I struggled to push back the lump in my throat. In front of me lay a slim book, behind a glass wall, mounted on a display board. The title, written across its black hardbound cover, now slightly faded and moth-eaten, Fere Naai Shudhu Ekjaan (One Never Came Back), was one my father would sometimes refer to, when he told me the story of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis. The Indian doctor valiantly and tirelessly tended to wounded soldiers during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Agression from 1937 to 1945, working himself to death, literally!
Finding the book my father read as a young lad in the 1950s was an emotional moment. But that was only the beginning. Visiting the Martyrs' Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, was a lesson in what dedication and selfless service could achieve.
The eastern wing of the expansive Martyrs' Memorial Park will forever be India. Kotnis arrived with a medical mission from India with four other physicians, stayed on, became a Communist Party member, chose the most hazardous assignments, sometimes working 72 hours non-stop. He was so loved by the people of China they dedicated a part of the park to the altruistic doctor and his noble deeds. A tomb, a gallery of photographs and part of a well-appointed museum containing sculptures, graphics, models and memorabilia, ensure that Kotnis' memory lives on.
Diametrically opposite, at the other end of the park, stands a marble sculpture of the Canadian Dr Norman Bethune - another resolute war veteran who served in the Spanish Civil War before coming to Yan'an in Shaanxi province in 1938, to perform emergency surgeries on the battlefield during the war. As dedicated to saving human lives as to the ideals of Communism, Bethune would not distinguish between Japanese prisoners of war and the soldiers of the Chinese resistance when it came to offering treatment. He died of a sepsis in 1939, after accidentally cutting himself during a stressful, marathon surgery.
The statue of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis at the Martyrs' Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang.
Bethune seems to have been a seasoned doctor serving at the front. His letters to former chairman Mao Zedong, some of which are displayed on the wall of the museum, are matter-of-fact, requesting mobile surgical instruments, for instance. There is also a quaint wooden medical tools box he designed, shaped like a bridge - an epitome of the values and ideals this committed doctor had made his life's mission.
Lines from Mao's much-cited essay, written in Bethune's memory are engraved on his tomb: "We must learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. A man's ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people."
Kotnis died at 32 of an epileptic fit, but most people thought it was because of overwork. His dark, square-jawed, genial face smiles from the photographs, reassuringly. Pages from his diary show he was practicing his Mandarin most assiduously. He had married a Chinese nurse, Guo Qinglan, and their son, Yinhua, was a living symbol of India-China bonding, both in his DNA and his name. Images of mother and son visiting Kotnis' family in India and being feted in public functions strike a reassuring note.