Who You Know : a short story

“If you want something badly, let it go. If it comes back, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it never was yours to begin with.” – a Spanish proverb

One beautiful afternoon in late summer, fifteen years ago, two young men stepped into the hallowed portals of Madras Medical College.

They were quite alike, these two young doctors-to-be. Both had been brilliant scholars. Both were determined and driven. And both, as young medicos are, were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

During the five years of the training, Kumar and Sanjay spent hours in the library hunched over textbooks, and in the wards examining patients. They were bright, eager and curious to learn. And they competed fiercely for honors.

But there was a difference.

Kumar won all the gold medals in prize exams. Sanjay scored top marks in most University tests.

What made the difference?

Maybe it was just coincidence, but each time a prize exam was announced, Kumar’s uncle visited the college. It was unusual, because he was a busy doctor who practised 200 miles away, in the southern town of Trichy.

In time, the young men graduated. Nobody was surprised when both secured coveted seats in internal medicine residency programs. Or when their rivalry continued for the duration of the course.

It was only ten years after their paths first crossed that they diverged.

Kumar was interested in diseases of the heart and became a cardiologist. Sanjay found brain disorders fascinating, and trained in neurology.

Then, once again, the powerful magnet of Fate drew them together.

Both were appointed to work at the Institute of Childhood Diseases in their alma mater.

* * *

From time to time, they ran into each other. Met at the cafeteria for a cup of tea and a brief chat.

But Sanjay was repulsed when rumours swirled about Kumar’s favoritism towards certain patients, allegedly greased by ‘gifts’ of cash. After that, he avoided such meetings whenever he could.

It might have been coincidence that, some years later, the two frenemies met at the Secretary’s office.

“What are you here for, Sanjay?”

“I’ve been offered a year’s fellowship in London. So I’ve applied for leave. You?”

“That’s weird. I’m here for the same reason. But Paris, instead.”

After some desultory chit chat for a few minutes, they parted.

Kumar hadn’t introduced him to the pot-bellied man beside him. But Sanjay thought he looked familiar.

Only later, on the drive back home, the penny dropped. He now recognized the politician, a junior minister of Health and Social Welfare.

* * *

Sanjay thought back to the complex, wending path his application had travelled.

When a rocket takes-off, it must first reach ‘escape velocity’ to avoid being pulled back by Earth’s gravity. If it doesn’t attain speed and momentum, the launch fails.

It’s like that when you strive to achieve a dream. The struggle succeeds only with intense effort, determination and stubborn persistence.

“Nothing comes easy. Every dream will be tested.

Sanjay had heard his mentor say this over and over.

And he had even believed it… back then.

Now, he knew better!

That all it takes is the right contacts. 

Who you know, not what you know!

Then, things come easy. REAL easy.

* * *

But he didn’t have the right contacts.

At least, not many.

And so, progress was painfully slow.

Sanjay’s earliest efforts to train in the United States were random shots in the dark. He sent out 57 applications. Most failed. A few struck their target. And he received five offers. 

Of course, he only needed one, so it wasn’t bad.

But a year later, Sanjay was forced to give up. It was simply too tough for a doctor to get permission to train in America.

He had almost abandoned hope when, out of the blue, an offer arrived. It was from a top childrens’ hospital in London, inviting him to spend a year with them as a fellow in the department of neurology.

And he hadn’t even applied for the position!

A friend sent an email introducing Sanjay to his colleague in London. On the strength of that endorsement, he’d been accepted into a program which has a two-year waiting list!

* * *

Sanjay was over the moon.

Naively, he believed that everything was now set. 

He’d travel to Britain.  Get trained.  Return to India.  And put what he learned to good use. 

Save lives.  Perform complex procedures.  Head a specialist team.

It was a rosy dream.

But soon it came into harsh contact with reality.

* * *

The position offered under the Overseas Doctors Training Scheme (ODTS) had a complex set of requirements. Everything was outlined in a letter from the Royal College of Physicians.

There were supporting documents to prepare.  Certificates and transcripts to attach.  Agreements to sign.

One of them required his unit chief’s endorsement.

And that was a hurdle – because his chief didn’t want him to leave. In fact, he had discouraged Sanjay from even applying for training.

What to do?

Sanjay decided to take a chance, and go over him, straight to the Head of neurology. Technically, this was a breach in protocol. 

But he decided to risk it… and got lucky!

At an informal meeting, the Head asked just one question: 

“Does this application go through our state government?”

“No, sir. I’ll send it myself to the Royal College.”

That was all. He signed it.

Sanjay was home free.

Or so he thought.

* * *

The wheels of administration at a University hospital turn very, very slowly.

Just as tiny rivulets connect up into streams, which then coalesce into rivers that eventually rush into the ocean, so does paperwork take a lengthy, winding path.

