Stopping over in the city for a day before leaving for Islamabad, Chinese President Hu Jintao had one last thing he had to take care of—meeting the family of the man who saved the lives of many Chinese soldiers during a brutal Japanese invasion in 1937-45.
At a closed-door meeting at the Taj Hotel on Thursday morning, the president and his wife Liu Yongqing met nine members of the family of the late Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis—including his sisters Vatsala and Manorama.
Conversation between the two parties flowed with the help of translators but there was no awkwardness, thanks to an easy warmth and old photographs.
Hu told the family that the Chinese government was planning to hold a special celebration in 2008 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the doctor's arrival in China in September1938.
Kotnis was a bright 28-year-old surgeon, with his whole life ahead of him, when he left Mumbai to serve with the Communist Party's Red Army. Part of a five-member Indian Medical Mission sent by Jawaharlal Nehru for a year, he was the only doctor who did not return home, instead choosing a harsh life of service on the warfront in North China with the Red Army unit of Mao Zedong before tragically succumbing to epilepsy in 1942.
"Dr Kotnis took the brave decision to join the Chinese people in their most difficult time, helping them fight national aggression. The 1.3 billion Chinese people will always be grateful to you for that," Hu told his family.
At the end of the meeting, attended by the Hindustan Times, he presented the Kotnis family with a large photo album which he and his wife went through with them. The album documented the doctor's life in China, treating soldiers, teaching the cadre at Bethune International Hospital and his meetings with Mao.
There were also photographs of Guo Qinglan, the young nurse Kotnis fell in love with and married in the middle of the war in 1941, and their son Yinhua—which literally means India-China.
"Dr Kotnis was the gem of our family," Manorama, 85, who last saw her brother when she was 16, told the president. "Losing him was painful. But our family is grateful the Chinese government still remembers and honours his contribution."
The Chinese have honoured Kotnis in a Martyrs Memorial as well as in a 1982 film, and every Chinese head of state who visits Mumbai makes it a point to meet the doctor's family.
Manorama requested Hu to ensure that the Chinese government takes care of her sister-in-law, now 91 and living in northeast China. "We certainly will, and the government will also ensure your family can meet her when you next come to China," Hu assured her.
Email Chitrangada Choudhury: firstname.lastname@example.org