Ode to the ‘SAINT OF THE SLUMS’
My dear grandfather, Brig. Dr. M.L.Kataria
on his 101st Birth Anniversary…
While Manohar Lal Kataria lived away in Chandigarh and I, in Delhi, he was not only our family patriarch but my dear Grandpa! I am a very proud granddaughter but am equally humbled by his modesty.
I was born post his retirement. He retired as a Brigadier in 1973. My parents got married that year post his retirement. His life had two phases-of an army man and a doctor . An army man who served the Indian Army and retired as a Brigadier in the Army Services Core(ASC). A glorious career, a decorated soldier, recipient of Ati Vashisht Sewa medal (AVSM). How handsome he looks in the photograph adorning his medals with the pride in his eyes of having fought the Inḍo- China war in 1962 and Inḍo- Pak war in 1971.
He was a doctor before he joined the army. He never left touch with medicine. In his various army postings, he pursued medicine and post-graduated in five branches of medicine- surgery, ophthalmology, radiology, healthcare and even hospital administration! Latter, he did from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at Delhi. Isn’t it overwhelming? Nothing but the best satisfied him- he trained from King George Medical College at Lucknow, too.
So, with his army discipline, exemplary medical knowledge and administrative skills, are we surprised that he was the Founder Medical Superintendent (MS)of Rohtak Medical College and later MS at Post Graduate Institute (PGI) at Chandigarh post his retirement? He eventually settled down in Chandigarh. Brig. Kataria was truly ARMED TO HEAL!
Was that enough for him? He was a Masters in Law, Masters in Business administration, Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) in not just one subject but in quite a few and a Doctorate in Literature (D. Litt) from Agra University. What a priviledge it was for my mother to collect his degree from Agra University on his behalf! Amazing depth and diversity of knowledge!! And he acquired all these additional qualifications, post retirement from army service!!! Triple exclamation.
But, he was essentially a doctor at heart with ‘SEWA’ bhaav– service to others (in modern words) as humanity was in his soul. He once asked me to edit an article in 2015 for the The Tribune newspaper for the 26th of January, the Republic Day feature. He wrote that in pre-independence era, when he was pursuing his medical internship and was posted in the Sabarmati ashram for a month, he got to meet Bapu, Gandhiji. He observed him most of the month and got to speak to him one day. He intently listened to the conversations of Sarojini Naidu, Frontier Gandhi- Khan Abdul Ġaffar Khan etc about independence with the Father of the Nation. But Gandhiji told him in person about Sewa. Grandpa once said in an interview, that his life has been driven by the simple phrase- ‘Work is Worship’ but headded that work becomes worship only if you don’t consider it work.
Popularly called as the Saint of the Slums, the Messiah of the Poor , A One Man Army or even affectionately Daakdar sahab, by his followers. He specialised in the field of Socio-medical relief and Geriatric healthcare. He established two non governmental organisations (NGOs)-the BCS Kataria foundation, a family trust and Healthcare India. 28 clinics and health centres in slums and rural Chandigarh including a primary school for 500 slum children and 5 centres for Senior citizens. He worked for the orphanages and blind too. He adopted children and brought them up.Each center is fully equipped with a laboratory, dental chair, ECG, X-ray and some even have CT and MRI machines. Doctors are mostly committed volunteers from prestigious organisations. When one man works selflessly, others join in. A Balwadi, Anganwadi, ECHS, Gurudwara Prabandhak committee, Red cross, White cross, Ramakrishna mission, Arya Samaj, Chandigarh Geriatric society, Blind School, Bal Niketan and I shall go breathless.
Everyday at 9 am, he would be in the ambulance onwards to work, age no deterrent, 365 days in a year, 98 years of age, working tirelessly for over 40 years seeing 50-60 patients each day despite a failing vision for over a decade. It is not easy to visit even one center in a month, I bet!
Last when I accompanied him in the ambulance van under Ramakrishna mission to a slum, he would tell his co- doctors that the day I write a wrong prescription, I shall stop coming to work from the next day. But, he had the memory of an elephant!
Honours and appreciation came by. The most coveted award in medicine- Dr B C Roy award for Professional Excellence in Social Service for ailing humanity was conferred upon him in 2000 when I was pursuing my postgraduate medical study in Gynaecology. Pride of Chandigarh award– the Union Territory award by Governor of Punjab, Chandigarh State award in 2009 for promoting education in slum children, Diabetic Association of India Award in 2006 for work in Rural diabetes. And many many more. .. Laurels humbled him more.
To those who heard his speeches, would be well aware of his oratory skills, and his love for poetry. Despite his failing vision, he read voraciously with a hugely powered magnifying glass. A quiet person with a voice which had a motivational tenor of a statesman. A regimental lifestyle with the most frugal existence. I never knew of him ever buying a single piece of new clothing for himself ! His meals were truly a pauper’s meal though most meticulously dietary planned.
I read his resume when he was nominated for Padam Shri – I was blown off! At the magnanimity of his persona and the simplicity of his existence. He motivated me to become an achiever, a better doctor, a more fulfilled human being and constantly charged me up to achieve higher goals. He was always very generous with his remarks.
The last feather in his cap was President’s medal for National Award for senior citizens in 2014. The Centenarian Award. My father received it on his behalf and swelled up with pride. Truly a centenarian- he would have turned 98 years in 11 days. 28 th of July, 2018 when he passed away. He travelled to the crematorium in his favourite transport- the ambulance. It’s three years hence and he would have turned 101 today, his birth anniversary.
One deep regret. As a child and even later as an adult, it was always a one way street where he enquired and I answered. Be it be academics, new medicines, my career, my achievements, my well-being…I never inquired of him and feel now bereft and void of knowing the depth of his multifaceted persona. When you are blessed with people so deep, the ocean bed is impossible to reach.
With his passing away, ends an era but his legacy shall carry on- a legacy of not just running the trusts, his 28 charitable clinics and Centers but a legacy of giving, caring for others, social service, of selflessness, of others before self, of relentlessness, of an untiring person working towards a better society ,community and humanity.
I salute to his undying spirit!
As a grandchild, यादें , यादें, बस
We bid him Goodbye in his spotless doctor’s white coat, his white cap and his favourite neck tie. A man with a heart of gold- an impeccable record-May his soul rest in peace….
He left me behind a gift, a treasure -his stethoscope and blood pressure machine. And gifted away his umbrella under which he sat in the scorching heat in the open sun and saw poor patients writing prescriptions on this table and dispensing machines. Long queues of patients awaiting for Dakdaar sahab to come continue to impression upon my mind.
Authored by: Dr. Puja Dewan
Gynecologist & Singer