Closed Doors, Open Windows: The Autobiography of Prof. P. N. Tandon
Correspondence Address: Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None DOI: 10.4103/0028-3886.266279
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
Author : Prakash N. Tandon
Editors : Deepak Gupta, Sunil Pandya
Publisher : Wolters Kluwer, Gurgaon, Haryana, India
Pages : 414
Year : 2019
Cost : Rs. 500
The traditional greeting of “Namaste,” when one greets one's friend or acquaintance with folded hands pointing upward, a bowed head, and a smile on the face, and the same gesture being reciprocated by the person being greeted … what do these gestures symbolize? These gestures humbly acknowledge the divinity within oneself, as also accepting the divinity within the other person; and, more importantly, both the “greeter” and the “greeted” acknowledging that their divinity represents only a tiny part of the omnipresent “Whole” that both need to pay obeisance to. Professor Prakash Narain Tandon's life will continue to inspire all educationists of the world, and neuroscientists in particular, for generations to come. His multifaceted personality and outstanding achievements cannot ever be emulated. However, Professors Sunil Pandya and Deepak Gupta have done a yeoman service by helping him in the systematic documentation of his life from childhood until the present age of 91 years, which will help the readers understand the events that shaped his life, guided him, ignited his thoughts, and have propelled him to be the beacon of guiding light for all neuroscientists of India. Indeed, neurosciences in India would not have been the same without him. Throughout the book, one is struck by this underlying theme, that of his having a firm belief in the divinity within himself while acknowledging the same among all those persons, without any exception, who have undertaken life's journey along with him.
The title of the book, “Closed doors, open windows,” itself carries a message, the adherence to which has enabled him to achieve so many distinctive goals. Whenever one partakes any work of sufficient import that is capable of influencing several lives, the paradigm change that this action brings about closes several doors and presents several obstacles in the path. However, it also opens several windows within the minds of the influenced individuals, allowing fresh air (thoughts) to come in and completely transform their perception as well as the working environment. As the poet E. E. Cummings has beautifully portrayed in the song:
Spring Is Like A Perhaps Hand
Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and
changing everything carefully
spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
and fro moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and
without breaking anything
In his own life, he stated that often when the doors to further avenues seem to close, windows of opportunities would open up, propelling him further to unimaginable heights. The several examples of denied opportunities earlier on in his career, which always retrospectively seemed to be a blessing in disguise, not only point toward his positive frame of mind but also an indomitable spirit that helped him conquer emotional deprivation, severe illness, and professional disappointments. This conjures images of poise and candor … and of mental strength and leadership qualities. Another striking feature of his life was his single-minded focus to pursue an academic and research career and not accept a higher administrative post like that of the Director of an institute, an offer that came his way several times during his professional career.
In the introductory chapter, “The making of closed doors open windows,” Prof. Sunil Pandya succinctly states that this book relates to the trials and tribulations in the life of a pioneering neurosurgeon whose “unconventional and single-minded pursuit” led to the establishment of three centers of excellence in the country, the Department of Neurosurgery, King George Medical University, the Department of Neurosurgery and the Neurosciences Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar. He also headed the main scientific organizations of the country giving an impetus to the advancement of basic sciences within the country. Prof. Pandya also states that when he was being initially persuaded to write his autobiography, Prof. Tandon, in all his humility, stated,”There is nothing special about my work or myself ….” With a lot of persuasions extending over several years, when he did start to write this book, “he took to heart, Edward Gibbon's advice: 'Truth, naked, unblushing truth, the first virtue of all serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative'.” The result is a virtual masterpiece of narration, full of inspiration and guidance on how to bring to fruition the saying by Deepak Chopra, “When you want something hard enough and work selflessly towards it, universe conspires to gift it over to you.” Indeed, Gandhiji's famous words, “My life is my message,” would also be aptly suited for defining Prof. Tandon's life and achievements.
One of the most poignant and memorable features of the book is the dedication of the book to Prof. Tandon's wife, Mrs. Leela Tandon. This marks, in no small measure, the immense contribution made by her in all the amazing work that he has done. She has provided the buttress and stability on which the edifice of his lifetime work stands today. She sacrificed her outstanding medical career (being the first Master of Surgery (MS) postgraduate in Obstetrics and Gynaecology from the state of Uttar Pradesh and the Rockefeller Foundation Fellow to Chicago Lying-In Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA) and supported his intellectual pursuits. For intellectuals like Prof. Tandon, whose sense of purpose has been wrapped up in their professional identity, this emotional and social support reflects a providential design that allows them to concentrate on their professional careers and writing assignments, unhindered by any potential distractions and Prof. Tandon has been immensely perceptive in acknowledging the great role played by his “better half” in shaping his illustrious career. He writes, “She is by nature a very shy individual, almost self-effacing. With due respect to her feelings, it would be a great lacuna in my biography if I failed to record the very special role she played in providing ungrudging support throughout my struggles to achieve my cherished goals.”
