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Vimala Chandran Milner

Vimala Chandran Milner

Vimala taken on her last birthday 28.12.2010

Vimala Chandran Milner was one of my dearest friends. Someone I will never forget as long as I live.

When my parents built their home in St. Thomas Mount, the first floor was built as a flat for rent. Tenants in any part of the world can end up as walking nightmares or as relationships made in heaven. My parents struck gold when Vimala moved in with her family to be the only tenant my parents ever had.  The Milners became Family that stayed upstairs and paid rent.

My Dad had just one rule for both the houses. No maids or house-help were to be shared between Upstairs and Downstairs. This would eliminate the tittle tattle that would inevitably lead to misunderstandings between the families. My Dad was a very wise old Man.

Vimala  had the stunning looks of the yester-year film star of the Malayalam screen, Srividya . She was an accomplished Kathak dancer and played the piano in her sleep. Her husband Milner Victor  had a deep and powerful Tenor that did not match his slight frame. When he sang, people turned around to see where the voice was coming from. An extremely musical family, their beautiful daughter Sheryl flew with Air India. Their son , Sunil, a proficient black belt, composed popular jingles. Son-in-law Krishnamohan, an Ad guru with Ogiilvy Mathur was as musical as you make them and live music would play from their terrace when all their friends met for jam sessions and Vimala’s legendary cooking

Vimala never hid the fact that she loved dogs more than she did human beings. When we met for the first time,  she had 5 white Pomeranians. Chinthanu, Juno, Tito, Snowman and Oja. Two of them did not get on with each other and could never be left in the same room at the same time, despite being connected through parental lineage. Chinthanu the older male dog, the daddy dog was an alpha dog.  He would attack his son Tito and they had to be kept in separate rooms. Whoever got locked up, got the lady dogs Juno and Oja as company. Sometimes someone would forget and let the dogs out and world war 3 would erupt with Vimala bleeding from multiple injuries including bleeding from her nose when they pulled at the beautiful nose-ring that defined her. Her heart broke when her K9s passed on.

Vimala was an excellent cook. She was generous with her recipes and used to punctuate them with audiovisuals that had us in splits. Heat the oil ,she would say. Add the mustard seeds till it goes “putt putt putt”. Add the onions and fry it ‘kuju kuju kuju” till it turns brown. Add the ginger and garlic paste , green chillies and tomatoes till it goes “pish pish pish” etc…

She was extremely kind to my parents who lived on the ground floor. Anything she cooked, would find its way down to my parents dining table. My Mum’s culinary approval meant a great deal to her and she picked up all my Mum’s expert cooking tips. When my Mum had family or guests visiting, Vimala would come down, help my Mum with the cooking, set the table and disappear up the steps when the guests appeared.

My kids loved Aunty Vimala, the Milners and all the K9s upstairs. When the kids came on holidays from Nepal on their own, she used to take Rekha and Anish upstairs, entertain them and feed them all sorts of goodies that she made. They watched in awe as Sunil flew across the room with his Karate moves.  When the kids had to return to Kathmandu, my Dad would book them on a flight with Sheryl when they were treated like VIPs on board and got to visit the cockpit. Mohan had a motorbike they all rode pillion on, with Rekha and Anish seated between Mohan and Sheryl.  Sometimes Mohan would take Anish fishing.  If they did not catch anything they would buy fish from the market to pass off as the Catch of the Day.

As my Mum’s eyesight worsened, she found it hard to read the inland letters her family sent her, written in Malayalam. Vimala was from Calicut and she used to run down and read the letters out to my Mum and write the replies for her. Needless to say, she knew most of the family secrets , family skeletons and recognised all the black sheep when they came to visit .

The Milners never ever stepped over the boundaries of the threshold . My Mum and Dad never became  Uncle and Aunty. Nor did they become Appachan and Ammachy . However the  respect and love when they addressed them as Rev Baboo and Mrs. Baboo was tangible.  They were with my Mum and Dad till the very end. When the ambulance took my Mum on her final journey to the Apollo Hospital, Vimala was by her side holding her hand. When my Dad needed his final admission to the Balaji Hospital it was the Milners who accompanied him.

Vimala was a wonderful grandmother. When the grand-kids Divya and Priyanka came along , they were a permanent fixture on her left hip. She did everything with them perched on her hip. She had  cardboard paper on several walls all over the house with AT, BAT, CAT etc written all the way down the alphabets. She used to sing them nursery rhymes and read them stories from the books they loved. She never let them down or out of her sight. She was a devoted Grandma.

