Thursday 9 August 2012

Bitter Medicine: A Story of Chamathunagar

Unusually for a town its size, Chamathunagar had only one major pharmacy. Its name was Swaasthya Medicals and it was located in a little lane off the market, the one that opened between Bhola’s General Stores and the Badebhai Movie Hall. Everyone knew where it was.

From not just all over Chamathunagar, but from the little villages surrounding it, from places like Dimaagkharab and Pagalkhana, Kisnemaara and Uskipitaee, people came to Swaasthya Medicals to buy the tablets and capsules their doctors or quacks told them they needed to stay alive. They knew it so well that they just called it the Pill Shop. Even a quack like old Fakhruddin of Bahutbukhar sent his clients to the Pill Shop in Chamathunagar when his own sugar tablets and chalk powders wouldn’t cure his luckless victims. It was so well known as the Pill Shop that it even had that painted on the signboard under Swaasthya Medicals, and in bigger letters.

It was partly because he had a monopoly on the pill-pushing business, partly because he was a diehard conservative, and most of all because he was as big a skinflint as his cousin Umashanker Agarwal, the catering magnate, that Ramakant Agarwal made no effort at making his pharmacy attractive to the customer. It was windowless, dingy, and lined with old cupboards of dark wood in which the boxes and vials of medicines were piled with no particular attempt to ensure anything approaching organisation. Old Agarwal himself, droop-jowled and heavy-eyed, sat behind the cash desk at the back and watched his salesmen scurry around all day filling prescriptions. As long as he got his money, Agarwal didn’t really care if sometimes one person got given another’s medicines, or if someone didn’t always necessarily get the drug he’d been prescribed. The system had worked well enough for the thirty years he’d been in business, and he didn’t see why it shouldn’t go on for the next thirty.

His staff, like him, had worked there a long time. He had trained them all, as far as training went. None of them had a great deal of intelligence or ambition, and that was precisely as Agarwal wanted it. Intelligent and ambitious people were dangerous. He had enough brains in his own head to run the shop, and he didn’t see why anyone else should need to have any.

The Pill Shop had a fixed routine. Precisely at a quarter to nine every morning, seven days a week, Agarwal would waddle down the lane, one or other of his salesmen following deferentially three paces behind. Upon arriving at the shop, he would take a heavy bunch of keys from his waist and hand it to the salesman, who would unlock and heave up the shutter. It was stiff with lack of lubrication, but Ramakant Agarwal didn’t see why he should have to pay out hard-earned money on maintenance unless and until the shutter actually stopped working. After all, it wasn’t as though it was he who had to raise and lower it.

Well before nine, his staff would all arrive. They had to be there by nine, by all means, or they would be docked the entire day’s wages. Agarwal had been known to advance his own watch by five minutes so that he would be able to claim some of his men had come late, and so cut their pay. His employees were so soul-crushed that they hadn’t the spine left to stand up for their rights. They didn’t dare claim they had any.

Late one evening, though, something unprecedented happened.

It was the last day of the month, and Ramakant Agarwal was engaged in the joyless task of making up pay packets for his employees. For tax purposes, he had them sign receipts saying they got much higher remuneration than he was actually giving them, but that didn’t mean he didn’t grudge the act of paying them anything at all. Grunting irritably, he called them one by one and watched as they signed their salary slips with the fake figures before he handed them their slim envelopes. He had just finished handing out the last packet and had slammed shut the ledger when he noticed that one of his men was still hovering around the counter.

“Yes?” Ramakant Agarwal never spoke to any of his employees without a portentous frown. “What do you want, Kishore?”

“Ah, sir.” Kishore’s dark, oily face was shinier than usual with a film of sweat. “I, ah, was wondering if you could raise my pay. It’s too little for me, and...”

“Raise your pay?” Agarwal gave a strangled bellow, very like the bull Avishek Mishra used to own. “I just raised it...let’s see...two years ago. What do you mean by this nonsense?”

Kishore flinched. “Nothing, sir, nothing. I just meant that I, uh, I got a job offer elsewhere, and they say they’ll pay two thousand more. So...”

Agarwal snorted. “Two thousand more for an idiot like you? These people must be mad.”

“But, sir, they’re offering it, and they want me to join tomorrow.”

“Then...” Agarwal squinted ferociously. “You go and join them. Don’t you dare come back here again!”

Although Ramakant Agawal didn’t know it, that was the beginning of the biggest crisis the pill-pushing trade had ever had in Chamathunagar.

That’s quite a load you’ve got there, Pillu,” Vijay said. “You got it all from the new shop, huh?”

Pillu, bent under his load of paint cans, grinned. “Yes, they were throwing these away. I got a lot of them.”

“Hoshiar should pay well for them, hey? You won’t have to work too hard for a few days.”

