Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Nana-The Gentlest Man I Knew

The call came at night, as such calls always do. It was the end of November, a typically cold night in 1988 and my parents broke the news gently.

"Nana has had a stroke. He is in a coma and we need to leave for Patna".

I was fourteen, old enough to understand that Nana may not be coming back.
It's been 25 years since that night and my memories of Nana are fuzzy, but though I may not recall every moment I spent with him, the broad strokes of my time with him are imprinted in my mind.

I was born in Patna in 1974 but we moved to Manipur soon after. In 1982, when my father went to the UK for a four month training session and my mother joined him there for a two month Europe holiday after that, I spent a glorious few months with my grandparents in Patna. I even enrolled in a school there where, at admission, I am told, I bypassed all the questions the teachers had and ran straight for a harmonium and proceeded to sing and play my heart out.

I was 8 at the time and I don't remember but Nana told me that later.

All my Summer holidays were spent in Patna-two months of grandparents, no school, cousins, people running after me with milk glasses I hated drinking. Two whole months of being with the gentlest, kindest man I have ever known, if only for a short while, if only for brief periods at a time.

Nana's practice was in the house-a clinic where he saw his patients and an Operating Room in an annexe. The house was always open to everyone. Patients could drop in any time and Nana would always be there. I can see him at the breakfast table with the Patna menu of sprouts, fish and eggs before him but when the doorbell rang, I never once recall him making the patient wait for longer than a few minutes. There was no fixed time and he was always there.

Nana's prescence in Patna transcended his profession and the fact that he was considered one of India's finest Urologists and that he perhaps founded Urology in many centres is almost besides the point. He was, I am told, a clinician of the highest order and one time, in front of me, he slipped off a chair and immediately diagnosed himself with a dislocated shoulder. I was maybe 12 then and I was very impressed. There was no fuss. He simply got up, got himself in a sling and that was that.

I don't really remember Nana for his surgical skills. I do remember him for always being there for us, making time out always for that fun early morning rode across the Ganga or the wild family outing to Maner or Rajgir once in a while, all of us packed in the Amabassador he maintained over nearly 3 decades.

Every time we jammed in our old white Amabassador and ventured out, Nana would make it a point to stop the car at a general shop called "J.G.Carr", an Institution of pre-mall Patna and get all of us chocolates. He was indulgent in the way that you wanted to hug him all the time. My mother tells me how she wanted to bury herself in Nana's lap and stay there. He was, you could say, portly in the gentlest of ways with the slow but purposeful gait of a man who knew where he was going but was never in a hurry to get there.

One of my constant memories of my summers in Patna was the always unpredictable arrival of two Japanese Buddhist monks who were always welcomed night or day. They would never ring the doorbell and we would know they had come by their chanting of "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo", a Buddhist mantra, whose meaning I did not know at the time.

As kids we loved these two men dressed in their orange robes who could come any time, stay as long as they wanted and leave, as suddenly as they had come. They were part of the family really. At the time, for me, they were a curiousity but I now know that they were there due to my Nana's profound and active interest in Buddhism.

Nana often visited Rajgir and in fact was the Secretary of the Ragir Buddhist Society. He wasn't a formal Buddhist and I doubt he was a formal anything. Perhaps his gentle, inherently peaceful, kind, compassionate nature drew him to it or perhaps it was the other way round but that is unlikely.

Over the past few months, I have been attracted to Buddhism like a magnet and I know I am rather impulsive, irritable, prone to flashes of anger and sometimes quite selfish-maybe we all are. The teachings of Buddhism therefore, attract me like polar opposites tend to do.
The point is that I have found these teachings, in the form of websites, Dhamma talks and videos, interactions with monks and laymen to be incredibly accessible and that makes it easy to separate the mountain of "wise sayings" from the core philosophy, which is what interests me really.

In Buddhism, the Theravada tradition, previously known as the Hinayana school, is prevalent in South-East Asia where I currently reside. I won't get into the differences between the various schools but this particular tradition is the oldest and the truest to the original Buddhist teachings, without, if I may say, getting all Zen about it.

The tradition, which is characterized by its emphasis on meditation and no-nonsense teachings, has found its greatest exponents in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma and is practiced in South-East Asia. When reading about the Thai way of practice, I came across the "Forest Tradition" in Thailand whose most famous teacher worldwide is a monk known as Ajahn Chah. In Thai, Ajahn means teacher.

Ajahn Chah is credited with the spread of Theravada Buddhism in the West and indeed, one of his disciples, an ex-quantum physicist born as Peter Betts but now known as Ajahn Brahm, is possibly the most well known monk, apart from the Dalai Lama. Ajahn Chah inspires me. I don't know what he inspires me to do exactly, but his books and even his photograph fill me with a kind of peace that is tough to explain.

Ajahn Chah was born in 1918, a year after Nana. He died in 1992, 4 years after Nana suffered a stroke.

My two heroes were contemporaries.
Ajahn Chah is widely considered to be an "Arahant"-a man who attained Nirvana (equivalent to the Buddha). His funeral was attended by over a million people, including the King of Thailand.

Nana was in a coma for seven days. He died on the 7th December 1988 and I recall the precise moment very well. The Buddhist monks, who were there throughout, said that it took that amount of time for his soul to reach nirvana, an incredibly touching (if totally "Un-Buddhist")  thing to say.

Nana was cremated as per Hindu tradition and his ashes taken to Varanasi. He was also given a full Buddhist funeral in appreciation of all that he did for the Buddhist movement he was involved in, a very rare honour.

25 years later, Nana still resonates as the kindest, gentlest, most helpful man Patna once knew.

I use Ajahn Chah and Nana as my guides now. It seems contrived to try to link these two figures in some way but both make me want to become a better person and a better doctor.

There is however, another connection between the two idols of my life-a connection that is discernible only to me, personal as it is.

When I see Ajahn Chah in a photograph or in my mind, walking, smiling, meditating-anything at all, the image blurs and I see Nana in him. When I picture Nana in Patna, I see Ajahn Chah.

This is not contrived. It is a simple, obvious fact. And it is the highest compliment I can pay to both men.

Obviously, I never met Ajahn Chah. I feel fortunate, though, that I spent whatever time I could with Nana.