Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dad, A Life at Many Levels: Mundane to Sublime and Everything in Between

"நின்றான், இருந்தான், கிடந்தான் தன்கேள் அலறச் சென்றான்" என்ற சராசரி வாழ்க்கை வாழவில்லை அப்பா. A year ago today dad left, as Reagan put it, 'the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of god'. He lived a simple and honest life and managed to leave not just memories but changed lives. Eulogizing the death of JFK Jr. Roger Rosenblatt called the expression "untimely death" a "cant expression" and wrote that "when a man dies, a civilization dies with him. Whatever constituted his being-- his gait, manners, tone of voice, political opinions, appearance, his particular use of language, philosophy, sense of beauty, sense of style, his personal history, ambitions, his smile--all go". That eulogy was aptly titled "The Measure of Life".

My brother and I took a boat ride in the Lake District in UK and as talk turned about our father we both marveled that for a man who came from a very humble and unintellectual background his interests were encyclopedic. We marveled at how a man born to a humdrum life insurance agent and lived his life mostly in a parochial small town had a diverse spectrum of interests. From Bharathi to Shelley, including Tamil film lyricists; from an interest in Mozart to Rabindra Sangeet, including Carnatic music and film music; from Jeyakanthan to Bernard Shaw; from enjoying Rex Harrison to Sivaji Ganesan he was of his times and beyond at the same time. If his wide ranging intellect was impressive his steely sense of morals was unshakeable and his ethics were unimpeachable. Sure he was human too with his mercurial temper and more.

Dr. T.Kannaiyan (August 2nd 1941 - August 25th 2015)
As an impulsive school boy I had volunteered to compete in the annual competitions for elocution and essay writing, both Tamil and English. From my 6th grade to my college days I've won many a competition, particularly elocution contests and I owe it all to dad. Dad took a pocket tape recorder and a blank cassette for training me. While lengthy introductions filled with honorific epithets addressing the judges, the authorities and the audiences were popular as opening remarks dad dispensed with it and went with a simple 'Good evening everybody'. That saved time when a speech was restricted to just 5 minutes. It remains my signature opening even today. Then he tutored me in the art of public speaking. Voice moderation, appropriate gestures, how to rest the hands on the lectern, how to scan the audience from one end to another, how to give a gentle smile at appropriate junctures and more. Then he made me speak out what he written about Gandhi and recorded it. He'd then play it back pausing it every now and then to show what was wrong and how to correct it.

Many students recalled what a wonderful teacher he was in Tanjore Medical College. Dad loved to teach. He'd never be didactic. His lectures were filled with humor, good natured humor. He despised silly scatalogic humor that is still quite the staple in India. He hated obscene and silly jokes about women on TV. When a student was too ill to take classes dad recorded a course on cassettes and sent it to him. There was nobody that he would not teach to and there was no one he'd not learn from. When a student mentioned Saul Bellow dad just got up and grasped his hands saying "oh, who in this small town would even mention Bellow". Till the very last he read about what was new in his field, ENT.

Pride in his work was paramount for dad. He was uncompromising when it came to his professional knowledge, how he treated his patients and his ethics. In a profession that is plagued by unethical conduct dad was above reproach. He never earned a single dishonest penny in all his career. He never took commissions from medical representatives or laboratories or nursing homes. There was never a surgery performed that was not necessary. He took care to write honest prescriptions that only had what was necessary and when cheaper drug alternatives existed he insisted on only writing them. His prescriptions are models of clarity. For a doctor his handwriting was beautiful and legible and he wrote detailed instructions for the exact timings to take a medicine and even included details about acceptable food choices post-surgery. He never hesitated to refer a patient to a better surgeon when situations demanded. Though he had a testy relationship with his one time chief surgeon he'd refer patients requiring intricate microscopic surgeries, the kind that was not commonly done in Tanjore, to him. He never treated a patient who needed a different specialist.

One reason why his students adored him was that unlike many doctors he treated house-surgeons (resident doctors) as human beings. When it was common to dish out sexist insults he never did that. Seeing him call a resident doctor "sonny" they took to calling him "Dada".