“It will take a month,” Sanjay was told by the office clerk.

He expected it would be twice as long.

It actually took three months. 

And even that was because he nudged it along at every stage.

At last, his application reached the Director of Medical Education.

* * *

Kumar’s had a simpler, more direct route.

His father-in-law was a senior bureaucrat in the Indian Administrative Service.

With a phone call to the institute director and another to the medical college dean, he ensured that Kumar’s application was in the DME’s office – in just 3 days!

* * *

Sanjay was happy there was only one last step.

But it turned out to be the toughest hurdle.

Again, Lady Luck smiled.

His cousin had worked for 5 years in Kuwait as a government deputee. Her colleague there was a man who now held the Assistant DME position.

They were in his office.

And Sanjay was getting bored!

For nearly forty-five minutes, he endured dull chit-chat about mutual friends and co-workers in a far-off land, while sipping weak, watery tea that tasted like mud.  It seemed like they’d never get to the point.

Finally, his cousin mentioned the REAL reason for the visit… Sanjay’s leave application.

The Assistant DME asked a junior clerk to fetch his file.

Surprise, surprise! In 3 weeks that his application had been in the office, the only thing done was to affix a sticker to the cover!

“Let me take a look at this,” said the officer.  “Come back next week. I’ll see what can be done.”

He dismissed them with a smile.

A fortnight later, there was “good news”.  The file was ready for the Secretary’s approval.

“Without my efforts, this would have taken another month. Or maybe even two,” said the gentleman, as he grinned widely. He seemed proud about the sloth and inefficiency in his office.

Sanjay sighed.

And then smiled.

Because his cousin was saying:

“Would you mind doing me one more little favor? Please take Sanjay’s file to the Secretary yourself!”

That would probably slash 10 days from the timeline.  Surprisingly, the officer agreed. They drove in Sanjay’s car to the Secretary’s office.

It was a short ride. 

Just 10 minutes!

* * *

In four and a half months, Sanjay’s application had reached the decision-maker’s office.

Like climbing a steep mountain, progress was slow and difficult… but it was easy – and quick – to slip back down.

Which is what happened!

A week later, Sanjay had a message from his hospital office.

“Your application has been sent back.”

He was back to square one!

* * *

“Why?  What’s wrong?”

Sanjay was back at the Secretariat. He had brought along a friend “with connections” for leverage.

The office superintendent just stared back at them blankly.

“Why did you return my papers?” Sanjay persisted, wondering what excuse the man would make up.

“You’ll have to re-apply, sir.  For a work permit.  This isn’t educational training you’re going for.  It’s employment!”

Sanjay was surprised – and confused.

The ODTS program is clearly labelled a training program.  Yet this man had returned the file because he chose to misinterpret the message!

“No, it’s specialist training,” Sanjay explained.  “See, the letter is from the Royal College of Physicians.  It explains everything.  What more will convince you?”

The superintendent was adamant. 

“Sir, just look at how much money they’re offering you.  That’s not for being a student.  That’s employment.”

Sanjay couldn’t believe his ears! Did the quantum of his stipend redefine the offer itself?

There was also another problem.

While an application for training overseas couldn’t be denied, the administration could turn down requests to travel outside the country for employment.

They were positioning things so that his application could be rejected!

* * *

His training in London was slated to begin in June. 

The series of delays meant it was already late April when Sanjay’s papers bounced back.

He faced two stark choices.  Neither was easy.

Give up – once again.

Or re-submit the application.

Sanjay decided to give it a shot.

That meant doing what took 5 months – in less than 5 weeks!

Pulling out the stops. Calling in favors.  Bullying and shoving his way through bureaucratic clutter.

The focused effort paid off. 

Barely 10 days later, the file was right back where it had been… plus, he now had an appointment with the Secretary himself.

* * *

Sanjay sat in a private waiting room to meet the state’s top health official.

The Secretary had sole authority to approve or reject his application. 

Accompanying Sanjay was a man who knew the Secretary, and would explain to him what had happened. 

They entered the office, and the intermediary said:  “Uncle, this doctor has a problem with his routine application for training abroad. It has been delayed for over 5 months.”

Sanjay put forth his case.

The Secretary was outraged!

“Who is in charge of this?” he asked.

“The superintendent, Mr.Ranjith.”

“Ask him to come here right now!”

The man arrived – and was given a dressing-down.

“I want doctor’s papers prepared and ready for my signature in two days,” the Secretary ordered, before dismissing him from the room.

Sanjay felt a rush of excitement and joy.

Then, doubt set in. 

After all, how many times had this “sure thing” blown up before?

Sanjay had already booked flight tickets for the following week.

“Sir, should I postpone my trip until this is over?” he asked.

