A Doctor in the Court of the King of Nepal

Itzhak Kronzon

I found myself in America practically against my will. In 1970, after completing my army service, I had been lured to Jerusalem by a certain professor to do my cardiology residency with him. Nearly a full year passed before I realized at long last that not only was he not teaching me anything, due to his numerous other pursuits, but that he hadn’t even bothered to arrange a salary for me. Presumably, he assumed that the privilege of groveling at his feet was all I needed to live on. Full of bitterness, I packed my bags and flew to New York, where I had been offered a junior residency at Bronx Municipal Hospital.

Although I began receiving a small salary right away, I was still disconsolate. I was unfamiliar with local customs and could hardly understand the local dialect spoken by physicians and patients alike. I lost my self-confidence, and could barely function. I no longer whistled in the stairway or sang in the shower. To tell the truth, I considered myself – and feared that the people around also considered me – a miserable, nebbish wimp, and if not for the contract I had signed, I would have returned to Israel right away.

After a few months of this misery, an unusual letter arrived at my apartment in the staff housing compound. The large, colorful stamps were affixed to the wrong corner of the envelope, where the sender’s address is usually written. It was postmarked Katmandu, Nepal. The letter was typed with a well-used ribbon, so much so that most of the letters were only partially readable on the thin typing paper. The writer evidently knew of the machine’s limitations, and had pressed on the keys especially hard, so that holes were punched through the paper in numerous places. At the top of the page was a large, red and gold logo, and beneath it a long legend in a language the likes of which I had never seen. Under all this, it said in English: His Majesty, The King of Nepal, Royal Palace, Katmandu.

Line by line, I labored to decipher the pidgin English until I at last understood that the King of Nepal wanted me, Dr. Itzhak Kronzon of the Bronx Municipal Hospital, to come to his royal court and explain to the King’s physicians what to do with the instruments that had been delivered, and left unused, at Bir Royal Hospital in central Katmandu. In order to make arrangements and book the flight, the letter said, I should telephone Mr. Pundi of Nepal’s permanent United Nations delegation. The letter was signed, with gratitude and all sorts of other respectful appendices, by Menendahar, the Minister of Health.

Of course, I did not know the King of Nepal, or his health minister, or any other Nepalese citizen. I had never been to Katmandu, and if I hadn’t happened to pick up a National Geographic magazine on the subject at the waiting room of my dentist’s office in the Bronx, I might not have even known where the country was. I assumed that if there were a king in need of a doctor to come and advise him about medical equipment at a royal hospital, he would have chosen an eminent American specialist, a distinguished expert, not a low-ranking, foreign-born resident who didn’t even have a license to practice medicine without supervision, and whose name had until now only been published on the list of junior residents on the duty roster, complete with two spelling errors. Nevertheless, I picked up the phone and called the delegation, and was almost surprised when Mr. Pundi answered, speaking English with an Indian accent.

I can understand the English of the Indians and the Nepalese much better than that of the Americans. Perhaps their vocabulary, like mine, is taken primarily from the Reader I books, volumes 1 through 4, printed by the British to teach English to children all over the empire, Palestine included. Even now, whenever I hear the word ‘boy,’ for instance, I see the drawing from Reader I of a barefoot, half-naked boy, wearing a rag around his loins and a turban on his head. Sometimes, when I walk fast, I hum to myself, to get into the rhythm, the introduction to the book Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, that was so very popular among the youth of Palestine, to the extent that they would roar its words while dancing the hora:

Once there was a wizard
He lived in Africa.
He went to China
To get a lamp.

Whatever the case, Mr. Pundi was overjoyed to hear my voice. He had been expecting my call, and wanted to know when I would be ready to set out on the trip. I still couldn’t understand why I had been offered the trip and asked if there hadn’t been some mistake. Pundi painstakingly read out the letters of my name, and checked the address. Everything fit. He asked that I come to pick up my plane ticket at the delegation offices, where I was received with great deference and was given a first-class ticket from New York to Delhi, and from there to Katmandu. I couldn’t restrain myself, and asked Pundi what sort of equipment we were talking about, and why I, of all people, had been chosen. Mr. Pundi didn’t know. He receives, he said, his instructions from home.

Like everyone else who has lived in Israel for many years, I considered any long trip to be a dream fulfilled, and the longer the better. I decided not to ask any more questions. On the appointed day, I set out. Just to be sure, I packed two screwdrivers and a pliers in my suitcase, in case I might need them when I examined the machinery at Bir Royal Hospital.

