I spent a month following Drs. Manju and E. Balasubramanian as they returned to India to help tsunami survivors. Written in narrative form, on deadline, the stories focused on the couple’s journey as well as the medicine. This is one of the last installments.
A Phila. surgeon helping aid efforts in India sees another victim: The beach he enjoyed as a youngster.
By Dawn Fallik
Inquirer Staff Writer
MADRAS, India – As a child growing up here, E. “Bala” Balasubramanian and his friends would come to the beach every day after school – a 10-minute walk to a strip of sky and sea in a crowded city. They came every day, playing until it was time to go home for dinner.
Back then, the sands were clear enough for cricket, for soccer, for running. But last week, a month after the tsunami hit his hometown, Bala returned to his childhood playground and found nothing to smile about.
“It’s changed so much,” he said, his face unreadable as he walked through a path of garbage to the shoreline. “This road, through the middle of the beach, didn’t even used to be here.”
Bala, an orthopedic surgeon at Temple University Hospital, and his wife, Manju, a pathologist at Hahnemann University Hospital, had come to India for a month to volunteer at a charity hospital up north and offer medical services to those left homeless or wounded by the tsunami in the south.
The journey was also a spiritual quest, particularly for Bala, who was searching for a new opportunity to be needed, to fill the gap left by three grown children with lives of their own. Walking on the beach of his homeland, where thousands had died, he thought of his own childhood here, six children and two parents living in a one-bedroom apartment.
“I was very happy here,” Bala said to his 25-year-old son, Karthik, and his friend Arvind Bhakta, who walked alongside. “I guess you don’t know what you don’t have, and we were all together, so it was OK.”
As the trio neared the water, the smell of human waste was inescapable. Trash, food and plastic covered the sand. Some 50 tattered huts led to the main road. About 200 had died along the Madras beach Dec. 26, and the fishermen and their families were slowly returning.
The three men wandered down to the shoreline and stared silently at the mess. Then they walked back up the hill to their car, where the driver was waiting.
The surgeon had brought his camera. He took no pictures.
“It was just too dirty,” he said.
The southern coast of India is more than 8,000 miles from the Balasubramanians’ home in Gwynedd Valley, but its pull on the Indian couple draws them back every year to volunteer at a charity hospital. They are inspired by punya – selfless service – so the decision to help tsunami victims was an easy one. Tradition has been their beacon.
The Balas’ marriage was arranged. Her parents had wanted to set her up with a different man, but he had met someone else. Then they heard there was a nice Indian doctor, living in the United States, ready to marry.
Horoscopes were compared and approved. They were both 26. She had just finished medical school in India. He was in his last year of residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. She was in Washington for a visit and he came to meet her.
“He walked through the door and I just knew,” said Manju. “He didn’t even say a word; there was just something about him.”
“We met that first day and the second day we were engaged. I think he said something like, ‘Well, I can’t get married until I finish my rotation and then I’ll have time.’ And that was that.”
Bala had made up his mind that he would grow to appreciate whomever his parents chose. In India, the parents arrange a meeting; the man decides whether to go forward.
“I didn’t think that way was the right way to do things,” he said. “And I was hurt when boys had said no to my sister.”
The two are a balanced seesaw of a couple. He’s quiet. She’s blunt. He sets high standards. She’s a soft touch. He’s conservative. She’s a bit of a minx. In a Hindu context, his water cools her fire, and her spark fuels his steam.
Now, 26 years later, Bala brings her a different kind of rose every Friday night, in the south Indian tradition. They wait for each other to come home to eat, sometimes until 11 p.m. They reach for each other’s hands whenever they sit together.
“I feel like my life started when I met him,” she says.
While Bala sifted through childhood memories at the beach, Manju relished a short respite. Working with tsunami victims after 10 days at Dinbandhu Charity Hospital had been tiring, and she worried about her husband.
The coming weekend would be tough, because they were headed to a medical relief camp in Nagappattinam, the hardest-hit area in India.
Bala had been working at least 10 hours a day at the hospital, seeing patients and performing a dozen surgeries standing on his feet. At home, he kept a similar pace, performing about 500 surgeries a year, she said. Also, there was the work at their Hindu Temple in Montgomeryville, and the needs of his family and friends.
Where was the time for self-reflection, to be quiet and calm and simply be, Manju wondered. Once upon a time, his children called him home, forcing him to relax. But now, with children grown, there was this urgent need to be busy, all the time, to be needed elsewhere, always.
“I worry that he’ll go too far. I don’t know what will happen then,” she said. “And I worry because I don’t know how to help him. I don’t know how to give him what he needs.”
A few nights after leaving Dinbandhu, Manju suggested that the next time they came to India, Bala might want to take a few nights off. Instead of going to someone’s house for dinner, they could just stay in.
Silence filled the backseat of the cab.
“OK, I know you don’t agree with me because you get all quiet when you don’t agree,” she said.
“I just don’t need the downtime you do,” said Bala. “To sit around and talk about nothing, I just get bored.”
“So what about with me, you get bored when you spend time with me?” she asked, both of them looking ahead, hands apart.
“No, it’s not you, Mama,” said Bala. “But work is my downtime.”
Manju was quiet.
“OK,” she said, lacing her hand with his again. And all was right, for the moment.
About This Series
Inquirer reporter Dawn Fallik is following the Balasubramanians, a Gwynedd Valley husband-and-wife doctor team, as they return home to India’s southern coast to help tsunami victims. They are spending a month in their native land.