The book has been divided into 19 chapters and 10 annexures. The first three chapters are related to reminiscences of his family, the move to Delhi to be with his maternal grandparents and then the shift back to his parents' home in Allahabad. As one goes through the events in Prof. Tandon's life, three seminal features emerge that had a great role to play later on during his professional years. One is wonder-struck by how erudite the family was, and how much emphasis was placed on academics during his formative years. The second feature relates to his family being a large one, often being a joint family wherever he stayed, and with extremely close ties. Prof. Tandon writes, referring to his family, “… as a result of our upbringing, we still retain very strong family ties, enjoy the closeness of the family and depend heavily on each other to share our joys and moments of trials.” This constant sharing of resources, the give-and-take spirit, and the cooperation within the family inculcated in him a team spirit and an ability to get along with his peers that held him in good stead while undertaking projects of immense magnitude that involved interacting with multitudes of colleagues of different strata. One of his important professional relationships that have grown into a deep friendship and has withstood the test of time and change is that with Prof. A.K. Banerji. Their warm and symbiotic relationship has been already etched in the Neurosurgical folklore of India and has been largely instrumental in the Department of Neurosurgery, AIIMS, New Delhi, attaining its present position of eminence. The third feature was his being first separated from his parents to pursue his studies with his grandparents in Delhi, and then coming back to Allahabad after the high school board examination to be with his parents. He states, “I was a bit of an outsider as far as my family at Allahabad was concerned having spent most of my conscious years till then at Delhi with the extended family of my maternal grandparents.” This constant change of his place of stay and of emotional bonds perhaps also helped him develop an innate ability to adjust to different circumstances and groups of people. This, later on, helped him be an integral part of a diverse set of national science committees often with unrelated agendas. This also helped him find his bearings and comfort level as well as excel even in areas where he had no common background.
Three chapters relate to his medical education and attaining of his Master of Surgery at King George Medical College Lucknow, his initial appointments at Irwin Hospital and at Silver Jubilee Hospital, New Delhi. Despite the trying time that he underwent (his developing meningitis and his mother's illness), he emerged with flying colors. The quotation at the start of the chapter by A.H. Glasow, “Success isn't a result of spontaneous combustion, you must set yourself on fire,” seems to be a very appropriate one for him at this point. His amusing descriptions of his travails and tribulations during the MBBS examination, and, his being supervised while his hands were shaking, in his first independent surgical case, by his strict and meticulous surgical chief will resonate with the readers who remember their medical training.
Five chapters relate to his undergoing training in prestigious hospitals abroad. Louis Pasteur once said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” In his mind was the intense desire to go abroad for further training. Along the way, he serendipitously encountered several mentors who guided him to his destiny. The first of them was Dr. Leon Volodarsky, a kind man, who had worked in several countries and had faced numerous tragedies including being consigned to a refugee status after having been rejected from his own country and having his adopted daughter being taken away from him. He was a part of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Team to Delhi when Prof. Tandon met him. He became a father figure to Prof. Tandon and not only facilitated Prof. Tandon's trip to England to pursue his FRCS degree but also transferred 1000 dollars from his personal account to support Prof. Tandon's expenses in the United Kingdom. After the fascinating account of Prof. Tandon obtaining his FRCS in England is the description of the amazing invitation from Dr. Leon Volodarsky for him to come to Oslo for neurosurgical training. The reasons given are intriguing, “Neurosurgery is very challenging …. There are only three neurosurgeons known to be working in India …. The neurosurgeon here (in Oslo) is not only competent but also the most outstanding human being I have known. Along with his charming wife, they make the most remarkable couple. Even if you decide not to pursue Neurosurgery, I would like you to meet them-come to know them – because you are the only other person I am equally fond of.” Thus, Dr. Volodarsky introduced him to his second mentor, the eminent neurosurgeon, Dr. Kristiansen. It was in Oslo where he developed a life-long passion not only for neurosurgery but also for scientific writing, being exposed to the few neurosurgical journals published at that time. It was Dr. Volodarsky and Dr. Kristiansen who arranged from him to go to the 'Mecca of Neuroscience' of that era, the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada under Dr. Wilder Penfield. The accounts of neurosurgical training both at Oslo and Montreal are fascinating to read. What is also appealing is the close interaction he had in Montreal with the other legends of neurosurgery of India like Prof. V.S. Dave, who went on to establish neurosciences in Uttar Pradesh. Dr. Sandeepan Mukul, a plastic surgeon from Jaipur, had once aptly written, “Our chequered lines of fate, converging and diverging, looking for a point of intersection ….”This pathbreaking international exposure, and this close personal interaction with so many great men of neuroscience, so earlier on during his formative years in neurosurgery, stood Prof. Tandon in good stead while establishing various institutions of eminence, where he was able to initiate not only clinical work but also academic writing, realizing fully well that administrative decisions become nebulous over time, becoming blurred by related and overlapping changes brought about by a large group of people; record keeping and scientific writing, however, stay for eternity, always available for ready reference by the future generations.
