Pioneer of family planning camps
Posted May 31, 2015on:
I met Kanak Desai in 1979. He was an old, amiable person. He had participated in freedom struggle. After Independence, he devoted his time to social causes. He organised the country’s first ever family planning camp in the mid-50s in Junagarh (Gujarat) to which he belonged. The camp was inaugurated by then Congress president U N Dhebar. I have seen Jawaharlal Nehru’s part-typed, part-handwritten letter fulsomely praising his initiative.
He was engaged as a Stringer in Junagarh by a multi-edition English newspaper, also published from Ahmedabad. I was posted as a Reporter in Ahmedabad in the same paper. While on tour of that area, I would make it a point to meet him. I had developed a liking for him.
The Collector of Junagarh filed a defamation case against me and I had to appear every month in the court for some time. Then we became close beyond our professional relationship. I would reach Junagarh in the morning and after my court appearance, go to his house and we would have lunch together. During that period I came to know that he had been suffering from some form of blood cancer for the past 12 years or so and would have to fly to Bombay every two months to get his blood changed. During our lunch meetings I asked him a few times how he was surviving with such a dreadful disease. He would always evade my question.
Once I went to court to find that the court had been closed for some reason. I reached Kanak Desai’s house much earlier than lunch time. Meal was nearly two hours away. Kanak suggested we go for a walk. He took me to an old, spacious house with several rooms and a large courtyard, about 5-7 kilometres from the city. There lived several old men and women.
The inmates looked after the place as well as each other. If someone was a barber, he would take care of haircuts and shaves of others. If someone knew something about herbs, he would attend to minor ailments of the inmates. Women would look after food preparation. All of them together would sweep the place and keep it clean.
Kanak reminded me that I wanted to know how he was surviving. He said he was living for these people. These were the people who had no relations. If an old man or woman had even a distant relative, he would not take him or her. He spent his time arranging food and clothes or medical care for them. He would go to Calcutta and Bombay to ask the Gujarati businessmen to help and they always cooperated, happily.
Then Kanak took me to the kitchen where some women were preparing food for all the inmates. He removed the cover from a big utensil. It had cooked dal, looking delicious from the smell of it. Another utensil had rice, smelling sweet. Vegetables, similarly. Kanak said the quality of this food was the same as the quality of the food which he was eating at home and offering me once a month.
A year or so later (I had been shifted to Indore by then), I received a telegram from my editor informing me that Kanak Desai had died and asking me to write an obituary of him. That was the most painful piece for me to write.