"Learn from my mistakes" he would say to us boys. As a young doctor with a short temper he once came home to boast to his dad how he flung an instrument in an operation theater that his attending nurse had handed wrongly but got reprimanded by his dad that "had her dad had enough money to educate her to be a doctor would she have suffered today". In a profession that looked down upon nurses he treated them with great respect. After he passed away a nurse saw my mom at a nursing home and came up to her and said "madam, sorry for your loss, he treated us so well".

Going to Chennai from a small town for his MBBS and away from the thumb of a very stern father he squandered his undergrad days. Though he cracked a state prize in his MS (Master of Surgery) he regretted how he tormented his aging dad by not being a good student. Dad was quite forthcoming above what he was not proud about himself. He was quite a terror in his college days. Egged on by classmates he once took a junior girl and dunked her into a water fountain. I've never heard him speak of that incident without regret. Much later as an examiner frustrated at a student who was plainly a failure he took out his wallet and wagered that the student would flunk the next question too. Next day he regretted that it was conduct unbecoming a teacher.

Temper, he'd confess was his undoing."My only enemy is my tongue" he'd often say. Quick to be angered he could let loose a string of choice bilingual expletives in vernacular and English. He could, as Henry Higgins would say in 'Pygmalion', curse like a sailor.

A devout Christian he taught us to be courteous and not wipe out the sacred ash the mom of a Hindu friend would apply on our forehead when we headed to our exams. Living in a mixed neighborhood he commanded respect from all and was courteous to all. To the entire street he was the first doctor on call for anything they needed.

Faith in Christ was central to his life. He'd often quote from the 'Book of Esther' words to the effect that one is possibly in a special position only to do good to others in their moment of need. He'd also add that as Esther's uncle reminds her that if does not rise up to the occasion help will still come to needy from above. While he'd gladly go to any temple he'd not step into the sanctum sanctorum out of respect for true believers of the faith. He enjoyed reading all religious texts or religious classics or the epics of India.

Though devout he was nevertheless a man of science. On science he was uncompromising. When religion stood in opposition to science he would unhesitatingly side with science. He loved reading books on science. Mediocrity and pseudoscience would anger him. He loved succinct writing that is lucid and clear.

Science supplied reason and religion gave him a moral compass. Besides religion he also learned liberally from literature. Shaw's 'Caesar and Cleopatra' that portrays a very generous and magnanimous Caesar was a big inspiration for him. Shylock's monologue lamenting that a Jew is as human as others was almost a credo for my father. He discovered Ayn Rand much later in life and saw her as inspirational. A little known fact is dad loved Tamil literature too very much. While he was not a serious student of literature he was a discerning reader. And yes my name does come from N.Parthasarathy's 'Kurinji Malar'. Verses from Tamil literature were his favorite repartees. He could recite entire sections of Silappathikaram and Bharathi, of course, copiously. Rudyard Kipling's "If", Leigh Hunt's "Abou Ben Adham", Tennyson's "Brook", Wordsworth's "daffodils" were among his most loved poems.

Dad was no crusty intellectual. "Have fun but such fun that you would not be ashamed to tell your children" was his favorite aphorism and one that he lived by. He was an entertainer who could literally play act a Sivaji Ganesan movie or 'Pygmalion'. To all his nephews and nieces and our friends he was no forbidding elder but one they all could join in laughter with, unlike most of their own dads. He was no prude and could regale everyone with the specialness of "Roop Tera Mastana" or how a drenched Padmini in "Jish Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai" would make hearts flutter by exhaling and heaving her bosom. Though not a prude he disliked gratuitous vulgarity and titillation for the sake of titillation.

'I'm a perfectionist' he often would say and lived up to it. Whether it is the fabric of a pant material or the choice of a type of paper for his souvenir; whether it is a surgical suture or writing song lists on cassette sleeves nothing was too small to be prefect about. He always wanted only wholesome experiences. Seeing his kids losing themselves in Tamil film songs he sought out his good friends, descendants of Abraham Pandithar, to record choice Western Classical music. He gave them blank cassettes with the instruction "don't split a musical piece between two sides of a cassettes, leave blank spaces if required, its ok to waste tape space rather than having to switch cassette sides while listening to a piece of music".

