Of Footprints, Imprints and Scars…

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

As I was preparing to leave my post as Director General Health Services after six years plus of occupying the position, I came across a saying which was a very apt reminder of the situation I was in:

However deep your footprints, the next tide leaves no trace. There is a time to move on.
– Anon

This convergence between my decision to let go and the quote ‘swimming into my ken’ as it were, reinforced my conviction of the validity of karmic links in our lives, something that I will now have more time to explore and also share with the many whom I know are increasingly interested in these fundamental aspects of one’s life.

Practically around the same time I recalled another better known and more oft-quoted part of a poem by the noted American writer Harry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Lives of great men remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time…

More karmic invocation… in fact it was the last line starting with ‘footprints’ that came more clearly to my mind, and I looked up on the internet to read the whole stanza. This set me thinking. It became clear to me that in every age, and continually, there were people who pondered about human existence, or existence tout court, and gave us the benefit of their experience which was captured in their articulations of it in manifold ways. Pithy quotations and poetry are particularly elegant forms of presenting such distillations, and it goes without saying that as each era or context gives rise to unique experiences, these outpourings get added to and enriched as we go along.

Thus it came to be that, on surveying the current scene around, both locally and elsewhere in the world, I found that there are hardly any great men that I could identify on our national scene. Some of the presumed great in several countries in different continents including our own space were busy ordering massacres of either their own or others in distant lands, or cavorting with nymphets whom they ought to be treating as their children, for example Berlusconi and the young Moroccan belly-dancer whom he enticed. Which reminded me of the advice that the officiating priest gave to a couple during their wedding ceremony at which I was present a few years ago: ‘Those who are of similar age to you, you will consider as your brother/sister; those older to you as your mother/father; and those younger to you as your daughter/son.’

It is only too obvious from the exploding events being witnessed that we have fallen vertiginously from grace, and have perhaps reached a point of no return. Those who are fond of quoting the Ramayana at every drop of a pin ought to go and sit at the feet of gurus who, frankly, should treat them with a whip if not a few kicks for a start, before expatiating to them on the Sunderkanda section of that epic, which would be the equivalent of holding up the mirror to them. However, and sadly, probably the egos have already gone beyond reprieve, and the only place to consign such megalomaniacs is Dante’s inferno.

Pursuing my reflections, therefore, led me to the conclusion that there are those who leave heavy-booted footprints, others who leave painful deep scars, and yet others who leave soft imprints in the hearts of those whom they considered to have been privileged to be associated with.

That last scenario has luckily been mine wherever I have happened to pass, and the confines of the 5th floor at the Emmanuel Anquetil building, which houses most of the offices of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life, were no exception to that trend in my career. As I told my well-wishers, being a surgeon I am happiest when I am holding a knife in my hands and have a patient on the operating table – and thus, having spent an inordinately long time in officialdom, I would now be returning to what was my real office: the operating theatre.

It’s not that I have wasted my time, far from it. I always like to say with Edith Piaf, a favourite from my teenage years, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien.’

Indeed, what with the unflinching support that all my collaborators belonging to the administrative and technical cadres gave me throughout these years, I carry with me very fond memories of the excellent working relationships that I have enjoyed with everyone in all the grades of staff. From the word go I had what I called an ‘open door’ policy, because I felt claustrophobic with the doors closed. Anybody was welcome to walk in if I was not busy receiving some other person/officer or holding a meeting.

I am used to multi-tasking, and I can switch from anything I am doing to tackle another issue and as promptly get back to what was at hand previously. And in line with the way I dealt with patients — for example, I am not handling a back problem in a patient, but have in front of me a person with a back problem – I adopted the same approach with those who came to me: they were not merely officers in such and such a grade, they were human beings whom I related to. ‘Processing the file’ was not the only thing that mattered. Bureaucracy may be a machine, but the human beings working in it do not have to be mechanical.

And therefore I must thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for the reciprocation. I express my gratitude for their help and guidance in leading me through, on numerous occasions, the intricacies of administrative and managerial decision-making directed at serving the interests of patients and the people at large, as well as boosting the image of the country by rigorous emphasis on international best practices. Guided by the rule of law, grounded in sound professional principles, and strictly compliant with medical ethics, we adapted them to our local context.

Together we faced the many challenges and the frequent pressures, overt and covert, that bore down on us. Like the proverbial willow, we learnt to bend but not break. I have in my repertory a precious astuce that a higher cadre labelled ‘badinage Merven’ in one issue where we were being particularly harassed. I can say unreservedly that the much vilified Civil Service has within its ranks – certainly at the Ministry of Health – a reservoir of such competence, expertise and commitment that Mauritius ought to be proud of many of its Civil Servants. It is not so much the Civil Service that needs reform as some rotting fish-heads that require to be chopped off and replaced by more clear-headed thinkers. But this is another story, and I will have occasion to come back to that theme someday.

I was happy to have colleagues from the regions stop by to say good-bye, and to share farewell meals in excellent company. The kind words still resonate in me; the gifts I have received and the accompanying cards carry with them feelings and thoughts that will remind me for very long of the mutual affection, esteem and respect which we have shared. If I may be allowed to say so, we have been blessed with soft imprints in our hearts. And, as many of you said, ce n’est qu’un Au Revoir.

God Bless you all, my dear friends… Our journey continues.

* Published in print edition on 18 January 2013

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