When a Cardiologist Heart Speaks

Ashok Ogra
While medicine is his profession it is Kashmir that attracts him the most.And when he manages to pursue his passion to offer free medical care tothe poor and the needy in remote parts of Kashmir, it provides him greatsatisfaction to the point of acting as an energy booster.
Yes, we are talking of noted cardiologist Dr. UpendraKaul who in his memoirs WHEN THE HEART SPEAKS affirms his love for his motherlandcalled ‘MaejKashir’ and how deeply he identifies with the place and thelocal people.
The memoirs provide not just a straight and honest narration of his life storybut a peep into his journey, with a goal to understand what it takes to become one of the leading cardiologists in the country.
Dr. Kaul covers a great deal of ground: his grandparents, parents and theirindividual and joint trajectories, the adventures that accompanied him inschool and college years. Though born in 1948 in the village Hawal of Pulwama district, Kashmir, to a reputed business family, Dr. Kaul’s father opted to take up a regular job in Delhi in early 1950, and that is where he grew up, did his schooling and earned medical degrees.
But he would miss Kashmir: “I always looked forward to my summer vacations because that was the time we would visit Kashmir. My maternal house was on the riverbank on a canal of River Jhelum. We used to playon the wide stairs of the bank called the chand with neighboring children…The visits to ancestral village Hawal would also bedelightful. In the evening, the children of the village used to go near the streams and play games using a wooden ball and makeshift bat.”
Without letting his parents know Upendra accompanied his friend to see the Shammi Kapoor movie Junglee – only because he was told that it has been shot in Kashmir.
The style is conversational and chit-chatty rather than immersive or intense. He provides vivid details of his early life spent in cramped rented accommodation to the strict regimen of the school where he performed well in his studies. He got admission to the prestigious Maulana Azad MedicalCollege from where he did his MBBS and MD and later completed DM in cardiology. Dr.Naseer Ahmed Shah of Srinagar Medical College was his external examiner during the final year MBBS. He recollects the interaction: “Dr. Naseer was a kind examiner and when it was my turn, he asked me my name. As I mentioned my name, he looked up and asked,’can you speak Kashmiri?’ I said, ‘Ahnaz (yes sir).’ He smiled at me, which boosted my confidence and I had an excellent exam.”
Incidentally, Dr. Kaul was the first qualified cardiologist of Kashmiri origin.We get to read the tough schedule that studies impose on the medical students and young residents working in the hospitals.
Soon after completing his education, Dr. Kaul was keen to work in Kashmir.He met with Sheikh Abdullah to explore the possibility of joining SKIMS,Srinagar but he did not receive a positive response. Back in Delhi, hejoined AIIMS in 1980 where he rose to the position of a Professor – fullyengaging himself in treating patients, teaching and research.
DrKaul was incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by leading teachers cumdoctors of that time. He is generous to acknowledge some of them including the noted cardiac surgeon Dr.P. Venugopal who rose to become director of AIIMS. He also takes pains to acknowledge the merit of his junior colleagues both in Fortis and at Batra Hospital – Dr. Balbir Singh, Dr. RanjanKachru, Dr. Ripen Gupta and Dr. Vinnet Bhatia who aretoday the leading cardiologist of the country. He leverages his rich network with the medical fraternity to take the reader into the world of doctors and their working.
His encounters with political personalities, bureaucrats, and commoners exerted a strong influence on him and also conditioned him to do what a clinician should do, “solve the issues”. He is full of admiration for his patientlateMian Bashir Ahmed Larvi, Caliph of the Islamic Sufi Order (Naqshbandi Majadadi, Larvi) in J&K, and a revered religious leader of Bakarwal community. He credits him for introducing him to far flung remote areas in the valley.
He narrates an interesting encounter with Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi:
“Baba came and sat with us. He gave us Prasad and before leaving, he asked me to open my right hand and slipped in a ring, with nine different stones, on my ring finger. The ring fitted perfectly. Was it magic? Was it pre-planned act, enacted by his inner staff? I have no satisfactory explanation.”
He does not shy away from talking about the dilution of medical ethics. Hemakes a startling disclosure that “every referred case for angioplasty and angiography used to get a kickback of Rs.5000 and Rs.15,000 respectively. In fact, seeing this trend, the doctors went a step further and started paying their referring doctors Rs.1 lakh in advance and adjusting it as and when patients came in in an ingenious move.”
It is in the chapter ‘Dark Era in Kashmir Valley’ that refers to the onset of militancy in the valley in 1990 that one traces sense of loss and anguish in the author: “A local newspaper, Al Safa, published a press release issued by the HizbulMujahiddin, asking Pandits to leave the valley immediately.
Explosive and inflammatory speeches were broadcast from public addresssystem of the mosques frequently. The sense of vulnerability and insecurity was exacerbated by attacks on prominent Hindu politicians, the putting up of ‘hit lists’ with names of specific Hindu individuals…. My uncles and their families too left Hawal village.”
It was during this dark decade of 1990s while at AIIMS that Dr. Kaul got totreat a large number of migrant patients and also Muslims from the valley. “I always was Kashmir-centric and wanted to do my bit in this time of crisis. I got OPD timings extended so that as many of them could be accommodated. By now word had spread regarding my soft corner for Kashmiris – including in the valley. This attracted more patients, and I came to be known as U.Koul.” As a doctor he thought it is his duty to treat all equally regardless of their political ideology or religion or status.
Dr.Kaul went out his way to help the patients negotiate the disease and thefinancial burden: “One HabibullahNaikoo had come from Shopian withspells of fainting in 1993. He had a pulse rate of only 30 per minute. He clearly needed a pacemaker implantation as a life saving device. Hisson accompanying him had very little cash. I reassured them and got thegentleman a pacemaker from my savings, had it implanted and discharged him within a few days. The family of course paid me Rs. 45,000 which I hadspent.” Bestowed with the prestigious Dr.B.C.Roy Award and conferred with Padma Shri, Dr. Kaul is a foodie – particularly Kashmiri cuisine.
Written in a personal engaging manner, the book contains 20 chapters and is published by Konark publishers- illustrated with pictures that cover important milestones of his life.
The leitmotif that runs through Kaul’s life is his deep attachment with hisparents – particularly his mother and a burning desire to address the heartrelated diseases among the Kashmiri masses. His mother, Gauri, has beena pillar of strength for Dr. Kaul since childhood. She too was deeply attached to Kashmir, and missed visiting the place. One day while watching a Kashmiri serial on TV, she said to him:”I wish we could have a small place of our own in the valley. After all it is our real home.” He not only built a house in Srinagar in 2014 and also set up Gauri Heart Centre now registered as Gauri Kaul Foundation in 2021- aimed at providing all non-invasive cardiology facilities to the people of Jammu & Kashmir under Healthy Heart Project. He has also held heart camp at Jagati Township, Jammu.
In his foreword, M.A.Pathan (ex. Indian Oil & Tata group)describes Dr. Kaul as someone who puts his work and relationships ahead of himself, while his ex colleague at AIIMS, Dr. K.Srinath Reddy in his afterword refers to his ‘heart still beating for Kashmir with a constant cadence of committed love for that land.’ Dr. Kaul’s work told in a first person account with the story unfolding in theorder in which they occurred. The narration is singular in its rawness andshows us a person who is hugely passionate about Kashmir and deeplycommitted to offering Kashmiris medical care- particularly relating to heart. This book also reminds doctors that their primary duties are to offer comfort and empathy.
(The author is works for reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)