On the day before my friend Prasad Chavali arrived in Hyderabad he arranged for me to spend some time with an unusual and admirable man, Dr. Surya Prakash. “He was the top of his class in medical school and would be one of the wealthiest doctors in the state,” Prasad told me. “But he chose a different path.”
Dr. Prakash’s academic approach to life was derailed by personal tragedies and priorities of the family, especially the care of his sister who was ill for a long time and died at the age of 20. “People should have the chance to lead a complete life,” he says wistfully. He also became increasingly concerned about the degrading of values in
society and the increase in violence. “The issue is not disease. The dangerous microbe is the human being itself.”
So Dr. Prakash founded something he calls the Life-Health Reinforcement Group, which began with a simple concept: Eat healthy and safe food, and share a meal with one stranger every day. He started with a banana cart from which he would distribute bananas to the hungry and then organized a ballet to promote the importance of healthy food choices. The organization now embraces tenets as diverse as reading a book a day and writing handwritten letters to those you love; keeping your word and never lying; and purchasing only things that you need and being sure to use them. Reading is particularly important; Dr. Prakash calls it “spreading light”. “People should carry books with them the way they carry cell phones,” he says.
Most importantly, Dr. Prakash and his wife, who is one the area’s most respected gynocologists, maintain an Open House where anyone who needs a meal can come in and cook something. “I used to cook for them but we had too many complaints about my cooking, so now we provide the food and the opportunity and people come cook for themselves.” Between 50 and 100 people per day show up to prepare a meal, have a wash, maybe get an article of clean clothing.
On this day Dr. Prakash did something he hadn’t done before: he took me on tour of places critical to his own personal journey. The first stop was Gandhi Hospital, a government-run facility where he had taken his sister so many years ago. We were met outside by Dr. Kameswarao, who led us into the gyno-obstetrics area of the hospital. “This place,” he said, “ is for the poorest of the poor.”
We were required to take off our shoes and we walked through the ward barefoot. Many of the hallways were very dark, the floors were filthy and the rooms were overcrowded with woman, many of them holding newborns. Garbage was piled high on the ledges outside the windows. There was a withered woman on a gurney, motionless and badly burned; she was not there when we left and I feared the worst.
On a small table in the corridor lay a bloody, purple mass on a piece of newspaper. “That was a uterus,” Dr. Prakash explained later. “It was put there so the family of the woman it was removed from could come see it.” He explained it would then go either to pathology or “into the dust bin. I’m glad you didn’t have to see any dead babies. Sometimes the preemies that die are placed outside to await disposal.”
We sat for about half an hour with five or six doctors, all anesthesiologists. We were brought small plates of rice and curry. Previously these men would have had to commit full time to the government facility but a new regulation allows them to work here and also pursue a private practice in the evenings. They could clearly be making a lot more money doing something else, but this is where they are needed. “The hospital may be dark,” Dr. Prakash said, “but the people who work here provide the light.”
From Gandhi Hospital Dr. Prakash took me to the Woman and Child Development Center, a facility for abandoned children and battered and abandoned women. The first room was full of infants, new born to six months, and as the children got progressively older as we moved down the hallway, it was apparent that 95% of them were girls.
“Girls are much more likely to be abandoned by people who have no money,” Dr. Prakash told me. “They will try to hang onto boys, but they will put newborn girls in a plastic bag and dump them somewhere, especially if they have any kind of deformity or handicap.” We passed a group of older kids, maybe five and six, and the girls were so pretty in their matching dresses, with such beautiful smiles, and giggly about the odd-looking stranger. On the way out there was a corkboard full of photos of people who have adopted many of these kids, a Wall of Hope if ever there was one.
We drove away without visiting the women’s part of the facility. “It’s very rough,” Dr. Prakash said. “I think I’ve put you through enough.”
Our last stop was a shelter for the elderly, wonderfully named a Goldage Home. Again, the majority of the residents were female. “Men are much more likely to be cared for,” Dr. Prakash said. A nurse chimed in with a comment and Dr. Prakash translated. “She says that old women also make too much of a ruckus, so they are brought here.” The unfortunate and often barbaric treatment of women and girls has become a recurring theme of this trip.
We went back to Dr. Prakash’s storefront Open House location and we talked some more. I met the doctor’s wife, whose clinic is upstairs. Her husband is very proud of how many women she has saved from having hysterectomies and other major procedures. He showed me his latest idea, which he calls Because. It’s a rudimentary device on wheels that is a combination outdoor wood-burning grill, writing desk and library, solar-powered community outreach platform and food distribution center. It’s meant to be wheeled onto the street in front of the home and designed as a vehicle to share food, ideas, knowledge and cultural skills.
The man has a lot of imagination, but I got the sense he’s a bit tired of tilting at windmills and of not seeing enough progress for the effort involved. Still, he perseveres. As I said goodbye and drove away a few hungry souls had arrived and headed back to the kitchen to prepare a bite to eat, to feel sated for the moment and maybe a little better about themselves, thanks to the generous spirit and enormous heart of Dr. Surya Prakash.
I met with Dr. Prakash a second time, the afternoon before Prasad and I left for Delhi. He was upbeat, purposeful.
“After being with you at Gandhi Hospital I now know the next phase of my life,” he said. “I will start working there on January 1, 2014, as a volunteer. It has Gandhi’s name on it and should not be that way. I will work in the burn unit, and I will work to clean it up. The next time you see it there will be brightness and the filth will be gone. It will take three years, but I will do it.”
I have no doubt.