A Wordy Adventure

 “I’m bored!” How many little boys and girls, across the world, echo the same words. More than ever before, the last two years when the pandemic confined families within four walls, this was the refrain. But this is nothing new.

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself not just sometimes but always.

That is the opening line of The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961, which went on to become a classic of children’s literature.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a 10 year-old boy who is utterly bored with everything around him. One day he comes home to finds a mysterious package with a bright blue envelope which reads “For Milo. Who has plenty of time.”

When unpacked it reveals a magical toy tollbooth which he sets up in his room. Having nothing better to do, he drives his toy car through it and there begins his whacky journey through the different realms of language. He is accompanied on his travels by a “watchdog” named Tock—a large dog with an alarm clock for a body. 

Crossing Expectations and going through the Doldrums, Milo heads for Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged–Monarch of Letters, Emperor of Phrases, Sentences and Miscellaneous Figures of Speech. He is welcomed by five tall thin gentlemen who introduce themselves as The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding.

We offer you the hospitality of our country, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality.

Do all those words mean the same thing? asked Milo.

Of course, certainly, precisely, exactly, yes, they replied in order. They also explain: Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our orchards.

Milo wanders around the marketplace of words where there are thousands of words on sale, with the vendors trying their best to sell theirs. It is here that he meets the giant Spelling Bee, that can spell any word, and who joins him on his travels.

Finally he meets the king who asks him what he can do. Milo has no answer. The King thinks:”What an ordinary little boy. Why my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary hangs by a thread.”

And thus Milo embarks on a wordy adventure where the characters indulge in a riot of word play that initially throws Milo into deep confusion, but gradually his curiosity leads him not only to learn new things, but eventually to join in the pun-fun as it were. 

From Dictionopolis to Digitapolis, from the Foothills of Confusion, and over Mountains of Ignorance; through the Valley of Sound and the Forest of Sight; the Sea of Knowledge and Island of Conclusions (he had to jump to get there!), and the Kingdom of Wisdom, Milo encounters an army of new words as he is roped in to rescue the captured princesses of Rhyme and Reason imprisoned in the Castle in the Air, while fighting the fearsome Hate and Malice.

The Phantom Tollbooth is an absolute delight for word lovers such as me. The word play is clever and stimulating, reminding one of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. When the book was published, several reviewers wondered whether children would even understand so many new and unfamiliar words, and whether they had the ability to really enjoy the play on words. These apprehensions were vindicated when the book sold millions of copies; and continues to remain a favourite even 60 years after it was first published in 1961.

Years later the author Norton Juster explained his approach: My feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet, the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure. Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been.

The story of how the book came about is equally interesting. Norton Juster was a young architect working in New York. He had received a Ford Foundation grant for a book on cities for children, and spent months researching it. One day, in a restaurant, he overheard a boy asking the question   “What’s the biggest number there is?” That put him on a totally different path.

I started to compose what I thought would be about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children,” he wrote. “I loved the opportunity to turns things upside down and inside out and indulge in all the bad jokes and puns and wordplay that my father had introduced me to when I was growing up.

The grant never fructified into the intended book, but there began the story of The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton recalled: When I wrote the book I really didn’t write it with any sense of mission. I wrote it for my own enjoyment. The book in no way was written to any sense of what it was that children needed or liked.

However, under all the word play is just what children need–a feeling that navigating the world can be an exciting adventure in itself. As Norton puts it: And I think what kids do — it’s a fairly universal kind of thing – I think the general sense of the book – the feeling of it is something most kids experience one way or another. They’re at times disconnected, or they don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know why anything is happening. All the things that they’re learning don’t connect to other things. One of the things that happens in your life is you start out learning a million facts and none of them connect to any other facts. As you get older you gradually realize that something you learned over here connects to something you experienced over there. And you start drawing sort of mental lines, and after a while, like when you get to my age, there’s almost nothing that you learned that doesn’t connect with 80,000 other things. So it all has some kind of a meaning and context to it, and I think kids slowly begin to feel that too.

In an age when children have so many distractions, and yet are always “bored” this book encourages them to look anew at the world around them. You have to constantly look at things as if you’ve never seen them before. Or look at them in a way that nobody has ever seen them before. Or turn them over and look at the other side of everything. That is the magic formula.

Serendipitously, at the time Norton was writing the book, his illustrator friend Jules Feiffer, who was also his upstairs neighbour, read some of it and spontaneously produced a bunch of perfectly-suited drawings that brought the characters to life. And The Phantom Tollbooth continues to be loved by children even six decades later.  

