With a prayer on my lips and hope in my heart, I landed at London airport on a cold November morning in 1957. I was young, impressionable but cheery. My friend on whose bidding I had come to London could not make it to the airport, possibly since he lived in far away Birmingham. I was dressed in a simple shirt, trousers and jacket that proved inadequate for that wintry morning in England. The London airport those days was quite primitive with no comfortable areas for passengers. As the arriving passengers slowly thinned out, it became obvious that no one had come to meet me at the airport.

The sweepers and the cleaners at the airport were largely Indians, and one of them mustered courage and asked me if I was looking for lodging. I had exactly 50 pounds in my pocket and nowhere to go. I was at my wits’ end. I had no choice but to nod. He offered me a bed in his quarter with breakfast of bun and tea for five pounds a night. I had no other choice. He took me home after he had done with his work. The home was a humble dwelling close to the airport of one room and a half.

The half room was a kitchen and the room was where four of them stayed. I was given a low camp cot in a corner. He also gave me a map of the Underground trains that could take me all over London. He told me where the Indians stayed and gave me the address of the Indian students’ hostel. Considering western standards, the Indian students’ hostel was cheap. We could share a room with two or three others, and it was three pounds a day with breakfast. However, there was no room vacant and the waiting list was long.

I had to look for a job in order to survive. Even a locum job needed registration that would cost 30 pounds. Amongst all my advisors, one was a godsend. He was a professor from Patna University, who had come to do his Ph.D. at the University of London. He was on a three years’ scholarship from the British government. His name was Prof. Jagan Nath Jha, popularly known as Jha ji.

The professor was a medium built man with a kind look and had taken it upon him to guide the ignorant new arrivals from India. Jha knew the problems of the newcomers. Insufficient clothes, poor job prospects and no money. He tried to help as much as possible. Jha offered me a free snack of a burger every day, and advised me not to dream of Indian food as it was very costly.

The Indian Students’ hostel in Russel Square was centrally located. He advised me to get a temporary registration on my existing certificates even if it cost me 30 pounds. Without that there was no prospect of getting a job. Jha also knew and practised the technique of keeping up our morale by telling us local jokes and the achievements of people like me. He gave me the address of the British Medical Association (BMA), where I was to look for jobs and the General Medical Council, where I had to apply for temporary registration. He even offered me a loan in case I had insufficient funds; his generosity was overwhelming and touching indeed. It had become clear that in a strange land, inhospitable climate with paucity of funds, only Jha could help you to survive.

I just about managed to get my registration, and turned up at the offices of the BMA. The portly lady called Loraine at the enquiry desk was sympathetic and advised me that my best bet was to get a locum job in any field, even if it was for one week. That would at least give me a warm room, meals, and some pocket money. More importantly and if I performed well, it would give me a good referee for the next job.

After looking at the notice boards and the advertisements in the British Medical Journal, I found an ad for a surgical houseman at Hitchin Hospital near Cambridge. It was a cottage hospital located in a small town and was close to London -- one and a half hour journey by train. The job was to work as a houseman in surgery and in ophthalmology. I took an appointment by phone.

I took the train to Hitchin as guided by Loraine. It was a small hospital of 80 beds; Mr. Shipman was a General Surgeon with whom I was to work, five days a week, and with Mr. Spiro, a short hooked nosed Jew, for two days in the department of ophthalmology. I was very confident because I had had distinction in ophthalmology at the MBBS exam and had worked as a Casualty officer and had looked after eye injuries. As I took the train back to London, my heart was filled with gratitude for Loraine and for Jha ji. I brought Indian sweets for Prof Jha and a small ‘thank you’ cake for Loraine with whatever little money that remained in my pocket.

Loraine was ecstatic because nobody had thanked her before and this was to start a long friendship between us. Jha ji admonished me for spending money on sweets but was very glad that I had passed my interview and got the job. He informed me that most Indians failed in interviews. Jha was genuinely pleased and took a few of us around to Piccadily Circus and Trafalgar square on a walking heritage tour of West End. He insisted on buying us a meal and refused offers to share the bill. Where in the world could you find a man who would be so happy at the success of a man whom he had known only for two weeks?

