Remembering Pundit PK Shankhdhar 'Babooji'

My first impressionable memory of Pundit Pradyumna Kishore Shankhdhar, whom we respectfully called 'Babooji', was of him in his UNICEF office. He used to cycle down to the office everyday - which stood starkly in contrast to the world's finest limousines parked in this office, to which he was possibly entitled to use. The attitude to save every penny possible, sacrifice all material comforts and live frugally, and invest all possible resources in order to give a better tomorrow for his family was a mission for Babooji. "It's easier to fill books on philosophy than it is to bring one principle in practice" had said Lev Tolstoi. Babooji lived up to this principle in his life.

By God's grace, it took about two generations to get to see the fruits of Babooji's efforts. If the vision and courage of Babooji wasn't rock solid, it would have been impossible to even imagine an enviable future for a man who was then settled in a backward village of Badaun in UP. As a matter of fact, what Babooji could make happen is a daunting challenge for many of us settled in metropolitan cities! It is not an exaggeration to refer to the wise words "a coward is dead in life, a hero is alive in death" when I remember Babooji today. He breathed his last on 5 February 1996.

Babooji's fortitude and infinite patience to wait for that morning when his dreams will bear fruits, complemented by boundless support from his wife, Bhabbhi (she passed away on 21 December 2006); another relative whom we all respectfully refer to as 'Mausiji'; and the persistent perseverance of his children who were motivated enough to not only dare-to-dream but also to chase their dreams with dedication, diligence and seemingly infinite persistence, were indeed phenomenal in bringing in the desired change. Not only Babooji, Bhabbhi and Mausiji sacrificed their personal and material aspirations, but also the childhood and probably the youth of their children slipped away while they were toiling hard, as hard as possible, to breathe life into the dreams they had the courage to dream together in that small hamlet in Allahabad. Instilling human values and an overwhelming sense of responsibility in the defining years of his children was a foremost priority for Babooji.

My association with Babooji grew when Pooja and I got our cycle - and he cycled 5-7 kilometres to come to our place and take that cycle to his most-trusted cycle repair shop underneath the Nishatganj-IT college flyover regularly. After retiring from UNICEF, he volunteered to help strengthen healthcare services at his son's place - and it is impossible to imagine and put it in words how humbly, passionately and simply he could play his role. To reflect back 20 years later, I guess he had redefined his life, his role and his identity. His role was not of a boss, which he was with due respect and authority, but that of a mentor - to everyone - from the security guard to the head of the institution. He also subtly gave an unforgettable message not to cling in life, because when we cling, we suffer in pain. After retiring from UNICEF, he didn't cling rather found more relevant roles and responsibilities to take care of.

Babooji would be content to see how his children and grandchildren have taken the mantle forward in providing healthcare in top-notch institutions in India - from CSM Medical University (erstwhile King George's Medical College) and Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGIMS) to Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai and Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore. With a series of International and national awards and accolades in Babooji's family, the manner in which this ordinary man lived his life in an extraordinary way stands out more vividly.

This is certainly not an obituary, it can never be. Whenever we serve in the true spirit of Babooji, he comes to life again. It is our responsibility to keep the values he personified, alive, so do I believe.

- one of Babooji's grandchildren

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