By Manu Remakant
Malayalis who grew up in 1970s and 80s should be familiar with this little rectangular advertisement in newspapers: M.S. Sarkar Dispensary, cure for low libido, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
As boys we eyed the ads surreptitiously, as they, with the picture of a grim doctor with a high forehead tacked to the top left of the box, boldly offered magic bullets for ailments we never really understood back then, but which never failed to catch our fancy either. The ad still continues to appear, with very little changes in its form and content: mobile phone numbers and a website domain have been added. The old man still looks at you nonchalantly.
We checked into the legendary clinic in Thiruvananthapuram recently to meet the man who brought a little libido revolution in our calm and unexcitable state in the 70s with that tiny advertisement box.
And we learned, the story began in a far off time and place.
Long long ago, in the early half of the 20th century, there lived in the Pakistan side of Jalandhar, a royal physician Haji Nawab Ali Khan, who wouldn't grant permission to his grandson, Mohammed Syed to marry the girl of his choice. He ignored the poor boy's repeated pleas.
To aggravate the matter further, Ali Khan managed to hide the girl in a secret place. The boy was devastated.
As his life was no fairy-tale stuff besprinkled with pixie dust, Syed finally had to give in to grandparental pressure. But now all the charm of Jalandhar, where he couldn't marry his love, faded before his eyes. He couldn't live any more in Pakistan. Syed left his birthplace with a heavy heart and came all the way down to Uttar Pradesh. Not alone. It was an immigrant party of eight - Syed’s father, Abdul Wahid, his two wives (One Pakistani and the other Indian), and their children including Syed.
They were traditional Unani physicians. Though this system of medicine has its roots in Arabia, it draws deeply from Ayurveda, and we can find many parallels between the two. Unani tinkered to address sexual problems was a deadly combination that once landed its practitioners in royal courts across Asia. So the immigrant party didn't find it difficult to establish itself in the new land.
Still it was a difficult time, it was the partition time. India went through turmoil, and what swept along the rugged and freshly torn border between the two countries, in course of time, found its way to the remote banks of the village where Syed and his family lived and practiced their medicine. People began to suspect that the new doctor who’d come from across the border was partial to his people - a dangerous accusation at the time.
Manhood, fertility, fecundity: the wares that Syed dealt with were hot subjects, something enjoyed and appreciated only by kings and noblemen in their zenanas. Now out in the society, a physician couldn't afford even to sound unfair while dispensing them among people of various religions.
Especially at such an insecure time.
Syed found a solution: he gave up his name, and took a brand new one that every man in the country, irrespective of his religion, economic status or geographical region could relate to – M.S. Sarkar.
At a function to mark the clinic's 50th anniversary
Not long after Syed found a solution to the problem, he began to realise, Uttar Pradesh could only be a brief stopover for a longer pilgrimage, for he always felt destiny pushing him further south. So one day he packed his bags, said goodbye to his parents and siblings, began his journey down – UP to Hyderabad to Mangalore to Madurai to Chennai to Kannur to Ernakulam, and finally to Thiruvananthapuram - setting up clinics, helping people regain their precious manhood, and marrying women all along the way.
Marrying women, you heard it right.
"The tragedy of losing his first love might have triggered it, marrying was a kind of protest in his life," reasoned Dr. S.K. Sarkar, son of MS., who is presently running the clinic in Thiruvananthapuram popularized by the legendary doctor decades ago.
When he finally reached the end of his long journey and was stopped short only by the Arabian Sea, Sarkar "had married 7 times, and got 56 children from them," says SK.
Fifty-six children. He became an epitome of what he talked and practised all his life.
"We have a WhatsApp group now, among his children," SK says. Pride glints in his eyes. "We could gather only seventeen as of now, as many of them are already dead." Finding siblings has never been easy for SK. "It has come to push and shove on many occasions," he says. Many have grievances. Many don’t appreciate a stranger popping out from void one fine morning and telling them straight to their face, “Hi! We have a common father.”
But SK persisted and the ice thawed on many fronts.
The party has now grown considerably big, with half-siblings and the issues of Sarkar's brothers (80% of them are practicing Unani in various parts of the country) who came to India with Syed. Presently the family is on to trace its roots back to Pakistan, where it all began when an old man, a physician to a king, denied his grandson the permission to marry the girl of his choice.