She was one of the sweetest and most generous person I ever knew. Sheryl used to bring her all sorts of exotic things from all the corners of the world that she flew to. Vimala would save something for me from her goodies. A bar of chocolate, scented soap, a lipstick. Something she thought I might like. No matter how much I protested she would make sure she gave it to me..

Eventually they moved out when my Parent’s home at 1/54 Butt Road was renovated after my Dad and Mum passed on. It was then that we became the best of friends, when we stayed in the Defence Colony a couple of streets away from each other.

After Milner passed away, and her two lovely grand daughters, Divya and Priyanka grew up, Vimala slowed down. She was no longer directly responsible for any K9 or the kitchen and she seemed to have more time to herself to watch the Mohanlal Movies on Asianet. I used to take her with me whenever I went shopping, to the Mall or to eat at the Malayalam Restaurants dotted all over Chennai. If we heard that some restaurant served Nadaan Kerala Food, we would find it to check out their Kappa and Meen curry , their signature Tapioca and Fish Curry and our own all time favourite. Sometimes she used to come to the Clinic and spend the day reading a book while I saw patients. It was a easy and  low maintenance friendship, though we were more than 10 years apart.

She had a wicked sense of humour , told the most amazing stories punctuated with comic audiovisuals, was great fun , great company and we had a lovely time together. Young at heart, she was always game for any mad adventure I suggested. The kids used to call us “Loosie & Soosie” , secretly pleased that we were having a good time..

We even went to Singapore together on holiday when we stayed with my cousins, Sony and Sheila. Out shopping, she tripped, hurt herself and nursed a fractured toe that had to be taken to the Changi Hospital by my friend Preima Doraisamy. She hated hospitals and did not like meeting Doctors.  When she saw the doctor coming ,she jumped off the stretcher and had to restrained to get the plaster cast on. When we flew back to Chennai, we managed to slip in some extra luggage, thanks to her wheelchair status.

She taught me an important lesson in life. Having someone to love you is not important as having someone to love. Be it a goldfish, a pet hamster or a lizard on the wall. You live when you love.

When Vimala could no longer look after K9s, she adopted a squirrel, who took all of her time, undivided attention and love. She had a cage made for Mr. Squirrel, christened Mr. Chips, who used to live in it and wander about the room with closed windows, when they were alone together. The rodent’s diet consisted of fruits cut into tiny pieces mixed with small bits of nuts placed in a bowl in the cage next to his milk. She had trained Mr. Chips to a routine that left me amazed. When she called him, he actually came, looked up at her with immense love and twitched his nose gratefully, before demolishing his food .

When we moved to the Beach House in Uthandi,  Vimala used to come and stay with me when I was on my own, when the Psalm traveled. She always brought Mr. Chips with her when she came over.  I was terrified that the caged Mr. Chips would escape when he came into our verdant acre and take a free run on our trees.  I could have survived the great escape , but consoling a bereft Vimala would have been impossible. When Mr. Chips finally escaped from her home, she refused to be consoled.

We used to play board games and Scrabble was a great favourite. You had to watch Vimala on the Scrabble board.  I had just scored a fantastic score with the 7 letter word, YAWNING. I was doing a victory jig and took my eyes off the board for a fraction of minute . When I next looked again YAWNING had become AWNING . No guesses for who had the Y.

With time Vimala became a ghost of herself and was anchored to her bed.  Sheryl had equipped her room  with a hospital bed with railings and had home nursing 24×7. Vimala stopped speaking. She seemed to be just existing. The lights were on, but there was no one there. When I stopped by, she would look at me as if I was a stranger. It used to make me so sad and so angry. I felt so cheated that she had moved into some vast expanse far from me and without me. She did not remember any of the mad escapades we had shared. She stopped laughing at our old jokes. She was there but not there.

Vimala died on the 27th of April 2011 and was cremated in the Adayar Crematorium as she did not want a burial. She hated the thought of the worms eating her up  in the coffin. We dressed her in a beautiful red saree and she looked like the Vimala we remembered. We did not stuff cotton wool up her nose. She had threatened to come back and haunt us if we  dared do anything like that.  I went through all the motions of saying goodbye, but I felt as if I was saying goodbye to a stranger.

I had lost my friend Vimala long before she slipped away to meet her  beloved K9s on the Golden Bridge.





I take no credit for the writing that appears in this blog.

I did not attend a course to write it,

I did not pass an exam to qualify to write it.

It is not something that I can boast about

As one of my achievements.

Not at All

God gave me a beautiful life


He gave me a gift,

The joy of writing it down

To share it with you.

To God be the Glory,

Great Things He has done.

