The hands that brought me into this world belonged to Prabha Manchanda, one of the top gynaecologists of Delhi. An iconic woman, she was as humane as a human ought to be, kinder than kind, generous beyond measure, and attentive to every detail of life.
My sister Seema and brother Samir were delivered by Auntie Prabha in the same months as her own two sons. That she was delivering babies days before or after her own is a testament to her stamina, dedication and calling. By the time it was my turn to come into this world, my mother and Auntie Prabha had become close friends. They brought to each other strength, courage, support, daring guidance and a departure from the usual, as well as a listening ear and friendly comfort, which in the hustle of life is hard to find.
Born in undivided India in Rawalpindi to the chief medical officer of the Indian Railways, Auntie Prabha (who was also called Betty) did her schooling at Loreto House, Kolkata, and studied medicine at Calcutta National Medical College, two esteemed institutions of learning. She then did a fellowship in London for surgery and another in Edinburgh for a sub-specialty in gynaecology. In 1967, she returned to India and started her practice at Holy Family Hospital and later continued at Moolchand Hospital. In 1981, she began the Delhi Clinic, one of only three nursing homes recognised by the state at the time.
Auntie got divorced in the early ’70s, when it was not commonplace in India. Her profession became her grounding and support, her two sons and their upbringing her devoted focus. She fended for herself despite every challenge thrown at her by society and small-minded people, never losing her wry humour, unfailing wit and hearty smile. When others stooped low, she rose high and brought people together through her inclusive, generous and forgiving ways.
For my relatives, Auntie was the go-to person for any illness or medical issue. From my grandmothers’ eldest sisters’ care to our family chef’s wife, Auntie Prabha not only attended to calls of help, but did so with personal engagement that money cannot buy, nor education can teach. It was her decency and decorum, humanity and empathy, generosity and desire to help that made her always available, despite being one of the busiest doctors in the Delhi-NCR.
Her sons, Ranjit and Rahul, grew up alongside Seema, Samir and me, so we were in each other’s homes endlessly. I can still remember the taste of the first fruit-flavoured chewing gum that I had at their home and my first sip of purple grape juice, with its rich flavour and aromatic sweet yumminess. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the heady scent of the leather furnishings in their home.
One summer many years ago, filled with dreams of becoming a doctor, I interned with Auntie Prabha, watching her bring new lives into the world. It was impossible to believe that this delicate and elegant, graceful woman, who looked like a trillion dollars in a sari and wore it better than anyone I know, had it in her to be the alpha in the operating room. She could labour twice as hard as any man and do so with finesse and precision. No wonder then that she was among the pioneers of endoscopic surgery and TCRE (transcervical resection of endometrium) in India. Along with her son Rahul, who followed in her footsteps, she conducted workshops on hysteroscopic surgery in Delhi
When I decided to pursue the arts and become a chef, Auntie continued to believe in me and taught me to give my all to whatever I did. Every week she would pick me up and take me to artists’ studios, where she introduced me to the artist. She even arranged internships with them for me. She would wait patiently as I worked with them and then would drop me home before setting off on her evening rounds.
Years later, when I would visit Delhi, she would have a list of all the cultural events in town and tickets or invites in place so I could enjoy all that I loved without a minute of my time wasted in logistics.
Throughout the last three decades, I cannot remember a week where Auntie didn’t write or call me. She texted me nearly every day, and all my special moments were marked by very special interactions with her. My arrival in Delhi from the US was never without a warm welcome on the day of my landing, accompanied by pastries and books that I had to read. Similarly, on my last day in Delhi, she would bring me more books and gifts, all chosen with personal care and much thought.
My mother Sunita, my siblings, Auntie’s daughter-in-law Bhavna, her two sons, and her three grandchildren have lost more than just an incredible institution — we lost an amazingly successful and deeply humane woman. We have lost a friend, aunt, mother, and grandmother, one who gave endless love and brought the world to our lives and made sure she taught us to enjoy and discover it appropriately. Auntie was forever ready to help one and all, with full devotion, and was an inspiration to every life she touched. With her passing on, an era has come to an end, and because of her, we know to live with boundless hope and endless energy today and tomorrow. She wouldn’t want us to be any other way.
Rest in peace, immortally memorable Auntie Prabha! Om Shanti!