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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Life's lessons - Who taught me what? (5)

 Father (Hariharan)

My father was not as influential in my life as my elder brother was. The most important lesson he taught me, and my mother was the importance of forgiveness. (Rev. Thich Naht Hahn taught me the “how” - namely “how to forgive” - through his guided meditation on forgiveness)

Two other lessons he taught by example are: keeping promises and keeping trust.

My father’s mother had a much greater  influence on me and taught me more. That was my grandmother.

Paternal Grandmother (Chellathammal)

My paternal grandmother was an amazing lady who became a widow when she was very young and raised her two sons, one of them my father. She was a tough task master. But she was also full of love. She used to say: “The hands that punish you will also hug you”. That was true of her.

She showed me that wisdom has nothing to do with formal education. She did not have any education. But she was able to make wise decisions. How else could she have raised two boys as a very young widow and a single mother in the late 1800’s and early 1900?

Another lesson she gave me:  “Just because you are poor, you do not have the rights to take someone else’s belonging”.

She was old-fashioned enough that she did not encourage educating my sisters. But she insisted that “the only out of poverty was education” and supported the boys in the family – her sons, me and my brother.

She taught us Honesty. People in my street trusted her to do what she said she will do.

Although she was orthodox in her ways as a Brahmin, she treated everyone warmly and giving them due respect.  By her actions she taught us how to treat people with dignity whatever their social status. Here is one great example.

During the war, when rice was rationed, she will ask some of the poor folks to come at night (we were not supposed to give food?) and she will feed them. Therefore, I have seen them being loyal to her and come any time to help her, if asked. One such person was a poor lady who used to live selling yogurt. My grandmother will feed her every day.Therefore, the yogurt-lady was a loyal family friend. She was so loyal that when my middle sister became sick and was alone, that lady came from her village, stayed in our house and took care of my sister for a few days till someone else from the family could take over the care.

A local Priest (Sri. Narayana Bhattar)

Sri. Narayana Bhattar (we used to call him “bhattar mama”) taught me Sanskrit when I was 5 or 6 years old. I resented going to the class at that time. But am glad my family insisted on it. I did not know how much that Sanskrit knowledge will help me when I grew up.  Fortunately, I kept it up and now can boast of having read several passages from the Vedas and Upanishads in their original and even some Sanskrit classics such as Sakuntalam and Malavikagnimitra.

That experience taught me something about curriculum-setting in schools. There are some subjects which students would not like to learn because the subject is “dry” or they cannot see any point learning it. For example, in medical school, many students will not like anatomy or organic chemistry or statistics. That is  because they do not know of their usefulness in the future. People who have gone through the training and who are in practice should insist that some subjects should be learnt even if the student does not “like” it. The idea of students setting their own agenda/curriculum or taking all subjects as optional is questionable.

Srinivasa mama (“Dr”. mama)

Srinivasa mama was responsible for motivating me to become a physician. I need to write a few words about him so that the context (medical care in India in the first half of the 20th century) is clear.

He was NOT a doctor. He went to medical school for a year or two and was forced to leave for family reasons. He took a job in a Government Office. But, at a time when there were extremely few doctors and most of the care was provided by indigenous practitioners and ayurvedic doctors, it was common for “compounders” to practice medicine. Compounders were laymen who made up “mixtures” and “powders” (there were no prepackaged medicines in those days. Doctors mixed various medicinal chemicals in proper proportions. These were called the “mixtures” and “powders”) and ointments for doctors who practiced western or allopathic medicine.

During my high school years, I became sick with typhoid. There was no antibiotics in those days. I was so sick one night that my mother thought I will not survive as she told me that several years later. During recovery I was taken care of by Srinivasa mama. This was a defining experience because, this to my memory, was the beginning of my interest in becoming a doctor.

He not only sowed the seed for a desire to become a doctor, he also set a model of a compassionate physician for me to look up to.

Srinivasa mama worked in that capacity as a compounder with the limited knowledge he had acquired during his time as a medical student. But he was considered a full-fledged doctor by the community. More important, he was a compassionate human being who practiced the noble qualities of a physician better than many other doctors I have known. He listened and understood the needs of the people. He took care of “the entire person”. People consulted him on every aspect of their lives, from choosing a college to choosing a bride. Most important, he knew when to send them to a bona fide doctor. (May I add, he played a major part in my marriage too!)

He certainly inspired me to become a doctor. I learnt humane approach to medicine from him and, also how to take care of the whole person with a disease, not just the disease. 

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