Remember the scene from that good old action movie? The hero is bruised but unbowed. He is drenched in blood, bullet wounds the size of craters erupt all over his body, at least one limb is broken and he can barely drag himself across the rocky cliffs/ narrow back alley / villain’s den. Yet, before you can say E.R, he has rescued the heroine and battered the henchmen out of shape without a single murmur of pain. He even manages to deliver a dialogue on the triumph of good over evil while biting the bullet and spitting out a few front teeth. He never catches a cold even after hours of prancing about in the rain, never seems to be in a hospital unless its to visit his sick mother and never falls ill, unless its with a fatal disease which allows him to bravely sing at least two profound songs before intermission. He is every woman’s dream and every M.D’s nightmare. He is the proverbial man of steel. He exists only in reel life. The real men are made of softer material like flesh and blood and don’t lose any opportunity to remind us of it.
All women anyway know that a man’s tolerance for physical pain is low. Tolerance for mild bodily discomfort is even lower. When we women have a common cold, we believe that is a common phenomena. We pop our Vicks Action 500 and quietly go on our way. Men never have a common cold. Its a lifestyle threatening pulmonary/bronchial/ inflammatory respiratory disease. No girl over the age of twelve would faint at the sight of blood but grown men need CPR after a blood test. We chug along through PMS, labor pains and hot flashes but a man needs to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a mosquito bite. Maybe I am exaggerating a bit, it reaches the PTSD stage after three mosquito bites.
One of my friends tells me that she has to battle with her husband for space in the bathroom cabinet. “Others collect antiques, mine collects antacids ,” she confessed. He apparently has a whole cabinet full of medicines that have been used and may be used in future. Even if he feels a twinge in the muscles, he pops in a painkiller, a heavy dinner is followed by a dose of Eno to prevent indigestion and he has a whole shelf for cold cures. At the height of the SARS epidemic in South East Asia, he wore face masks to work in Mumbai and doesn’t travel anywhere without his hand sanitizer and mini first aid kit. The Chemists give him discount coupons and he spends his free time Googling doctors in the city.
I have an uncle who loves to regale the family with stories of his various maladies, real and imaginary. During mealtimes, he would dwell on his various ailments, lovingly recreating the sound effects of his alimentary canal. While he seemed in the pink of health, my aunt would turn red with embarrassment. When his leg hurt, it was surely rheumatic arthritis, a pain in the neck was cervical spondilitis. He never had stomach upsets, only gastric infections.He was convinced that the twitch in his left ear was the symptom of a rare tropical disease which he hoped would be named after him. Recently, he was rushed to the hospital when he complained of severe chest pains and breathlessness. “He thinks it’s definitely a coronary thrombosis,” said my worried aunt. However the doctor pronounced it to be a bad case of gas, after effects of a rich wedding feast. My uncle survived the gas tragedy but never forgave the doctor for airing the real nature of his complaint to the public.
I myself was a little surprised when I first heard a grown man groan in pain. It was in the early days of our marriage. My husband staggered out of the bathroom clutching his chin.
“What happened?” I asked solicitously.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
His loud groan said, “You had better call the ambulance. I am bleeding to death.”
When I peered closely I could see a small spot of red on his chin. He had nicked it while shaving.
“Just wash it off”, I added helpfully. “It will be okay.”
He glared at me as though I had just rubbed salt in his wounds. “It might get infected” he declared. I found a bottle of Dettol and dabbed a bit on his chin. He howled as though he had discovered a scratch on his new car.
“Should I leave it exposed?” he asked when the pain had apparently subsided.
“Lets get a tetanus shot,” I suggested, only half joking. But the thought of getting an injection was even more painful than an attack of gangrene. I assured him that I had never heard of an amputation of the chin and we settled for a band-aid. He wore it proudly for a few days and swapped razor disaster stories with his colleagues. I heard him say to our neighbour. “It’s nothing. I cut myself very badly. The washbasin was covered with blood. It was a close shave.”
If he has a cold, the entire household and office knows about it. The first two days are spent valiantly combating the dreaded scourge. He rummages loudly in the chest of drawers in the middle of the night muttering “Where is the cough syrup? Where are the tissues?” He then requests a glass of warm salt water for gargling, three times a day and a pot of boiling water for inhalation, twice a day. He checks the food for spice levels and himself for the temperature every few hours. He takes off half a day from office and props himself on bed with the laptop and mobile phone with the resident nurse to wait on him. Fortunately ( for him) I mostly work from home or I would have to call in sick as well. When finally he succumbs to my repeated requests to go to the doctor, he makes it known that is for the sake of the family-he doesn’t want his wife and child to catch the infection from him. When he returns from the doctor, I ask, “What has the doctor given you for the cold?” “It is not a common cold,” he sniffs triumphantly. “It is coryza. I am on antibiotics.” He brandishes the prescription like a medal of honor.
It is now quite common to allow men to be with their wives during the delivery time so that they can experience the joy of birth. It also gives them a chance to experience, though vicariously, the mother of all pains-labour contractions. A friend’s doctor however refused to let her husband to watch his child being born. “It’s not because I want to deprive him of the experience but because I can’t handle another hysterical, fainting patient.” she explained. No wonder they give paternity leave these days; to allow the man to recover from his wife’s experience of giving birth. Luckily for my husband, he was away when our daughter arrived; four days ahead of schedule. When I finally saw him, I was in stitches. Not because he was carrying the baby in a very funny way (as though he was handing a tea tray to a guest), but because I was recovering from a C-section.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“Only if I breathe,” I replied.
He squeezed my hand, made a funny sound and dashed off to watch some cricket. It seemed to hurt him more than it hurt me!
This article first appeared in Man’s World.