THE LEGEND LIVES ON
A 91-year-old is the object of much attention in China these days. Will she accompany President Hu Jintao to India next week or won’t she? If she does, this will be her sixth visit to her husband’s country. The irony is, they were married for just a year, way back in 1941.
Guo Qinglan, the widow of Dwarkanath Kotnis, is as remarkable a character as was her husband, who had volunteered to go to China as part of a medical team sent by Nehru to help the Chinese fight the Japanese aggressors. Guo’s upbringing had been unorthodox — the daughter of Christians, her feet were not bound, unlike most Chinese girls of the time, and she was sent to church-run schools and allowed to learn nursing. At 23, she decided to join the Eighth Route Army as a volunteer, and ended up working under Kotnis at the Bethune International Peace Hospital.
Qinglan lost her heart to the tall, broad-shouldered, large-eyed and curly haired young Indian doctor. To add to all his charms, he could speak and write Chinese, loved singing and was always cracking jokes. Seeing his army jacket frayed, Qinglan gifted him a sweater. Obviously, the attraction was mutual: he grabbed the sweater and her hands.
Qinglan wasn’t Kedihua dai fu’s (‘dai fu’ means doctor, ‘Kedihua’ was Kotnis’s Chinese name) only admirer. One soldier slipped polished rice under the coarse millet they all ate on the front, but of course, the doctor returned it.
Within two years, Kotnis became the first president of the Bethune Hospital and joined the Chinese Communist Party. As the fighting increased, so did his work. Short of medicines, often carrying out long operations, Kotnis died of an epileptic seizure, leaving behind a son, barely three months old, named Yinhua (the two Chinese characters together meaning India and China). He was only 32.
Did the Kotnises approve of his marriage? No one knows. But when their daughter-in-law came all the way to Sholapur, bringing with her their 16-year-old grandson, who had his father’s looks and his mother’s complexion, a typical Hindi film reunion took place.
But more tragedy lay in store for them. At 24, on the verge of graduating from medical college, Yinhua died, ironically, of medical negligence.
Guo, who had by then remarried, continued visiting her husband’s family. What’s more, they returned the gesture. Last year, they were in Beijing, invitees at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Chinese victory in the War of Resistance.
The relationship is not confined only to the two families. Every Chinese dignitary who visits India pays his respects to the Kotnis family. Indeed, Kotnis is one of the few foreigners who have been honoured in perpetuity by the Chinese government. A film, postage stamps, a memorial hall, a hospital and medical college, and the entire south section of the North China Martyrs’ Memorial Park at Shijiazhuang, bear his name. A small museum in the park showcases his handwritten attempts to learn Chinese. Since 1996, a team of doctors named after him has been touring outlying areas once a year to provide free medical service. On December 9, 2002, the 60th anniversary of his death, a rally was organized in Beijing.
More remarkably, he continues to be a living legend where he worked. His grave in the Martyrs’ Memorial cemetery is always covered with flowers. Among those who had known him, there are only a few still alive. One such villager, who is 79, broke into sobs while narrating to the Kotnis family the doctor’s dedication to his work.
Mao wrote a scroll when Kotnis died, describing him as a “dear friend of China”. Guo Qinglan Kotnis, as she likes to call herself, has kept that friendship alive.