The 'shishya' who went on to become my guru

It is not often that a guru-sishya relationship develops and endures in today’s academics. It is even rarer when the guru eventually learns from the shishya.

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Dr P Zachariah
Former professor of Physiology,
CMC, Vellore

It is not often that a guru-sishya relationship develops and endures in today’s academics. It is even rarer when the guru eventually learns from the shishya. But that is what happened to me regarding Binayak Sen at the Christian Medical College, Vellore (CMC).

I was a young and eager faculty member in my early thirties when Binayak came to the CMC in 1965. Perhaps because of his Bengali and Brahmo Samaj background, Binayak also had some thing of a Shantiniketan flavour about him. And the fully residential life in CMC allowed us to interact over the next nine years as he stayed on to do his doctorate in child health.

But Binayak was no bookworm. He was determined to enjoy student life: on the stage, off the stage, in student union and hostel meetings, in social service projects, playing the fool in picnics and outings and, above all, in endless friendly and fervent arguments. He was conspicuous with a Leftist, analytical perspective, he wanted to go into the why of everything.

Such theorising and argumentation of medical student days usually evaporate like dew in the heat of professional and social pressures in later life. But with Binayak, all these were put to practice in the cooperative hospital of the iron-ore miners he helped establish.

For almost a decade he worked with the miner volunteers on equal terms and nearly equal income. With many others among the CMC faculty and alumni, I considered him a true follower of Ida Scudder, the founder of CMC. And we remained in touch.
As the years passed in the Chhattisgarh region, infested with tuberculosis and malaria, the handsome lively Binayak of student days took on the celebrated look of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.

He was now looked on with awe at alumni reunions to which his adoring and prosperous fellow alumni invited him as chief guest. And he never failed to chastise them for their perceived shortfall in passion for the marginalised. But one time I saw Binayak really deflated was when his mentor Shankar Guha Niyogi was murdered and the labour movement there lost its Gandhian moorings. He felt he had to move on.

But what he moved on to was an even lower level of human need: the dispossession and denial of rights of tribals. Their needs filled his heart again. And his own perceptions moved on from community health and public health to health as a human right. He became physician, public health expert, social activist, eco warrior, political campaigner, all rolled into one. The two days I spent with him at Raipur in the thick of all this remain memorable. 

As a student, he always asked why. By the time he had finished in CMC and JNU, he had already come to the conclusion that, more than infections and diseases, social factors determined health.

But he continued to keep asking why? And that led him increasingly into the political determinants of health, the denial of human rights, the forced ejection from homes and the way of life of peoples. 

I got into teaching medicine in Vellore in the hope of inspiring young people, like Binayak, for service. Binayak outgrew that and taught me, that all the altruism cannot achieve health where human rights are ignored.

And I hope that when he is eventually released, he will devote his remaining years to inspiring a new generation of health professionals to explore the link between health and human rights. As Jonathan Mann did when he moved to a Chair in Harvard. And may that release be soon.

Binayak is already 58 and not in the best of health. His remaining days are too precious to India to be spent in Raipur Central Jail.
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