Ever since we moved into our house in Sundar Nagar, Hyderabad, in 1976, our address has been 'opposite Dr Patnaik's house'. Everyone knew of Dr Patnaik, Skin Specialist. Technically we were not really opposite, but anyone who came as far as his house could find us a couple of houses askew. Dr Raghunath Patnaik was one of the leading dermatologists in the country, one with a reputation that crisscrossed all sections of society - politicians, beaurocrats, the whos-who would call on him, including the very poor. As we grew older I realised that there were many doctors who had earned a reputation as a professional, but not many could earn Dr Patnaik's reputation of a 'good man'. Every single person who uttered his name said it with deep respect.
|Dr Raghunath Patnaik|
So when Uncle passed away on March 23, 2021, I, who thought I had seen a fair amount of death in my life, felt a heaviness in my heart that would not go. I looked inward and felt that that reason was that somehow I felt that the balance of good in the world had suddenly got compromised by his departure. He was that sort of a person.
My earliest memories were that of people who would come to consult Dr Patnaik, waiting for hours on end, long lines, going through a process of coming and picking up coupons at dawn (which meant that Uncle would put those coupons out there even before that), and then coming back later to consult him. Many a time I picked up coupons for people who wanted to consult him - Uncle never made concessions to skip lines as I remember. He was principled, treated everyone with a fair and just hand, but more importantly, patiently and compassionately. I have never seen him lose his temper, never heard him use a harsh word, never heard him raise his voice. He lived frugally, in a disciplined manner, focussing on his profession and his patients, his family and his life. There was nothing beyond that - a simple, focussed life that rubbed off on all who came in touch with him. You would want to be as focussed as he was, as patient as he was, as humble as he was, as generous and understanding as he was. Time, it seemed stood still for him and he never cared much for it - knowing it would stretch if he asked it to.
But let me go back to the beginning when I knew him as a reputed doctor and also as the father of my good friend Dr Satyanath aka Mani, now a famous dermatologist himself. While Mani was set up to become a doctor like his father, I was a sportsperson who was playing cricket all the time, not pursuing academic excellence and not in Mani's line of education either. But Uncle let our friendship be, did not in any way judge me, or perhaps judged my better qualities. It always made me curious that Uncle never objected to our friendship and in fact seemed quite fine with it despite the lack of common interests - which did not include academics.
One day my temperamental friend Mohan who lived in Model Colony, and Mani, somehow got into a fight. For some reason they never liked each other and perhaps might have fully avoided one another except for the fact that I was a common point. I have no idea what happened but things came to a flashpoint one day and Mohan challenged Mani to a fight and Mani rushed in. They both went to the sandpit at the community hall that was under construction, with me in attendance. Now something told me that it was better for them to have this fight and vent it out. In the twilight sun the fight began - both amateurs full of anger and emotion went at one another. I decided to be the referee and see that things didn't get out of hand. And just when things were picking up, Uncle rushed in from out of nowhere and separated the two and took Mani home. Not a word to Mohan or to me, or even Mani. He just took Mani home. I know many fathers who would have whacked us both, said that their son was right, etc etc but not Uncle. He just took Mani home and that was that.
Many were the times we met uncle - professionally of course. Once during my adolescence when I was afflicted with pimples my father took me to Uncle's clinic in Secunderabad. Typical of my father, we waited our turn for more than an hour and when we finally went in uncle was apologetic, saying we should have told the attendant. But my father was like that and deep down even Uncle was like that so it was a good lesson for me that day on waiting your turn (though I don't do it nowadays sometimes and pull my connections). Another time I woke up with a swollen nose and I thought my world ended and my mother hurried me across and uncle was calm as ever, said it was normal, prescribed some medicine and I was fine by evening. I thought he saved my life then.
His parrot green Premier Padmini, ADU 7220, was always something I remembered him by. He would look very distinguished in it, driving off in it. Principled he was - when the government came with an order saying government doctors cannot practice privately, Uncle, a Professor at Gandhi Medical College, and a senior doctor then, took the decision to quit his career as a Professor and continue to practice privately. Whose loss it was is anybody's guess. Not Uncle's surely. I would think it was more as a principle that he quit than anything else. These were the type of people who would stake anything for what they believed was right, who would leave noting behind when they believed in something.
I got a great insight into his character one day when there was a crisis at home later afternoon one working day. I was still in school then or perhaps just out of. Our gas cylinder pipe leaked and caught fire when my sister Chanti was cooking something. A huge flame of fire gushed out, the leaking gas fuelling it into a great ball of fire in the kitchen. It was just me, Chanti, mom and Ram at home I think. We did not know what to do and ran out. I had no idea how Uncle realised that there was some trouble but he sensed it and rushed in. While all others watched from the outside Uncle went right in, told me to get some sand and tried to douse the fire. Before I could get sand however, he had gone into the flaming kitchen, to the blazing cylinder and shut off the knob, cutting off supply. The cylinder could have burst anytime and I was amazed how anyone could have so much courage, such clear values that he set himself aside and at such danger put off the fire. Who would risk their life for their own family, much less a neighbours? True character shows under pressure. I wish I had heard my father's conversation with Uncle when he returned. And our values, our persona, our love for humanity and for life, makes us bigger than we are. And as always, he quietly went away after the fire was doused, not staying back to revel in his heroics.
Hero, he was, good looking, gentle, strong, mischievous even.
He was there when my father died suddenly, in a road accident. That morning Dad was fine and in the evening he was in the hospital and next morning he was not there. I think Uncle looked at us more kindly after that early loss of our father and would indulge us when we would visit them with a smile, or even allow us free treatment when we visited him professionally.
As we grew older Mani joined medicine and I joined engineering and played cricket and my name would come in the papers and Uncle would smile at me when I would visit them. Jyothi became the fifth of my sisters and she would tie rakhi to me those days and we formed a lifelong bond of brother-sister. In 2007 when I wrote my first book after quitting a secure job in a bank, I visited Uncle and told him about it. He was very impressed that I wrote a book and then asked me to wait and brought out a paper he had written which had got published in a medical journal. He showed it to me with great pride, spoke to me like I was an equal and asked me for my opinion on what he wrote when clearly his work was one of great experience and expertise, and mine was just pop-fiction. Such humility. Such child-like wonder. He spent a lot of time with me on that, that day and I felt guilty I was taking up too much of his time.
The way Uncle dealt with his patients was an experience in itself. He would ask us in his gentle manner what the problem was, his eyes kind, showing no sign of judgement. He would be fully engaged with you with all his senses as you spoke. He would listen, not interrupting, or only interrupting us when necessary. He would check us unhurriedly, almost as if following a checklist, visual examination with a magnifying glass, questions about ourselves, our lives. All this would happen at an extremely relaxed pace, and we would start worrying if we were taking up too much time with our small ailments. And then when he was fully satisfied, he would patiently explain the ailment, mention why it might have been caused, suggest that skin issues had to do with emotional angles - to not fight and be calm at home, he would say. Drinking water, diet, washing face often were other tips. He would write a long prescription in his neat handwriting and then you could go. Normally, that would treat you for good which was why his reputation was so solid. People kept coming back with other patients only wanting the Pedda Doctor.
I realised what full attention means when I saw Uncle consult. I also realised how time stretches when you master it, not becomes its slave.
When I was made the Chairman of Selectors for the Hyderabad Senior Selection Committee in 2012, Uncle was very happy. He told aunty when I visited them with great pride - "He has been made Chairman of such an important job because of his integrity." I will never forget those words.
I once interviewed him for my blog and I have no idea where I misplaced that interview. I will have to rummage my papers. But I remember he credited everything to god and others - and never took any credit for anything. There was nothing he was in conflict with - the system, patients, government - everyone was doing their best according to him. At the end of the interview, he smiled at me apologetically and said 'I think it must be a boring interview no?' I said no. I had learned a lot.
In the past few years we would meet on the road during our walks. He would be pleased to see me going for my walks and told me a couple of times to motivate Mani (which I could not). But on the walk we would exchange a couple of words, he would smile fondly and we would move on. Once he caught me and told me quietly - 'get the house painted'. I feel guilty when I see the house and even now I think of him when I see that it needs a paint job.
When aunty passed away last year, Uncle lost the love of his life. They shared something very special and he was fully committed to her. I sat next to him as he sat quietly, asking him if he wanted water, anything. He would simply smile and nod his head. And then within a year he got cancer and had surgery. I wanted to meet him and chat, but it never happened - our meetings were on the road where I would be jogging and he would be walking. He would smile at the sweat I worked up and ask - you're running for an hour almost now? I would nod and he would smile. The last time was in Feb when he came for aunty's death anniversary, looking a bit frail.
I had returned from my jog the other day when I saw shamianas being put up. Ramu told me Dr Patnaik was no more and my worst fears had come true. Apparently, Uncle told Mani not to tell anyone of his illness. Quietly he suffered for two weeks and passed away. He was 84. For the first time, I saw him with a slight beard and moustache and thought he looked so handsome. His face as calm as ever, as radiant as ever, his body perfectly proportioned. Something divine.
I always feel that when fathers die, it feels that the roof on our head goes. They somehow make you feel secure, taken care of when they are around. When Uncle left us I felt that the roof on my entire colony was lifted off. People came in, old and new, and on everyone's face I could see that question and fear large - now who will be there for us? So many wonderful qualities, so much good, all we can do is perpetuate those qualities to remember him. We, at my home, are now bereft of our best-known identity, our landmark for 45 years. We now have to create a new one.
But I am so glad we had this wonderful landmark, this gentle and compassionate soul, who touched our lives and in some way transmitted some of his goodness to us. Thank you Uncle for all the wonderful memories. I am so fortunate to have known you, spent time with you. I would love to imbibe even a bit of your qualities of patience, non-judgment, compassion, softness, goodness and the pursuit of excellence. I would love to be as present as you, and by being present, make time stretch forever.