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April 4, 2000

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'This is no service. It's what I do best'

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He is an amazing man. Paralysed and barely able to walk or talk, ravaged by cancer and two severe heart attacks that have left him seriously disabled, Sharadkumar Dicksheet of Brooklyn, New York, refuses to give up. He comes to India every year for six months to do corrective surgery on those who cannot afford it. Free. Excerpts from an interview with Pritish Nandy.

When did you decide to do this kind of social project in India? What inspired you?

This is not a social project. This is not social service in that sense. I am a surgeon. This is what I do best, Mr Nandy. Since I am treated as entirely disabled in the United States, this is my way of coming back to my country and contributing to life around me. I do cosmetic surgery, plastic surgery, correctional surgery that helps the poor, who would not be able to otherwise afford it. I see this as my job. That is all.

When did you first begin this effort?

In 1968. In Bombay. That is when I saw all the deformities around me and it pained me very deeply. I realised that these people had no recourse to medical science. Nor could they afford it. So I decided to come every year and spend six months here if possible. That is how things got started. It is 30 years since then and I have only scratched the surface of the problem. Today itself I have done five surgeries and tonight I am on my way back to New York.

Do you practise in New York?

I cannot. I am technically disabled. Less than 2 per cent people survive a second heart attack and I did not just have a second heart attack -- I had a very severe second heart attack which left me almost dead.

No one can predict when my heart will stop beating but, technically speaking, it can stop at any time. I am on my last legs, you could say. But that does not stop me. I see this as my most important work.

Your calling?

Yes, my calling. But not perhaps in the sense you or the media see it. I see it as just another job that I have to do before I finish. In the beginning I used to come to Bombay and Pune. Later came Gujarat.

Why Gujarat? Were you born there?

No. Just that someone sponsored it. An industrial house. One Mr Bhagwati. That is exactly how this whole thing has grown. Through sponsorships. In Gujarat I saw many other kinds of deformities. Different from what I had seen in Bombay and Pune. So I started going there regularly. Slowly, people started inviting me to more and more places. We do all this far away from the limelight. What I simply want to do is help poor people to regain their sense of self-confidence and redesign their lives after the surgery is over. Ahmedabad, Nanded, Aurangabad. The message is spreading. This year there were about 30 centres where I attended to treat many more people than I have ever done. Next year, the numbers will be even more. The centres will be more.

Since you do not practise any more in the US, why do you go back and spend six months there every year?

I catch up on my correspondence, my writing, my mail, my telephone calls. People have to be replied to. There are also so many personal things that need attending.

I have to get sponsors and raise funding for my camps. I have to co-ordinate dates and all that stuff. I have been here from last October onwards. I have to now return to my family and then I will come back again. You see, I retired in 1994 after my second heart attack, and cannot work there.

How did you get paralysed? Was it the heart attack that left you immobilised?

No. It was a car accident in 1978. My entire right side was paralysed. Even though I recovered from it, the accident left me very seriously handicapped.

So you do not do much surgery in the US as a consequence of that?

Wrong. I do not do any surgery in the US any more. I am considered totally disabled there. Totally unfit for work.

In the US?

Not just in the US. Anywhere. Anyone whose heart works barely 18 per cent is considered disabled in any part of the world. I cannot last another attack. And, frankly, after my last attack, the fact that I am alive is a miracle. Despite surgery, my heart is not really functioning. If I manage to walk a few steps, I am completely washed up. There is no capacity to compensate. When you are functioning on such a narrow margin, you stop worrying about it. You know that you can quit any time.

Do you feel that life has rewarded you enough for the kind of work you have been doing?

I do not work for rewards. I work because I consider work as worship of God. So I do not expect any returns.

When did you first go abroad?

In 1958. I graduated in 1956 and very shortly thereafter left.

What do you hope to leave behind as your legacy?

I have formed so many trusts. They will continue the work I am doing and hopefully grow it.

Does your family live in the US with you?

Yes, I have two daughters and one son. My son is married and he is a musician. He plays the cello and the Spanish guitar. My daughter is also married. She is an MBA. The younger daughter is in college.

Do you run a trust here as well? Something that will institutionalise and continue the work you are doing? Or do you just come here and go wherever your work and your sponsors take you?

I am not here to educate anyone. I am not here to teach others to do what I do. I see this as an entirely personal mission and I try to do as much as I can. I am, you could say, pushing my luck. But that is exactly why I am here. To push my luck and the frontiers of endurance and do what I see as my duty, my job. I do it exactly in that spirit.

Do you think all this has changed the quality of your life?

No, and I do not think that was ever the intention. I do not want to change the quality of my life. I am quite happy with it as it is. This is just a job that I do because this is the only job I know and can do. Nothing more, nothing less. I am happy with it and will continue doing it for as long as I live.

Next: Programs in his belfry

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