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Differing Visions

G. Sampath

By Damon Galgut
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2003, pp. 215, Rs. 250.00


The Good Doctor is actually the story of two “good” doctors – the middle-aged, cynical Frank Eloff, and the young, idealistic intern, Laurence Waters. They become roommates in a dying, dilapidated hospital in South Africa’s erstwhile “homelands” – “the impoverished and underdeveloped areas of land set aside by the apartheid government for the ‘self-determination’ of its various black ‘nations’” (Author’s Note). And it is the difference in the visions of these two doctors – coloured by their own respective background and expectations – which supplies the narrative momentum to this gripping tale.   The hospital, built in the middle of nowhere, in an artificial town once created by the snap of a bureaucratic finger but now almost deserted, has almost no patients, barely any funds, and nearly nothing by way of modern medical equipment. What it did still have – metal cots, pipes and some supplies – get regularly stolen because there are neither guards nor even a proper lock for the hospital premises. There are four doctors, and if they are lucky, they might get two patients a day. Into this scenario walks in Laurence Waters, a fresh, energetic intern who had purposely chosen a remote, difficult place for his one year of “community service”. Only to find that the community he had come to serve didn’t even know that the hospital existed. They all frequented another hospital in another town nearby, outside the homelands territory.   So if the community will not come to the hospital, then the hospital shall go to the community, decides Laurence. He initiates an “outreach” programme in a neighbouring village, which becomes quite a hit, but also invites a new set of problems that their hospital is ill-equipped to deal with. And Laurence’s energetic optimism, filtered through Frank’s tired pessimism, offers a disturbing picture of contemporary South Africa and the moral complexities that attend any simplistic idealism (particularly of the NGO variety) seeking to “do good” or “serve the deprived.”   The hospital has Dr. Ngema, a black woman, as its head. Frank discovers that it is the solitary male nurse (a black) who is responsible for the regular theft of hospital property. He cannot make up his mind whether to report him. Though he doesn’t, the overzealous Laurence does, and things get complicated. Right at the end of the novel, when he is about to take over from her as the new hospital head, Frank ...

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