I seem to have missed reading this book in my childhood, but I am delighted to have discovered it in the sixth decade of my life. Thank you Evan for sharing this, a favourite childhood read of yours, with me!


Seeds to Secure the Future

Every day at CEE (Centre for Environment Education) was an education one way or the other. One fascinating tour that I recall was to visit NGOs working in projects related to biodiversity and climate change as part of a national scheme that CEE was coordinating.

I was supposed to cover Chhattisgarh as part of this. My most memorable visit was to an NGO that was collecting local varieties of rice and cataloguing them.  It was a small project, maybe only a few lakhs. The NGO had collected rice samples, stuck them to sheets of chart paper and meticulously written down details that they had gathered from the farmers about the cultivation, characteristics, uses etc.  Like a school project, but preserving invaluable genetic resources and information. What a variety of rice—different shapes, different sizes; some fronds long and wavy, others densely packed. And for the first time I saw purple and black rice! And the enthusiastic NGO staff explained the traditional use of each type of rice.

 It was an eye-opener.

I knew that Chhattisgarh was known as the Rice Bowl of India and had over 20,000 rice varieties. But seeing those modest tin trunks with the samples of rice carefully stored brought this home to me in a way that no amount of reading could have. And with it, the realization that we were fast losing so many varieties–and not only of rice but every crop. And not only in India, but worldwide.

Seeds for Food Security

There are many factors responsible for this—unsustainable agricultural practices; industrialization; the focus on a few varieties of crops which are commercially attractive to the exclusion of others; urbanization, etc. According  to UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), while over  6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food worldwide, only nine account for the majority of total crop production.With climate change, the need to preserve these varieties is even more urgent than ever before. The varieties that we cultivate today may no longer be viable tomorrow. And we may have to fall back on this preserved crop diversity to feed the world.

The small NGO that I saw in Chhattisgarh was a key in the whole chain. Several NGOs  in India have been working towards preserving crop diversity for decades—from Beej Bachao Andolan which started in the Tehri Garhwal, to Vrihi seed bank in East India, to the Navadanya movement.

The international community has set up such seed banks at large scale to preserve and conserve seed varieties. There are over 1700 such banks, the biggest of which is the Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway. This has the largest collection of the world’s crop diversity. It stores duplicates of seed samples from the world’s crop collections and hence is a back-up in case anything were to happen to any collection anywhere. The geographical location of the Vault ensures the best possible chance for the survival of the seeds— low temperatures, permafrost and thick rock protect the seed samples and ensure they will remain frozen even without power. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, the location is very remote, but still accessible. It is well above sea level, and safe from flooding even in the worst climate change scenario. The vault is 100 metres into the mountain. It can store 4.5 million varieties of crops, with about 500 seeds per variety.  As of now, there are more than 10,00,000 samples in the Vault, originating from almost every part of the world.

India too has commissioned an impressive seed preservation facility. In fact, it is the second largest in the world. The stone and wood paneled vault is located in Chang La Pass, Ladakh, and is a joint initiative of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. In this facility, seeds are sealed in specially made three-ply foil packages, placed inside black boxes and stored on shelves. It currently holds olver 10,000 seed samples, and has plans to grow by inviting the international community it use it.

The loss of agricultural biodiversity is less focussed on than the challenges to wild biodiversity. But it can be as
devastating. Feeding the world will be impossible if we don’t act to conserve this now! As per FAO, since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of agricultural plant genetic diversity has already been lost. Seed banks, from local to international,
is one of the ways to do this. Kudos to the farmers, communities, NGOs and institutions which are doing this!





The Wonder Bulb: Garlic

It adds a special flavour to numerous dishes, in many cuisines, across the world. In India, in many kitchens some dishes are incomplete without adding a dash of its paste, while some communities strictly abstain from it. It is often hailed as a wonder herb with numerous health benefits, while it also carries with it the lore of being a vampire repellent! This is the much used, but generally taken for granted–Garlic. However, this edible bulb which is a vegetable as well as herb, has been given its due in America which has designated 19 April as National Garlic Day!

Garlic or Allium sativum is a perennial flowering plant growing from a bulb. It belongs to the Lily family, in the onion genus Allium, and is a close relative of the onion, shallot, leek and chive. The word ‘garlic’ comes from the old English word garlēac, derived from gar (spear) and lac (plant), a reference to the long pointed shape of fresh garlic leaves.