The Psalm and Boarding Schools

Sam was 6 years old when he was sent off to Boarding school.

Sam’s Dad Rev NS Mathew was a minister of the Methodist church in the Medak Diocese. Sam’s mum Alice was a teacher. Together they worked in remote villages in Andhra Pradesh. As they were often transferred from one village to another with rhythmic periodicity , they had to make the painful decision of putting their three sons Sam, John and Prem in The Wesley Boys School and boarding in Secunderabad.

When Sam’s Dad used to drop him off at school, father and son used to cry. Sam used to clutch the front of his Dad’s cassock and cry
Daddy don’t go, Daddy please don’t go…Sam made a promise to himself that he would never send his kids to school. A promise he could not keep.

Years later when we were in Nepal, we had to make the painful decision of sending our kids to boarding school. Sam used to go with our kids to The Mount Hermon Boarding School in Darjeeling to leave them. Rekha’s little chin used to quiver and she would wipe her tears and Sam’s tears with her little hand and say,  Daddy don’t cry, please don’t cry.

Anish, fifteen months younger than his sister, used to cling to Sam’s shirt, bury his crumpled little face in Sam’s tummy and sob, Daddy, don’t go. Daddy, please don’t go.

It used to break Sam’s heart .The kids I am told would be fine within the hour as they would have been taken out to play and distracted by the teachers and wardens. Sam on the other hand stricken by remorse and perhaps reminded of his own days in boarding school, would cry all the way home.

Sam the parent hurt more than Sam the child, Sam always said.

The Psalm and I

The Psalm and I are ecclesiastic offspring.

Both our Dads were Pastors. His Dad Rev NS Mathew was the Nirmal Missionary and a Methodist pastor who worked for years in the Medak Diocese in India. My Dad was an Anglican Canon who worked in the Diocese of Singapore and after retirement, voluntarily  in the CSI, Chennai. We came from similar backgrounds, but we grew up in different continents. He went to boarding school at the age of 6. I never left home till I was 17. He was the eldest of 3 boys. I was a singleton.

Though I had known Sam for six years in College, I rapidly learned after we were married that we were as different as chalk and cheese. He went to bed early and got up early. I went to bed late and got up late. He loved breakfast, I skipped it. He loved all the local vegetables like the brinjal, the ridge gourd and the snake gourd. I liked the cabbage, the cauliflower and the cucumber. He liked rice. I liked noodles. Our palates were poles apart when we set up house.

One thing we both liked was talking. We talked about everything. All the time. Both Scorpions, we had strong views, diagonally opposite perspectives sometimes and we disagreed on many things .There are some topics we have never resolved.  We agree to disagree about them , for the sake of peace and marital harmony.   We laughed a lot together, often at the same jokes with the same foolish intensity.

Sam was hopeless with names but never forgot a face. I was hopeless with faces but never forgot a name. Between us we managed and together we forged a life of love and understanding that survived all the times we wanted to wring each other’s necks. Women get their way if they cry, I am told. Not with Sam. Crying always made the Sam dig in his most obstinate heels. I used to tease him that Samuel should be spelled Samule.  If I kept quiet for half an hour it would rattle him enough to give in. This was an effective and smart modus operandi I perfected over the years, as he absolutely hated it if I ignored him .

Sam was deeply religious. Prayers and singing were a way of life to him. His warm and caressing baritone could be heard all around the house. I loved his voice except when he sang silly songs to irritate me. If we were waiting at the station for a train that was running late I would get fretful and would sit there in the heat mumbling and grumbling. Unfazed, Sam would watch me in amusement and improvise to sing.
The choo-choo is late,
Choo-chie’s irate,
The train is late,
Susie-boosie’s irate.
Or something equally stupid to some popular pop song to irritate me, till finally we would both collapse giggling. He always made me laugh defusing many sticky situations.

He was called  Mr. Noisy  at home, as he filled the house with his singing and his loud laughter. He would regale us with the anecdotes of his adventures. We got to see the world through his eyes, traveling on his ticket. When he left on his travels the house would shrink and go quiet on me. When he came back, it would reverberate. Even if he landed at 3 in the morning , we would sit up for hours for him to tell me all that happened on his trip, when he wanted my undivided attention.

We had music on all the time in the background in the house, be it the kids pop music when they were growing up at home, or the retros we loved on FM Gold Lanka on 93 or 93.2 FM in the empty nest years  later. Sam would start jigging around MTV-style to irritate our growing teenagers who would be mortified and acutely embarrassed. Rekha would rush to draw the curtains worried that the neighbours would see her Dad playing the fool.  They  thought we should act our age like other parents did. To the world, Sam wore his serious face and most people never knew the lighter side of his personality. To some the frivolous side of Sam nature would have come as an absolute shock. When he came home he hung up his work face at the door and relaxed.

