“Water swirled around the jeep dangerously high as we rode along a narrow road. It had been raining for the last few days and many villages around Rewari were flooding. The cries of the woman in labour interspersed with the loud pattering of the rain on the windshield. It was pitch dark and the jeep could move only as fast as the boys guiding us with lanterns could walk. Luckily, we reached the nursing home in time, and the woman and her child could be saved.”
“But I wasn’t as lucky always. Once, I remember, by the time I arrived, the patient had miscarried and the baby couldn’t be saved. The patient was bleeding heavily and her condition was serious.” We needed to get her to the nursing home immediately. There was no stretcher, no ambulance and all I had for help was my compounder and the lady’s husband. We put her on a durrie and used that as a makeshift stretcher to bring her down the narrow stairs of her first floor house. At that late hour, no means of transport were in sight. No rickshaw, no tonga. The compounder spotted an empty wooden cart and we used that as a trolley and brought her to the nursing home.”
“These are not isolated cases. My early years of serving Rewari are full of such memories. These were late 1950s and early 1960s. Medical services were very basic and barely reached villages. Infrastructure was extremely poor and even towns were not easily reachable. Camels to rickshaws, bullock carts to tongas, I have used them all, countless times to reach my patients in need. Treating patients in the light of a lantern was also not uncommon.”
As I talk to Dr. Tara Saxena, I am astounded at the conditions in which she lived and treated her patients. And I am inspired that she was determined to not only continue serving the people of Rewari in these difficult conditions, but also resolute in improving them. This octogenarian is Rewari’s first lady doctor and was instrumental in developing and establishing good quality health care services in the region. She can also be credited with encouraging the purdah clad women of Haryana and Punjab to come out and assert their equal status.
This women’s day, continuing with my series on #inspiringwomen, I decided to share her life with my readers. She belongs to one of the first generations of Indian women who came into their own and fought not only for their own rights but also empowered other women along the way. A woman like this does not only impact future generations of her own family, but those of an entire region and sometimes even a country.
A precocious child
Dr. Tara was born 7th of her 8 siblings and is proud to share her birthday with Swami Vivekananda. She grew up in a family that followed Gandhian values and led a simple life. Family discussions revolved around Gandhi, Nehru and Bhagat Singh on the one hand and science and technology on the other. She loved listening to stories of Newton and Darwin and discussing their theories with elder brother Rajan.
A precocious child, she had devoured classic works of literature by Premchand, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky by age 10! (At that age I had begun to read my first Enid Blytons) Biographies of Madam Curie and Florence Nightingale inspired her to aim high and serve people. Stories of her maternal grandfather who was a renowned doctor also motivated her to study medicine and become a doctor. She finished her matriculation exams with distinction, securing 100% in Mathematics and chose science as a further study subject. In 1954, she finished her MBBS but could not finish her post graduate as her father retired.
But sometimes, what may seem to be a setback may actually prove to be a step forward in the larger scheme of things. Unable to study further, Dr. Tara joined Govt. service and for 3 years served a number of villages in Uttar Pradesh. This experience laid the foundation stone of her life and work as a doctor who built medical services from scratch in the district of Rewari.
Building medical services from scratch
Dr. Tara got married to Dr. S.N. Saxena in 1959 and moved to Rewari. Life was tough. Her husband was the eldest of 7 siblings, his father had retired and the responsibility of running the house and settling the younger siblings came on the shoulders of the young couple. The large family lived in a 3 room house, there was no electricity, no running water, no sewerage and cooking was done on a coal cookstove. Drinking water had to be bought and rationed hard water was provided for other tasks. It was common to see fights break out over water.
At that time, the only asset that the young couple had was their medical degrees. Soon after their marriage, the couple started their medical practice from a small 3 room rented house. In a place that barely had basic infrastructure, it is not a surprise that medical facilities were also negligible. Rewari had a civil hospital in a run down building at that time, that lacked even a stack of proper medicines and few doctors made rare visits when it suited them. Then there was a small railway hospital and a maternity hospital built by a social worker. The latter was much better than the civil hospital but hardly had any equipment – the few that were available were mostly rusted! Local quacks were the primary care providers!
This was the story of not only Rewari but majority of the country at that time. A country with negligible infrastructure, widespread poverty, a dearth of educational institutions and rampant superstition. Those of us born in the latter half of the last century can probably not even imagine the hard task that lay before our leaders and how far we have come now. And there is a lot to be done still.