Nothing disgusted dad more than mediocrity and especially pseudo-scholarship. He'd often narrate an incident about his professor who when treating V.K. Krishna Menon told him "your problem is you don't just call a spade a spade but you call it a bloody spade". Dad always called a spade a bloody spade. A friend recently said that I'm the 'uncrowned king of being caustic'. As we often joke in our home I'm, after all, a chip of the old bloke (we always said 'bloke' instead of 'block'). While he would be eager to call out a 'bloody spade' none can match him in encouraging talent, irrespective of age. Tasked with bringing out a souvenir for a prestigious conference held for the first time in Tanjore he sought out little known names, the oft ignored 'roadside pimpernels' he called them, to write articles. He has brought out publications to shine a light on students.

Family was everything to my dad. A doting son, he got himself transferred out of Madras to come and be with his father and provide medical care. It was a career altering decision and one that he took much against the advice of practically everyone. Then when he was promoted and transferred he resigned rather than see his boys grow up from a distance. He went to great lengths to ensure we boys never lost out on academic or extra curricular enrichment due to growing up in Tanjore. In high school we would get NCERT text books that my cousins in Madras used to reading from. "Go for the horizons", "I should be known in your schools as your father and not the other way", "don't choose soft options. Soft options like literature and politics are bromides, science is the ultimate" used to be his set of oft repeated aphorisms. He'd have been the first ENT surgeon in all of India to have majored as a plastic surgeon too but for an asinine dean who made him withdraw his application not wanting to set a precedence. Time and again dad swallowed disappointments in his profession out of pragmatic concern to keep the family running. Like any family there'd be squabbles with relatives but if there was any medical help needed nothing would stop him and he'd go all in to be of support. Caesar's magnanimity was not an idle belief but a creed to live by for him. He was deeply attached to the extended family and they to him.

As dad declined in health and became an invalid for nearly 10 months mom and his friends supported him like a rock of Gibraltar. Dad had submitted his resignation nearly 30 years ago and literally stopped practicing as a doctor nearly a decade ago and yet the reservoir of good will that he had cultivated was unbelievable. For a person who was uncompromising in how he lived and very discerning in his choices I was stunned to see so many rallying to his side and supporting him with only one aim "he should not suffer". It is testimony that in a world spiraling downward into a decline of morals there are still those who value a well lived life.

American pediatric neuro-surgeon Ben Carson's autobiography would end with the line "my two sons are my everything". Dad had underlined those words in the copy I gifted to him.

Dad lived a fulfilling life and blogs can never do justice to any life, much less one like that he led. I've only touched upon vignettes of his life. He will forever be missed for he was more than just dad to me and my brother, he was a soul-mate. A good movie, a place of history, a good book, fine poetry, a musical performance, a fine piece of clothing, a tasty food, a luxurious restaurant, a well appreciated blog of mine or a seminar my brother delivers and in so many innumerable moments his memory would forever linger in our minds.

இன்று கோகுலாஷ்டமி. அப்பா அடிக்கடி பாரதியின் கண்ணண் பாட்டிலிருந்து 'நண்பனாய், மந்திரியாய், நல்லாசிரியனாய், பண்பிலே தெய்வமாய்" என்ற வரியை மேற்கோள் சொல்வார்கள். எங்களுக்கு என்றும் அவர்கள் அப்படித்தான்.

Dad's most loved lines from Shakespeare was what Mark Antony would say of Brutus and they'd apply to dad too, "the elements were so mixed in him that one day all nature would say 'this was a man'".






3 comments:

சங்கர் said...

Great man. Doctors like your father, who do not take a cut from Pharma companies, are becoming rarer. A major factor which increases the cost of healthcare beyond the reach of a common man.

Prasath GR said...

Such a nice one....rekindled my precious moments with my dad.

Krishna said...

Hope and pray your family and more like yours thrive.