His next stint as Pool Officer at his alma mater, King George Medical College, Lucknow, provided him “… with enough evidence for some valuable facts. It unequivocally established that there was a crying need for establishing Neurosurgical services in the country. It was also evident that worthwhile services could be provided even without having state-of-art facilities.” Valuable insights for the present generations also!
There have been several threshold moments in Prof. Tandon's life, when a lesser person would have rested on his academic laurels and been none the worse for it. The first instance was when he was directly appointed as the Professor of Neurosurgery at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, from being Pool Officer of General Surgery at King George Medical College, Lucknow. Rather than sitting back and enjoying the fruits of his good luck, his stint was a baptism by fire. He strived hard to set up one of the largest departments in the country that even today serves as a model for all other departments of the country to emulate. Two of his most amazing qualities that stand out were his astute selection of the right kind of faculty members and then providing them with complete independence to carry out their work. The “ first among equals” who were fortunate to be chosen by him, have through the generations, further enhanced the reputation of the department. The spread of the “circle of service” across the country, as students trained by this illustrious department disseminated his teachings far and wide, helped in establishing further departments based on similar lines. The description of the developing department highlights the humility and cooperation that existed between the members of various fledging subspecialty departments that helped in providing comprehensive neuroscience facilities to the patients. The second instance when he could have taken it easy was when he was a well-established Head of the Department of Neurosurgery. However, he left the day-to-day functioning of the department to Prof. A.K. Banerji and went on to establish the Neuroscience Centre at AIIMS. He also recognized the growing need for indigenous basic research in neuroscience in the country and established the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana. The description of the establishment of both these institutions is a lesson in vision, ingenuity, resilience, and persistence. The success of the two ventures also lies in the early recognition by Prof. Tandon that health and financial administrators have as much role to play in building efficient healthcare systems for the people as doctors do, and one must also reach out to them with a specific plan in place. An effective cooperation between the end-care users of facilities, that is, doctors, and the management experts, that is, officers in the higher echelons of governance, can work miracles, as was achieved in these two instances. Finally, at superannuation, he could have slowed down and looked back on an extremely illustrious and satisfying career. Instead, his post-retirement phases revealed in the sections on “Second career: Life after superannuation” are fascinating to read. It is virtually impossible to keep pace with his post-retirement scientific activities. More than just an interesting reading, it provides an insider's view of the functioning of all major science organizations promoting research in the country. A detailed perusal of the proceedings of the meetings and interactions goes a long way in demystifying the functioning of these organizations.
Akin to Prof. Tandon's own post-retirement career, the last part of the book focuses on diverse areas and gets even more absorbing. When one reads between the lines in the chapter on “A neurosurgeon under neurosurgeon's knife,” the pride of Prof. Tandon having been successfully operated for a pituitary adenoma by “students of his students,” in the department that he started, is palpable. The annexures also make interesting reading. The lectures and writings, his numerous awards, memberships of Indian scientific committees, comments from peers, his work as the National Research Professor, and his biography and publications are meticulously recorded and serve as benchmarks for the subsequent generations to achieve. Of particular interest to the general readers are the annexures relating to his personal diary records and his firm dealings with the numerous very important persons that he encountered. I would like to present two of the quotations that have served as the guiding beacon of his life. One quote is by Subhash Chandra Bose who said, “In the world, everything perishes except ideas and ideals.” The second quote is by Theodore Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have and where you are.” The final section on “My journey through the lens” takes us on an intensely personal expedition where, through photographs, we meet his family and several luminaries who were living legends during their time.
Finally, this book has served an important role. A biography, “the history of life of a person in focus,” is a subjective interpretation of the changes taking place in a particular place in the life of the individual and is entirely influenced by the eyes of the beholder. Therefore, by its very nature, it can never be “perfect” and “absolutely accurate,” no matter how much time and energy any author devotes to it. This is because the biographer is not privy to every thought and moment of the person whose biography is being penned down. Thus, the biographer has his or her interpretation of the events that unfolded, which is colored by one's own perception. This can never be the same for two different individuals and can never match up to the expectations of the individual whose life events are the subjects of focus in the biography being written.
Considering Prof. Tandon's immense contribution to the field of “sciences in India,” his biography would inevitably have been written at some point in time. Since the current book is an autobiography, documented over a lifetime and edited in its entirety by the great man himself (along with his two close associates), it has become the focal point and the foundation on which others later will base their work. If someone else had written it, then that version would not have been in consonance with Prof. Tandon's own interpretation of events and salient features on which he would have been desirous to place emphasis.
Even the words that we are speaking now
Has stolen away,
and nothing can return
Once this book has been published, it has become a sacrosanct testimonial of the events that unfolded in his life and in that era. Its reading provides mind with concrete images to absorb and be inspired with. The subsequent versions of documentations of his life can improve upon it and provide more details and interpretations. That he was able to remember all the important events and document them at the ripe age of 91 years is simply remarkable and adds one more feather to his cap.
A riveting account of a person who dared to dream big, had the courage to pursue his dreams with steadfast determination and concentration … and succeeded!
“Take him for all in all, [we] shall not look upon his like again.”