Finding a Job

Vinod Puri

Born in 1941, Vinod Puri was brought up and educated in Amritsar. He attended Government Medical College, and subsequently trained as a surgeon at PGI, Chandigarh. He left for USA in 1969, and retired in 2003 as Director of Critical Care Services at a teaching hospital in Michigan. Married with two grown sons, he continues to visit India at least once a year.

By the middle of 1967, I had finished my Masters in Surgery (MS) and finding no prospects of a job at PGI Chandigarh, moved back home to Amritsar. I brought back my broken down Raleigh bicycle along with the old Busch radio. The bicycle had bought with the two hundred rupees I received as my scholarship for the premed distinction from the state. The radio had traveled with me to the medical college hostel rooms in Amritsar, then to Chandigarh, New Delhi house surgeon quarters of Irwin Hospital and back to PGI Chandigarh. First bought by my father for the family in 1951, I had emotional connection it. We had first heard of assassination of Pakistan’s prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan!

Several of my friends had found jobs as registrars in Chandigarh. My friend Om Parkash and I had made an ill-fated trip to Shimla, the hill-town in the newly created state of Himachal Pradesh. The state had decided to set up a medical school, so we had applied for jobs. In those days one route to get into surgery department was to start with teaching anatomy to undergraduates. During the interview, the chairman of the committee made it very clear that jobs would go to doctors from Himachal Pradesh and not to doctors from Punjab. It did not matter that we were better qualified than the people they were planning to hire. Disappointed, we made a side trip to Kufri, where saw the snow covered slopes. Many Bollywood movies used to be shot there. After drinking a bottle of beer we slid down the slopes in city clothes and returned to Chandigarh.

By now my father had suffered a debilitating stroke and was an invalid. My brother Satish had left the army and joined the family carpet business. These were the days when a surgeon could only work in a government hospital. Private hospitals, the so-called nursing homes only existed in big cities. Casting around for a job, an uncle mentioned a name that I was not familiar with. He was high up in Central Government Health Scheme in Delhi. My father who had regained part of his speech, nodded and mumbled that Sardarji would give me a job. While in Amritsar I mentioned it to Om Parkash, who similarly was without a job after finishing MS.

In Delhi, I went to stay with my mother’s sister Chand masi. By now her husband had retired and they had built a house for themselves in part of South Patel Nagar called Ranjit Nagar. The two story house had small patch of lawn in front, a small courtyard and enough room for everyone. From my age group cousin Gulshan was serving in the army corps of engineers, sister Asha was teaching school.

Patel Nagar was the area which had developed rapidly after partition with a lot of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan settling there. So now there was an East, West and South Patel Nagar. These areas were close to Connaught Place, Karol Bag and other shopping centers of New Delhi. The frantic growth of Delhi had some wags remarking on the plight of some Punjabis who alight from train and do not remember the name of the place they want to go to. They could only recall Nagar or Colony!

At the CGHS offices, I was surprised to see Om Parkash. As I was called in I saw a thin, medium height elderly Sardarji with white beard and white turban. He greeted me and sked me to sit down. I handed him the letter from my uncle.

“How is Panna Lal now?” He enquired after my father.

“He is better than before” and I told him about his stroke.

He asked me where I was living in Delhi, so he could place someplace nearby. He told me that I was over-qualified for the job. He said that we would be doing only outpatient work. This was a disappointment because I had thought that with MS degree, I would get posted in a hospital. I blurted that one of my friends was with me. As I left the office, Om Parkash was in the doorway. He stepped in and greeted the Sardarji.

I waited in the corridor. A few minutes later Om came out and said that he too had got a job in CGHS. Another of our medical school and M.S. classmates Surinder Sharma had also got a job with CGHS. I was happy that at least we had some friends in Delhi. Om Parkash was staying with his older sister in RK Puram which was near the All India Institute of Medicine (AIIM).

The clinic I was assigned to was in East Patel Nagar and barely took me ten minutes to walk to it. All I had to do was cross Patel Road, go across where the market with halwai shops were. A short distance later I turned right into a lane and the lower floor of a house had the CGHS clinic. The clinic was managed by a middle-aged Dr. Mirchandani who made it clear on the very first day that she was the boss. Just because I has a postgraduate degree did not mean that I could do as I pleased!

Thus started the three months of the most frustrating and depressing period of my medical career. These were the days when for years we read stories in newspapers and magazines about India’s brain-drain! Yet the reality of job-market was so different.

We would work for about five hours in the morning and two hours after lunch break in the evening. Mostly I had to see patients with common complaints of fever, cough, cold, runny nose, diarrhea and belly-aches. We prescribed from a limited supply of drugs. CGHS catered to a vast horde of Central Government employees who worked in the capital as clerks. They were cogs in the machinery of government and part of their benefits included free medical care in the socialist India. For all surgical problems, even minor ones like hemorrhoids I had to refer patients to Wellington Hospital. The medicines would often finish and we would have to write prescriptions.