While the name comes from the Anglo Saxon, the plant itself has a much older history. It is believed to be one of the oldest cultivated horticultural crops, with the centre of origin in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is mentioned in many ancient texts, and references to garlic have been found in Egyptian and Indian cultures dating back 5000 years. Later, it spread to China, and then into Southern Europe.

Garlic has also been part of human diet for thousands of years. It was first incorporated into ancient Egyptian cuisine, making it the first ancient civilization to use garlic. Ancient Egyptians included garlic in the diet of the labourers who built the pyramids, to boost their strength and endurance. King Tutankhamen (1500 BCE) was buried with garlic cloves, which were found in a well-preserved state when his tomb was excavated hundreds of years later. Garlic was also consumed by Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and peasants. Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece were given garlic – possibly the earliest example of “performance enhancing” agents used in sports. For the Romans garlic was a spice and a medicinal herb. It was used to treat tuberculosis, fever and other diseases.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates known today as “the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions and illnesses. Later research has indeed proved that this bulbous strong-smelling herb is an excellent source of minerals and vitamins necessary to maintain the body in a healthy condition. Garlic cloves are one of the richest sources of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.

The use of garlic for its antibiotic properties was also promoted in traditional and folk medicine from the earliest times. In ancient India garlic was a commonly-used medication for a wide range of ailments. An Egyptian medical guide from 1550 BCE, written on papyrus, prescribed garlic as a treatment for abnormal growths.  Ancient nomadic tribes knew the anti-microbial effects of garlic when they mashed and rubbed in a combination of salt, garlic and red peppers to preserve meat during their long caravan travels. In Europe medical practitioners used garlic throughout the Middle Ages. Doctors in eighteenth century England carried garlic in their pockets to ward of the odour of disease. Garlic remained in the realm of medicine for most of the 19th century. In 1861, a book titled The New Domestic Physician by John Gunn prescribed simple home remedies using medicinal plants in which garlic was included.

Louis Pasteur first discovered that garlic juice was a powerful antimicrobial in 1858; he maintained that it killed bacteria and was effective even against some bacteria that was resistant to other treatments.  At the time when antibiotics did not exist, a bulb of garlic was itself akin to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It was used as the main antiseptic for treating wounds; there are stories of it being used widely in the trenches during the First World War as there were very few other substances available to kill bacteria and clean wounds. During World War II, Russian soldiers wounded in battle were treated with garlic when antibiotics were running out, and it became known as Russian Penicillin.

What was it that gave garlic these properties? It was in 1944 that the oily, colourless, unstable substance called allicin was isolated from garlic. Later it was established that allicin, the sulphurous substance that gives garlic its distinctive smell has strong antibiotic and antifungal properties, even when diluted. In 1947, the chemical formula of allicin was determined. Allicin is also the compound to which most potential health benefits attributed to garlic have been credited. The allicin in garlic is released only when the cloves are cut or mashed. So the most effective way to activate the allicin is to cut the garlic and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before using it.

Garlic also contains 17 amino acids. Amino acids are essential to nearly every bodily function, and make up 75 per cent of the human body. Every chemical reaction that takes place in the body depends on amino acids and the proteins that they build. Today garlic is being promoted as a wonder bulb that can be helpful in managing blood pressure, cholesterol and immune function.

No wonder then that the “stinking rose” as it has been called, has featured in the folklore, traditional medicine, and cuisines of so many cultures around the world. 

So as we inhale their “aroma” let us give those cloves of garlic a deeper thought as we add them to our cooking. Unless of course you suffer from alliumphobia—a fear of garlic! 


Of Textbooks and More

Exactly 80 years ago this April, ‘Academies and Societies’ which I suppose was a catalogue of learned scientific publications, listed ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ (Tamil) by N. Ananthavaidyanathan, published by Annamalai University and priced modestly at Rs. 2-8.

The Reference!

A lot of family history behind this entry, as the afore-mentioned Ananthavaidyanathan was my grandfather. He was a Professor of Chemistry at Annamalai University having joined it in the mid-1920s, when it was still Sri Minakshi College, and he saw the growth of the College and its sister institutions into Annamalai University in 1929 .

The book was written in response to a competition organized by the University, to come out with the first Tamil under-graduate science textbooks in the country. My grandfather’s ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ won the prize.

