Sunday, September 07, 2008

When distance creates pain

(A series on childhood memories)

Watching a robbery at close quarters, and missing his parents, who lived elsewhere, were some of the childhood memories of oncologist Dr. V.P. Gangadharan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One summer, we had gone to the Tirupati temple,” says Dr. V.P. Gangadharan, well-known oncologist at Lakeshore Hospital. The family consisted of Gangadharan’s parents, two older brothers, and a sister. On the way back, when the train halted at Chittoor station in Andhra Pradesh, at 7 p.m., the children wanted to eat vadas, dipped in curd.

Gangadharan’s father stepped out to buy it, but when he put his hand in the trouser pocket, the purse was missing. “Thankfully, the tickets were in the shirt pocket,” says Gangadharan. “We had no money, except Rs 1.50, which one of my brothers had.”

When dinner-time came, the family sat silently, even though they were assailed by hunger pangs. “I have never forgotten the look on my father’s face,” says Gangadharan. “He was feeling so bad, because he could not buy us anything.”

At Jollarpettai, they got into the jam-packed Blue Mountain Express, which would take them to their home at Tirupur. For the next ten hours, the family stood, without food or sleep, till they reached Tirupur at 11 a.m.

“That was the day I understood the value of food and comfortable train journeys,” he says.

Despite the hassles of travel, trains held a deep fascination for Gangadharan. Every evening, at 6.30 p.m., he would go with his elder brother, Balachandran, to the railway tracks.

“We would wait to see the Blue Mountain Express, which would come from Mettupallayam via Coimbatore, on its way to Chennai,” he says. “I felt a tremendous excitement when I saw the train.”

It was an idyllic life, till his parents decided that in order to get a better education the children should study in Kerala. So, his elder sister, Padmaja, and he moved to Irinjalakuda where they stayed with their grandmother and went to a government school. Gangadharan was in Class four at that time. A few years later, as his grandmother aged some more, the children were again shifted to Vaikom, where they stayed with their aunt.

Once every two months, Gangadharan’s parents would come for a short visit. “When they would leave, we would feel very sad,” he says. “It was a very painful period. There were many occasions when my sister and I have cried in our sleep.” (This absence had such a profound impact on him that, years later, when he became a parent he ensured that his sons – Gokul, 24, and Govind, 21 – lived with him throughout their school and college years.)

Meanwhile, there were moments of tension, also. One evening, when Gangadharan’s uncle and aunt had come on a visit, a robber entered the house, pushed his aunt to the floor, grabbed the gold necklace around her neck, and ran away.

“I started trembling,” says Gangadharan. “Thereafter, for the next few days, when evening came, Padmaja and I would start shaking. We were terrified that, when my uncle and aunt left, the thief would come again.”

However, there were good times, also. Next to their house, on Peshkar Road, was the Vettiyattil House. The family was the trustees of the Koodalmanikyam Temple at Irinjalakuda.

Every evening, all the boys in the locality would gather at this house. “We would play badminton, football, cricket, or go swimming in the pond,” he says. “But the best part was that the elders would also play with us.” Later, the children were given tea and snacks.

“The Vettiyattils treated all of us like their own children,” he says. “I have never come across another family which showed so much of generosity and love.”

One advantage of the boys playing together was that it fostered a deep sense of unity. “We would take part in local tournaments and be known as the Peshkar Road club team,” he says.

Gangadharan also secured an advantage in school. “Even though I was the smallest boy in the class, once the bullies came to know I was from Peshkar Road, they did not harass me,” he says.

Meanwhile, despite his parents’ physical absence, Gangadharan loved them very much. “My mother showed so much of love,” he says. Whenever he would go home for the holidays, and studied late, his mother would provide tea or coffee. “It was only after I went to bed that she would go to sleep,” he says.

His father exhibited sincerity and dedication in his job as a dyeing master in the textile industry. “He would set off at 8 a.m. and return at 9 p.m.,” says Gangadharan. “My father was a man of principles. I have never heard him tell a lie.”

His father was keen that his son did not pick up any bad habits. So, he would say, “You can spend any amount of money on food, but none on drinking or smoking.”

The message hit home. Today, Gangadharan does not drink or smoke.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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