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Tuesday, Dec 06, 2022

Explained Books | An eminent cardiac surgeon’s account of his work, and of Kashmir

Upendra Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit, grew up in Delhi as his parents had moved to the capital in 1947, in the wake of the first India-Pakistan war. Through the Delhi school year, he looked forward to the summer holiday when the family would go back home to Kashmir.

Dr Upendra Kaul; his book 'When the Heart Speaks: Memoirs of a Cardiologist'.

As a cardiac surgeon for nearly five decades, Upendra Kaul dedicated himself to his calling, and gave hundreds if not thousands of people their heart back. His own heart, however, has lain all these years in his beloved Kashmir, the longing an ache that he has lived with forever. These twin threads – his passion for his vocation, and for Kashmir — run through When the Heart Speaks, the memoirs of this celebrated doctor.

There isn’t a Kashmiri who does not know of “Dr U Koul”. Go to Hawal (or Halle ) in Pulwama, and you will be shown the old Kaul homestead.

Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit, grew up in Delhi as his parents had moved to the capital in 1947, in the wake of the first India-Pakistan war. He was born a year later. Through the Delhi school year, he looked forward to the summer holiday when the family would go back home to Kashmir, into the warm embrace of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. He recalls failing one year in school. The punishment his father meted out was for him akin to a death sentence: no summer holiday in Kashmir.

The nostalgia-filled recollections of the life of a medical student in Delhi in the 1970s are an engaging read. Kaul writes unpretentiously, unselfconsciously with an evident honesty. A distinguished career took him from PGI Chandigarh to AIIMS to Batra, Fortis and Sir Gangaram.

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It was as an undergraduate at Maulana Azad Medical College that he learnt to speak Kashmiri properly, from two other Kashmiri, both Muslims from the Valley, in his class. They quickly became thick buddies. Following graduate studies at G B Pant hospital, he followed his heart to Kashmir to try and join SKIMS. His effort drew a blank after Sheikh Abdullah, whom he had approached with a representation to let him join the hospital, barely gave him the time of day.

But through his work – while at AIIMS he was among the first in India to use ballooning to open up arteries after training abroad and other non-surgical treatments – he remained engaged with Kashmiris who came to Delhi for treatment, and remained friends with them for ever after. This is why it is a bit puzzling that his doctor-patient relationship with Yaseen Malik, the JKLF leader who is now in jail, finds zero mention.

The story is not unknown. He has been at the receiving end from trolls, especially after he was critical of the Centre’s abolition of Kashmir’s special status. Within weeks of that, NIA took away his phone to check his exchanges with his patient, became unduly excited by a number that appeared in one message, only to be told it not rupees and crores but a blood value reading. His telling of how he was approached by one of the sharpest in India’s deep state to treat Malik, only to be become a suspect in the eyes of another arm of the state three decades later, told in his characteristically dry style, would have been a valuable addition to the book. Was it self-censorship in difficult times? Or did the publisher get cold feet?

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Kaul’s Kashmir angst is very different from that of the Kashmiri Pandit who was uprooted in the 1990s as militancy erupted in the Valley and many in the community were targeted and killed, along with Muslims who did not toe the militants’ line. He writes of those times, and how he got OPD timings extended at AIIMS to accommodate Kashmiris – Pandits and Muslims — who were flocking to consult a fellow Kashmiri doctor, and how he helped many young uprooted Pandit men find employment in the capital. They did not care for referral systems, all they knew was there was a Kashmiri doctor who spoke their language. Sometimes he footed their bills too, and let them repay in their own time.

In 1997 came his first chance to go back to the Valley as a doctor, a long cherished dream. Persuaded by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, he started visiting the Valley once a month to treat patients. That effort grew over the years and by 2020, Kaul and a group of doctors began a project called the Gauri Healthy Heart Project named after his mother, whose wish to a have a home in the Valley he could not fulfill in her lifetime. He also built a home in Srinagar that is also named after her. Last month, he opened a state of the art heart hospital in Hawal. He travels there every Thursday and returns to Delhi on Sunday.

Kaul may not have intended to, and he may even disagree, but his engagement with Kashmir and with Kashmiris, offers a model for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley.

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Title | When The Heart Speaks Memoirs of a Cardiologist
Author: Dr Upendra Kaul
Publisher: Konark Publishers (2002)
Pages: 224
Price: Rs 750

Explained Books appears every Saturday. It summarises the core content of an important work of non-fiction.

First published on: 03-09-2022 at 04:14:17 am
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