Craig Joseph Danner
by H. E. Everding
Surrounded by the soaring Himalayas in a remote town of Northern India-"a couple of alleyways and market stalls"-Himchall Mission Hospital lures geriatric internist Mary Davis to volunteer her services. Her husband Richard, recently killed in a bicycle accident, had worked there briefly twelve years ago as a surgeon and dreamed of returning. Yet upon arriving in the mountains Mary finds Doctor Vikram Vergeela has left to take care of his gravely ill father, leaving Mary the massive General Practice Guidelines for the Rural District Hospital, a few barely trained nurses, and a message-"I'll be back in a month or so. The hospital depends on you."
Author Craig Joseph Danner, who with his wife practiced medicine in a similar hospital in the Himalayas, displays his detailed medical knowledge and vocabulary in describing how Mary copes with cases such as a dying baby girl ("she hasn't a clue what's wrong"), successful and unsuccessful births, operations on a man's perforated bowel and a child's brain. More intriguing, however, are the intertwining and unfolding relationships of the characters he introduces at the hospital and the café, the Himalayan Dhaba of the title. Except for Mary, who provides the novel's continuity, these characters fade in, come to life in humorous and tragic episodes, and fade out.
In the dhaba, an ancient hippie slips "charas" (hash) to a young blond traveler who is later attacked at "the club" and left with a broken neck. Doctor Mary treats the young invalid, a Brit named Phillip Glaston Davenport, but as she calls the British embassy in Delhi to request an ambulance, the ancient hippie overhears the conversation and comes to full life as Antone, who plans to kidnap Phillip for a ransom. In his broken down jeep he takes Phillip to an alternate town, but on his way back through the pass to collect the cash, his jeep dies and he nearly freezes to death in a snow storm. In the book's final chapter, "The End," Mary is alone on a rock reminiscing and is approached by "an old man in a ragged shirt, a Kullu hat and plastic shoes." The old man says a simple word-"charas?"-and leaves when Mary declines. Thus Antone fades out, but Phillip, who appears nameless before Mary in the form of a sadhu, has the last word in the story: "I think my neck is better now."
Anyone who has lived or trekked in the Himalayas will resonate with Himalayan Dhaba. I did so with the first of many dilemmas Mary encounters after her long journey to Himchall. She enters the dhaba to ask a waiter-yet another seemingly minor character who becomes intrinsically linked with Mary-to use the toilet:
He points her to a closet that smells like an open septic tank-ripping at her belt she barely gets her pants down fast enough. The only light comes through a tiny window high up over head, and there isn't any toilet but a hole cut in the concrete floor. She's focusing on balance, trying to keep her pants up off the ground-horrified she'll tumble over, unsure where she's supposed to aim. At last her bladder's letting down, her feet not quite spread wide enough; her passport safe around her waist now jabbing in her pancreas. She'd made a promise to herself she wouldn't cry for two more days...