Laughter is said to bind people together. If so, the Aravind family is tightly bound. Some of them have a stronger sense of humour than others, but most have the precious ability of looking at the funnier side of life and chuckling deeply.
One person who displays this gift to a great extent is Dr. Natchiar. In her time, she was one of the first few female ophthalmologists in the country. She grew up, looking after her elder brother, Dr.V, and following his guidance. As a child she wore khadi, and adhered to his fairly strict rules of how to live. At Aravind, she is the Vice Chairman of the organization and the head of Human Resources. Along with all these responsibilities, she has screened and operated on thousands of patients for over forty decades. ‘Madam’, as she is known in the five hospitals, can be unrelenting in her pursuit of quality of work; be it an eye operation, or how the floors are cleaned.
Her sternness is the stuff of legends – she is perhaps second only to Dr.V when it comes to creating that heady mix of both absolute devotion and absolute fear in her students and family members. Stories abound of her strict adherence to Aravind rules (those ‘caught out’ always acknowledge the validity of her upbraiding). ‘Madam’ is seldom crossed lightly.
Underneath it all, however, is a droll sense of humour. Like an active volcano with hot lava buried under a thin layer of ash, the humour bubbles along, coming out in flashes with a glitter in her eyes. You can see it coming in a tilt of head, a beautiful smile that transforms her face and the laughter that infects all those around her.
An event from five years ago remains vividly etched in my mind. Dr. Nam and Dr. Natchiar went on the first holiday in their lives (this is after being married for more than 40 years). Among the gifts they brought back from England, was a green, synthetic apron for the hospital gardener.
Now, the Aravind gardener is a wizened old man, set in his ways. He has a certain method of cutting bushes. So he stands and listens in respectful silence whileMadam shows him how to wear the apron, how to use the big pockets in front to store the branches that he cuts from the bushes, etc. He then wanders off.
Deep in conversation with us, from a corner of her eye, Dr. Natchiar notices the gardener. With a delicious giggle she whispers, “Look, look at him – he’s doing exactly what he has always done with the bushes. But ‘Madam’ told him to wear the apron, so he’s wearing it!” We look over and sure enough, he is going about his business in exactly the same way he has done all these years. The apron is on, but draped casually over his shoulder, lending him a distinguished air, but rendering it completely useless.