My grandmother told us tales of the days and nights and weeks and months of work that went into the book. With no precedents of modern scientific writing or references in regional languages, my grandfather had to coin several names for chemicals, for processes, for phenomena. Being the conscientious, old-school scholar he was, that involved a lot of research and consultation. With Tamil type-writing skills not easy to find, and moreover, the problems of typing chemical formulae in the typewriters of those days, it was a physical challenge as well as an intellectual one! My grandmother helped him proof-read draft after draft.

The hard work paid off, and his was the first college-level chemistry textbook in Tamil.

Annamalai University is an institution with a hoary past. Rajah Sir S. R. M. Annamalai Chettiar, In the early 1920s, set up three educational institutions– Sri Minakshi College, Sri Minakshi Tamil College and Sri Minakshi Sanskrit College—in the temple-town of Chidambaram, and these soon became intellectual centres. The purpose of setting up the educational institutions was to educate the poor, and to give a fillip to literature in Tamil. And I suppose it was in pursuit of the second aim that the competition was organized.

Sir Chettiar was an enlightened industrialist and banker with a deep interest in education. He contributed generously to philanthropic causes and set up institutions. He was one of the founders of Indian Bank. He counts Shri AC Muthaih (who served as the Chairman of SPIC and the President of Board of Cricket Control of India), and Shri PC Chidambaram (former Finance Minister of India) among his grandsons.

In 1928, Sir Annamalai agreed to hand over the group of educational institutions he had set up, to the local government to establish a University. On 1 Jan, 1929, Annamalai University was established under a State Act–India’s first private University.

In its time, the University has been the centre of Tamil, of intellectual debate, of students who questioned the status quo of their day, of strikes, of agitations and of academic excellence. Today it is one of the largest public residential universities in Asia

We are an ‘Annamalai University family’, with my grandfather having taught there for several decades. My father studied Physics there—he had to choose between studying Physics and Chemistry, but my grandfather would not let him join the Chemistry faculty because he was the Head of the Dept., and did not want any controversy about his son being a student in the same department. My brother studied Engineering there. My father and brother both served the Defence Research and Development Organization all their lives, and my brother was honoured with the Padma Shri for his contribution to Agni and Prithvi Missiles. So I suppose I have much to thank Annamalai University for!


Who Moved my Center?

It all started with an idle question. Where is the center of India? Most of us said Nagpur. Others thought not. So we decided to delve into the matter.

Nagpur pillar
Pillar marking the old center of India at Nagpur

We learnt that Nagpur used to be the center of India. The British, as a result of the Great Trigonometric survey, a project undertaken by the Survey of India in the 19th century, had fixed on Nagpur as the heart of the country. They erected a sandstone pillar here in 1907, marking the spot and giving distances to many major cities from here. The pillar still stands, though the centre has moved.

Sadly for the Orange City, the center has now shifted to a small farm in Karondi near Seoni in Madhya Pradesh.

Why did the center move? Good question. After partition in 1947, the boundaries of the country changed, and hence the center moved. And even though Karondi is designated as the center, it is not quite so. The geographic center actually falls at the coordinates 240 7’11’’ North and 770 41’ 49’’ East, which is in the middle of a jungle. Hence it was decided that Karondi, a small village close by, with a population of about 500, would be designated the center. Sadly, there is no particular monument or structure to mark this important place.

But what is the geographic center of a country? Well, apparently, there is no universally accepted definition. To simplify the matter, the physical centre of gravity is seen as the geographical centre. A geographical definition says ‘the centroid of the two-dimensional shape of a region of the Earth’s surface (projected radially to sea level or onto a geoid surface) is known as its geographic centre or geographical centre’ (Wikipedia).

There are also several ways to find the centre. For instance, at the simplest, you transfer the shape of a country on to a cardboard, cut it out and find the centre of gravity of this slice by pivoting it on a pinpoint. You can also simulate this process on a computer. It can also be found by averaging all of the longitude points and latitude points. Other more sophisticated methods involve the use of vector algebra and topological maps. The latest method which is most accurate involves: ‘(1) projecting regional boundary points using an azimuthal equidistant projection, (2) finding the geographic center of the projected two-dimensional region, and (3) then transforming this location back to a latitude and longitude.’ (A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States. Peter A. Rogerson). I am not sure I understand that, but maybe others will!