My family has always had ambitions of royalty. When Papa was in Hebrew high school in the city of Mariampol, he would write on the cover of his notebooks in a neat handwriting, in Hebrew and Lithuanian, Zalman Kronzon, scion of the seed of King David. From early childhood, we’d been told that Kron was German for crown, and zon meant son, and this led Papa to understand that Kronzon was son of crown, a rare name that was no doubt reserved for descendants of the royal family. Many years later our cynical Uncle Abrasha offered a more prosaic explanation for the name. He told us about a widow in Kalvarija named Kreina, all of whose sons were called Kreinzon, a name that was distorted over the generations into Kronzon. For selfish reasons, we continue to embrace the royal-family version.

Based on the reception I was given at the airport in Katmandu, it seemed as if the Nepalese accepted this version, as well. I was given a royal welcome. A black car sent by the king whisked me to one of the wings of the large palace. In the afternoon, they took me out for a tour of the extraordinary city, which until recently had been closed to all European visitors. An English-speaking guide led me through the valley to the ancient cities of Patan and Badgaon. We strolled through the narrow, meandering streets and saw wooden Buddhist pagodas with gold-clad sculptures of demons; we breathed in the aroma of spices in the markets and heard peddlers announcing their unusual wares, from crude little wooden violins to wondrous infusions made before your eyes from lizards – a common local remedy for rheumatism and impotence. We watched Newars with the faces of dolls, Sherpa, the famous mountain guides, walking around the marketplace in cloth boots, and Gurung, whose menfolk, the Gurkhas, became famous during the World Wars as fearsome soldiers. We climbed to the summit of Sawambanat, which looks out over the entire Katmandu valley, and visited a pagoda, on the pointed roof of which were painted eyes that faced in every direction, with sacred monkeys and goats running free. Later on, we passed a large wooden board through which anyone with a toothache drives a nail as a charm against toothaches. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of nails had been pounded into the board, evidence that the city definitely would have been able to support at least one dentist.

Sitting down to dinner in the palace, with a large retinue of servants in colorful festive dress waiting on us, we were joined by Menendahar, the Minister of Health, and Yoginatan, the Minister of Trade, and a few other dignitaries whose names and titles I cannot recall. We ate quietly, as per the local custom, and they served the tea and the sweet cakes as the sun began to set. The snow-covered Himalayan ridge, visible from the wide window, was painted red; and in Darbar Square a drummer beat the giant drums and the echo rumbled like thunder above the crowded wooden houses and the entire Katmandu valley. Every few minutes I had to convince myself that I was not dreaming and that I, the son of Zalman Kronzon from the city of Kalvarija, the same Kalvarija that was home to the largest insane asylum in all of southern Lithuania, that I, who was until yesterday a forlorn junior resident in the Bronx, was sitting among ministers and nobles in the king’s palace. And I still had not the slightest idea why I had been deemed worthy of all this.                                                                                                               

Menendahar, the Minister of Health, had been chosen for his post due to his professional expertise. In the British army, he’d been a medic, reaching the rank of first sergeant in charge of a battalion infirmary during World War II. Now he was sitting next to me, wearing white gabardine pants that were wide around the knees and tapered from the knee on down. On top of a wide-sleeved shirt he wore a gray vest, and had a flat, gray sort of tarbush on his head. He translated into English everything the other diners were saying, and whatever I said, into Nepalese. It turned out that Bir Royal Hospital possessed two coronary care units that were donated by the United States government, but no one knew how to operate the machinery. Approximately six months ago, a local nurse had been dispatched to Australia for this purpose, but she had vanished without a trace, and reliable sources in Katmandu learned that she’d married an Australian man and settled down in Sydney.

Although I had spent most of the past year in and around CCU’s, I could not imagine how the royal court of Nepal might have known that. I asked Menendahar whether he knew how my name had found its way into the whole matter. The minister of health smiled happily and shook his head from side to side, which among us means ‘no,’ but in Nepal means ‘yes.’ “The King,” he said, “requested that you come. We ordinary mortals cannot know what the King’s motives are, since according to Nepalese belief, he is the descendant of the god Vishnu, and, as such, he himself is a god, with unlimited physical and spiritual powers. He does not explain his directives.”

The following morning we went to Bir Royal Hospital which, like the rest of the real estate in the kingdom, belongs to the royal house. It reminded me of pictures I’d once seen of a field hospital in the Crimean War, where Florence Nightingale served as a nurse. It had several large halls, and housed about 400 patients. There were barely any beds, and most of the patients lay on mattresses or on the concrete floor, their bundles and satchels alongside them. Due to a shortage of nurses, the patients’ own family members were pressed into service, attending to them, preparing their meals on small fires or kerosene stoves from ingredients they’d brought with them, including chickens and goats that seemed to be issuing their own secretions on the hospital floor.

