When I first set foot on the soil of China in 1985 on the first of my many foreign assignments, the country evoked mystery more than anything else. During Holi two years later, as soon as we returned home from the festivities in the Indian Embassy in Beijing, my wife developed labour pains. She was taken to the hospital where she had been undergoing regular check-ups. A full-throated cry of an infant from the labour room told me that she had been delivered of the baby.
The male doctor who was attending on her came out and announced to me in English after a fashion: You a baby boy. After thanking him profusely, I asked him how much the baby weighed. His reply was clear and crisp: 3,128 kilograms. Though I immediately understood that the good doctor had got his grams and kilograms mixed up, more to humour him, I asked: Doctor, I hope my wife has not delivered a baby elephant. The doctor was impassive. No, baby boy!, he repeated with finality and a rather amazed and incongruous look.
The next day, I noticed some clogging in the washroom of our hospital ward. There were hardly a handful of people who understood and spoke English in the China of then. If one had to survive and negotiate situations, it was very important to latch on to anyone who could speak English, even if that was not exactly Queens English.
Call the plumber
It so happened that the good doctor once again made an appearance and though overcome with hesitation, I was not going to let go of this chance. Doctor, could you please ask a plumber to come, I asked. He looked askance at me. The word plumber obviously did not figure in his lexicon. Madam, problem, he asked. No, no, I replied hastily. Problem in the washroom, I said.
The doctor was obviously one of those who believed in empirical evidence. He marched straight into the washroom with me in tow. Seeing that water had accumulated near the drain, he appeared to have assessed the problem and understood my requirement. He left and returned shortly, this time, not in his white overalls but in navy blue overalls symbol of the countless workers of China. He had with him a drain pump and before I could quite understand what was happening, he had declogged the washroom and stood there with a radiant smile and announced, All well! I didnt quite know how to react. I merely managed a weak Thank you, doctor!