76 years is a long path to cover. For a professional association to come this far, it is a remarkable journey of purpose and solidarity. In my book The Professional, I have spoken about the origin of the term “professional”. It goes back to the medieval times and links back to the word “professio”, as in to profess. It meant professing allegiance to something like a religious or a monastic order. It was a vow that brought someone into a set of fellow professionals. It wasn’t just about a license to practice a trade or carry on a vocation. The vow was about building an affective regard for the profession one chose. What is affective regard? In your context, it isn’t enough to be a qualified doctor. It isn’t enough to become successful in the subsequent life of medical practice. To be a true professional, you must build affection and regard for the order. The Opthalmological Society gives you the platform for doing that. In coming together every year, you honour the platform that holds you together as professionals.
I congratulate everyone assembled here on the 76th annual conference and wish you great strides until the next 24 years. 100 years of assembly would be a something to be truly proud of; it would probably mark 3 generations of doctors serving mankind, bringing light to life.
You have deeply honoured me to be here as your chief guest today. Some of you know me and some do not. Those who know me, probably think I am here because of my work in the Information Technology (IT) industry, culminating in the co-founding of Mindtree or perhaps because I wrote a bunch of books along the way or may be even because I am one of the few crossovers who have moved from a lifetime of work in the private sector to now join the government. Truth be told, I stand here in front of you for none of those.
I am here because, my mother was a blind woman.
She was one more Indian who became needlessly blind. She had cataract in both eyes, set early, diagnosed late, acted upon with little means to finally intersect with corneal ulcer and then she became totally blind when she was in her early fifties. At the time, I her youngest of five sons, was twelve.
Today, I want to talk to you about her.
My father came to Odisha from Bihar in search of work. My mother, came as a young bride from Bengal. My father worked all his life as a small time, state government official. My early childhood memory is mostly about moving from place to place as his transfer orders came every now and then. His work life was entirely lived in the far flung, tribal areas of the State. Our homes were lit with kerosene lamps, water fetched from community wells at a distance. My mother cooked on firewood from an earthen chulah. Our life was frugal. The family sat, ate and slept on the floor. But ours was a life of contentment; it didn’t ever feel poor or deprived.
It was because how our parents raised us. Joy has little to do with money. I think, it has a lot to do with purpose, values and sharing. Give me those and I can live with very little. Give me all the material wellbeing but take away purpose, values and sharing, nothing any longer becomes worthwhile.
How do you create the sense of purpose, values and sharing in a small child? As any child psychologist would tell you, it is by doing small things, little tasks, together with your child in the early years. My earliest recollection of that “doing something together” was in a place called Koraput, where my mother and I made a small garden in front of the government house where nothing previously grew.
After my father was off to his office and my elder brother to school, mother and son would go dig the ground with her kitchen utensils, there we planted seedlings, we built a small fence to keep stray cattle away.
Our first year of the effort went nowhere as white ants ate everything. Mother didn’t give up; she brought ash from her chulah, we treated the earth and the next year, the cosmos,the petunia, the dahlia, the rose bloomed like laughter in the wind.
Seeing her efforts at the garden, neighbours would often ask, why was she taking so much pain in a government house she might have to vacate in a few weeks or at best, a few months? She would tell them, it didn’t matter to her. Her job was to leave the place in better shape than in which she had inherited it. I, my mother’s little elf, have that statement etched in my heart and I have carried it for the rest of my life.
Throw me into a dungeon or a desert and I would leave the place a little better for someone who may come after me.
We are designed to live with fellow beings, we are designed to care for causes beyond our temporal existence. We are designed to make things, ideas, institutions better and survive us long after we are gone.
As a little boy, as mother and son dug the obstinate ground, planted the seed, cared for the saplings, weeded the garden, I didn’t know that my mother saw only in a haze because her cataract had set in. I began to understand that only gradually.
In places we lived, there were no tailors, far less, ladies’ tailors. All the mending and sometimes, the making was done by her. But we didn’t have a sewing machine. It was a thing of luxury. She had a pair of scissors, needles and threads and with these she could make many things.
But she couldn’t put the thread through the needle.
That was my job. Whenever she would call me to do it, I knew, it was because she couldn’t see well. Later, as I grew older, and I learnt to read well enough, my job was to read out loud the newspaper to her every day after she had her lunch and she lay down to stretch. By now I knew she saw things in blur. Sitting by her, I would read out to her all that was going on in the big world outside us. In the process, I was raising my own consciousness of the Universe beyond our small-town existence.
A few years passed. I grew up some. More transfers happened. Finally, we came to a mining district called Keonjhar. The cataract in her left eye was now mature.
She was taken to the Tata Eye Hospital in Jamshedpur and after a few weeks, she came back, now able to see clearly in one eye. A couple of years after that, the other eye was ready for operation. There was an eye-camp in another small town. She went there, got operated and returned home with a bandage. Something in the meanwhile had gone seriously wrong. She bled profusely from her nose. No one knew if this had anything to do with the eye. The elders at home were speaking about corneal ulcer. I didn’t know what was happening. Places like Keonjhar did not have any eye doctors. I have no clear memory of what followed during the days and weeks after. But finally, one day when her bandage was removed, she said, she couldn’t see anything. She was taken to the garden in the courtyard and told to take a few steps. There, she walked into a bed of blooming flowers that she had planted herself. It was clear that she now, could no longer see. It took her a couple of years to accept that fact. After that, she never looked back. She was one of the most stoic people I have ever come across.
Her resilience and stoicism probably came from both her stock and her early displacement. She lost her father as a child, a lawyer in Pabna, in present day Bangladesh. Her widowed mother was robbed of all her husband’s land by scheming relatives who swooped down like vultures. The woman took her brood of children and walked off in search of a new life to the other side of Bengal. And that is how, driven to penury, an entire family came to West Bengal to start all over again.