We have seen that India’s center moved because of changes in political boundaries. USA is another country where this has happened, but due to the addition of states. But in ancient times, ideologies influenced these decisions. For instance, in ancient times, because of religious and cultural mindset-overhangs, Jerusalem was considered the center of the world’s landmass. But as science strengthened its hold, this thinking had to change.

But that was not the only reason why the world’s center shifted. The increasing sophistication of calculation methods was another underlying reason. For instance, based on some calculations in the 1860s by Charles Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, the geographical center was thought to be in Egypt.  In recent decades, calculations located the center in Turkey. But even within Turkey, first it was located near the district of Kırşehir, Kırşehir Province. But in 2003, elaborate calculations by Holger Isenberg set it at 40°52′N 34°34′E, also in Turkey, near the district of İskilip, Çorum Province, approx. 200 km northeast of Ankara. This is today the accepted center.

There are also methodological issues on which experts cannot agree. For instance, whether to include offshore islands, the fact that erosion will cause borders to change over time, or rise in sea levels which will changes shoreline—all of these could confound the calculations.

Does the center have any significance or importance? Not really, except maybe for a quizzer or as a boost for tourism. Sadly in India, poor Karondi with no monument or structure to mark its centrality to the country, hasn’t even got this advantage!




Doctor Without Borders: Jonathan Kaplan

Last week I wrote about a young doctor who chose to use his medical training to serve people in war situations. This was Dr Kotnis who worked with passion and dedication on the war front in China, almost a century ago. Every generation and every period of history has examples of such professionals who voluntarily choose to serve in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations.

Doctors without Borders

I recently read a fascinating account by such a doctor in our own times. This is Dr Jonathan Kaplan who began his medical career, as do all doctors, after long and intensive years of study. Dr Kaplan graduated from medical school in South Africa and spent the next ten years acquiring specialist qualifications and training as a general surgeon, and super-specialization in vascular surgery in hospitals in the UK and USA. This equipped him to move on to become a “consultant” with a comfortable and prosperous practice. In his own words:

Master of Surgery. The title had a ring of Zen about it, as though I was now a sage of some martial art, a mystic bladesman. I had trodden the path of professional dedication, served the necessary years at the required levels of experience and responsibility, paid all my dues to date. A consultant post—the reward for all this industry—lay ahead, with attendant success and security. But I found myself beset by an odd emptiness…

This sense of emptiness led Jonathan to choose otherwise. He became a “medical vagabond” as he describes himself. He spent many years as a volunteer surgeon in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones in the 1990s. He attended to the casualties of apartheid in Cape Town; worked on the front line treating Kurdish fighters during the uprising at the end of the Gulf War, and in a part of Burma’s Shan state under attack by the Burmese army; in Mozambique during the civil war, and in Eritrea at the time of the Ethiopian offensive in 2000.

Besides the blood, sweat and tears of the battlefield, the adventurous Jonathan Kaplan was always looking for new challenges. In his own words Working as a doctor in war zones was voluntary and unpaid. My hospital career looked increasingly uncertain—my curriculum vitae was a curious patchwork of jobs that shocked the sensibilities of staid consultants—and I was considering a full-time post in accident and emergency medicine where I hoped a varied resume might be less provocative to the interview committees.

But that was not to be. A variety of chance offers led to interesting stints where Dr Kaplan saw different sides to the realities of illness and emergency care. Among these was being an air ambulance doctor, and a resident doctor on a cruise liner. He also became deeply engaged in an investigation on the impacts of mercury poisoning in a part of Brazil.  

For most of his life Jonathan Kaplan worked tirelessly, and with minimal resources, amidst the most challenging conditions and heart-rending human tragedy, using every skill at his disposal to treat the wounded, and save lives. At the same time he also meticulously documented the politics, struggles, and universal human dilemmas. These have been published in a book titled The Dressing Station.

The book is a fascinating read, that vividly describes some of the most tragic and devastating impacts of war on human beings, alongside some highly technical details of surgery, and the contradictions of war-zone realities. But Jonathan is much more than a reporter. He also shares his angst and his internal struggles to maintain his humanity even under the most inhuman circumstances. He wonders about human life, and the role that doctors have to play in the human drama between birth and death. That is what makes his writing both eye-opening, as well as thought-provoking, not just for medical practitioners, but for every one of us who are on the other side of the ‘consulting table’.