“No, don’t worry about it any more.  This shouldn’t have taken so long.  You go ahead with your plans.  I’ll have the letter ready before you leave.”

Relieved and happy, Sanjay walked out of his office.

And ran into Kumar!

* * *

Kumar had come to thank the Secretary.

With the junior minister’s recommendation, his application had breezed through all the stages that held back Sanjay’s.

He had picked up the certificate of approval from Ranjith’s desk a few minutes ago.

It had only taken him a week – and some ‘gifts’ to the people who helped him out.

* * *

That should have been Sanjay’s happy ending too.

But it wasn’t!

Ranjith didn’t like having his knuckles rapped by his superior officer. He struck back in a sneaky, underhand way.

He made sure that Sanjay’s papers were sent for a final security clearance to an officer… who was on sick leave for a month!

Sanjay wouldn’t get his approval certificate until then.

* * *

“Is this really worth doing?”

Late into the night, Sanjay lay awake worrying.

It was clear that he wouldn’t get official permission to leave in time to begin his training.

His only option was to go without it.

But…

Was it worth doing?

No matter how many times he asked himself the question, the answer was stubbornly the same:

Absolutely!

Because he would gain experience and knowledge to treat hundreds of little children with life-threatening conditions.

His mentor’s words rang again in his ears:

EVERY DREAM WILL BE TESTED.

This was his acid test.

Yes, it would be nice if everything fell in place smoothly to make dreams come true. 

A well-oiled government machinery could have swiftly passed along the application. 

An efficient officer could have seen the value of this training, and speeded up the approval. 

In an ideal world, Sanjay’s approval letter would have been issued quickly and without any fuss.

It wasn’t.

That’s unfair!

But then, in an ideal world, no one would need his skills at all. Because, in an ideal world, there would be no children with disease!

Sanjay made his decision.

His eyes closed and he fell deep asleep.

* * *

Sanjay ran into Kumar at the airport.

For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw shock and surprise on his colleague’s face. But it was quickly masked under a greasy smile.

“So, you got your paperwork finished, eh?” asked Kumar.

Sanjay just nodded.

They got in line to check in their bags. Went through a security check. And reached the immigration desk.

Kumar walked up and handed over his passport.

The grim faced officer scanned it unsmilingly, and then looked up at the young doctor.

“You don’t have emigration clearance.”

Kumar smiled.

“I’m a doctor. I don’t need one.”

The man’s face remained impassive.

“Sorry. That’s only if you have a stamp in your passport. You don’t.”

“What do you mean?” Kumar blustered. “Of course, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

With a sinking feeling, Kumar remembered that he recently renewed his passport. And forgot to submit his medical credentials, which would have automatically got an ECNR (emigration clearance not required) seal placed on it.

“… and without it, you cannot proceed on your journey. Please turn back.”

Kumar was getting angry and agitated. Waving his finger in the officer’s face, he shouted:

“Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t care. Please leave now.”

“I want to talk to your superior officer,” Kumar demanded.

Already, a tall figure in a spotless white uniform was making his way towards the desk. The inspector had noticed the commotion and was coming to investigate.

“What’s the problem?” he asked the officer.

After listening to him, the inspector turned to Kumar.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, sir. If you need anything, meet the chief immigration officer tomorrow morning. Good night!”

Kumar was shaking in fury. Holding himself in control with great difficulty, he turned on his heel and stomped away.

Sanjay was next in line. He walked up to the inspector, who smiled at him.

“Dr.Sanjay! What a pleasant surprise.”

“Hello, Mr.Khanna. How is Vinod doing?”

“He’s well, doctor. Thanks to you, my son even won a couple of prizes at the school’s annual sports day last week!”

Both men remembered the harrowing time a few years back when the little boy lay battling for his life in the ICU. A deadly virus had hit his brain, and left him in coma for a week.

“So, where are you off to, doc?”

“Well, the plan was to train in London for a year, but…”

“But… what?”

Sanjay smiled ruefully.

“Now I’ll just have to go back home, it seems. You see, I too haven’t got an ECNR stamped on my passport.”

The senior immigration officer threw back his head and laughed loudly.

“Not a problem, doc. I can approve applicants at my discretion.”

He picked up the large seal and stamped Sanjay’s open passport with a loud bang.

“There,” he said, handing it over. “Have a nice trip.”

Grinning widely, Sanjay turned his head to look back.

He caught a last glimpse of his bete noire dragging his feet across the airport concourse. Kumar’s phone was glued to his ear, and he was arguing animatedly with someone.

“Maybe he’s trying to pull some strings,” muttered Sanjay to himself. “After all, it’s about who you know.

* * *

I hope you liked this short story.

If you did, you’ll love my book The Icedrop.

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