Part of the job was to every other week, work through a mobile dispensary in neighboring localities. Two assigned doctors would ride a van to places like Ramesh Nagar, Moti Nagar, Rajouri Gardens, set up shop under a tree and see patients. Two doctors in the front, one in driver’s seat and other in passenger’s seat see patients who formed two ques. From the back of the van, the compounder Mr. Sharma would dispense pills and cough syrup. Many patients would insist only on red or green syrup, which invariably was in short supply. The van driver was a dark sikh of medium height with a sparse and scraggly beard. Sometimes he would have the dirty looking cloth tightly wound around his chin to set the beard. He probably did need to bother as it did not improve his appearance! But he was a colorful character. He was dead-set against my companion Dr. Sethi, who lived nearby in East Patel Nagar and was always late in the morning. The driver had comments to make on Dr. Sethi’s only suit that he wore every day, on the fact Sethi claimed that he was waiting to get his visa to go England. Dr. Sethi did appear pompous, especially about money which he did not seem to have much of! He was always mooching cigarettes from me that the sardarji noted with venomous disdain.

Once or twice a week while with the mobile dispensary, we were required to make house calls to see an ailing mother or mother-in-law of the government employee. The government allotted quarters were cramped, poorly built but still highly prized in expensive city like Delhi. There was very little we could do for these old patients with chronic asthma and late-stage heart failure. The sight of swollen legs with exposed sores of some bedbound poor woman in a dingy back room was bad enough. But then the low level employee insisted on serving us Campa Cola or a cup of tea with biscuits. I was also depressed at not having enough money. After two novels I had brought with me were finished, I had to wait to get my salary from the CGHS. For the first time in my life I started to read slowly so that books would last me longer!

Throughout my few months’ stay in Delhi, Om Parkash provided relief and comfort. He was posted far away but found a way to visit me in Patel Nagar or meet in Connaught Place. He hailed from Amritsar and we had been close in Chandigarh while preparing our thesis and studying for M.S. Om Parkash was good looking with pale skin and grey eyes. Even his hair seemed blond. Affectionately called ‘billa’(tomcat) for the color of his eyes, he could be mistaken for a white man. He was bright and he had helped me tremendously in Chandigarh while I struggled with my thesis during my father’s illness. It was his eternal optimism about things to come that was infectious. So he had taken to enjoying himself while we were in Delhi. We both knew that we were waiting for a better job as registrars whether in Delhi or elsewhere. The dispensary job did not seem to faze him at all. For him the job was like a long break from work. After a month we made a trip in the heat of the afternoon to another government office so we could get paid. We were assured that within a week we will receive our pay. When it happened we were ecstatic! My first shopping was to buy ‘three for hundred rupees’ shirts. For months, I had seen these displayed in the shop window of Vaish Tailors in Regal Cinema building.

One Sunday, Om Parkash showed up with his friend Pali, who he had introduced to me just a few weeks earlier. He was also from Amritsar, now living in Delhi. He actually lived close to Patel Nagar. He owned a motorcycle which was convenient for Om Parkash to get around. They had decided that we should have a Sunday brunch of chicken curry cooked at home. My company was also required because I had some expertise in cooking meat dishes, learnt from watching my father cook. I rode with them three to the motorbike. Pali’s second floor apartment was more like a bachelor’s pad but did have a kitchen and enough utensils. They already had a good sized cleaned chicken and vegetables needed for the curry. First job was to quarter the chicken in legs, breast, wings, the chicken parts. After chopping onions, green chillies, garlic and ginger we set the pot with ghee in it on the kerosene stove. As I started to brown onions, I said, “If it is a party, where is the beer?” Both Om Parkash and Pali liked the suggestion and decided to go out and buy the beer.

By the time they returned I had browned the chicken parts and covered it to cook. It took time before meat would be tender. Pali had brought some ice and we put our heads together as to how to chill beer. He did not have a refrigerator. Obvious ‘method’ was to put the slab of ice in the bucket and pour beer from the large Eagle bottles into it. We all waited patiently. Pali set plates, bread on a white sheet on the floor as he did not have a dining table. Finally, we were ready to eat and poured beer in glasses. As we tasted beer, it tasted different than what we were used to! A lot of the ice slab had melted in the bucket. Suddenly all three of us knew what we had done. We bravely finished the first glass. Food was alright but the beer was not!

At Chand masi’s house, her younger daughter was going to be engaged. Her son Gulshan who was my age had come back from his army unit on annual vacation. He was the go in between to find a young army captain for his sister’s engagement. The prospective father-in-law, a Mr. Chaudhry was quite hard to deal with. As Gulshan’s assistant in this affair, I was at the receiving end of Mr. Chaudhry’s endless demands. He was a needy, garrulous, loud man, supposed to be a prosperous builder. He was always dressed in crisp full sleeve white shirts and creased pants smelling of a strong aftershave cologne and whiskey. Gulshan would take him out to army clubs for drinks and restaurants for lunch. I was the obvious choice to ‘diagnose’ his various perceived ailments. Mr. Chaudry would even show up at the CGHS clinic to have his blood pressure checked. He later on followed this up when I got employment in the emergency department of AIIMS.