Anyhow, the young doctor couple persevered with providing medical services to people as best as they could. Both of them left their respective government jobs and focused on one of the most backwards regions of Punjab. By 1962, they had laid the foundation of their hospital and built it brick by brick over the decades into a multi specialty hospital that stands proudly in Rewari today. The first oxygen cylinders were introduced in 1963, the first X ray machine in 1964 and the first microscope in 1973. Before this samples had to be sent to Delhi for the most basic lab tests. In 1966 the state of Haryana was created and Rewari witnessed faster progress. Electricity was one of the first conveniences to reach the town. Prior to that most of the work was done in the light of kerosene lamps, lanterns and petromax. With the nationalization of banks in 1969, loans were made to small to entrepreneurs including doctors. This encouraged other doctors to also start setting up services in Rewari. Today Rewari can boast of international level medical services thanks to the untiring efforts of Dr. Tara, her husband and the scores of doctor couples that followed the same path.
Bringing women to the forefront of development
Rewari was not only one of the most backward districts, its women were also some of the most disempowered. When Dr. Tara moved to Rewari, she noticed that most women observed the purdah and barely stepped out of their houses.
She believes change begins from home. Her own marital home also had purdah, but she soon impressed her father in law enough to discontinue this practice. Daughter in Law Ruchi was touched by her insistence to come and sit at the dining table with the rest of the family and not stay back in the kitchen. She always encouraged her to think of herself beyond her duties at home.
The condition of women was very bad. Maternal mortality rate was very high. So was infant mortality rate. Due to lack of proper medical services, cases of tetanus were very common. But this was not much of a concern for anyone. One wife dies, get another one and then a third one. After all, her primary job was to produce the next generation. A woman who gave birth to a girl received next to nil post natal care. An infertile woman’s life was hell. These were age old beliefs and in order to challenge them, education was critical.
In 1964, Dr. Tara and other illustrious people in Rewari came together to establish the education board. This initiative started the transformation of education in Rewari and slowly a number of higher education institutions including medical and engineering came up. Dr. Tara later went on to found All India Women’s Committee (AIWC), Lioness Club and many other women’s organisations. Under her leadership, the AIWC established a number of training centres for women including stitching and tailoring and other employable skills. Hundreds of women were trained.
By 2001, Rewari had more than 20 lady doctors and Dr. Tara laid the foundation of Rewari Obstetrics and Gynecological Society (ROGS). Because of the illegal use of ultrasounds, female feticide was common and the sex ratio was dismal. Members of ROGS mounted a battle against this and involved a number of NGOs to fight this battle.
Sustained efforts have meant that many more girls are being educated, more and more are getting employed and balance between the genders is improving. Yet, the task is not finished and much more needs to be done.
Miles to go before I sleep
Dr. Tara is 87 years of age, but her mind is much younger. Her levels of energy can surpass those of a younger woman (mine definitely!) She has accomplished a lot in her life but her will to continue working is indomitable. Her multifaceted personality has been a source of inspiration for many.
Her daughter Chitra compares her aptly to Leonardo Da Vinci whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science and many more. “Mummy is our very own Da Vinci with multitude of talents, creative genius with a heart of gold. Apart from being a doctor and social worker, mummy is also a brilliant scientist, mathematician and has excellent knowledge of history, geography and politics. She is a great leader, orator, writer, singer, dancer, painter, gardener, photographer, and can also do sowing and stitching, embroidery, cooking and so many other things.”
Daughter Mitra believes she has learnt both what to do and what not to do from her mother. She remembers her mother’s large heartedness and willingness to keep giving at her own cost. She remembers when her mum gave away her scooter to a young nephew to help him continue his private practice. That nephew himself went on to become famous in his area of expertise. She was an absolutely honest and fair person – values that Mitra has also imbibed in her own life. Despite being a busy doctor, she always made sure that the family remained connected. Mealtimes were full of fun and laughter where children were encouraged to talk about anything and everything – from movies to politics. But Mitra has also seen the downside of giving too much of oneself. While the world may acknowledge your accomplishments, at times family may not be able to give you that recognition. And if it is the family that one turns to for validation, disappointment may be in store. Her learning is that one should perhaps not expect too much from anyone, not your spouse, not your family. This perhaps is the mantra for remaining happy.
Today, Dr. Tara has received many accolades and is very respected in Rewari. Yet, she feels there is a lot more to do. Her advice to women and young girls is to believe in themselves. “Women may be the weaker sex physically, but no one can match our brains. From my childhood I had confidence in my intelligence. So girls be confident and the world will be at your feet.”
I hope you were as inspired by Dr. Tara’s story as I was. Please read, comment and share. And if you have been inspired by a woman, let me know, so I can write about them too!
If you would like to read about other inspiring women I have written about, please see below: