On September 20 the newspapers carried a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping bending over to greet an elderly woman in a wheelchair. She is Manorama, younger sister of the legendary doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis who was sent to China during the Sino Japan war in 1942. It is here that he died treating Chinese soldiers.
It was 1938. A team of four doctors was sent from India. Dwarka was the youngest. They found themselves up against an outbreak of the deadly plague. It was four years of battling the conditions and treating patients that this 38 year old himself succumbed to the disease. China celebrates him as a hero, his statue has been erected and a stamp has been issued in his name. Sadly, India has forgotten him. Like Abbas, I too was inspired to write this column of remembrance, after I saw the news clipping.
Let me recall the scene which played out in 1944. A young journalist in Mumbai read a ‘two line despatch’ from Peking. It was about the death of a doctor who was part of a medical mission from India. The name of this journalist was Khwaja Ahmed Abbas who had begun writing a weekly column in Blitz called Last Page. That week he decided to write a column on Dr Kotnis’ death.
Dr DK Basu, Member of Politburo, had just returned from China and was staying with PC Joshi. He read Abbas’ article and called him over. ‘How do you know all this about Kotnis’ he asked. ‘I don’t know anything. I just imagined it’ Abbas said. ‘You imagined it right, absolutely right, this is exactly what he expressed’. Dr Basu was present at the time of his death and confirmed that all Abbas had written about the feelings of the dying man was spot on. ‘Then give me the whole story.’ Abbas asked. In six sittings Basu told him the story. Thus was born Abbas’ book ‘And one did not come back’.
Abbas and his closest friend and associate VP Sathe discussed the possibility of turning the novel into a film. They thought of Kotnis’ namesake (Dwarkanath Shantaram) producer director V Shantaram. Some time back Abbas, as the film critic of Bombay Chronicle, usually very terse in his reviews, had written a glowing review of Shanataram’s film Ek Admi. So the two friends decided to place this idea before him. The meeting had a dramatic outcome. The great Shantaram was riveted by the story Thus came about the film Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani.
Shantaram himself played the role of Kotnis and his actress wife Jayshree played Dr Kotnis’ Chinese wife. Kotnis had married a Chinese nurse Quo Qing Lan. They had one son Yinhua, who also died young. His name was compound of Yin (India) and Hua (China) metaphor of their union. Abbas ended his script with Mrs Kotnis coming to India to her husband’s house in Sholapur. This, as he wrote later, was his imagination because at the time this do not happen. But this also came true because thirty years later this woman came all the way from China to Sholapur.
The story of Kotnis needs to be recalled on both sides because it signifies the bonds of Sino Indian friendship. General Zhu De had written to Jawahrlal Nehru for sending a mission. When it arrived in Peking, the team was welcomed by Mao Zedong who kept an eye out for them. Dr Kotnis’s samadhi is a national monument and along with his statue is found in Shijiazhuang in Heibi. Flowers are placed there by people as mark of respect. Madams Sun Yat Sen’s words in his memory say it all. ‘His memory belongs not only to your people and ours but to the roll call of fighters for freedom and progress of all mankind. The future will honour him more than the present because it was for the future that he struggled’.