My father always carried a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his wallet. It was a cut-out from a newspaper article, the size of a small square stamp. Along with the photograph of Gandhi, he carried a photograph of his (late) mother and of Shrinathji, the god he believed in.
A lot of things in his life were influenced by Gandhi’s writings and life and he would say ever so often – ‘A thousand years from now, Gandhi would be revered as a saint or people wouldn’t believe that a man like him really lived or walked this earth.’
A lot of my respect for Gandhi comes because of the way his writings influenced my father and how it had the power to positively affect my father’s day to day actions, and the choices he made and steadfastly stayed faithful to till the end of his life.
When I hear people berating Gandhi, I keep silent. I know that Gandhi doesn’t need my advocacy and truth be said, I haven’t read his writings in entirety. I am not a Gandhi scholar. I do not claim to know everything about him. I respect him because he shaped and influenced my father in a big way and the things he inspired in my father – I could see them happening every day, in every little action and in the way my father conducted himself. And I believe other people benefited from it as well – my father’s patients, friends, people he came in contact with, the students he taught.
Working for the poorest of poor
My father was a paediatrician by profession. He chose to work at a government run hospital instead of setting up his own private practice. The government run hospital was also a teaching hospital, and the chunk of patients were poor as the middle class and the elite usually choose a private clinic or hospital in India. Almost everything was free or subsidised at the hospital my father worked for, and patients sometimes came from the neighbouring states to avail of the treatment and medical facilities.
It gives me great happiness, he would say, that I can serve those who cannot afford a private clinic and I can use my education, my training and my clinical expertise to give them the best possible treatment.
His work ensured that he was always in touch with the realities of the country – a large section of India’s poor who could barely afford two square meals a day and for whom an illness in the family could mean landing in life altering debt. He was able to counsel young mothers who had seen advertisements of milk powder for babies and thought it was superior to breastfeeding. He would reassure them that they needn’t save money for milk powder, he would tell them about nutritious value of breast milk and also the risk that milk powder formula for infants carried in a developing country – if the water was contaminated and it was the one they used for milk powder, it could lead to infections and posed a grave risk for the infants. Young mothers would go back home, happy and relieved, no longer worried that they needed to buy something that they couldn’t afford.
He would say to his students – treat your patients with kindness, respect and compassion. Remember we don’t know what it is to suffer until we suffer ourselves.
Keeping needs simple and few
He kept his needs minimal. Only a couple of trousers and shirts. No fancy wristwatches or gadgets. For a long time, he wore only white, the change to coloured shirts and trousers was at my request.
When your needs are simple, you are incorruptible, he would say. I can stick to what I believe in, because I need so little in life that I won’t be corrupted by the offer of more money or vacations paid for by pharmaceutical companies in exchange for prescribing their brand of medicine over a cheaper, better alternative for my patient.
This was something that he took from Gandhi as well. If Gandhi could wear a loincloth and achieve so much in his life, why do I need fancy clothes. Fancy clothes don’t make a person, Prerna, he would say. Never be ashamed of what you have worn, the shame should be in doing something that is dishonest.
Compassion and humility
I saw in my father a strong sense of compassion. Compassion for his patients, for their families, for those who had been served a cruel fate in life, for friends, for family, for strangers. And humility.
My father died because of a ruptured, dissecting aortic aneurysm. Before he was to be taken for the surgery that may have saved his life (he died on the operating table before the procedure could take place – just as they were giving him the anaesthesia), he asked for forgiveness.
He turned to my mother and said, ‘Aruna, forgive me because I may not be able to keep my promise to you. I had promised to outlive you and take care of you. This surgery is complicated and so is my situation and not many survive it. I may die on the operating table. I also ask for your forgiveness for the times that I have been angry at you in the course of our married life and for the times I may have been unfair to you.’
(My mother is legally blind from a condition called retinitis pigmentosa and my father was her greatest support, both on an emotional and practical level. He had hoped to outlive her so that he could always be there for her.)
He then turned to me. ‘Prerna, I ask your forgiveness for all and any mistakes that I may have made while raising you. I know that you aren’t happy with some of my decisions but at the time I took them, I thought those were for the best. Please forgive me if those caused hurt and disappointment.’
He also took time to mention one of the nurses who had attended to him. ‘She is excellent, she was very gentle. That is how nurses should be. Do thank her for me.’
His final words to us still ring in my ears. I am not attributing all of his compassion and humility to Gandhi and his teachings, but I know that it did play a great part along with his faith in Shrinathji.
He quoted Gandhi often and took out his wallet and looked at his photograph every day. In all the decisions he took, he would reflect on the Gandhi’s teachings and what these meant to him and how he could implement some of these in his life.
I don’t agree with or follow everything that Gandhi said, he would say. But in what I do believe in, and what I have been able to follow, it has guided me in being a better human being.
If Gandhi could inspire such a beautiful way of life for my father, and I believe my father wasn’t the only one – how cannot I respect Gandhi?
4 thoughts on “My father and Gandhi”
Prerna I have seen and experienced all that you have shared about Sir. For us he was a saint. He was truly a father figure for lots of us students and loved the little ones he treated with empathy. God bless him 🙏
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Thank you so much Manoj uncle for reading the blog and for writing in immediately. Your words mean a lot to me – deeply grateful.
Love this post. Your dad seems like such a wonderful influence to have had. Thanks for sharing!
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Hi Prerna ,
You described your dad’s life very very well.
Your father’s life was dedicated for less fortunate people. Shreeji Bawa will always bless you all.
Kanjana and Bijal