As he shares: I have practised medicine in diverse fields: as a hospital surgeon, a flying doctor, a ship’s medical officer. I have operated on wounded straight off the battlefield, treated people with rich stains of tropical disease raging in their bloodstreams, and tried to help those affected by occupational illness from industrial toxins or work place stress. I have run research programmes funded by corporate finance—that met the needs of the shareholders before they benefitted any patients—and I’ve cared for children wasted by diseases of famine and war. Like most doctors I have seen my craft used and abused; been part of its successes and witnessed its failings. It is by the means of this unforgiving arena that we struggle to define ourselves.

He further ponders on his work and on life: No clinician can give an objective account of that work: the intersection between doctor and patient is mutual and intimate, and in the end comes down to something between us that is a fragile thing, as fragile as life. All we can do is the best we can in the war against death and against despair, including our own. For at its extreme the practice of medicine is a succession of front line, and each victory is only a temporary respite.

Dr Kaplan continues to take periodic assignments as a volunteer surgeon in conflict zones amidst UK hospital surgery, film-making, academic teaching, and working as a photographer, and as an advisor on medical TV dramas. He has also proposed, investigated, researched, produced and directed documentaries on health, development and environmental issues for several TV channels.

I picked up The Dressing Station by chance, not having earlier heard of Jonathan Kaplan. It was a gripping read. I look forward to reading his second book Contact Wounds.


A Doctor Abroad: Dr Kotnis

Much has been written in the past month about Indian medical students going to distant and relatively unfamiliar countries to pursue medical studies. Many of these young students have ambitions of making a successful and prosperous career after they obtain their degrees. Here is an unusual story about an Indian doctor who went abroad, over a century ago, not in the pursuit of name and money, but to use his education and skills in the service of those who needed them the most.  

Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis was born on 1 October 1910 in a middle-class family in Sholapur, Maharashtra. He grew up as one of seven children in the family, and his father had to take loans to support his children’s education. Dwarakanath moved to Bombay to pursue medical studies at the Seth GS Medical College. Possibly unlike his fellow students at that time, the young Dwarakanath’s ambition was to practise medicine in a different part of the world. And as destiny would have it, his dream took on an unexpected form.

Dwarakanath acquired his medical degree in 1938. The world was already in the throes of conflicts that would escalate into World War II. China had been invaded by in the early 1930s by the Japanese who were seeking raw materials for their growing industries. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and war crimes against the Chinese became commonplace. There were large scale massacres of civilians, and the Chinese resistance army suffered heavy casualties. At the same time there was an acute shortage of doctors who could attend to the injured and the dying.

It was at this time that General Zhu De, a Chinese revolutionary had written to Jawaharlal Nehru with a plea to send doctors to save the lives of the soldiers. India was in the midst of its own movement of freedom from British rule. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to send a team of five doctors to China to show the solidarity of the people of India with the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese aggression.

There was a call for doctors to volunteer for this mission. Dwarakanath was one of those who volunteered. He was 28 years old; neither he nor his family knew much about China, but he felt an inner urge to venture beyond familiar territory to practice the subjects that he had studied, in challenging circumstances. This decision would prove to be a life-changing one.

Thus young Dr Kotnis joined the team of five Indian doctors headed for China. The other four members of the team were M Cholkar from Nagpur, BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, and M Atal from Allahabad.

Dr Kotnis in China Source: https://www.chinadaily.com

The young doctors, the first medical team from another Asian country who had volunteered help, were personally received by Mao Zedong and General Zhu De. They were plunged straight into the war zone in Northern China where mobile medical units were treating wounded soldiers. The situation was very stressful, physically and mentally. About 800 injured soldiers had to be attended to every day which meant that the doctors often worked round the clock without rest or sleep. The young doctors stood up to the challenge, saving hundreds of lives and treating thousands of wounded.

As the battle in the North subsided, the Indian team was free to return home, and four members did so. But Dr Kotnis was reluctant to return. He wanted to spend more time in a country that he was beginning to know and love, and continue to contribute to the war effort. He joined Mao-led Eighth Route Army in 1939. He continued to work tirelessly, performing operations for up to 72 hours without a break, and treating hundreds of patients, day and night. He did not return home even when he heard about his father’s death.

Years later he was remembered by the ordinary people as a kind doctor who not only helped ease their pain and suffering, but was also concerned about their basic needs. He learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese and was able to communicate with the people in their language. He became one of them. They in turn adopted him and called him Kedihua dai fu (Kedihua was Kotnis’ Chinese name and dai fu meaning doctor).  He was also nicknamed “Dr Thoughtful” and “Old Ke”.

