a visit would be in order to see our sense of priorities. We can find money for useless things and useless activities. But all of Lahore’s public hospitals – Services, Ganga Ram, Mayo, etc – could do with more investment.

This is how the business of government is carried on in our part of the world. Our people know how to give. Time and again occasions have arisen bringing out the best in them – whether after the 2005 earthquake or the displacement of over a million people in the wake of the Swat military operation of 2009. Mayo Hospital has to spend Rs24 million on food every year and all of it comes from donations and charity. What’s more, the entire undertaking is being managed beautifully.

There is much wrong with us as a people and a society but there is also much to be proud of. There are so many other examples of unstinting charity. The Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, affiliated with Dow Medical College in Karachi, is run on donations. Imran Khan’s Shaukat Khaunum cancer hospital is run on donations. I suppose people give generously and open their hearts out when they know that their money will be well spent and not pilfered.

Why can’t we get our priorities right? Why must our governing classes insist on chasing shadows and false dreams? We can’t run our country, at least can’t run it properly, but we must have some kind of a fixation about managing Afghanistan. And our military circles simply can’t get India out of their system. They place India on too high a pedestal, seeing the world through an Indian prism. This is the stranglehold of a troubled past and it is a pity that even after six decades and more we have not been able to break free from its clutches.

We have all the missiles in the world that we need. High time we turned some of our considerable energies to better-run schools and hospitals.

Tailpiece: For donations in kind the Management Committee can be contacted at 042-99211129 extension 159 and 042-99211113. Cash donations can be sent to A/c 000850-0007, Bank of Punjab, Patiala Ground Branch, Lahore.


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