He loved his home and was happiest when he was home. He would travel the world over and live in the best hotels for conferences and meetings only to come rushing home. He thought there was no place like his home. No bed like his own bed. No pillow like his own pillow. No bathroom like his own bathroom.  No food like his home food. He loved to travel but he was happiest pottering around at home.

For all his travels and exposure, Sam was the most infuriatingly conservative person I have ever known. I love him dearly but he still qualifies as the single human being who can irritate me to homicidal levels. If something new appeared on the scene I would be rearing to try it out. Sam on the other hand, with his research background, would need to have everything evidence based, time tested and true. He did not believe in Use and Throw. He believed that things could be repaired and reused. Where and How , was anyone’s guess. He was deeply suspicious of newfangled gadgets that hit the market.  He would become his pessimistic worst and analyse it with fifty reasons why it would be inappropriate and possibly fail. Most times he was right. Frustrated, I would give up and lose interest. I could never do anything that he vetoed as it went against the grain. He was the cautious one in the marriage. I was the gambler. Together we made a great team.

He hated change of any sort and hoarded everything he owned. I hated clutter of any sort and would go on a cleaning rampage systematically. What I threw out of the window, Sam would collect and bring back to reinstate. Eventually I smartened up and did the changes whenever he traveled.

We had an old car with a mind of its own, an old Ambassador, a tippler that guzzled petrol indecently. Old Betsy played up only in public when she knew that we were in the middle of peak traffic and the center of attention. It used to embarrass us immensely. Whenever I spoke to Sam about putting her out to graze and getting a new car, he would go into his well practiced deaf and dumb mode. Finally one day when he was away on a trip, I sold Old Betsy over the gate and got a new car. Sam was very pleased with the switch and took to the new car like a fish takes to water. He just could not bear the effort, or fuss and bother of change. Or thinking about change. He did not like moving away from comfort zone.  I used to wonder aloud if he took pride in being conservative.

This spilled over into house improvements. I see everything in colour and 3-D, with audiovisuals. When you tell me that someone streaked on the football field, I can see it, in my mind’s eye, even as you speak in HD and in slow motion. Sam cannot. He cannot visualise any thing in 3-D. This only compounded his fear of change. He does not mind it when it is all finished and if he is spared the effort of chopping and changing. I finally understood this after several anniversaries and I have fine-tuned it, to save us hours of me whining and him going mute.

He disliked anyone touching his things or tidying his desk. He swore that he knew exactly where everything was in the mess. He was always misplacing his keys and would spend hours looking for things.
Susie where is my this-thing?
Susie where is my that-thing?
If I did not read his mind he would get impatient. Once in prayers he did a list of God blesses.
God bless this one,
God bless that one, till he stumbled on a name. Without opening his eyes, he said God bless what’s-his-name, Susie?

We were both fiercely independent but leaned on each other emotionally in many ways. I did not lay out his clothes after a bath or chose his clothes for him or do any of the wifely things that some of my cousins did. That would have driven him completely insane. he did not like anyone, even me, rummaging through his things. This is a gene that he has passed on undiluted to our elder grandson Ashish, who like his Grandpa, keeps all his earthly possessions neatly and securely under lock and key.

We rang each other up a hundred times during the day much to the amusement of his office staff. Just to keep in touch and to ask advice as we really valued the other’s opinion and advice. When he traveled we connected through emails.

Sam was passionately interested in the world around him and would read the crisp newspaper from cover to cover every morning. This was a sacred ritual with his morning coffee. He would fill me in on all the current affairs and politics. He would scan the Obituaries and tell me who had left us the night before. He is extremely well read and his knowledge about current affairs is huge and impressive. He would tell me all about that he had read and I used to miss his updates when he traveled, especially when I lived in Nepal and Bhutan in total oblivion on the top of the Himalayas.

Sam had enough drive and ambition for the four of us. He despaired that I did not have an ambitious bone in my body. He could never be still, as his mind always raced faster than the spoken word. He was still only when he was sleeping. He could talk to anyone, dustman or duke, about any topic be they young or old. He was never shy about accosting absolute strangers and starting conversations while the kids and I watched in fear, trepidation and secret admiration.

