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Farewell Friend, Physician, Guide

March 19, 2021 17:07 IST
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'Sasi Annan did far more right than wrong in his life.'
'I, and a great many others who appreciated his kindness and thoughtfulness, mourn for him and wish him godspeed and sadgati'.'
Rajeev Srinivasan pays homage to a noble soul.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

My cousin passed away suddenly. It was completely unexpected, as he was healthy, and it was a shock as he had been a large and benign presence in my life.

I called him Sasi Annan, or elder brother, as he was more than a decade older.

I got to know him as a child when he joined the medical college, and my father was his local guardian. His father and my father were first cousins, and close to each other.

Over the years, that family bond never wavered. I leaned on him for advice, and he looked after all of us when we had medical issues.

Sasi Annan was there when my father had a fall in his old age and broke his hip; he assured me that he'd do what was necessary because I was away in Chennai at the time. But before I could get back home, he deteriorated and passed away.

Sasi Annan was there when my mother was anxious about minor surgery, and he and his friend, the general surgeon, made her feel better.

I remember him best as a physician; I am surprised that three of the people in my extended family whom I wrote memoirs about were doctors -- my great-uncle Sankar, the dentist, who pulled teeth until a week before he died at 95; my uncle Jay, the gerontologist in Britain, who had been my father's friend and became mine as well; and Sasi Annan, the cardio-thoracic surgeon, who always called me whenever he saw an article of mine in the paper.

There's something about physicians that is immensely valuable: their ability to soothe you and put you at ease.

This was Sasi Annan's forte. Every time you spoke to him, you felt better about your problems.

The last time I consulted him, about a year ago, I complained that I was finding it increasingly difficult to climb a steep hill on my daily walk, and asked if I should get some new medication.

His reaction, with a smile: "How old are you? Oh, that old? Ok, then this is normal, just a part of the ageing process."

That candour was helpful, for it discouraged hypochondria. It was also typical of him, maybe a professional stance he took to convince people that their problem was manageable.

I don't know if it was 'tough love', but it was refreshing: He wasn't minimising or dismissing your concern, but giving you confidence that you could deal with it.

I remember when I had minor elective surgery, and Sasi Annan assured me that the pain would go away after two weeks. But it didn't, and I complained to him. And his response was, "Give it another two weeks." And it did go away in another week or so.

But I imagine that if he had told me to begin with, "You're going to be in excruciating pain for a whole month," I would probably have avoided going under the knife in the first place!

This is what a physician needs to do, more than prescribing some pills, more than anything else: Giving people the confidence that they can deal with, even overcome, the disease.

As in the placebo effect, much illness is psycho-somatic; in many cases, the body can indeed heal itself, provided that the mind believes it can.

That's partly why there's this elaborate 'theater' and 'mystique' about healing: the ritual is part of the show.

Sasi Annan was the consummate physician, and his general demeanour, calm and quiet, always observing, was one of his strengths.

He acquired a lot of insights through keenly observing the body language of his patients.

Over the years, he guided me through my own asthma problems, smiling and never getting irritated when I regaled him with the information I picked up on the Internet: That which annoys doctors the most, Dr Google.

But beneath that composed exterior, Sasi Annan carried with him the pain of personal tragedy.

His younger son, a medical student, died in a car crash. That changed Sasi Annan; and especially his wife, Vatsa Akka.

She gave up her engineering career and has never recovered from the trauma, even after twenty-odd years.

They stopped going to any celebrations or social events. They mourned their absent son every day of their lives.

That personal loss marked Sasi Annan deeply. Tragically, it was like my great-uncle Sankar, whose eldest son, following in his footsteps as a dentist, had also died young.

Both of them, I think, dedicated their practices to doing what their sons would have done had they lived.

After retiring as chief of a government hospital, Sasi Annan took up two demanding consultancies; with his reassuring bedside manner, he was a popular doctor, managing not only lung issues but also a sleep clinic.

Years of Lightning, Day of Drums

On the day of Sasi Annan's funeral, under pandemic restrictions, there were fifty mourners at his home.

I couldn't help thinking of the hundreds or maybe thousands he had operated on for free, including impoverished fishermen and farm labourers whose lungs were wrecked with blows to the chest or through smoking.

Every day he prayed at the nearby Ganesha temple because he wanted divine blessings when he made his careful surgeon's incisions.

Watching Sasi Annan's elder son Pradeep perform the rituals of cremation and sanchayanam, I was reminded of doing the same for my father, although I remember almost nothing: It was a blur; I mechanically did whatever they told me to do. Long ago, as a 6 year old, I had performed the last rites for my grandfather as well.

I note that Pradeep, a chip engineer, is planning to return from Silicon Valley and Bangalore to his childhood home, just as I did.

I remember from the Kaushitaki Upanishad what the funeral rituals mean: A dying man bequeaths his life to his son.

The son accepts each of his gifts. And from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 'Whatever wrong has been done by him, his son frees him from it all... By his son, a father stands firm in this world.'

Pradeep is blessed: Sasi Annan did far more right than wrong in his life. I, and a great many others who appreciated his kindness and thoughtfulness, mourn for him and wish him godspeed and sadgati.

Rajeev Srinivasan is one of's earliest columnists.
You can read Rajeev's columns here

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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