By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Doctor’s Word’ is a story from Malgudi Days, the short-story collection by the Indian writer R. K. Narayan (1906-2001). This short tale tells of a doctor, Ramu, who goes to attend to his sick friend, Gopal.
As Jhumpa Lahiri points out in her informative introduction to the Penguin edition of Malgudi Days, ‘Malgudi’ is Narayan’s coinage, an imaginary town thought to be located somewhere in southern India, near the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), where Narayan was born, although there are also echoes of Mysore, the city where he lived for much of his adult life.
Perhaps a brief plot summary of ‘The Doctor’s Word’ would be the best place to begin. Ramu is a doctor in Malgudi. He often complains that people only come to seek his help when the patient is at death’s door, either because they don’t want to confront the fact that their relative is seriously unwell, or because they lack the money to pay him.
One day, Ramu learns that his friend Gopal is dangerously ill. Both Ramu and Gopal are in their forties and have known each other since kindergarten. Gopal’s son comes to the doctor and asks him to come and examine his father. Ramu does so, learning that Gopal has been unwell for some time but the family didn’t want to bother him.
Gopal’s wife is keen to know what is wrong with her husband and whether he’ll pull through, but Ramu refuses to tell her specific details. Gopal, too, wants to know if he will recover or not. He tells his friend that if he is not going to survive, he needs to sign his will that will settle his financial affairs before it’s too late. However, still Ramu refuses to be direct with his friend.
Ramu goes and sits outside in his car, deciding what to do. Eventually, he goes back into Gopal’s home and tells both Gopal and Gopal’s wife that he will be all right. Gopal doesn’t need to worry about his will. He will live to be ninety years old.
Gopal is overjoyed by this news, and sure enough, he makes a full recovery. But at the end of the story, we learn that Ramu is absolutely clueless as to how his friend survived his illness, and this will remain a puzzle to him for the rest of his life.
‘The Doctor’s Word’ can perhaps best be analysed as a story about hope, but it is also a story about trust, as the title Narayan gave to the tale, ‘The Doctor’s Word’, makes clear. People, especially Gopal, trust Ramu’s word and believe what he tells them. So in a sense, Ramu knows he has a great sense of responsibility over his patients, and, in the case of this story, over his friend’s life.
Indeed, we might even say that he has the power of life and death over his friend. If he tells Gopal he won’t pull through, then Gopal’s heart will give up and he will indeed die. If he tells Gopal he is going to make a full recovery, Gopal will believe him and sure enough, he’ll recover.
But the crucial thing is that Ramu doesn’t know whether Gopal will get better or whether this ‘attack’ of illness will get the better of him. Indeed, Narayan hints that Ramu is not optimistic about his friend’s chances. So in a sense, he also puts his trust in his friend, and hopes that his diagnosis will prove correct.
He knows that if he tells Gopal to sign the will, it will be like giving a ‘death sentence’: Gopal will believe there is no hope of his recovery, and he will simply give up trying to battle the illness.
Of course, Ramu is also trusting his own word, as Gopal is; but he is trusting it in a different way from Gopal. Whereas Gopal will believe the fact of what Ramu tells him (whether or not he will survive), Ramu – in telling Gopal that he is going to make a full recovery – puts his faith in the power of his word, rather than its truth. He hopes and trusts that this glimmer of hope will be enough to make his friend rally and recover.
In a sense, there is an irony to Narayan’s story. Ramu is trusted by everyone to tell the truth: they put their faith in the veracity of ‘the doctor’s word’.
But it is only by lying to his friend that Ramu can, in fact, save him. I say ‘lying’ because, even though Ramu doesn’t believe Gopal will definitely die, he is clearly being more definitive and certain when he tells his friend that he will live and his heart is ‘absolutely sound’. Narayan uses the word ‘acting’ for Ramu’s performance, and acting is a form of lying, of adopting a position that is not actually one’s own.
Narayan’s third-person narrator tells us that Ramu doesn’t actually know whether Gopal will die or not. It appears that his illness could go either way, taking a turn either for the better or the worse. But the prognosis appears fairly bleak. The only hope lies in giving Gopal hope that he can fight off the illness and survive. Certainly it’s true that in some cases, a hopeful mental perspective can make a positive difference when patients are unwell.
The ending of ‘The Doctor’s Word’ sees Ramu scratching his head over how Gopal survived. In ending the story like this, of course, Narayan encourages us to ponder what might have made the difference. Would Gopal have made a full recovery anyway? Or did Ramu’s ‘word’ of hope really save him?
Narayan’s text offers us no definitive answer to these questions. Instead, he throws them back to us, inviting us to answer them according to our own beliefs and attitudes.