That is how he met Dr. V, P. Das, the former Secretary for South East Asia, of The Leprosy Mission. They were both attending a conference in 1963 when they shared a Dormitory together.  At the end of the conference, Sam was impressed that a person of Dr. Das’ stature and extraordinary people skills was so humble .  Dr. Das in turn, was most impressed with Sam’s enthusiasm for life and living. When they said goodbye, he gave Sam one of his visiting cards.
Let me know if you ever think about doing medicine, young man, he said. We could sponsor your studies.

At that time, Sam was doing his BSc at the Madras Christian College. He was deeply involved with the Student Christian Movement and was seriously considering making that a full time commitment in the SCM and possibly pursuing a course in Theology like his Dad.  A chance meeting with Dr. Das changed Sam’s life and career options. He wrote to Dr. Das when he completed his BSc and was sponsored for medical studies by The Leprosy Mission at the Christian Medical College in Vellore.

Sam is the most loyal human being I have met in my life. If someone is kind to him, he will never forget him. He will follow him to the ends of the earth if need be. If someone does him a favour, he will never forget it and will do a hundred in return. It does not matter if the same person hurts him later in life. He cannot and will not see it as a deliberate act or betrayal. Once he accepts someone as his friend, they stay his friend for life.

Loyalty has many faces. Sam’s is one of them

The Psalm in sickness and in health

When Sam fell ill he was like a child.

If he had a temperature he would sit with the thermometer sticking out of his mouth permanently, if I did not hide it from him. This was a big joke with the kids.
Daddy has found the thermometer, Mummy.
It’s stuck in his mouth!
Like an extra tooth, they would laugh.

He was always rushing around working and he hated being ill and confined to bed. Every small illness that he had would have a long list of ominous differential diagnosis with all sorts of pessimistic prognosis. The usually cheerful Sam would lie in bed moaning, Susie Susie,  never letting me out of sight. He thought I was totally unsympathetic when I used to laugh in his face and tell him to snap out of it.

When the kids fell ill, Sam would fall completely to pieces. He would sit with the kids and hold their hand wincing with them with every injection they received. If they had blood tests done, the procedures hurt him more. He would not go the dentist with them even if it was only for a routine cleaning and scaling. If the kids needed mollycoddling they would go to him. If they came to me they knew that I would say “Get up and have a bath, you’ll feel better. Go on get up ”

When we find out we were going to have a baby, we bought ourselves the Baby Bible ” Dr. Spock” and I used to read bits from it to him lying on our narrow bed in the MIQ, the Mens Internes Quarters. One night I was reading  aloud the chapter on feeding the baby. He was awake when I was reading about breast feeding and nipple care.  Somewhere during my monotone he fell asleep.  Make a cruciate incision on the  nipple , I continued to read, not taking my eyes off the page. Suddenly I heard a gasp beside me and I turned around to see Sam sitting up in bed , in stark horror.  ” OMG, it will be so painful, Susie” he said, his face contorted in pain . He did not realise that I had left the section on breast feeding and had moved on to rubber nipples on glass feeding bottles. He always winced when he thought the kids or I were in pain.

Our pain was always his.


Psalm the Shopper

I love shopping. Sam does not.

Once when he was going to England, I asked him to go to the Marks and Spencers we used to frequent when we were staying there and buy some knickers and socks for the kids. I even told him the floor the Kids Section was on and the layout of the floor to simplify his search. He lost the list and came back without the shopping and actually told me , M&S have stopped making socks and knickers for kids, Susie.

I love window-shopping and could browse for hours. Sam on the other hand hated shopping of any kind, this side of the shop window or the other side. More specifically he hated shopping with me. If we went together he would find a flat surface in the store to sit on while I shopped. He did not care if it was the base of a mannequin on a stand, a chair on sale or a suitcase in the Travel section. People would stop to ask him if he worked in the shop, or for directions to the rest rooms, which did not amuse him at all. It only irritated him further.  Sometimes he would find some other husband who hated shopping as much as he did and they would strike up a conversation to compare notes and pass the time.

If Sam needed to shop, he would stride into the shop purposefully, knowing exactly what he wanted, look at a couple of options, decide in five minutes, pay and leave.  Its that Simple, he said.

Sam said that I was a salesman’s nightmare. I would go in aimlessly he said and scan each shelf pointing my finger randomly at this, that and the other.
Could I see that one, please?
The third one from the right, the red one hidden behind the blue one…
The fifth one from the left, the eighth from the bottom of the pile etc…
The poor desperate salesman, Sam claimed, would bring the whole shop down in hope. The counter would overflow with totally unrelated items. All sorts of things, including the kitchen sink, Sam said, would be on display. After scanning everything in great detail, I would pick up my bag from under the heap of discards, smile sweetly at the salesman, say Thank You and leave without a conscience to the next shop to do it all over again. Or so Sam claimed.

