Kakinada

Dr Chandra Sankurathri

Kakinada, India  8:pm

My last working night in India.  Tomorrow (day and night) will be spent traveling to Delhi in time for a 2:AM flight back to Canada, via Germany and UK.  (There must be a shorter way, no?  Geez.)

I’m ensconced in a swanky (by rural Indian standards) hotel in Kakinada, Andrah Pradesh.  I have at my disposal an immense and cheap room service menu, but I keep ordering just dal and rice, probably because it would be impossible to order dal and rice in hotel in Canada.  And I do love me some dal and rice.  (Have I written “dal and rice” enough times in this paragraph?)

I’ve just noticed that at the bottom of the room service menu is a warning: “Right of Admission is Standoffish”.  Maybe I should order me some of that awesome standof fish?  Okay, bad joke.

Kakinada is a “town” in the state of AP.  Andrah, even its capital of Hyderabad, is often ignored by tourists, since its charms are not on the surface.  But I’ve always found that AP shows me the India of my earliest visit.  The people are poorer than in the north, and cows still dominate the roadways.  But I’m heathily ignored here, even when I enter a store.  It’s a nice feeling.

Despite its “town” status, Kakinada has a population of about half a million.  Apparently there are many oil and gas exploration companies here, so there’s some money floating about, though, as usual, it’s stratified to the higher classes.

AP is, it seems to me, also one of the last places in India where local Indian soft drinks are more popular than imported American Coke and Pepsi.  In fact, I’m enjoying a refreshing (and sugary) Thumbs Up as I write this.  (Mind you, it saddens me to now notice on the side of the bottle, “A product of the Coca Cola company.”

My voyage here was a bit, um, interesting.  Leaving my hotel in Goa at 6:AM, I then flew to Bangalore then to a small city called Vijaywada where I foolishly took the first driver I saw.  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t really a taxi driver, just some schmuck trying to bilk, er, make a few bucks out of the travelers.  I paid him well past twice the expected rate for a two hour drive to Kakinada.  I don’t mind overpaying, not when I can afford it.  If that makes me a sucker, so be it.

But the fool was so obsequious and incompetent that comedy quickly turned to annoyingness.  After bilking me for double payment and what was surely an inflated bridge toll fee, he pulled into a gas station to refuel.  I knew instantly that he would, at some point, ask me for gas money.

When he did, I gave him a tired stare and raised an eyebrow.  He offered a sneaky and smiley, “Oh sorry sir” and did the Indian head waggle.  Oh he had money, all right.

The drive itself was quite stunning.  It had been some time since I’d paid a visit to an Indian farming village.  The vistas were sunny and redolent, brilliant green with that familiar, yet strangely pleasant, subtle odour of farming: dung, wildflowers and human toil.  Of course, Mr Taxi decided to roll up the windows at that point and drown the car’s interior with cheap perfume,  giving me a migraine in the process.

The migraine was not helped when he cranked up the Indian pop music and started singing along… out of tune.

Sigh.

I’m here in Kakinada to meet with Dr Chandra Sankurathri, who is in my opinion one of the finest humanitarians in the world.  Chandra was profiled in the Times of India just last week, and the Canadian site for his incredible projects is at www.msmf.ca.  There’s also a CBC documentaryabout him, as well as this article.  While I was visiting, a Newsweek India article about him had just been published, and he was displeased at its lack of focus on the plight of the people and its overindulgence with his own history.  He is a man of the future, of what can be, and does not necessarily linger in the past.

My involvement began when one of my graduating students, whose father works with the foundation, asked me if I knew any epidemiologists who might be nterested in helping.   A few months later, I’m in AP looking at pristine clinical data that is just begging for analysis.  Ironically, a few years ago a friend had taken me to a fundraiser for Chandra’s foundation, and at the time I’d found myself wondering how I could help.  Seems I was destined to come here.

(That “destiny” was alluded to when I miraculously met someone in Bombay who is actually from Kakinada.  She had rarely come across anyone who’d heard of the town, let alone a visiting foreigner.)

Words cannot express how impressive Chandra’s achievement has become.  In the past 7 years alone, he has treated 1.3 million patients in need of eye surgery, and has educated hundreds of children who otherwise would be too poor to afford a formal education.

It’s important to always remember that in a country like India, which makes global news for its explosive wealth, there remains an enormous underclass that does not benefit from the new economy.  Literally hundreds of millions still struggle here, with children, women and the elderly often bearing the brunt of the suffering.

Well, I have a buttload of work to get done now.  Enough preaching.   I’m busy uploading what few photos I managed to snap during this trip, so in a couple of hours please visit my Flickr site to see them.  See ya!