Pillu shrugged his shoulders slightly, without answering, and walked away down the street. Vijay turned to look at the new shop at the far end of the square. A couple of workmen were hauling a signboard into place over the freshly-painted bright green shutters. Others had been at work inside for weeks, hammering and scraping, painting and tiling. Vijay wondered what the shop would be selling. So long as it wasn’t a competitor to his tea stall, he didn’t particularly care, but he was curious.

Since there wasn’t, for the moment, a customer at the stall, not even Jaggu Ram, Vijay left his assistant Chhotu in charge and walked over to have a look at the signboard.

“Dawakhana Pharmacy, huh?” he muttered, wandering back to his stall. “Wonder what old Agarwal over in the Pill Shop thinks of it.”

As it happened, old Agarwal in the Pill Shop didn’t take any notice of the Dawakhana for several days. Even when the new pharmacy sent him, by post, an invitation card for the Grand Opening, he scarcely looked at it. “Throw it in the trash,” he snapped.

“Won’t you be going for it then, sir?” his assistant, Mukesh, dared to ask. “They say there will be a lot of good food.”

“Good food, ha.” Ramakant Agarwal snapped. “I know the real story of Umashanker’s business’ food, and he’s catering them. In any case, it would be cruel eating their stuff, since they’ll be out of business in a week. Two at the most.”

But a week went by, and then a fortnight, and the Dawakhana didn’t show any signs of folding. Through the leaves of the potted plants waving inside its large plate glass windows, passers-by could see a steadily increasing number of customers. At first only a few came, hesitantly, almost as though they were committing an act of sedition against the Pill Shop by entering this newfangled competition. But the staff of the pharmacy, in immaculate white coats, greeted them politely and quickly filled their prescriptions, and even smiled when giving them their exact change. It was almost a culture shock after the Pill Shop’s dark shadows, surly service, and how the change would usually come up a rupee or two short. The place seemed to have worked a miracle on people. Even Kishore, late of the Pill Shop, seemed to have learned to smile.

And – somehow – the regular customers of the Pill Shop found themselves turning into this big, bright establishment with its potted rubber plants and its smiling assistants who seemed to be able to pick out whatever they wanted from the shelves in a fraction of the time the Pill Shop’s people wasted in peering and fumbling. Somehow, it was easy to let their old allegiance drop away, and they began going there not just for medicines, but to pick up toothpaste and petroleum jelly, shampoo and hair dye as well. Unlike the Pill Shop, the Dawakhana stocked them all.

In certain quarters this aroused some resentment.

“It’s lucky they aren’t selling biscuits and ketchup,” Bhola from the General Stores muttered darkly to his principal competitor, Zakir from the grocery. “Or else I would be forced out of business.”

Zakir nodded. “They sell things cheaper than we can,” he pointed out. “They’re selling them at below the maximum retail price. How can they do that?”

“Zakir, my brother,” Bhola proclaimed to the grocer, “it’s not fair. It’s not fair at all. But what can we do?”

“Maybe something will turn up,” Zakir said. “Though I don’t think it will.”

“Things never happen as you’d like them to,” Bhola agreed mournfully.

One day Ramakant Agarwal looked around his shop and suddenly realised something. It was noon, usually the busiest time of day, and yet the place was unusually silent. It was so silent that he could almost have imagined it empty, but for the figures of his assistants, perched indolently on their small wooden stools. And they were indolent because there wasn’t a single customer in the place.

It sent a shaft of fear through Ramakant Agarwal’s heart.

He decided it was time to take drastic action. Heaving himself up from his chair, and waving off Mukesh, who came hurrying up, he announced that he was going for a short walk. Ignoring the surprised stares of his employees, who had never heard of such a thing, he wheezed off up the lane until he was in the market square. From beside Bhola’s General Stores, he could see the Dawakhana and what he noticed going on behind the plate glass windows chilled him to the bone despite the forty-degree temperature.

The damned place was full of customers!

Even as he watched, old Putul, who had always come to the Pill Shop thrice a month for his blood pressure medicines, as far back as anyone could remember, went in there and came out with a brown paper packet in his hand. And just behind him was Gundu Rao, almost certainly going in for his insulin. And there were others, some of them villagers...and their money, which by rights belonged to him, Ramakant, was going to the miserable upstarts in the shop there!

The thought made him feel so physically sick that he swayed and might have fallen, and Bhola came hurrying down the steps. “Are you ill, Sethji?” he asked worriedly.

Ramakant Agarwal waved him off and went back to his Pill Shop, walking as though each step meant a financial loss to him.


“I tell you,” Ramakant Agarwal said, “something will have to be done!”

Mahavir Prasad looked at his client quizzically, adjusting his spectacles. “What do you suggest I do?”

“I don’t know. You’re the lawyer, so you should be able to find out something. Get them to stop their business, or move, or something like that. Stop them stealing my customers.”

“Can’t do that,” Mahavir Prasad said reasonably. “They have as much right to run their business as you do. If the people choose to buy from them instead of you, that’s their right as well.”

“I heard the damned place is putting in a fish tank,” Ramakant Agarwal wailed.

“Well,” Prasad said, slapping shut the legal file on his desk, “from what I’ve heard, they’re getting customers because they’ve decorated the place nicely, because their staff is efficient and fast-working, and because they’ve got a location bang on the market square. If you rented better premises, and upgraded your pharmacy, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to compete on equal terms.”

As Prasad later told his friend and colleague Karim Bhai, Agarwal turned a sickly shade of green. “That would cost money,” he whimpered. “I’d go bankrupt!”

“If you don’t,” Prasad said with ill-concealed relish, “you will, from what you tell me, go bankrupt anyway.”


There’s something screwy about that shop,” Vijay said.

Jaggu Ram helped himself to another cream roll. “What shop?”

“That pharmacy place.” Vijay discreetly moved the jar of rolls off the counter while Jaggu was looking across the square. The fat slob had already finished off half the contents, and looked all set to swallow the whole lot. “You know, the Dawakhana.”

“What about it?” Jaggu said through a mouthful of roll. “What’s wrong with it?”

“I’d taken my wife to old Dr Makhijani last night,” Vijay said. “She had some stomach pain. And then there was this character before us, shouting at old Makhijani in his consulting room. We could hear him clearly.”

“Huh. What was he shouting about?” Jaggu Ram reached for another roll and found to his surprise that the jar had vanished. “Where...”

“You want tea, Jaggu?” Vijay asked hastily. “You know, we’ve been going to old Makhijani for years, and I’ve never known him to make a mistake. He’s the best there is.”

“Yeah.” Jaggu slurped at the tea. “And so?”

“This other character was shouting that the medicines Makhijani had prescribed hadn’t done the slightest good, and that in the end they had to send the patient to the hospital in Kuttagarh, and that Makhijani should refund their money, and so on. Later Makhijani told us that this wasn’t the first time recently this had happened. He said he’d heard other doctors were having the same problem.”

“Hm. You think they got bad medicines from the shop? Why from there?”

Vijay shrugged. “Who goes to the Pill Shop any longer? Mind you, the Dawakhana’s doing good business, and they pay well. I saw Kishore yesterday and he was wearing clothes from the big shops in Kuttagrah where they charge you to breathe their air.”

“Did he tell you anything about bad medicines?”

“Of course not. Here, look at that guy.” Vijay and Jaggu watched a young man carrying a brown leather briefcase enter the Dawakhana. Through the plate glass windows they could see him walk to the back, where the manager had a small office.

“What about him?”

“I see him go in there a couple of times a week. What do you think he does in there?”

“That’s a medical representative,” Jaggu Ram stated, his tongue stumbling over the unaccustomed syllables. “He’s there to sell medicines to them, you idiot.”

“They must be making a lot of money,” Vijay said enviously. “Even more than you do in bribes, Jaggu.”

“What the hell did you just say?”

“Nothing, nothing. Here, Jaggu, have some more tea.”


have a friend in Kuttagarh,” Rajat Kapoor said. “A doctor working in the government hospital.”

“What about him?” Karim Bhai peered at the draft affidavit and made a couple of changes. “Some people go to law for the slightest thing. You see this man here, he hasn’t the slightest idea what he really wants...what were you saying? What about your friend?”

“He tells me the number of people from Chamathunagar getting admitted is right up. Mostly from simple things, diarrhoea and the like, which should be easily curable, but aren’t.”

“And why should that be? Any idea?”

“Well, he said that these people all claim that they went to doctors and got given medicines, but they didn’t get better. You know how Putul always takes blood pressure medicines? Well, he too is in the hospital after his pressure soared, and he’s been taking the same stuff as ever.”

“Yes...I had someone come in asking if he could sue old Dr Makhijani for negligence. I referred him to the medical board in Kuttagarh. What are you getting at, Rajat?”

“I heard there’s a bazaar rumour going around that there are fake medicines in circulation.” Rajat Kapoor tapped the table. “And it’s started fairly recently. After the new pharmacy came up, in fact.”

“That’s an odd thing. Mahavir told me old Ramakant Agarwal’s been giving him a hard time, asking for the pharmacy to be closed down, somehow, anyhow. You don’t think he’s behind the fake medicines, assuming they really are fake?”

“Who goes to his old Pill Shop any longer? He’ll probably have to shut down at the rate which he’s losing customers.”  

“So,” Karim Bhai said, “it’s the Dawakhana. Well, and what can we do about that?”

“What do you know about the fake medicine racket?”

The thin old lawyer shrugged. “Pretty much as much as you do. What I read in the magazines. They either re-pack expired pills in fresh packaging, or they sell fakes that look almost but not exactly like the originals. You know that happens with other things as well.”

“Yeah, I bought what I imagined to be a lock made by Harrison’s the other day, and when I took a good look at it I found that the top of the second R was just slightly open. It was a Harkison’s lock, you see.”

“We can’t just go in there and proclaim that they’re selling fakes, you know.” Karim steepled his fingertips in the style of a judge he much admired. “Even if we can prove the medicines are fakes, they can always claim they were honestly duped. They’ll pass on the responsibility to the suppliers.”

 “And after a while they’ll start selling fakes again, as easy as you please.”

“You’ve got it in one sentence.” Karim smiled without humour. “So what can we do?”

Rajat Kapoor rubbed his face. “I do believe I’ve got a touch of ‘flu,” he said. “Let me go and get a strip of Paracetamol. One shouldn’t take chances.”

“Since when has that started?” Karim Bhai arched an eyebrow. “You were looking fine a moment ago.”

Rajat Kapoor grinned. “These things come on suddenly, you know.”


Would you like a receipt?” Kishore asked. “Do you need one?”

“What’s the difference?” Rajat Kapoor glanced curiously around the Dawakhana. It was the first time he had been inside the place. The big aquarium at the back particularly caught his attention, with its brightly coloured fish. “Isn’t it standard practice for you people to issue receipts?”

“No, it’s just that...” Kishore glanced around. “If you want a receipt, we’ll have to charge the sales tax. If you don’t want a receipt, we can give it to you at a discount.”

Kapoor stared at him for a moment. “I think I’ll have the receipt, then.” He watched as Kishore fumbled among the boxes on the shelves, and waited until the man had opened one. “I changed my mind,” he called out. “I think I won’t take the receipt after all.”

With grim satisfaction, he watched Kishore put the box back and pick up another.

Later, he sent off the strip of tablets to his friend in Kuttagarh, by courier.

Meanwhile, Karim Bhai went looking for Pillu.


I see you got the aquarium,” Rajat Kapoor said.

“Nobody seemed to want it.” Karim Bhai looked slightly embarrassed. “I didn’t want the poor fish to suffer. It wasn’t their fault.”

Kapoor watched long-finned black-and-white fish swim in and out of the streams of bubbles. “To the victor go the spoils of war, huh?”

“It was as much the town’s victory as any one person’s,” Karim Bhai said. “You did more than your part.”

“Even though the analysis said the tablets were just compressed chalk powder,” Kapoor told him, “I had no proof I’d bought them there in the Dawakhana, of course, since they didn’t give me a receipt. I could’ve bought them from anywhere. That bit was your brainwave.”

“Couldn’t have done it without Pillu.” Karim Bhai smiled complacently. “I thought that since nobody ever notices the garbage man, he was the perfect person to get hold of their paper trash, and bring it to me. A little poking around, and I found all the proof I needed. The original receipts, invoices and so on.”

“Good thing I know the drug inspector,” Mahavir Prasad said. “We go back a long way, but he wouldn’t have lifted a finger without proof.”

“I never heard what happened to the owners,” Kapoor said. “Were they arrested?”

“Huh,” Karim snorted, “of course not. They just vanished overnight. They had their sources in the drug inspector’s office, of course. These things never happen without some degree of official collusion, you know. Still, I suppose as long as the town’s safe, that’s the main thing.”

“And what did Ramakant Agarwal say?” Rajat Kapoor glanced at Mahavir Prasad. “Was he grateful?”

“Oh, very grateful.” Prasad laughed suddenly. “And then he made sure to tell me that since it wasn’t my doing, he hadn’t any intention of paying me a thing.”

“Sounds like his accounts could do with a thorough audit,” Rajat Kapoor said. “I’ll make sure to drop a word in the right quarters.”

“He’ll just pay his way out,” Prasad said gloomily, but then brightened. “But that’s the best punishment he could have, isn’t it?”


Ramakant Agarwal scribbled down the numbers in his ledger, and looked around the Pill Shop. Once again, it was full of the noise and bustle of customers, and his cash box was brimming with money. Tomorrow, unfortunately, he would have to pay his employees, and he sighed to think of the dent that would make in his month’s earnings, especially after the bribe to the damned tax inspector. But some things couldn’t be helped.

He heard a slight cough and looked up. Mukesh stood at his elbow, looking embarrassed.

“Sir,” he said, ‘I’ve just got an offer for another job. They’ve asked me to join from Monday. If you could see a way to increasing my salary, though...”

“Increasing your salary? Why-” Ramakant Agarwal bit back his retort with an effort. “All right,” he said. “How much more are they offering?”

Another customer entered the shop, prescription in hand.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011/12

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