You are feeding the psychiatrists new patients every time you shop, he would say shaking his head.
Sam’s sympathies were entirely with the salesperson, whereas I assumed that it was part of their job to show their goodies. Early in our marriage we decided that if we wanted to stay married, we should never go shopping together.
I love you dearly, he said looking deep into my eyes.
But don’t ask me to go shopping with you, he begged with tears in his eyes.
At the end of every disastrous shopping trip, everyone in the shop and would know my name, thanks to Sam.

Susie, hurry up ..Susie, what are you doing? ..Susie, haven’t you finished?

Psalm the Hoarder

Getting rid of possessions is harder than you think.
Especially if you are married to a Hoarder.

Sam and I are as different as Chalk and Cheese, which may explain why we overcome the urge to wring each other’s neck over the years and stayed married. The fact that we are good friends, must have helped too. Sam is the biggest hoarder, this side of the Suez. He absolutely hates parting with anything.

Or anyone, which also might explain why he stuck with my craziness.

On the other hand, I am the biggest non-collector, you would ever find. I go on ruthless, exhilarating, cleaning binges, that lets me get rid of the clutter in my life. The only problem is that if I throw things out, when Sam is around, you can be sure, that dear old Sam, would sit outside with a basket to collect everything, to bring back. This ended up with no movement of throwaways. Two steps forward and one step backward. I soon realised that these spells of cleaning, had to be done, when Sam was travelling, if I had any hopes of spring cleaning to improve the Feng-shui of our lives.

One day, when Sam was away, the Church Kids of the St. Thomas Garrison Church in St. Thomas Mount, Chennai, came around collecting Bric-a Brac for their jumble sale. I was delighted to get rid of stuff and went on a rampage. I picked up some well worn shoes from Sam’s cupboard and added it onto the growing pile. Days went by and Sam came back. We went for the church sale and walked around the Stalls, browsing, aimlessly. Suddenly, Sam let out a yelp….…Susieeee…..

Imagine Sam’s shock and horror, when he recognised his Italian shoes lying forlornly, atop a pile of faded clothes, tied together with designer shoelaces. He was speechless for all of 5 secs….

Those are my Italian Shoes, Susie…..he growled, as he strode with a purposeful stride, towards the kids selling the jumble and said …Those are my shoes …I want them back…. he said, smiling, through gritted teeth. You cannot fool young entrepreneurs these days and they know a biggie, when they see one. Uncle Sam, was a great favourite with the kids at church, but, they were not going to let a deal of a lifetime, slip though their adolescent hands.

Uncle Sam , are these yours ? they asked, with an innocence that belied their business acumen. You want them back, Uncle Sam ? How much will you pay for them, Uncle Sam ?

After relentless haggling and after an indecent sum of money had passed hands, all for a good cause I might add, the kids handed over Sam’s shoes to Sam, to take home and I got the Why can’t you leave my things for me to clear, Susie lecture, ad nauseam, all the way home in an air conditioned car, with the windows up and I could not escape with my famous one-liner…. There is someone at the door….


Dr. V P Das

Dr. Victor Preetam Das, The Leprosy Mission’s Secretary for South East Asia and his wife Beulah Das came to visit us in the Hospital when I was admitted,  waiting for Rekha to arrive.

Dr. Das had come to discuss the mission bond we had to serve out with the Leprosy Mission. Sam had a bond with the Leprosy Mission as he was sponsored by the Leprosy Mission for his medical studies at the Christian Medical College Vellore. I had a bond too. I was sponsored by the SPG, Singapore, for my medical studies at the same college. Since the SPG , the Society for The Propagation of the Gospel to Foreign and Heathen Lands, had no hospitals in Singapore, my bond was transferred to the Leprosy Mission which meant that Sam and I could do our bonds together and reduce the bond period by half.

We were delighted to see them in the Maternity Ward.  After they enquired after my health, Dr Das gently broached the subject of the bond.
We have given it a great deal of thought , he said. We have decided to send you both to Bhutan.
We had no idea where Bhutan was but we would have gone to the North Pole if he had asked us. We adored him and were in absolute awe of him.
We’ll go, we said in unison, without even looking at each other.
I want you to take your time and give me an answer, he insisted gently.
There is no hurry. Take your time and let me know after the baby is born, he said
No, Sir, we said nodding our heads enthusiastically, we will go anywhere you send us.
Anywhere? he asked with an amused smile.
ANYWHERE,  we said in unison.
I will give you both some time to think it over, he said laughing.
When they got up to leave, Dr. Das turned at the door and said,
Susie, I hope you do not have a precipitate delivery when you find out where Bhutan is.

