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Wife of Dwarkanath Kotnis is no more

Guo Qinglan and, at right, a poster of the film Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani.

Guo Qinglan and, at right, a poster of the film Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani.  

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Guo Qinglan was one of India’s rare living links with pre-revolutionary China

India lost one of its rare living links with pre-revolutionary China with the passing away on Thursday of Guo Qinglan, wife of legendary doctor Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, who was among a group of Indian doctors who provided medical assistance to Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese in the late 1930s. Ms. Guo Qinglan was 96 and passed away in Dalian, China.

Opting to stay on in China while other doctors chose to head back home, Dr. Kotnis played a major role in controlling a virulent strain of plague that had hit Chinese soldiers. In the process, he did not shy away from trying out a vaccine on himself.

The soldiers Dr. Kotnis was assisting were communists and his service to them as well as affinity for their ideology saw him even looking after Mao Tse-tung, according to some versions. The good doctor was no stranger to Marxism for he came from Maharashtra's Sholapur district that till recently sent Marxists to the state legislature. The grateful Chinese built a memorial for Dr. Kotnis after his death due to epilepsy — an affliction he knew he had but kept secret from his comrades — coupled with the exhaustion that an army life spent in operations entailed.

In India, Dr. Kotnis lives on thanks to V. Shantaram’s epic Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (The immortal tale of Dr. Kotnis) in which the legendary director played the hero on the basis of the short story And One Did Not Come Back by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, one of the pillars of the anti-imperialist and progressive theatre movement of that time.

It was while working with the soldiers that Dr. Kotnis lost his heart to his Chinese assistant. They were married in 1941 but the union was to last for only a year. As she recalled to Xinhua sometime back, “I met Kotnis in 1939… He was able to speak and even write in Chinese shortly after he arrived. He enjoyed cracking jokes and making everyone laugh. I thought he was really smart and secretly admired him.”

Dr. Kotnis soon became a big name and many students at the medical school asked for his autograph. “Very often, he wrote ‘China is sure to win’ — in Chinese.”

As the movie — whose poignant name all Indians familiar with Hindi movies is quick to recall though they may not know the context or the setting — depicts, during a major conflict Dr. Kotnis and his small team conducted 50 operations every day for a fortnight. “He didn't close his eyes at all in the busiest 72 hours,” she recalled.

In those harsh times, Ms. Guo proved an ideal soul-mate but was modest about her contribution. “In fact, everyone tried to care for him, too. A young soldier at the medical school once hid polished rice underneath the millet in Kotnis’ bowl, but he soon found out and refused to eat. Why should I be treated differently from everyone else, he asked.”

The tragic tale was to continue even after Dr. Kotnis death. Their son Yin Hua (the two Chinese characters stand for India and China), who was three months old when Dr. Kotnis died, also passed away when he was just 25. “He was a handsome boy. He had his father's large eyes and my fair skin.”

She moved to Dalian in the 60s and has lived there since. Despite the two premature deaths, Ms. Guo never let weeds cover her India connection. She visited the country at least half a dozen times and maintained her links with the Kotnis family. She remarried a Chinese after Dr. Kotnis’ death in 1942 but on her business card, she called herself Guo Qinglan Kotnis.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 7:25:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/wife-of-dwarkanath-kotnis-is-no-more/article3582261.ece

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