When will Zelma Lazarus get that Padma Shri?

Updated: 17 December, 2019 07:28 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Her hospital-on-wheels has brought hope and a new life to 12.5 lakh Indians. Akshay Kumar, if you are listening...

The Lifeline Express was commemorated in a stamp by the Indian government in 2009
The Lifeline Express was commemorated in a stamp by the Indian government in 2009

C Y GopinathThe Railway Minister's secretary was shouting at Zelma Lazarus, saying the honourable minister did not see people without an appointment. But Zelma really didn't have time to make appointments; the idea setting her on fire was too big, too important and too urgent. The year was 1990.

It just so happened at that moment that George Fernandes, the Railway Minister, was leaving his office. Seeing Zelma waiting, he invited her in and said, perhaps a little impatiently, "What do you want?"

There was no time to spell things out. "I want a train," said Zelma succinctly.

Zelma Lazarus, the woman instrumental in its inception
Zelma Lazarus, the woman instrumental in its inception

Zelma's idea was irresistible — India, one of the world's most populous countries, also had billions who died of preventable diseases just because medical care was too far away. Zelma believed that if a few coaches of a train could be converted into a hospital on wheels, it could go where hospitals could not reach and save countless lives.

The first expedition of the so-called Lifeline Express, sponsored by Coal India, was flagged off from Mumbai on July 16, 1991, and travelled to Khelari in the coal belt area of Bihar where its doctors screened and treated 11,568 people for cataract, orthopaedic and ENT problems.

That's how it started, 28 years ago.

Since then the Lifeline Express has quietly brought new life and hope to over 12,50,000 India's poorest and most marginalised people. The 2,00,000 or so doctors who have given freely of their time and expertise to the train have restored sight, movement and hearing, corrected cleft palates, treated epilepsy and provided dental services. More recently, the train has embraced nutrition, maternal and child health and several cancers.

You'd have thought that such an exemplary contribution would have caught the Indian government's eye. You'd have thought that one of these Republic Days, Zelma might have been given an award recognising her "distinguished and exceptional achievements/service" in social work.

Perhaps a Padma Vibhushan or Padma Bhushan. At least a Padma Shri.

Zelma will be 84 next year. She has stumbled and fallen twice recently, once breaking her shoulder into four pieces and the second time her ribs. Her memory ebbs and flows; she forgets names and faces sometimes. But she still lives alone in a gracious apartment in Bandra surrounded by the relics of a life rich with service.

But no, among those relics there is no Padma Shri. No Padma anything.

The Padma Shri petition filed five years by those who knew her work still gathers dust on some government shelf.

Now consider Hari Om, who won a Padma Shri in 2009, mainly for doing very well in movies. Born in 1967, when Zelma was 31, to an ex-armyman's wife in Amritsar, he was named Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia. He grew up in Chandni Chowk and later in Mumbai. College didn't suit him so he dropped out, choosing to learn karate. In this he excelled, earning a Taekwondo Black Belt.

He spent five years in Thailand mastering Thai kick-boxing. He has worked as a waiter, a stuntman and in a travel agency. He was good at modelling and was soon spotted by Bollywood, where he starred in movies as Akshay Kumar.

His Wikipedia entry reveals that Kumar has starred in 111 films, 52 of them commercial successes. He owns a kabaddi team. Forbes named him the world's fourth highest paid actor in 2019. He also claims to be India's highest paid actor, though this is probably not true.

What else? He was one of the celebrities at the Olympics torch-bearer rally in Canada, a country where he enjoys dual citizenship. In 2013, he started a 30-bed cancer shelter for policemen in Naigaon. He has two children and is known as a protective father who wants to give them a "normal childhood". He received an honorary law doctorate from Canada's University of Windsor.

This unremarkable Bollywood biography, which sums up Akshay Kumar, was enough for the Indian government to decide that he deserved a Padma Shri. Meanwhile, they passed over Zelma, who has done nothing but tirelessly bring health and hope to lakhs of Indian children and families for 29 years — coincidentally, the same period that Akshay has taken to become Bollywood's fourth highest paid actor.

Whether he deserved the Padma Shri or not, I believe Akshay Kumar is a fundamentally decent and values-driven human being. If he should read this, I believe he will see the inequity of Zelma Lazarus being ignored while people like himself, Saif Ali Khan and Aishwarya Rai are honoured nationally.

And, I wonder — what if Akshay Kumar, a practising Shaiva Hindu who regularly worships at shrines and freely donates his wealth to charity, is the one whose voice, charm and influence will finally help bring to Zelma the same national respect that he was given?

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper

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First Published: 17 December, 2019 07:17 IST

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