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The Valley gets a healing touch

A Kashmiri Pandit returns to his roots to treat cancer patients for free - he calls it a step towards 'establishing peace in Jammu and Kashmir'.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2011 22:14 IST
Padma Rao Sundarji

It is a tranquil March morning on Srinagar's Dal Lake. The shikara glides past houseboats African Queen and Pennsylvania, on whose decks Tamilian tourists in Kashmiri costume are having their pictures taken.

After last year's disturbances ruined livelihoods, hope lingers in the chilly, sunny air. Even the peaks seem sugared with promise.

Kashmir's staunchest separatist, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has called strikes again, but nobody on the Dal is in any mood to pay heed. Least of all a young man of deathly pallor who disembarks at the Young Beauty Star, armed with a sheaf of papers.

He has blood cancer, and is here for an outdoor OPD: with surgical oncologist Sameer Kaul, personal physician by choice of separatist Geelani himself, whose 'strike calendars' had paralysed Srinagar last year.

While Kaul examines him, others queue up in idling shikaras.

A day later, the 50-year old surgeon will host the city's first conference on onco-haematology - blood cancer - under the umbrella of his Breast Cancer Patients Benefit Foundation (BCPBF).

The rise of cancer in the Valley, says Kaul, is eerily similar to that in conflict-pocked Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, with gastro-intestinal and blood cancers topping the list.

Kaul's organisation also disburses costly cancer drugs to Below Poverty Line patients and has, for the past 18 years, been holding free screening camps here - and across the subcontinent, including Afghanistan.

"When I started coming here, I was often the only passenger on the only plane to Srinagar and the police would insist on escorting me everywhere," says Kaul.

"Armed groups were threatening Indians, but nobody touched me. I got only respect - from Kashmiris of all shades."

After the two-day conference ends, the oncologist will sit behind a rickety desk at a local nursing home - a far cry from his computerised office as Senior Consultant at Apollo's Cancer Clinic in New Delhi and examine poor cancer patients.

Life as an oncologist in a busy hospital is 'sapping and full of despair,' so these frequent getaways to Kashmir send him back feeling 'rejuvenated', he says.

There's even more to this visit.

Next and as a new member of the oppositional People's Democratic Party (PDP), Kaul will head for Jammu. There and for the first time in his life, he will address 20,000 people, mostly displaced Kashmiri Pandits, and urge them to return to Kashmir.

"Twenty years is too long to burn bridges," he says.

"Let's come back and build them - with the people we have to co-exist with, the Muslims."

So how effective is this 'Soft Power', as Kaul calls his forays into fostering health and making peace in J&K?

"Any semi-organised sector that uses culture, language, medicine, sociology, economy, education, dance, poetry to win people's hearts holds the key," he says, pointing to India's huge successes in Afghanistan despite Pakistani interference.

"Govern by showing people equality and respect, not by suppression."

Kaul points to other Kashmiri Pandits such as famous cardiologist Dr Anil Bhan, who are doing exceptional charitable work in Kashmir and wishes more would join the fold.

"A large part of what happened to us was our own doing," he says.

Moving around Srinagar, Kaul juggles 'phone-ins' from far-flung patients, with the fatherly duties of keeping his restless teenage son amused.

Across the city, patients carrying radiology reports melt in and out like shadows towards him. From the shikara jetty to crowded Lal Chowk, Kaul's OPDs move from venue to venue. Srinagar is small, word has spread of his arrival and it's easy for patients to find him.

The conference in the stately Lalit Grand Palace is inaugurated by PDP party president Mehbooba Mufti who urges tourists to come to the Valley where the 'flowers are blooming' and stands by, as Kaul unveils a free ambulance from his BCPBF 'for the people of Kashmir'.

Local Kashmiri guests bring with them a rainbow of political eccentricity to the conference dinner.

There are liberals, nationalists and conservatives, there is even a contrite, former hijacker of an Indian Airlines plane. Almost everybody who makes or breaks opinion in the Valley is here.

"Dr Kaul's is 'soft power', ours is 'the healing touch' - there is synergy between our philosophies," says Mufti.

Not everyone thinks it is a good idea for a doctor with a tall professional reputation to join politics.

The reasons are many.

That politics, traditionally a dirty game, could besmirch his name.

That he has capitulated - this from his separatist friends - to wily politicians and his medical practice will be neglected.

Finally, some say it could be simply 'dangerous'.

But Kaul jokes that his detractors are mostly other Pandits themselves, a highly argumentative community.

He is in politics, because he wants to "widen his canvas" for the poor; if that stops happening, he will roll it up again, he says.

At Kashmir Nursing Home's free cancer camp, pale, haunted patients with case histories in their weathered hands, sit huddled on a bench in mute dignity.

There is 45-year old Farida Bhat from Zonimer village, 15 km away from Srinagar. She has been under treatment for five years but doesn't know she has cancer, whispers her husband, who sells pashmina shawls and whose tiny business has suffered from the years of turbulence but also the expense of Farida's deadly illness.

There is 31-year-old Maimona Fashoo of sad and serene mien from Rainawari, 10 km away from the city. She has been suffering from Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), a form of blood cancer, for the past four years. But each cycle of treatment costs Rs 10,000 and her retired father's meagre income falls desperately short every month.

And there is 50-year-old Abdul Hamid, a woodwork artist and carpenter from New Safa in Srinagar, whose blood cancer won't allow him to make a living anymore.

"We heard Dr Sameer is a good man, one of insaniyat," he says.

"And he's a Pandit, you know? One of ours!"

(The author is South Asia Bureau Chief, Der Spiegel)