While entire India is euphoric with IAF fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan’s valour, probably very few people outside the flying formation know that a large portion of his “bravery genes” came from his mother.
His mother, Dr. Shobha Varthaman, served humanity amidst cataclysmic violence, healed the wounded in some of the worst conflict zones around the world, including Liberia, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Laos.
While playing the pro-active role of giving the “fighting spirit” to her brave warrior son, Abhinandan, Dr. Shobha ensured that mothers survive post-delivery complications in the high-intensity conflict zones, gifted smiles to hundreds of children worldwide, and redefined the paragon of social service.
A graduate from Madras Medical College, and a post-graduate in Anaesthesiology from the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Dr. Shobha was a volunteer to serve gratis on the world stage as a member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), literally translated ‘Doctors Without Borders’.
MSF work exposed her to some of the most troubled places in recent times. Her baptism in conflict zones started with a mission inside a rebel country, in northern territory of Ivory Coast in 2005, where she recalls, only AK-47s and machetes ruled.
Her next mission the same year took her to Liberia. Elections were impending and a large number of healthcare personnel were stationed there in case of a conflict. The UN kept peace there after the civil war, but the situation remained very unstable.
Then, Dr. Shobha went to Port Harcourt in Nigeria in the southern belt where the marshes are, where they mine the petroleum and the conflicts were in plenty. Amidst perennial conflicts between the villages and the oil companies, oil thefts, intra and inter-tribal fights, she accomplished setting up of a theatre comprising an emergency section for casualties, a blood bank, and an intensive care.
During the Second Gulf War, in Sulemaniyah, Iraq, Dr. Shobha encountered life-threatening experience of a suicide-bomb blast. In Iran, she taught Pranayama to her patients for promoting healing, the uniqueness of which found a good following.
Her forays as an MSF Medical Director on the Iran-Iraq border also gave her an insight into the Persian civilisation and the Iranian attitude to life. She wonders how the Iranians who were at war with Iraq for 11 years, were willing to accept, that the common Iraqis were only suffering the consequences of a bad decision by a leader. She was also witness to raw courage of Iranian youths who lost their lives to Iraqi-laid landmines.
From the war-ravaged Gulf to Papua New Guinea in 2009, next, was a completely new milieu. As the Chief Medical Coordinator, three vastly different projects – surgical, sexual violence and an HIV project – had to be overseen by her. Women often got raped and did not get medical aid, suffering HIV infections or STD unnecessarily and projects to alleviate their sufferings was one of her onerous tasks.
The stay in Papua New Guinea gave her an opportunity to live in tribal areas where people still wore grass skirts, had feathers in their hats and carried a scabbard, chopping people without a second thought, for pigs, land and women.
Her next exploration mission was in Laos. She travelled about 1,800 kms in a four-wheel drive in the northern parts where there were no roads and discovered that despite World Bank and Asian Development Bank presence, many areas did not have access to healthcare.
But the biggest of them, amongst all her mercy missions, was in Haiti. When nearly 300,000 died and an equal number got injured in 2010 Haiti earthquake, Dr. Shobha was there offering healthcare services and hopes amidst rubbles and despair.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s mother also perfectly played the role of a wife. She once turned down an offer to train anaesthetists in Trinidad and Tobago with the UN because she felt her obligation as a wife of a senior IAF officer on a diplomatic mission in Paris was important.
(Group Captain Tarun Kumar Singha is a retired IAF fighter pilot from Assam).