“If I could use a hip-hop track to define this current pandemic situation, it would be "I Need a Doctor" by Dr Dre and Eminem,” jokes Sanjay Meriya, popularly known as The Spindoctor. The 30-year-old hip-hop and electronic dance music turntablist is a major name in India’s gully rap scene, having played alongside hip-hop legends like Tyga and DJ Stretch Armstrong, as well as having been a core member of the Gully Gang, a Mumbai-based crew of rappers put together by Divine, that supercharged the commercialisation of the Indian underground rap scene. But while most are happy to bop along to The Spindoctor’s beat scratches at gigs and music festivals, what many don’t know is that this artist’s stage name is inspired by his life before he established himself as a hip-hop artist.
Prior to blasting beats as a full-time DJ since 2017, The Spindoctor was actually a doctor, running between hospital shifts during the week and playing lowkey gigs on weekends. “I studied medicine and worked as a general physician at a hospital for many years because it’s what my parents were keen on,” he tells VICE over the phone. “But what started as a way to keep my head cool while studying to be a doctor evolved into an important passion for me. So though I became a doctor because it’s what my parents wanted, I decided to shift into music full-time because it’s what I wanted.” To follow his heart, The Spindoctor traded his hospital scrubs for turntable scratches, and has not only managed to climb his way onto the lineup of most major Indian music festivals, but is also an enthusiastic teacher to DJ aspirants at music institutes like The True School of Music in Mumbai.
With a 10-city US tour lined up for March and a whole bunch of new releases, 2020 was supposed to be the year The Spindoctor went big. Then, almost overnight, the world unravelled under the pressure of the pandemic. But instead of caving to the panic and anxiety that coronavirus has brought with it, especially for the entertainment and events industry, The Spindoctor decided to go back to his roots and help out on the frontlines as a doctor.
“I took a lifelong oath to serve humanity,” he says. “When the coronavirus outbreak happened in India, everyone’s biggest fear was not having enough doctors. So I decided to dedicate my time and help my country overcome this crisis.” While The Spindoctor was waiting to hear back from India’s health ministry after he signed up to help out through their online portal, he chanced upon a newspaper ad put out by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), calling for doctors and medical students to help out with the screening process of patients with symptoms who came to the designated clinics to be tested. So, he signed up for the programme and has been actively working on identifying coronavirus cases at a makeshift clinic in Mumbai’s Andheri East and Goregaon ward for the past month.
“Since Mumbai has so many slums, it’s impossible to keep the infection from rising in containment zones,” he says, talking about how the difficulties of social distancing in such a situation as well as the mass migration prompted by the panic have contributed to the explosion of coronavirus cases in Mumbai—the city with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country. “I screen more than 100 patients with symptoms everyday, out of which about 20 are sent for the test, after which at least four or five come out as positive. It’s sad and scary to face this everyday, but we’re fortunate to have social workers and NGOs who help out with necessary contributions like providing food to people. Being on the field is chaotic, but never as chaotic as what I see on my Facebook.”
Interestingly, he has chosen to keep his identity hidden from his patients, with hazmat suits and protective gear helping him compartmentalise his life so he can focus on the important stuff without getting distracted. But one look at his vlog on the frontlines and it becomes evident that while he isn’t spinning tunes to set a vibe, he is trying to keep his fellow doctors and workers entertained with jokes and humorous commentary.
The Spindoctor says that while it’s disheartening to hear about incidents of discrimination and attacks against doctors, he has been privileged enough to only encounter kindness. “I had to leave my parents’ house so I can stay self-isolated when I’m not working to reduce the risk of passing on the infection to anyone. However, in this difficult time, people have been supportive and generous; some have even offered to pay for a hotel for me to stay at.”
When asked about whether his team has been given sufficient PPEs and test kits, he says that while there were scarce resources initially, the situation has improved greatly now, but highlights another important issue when it comes to testing: lack of qualified manpower. “We need more microbiologists, viral infection specialists and lab technicians to conduct the tests. While we have enough testing kits now, we still don’t have enough specialists to conduct them properly because of the size of our population.” However, he mentions that as Indians, we have an added advantage: our inbuilt art of jugaad (loosely translated to 'hacks' or 'a resourceful approach to problem-solving'). "We are the masters of managing with what we have, so it's made us more efficient on the frontlines."
Alongside turning up for frontline duty everyday, The Spindoctor is also working on new remixes and songs, as well as livestreaming his sets on music-related pages like Vh1, Sunburn and Shark & Ink, though his upcoming releases and music videos have been put on hold due to music studios staying shut in the lockdown.
On days when he’s feeling discouraged and down, The Spindoctor has found an effective form of catharsis: crying his heart out. “When I feel depressed coming back to an empty house at the end of the day or not knowing when the situation will improve and when I’ll get to see my girlfriend who lives in Canada, I just cry and shout to get all the pain out." He states that while it’s easy to feel depressed and unmotivated in these unprecedented times, we must keep reminding ourselves that it's only a temporary, albeit draining, phase of life. "I think we were all leading superficial lives, and we are now seeing the death of that life. I feel myself maturing mentally, now that I'm working so closely with coronavirus patients. And while it was tough to feel all the overwhelming emotions at first, it's made me stronger as a person and taught me how to deal with the good and bad sides of life."
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