October 12, 2004

neem is for the dogs

i have shorter weekends and longer saturdays now…if you know what i mean. and i’m learning about bananas.

for someone who’s always run away from the word ‘medicine’ itself, i’m surprised i enjoy working at the pharmacy (saturdays and alternate weekdays) for four hours a day. it keeps me moving about (much necessary for my backpain, which is why i signed up in the first place), keeps me in constant touch with people of all sorts and sizes, and besides…makes me feel less guilty when i want to impulse-buy a new tshirt or book, or new shoes 😉

the pharmacy here is no different from the ‘chemist’ store we have in india, except that the systems here are …well, totally different. no handwritten prescriptions to start with…everything is typed in on separate sheets of paper. if you’re above 60 or under 16, if you have a tax-exemption certificate, are pregnant or have some kind of medical exemption certificate, you don’t need to pay. for lesser mortals like us who pay the tax regularly for all these mentioned above, there is a charge of �6.40, for every medicine prescribed.

in india, everyone paid for their medicines, and everyone was seen by the doctor. he/she patiently listened to all your woes, health-related or even about how your servant doesn’t turn up on time, and then writes down some medication that usually treats both mind and body. the dispensary i used to visit in thane had someone (i think his name was gaitonde) to dispense medicines just by the door. patients waited to see the doctor outside in the waiting room, they gave their little handwritten chits to the dispenser and waited for their medicine-pudis again. the whole place would smell of bitter tablets, sweet syrupy cough medicine and dettol, and i would watch in fascination as the two hands and ten fingers blurred, breaking whole tablets in half, picking up tiny envelopes to drop the halved tablets in and mixing colourful liquids in amber-colour bottles to take home…all within three minutes or less.

he would also suggest some home remedies for you to get over the side effects of the medicines he’s just made. and then he would put his big head (along with the nehru-topi) out of the little hole in the wall and call out…”chala, naeeext.”

in the uk everything is different. you have to pray that you fall ill at the right time. that is… anytime between monday noon to wednesday evening. if you were bad in a previous birth, you might fall ill on a thursday morning; when that happens do consider before the receptionist asks you: “is it an emergency or do you want to see the nurse?” if you say you have been having the problem for about a week or two, it’s not an emergency. if you collapse and someone else dials for the ambulance, it is.

if you do say you want to see the doctor (of course, that’s why you called, right?), you will be told to wait and ‘be patient’ until the next monday. if you hurriedly do submit and say okay you don’t mind seeing the nurse, hoping at least you have some medication to see you till the next week, you will only regret it later. because if you don’t belong to any of those exemption-categories, you’ll end up paying both the nurse now and the doctor later, that’s �12.80 for just two medicine-prescriptions.

the doctor will see you for precisely four minutes. if you happen to mention an unrelated health symptom that’s also bothering you, he/she will just ignore or cut you abruptly with an unwelcome smile: “we’ll discuss that some other time,” and hand you the green paper that he’s already printed out.

the pharmacy will be down the street or next door, there are usually three to four dispensers and someone assisting them with the delivery items and the till (sales counter). the store smells of deodorant and coffee, and not tablets and syrups. you get entire strips of medicines you won’t even need perhaps, stapled and packaged into neat crisp paper bags; awkwardly-folded sheets of paper explain why you are taking the medication and another two pages go on to explain the side-effects if you muster up the courage to take them later.

if you do bring back unused medicines they will be thrown into the wastebin. tonics and cough syrups are readymade and can be bought off the shelf, and to counter side-effects you need to buy more medicines after you see the doctor again. (if you are still alive that is.)

now that i am on the other side, what i like about working at the pharmacy are the customers.

…like this 90-year-old woman who walked in slowly on her crutches. she even had all her teeth in and with shaky hands she clutched a pen and asked,”where do i sign, dear?” when i offered to sign for her she insisted she would do it herself! and here i am complaining of my back problem!

…there was this old man of 67, utterly dejected and depressed because his tests for cancer were all negative. “you should be happy,” i said, and felt like handing him a lollipop to cheer him up. but he stood there like a statue, fat tears welling up in his eyes but not rolling down his cheeks.

…sometimes there are strange people who wont tell me what they want, and insist that they’ll see the pharmacist, even if they just need some paracetamol. sometimes they sound rude, like someone did to me today. these, i’m told, are the ‘funny kinds’…the kinds who don’t like asians, if you read between the lines.
hmm, well… *shrug*

…and then there are people who teach you about bananas:
a little boy of three (with his mom) asks for bana-aana-flavoured medicines. we ask him what colours do bananas come in and he thinks and says…”umm, shtawberry, pineapple….ummmm..and bana-aana.”
“really!?” we ask. “and where do they grow?” we ask again and he says, without thinking this time: “oh, they grow in little packets …with stickers on them”!! 🙂

these are the best people i’ve ever seen – the little ones, aged 10 months to four years. they climb on chairs and tables, or cling on to their mothers and try and read out everything that’s on display in the store. they fill the place with laughter and we beg them for more.

it’s a different world altogether, working for a pharmacy in the uk…
when i tell them that in india we rely more on tried and tested home remedies, they look surprised. neither the doctors nor the dispensers have ever heard of the healing properties of turmeric or cumin.

“neem?” they ask, “isn’t that for the dogs that itch?”


  • Hima said:

    neem for dogs that itch?? wow, thats a new one, even from the Brits! 🙂

  • Rahul said:

    I thought pharmacists here have to take a special course. Have you taken any such course?

  • radhika said:

    Hima: i thought so too! and they were surprised when i explained how we *humans* use neem in india! 🙂

    rahul: i haven’t studied anything special for the pharmacy job. neither am i a ‘pharmacist’…they are the ones who mix and give the medicines. i only assist them with the sales, handing them prescriptions from the patients/customers and putting the stock (delivery items that come in daily) away. i have been given some medical modules that i can study though, while i’m on the job 🙂

  • shodZ said:

    god. i though that was the only stuff they knew about us. i mean elephants, spicy food, temples and ayurved and stuff like that. thats the image foreigners generally have about india

  • anonymous said:

    oh to be in england
    and visit the doc to be sick
    he finishes it without a prick
    oh to be in england

    oh to be in england
    to visit the pharmacy
    and either you get cured for problems flimsy
    or you lick it and leave a legacy
    to meet the nurse missy
    or the doctor if you are fussy

    oh to be in england
    to visit the pharmacist on a saturday
    or his junior on a wednesday
    or the doctor himself next year saturday
    and you extend your life by many a day
    just wait till the doctor meets you some day

    oh to be in england
    am i waiting for a slippery gland
    to be told forget the lump i will see only the gland
    never mind if the doc charges a few pound
    but the nurse i will never give her a pound
    unless she lets my heart pound

    oh to be in england
    when the day is short
    the nights are not short
    the tempers short
    when that 8 months old has a shot
    at the bill boards
    and laughter fills every heart a while short

    oh to be in england
    and to remember the compounder
    who sneaked through the yonder
    gave out pudis of some powder
    yelled out at the patient louder
    to come with the bottle a little closer
    and take 2 days syrup to do a wonder

    oh to be in england
    i just cant wait till in england i land
    oh my england!

  • MottaiBoss aka kaatss said:

    Nice narration. Even the place I work will have kids running around grabbing stuff off the shelves. How moms cajol them to put back is another story.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.