Around this time he also met Guo Qinglan who had volunteered as a nurse in the Eighth Route Army. The couple got married in December 1941.They had a son who they aptly named Yinhua; the Chinese character for Yin meant India and Hua meant China.

In 1941 Dr Kotnis was appointed as director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian physician and social activist who had also moved to China in 1938-39 during the Second Sino-Japanese and volunteered as a medical advisor to the 8th Route Army. He was a brilliant surgeon who not only worked on battlefields, but also helped in training medical personnel, and setting up medical programmes and hospitals to reform the health care system in China. He was deeply committed to the welfare of the poor. Dr Bethune died on the frontline, of blood poisoning in 1939, and became a national hero.

Dr Kotnis was a fit choice to carry forward the legacy of the revered Dr Bethune, who had had a similar professional path. Dr Kotnis continued to work with the same intensity and passion as he had done on the battlefield. He was also teaching medical students. As there were no textbooks he started compiling them himself. But the unrelenting stress had taken a toll on the young doctor’s health. Only three months after the birth of his son, Dr Kotnis was struck by a series of epileptic seizures that cut short his life. Even as he was writing his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, and following a seizure, died on 9 December 1942. He was just 32 years old.  He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan village in China among the people he made his own.

While the work of Dr Kotnis is not as well documented or known in India, the name and legacy of Ke Dihua as he was fondly called, are still remembered and revered in China. The Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School been named after him; from which over 45000 medical professionals have graduated. There are memorials and statues of him in several towns in China.

7 April is marked as World Health Day. A good time to remember a doctor who lived his short life with complete commitment and passion for the health of all people.


Sacred Games. With No Apologies to any Eponymous Show

A recent visit to the phenomenal 12th century Amrutheshvara temple near Shimoga in Karnataka introduced me to sacred games— ancient innocent, fun, time-pass activities, not violence-filled convoluted storylines.

As we sat down on the stone benches after our round of the temple, we discovered strange-looking designs carved next to us. Considering we were a party of eight, we occupied quite a few benches, and each of us could see some carvings on our seats.

At first we thought they were random markings, but on closer examination, all of them turned out to be board games! Some of these we were vaguely familiar with, others not. Well, board games were popular in ancient India, with many of them, from chess to snakes and ladder having originated here. In fact, temple friezes often depict people absorbed in playing such games.

Temple games
Amruthesvara Temple, Karnataka

But this was the first time we had seen games put out for general edification in a public place. We got to wondering if these were really as ancient as the temple, or later-day graffiti. And considering that the temple was 800 years old, that was a lot of time for graffiti-workers to do their job.

But it would not have been easy to carve these elaborate games on the stone benches on the sly. So it seemed to us that it must have been an officially-sanctioned exercise, and one probably carried out before the stones were set in their places.

So did the temple-builders plan these games for the visitors? Seems likely. After all, visits to temples were a major outing for many; in fact, maybe the only outing for some.

Naturally, one got goggling on the subject after the visit. I discovered quite a few references to such games. Historian Chithra Madhavan and Vinita Sidhartha, founder of Kreeda say that such games are quite common in temples in South India, even being found in the Srirangam temple which is believed to be 2000 years old. They opine that it was not just for the devotees visiting the temples, but also to provide for the entertainment of those who worked in and around the temple—from maybe the pujaris, to the dancers, musicians and others involved in various aspects of running the temple.

Temple games

Such carvings have also been found in forts. There are a few groups, including Kreeda which are involved in research on this subject. Researchers R.G. Singh, Dharmendra and  Dr Dileep KCR Gowda, have documented 500 spaces with games across Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.Recently, a pair of researchers, Sojwal Sali and Rishi Rane, found 41 ancient carvings of board games of different sizes on rocks near Hinjawadi in Pune district of Maharasthra. These are on some hills, close to a temple, and the speculation is that they were used by pilgrims, travelers and traders who plied the route. This discovery is a treasure trove on games played in ancient times, and also the fact that one of these is huge–six feet long and six feet wide—sets it apart.

 It is not difficult to imagine an idyllic scene of a beautiful temple a thousand years ago, where in the midst of a buzz of activities, one can see groups of people playing their favourite game, with a few spectators standing around each group.

Were those more innocent times, when there was no betting on the outcomes? No loaded dice or fixed games? Well probably human nature was not very different, but one can hope they kept the temple games more sacred!