She managed to find a spot right behind me every single day at the school assembly. She always got there earlier than I did. I was the class leader, and class leaders stood in the front row. After a few weeks, I just started to take the spot right in front of her, she marked both our coordinates for us. The assembly hall was small, not leaving a lot of space between us. I could sometimes sense her fingers touching my arms, or my dress. “They feel so soft”, she would say. I could sense the cracked skin on her finger-tips and the blisters on her hands when she touched me, the effect of many hours of dishwashing and housecleaning she had to do at home and when she went to work with her mother who was a maid, and her father who worked in the mica mines. We were in Gudur, a small town in Andhra Pradesh, that was known for its mica mines and not so much for how it took care of its mica miners.
The most vivid memory I have of life in Gudur is that of holding my breath and sprinting through the streets that were lined with dirty gutters on both sides, and pigs roaming around like the town belonged to them. But, my sister and I had servants carry our school bags for us. Warm and fresh food always arrived just five minutes before the lunch break began. During lunch, she would sit next to me, eating out of her own lunch box – a round tinned box, dented and scratched all over, a lid that struggled to fit. She ate the same lunch every single day, buttermilk mixed with rice, with a red hot pickle on top. I got used to the unmistakable smell of her lunch, a combination of sour buttermilk with a hint of garlic. She always seemed too hungry by the time we got to lunch, it didn’t take her more than ten minutes to gobble down her food with all the fingers and palm of her right hand, but, I suspect that she often remained hungry even when she was done. My sister and I could never finish our elaborate meals, with boxes stacked over one another, not to mention a fruit of a different kind every day. We would almost always leave some of the food in our lunch boxes, she would watch as our servant maid packs up our boxes, cleans up and takes away our lunch bags back home.
“Your lunch looks delicious” she would say, “You sisters eat like movie stars, always a napkin on your laps, clean spoons, colorful water cups and all”. The adulation and the compliments came so often – about the soft and light skin, the satin dresses, inviting lunch boxes, colorful mugs, and attentive servants…she made me feel like a princess. After a few days of being together, I even stopped blushing, just took it all for granted, as she continued to seize every opportunity to make me feel singularly special.
I lived in Gudur for some four years. The school I went to, if you could even call it a school, was in the backyard of a pastor’s house. We spent all our time playing Kho Kho or running errands for our teachers. When I moved out of Gudur eventually to go study in a bigger city, a better school, she wept the whole day. I felt sorry for her. I was on top of the world though, I was going somewhere I deserved to be. I was 13 years old when I said goodbye to her.
Exactly 10 years later, in my first job after my undergrad, I was a pharma rep working for Eli Lilly. Life hadn’t gone exactly as I had imagined. My father’s family suffered a colossal setback in their business, and we had to sell all our property. I wanted to do an MBA, but, a bachelor’s degree was more than we could afford then. So, I went to work. The pharma rep job was the best I could get after I completed my bachelor’s degree.
The job was in Chennai, where I am originally from, a few hours by train from Gudur. I was handling the Adyar and Besant Nagar territories. The most popular product that Lilly had launched in India then was Distaclor, an antibiotic popular amongst pediatricians since it was effective on ear infections. I had heard horror stories of how successful doctors treated pharma reps, I quickly came to realize they were all true stories. I got my list of names to start with – Dr. Janaki Raman, Dr. Durga Prasad, Dr. Syed Baker, Dr. Muthu Sethupathy – some names I still remember. I studied what I could about all of them from other pharma reps in the field, and from the pharmacies that served their patients. They were all true to their reputation. A couple of them were extra nice to me, offering me a coke from their mini-refrigerators occasionally, or complimenting me on my detailing skills. The sales call I always looked forward to was that of Dr. Janaki Raman at Malar Hospitals in Adyar. Not because of Dr. Raman herself, though she was quite a gentle lady, but, it was her intern, Dr. Santoshi Kumar who was particularly delightful. Dr. Raman has an impressive practice, so, it kept Dr. Kumar very busy. She was never at her desk, always moving around welcoming patients with her warmth, being her chatty and chirpy self any time of the day. I reserved my visits to her office for the end of my day, when I knew I would be weary from a whole day’s sales calls, from meeting with doctors who didn’t care about what I was saying, and quite often just walked out on me while I was detailing to them. Dr. Kumar would always listen with keen attention, ask me follow-up questions, complimenting me on my knowledge. She left me feeling special, every single visit. She would often tell me “I’m so glad you are here, I find it so hard to remember everything about every medication. Because of you, I can be a good assistant to Dr. Raman”. I was on top of the world after a conversation with Dr. Santoshi Kumar.
On one of my visits to Malar Hospitals, probably the tenth one or so, Dr. Kumar was just wrapping up, the last patient for the day had just left. We walked out of the clinic together. We were both getting on to our scooters. As I was saying bye, she goes, “You are the same Anu who studied at SMEM in Gudur, right?” I froze, a bit disquieted. “Yes, but, I was there only a few years”, I said, like I had to somehow make up an excuse for having been in that school at all. She said, “I knew the day you stepped into our clinic, we never got a chance to talk about anything other than drugs. But, I’m so glad to see you again. You are as charming as you were then”. She said goodnight and drove away on her scooter.
Some people will remain self-seeking, looking to others to make themselves feel special, needing the center stage all the time. Some people are just special, making people around them feel awesome in their own distinctive way, placing the rest of the world in the limelight.