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Indian Doctor's Selfless Service Remembered

No single Indian has been more revered by ordinary Chinese than a doctor from a middle class family in northern India.

On the day when the Chinese pay respect to their ancestors, the grave of this doctor on the plains of North China is covered with flowers donated by the local Chinese.

Early last week, as honored guests, the doctor's extended family comprising 11 members of three generations, arrived in Beijing to join the national commemoration of the 60th anniversary of victory in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

On September 4, the family stood before his grave in North China Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery, Hebei Province. The family also toured Shijiazhuang early this week and visited the Dr Bethune International Peace Hospital, where Kotnis once served as its director.

In exclusive interviews with China Daily in Beijing and Shanghai, the family members shared their memories of the doctor, not only as a hero but also as a loved brother, husband and an adventurous young man.

Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis was born to a doctors' family in Sholapur, Maharashtra in 1910. He had two brothers and five sisters. He studied medicine at the medical college of the University of Bombay in the early 1930s.

"He was very young when he left home. He had just graduated from medical school and was doing his post-graduation internship," recalled his sister Manorama Kotnis.

"He wanted to travel around the world and to practice medicine at different places. His first stop was Viet Nam, and then further away, Singapore and Brunei. Finally he went to Hong Kong," she said.

From every place he stayed the young doctor wrote home letters.

"He sounded very happy in the letters. People used to come to thank him for his help. He was telling the good part," said the sister.

In 1937, after the breakout of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the young doctor wrote a letter home and mentioned a team of physicians being sent by the Indian Government to China. He asked his family what they thought about him joining it.

"Most members of the family knew little about China at that time. We only knew that people used to come and sell Chinese silk," said the sister.

She and Vatsala Kotnis, the youngest sister, said they were in their teen years at the time and thought what he was going to do was great.

"But mother was very sad because he was going that far and China was in a war situation," she added.

The son promised his mother in a second letter that he would be away for just one year, and his father persuaded her to "let him go and help people," Manorama quoted their father as saying.

In 1938, a medical team of five doctors (M. Atal, M. Cholkar, Kotnis, B.K. Basu and D. Mukerji) was dispatched as the Indian Medical Mission Team.

All, except Dr Kotnis, returned to India safely.

Dr Kotnis stayed on in China working in mobile clinics to treat wounded soldiers. He was eventually appointed as director of the Dr Bethune International Peace Hospital built by the Eighth Route Army, led by the Communist Party of China on the plains of North China.

"Every place he went in China, he described it in detail in his letters home. The whole family found them to be great fun because what he described was so different from our life," said Vatsala Kotnis.

But for one-and-a-half years before his death in 1942, the family received no letters from the young man.

"We were very stressed, and wrote to both the Indian and the Chinese governments for their help to find him. And all of a sudden this letter came to inform us of his death," said Manorama Kotnis.

The letter from Zhou Enlai and Commander Zhu De explained how he died of a sudden seizure and what he had done for thousands of wounded soldiers.

Kotnis' Chinese wife

To the family's relief, the doctor spent his last years happy in his work, his wife Guo Qinglan told them after the war.

His job as a battlefront doctor was stressful especially in Yan'an, where there was always an acute shortage of medicines.

In one long-drawn out battle against Japanese troops in 1940, Kotnis did operations for 72 hours non-stop, without any sleep. He treated more than 800 wounded soldiers during the battle, according to his widow Guo, a nurse who joined Kotnis' hospital.

Guo first met Kotnis at the inauguration of Dr Norman Bethune's tomb and was immediately attracted to the Indian doctor. Kotnis could speak Chinese and even knew how to write Chinese characters. Guo was amazed.

It spurred her to interact more with him. Guo's family and educational background also certainly helped the development of a romantic relationship, even in the harsh climate of war.

Born to a Christian family in North China's Shanxi Province, she had an open-minded mother, "who did not force me to bind my feet as other mothers did to their daughters in their home town," Guo recalled.

And her mother sent her to a church-sponsored school first, and later to a nursing school. In both places, the teachers were American missionaries.

"He was vivacious, and liked singing. Sometimes I couldn't stop laughing when he told his jokes," said Guo, recalling Kotnis with a smile.

In December 1941, Guo and Dr Kotnis were married.

The birth of their son Yinhua (meaning India and China) brought a lot of joy to the couple. But only three months after Yinhua's birth, epilepsy struck Dr Kotnis. It had struck once earlier, mildly, but this time it proved fatal for the young doctor. Guo was left alone with her baby son.

The doctor became famous in his hometown after his death with the publication of his best-selling biography "One Who Did Not Come Back" in 1945 and the screening of the 1946 Bollywood movie "Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani."

The two families from India and China also met after the war.

Guo, who continued her medical career until her retirement several years ago, has been to Kotnis' hometown in India five times and retains a good relationship with the Kotnis family.

Guo's most memorable trip was in 1958 when she took the 16-year old Yinhua to India.

Dr Kotnis' mother hugged them as soon as they entered her home. His brothers and sisters broke down and wept. Guo and Yinhua jointly planted a tree in memory of the doctor before their departure.

"His two sisters never stop corresponding with me in English," said Guo, adding that second and third generations of the Kotnis family have visited China several times in the past couple of decades.

Vatsala studied acupuncture at the Bethune hospital in Shijiazhuang in the early 1980s and started an acupuncture clinic in India. At least four members of the Konis family are medical workers in India.

Yinhua, who was to become a doctor, died at the age of 24 owing to medical malpractice.

Today, Dwarkanath Kotnis is commemorated together with the Canadian Dr Bethune in the Martyrs' Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang. The entire south side of the memorial is dedicated to Dr Kotnis.

A small museum there has a handbook that contains vocabulary words that Kotnis wrote on his passage from India to China, some of the instruments that the surgeons used at that time and many photographs of doctors, some with the Communist Party of China's most influential figures, including Mao Zedong.

China also made a movie on Dr Kotnis in 1982, called "Dr DS Kotnis."

"Now that it is more than six decades since he died, we really appreciate how the government and the people are giving him so much respect after so many years," said Manorama Kotnis.

(China Daily September 10, 2005)

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