Canned Prawns


“What’s those red spots on your arms?”  Georgine advanced to make a closer inspection.

“They’re too big to be measles, you better get it seen too!”

I looked at my blotched arms and apprehension gripped me. I’d noticed those blotches on my stomach during the morning bath and was beginning to have difficulty swallowing.

We were sitting in the picturesque town of Kodaikanal South India on top of one of the mountains expatriates and Indians flee to for a month to escape blistering heat of the plains before monsoon set in and summer temperatures become bearable. During most of the year it’s too cold for plains dwellers, but for this limited high summer period temperatures were just right.

So because it was a vacation destination for a one or two months of the year there was not a thriving competitive hospital selection, or for that matter a huge selection of medical practitioners to choose from. A few brave souls ran a practice year round and there was the government clinic where residents attended year round also. However, we learned those who could afford it made the long commute to Madurai on the plains. Having just escaped the heat of the plains and not yet having purchased a car the idea of another crowded bus trip to the rail terminus or to Madurai by bus was put as the last option in an emergency.

But as swallowing and breathing became more difficult during the day it was obvious something needed to be done, and quickly.

So we made urgent inquiries and learned a doctor was within easy walking distance. Everything on top of the mountain was within easy walking distance and that was one of the attractions of the town. Those who possess cars are often at a disadvantage for things of interest and beauty are missed as one skims by at a rapid clip. By now things of interest and beauty were farthest from my mind.

The doctor was surprised to see an expatriate walk into his sparsely furnished house office and approached the interview warily. He examined the welts and considered the throat constrictions. Without hesitation he made his diagnosis.

“I’ve seen a similar case before. You’ve been eating canned prawns. You must not do this it is very bad for you!”

“But I’ve never eaten prawns canned or fresh in my life!” I said in surprise.

“Yes, you’ve been eating canned prawns,” said the doctor confident in his diagnosis.

“You must stop eating canned prawns, see I’m giving you a prescription but you must stop eating.”

I looked at Georgine in amazement at the result of the interview.  Her concern on entering the consulting room was now replaced with the hint of a smile.

“So you’ve been secretly feasting on canned prawns!”

In spite of the gravity of my condition we both managed a laugh.

But while the prescription may have had a marginal effect the condition continued giving us both cause for alarm and the holiday was somewhat spoiled.

Our vacation time soon ended and it was time to return to plains before the advancing monsoon made travel unbearable. While heat would not be welcome on our return we looked forward to an opportunity of a second diagnosis in Bombay where we were located at that time. Coolies effortlessly carried our luggage to the Kodai bus station for a trip down mountain to the rail station where we’d make our way to Madras and connect with the Bombay train.

We’d been very careful to confirm our return bookings at the branch rail office in Kodaikanal. We’d been advised to do that, though in those days we trusted the system and looked on re-confirmation as merely a procedure to be followed.

We were not disappointed. The trip to Madras was accomplished in our reserved berths though by the time we did reach our destination my malady had returned with a vengeance. I was desperately sick as we fought our way with coolies to the platform where we’d ride in first class comfort to Bombay hoping I’d make it.

Did I forget to mention something important? We were travelling with a baby and travel with a child adds an element of concern in itself.

But on reaching our target berth we were stopped by the conductor who examined tickets and searched his list. We were not on the list in spite of our forward status to Bombay being confirmed. The conductor ordered coolies to retrieve our luggage from berths and take it off the train. Georgine pled with the conductor pointing out my urgent need to reach home where I could get medical attention, but the conductor was adamant.

It was then in my extremity I remembered sage advice given me by seasoned Indian administrators when the initial culture shock of arrival in India had worn off and they trusted me to venture out in travel.

“Remember the impossible is always possible in India if you are not belligerent and you reward people for making the impossible possible.”

It was worth a try.

“Look, I’m sick and need to get medical attention. I’d greatly appreciate any help you can give me to get me home.”

Now I’d been further told the words greatly appreciate were not offensive words but they’d be understood in the manner intended to be understood.

The conductor frowned and retreated to the further end of the carriage which I interpreted as the usual gaff a foreigner makes which would lead to no helpful conclusion having offended a potential benefactor.

However, the conductor returned with a smile and motioned us to our berths remarking that it was obvious the head office had made a mistake.

I again recalled the appropriate method of appreciation should the need ever arise and made a note to thank my Indian administrator mentors for their insightful education on our arrival in India. The notes were pressed into his hands in a handshake to make sure no one was watching the transaction. The conductor’s eyes showed approval and he hastily withdrew his hand bidding us a good journey.

The journey was not a good one. Many times in transit I struggled to breathe much to the horror of Georgine who didn’t know what to do. But the obvious news is we reached our destination and had the good fortune on arrival to meet a doctor in charge of one of our regional hospitals who happened to be on a buying expedition in Bombay and staying in headquarters guest room.

He examined the welts and did a quick check. Listened to the Kodai doctor’s diagnosis and grunted. He peered at the prescription.

“Stop taking this stuff at once and give it time to exit your system before we prescribe anything else for you. But you’ll probably find you don’t require any further prescription.”

And miracle of miracles it worked out just as he said!

Had I really experienced those welts, had I really almost died on the trip from Madras to Bombay? Had I eaten canned prawns in a previous life without my knowledge?  It was really too much for me to understand so I just accepted it.

India is a land of mysteries.

“© Copyright Ian Grice 2016 All rights reserved


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8 thoughts on “Canned Prawns

  1. Hello Ian,
    If all else fails – blame it on the water. You’re in India remember 🙂 The doctor, like most locals, must have been immune and therefore discounted the water.
    I’ve visited Kodaikanal, or Kodai as you so quaintly resorted to the local slang (?). Lovely place.
    45 degrees in a train packed with sweaty humanity – sick and with a child in tow. Wow!
    Love this and so true too > “Remember the impossible is always possible in India if you are not belligerent and you reward people for making the impossible possible.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The great writer Kushwant Singh has written some interesting perspectives on the European experience in India. India has been described by another Indian writer as “The world’s largest functioning anarchy.” The key word is functioning. It does work and India has come a long way toward becoming a major power. If foreigners play by the rules they can even enjoy the experience as we did in our 20 years there. Well, there were some rough spots like the “Canned Prawns” experience. 🙂


  2. The backdrop of India is well depicted this story. The conundrum of the welts and swollen throat must have been frightening – I can think of several possibilities not related to canned prawns! The tease of the story is that you leave us to make our own diagnoses or to accept it, face value (sorry), as one of life’s little mysteries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Must have been something eaten but of course it wasn’t prawns. lol. I haven’t had that problem in all the years since. It was very frightening for us at the time. Travelling on a train in 45c degrees is not the best with a family but wondering if I’d make the journey was a challenge for both of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My enquiring mind still wants to know what those welts were from! see you have piqued my curiosity, but also my admiration for the way you and Georgine handled the whole episode. Another great story to hand down to the grandchildren….thanks Ian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some form of allergy I picked up at Kodai, I had it for a while in Bombay afterward but it subsided slowly. The scary part was when my windpipe constricted for hours into the train journey from Madras (Chennai) to Bombay (Mumbai). Georgine was very worried and I was convinced it was my last journey. It was a once off and I never have had it again.


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