A smudged piece of paper
April 9, 2009
Two years ago I flew to Africa from India. A couple of days before I was due to fly to Nairobi, I realized I had lost my vaccination book. It was a problem : to enter India from Africa, you need your yellow-fever shot paper. I knew, because once, at Nairobi airport, having misplaced the damn vaccination book, I had to throw a spectacular tantrum, and sign heaps of papers stating that I was accepting sole responsibility for spreading yellow-fever in India, before they let me board the plane to Bombay.
I had to repeat the whole act at Bombay airport at 4am so surely, I wasn’t going to try my luck again.
The problem is, the yellow-fever shot is a UN-approved vaccination. Hence, only a handful of hospitals and clinics are allowed to administer it.
I searched the Net and found out on an old, dubiously written PDF file, that indeed, only one person in Jaipur could give me the shot. He was the Health and Vaccinations Officer for Rajasthan, and could be found at some government hospital, in some faraway colony. Undeterred, I called and made an appointment.
As its name said, the hospital was a government one. It means that its doctors are appointed by the state of Rajasthan. It means that it is cheap. It also means that it is dirty, crumbling, definitely not sanitized, and full of very ill and very, very poor people.
Slaloming between camping stoves and goats trotting around, I finally located the Health and Vaccinations Officer. There he was, at his desk. With 34 people in the room. I was given a chair next to him. In turn, everyone explained their ailments, discussed their test results, showed their wounds, scars, throats and ears. Privacy, obviously, was the least of their concern.
I looked around. There was a phone, but it was locked, like in the old houses, so that the servants don’t use it. Above and around the bin, large Jackson-Pollock-ish marks of betel juice colored the wall a bright maroon. The doctor itself had a museum quality to him. He was wearing large spectacles, the glasses smudged, and so thick they were probably bullet-proof. He was missing two teeth in the middle. And he was smiling a lot.
I think he was highly enjoying my presence during his consultation. Surely, this was going to be the talk of the hospital.
I absorbed the scene with utter fascination. An endless ballet of illness, misery and hope. So very far away from my own life, and yet so close.
I finally managed to get a few words edge-ways. I told Dr Spectacles that I needed a yellow-fever shot to go to Africa.
This information took some time to get processed. A few phone calls were made, on the ceremoniously unlocked phone.
It turned out that the vaccine wasn’t in stock at the moment. They would need to purchase it from the market.
“Fine, I said. Just let me know when I should come back.”
A few more phone calls. A few more patients examined.
“Right, beta, see, we can purchase the vaccine, but it will take a week.”
I was crestfallen.
I decided I had nothing to lose.
“You see, Doctor, the thing is, the yellow-fever shot is valid for 10 years. I had mine done 5 years ago in Paris. But now I have lost my vaccination book, so the only reason I need this shot is for the certificate.”
“Oh, beta, but if you have already been vaccinated why do you want to have the shot again?”.
“As I said, Doctor, to go to Africa you need to show proof that you are vaccinated against yellow fever.”
“I see. And where is your paper?”
“Unfortunately I have lost it, Doctor.”
“So, wait, I understand!! You only need the paper, not the shot!”
“Why didn’t you say it earlier beta?”
“Well, because I guess there is no proof that I really had the shot.”
“But I trust you, beta!”, he cried.
Doctor Spectacles grabbed a piece of paper.
“So, you tell me, what should I write?”
“Well, firstly, I guess you might want to write on official writing paper from the hospital.”
“Paper, you know, with the name of the hospital.”
“Oh yes yes of course, we will do that.”
“And then, probably write something along the line of I hereby certify that XXXX was vaccinated against yellow fever. I guess it’ll do. No need to write a novel.”
“A novel ha ha, good idea, beta!”
And so I left, an hour later, with a passably clean sheet of paper, sloppily printed but duly stamped by the Health and Vaccinations Officer of Rajasthan, stating that I, indeed, had been vaccinated against yellow fever.
Doctor Spectacles refused to take any money for his highly dodgy services.
I did go to Africa. On my way back, going through immigration at Bombay airport, I gingerly handed my smudged certificate. The officer looked at it with a raised, unamused eyebrow. He looked at me. Looked at the certificate. Looked at me again.
In his eyes, I could read, very clearly: We both know this is a scam yellow-fever paper. I don’t know how you got it, but you must have gone to some really dirty place. If it was up to me, you wouldn’t set foot in my country. But it’s 4am, there is a huge line behind you, and a plane just landed from Karachi. It’s your lucky day.
“Ok. You can go.” is, however, all he said.