“I am very proud of my brother and that countries are still remembering him and honouring him.” That’s the first thing that Manorama Shantaram Kotnis (92) says when asked about Chinese Premier Li Keqiang remembering her brother Dr Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis during his visit to Mumbai yesterday.
Dr Kotnis was an Indian doctor who treated Chinese troops fighting against Japanese invaders in China from 1938 to 1942. He married a Chinese nurse and succumbed to epilepsy during the war. He is considered a national hero in China and whenever Chinese delegates visit India, they make it a point to meet his relatives.
Li Keqiang met Manorama, Dr Kotnis’s only surviving sibling, and her grand nieces and grand nephews at the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel on Tuesday. Manorama described the premier as being a “very nice” man. “He said there is a Chinese saying that a true friend is one who helps in the time of need. And Dr Kotnis was a true friend.”
Tuesday was a tiring day for Manorama and her family as they had to be at the Taj early due to security issues, even though they met the premier only in the evening. The Premier gifted them three crockery sets, CDs of instrumental music, an electronic tablet, an MP4 player and a couple of stuffed toys in the shape of a panda.
Back at her Vile Parle home, surrounded by her grand nieces and nephews, Manorama readily recalls her growing up years in Solapur with her seven other siblings, “Dr Kotnis was a jolly man. He left home at 18 to attend medical college first in Pune, and later in Mumbai. We were very young at that time (around six years old). When he came home during the holidays, we would have lots of fun and games, nothing serious.”
All that changed when then Chinese Commander-in-Chief Zhu Deh appealed to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for medical assistance during the Sino Japanese War in 1938. “He said that they had enough soldiers but they were short of medical persons to treat the soldiers. Nehru made an appeal in the press. We don’t know how many applied but five were selected, among them was Dr Kotnis.” He was 28 years old and Manorama just 16.
The idea didn’t go down well with their parents, who were also doctors. “He argued with our parents and said, the assignment was only for one year. He would gain a lot of experience and be back. My father had opened a dispensary for him to take over after his studies, but he was insistent on going. Even the dean of his medical college told him to think again about it. He still wanted to go.”
The four other doctors who went with Dr Kotnis, came back at different points of time but Dr Kotnis stayed back for four years. Says Manorama, “There were no airplanes then, and it took them eight-ten months to reach the war front at Yan’an. When he saw the conditions and that they needed his help, how could he come back? They had to make hospitals and operation theatres in caves and hills. It was a voluntary service, no payment.”
The news of his death came as a shock to the family. “He died on December 9, 1942, but we knew about it only a month later. There was nothing we could do about it. He used to get epileptic seizures. There were two main factors — overwork and stress — combined with a lack of nutrition. There was shortage of food. Whenever they got some salt or good eggs, they would give it to him first, but he wouldn’t take it. He would tell them to give it to the patients. He used to operate for 48 hours at a stretch.” All that took its toll on his health and Dr Kotnis never came back to India. Incidentally, the other doctors who came back, did so because they had fallen ill. One of them was Dr Basu, who Manorama recalls as returning in April 1943. “We had some correspondence with him, but then he expired, and later his wife expired too.” They were also in touch with Dr Kotnis’s wife Guo Qinglan, who was a nurse during the war. They were married only a year when Dr Kotnis passed away. Their only son Yinhua (‘Yin’ standing for India and ‘Hua’ standing for China) was four months old at that time. Says Manorama, “Zhou Enlai (the first Premier of China) took personal interest in him since he was born. Yinhua was also studying medicine but he died young.”
Dr Kotnis left behind a legacy that is not only valued in China but also in his own family. Manorama is a qualified nutritionist. Her grand niece Shalmali Borkar explains that Manorama worked with the government at the Haffkine Institute till a couple of decades ago. Shalmali, who is the grand daughter of Dr Kotnis’s elder brother is planning to pursue a post graduation in internal medicine in the US. Her parents are also doctors and she says she and her sister Sanika grew up on stories about Dr Kotnis. “We were inspired to take up medicine,” says Shalmali. “It is an honour for us,” says Sanika, who is an ophthalmologist. Her husband Dr Abhay Jain, on the other hand, admits that he had no idea about Dr Kotnis before he married Sanika and adds that the Indian government has hardly recognised Dr Kotnis’s legacy.
“Mr Li called him a Chinese freedom fighter. We are proud that after 70 years, he is still honoured. It is impressive that the Chinese are honouring an Indian. His family home in Solapur is now a museum. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan inaugurated it last year.” Compare this to the hospitals and memorials built in Dr Kotnis’s honour in China, his inclusion even in school textbooks, special medical teams named after him that work in villages, and an observation of his fortieth death anniversary in 1982 on a large scale, and it seems as if the honour is too little too late. Says Manorama who has visited China several times, “The locals are very friendly. When they hear Dr Kotnis’s name, it creates a lot of interest. In India, from the government, there is hardly anything done. They can easily do something more.”
Keqiang called Dr Kotnis “a symbol of Indo-China friendship” during his visit to the city. But that doesn’t change the fact that barely 20 years after his death, India and China went to war. The relationship has been a hostile one since then. Keqiang’s visit is being seen as an important step towards mending relations with the Prime Ministers of both the countries saying all the right things about resolving border issues and strengthening trade relations. For Manorama and her family, the issue is one close to their hearts. Says Shalmali, “We sometimes feel bad that Dr Kotnis did so much for the Indo-China relationships and now the relationship is so weak. But this is because it’s the politics and other reasons for war. I think war is not the answer.” Adds Manorama, “That is politics. And we can’t really say much about it. It’s not about relations between two families, but they have to take care of the entire nation. So I am not competent to say anything about that. All our differences should be settled with co-operation and discussion. War is not the solution.”
The Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945)
It was the result of Japanese imperialist policy aimed at dominating China politically, militarily and economically. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the war merged into the greater conflict of World War II. Japan’s defeat in that by the Allies in 1945 ended its occupation of China. The Second Sino-Japanese War was the largest Asian war in the 20th century in terms of casualties.
Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946)
The biopic, made by V Shantaram, traced the life of Dr Kotnis, his romance with Guo Qinglan, his medical marvels and how he succumbed to plague in the end. In real life though, Dr Kotnis died of epilepsy. As Shalmali Borkar says, “Most of the facts are there, but after all it is fiction. Some of it was changed for entertainment. Still, they did good work.”