Friday, March 05, 2010

Tree & Leaf

DR MANOEL AGOSTINHO DE HEREDIA (1870-1937) ~ installment #6

Chapter VI


The stream of Manoel Agostinho’s commitment to Christian principles of conduct ran silent as well as deep. At Mass he was quiet, absorbed in the liturgy and oblivious of the rest of the congregation. Holy Week services in those days were prolonged, and recited or chanted in Latin. Unable to follow the liturgy, congregations either fell to reciting the rosary or fidgeted. Maundy Thursday rituals were particularly arduous. Not only did they go on for hours, but convention required one to visit seven chapels and churches between dawn and dusk.

Manoel Agostinho was strict in observance of this convention and it frequently fell to my lot to accompany him. There was enough that was dramatic in the church services to keep boredom at bay, washing of the feet, extinction of one of seven candles on a great candelabra as each part of the solemnly-chanted vespers ended, and the startling effect of the clatter (of the officiating clergy and acolytes thumping their books) that broke out when extinction of the last candle plunged the church into darkness, which was relieved by emergence from behind the altar of a deacon bearing a single taper. But the meaning and significance of this drama was in the missal in which he followed the services throughout the Holy Week from Palm to Easter Sunday. That many of his children, their children and grandchildren take missals with them to church services is one instance of his spreading the Good News by example.

The influence of his silent but robust faith was felt beyond his family circle. His well-to-do Hindu, Parsi and Muslim patients were in the main piously inclined; able to see beneath the healing touch which he seemed to possess, his constant desire to raise up the sick; to cure them. Diligence, patience, simplicity of the soul, these in their eyes were marks of a virtuous person and they came to esteem a religion whose adherent bore witness to these gifts which are, though this be unknown to them, gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Not all whom he treated gratis or at a reduced fee, were coreligionists. Less well-to-do patients from these same communities, whom he helped in this manner were perhaps even more aware of his empathic interest in their condition.

Inevitably, advantage was sometimes taken of his willingness to treat all men as brothers. Late one evening, two persons to entered the Kalbadevi dispensary at closing time and one earnestly pleaded for his sick friend to be examined, despite the late hour. Removing and placing on his chair back the jacket that he had that moment assumed, Manoel Agostinho took the sick man into the examination room and, having found nothing seriously wrong with him, prescribed rest and left the dispensary for home. It was only after reaching home that he found his wallet missing from the breast pocket of his jacket. He did not think of enlisting police help to recover his lost property. But two days later, an old patient of his came to the dispensary with his missing wallet and the thief, who had spent its contents on a drinking spree, and in his cups had boasted of his coup.

Urged to accompany captor and captive to the nearby police station, Manoel Agostinho refused to prosecute one who had yielded to a temptation that, but for his own thoughtlessness, might not have come [the thief’s] way. This story went around the kudds and enhanced public regard for “the good doctor”.

Dispensary patients were not charged for consultancy, but paid for the prescribed mixture, pills or ointments which were dispensed by a compounder according to the doctor’s prescription, and delivered on the patient tendering payment. When the dispensary closed for the day, the compounder would hand over the day’s takings to the doctor, who would take the cash home and have the amount entered in an account book maintained by Ángela Mericia. Some time after a new and very smart compounder had been engaged, she noticed that takings had begun to fall off and having ascertained that the dispensary practice had not dwindled, she had a family friend undertake a discreet audit of the dispensary accounts, which exposed the new compounder’s embezzlement. The sums embezzled amounted to several thousand rupees, none recoverable, as the culprit claimed to have squandered all of it in speculation. Urged to make an example of the man by having him prosecuted, Manoel Agostinho again refused to take what he felt would be a vindictive step. This story, too, went the rounds; while some belittled his soft- heartedness, most saw it as an act of Christian forbearance.

There is no doubt that Manoel Agostinho was what in modern parlance would be described as a ‘soft touch’. Many were those, and mostly undeserving, who took advantage of his response to a sob story. However, his earnings from his practice continued to rise and Ángela Mericia’s remonstrances about his ‘throwing money away’ in misplaced generosity were met by the reply - ‘but it keeps coming back to us’, which she could not contradict.

The acid test of his commitment to Christian values was the financial crisis precipitated by the failure of the ‘Maji Agbott’ venture. Bankruptcy was the easy and accepted way out of such predicaments. But not for one who felt bound to meet his obligations in full, whatever sacrifices this entailed.

In this resolve, he had Ángela Mericia’s whole hearted support. She reduced domestic expenditure by economising wherever she could without attracting attention. But her children experienced, the younger ones uncomprehendingly, what might euphemistically be termed a ’simplification’ of the meals they had been accustomed to, and the continued use of clothing that in the past would have been replaced. Having cut the household expenditure, she raised its revenues by manufacturing, bottling and labelling, at home, a pharmaceutical product named ‘Angelic Balm’ which was sold at the dispensary as a remedy against coughs, colds and muscular pains.

That the product became popular is evidenced by burgeoning sales, income from which contributed not a little to liquidating her husband’s debts. This proved two Christian teachings - ‘cast thy bread upon the waters, and it shall return to you manifold’, and ‘God helps those who help themselves’!

Manoel Agostinho’s Christian outlook was no less evident in his family life.

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