February 22, 2010
The Taj Bengal
I leave Hastings gratefully only to be assaulted by the literally opposite yet equally disturbing world of affluence at the Taj Bengal, the most fancy and expensive hotel in Kolkata. It is certainly not a relieving change of scenery, but one that serve to exaggerate the mindblowingly tragic juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that exists in this city. Sitting below crystal chandeliers, surrounded by balconies with gorgeous flower gardens, dining on the most exquisite and plentiful variety of Indian food, glorying in the luxury of flush toilets with toilet paper, sinks, mirrors, lotion, and body mist, not to mention paper towels, and walking on marble floors that are distinctly clean to an extent I had thought impossible here, I feel a deep guilt for both the existence of this level of excess and personally guilty for my opportunity to take part in it if only for a few hours. As the most well-renowned medical experts of Kolkata give lectures on the cutting-edge advancements in clinical treatment of various thyroid diseases like Grave's, hypothyroidism, and thyroiditis, to a full audience of fancily-dress physicians, I wonder how it is possible to have so many doctors and such advanced health care, but care which is entirely inaccessible to the vast majority of citizens who are too poor to afford it or too alien to the health care system altogether. Whether it is a hormone imbalance requiring RAI or ATD, or a nodule needing an FNAC or USG, toxicosis vs. thyroiditis, subclinical hyperthyroidism or Grave's orbitopathy, I can't help but feel that this information is nearly irrelevant to our street patients when the most pressing issue is likely as simple (or complex) as iodine deficiency and the treatment option merely nutritional supplementation. Nevertheless, as I try to absorb the medical jargon, decode the 3-letter acronyms, and understand the lines of thought of clinical diagnosis, I am reminded of the fascinating breadth of knowledge and intellectual stimulation that is medicine, a field I am totally excited to have the opportunity to learn in a few months when I enter medical school. Then, dining on decadent fish, fried snacks, chutneys, and curries, I wonder why this food will be digested by my body and not by those of the malnourished children who just swarmed me to take their photos, and realize with helpless disgust that the mountains of extra food will probably be discarded as waste rather than rightfully distributed to those who really need it. The contrast of the absolutes of my day are an eye-opening taste of the true injustice that sits innocently unresolved like the bowl of sickeningly sweet syrup that drenches those white spiced balls of sugar that we all devour so enjoyably. The soaked starch is so tempting and fulfilling that it succeeds in distracting us from the bitter and utterly disgusting reality of poverty, of places like Hastings where I have been only hours before. It breeds a feeling of happy indifference, a blissful complacency that becomes a nauseating intoxication, erasing the troubles of the poor with comforting excess and hedonous gluttony, rendering them entirely unimportant and horrifyingly invisible.