In terms of health services, Nepal was without doubt a backward country. At the time, its 13 million residents were cared for by eight or nine doctors, all of whom left what they were doing that morning to hear me unravel the mysteries of the medical equipment. Standing in the middle of one of the halls, in stark contrast to the filth and squalor all around, were two shiny new Hewlett-Packard coronary care units. The entire troop pulled up in front of the machinery, and all eyes were focused squarely on me. As I had worked with the same type of equipment in the past, I realized right away that in order to operate the machinery, it simply had to be hooked up to a source of electricity. There were no sockets in the hall, but a clever fellow was immediately found to create a solution. He wove together a bundle of electrical wires and sockets and connected it all to the required current. I turned the switches, pushed some buttons, and the creature came to life: two monitors, a device for treating the heart rhythm by electric shock that could also be used, when needed, as an external pacemaker, and a respirator. Everything worked, just as it would have in Jerusalem or in the Bronx.

Afterward came the instructional part, in which I showed the doctors how to operate the equipment, for what purpose, for which patients and in which situations. It did not take very long. There was time left for questions, and a young doctor stood up and excitedly asked why all of this was needed in Nepal, where people were dying of cholera, tuberculosis, malaria, and smallpox, and didn’t even have the privilege of reaching an age at which they might get heart disease. Menendahar rammed his elbow into my ribs, snickered and whispered, “Socialist.” I replied that I was not an expert, and that I hadn’t been asked to solve the health problems of the country. Paraphrasing the Talmudic adage, I added that that if anyone saves a single soul in Nepal, it is as if he has saved an entire world.

I don’t know what else happened to that young doctor. In any case, I continued my visit for another few days, traveling to the far reaches of the kingdom. I saw the Tibetan border, Annapurna and the Pokhara valley, all the time wondering what I had done to deserve this.

On the eve of my departure, I had the privilege of seeing the King. With awe and reverence, I was ushered into the throne room, where I nearly fell face down to the floor. I said, “Hello, Your Majesty.” He got up from his chair, turned to me and shook my hand in the European custom, speaking English as the English do, although he too shook his head from side to side as a way of saying ‘yes.’

The King told me that the equipment had been donated through the good offices of the American ambassador, who had heard of the heart disease that afflicted members of the King’s family, and had, in fact, been the cause of his own father’s death. The King had a personal interest that the equipment be ready to use, come what may. He thanked me for what I’d done, and my escorts hinted that it was time for me to leave the King’s chambers. But I could not restrain myself. “King, King,” I said. “Why did you choose me?” The King looked at me, slightly amazed, shook his head from side to side and said, “Tobias recommended you.”

For a moment I stood there astonished, and then I let the escorts lead me outside. I couldn’t fathom which Tobias he was referring to.

The next morning, Menendahar accompanied me to the airplane. In an aside, I asked him who Tobias was.

“Colonel Tobias,” said Menendahar, pronouncing the ‘s’ as if it were a ‘sh,’ as did all Nepalese. “He is the Israeli director of the paratroopers.” Then he shook his head from side to side a few times, as if he were saying ‘yes, yes,’ and rolled his eyes in a show of admiration, and I started to understand.

I had served in the army’s parachuting school for nearly three years, but I only saw the senior skydiving instructor, Major Marcel Tobias, once. Not only was he strong and healthy and not in need a doctor, he also left the school around the same time I enlisted.

One morning, many years ago, he walked into the infirmary, pointing at his ear. “Doctor,” he said in a half-Hungarian, half-German accent, “something is inside there.” I shined the otoscope into the hairy ear canal, took a narrow pair of long tweezers and pulled a large moth out of his ear; it fluttered its wings and tried to escape. For the next two days, details of the event were retold, with all attendant awe, throughout the base. Not long after that, someone somewhere decided to help the Nepalese army set up a paratroop corps, and the fearless Marcel was sent to train the paratroopers, who became the pride of all Nepal, the King included.

I do not know what sort of relationship was formed between Marcel and the King of Nepal. I assume that Marcel somehow found out that after my release from the army I’d gone into cardiology. I imagine that his prestige as director of the paratroopers was so great that the King turned to him for advice on other matters, and the unused cardiology equipment at Bir Royal Hospital must have been one of them. I can only imagine how Marcel remembered the doctor who rescued him from a giant-size version of the torment of the Roman emperor Titus, who, legend says, suffered for years from a buzzing mosquito trapped in his ear. I assume that that is how the King came to hear about me, explaining how it was that I was invited to visit the Kingdom of Nepal. 

I wanted to meet Marcel Tobias again and talk with him about my wonderful trip, but he had been sent to yet another country, to train its paratroopers. And when he jumped out of a plane there – who knows how many times he had done this before – his parachute did not open, and he was killed instantly.

Two years later, in the seventeenth year of his reign, the King of Nepal died of heart disease, and his son ruled in his place.

Translated from the Hebrew by Martin Friedlander