We had to look at the Atlas, to find out where it was in the Himalayas. We were young and enthusiastic. We would have gone anywhere that he sent us.

Dr. Das always kept in touch with all his students, throughout their medical studies. When Sam was in his final year, Dr. Das was Sam’s guest for his farewell dinner at the Men’s Hostel. That was the first time I met Dr. VP  Das, Sam’s mentor. When Sam introduced me to him before we went in for dinner , his eyes twinkled as he smiled and shook my hand. Ah, at last we meet, Susie,  he said,  I have heard a lot about you. I wanted to say,  Likewise , Sir , but no words came as I stood tongue tied and looked up at a legend larger than life. I liked him instantly and we bonded.

Dr. Das had the looks of the yester-year Hindi film star, Ashok Kumar and a personality to match that inspired enormous respect and love among his team. My fondest memory of him, dressed in a plaid blazer, a bow tie  and smoking a pipe, still chokes me up. He was always well dressed and the perfect gentleman. A classy gentleman with charisma. Sam and I adored him. He taught us so many things in life, beyond the pages of the textbook on Leprosy,

He inspired us with his letters which arrived like clockwork, three weeks apart, the time  it took for the post to reach Bhutan from India  . We waited for his letters . One letter of encouragement from him was all it needed to keep Sam and me charged for several weeks on the top of the cold Himalayas. He was a father figure to all of us, admonishing us gently when he needed to and encouraging us with pride, in all that we did. He was a kind human being and an extremely appreciative Boss.  Sometimes his charming wife,  Aunty Beulah to us, would travel with him and we felt that our parents had come to stay.

When you have a boss like Dr. Das in your first job, you are spoilt for life. No one ever comes even close.  When he retired , we felt orphaned. Sam was his blue eyed boy and there was nothing that we could do wrong in his eyes. He trusted us to bring out the best in us.

Dear Dr. Das, remembered with much love and fond memories.

Leprosy in the early 70s

In 1971, as young medical graduates Sam and I left Christian Medical College, Vellore, to work in what we thought was the most challenging of medical fields, Leprosy, now christened Hansen’s disease. To many, it still meant tattered, huddled-up bundles of rags at roadsides that occasionally shuffled to beg.

For several years we worked in leprosy hospitals in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Africa.  As part of our training, we visited several leprosy hospitals the world over. The hospitals were different, the landscapes were different, the medical facilities variable. Only one thing was constant. The sad, betrayed, sometimes sightless, eyes of the patients we met.

I remember many patients. One particular lady was a bag of bones with a putrid maggot ridden lower limb, brought in from a pigsty on the Nepal-Bhutan border and abandoned at the hospital gate. She begged us to let her die. The hospital team in turn begged God at morning prayers to let her live and to restore hope and peace to her fragmented life.

Reconstructive surgery, face-lifts, prosthetic limbs, restoration of function and loving acceptance gave them a new lease of life. Only the sadness in their eyes remained. Away from the comfort zone of the hospital wards they were discarded remnants of the human race. Many refused to be discharged and to leave the hospital grounds. Some made their homes around the hospital campus in satellite settlements.

Leprosy, is a chronic disease caused by the Mycobacterium leprae, a cousin of the tubercle bacillus that causes tuberculosis. The tubercle bacillus has been grown in the lab and has been studied well enough to develop a vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease. The M. leprae unfortunately has not been grown in the Lab and therefore has not been studied well enough to develop a vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease. M. Leprae can be grown in animal models like the 9 banded armadillo, nude thymectomised mice and the chimpanzee.

Leprosy, is a disease of the peripheral nerves, with tell tale skin signs. The M. leprae, causes damage, both sensory and motor in the affected nerves. When it causes sensory damage the area supplied by the nerve becomes anaesthetic, with loss of sensation, leading to damage to the affected parts. Even if the limb passes through a fireball, it will not wince or pull away as there is no feeling. Even if rodents gnaw at the toes and fingers, the patient will sleep through it all as he cannot feel.

Sometimes, patients would tell me that when they went to sleep they had all ten toes. In the morning only some would be missing after the rodent had done its worst. Many of the patients had to wade across rivers to get to the hospital and they would swear that they had all their toes when they started off from one bank to the other. When they reached the other side, blood would be streaming from injuries, bites and gaps.

With no sensation on the soles of their feet, they would sport ill fitting shoes, walking for hours to develop pressure sores on the soles of their feet. This would very often lead to florid infections, teeming with maggots.

