A surgeon at Bombay's JJ Hospital, Dwarkanath Kotnis was passing a Aid China donation box set up outside a local rail station in June 1938 to collect money for the Chinese for the ongoing Sino-Japanese War (1937-45).
Kotnis gave whatever money he had, but the deeply patriotic 28-year-old describing his life's 'turning point' said he was left feeling, as a doctor he must surely do more.
Following a letter from the Chinese Communist Party's Red Army for help, Jawaharlal Nehru was seeking doctors ready to make a year-long trip to China as part of an Indian Medical Mission.
A passionate application to the selection committee saw Kotnis, just out of postgraduate education, make the 5-member team of doctors that set sail from Mumbai, reaching Canton in September 1938.
Kotnis was the only doctor to never return, staying back in China, dying serving a Red Army unit of Mao Zedong in 1942, but honoured by China till date.
"He didn't know Chinese, but befriended professors on the ship, who began teaching it to him", says sister and accupuncturist Vatsala (79) in her dark 60-year-old appartment in a South Mumbai bylane, crowded with Chinese memorabilia, a large portrait, and a marble bust of Kotnis.
A regular letter writer, Kotnis sent home descriptions of the alien weather, customs and food, an enjoyable Chinese opera performance, and once he made it to the North China front, of a brutal war - the Japanese air raids, and the fatal shortage of doctors and medicines to treat wounded soldiers.
Sister Manorama (85) recalls, "But Baba (Kotnis) marvelled at the remarkable spirit on the front, describing how soldiers, on recovering, would leave the hospital to head straight back to the front."
The letters stopped coming in 1940 as the battle intensified. But wife Guo Qinglan - a nurse serving on the front who fell in love with Kotnis, they married a year before his death, tenderly outlines the young doctor's tireless dedication to a foreign war effort in her 2006 memoir 'My Days with Kotnis'.
A 1943 letter from the Chinese Army informed the Solapur-based Kotnis family that Kotnis had died in December of an epileptic fit. This was tempered by some good news: Kotnis had married Guo in 1941, and they had a son, Yinhua (literally 'India-China').
The sisters proudly take out thick photo albums of Guo and Yinhua's 1958 India visit. Yinhua, 16 has the same sparkling eyes as Kotnis. Vatsala recalls, "He would even bite his tongue, when excited like Baba."
Yinhua died when 25, but Guo still lives in China - the two families met last year when Vatsala and her relatives were invited by the Chinese state to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. She smiles, "When we meet, Guo doesn't seem Chinese. She seems just like one of us."