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The doctor who didn’t leave Palakkad

Arathy Asok | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

Stuff of legends: Padma Mukundan with a bust of her grandfather Dr Krishnan in the background   -  IMAGES COURTESY: SOORYA GK

A migrant it hesitated to once accept is now one of Palakkad’s most memorable and loved characters

* Born in Kannur, Dr K Krishnan was posted to Palghat Municipal Hospital in the early years of the 20th century

* One of the first to object to his appointment was the Palakkad Municipal Council, which cited his caste — Thiyya — in a letter to the collector of Malabar

* Krishnan spent the rest of his life in Palakkad, gradually earning the love and respect of people across caste and class

How does it feel to walk down somebody’s memory lane? Especially when that path is one of pride that comes from survival against societal odds such as caste discrimination? These questions crowded my mind on the evening that I spent with 95-year-old Palakkad resident Padma Mukundan, trying to piece together the story of her illustrious grandfather Dr K Krishnan — a doctor whose contribution to public health is still talked about.

The man who became Diwan Bahadur, with a statue and a park named after him in Palakkad, was probably one of the first internal migrants to leave Kannur for the fort town in the early 20th century. Parts of his story reached me through my grandmother, Mukundan’s cousin.

The visionary’s knowledge of medicine was of little importance to the natives of Palakkad, initially. To them, he was just a member of the Thiyya caste in North Malabar who was unwelcome in the southern parts of Kerala. It took years of hard work and dedication for the “outsider” to tip the scales in his favour. When he died, in 1932, due to a complication that had arisen from a cataract removal surgery, Palakkad gave him a farewell that Mukundan, all of 7 or 8 years at the time, still remembers.

Medicine man: A Palakkad park dedicated to the doctor

 

Born in Kannur, Krishnan graduated as a civil apothecary from Madras Medical College in 1887. The first years of his service were spent in parts of Malabar, Kistna and Anantapur, under Madras Presidency at the time. He moved to Palakkad in the early years of the 1900s, probably unaware of the fact that a letter of appointment from the government wasn’t really a ticket to a life free of discrimination. One of the first to raise a flag of objection to his appointment at the Palghat Municipal Hospital was the Palakkad Municipal Council itself. In a letter to “Mr Pinhay, the Collector of Malabar”, it wrote: “It has come to our notice that a Thiyya Apothecary has been appointed to work in the Palghat Municipal Hospital (now District Hospital Palakkad). In this town an apothecary is expected to visit Brahmin agraharams when infectious epidemics break out. According to age-old traditions, it is not permissible for a thiyya apothecary to step into an agraharam... Under the circumstances the Municipal Council appeals to the Government to pass orders appointing a high caste Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim who would have access to the agraharams...”

An enquiry was set up following this, and the district medical and sanitary officer submitted a report that commended Krishnan as a “capable and responsible doctor”. The request for his transfer was turned down and Krishnan survived his first Palakkad hurdle.

What followed thereafter, according to Mukundan, was the man’s journey in service of the poor and deprived and his endeavour to provide medical access to those living on the fringes of society.

Like many other places in the country, Palakkad, too, determined access to resources on the basis of caste and class hierarchies. The Nayadis of Dhoni, a hilly region near Palakkad town, were a community of hunter-gatherers who were treated as untouchables. Krishnan was one of the first physicians to reach out to them. He started frequenting their settlements, much to the displeasure of the Palakkad gentry, and even conducted medical camps to educate the Nayadis on the importance of sanitation and good hygiene. Mukundan, a housewife who was married to an engineer, recalled the tears the Nayadis shed when her grandfather died: “They stood in a huddle under a mango tree in the courtyard and let out a wail when his body was taken for cremation. They said their god had left them.” To her ears, though, it was a cry from a section of deprived people for a man they considered their own.

Krishnan’s humanism was not limited to the role of a medical practitioner alone. Small gestures showed that he liked bringing simple joys to the lives of those around him. Mukundan recounts how he used his car to entertain the children during house calls to the agraharams (Brahmin neighbourhoods) of Kalpathy. He noticed a group of children who always followed the car. While he attended to patients — Brahmins who didn’t welcome him during his initial years in the region — his chauffeur would drive those children around the town.

Nine years before his death, Krishnan established his hospital in Palakkad. A February 1928 entry in the visitor’s book, by Dr Gopinath Pandalai, second surgeon of the Government General Hospital, Madras, read thus: “This is the first institution of the kind, founded and managed by an Indian in the Presidency”. It was clear that Krishnan’s work — the man who spent money from his own pocket to buy surgical instruments for the operation theatre at the municipal hospital — had made him a shining example for his peers to follow.

Later, I stopped by the statue erected by the very municipal body that wanted to oust him from the town he so loved. The figure has lost some colour, and the park it stands in, opposite the Mission School in the heart of Palakkad, is not in good shape. But Krishnan looked as unperturbed as he was in real life. The migrant, indeed, was home after all.

Arathy Asok is a bilingual writer and poet based in Kerala

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Published on September 03, 2020
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