When it affected the motor part of a nerve, the muscles supplied by the nerve would be paralysed. Every joint has two sets of muscles that pull in opposite directions. For example a joint would have a set of flexor muscles that flexed the joint and a set of extensor muscles that extended the joint. If the flexors ore paralysed, the extensors would act unopposed and vice versa.

In leprosy the flexors of the fingers are paralysed and the extensors contract unopposed and cause the characteristic claw hand deformity. This interferes with all the fine movements of the hand including grip and writing. With a claw hand, the palm is turned inside out and when the patient tries to pick up anything he actually pushes it away from him.Reconstructive hand surgery cleverly uses good muscles and inserts their tendons into paralysed muscles restoring movement.

In the early Seventies, sharing of experiences between the two hemispheres was lopsided. One had patients, the other had resources and both fumbled for knowledge, in an era, where communication was just another expensive and difficult word to spell and never boasted of speed. Research and development with this backdrop was difficult. There were no internet communications and no conference calls.

Everything took time.

Perhaps the hardest

One of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my medical career was to agree to an abdominal hysterectomy in a mentally challenged lady.

I trained in two unconnected fields of medicine after I completed my Undergraduate Medical studies. I trained in ObGyn and Dermatology. When we went to the Himalayas in the early 70s, I needed training in Obs/Gyn. Both the Gida Kom Hospital in Bhutan and the Anandaban Hospital in Nepal were run by the Leprosy Mission International. They were stand alone hospitals for hills around and the hospitals took care of the general health of the surrounding villages. ObGyn training would hold me in good stead.

Ob/Gyn was not a speciality of my choice. I loved Obstetrics and delivering babies. I marveled at the miracle of birth every time I delivered a baby, but I did not enjoy Gynaecology when I had to terminate pregnancies and do abortions. I was not comfortable . I was distinctly more uncomfortable when someone who had gone to a “quack”, came back infected after an abortion done under sub-optimal conditions. I wished I had obliged and done the procedure under aseptic conditions and spared prevented sepsis in the patient. . Either way I felt bad.

Years later  I was awarded the Ciba Geigy Scholarship  to train for Dermatology at St  John’s Hospital in London. I was then able to shift gears and practice bread and butter Dermatology sans Cosmetology and leave my ObGyn practice behind .

One of the hardest decisions that I ever made in my medical career was to agree to an elective Abdominal Hysterectomy in a mentally challenged lady when I was working in  our Nursing Home in Chennai. She was the niece of a colleague, a doctor who worked with us in the Nursing Home. His elder sister had just  the one child, a  20 year old mentally challenged girl who was classified as” profound mental retardation.” Both the parents were in the late 70s and struggling with illnesses of their own. They were unable to care for her and they knew that when the time came they would have to depend on relatives to institutionalise her. They knew that after their time she would be vulnerable, especially in an institution.

They came seeking an abdominal hysterectomy so that she would never conceive even if she was abused. They were aware of all the possibilities that could happen after their time. You might wonder why we did not consider a Tubal ligation which would have prevented a pregnancy. But the truth was that she was incapable of even changing a pad during her menstrual periods. The rest of the month she needed help to go to the toilet, for her bath and all her body needs. She was basically unable to look after herself. She had no understanding of her bodily functions. She could not be trained to look after herself .

The doctor brought the parents and the lady to us. We had individual and group counseling sessions with them.  The mother broke down and sobbed when she was counseled alone. She said that if we did not consider their request, there was only option open to them. She would have to get some rat poison, mix it with their dinner and go to bed hoping that none of them would wake up in the morning.  My heart broke to hear the despair in her voice.

To adhere to the guidelines of Hysterectomy on a mentally challenged lady, multiple counseling sessions were held with a Psychiatrist, Clinical Psychologist and with a trained Medical Social Worker. The consensus was that an anticipatory Hysterectomy to prevent an unwanted pregnancy was not an indication. Her inability to handle her menstrual periods was an indication for a hysterectomy in her case.

A written consent was obtained from her parents. She underwent the surgery with no complications. Her postoperative period was uneventful and she was discharged when it was clear that there were no postoperative complications.

The day she left the Nursing Home, I felt a mix of happy and sad emotions. I was happy that she would not have to worry about her menstrual periods anymore. It was one less burden for her and her aging parents. But deep down, I was happy that she would never bear the brunt of an unwanted pregnancy following sexual abuse in the future. In a strange way, I felt happy that she would be protected when and if it happened.

I wondered what would happen to her in the years to come. I wondered what would happen to her after her parents time. Would she even understand the enormity of all that was happening to her.

Now or then.