In time, a few years after her matriculation, my mother was married off. Those days, even in Bengal, women weren’t encouraged to go to college.
She was married off to my father, a good man with strong values but who probably didn’t know that he had a psychiatric condition. It was a difficult marriage. By the time my mother knew that there was a problem with her husband, she had three children. She couldn’t have gone back to her own family that had little means. She stayed with my father for the rest of her life and stood by him. I was ten years old when I realised that something wasn’t right. My father was going through an episode. My mother took me aside. She explained to me that just as there are physical illnesses, there is mental illness. It is treatable. Your father is going through a bout of that. With treatment, he would be alright soon.
Don’t be afraid, she told me.
A child afraid is a child broken. She was making sure, I wasn’t afraid.
That mother who saw things in perspective and could see beyond, was now completely blind.
Over the years, many things happened. My mother’s blindness became just another thing. She became older. The brothers settled down, went their ways. I too grew up. Went to work. I got married. Now my mother was staying with me and my wife, Susmita. A day came, our father moved on.
Her life was one of prayer, meditation, personal grooming, small needs, welcoming anyone who came by, always asking about them, their wellbeing, not hers. Her warmth and engagement made it difficult for a guest to be believe that she wasn’t seeing.
She lived with grace and independence, made her own bed, cleaned her room and even washed her clothes. Until she was very old, she would even come into the kitchen and cut the vegetables. On my part, I was always very busy with my work. That is the way she had raised me. Thus, the time mother and son had together was usually after I returned home every day and sat down for tea together. On one such occasion, tea was ready but she didn’t come from her room. Susmita went in to find her non-responsive. She was taken to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms. There she remained unconscious for a few days. The doctors asked us to call the other sons, just in case. We were five brothers and four of them, elder to me, lived in other cities. Three of them came over and kept vigil. Mother recovered and was soon discharged from the hospital. All the brothers returned to their respective places. I left for the US on work. As soon as I arrived in the US, Susmita called to say that my second brother, upon his return to Kolkata had a massive heart attack and died. All of us were shocked with this sudden turn of things. Even as we were trying to cope, the issue was, whether the news should be conveyed to my mother? We decided, I would do it personally and it needed to wait till I returned to India.
A few days after, I returned from the US. As was customary, I went to her room and touched her feet. She was happy I had come back. I stood there unable to speak. She wasn’t seeing my discomfiture. Susmita was. However strong someone may be, how do you tell a mother, your child is dead?
I looked at Susmita. I was tongue-tied. She gestured that the time is now. That I had to. I gathered all my composure and broke the news to her.
She heard me in total disbelief. Her sightless eyes were set on my face as if she was seeing me, searching my face for assurance that this wasn’t a bad dream. That she hadn’t heard me wrong. Then she looked away and sobbed. She sobbed softly. We stood there in silence, letting her grieve. After some time, she gathered herself. Then she said, life is a train. We are all passengers. Whoever’s station arrives first, must get off. And the train moves on with the rest of us.
The mourning was over even though her loss was permanent.
Over the next few months, events at my work front were changing dramatically. There were business uncertainties on the horizon. I shifted base to the US for a few years. We left Mother in the care of my eldest brother and relocated.
One day, I learnt she had a stroke and was hospitalised in Bhubaneswar where my brother worked as a civil servant. I returned to find her suspended between life and death, paralysed on one side. There was nothing that could be done medically. It was just a wait game. After being with her for a few days, I decided to get back to work.
On the way to the airport, I stopped by at the hospital where she lay motionless but aware. There she was and I, her last born, her baby whom she had taught how to dig the earth, plant the saplings, make the fence, put thread into the needle of life and to recite Tagore.
I bent down to kiss her.
In a garbled voice, she asked me why was I kissing her.
Why not, I asked her?
To that she said, “Go Kiss the World”.
After a few months of that fabulous encounter with a blind woman of boundless vision, my mother passed away. A few years after, we returned to India. My company Mindtree was now doing well. There, one day I rose to be the Executive Chairman. Then the time came to step aside. Very coincidentally, at the same time, the Government of Odisha invited me to come help with the skill development for school dropouts.
I came back to where everything had started.
My assignment gave the chance to go see the government quarter I was born in and all the small places we grew up in. One day, I went to Koraput; there I went to look for the place where mother and son had raised their first garden together. As you may imagine, I was extremely nervous. What if the house was razed? What if nothing looked familiar at all? To me it wasn’t just a return to reconstruct memories. I was looking for validation.
Mother had always said, leave things in better shape than you found them. But better shape for how long? One, two, ten or fifty years? In my search, I needed to know if, after all, legacy is a worthwhile idea.
Koraput is a place where change comes slowly. It wasn’t difficult for me to find the quarter. As I got down from my car, willing to accept change, development, progress, destruction and all other reasons to fell human endeavour, to my joy, I found my mother’s garden.
There it was.
Just the way she had left it more than five decades ago. Only perhaps, a little better. I stood transfixed. Everything in there was telling me, after all, life is worthwhile. Life is good. Life asks you and me to engage, to give, to live, to love.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Labonya Prova Bagchi, my mother, is here today, in my voice, urging you to go kiss the world. She wants you to know that you, India’s handful of eye doctors are doing yeoman service for the 1.3 billion people. She wants you to know that your work is not going in vain. Millions of people, otherwise fated to a state of needless blindness, hence a life of destitution, are indeed grateful for your compassion and care. She wants you to be resilient and relentless until needless blindness in India, is a thing of the past.