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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 45 October 29, 2022

A Doctor with a Heart | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 29 October 2022

Reviewed by M.R. Narayan Swamy

When The Heart Speaks: Memoirs of a Cardiologist
by Dr Upendra Kaul

Konark Publishers
Pages: 202
Price: Rs 750

There are plenty of good doctors in this country, fortunately. Yet, it is not easy to know a doctor who is a successful professional, nationally recognized and yet a warm-hearted human being whose heart bleeds for the peaceful society that Kashmir, his home state, once was.

Dr Upendra Kaul devotes much of the book to his more than half a century in the medical profession; it is laced with amusing anecdotes. He is India’s first qualified cardiologist of Kashmiri origin who went on to win the Padma Shri on the strength of his contribution to the profession. Even after retirement from hospitals, he continues to hold camps as part of his mission — “No More Heart Attacks by 2025”.

But more than cardiology, Kaul clearly loves Kashmir. Under attack from some in the social media for his secular leanings, he is very clear that Kashmiris must not be polarized. “The very small Pandit community needs to realize this and move forward if we have to preserve our culture – which cannot be centric to just one religion.”

The doctor helps readers to understand that not all Muslim rulers of Kashmir were heartless zealots. While Sikandar Shah Mir destroyed several ancient Hindu temples, Zain-ul-Abdin recalled Pandits from various parts of India, resettled them, taught them Persian so that they could get employment, banned the killing of cows, regulated the consumption of beef, abolished the jizya (tax levied on non-Muslims) and reintroduced stipends for learned Brahmins. But his son Haji Khan was a tyrant who resorted to cruelties against innocent Hindus. Kashmir again became peaceful once the Mughals seized power, and went on rule from 1587 to 1752. The rule by Afghans, the doctor says, was the darkest in Kashmir’s history. The Afghans were harsh towards both Hindus and Shias, and indulged in forcible conversion to Islam.

Although born in Srinagar, Kaul spent his childhood in Delhi. But he loved the holidays when he could visit Srinagar. That was a period when the Kashmir Valley didn’t distinguish between religions. “As children we never knew who was a Hindu or Muslim or belonged to which caste.” But he admits that both children and adults always felt that Kashmir was a country being exploited by outsiders. This feeling prevailed more within the Muslim community.

The doctor is clear that what took place in the late 80s and early 90s in Kashmir was mayhem, backed by the Pakistani intelligence whose mission was to replace Sufi Islam with the more rigorous Wahabism. He recalls how anti-Pandit sentiments and violence were ignited, leading to killings and more. Eventually, Pandits quit the Kashmir Valley and sought shelter in other parts of India after selling away their property at throwaway prices.

Kaul worked in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) then and encountered many Kashmiris who began to stream to the hospital for treatment after the trouble in the Valley. The doctor went out of his way to help Kashmiri patients in distress. As word spread that AIIMS had a helpful Kashmiri doctor, the crowds from his state increased. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed once consulted Kaul and requested him to visit Srinagar occasionally to see patients. Kaul also went back to his childhood alleys where his former neighbours recognized and feted him. “All of them used to talk about the good old days of harmony. But nobody had any hopes or any positivity.”

Despite his accomplishments, Kaul left the AIIMS a bitter man after an MP whom he doesn’t name derailed him from becoming a professor. Kaul was one of three doctors vying for two posts. He was told after the interview that his name had been cleared. But he leant from an insider that the MP on the selection board insisted that the job must go to a candidate he favoured. The MP did not leave AIIMS till he got the final list endorsed by the Chairman. “This was blatant cheating in one of the premier institutions of the country. The incident shook my confidence. I took this rejection very seriously and met the Cabinet Secretary who also happened to be my patient.” Although he was offered the post of a new professorship, the bitterness remained, eventually leading to his exit.

Unlike many doctors, Kaul is open about the falling ethical standards in the Indian medical profession. The medical fraternity, he feels, was in general held in very high esteem till about the middle of the 1990s. Slowly, the greed of mammon corrupted many doctors and others. He moans that the motivation of postgraduate students has evaporated. Resident doctors often seem to be only conscious of their duty hours. Unnecessary and uncalled for procedures are performed. At times, patients are charged for coronary stents when no stent had been implanted! Some private hospitals, he laments, resort to unhealthy practices banned in the West to make profits.

From cardiology to Kashmir, this book is a remarkable story.

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