He greets his patients with loud curses as they stagger in — sick or drunken — to his chamber. He reserves his choicest expletives for those who visit him close to death. He ministers to them tenderly, gruffly waiving his doctor's fees, often buying them their medication from his own pocket, and making arrangements for them to reach home safely. Dr Samir Biswas, 68, carries his years lightly. Stories about him have become the stuff of legend in the collieries of Asansol, West Bengal. No patient is turned away from his door without treatment even at some ungodly hour, this reporter was told. The locals fondly recall his resounding laughter, recount incidents of his gobbling up more "chops" than youngsters at roadside stalls, while simultaneously discouraging patients from these forbidden snacks with a wink. He greeted the womenfolk with a rousing "Boudi!" (sister-in-law) as he entered their homes and their hearts; they swear he is a saint in disguise.
The elderly remember him affectionately as "amar (my) Samir", his words reigniting their will to live. Even the money-savvy and hardened colliery officials admit that he is a "good man", a notion as alien to that coal-mining region as green fields. Is this same man, Dr Samir Biswas, a marked troublemaker condemned by the three regimes that have come to power in West Bengal? His defiance was evident even as a young internee with Left leanings when he was jailed in the 1970s by the Congress government. During the Left Front rule he was a "wanted person" in 2010 for treating Maoists. Finally, the police under the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party arrested him in December 2013, handcuffed like any hardened criminal. Can this doctor, who treated all who needed medical help, be blamed for treating "Maoists"? Can he be a dark mind that researches books on lethal bombs, instead of how to save the sick and dying? As I travelled to Asansol "in search" of the man who operated in Asansol, the second largest city in West Bengal, an industrial town of coalfields and railways, I was full of confusion. Who was the real Dr Samir Biswas? Was he a closet Maoist, an evil impersonator hiding behind his mask of a popular doctor? Or a doctor following his Hippocratic Oath to the letter? It was not difficult to "find" Dr Biswas.
His presence was palpable in the homes of retrenched workers near the once-bustling and now defunct factories overgrown with shrubbery. As it was in the cluster of poor Adivasi villages around Barmoundia colliery, a region perpetually shrouded in red dust of the coalfields, where Dr Biswas had lived and worked as a government doctor in a health clinic in Panchgachia for 40 years. Few knew that he was a brilliant student of the prestigious Nilratan Sircar Medical College in Kolkata, and had left a potential life of luxury to work among the poor miners and factory workers.In the workers' colonies surrounding the long-closed Hindustan Pilkington Glass factory, Dr Biswas remains a legend — both as a doctor and as a good man who restored to hundreds of retrenched workers a sense of dignity. Most importantly, the miners and factory workers felt they actually mattered when Dr Biswas would ask security guards of powerful colliery officials to wait in the queue for an appointment for their bosses. For the first time, they realized they were equal as human beings. They had the right to treatment as much as those officers.
To him a worker, a staff member or an official were the same. Dr Biswas's love for dogs and books is folklore — and perhaps his undoing. Everyone speaks of how his home sheltered dogs ranging from purebred Alsatians to seven street mongrels, four of them disabled and crippled. Yet, he did not discriminate between his dogs, caring for them equally — a principle which he perhaps carried too far with his patients. He opened his humble home-cum chamber to those who needed a meal or a bed, not discriminating against his patients based on status or political affiliation — some with Left leanings — and paid with his freedom. Yet, not surprisingly, when Dr Biswas was arrested, the local TMC MLA too joined the huge crowd that blocked the road in protest. Dr Biswas's passion for books ranged in interests from poetry and the classics to cinema. One of the encyclopedias on his bookshelf was on how to manufacture bombs and pistols.
"You will be branded as a terrorist," his friends had joked, and Dr Biswas had responded with his trademark guffaw. The police did not find it funny, however, and on December 12, 2013, arrested him on charges of sedition, for allegedly treating "Maoists" — among them it was rumoured the slain Maoist leader Koteswara Rao or Kishenji — and for possessing material on how to manufacture lethal weapons! One appreciates the irony of Dr Biswas when one compares the reverse trajectories of his fate and that of a former Naxalite and now a member of the ruling TMC and a Lok Sabha candidate from Asansol. While the doctor is condemned for not discriminating between his patients, this politician reaps the rewards of switching allegiance and enjoys her position as the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's shadow.
Clearly, it pays to be close to the ruling party.In a region where there is no doctor and no health care for the poor, Dr Biswas's ministration to the needy is perceived as a subversive act against the State, a dangerous signal to those who risk working in rural communities. When the State is confronted by those who refuse to conform, the easiest trick in the book is to denounce them: the doctors of treating Maoists, the lawyers of protecting criminals, the teachers of coaching terrorists, and the media of bias. As this article goes to the press, the news of Dr Biswas's release on bail trickles in. My bet is he will continue to live life on his own terms: with his beloved books, dogs and his patients, and the conviction of the Hippocratic Oath which has been the cornerstone of his life.
The writer is a Kolkata-based journalist