M.S.Sarkar's brothers Saleem & Ameen
In Kerala, Sarkar set up a clinic first in Ernakulam. In the 70s, he came to Thiruvananthapuram and it was love at first sight. He liked the place, says Mumtaz, his only surviving wife. He set up his dispensary at East Fort, but people in the city initially had no idea what he was talking about. For two reasons: One, he didn't know a single Malayalam word (He never bothered to learn. "It is very difficult. Malayalam sounds to me like somebody shaking a pot filled with pebbles," he told his wife); Two, nobody had ever asked them to talk about the problems in their sex life before. Now he did. And claimed if they would come, he could help resolve them, and amp their libido up with medicines. A physician with such a bend of profession was perhaps unheard of in the state before Sarkar. That hit a nerve.
"Those days, he spent 50 rupees for a single ad in a newspaper. He knew it would work," says Mumtaz Sarkar. The ad smouldered on the pages for a while before it slowly grew into wild fire. People began to turn up in large numbers. "He never got time even to take his morning bath because of the crowd," she rues.
The language barrier might also have worked in a curious way.
Patients found comfort in the fact that the doctor to whom they confided their deepest secrets and concerns with the help of interlocutors looked into them through a language that was so strange and apathetic that it never stripped them naked.
So in the quiet, laid-back and slow-burning city, a physician from Pakistan gradually grew, to become a legend. There was hardly any competition. He carried around a wrestler’s body. He wore a confidence that bordered on arrogance. He lived with his many wives. That was enough to make an appeal over “feeble-minded” men who looked out for ways to “stand up” to their women.
Who could resist the call?
Though he practised in Thiruvananthapuram for nearly 40 years, Sarkar never had a single friend in the city. Perhaps the ones who met him over at the clinic never wanted to acknowledge that acquaintance in public. "He talked to his patients with the help of bilingual compounders, who sometimes double-talked him and made away with his money," says Mumtaz. Whenever the crowd thinned in his clinic, Sarkar took his family (alarmingly growing in number) out to Kovalam or some other beaches in his Mark 3 Ambassador or Contessa. He raked in big money with his practice, "enough to buy half the city back then," claims his son, but didn't bother to save any. "Between birth and death, we have only a short time to live," he often philosophised to his wives, "so enjoy every minute."
Still, the doctor was so uptight with his family, especially with his boys. "I couldn’t recall a single moment in my life, when I raised my head, looked at him straight and talked," says SK. "We had to wake up early morning, do our exercise, and go to work. Breakfast at 9, lunch at 2, dinner at 8, he never brooked any breach in the schedule he had set."
What was his life like with wives from Madurai, Bangalore, Coimbatore, and Cannanore living under the same roof? Definitely no fairy tale. They often kicked up a fuss over their children, "but his arrival home was enough to settle the dust," says Mumtaz as she tries to quash a memory under a chuckle.
When SK decided to take up his father's profession, he had to seek the help of his cousin to tutor him. "Of course there was a living legend in my house. He would've have been the greatest teacher for me, but how can a son learn these things from a father!" SK asks, reading my mind.
After three years, the son came back to assist his father, but Sarkar would not have any son as assistant. "So I moved around conducting camps in different parts of the state," SK says, in Malayalam tinged with Tamil from his mother’s side. "I was born in Ernakulam and I'm definitely not like my father on the social side, I speak the language, and have friends all over the state."
S.K. Sarkar at his clinic
SK returned to take over the clinic, once his father became too weak to run it. He knew the towering shadow behind him, and also the huge expectations on him. "Patients in my father's days were more candid; they didn’t feel any shame in seeking his help when they were at a low," SK says, reminding how things have changed over the time, thanks to our culture. "Blame fast food. Blame drinks," our youth is losing the verve (ampere, SK says). "Perhaps the biggest malady affecting the confidence of our youth at bed is their huge expectations. Drowned in a flood of porn clips, they believe they couldn't please unless manhood stands like pagodas. They don't know it varies from place to place. Tamilians, Malayalis, Punjabis, they are all different body types, have different sizes."
SK says he concentrates on counselling as well as therapy unlike his father who focused mainly on treatment. "He could nail it just by checking the pulse of a patient."
As he talks, the man who started it all - the one who set out from Pakistan after it denied him what he wanted the most in his life, the one who travelled the length of the country selling magic potions, the one who married many as a mark of protest, the one who begot half a century of children to prove a point that his weak-willed patients lapped up with awe and admiration, the one who startled a town with a tiny box of ad - is resting inside, calmly, in a room. Tired and world-wearied, hardly a face or name floats on his blank mind.
MS Sarkar has been deep in the grips of Alzheimer's for more than a decade. From the gallery of faces and the roster of names of his many wives and children, of his patients and the people he met in that long and winding journey from Pakistan to Thiruvananthapuram, all that the 93-year old man could pick with some difficulty is that of his 41-year old son, who takes care of him, and runs his clinic in his name.
He still lives in a city that returned the love he lost somewhere in Pakistan.
(Photo courtesy: S.K. Sarkar)