Dr. Indira Surendran. She was many things to many people, but to me she was the lady who always smiled. I think of her first as my mother’s friend and then as a doctor. She along with her sister, helped one of my sisters through a particularly difficult labor without resorting to a C-Section. She brought into this world quite a few children in my family including my first born, not to speak of the dozens in my extended family.
Hers was a face I saw in all the public events I attended in Nagercoil. She inaugurated events and businesses, distributed prizes, planted trees, patronized the arts and artists, helped the needy, and gave speeches. She was everywhere, and did so much, all with unflagging enthusiasm and sincerity. It was as if God had allotted a special system of time for her. How else did one manage all that in 24 hours? I loved watching how she interacted with people – pleasant demeanor, kind eyes, a gentle smile that made her face radiant and so soft spoken.
I wondered what it would be like to talk to her, but always felt quite tongue tied in her presence. And she was also the first grown up lady I ever saw sporting sleeveless blouses – in ultra-conservative Nagercoil, no less! She was a wonder alright, and I marveled at her from afar!
Much later I did interact with her during my regular visits to her for my check-ups when I was pregnant with my first child. She had this manner that could completely allay your fears. When she examined you, you instinctively knew that those were hands you could trust; and when she enquired how you were feeling, you just knew that it was not a routine question and she genuinely cared about how you were feeling. Stretched out scared witless in the labor room, not fully understanding what was going on with your body, her soothing voice and gentle but firm guidance helped you channel that inner core of strength every woman is born with. And that concern and treatment extended not just to those she knew personally or those privileged. Every woman who came to her was given the same care. There were no ugly lines of any kind that discriminated and built borders between her patients.
My daughter was born on October 9 1996. The day Dr. Indira Surendran turned 60 (according to the Indian calendar). On a day she should have been at home celebrating her Shashtipoorthi with her family, she was busy making mothers out of scared young girls having their first taste of real pain.
My second one was born in the US. While I was pregnant with her, my doctor here asked if I wanted to go the epidural way. Apparently, everyone here did. I was confused and knew there was only one person I could turn to. I mailed Dr. Indira for advice. Her reply? “That pain you experience is your privilege as a mother. Don’t go for epidural unless a medical situation warrants it. You have had a baby. You know what it is like. I am confident you can do it again.”
While in the throes of contraction, my nurse repeatedly offered me the painless route. But armed with the shot of confidence she had given me, I decided to hold on to my privilege. Something I shall be eternally grateful to Dr. Indira for.
I heard she was in poor health lately. But never really had a chance to go visit her. Maybe it was all for the better. Somehow I prefer remembering people the way they would like to be remembered.
Writer B Jeyamohan immortalized Dr. Indira in his visceral novella Nooru Narkaligal, a story which traces the rise of a boy from the lowly Nayadi community who becomes an IAS officer. In this true story with real life characters and places, Dr. Indira and her hospital bear witness to crucial moments.
Dr. Indira Surendran was the face of the iconic Gopala Pillai Hospital which is a landmark in the medical, social and cultural geography of Kanyakumari District. With her passing, it is an era which comes to an end. She was one of the most recognized faces in the place I call home – a face thousands remember with immeasurable gratitude and love. She had made Nagercoil her home by marriage and became an integral part of the unique bi-cultural fabric of the region. Ecological conservation and social upliftment were two things close to her heart, apart from babies and she did so much for the land and its people through her innumerable social activities and charities. She leaves behind her children and their spouses, all doctors, committed to carrying on her legacy in healthcare and philanthropy.
Nagercoil was once home to a bunch of stalwart women, some of whom had cut their teeth in the Indian freedom struggle. These women rose like Titans in the society by their commitment to social causes, the charitable work they did, a strong sense of values, and towering personalities. Dr. Indira was a star among them. The renowned Kasturba Mathar Sangham was their Karmabhoomi from where they carried out missions. Most of them are gone now and my heart goes out to the ones dealing with the loss of yet another friend. As I write this, I see them all in my mind’s eye – women I had admired as a child and stood in awe of; women around whom I was always told to be on my best behavior; women to whom I now raise a salute. I know Nagercoil will never see another bunch like them.
There will be several tributes paid to Dr. Indira Surendran over the days, for hers was indeed a life to be celebrated. But I wonder if any of us can manage to fully capture her grace. She was truly beautiful – within and without!
Rest in Peace Dear Doctor! Thank you for all the smiles.