Interpreters of maladies

Shahid Tasleem is certified to teach Uzbek   -  Ramesh Sharma

Tasleem's students are in demand as interpreters for international patients at hospitals such as Fortis in Gurgaon. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  Ramesh Sharma

For patients arriving from central Asian countries for treatment in India, a growing army of interpreters is at hand to smooth the linguistic bumps in their road to recovery

Shahid Tasleem, a 45-year-old assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University, is that rare Indian qualified to teach Uzbek. Over the past decade, he has taught the language to nearly 20-40 students each year. While none of them have turned to teaching it, many have used it to find work or further their academic research.

“In India, in the last five years there has been an ever-increasing demand to learn central Asian languages,” says Tasleem, when we meet him at his house in Laxmi Nagar, just beyond the Yamuna river in east Delhi. The certificate he acquired from the University of Tashkent, where he spent a few years in the ’90s, is the centrepiece in his living room. “For medical tourism, for business and for academic research, a lot of Indians are benefiting from the connection between these countries, which were a part of the former USSR. And with Indian businessmen making regular trips to Uzbekistan and other countries there, and their people coming to India for treatment, ties will only grow,” he says.

The medical tourism business in India is expected to touch $2 billion by 2015. More than 1.5 lakh patients travel to India each year, with a sizeable number coming from central and west Asia.

Get-well lingo

“Interpreters have become an important link between patients and the hospital,” says Ashish Bhatia, COO, Fortis Healthcare. “With interpreters, it is easy for doctors to explain to patients in their native language the diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment care.”

Javed Akhtar, 28, works as an interpreter for patients who speak Arabic and Uzbek. Until a few years ago, all he could have hoped for was a teaching job, but today his proficiency in these languages fetches him a decent income as an interpreter. “After completing my graduation from Jamia, for a year or so I tried to be a teacher in my hometown Aurangabad in Bihar. Financially it became difficult though, and I shifted back to Delhi and took up this job at the hospital,” he says.

Explaining the nature of his work at Fortis’ Gurgaon facility, he says, “From the moment they (patients) land at the airport till they are on their way back, we try to help them with everything. The only problem is with medical terms, which are sometimes difficult to translate, but after a few months you get a hang of that too.”

The hospital currently has seven interpreters who are, between them, familiar with Arabic, Persian, Turkmen, Kazakh, Russian, Pashto and Uzbek.

Akhtar’s colleague Barkhat Ali, 22, is an interpreter for the Afghan patients. “I learnt Pashto at an academy in Malviya Nagar in south Delhi. The experience is quite good, and while other job opportunities are available for us — at the embassies here in India or in Afghanistan and other countries, interpreter jobs in hospitals are the safest and most convenient,” he says.

The doctors, in turn, value their role. “Having someone who knows the language is very useful,” says Dr Hemant Sharma, an orthopaedics consultant at the hospital. “We have patients coming for bone marrow treatment, patients with mental issues, gastric problems and a wide variety of other illnesses. They also come from troubled nations, so the interpreter is all the more helpful.”

Never tongue-tied

“I have never understood how a person researches or works in a region but doesn’t bother to speak their tongue,” says Tasleem. “There are many businessmen, especially from Gujarat and Maharashtra, who venture out to central Asian countries today. A lot of tourist groups head there as well, apart from people who research on those nations’ history. What is peculiar, though, is that it is only recently that people are beginning to learn Uzbek or the other languages. I think it is a good sign.”

Colonel Nalin Bhatia readily agrees with him. The army man learnt Uzbek with an eye on the future. “I have a postgraduate degree in human rights and my work might take me to Uzbekistan,” he says. “I had already learnt Persian and thought it would be good to learn Uzbek too.”

Professor SM Pasha, who teaches political science, sees it as a mark of good neighbourliness. “We have so much in common with our central Asian neighbours, so I thought why not learn some of the languages as well. There is still a lot of research required in these regions and Indians should surely lead the way.”

Published on June 06, 2014

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