I was very satisfied with my work, particularly in ophthalmology. Mr. Spiro was much pleased that I could remove foreign bodies from the eye which was just about the only emergency you got. My predecessors either could not or would not remove foreign bodies. Spiro had to come all the way from 30 miles to remove foreign bodies. As a surgeon, he was neat and as a man, he was helpful. He asked me if I would continue with the job and strongly recommended me. He also told me that he would be glad to be my referee for any job I wanted anywhere in Britain. On the surgical side, things were not so bright.

My co-house surgeon was a Pakistani, who boasted about having three passports. He was from Kenya. Learnt medicine in Bangladesh and had a British passport after marriage. He was much older than I was and was basically a shirker. He kept holding the job because he could not get another. Our Registrar was a white South African, who hated Indians. Although a good surgeon himself, he was not inclined to teach his juniors. But my patients were very fond of me and preferred to be examined by me rather than others. I got confirmed in the job and got an extension of six months. Now, I even purchased a car, on installments.

Jha ji was very pleased at my progress. Promised to stay in touch and even visited me one Sunday in the hospital. It was a wonderful day we spent together; full of stories of other Indians. His description of the way the Indian students’ hostel was run could be a comedy movie script. He also mentioned about the secret life of Central London and its night clubs. Jha ji appeared a happy man full of the joy of spring. He had even cleared Part I of his Ph.D. As often happens, I got busy, our calls became fewer. I came to know from others that Jha ji was changing. He was getting more withdrawn and less gregarious. I started writing letters to him which he would reply promptly and with his witty remarks.

Winter arrived. It started snowing and I was more homebound. I decided to take the primary FRCS exam in January for which I had all the time. The exam came and I got through. Ten of us appeared including my registrar. Only I passed. I was so thrilled that notwithstanding the weather, I rushed to London to inform Jha ji. As I reached Russell Square, there were very few Indians hanging around. Reaching the Indian Students Hostel, I kept knocking on Jha ji’s door. No reply. I caught hold of common friends and superintendent of the hostel, and tried to open the door of his room but to no avail.

We got a key smith to open the door. And there was Jha ji hanging from the ceiling. Dead. He had taken his own life a few hours earlier. His suicide note told his story. His was a small and happy family comprising his wife and a young daughter Payal who was born after 20 years of marriage.

They lived in the University Campus, where all the professors and teachers lived. Everybody had gone abroad and got a degree to improve their prospects. Jagan Nath Jha couldn’t go because he was too attached to his only daughter. She was everything to him. At every party and ladies’ group, Jagannath’s wife was taunted that her husband was the only one without a Ph.D. There would be arguments and quarrels everyday till Jha ji applied and successfully won a scholarship from the University of London to pursue his studies for Ph.D. Payal was then only five and he did not want to leave her. On the day of his departure, all three wept because the Ph.D was for three years and one never knew what could happen.

As the train started, Payal ran after her father and tried to touch his waving hand but could not reach him. She fell between the tracks and was crushed to death. That tragic news was not conveyed to Jha. Instead, lies after lies were heaped upon him by his wife; writing to him fictional stories of Payal’s success at school and outside. He could not talk to Payal because the calls were always at night and the excuse was that she was sleeping. It was only recently that a junior teacher arrived from Patna, who lived on the campus who unknowingly told Jha the truth. That was too much of a shock for Jagan Nath Jha.

Her last words “don’t go Dad, don’t go” rang in his ears for days. How unlucky! He could not be present for her last rites. Oh, the feeling of guilt!! He never got out of his room, never ate food, prayed for days. He became very depressed. Without his daughter, life had lost its meaning. He instructed in his suicide note that his body be cremated in London. For him, Patna had become a forgotten chapter.

(Dr. Prithvi Madhok is a recently retired widely-respected Mumbai surgeon. )