When the time came, I was delighted to tell Dr. Mirchandani that I was leaving CGHS. There was barely any reaction. Only the sikh van driver grumbled, “So I have to deal with Dr. Sethi all by myself.” I moved my few possessions into a hostel room that was meant for postgraduates. My first stint was in the blood bank. The woman doctor in-charge was a tall Sindhi with pale skin who dressed in expensive silk saris and jewelry. I was joined by a classmate from Chandigarh, Surinder Sharma who had also finished his M.S. Our job was to examine paid blood donors and certify them as healthy to donate blood. Then we would bleed them the fixed safe amount. A few minutes later they were given biscuits and juice. They were paid in cash and they walked out of the blood bank. Many of these relatively young but poor men had no jobs, were not particularly healthy and after two or three weeks again donated blood. We were used to a voluntary system of blood donation at PGI, Chandigarh and found the system disturbing. As the first institution to adopt voluntary blood donation in India, PGI and city of Chandigarh were way ahead of rest of India. The lady doctor in-charge cared only about the number of donations for the institution. She was very assertive as to how her husband had a great job in Devi Dayal Cables. So, within a few months we were happy to get a transfer to the casualty ward.

One person who was good to know was Dr. Venugopal. I has first met him as a classmate in Chandigarh. He had done what was called ‘short course’ for his M.S. degree in Chandigarh with us. The short, dark south Indian had struck out amongst many Punjabis in our postgraduate class. He was brilliant. That we had discovered in Chandigarh as he flawlessly navigated studies in six months that took us two years! Now he was back at his alma mater and attached to a well-known heart surgeon Dr. Gopinath. Venu as he was known affectionately, had set as his goal to be a cardiac surgeon. During those early days he told me how hard he had to work to please his mentor, tending to the machines and patients. Even in his early career the steely determination of the Tamil Brahmin was evident. Venu would often take us out for a dosa and coffee as he knew the right south Indian places. He as not averse to enjoy a drink with us. He introduced us to other doctors at AIIMS. We would often have meals together in the mess. Dr. Venugopal would eventually become director of AIIMS, operate on well-known Indians and be honored by the Indian Government. He was reputed to have operated on India’s Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi after her bullet-ridden body was rushed to AIIMS. This of course is second-hand but public knowledge, as I was in the U.S. I remember him as the thin, short sharp featured, articulate man with full head of hair. I have had no contact with him for years but can see his image on the net as a bald man in glasses with intelligent eyes.

One afternoon as I was buying cigarettes from one of the many roadside vendors outside the Institute, I was stopped by a lady. I recognized her as the jilted girl friend of a classmate from Chandigarh. This friend of mine since premed days had always been popular with the ladies! Before leaving Chandigarh, I knew that he had broken with this woman and taken up with another lady doctor.

“Why has not your friend answered my letters?” she demanded.

“I don’t know. I have no contact with him.” I muttered.

“Why do you lie? I know you are you are close friends with him.” Her eyes were flashing.

“I have been in Delhi for four months and I don’t know anything about what is happening in Chandigarh.” I tried vainly.

She was mad and she let me know that my friend and in turn ‘his’ friends were dirt!

In the causality department an eight-hour shift was not difficult. The fact was that Safdarjung Hospital across the road as the major trauma and burn center took in accidents and other emergencies. In general causality departments were not organized to provide emergency care. We simply called in different services to admit patients. That is the clout we had! Of course, many poor patients came from all over India for treatment in the prestigious institute. I remember receiving a hand written note in Hindi from a central minister from Bihar, Satya Narain Sinha to admit a patient from village. The poor man was already blind due to a brain tumor and probably did not have long to live. But what is known as ‘sifarish’ in the vernacular was the coin of the realm!

Epilogue - A few months of stay in AIIMS were enough to convince me that it would be hard to get into the operating room. There were openings at PGI Chandigarh. Both Om Parkash and I applied and were selected for registrars’ jobs. Now, it was time to resume our careers as surgeons. Meanwhile, Surinder Sharma had decided to stay at AIIMS. He eventually trained in urology. He spent several years in Delhi to eventually return to PGI, Chandigarh. Dr. Surinder Sharma became head of the department and later director of the institute. He left director’s post to go into private practice. Dr. Om Parkash Sharma and his wife Dr. Rajni Sharma also my classmate have remained life-long friends and live in Toledo, Ohio.

Many of my subsequent visits to Delhi, I retain memories of a visitor. The city will always have a hold on my imagination as it does for millions of Indians who come to the city.


Amazing how tough it was for qualified doctors to get reasonable jobs in those days.

Yes Subodh. An anecdote related by dean of PGI in 1968 when Dr. Har Gobind Khorana received Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is illustrative. In 1949 Dr. Khorana had briefly returned to India from England. He could not find a government research job that would support him. He returned to England, then B.C. Canada and finally MIT, Boston. We were certainly not the same category but we deserved to practice the profession we had trained for.