Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The good doctor

It was sometime in the late 1910s that Gopala Menon, of the Mokkil Maruthur tharavad in Vadavanur landed up in the city of Madras. The eldest of 6 siblings, he had to move to Madras to study medicine - and stayed on in the city to set up practice. Within a short time he was very popular in Kodambakkam, where he was practicing from. His popularity came not just from his medical abilities - which were considerable - but from his seemingly boundless compassion as well. He discriminated patients only on the basis of their health condition and he drew his clientele from all classes. It helped that he was fluent in several languages: Malayalam, Tamizh, Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and, it is reliably said, the dialect of Narikoravas, the nomadic tribes of the region. He could relate to his patients and talk to them in their language.

And they flocked to him from all over the Presidency. It was common for his clinic to have indigent outpatients from from as far away as Pazhaverkadu and Nellore; patients in similar straits from Malabar were a constant factor. The doctor would treat them, very often gratis, and then give them free board and lodging for a couple of days, besides giving them "theevandikooli" (steam train fare) to get back to their villages. Such largesse was partly subsidised by Dr. Gopala Menon's well-to-do patients, who included the zamindar of Vizhuthamangalam (more about that connection in a later post) and others. The generosity of such patients also enabled the doctor to acquire lands in the Mambalam / Kodambakkam area, on which he settled some of his patients, helping them find gainful occupations. That was very much in keeping with his belief, printed on his letterhead, "लोका: समस्ता सुखिनो भवन्तु" ("lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu" - may everyone everywhere be happy). 

His generosity extended to his siblings and their families. He brought all his sisters to Madras and had them married off; one of his brothers died young, but the other was brought to Madras and settled down. Meanwhile, his nephews were coming of age and they needed residences of their own. As many of them as possible were accommodated in a 'compound' in Kodambakkam, which was given the name of the ancestral tharavad - Mokkil Maruthur. Having all these members of his extended family around made the doctor forget that he had to get married and have children of his own; he died, a bachelor, on December 26, 1976. The family had little say in the post-mortem ceremonies; dignitaries dictated and the residents of Raja Pillai Thottam, the neighbouring slum, took over the funeral, for he was their doctorayya, the one whose kairasi ("goodness of hands") set right their malaises without ever failing. It was they who made sure the road next to Dr. Gopala Menon's house was renamed in his memory. In the manner of most street signs of Chennai, this one also has got the spelling of his name wrong - that alone testifies to the greatness of the doctor!

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