Late Dr Vel Pillay: From Adversary to Friend

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee


The year was 1975, probably around July, and the venue was the doctor’s mess at Victoria Hospital. It was packed to capacity, with many doctors standing for lack of place to sit. They were attending a special meeting of the Government Medical and Dental Officers’ Association (GMDOA) – the only doctor’s Union that existed then – to discuss an issue that had arisen for the first time, namely the appointment by the Minister of Health Harold Walter of an adviser, in the person of Dr Vel Pillay.

I was a member of the Executive Committee of the GMDOA, and the general feeling in the profession was against this proposed move. It was not clear to the profession what the adviser’s mandate/terms and conditions were going to be, nor was the information forthcoming. The GMDOA had to convey the stand of the doctors to the ministry, and hence the special meeting.

No need to say that it was a very heated one, during which the idea of the adviser to the minister was debated, without mentioning Dr Pillay’s name which was already doing the rounds. Other than the issue of an adviser per se, what the GMDOA was uptight about was the complete opacity on the part of the ministry about the how and why of such a post, and its potential impact on the services.

It was a long meeting, and at one stage Dr Pillay stood up and said: ‘I am the culprit, and let me…’ My memory fades about the subsequent details, except that he made a spirited defence of the decision, and the meeting ended with a resolution to formally protest to the ministry since no headway had been made otherwise.

Her Majesty’s English

An appointment was therefore taken with the minister, who received us promptly and punctually one morning in his large office at Edith Cavell Street. Standing at the door, he greeted us in himself, shaking hands with each one member, and invited us to take a seat around the long table. Within a few minutes of the preliminaries, he got up and walked to a small table in one corner, and picked up a wad of papers which he started distributing to each member of the ExCo at the same as he started to talk.

In fact he wasn’t talking: he was haranguing us as if he were addressing a political meeting, in his known flamboyant style – but to his credit, in perfect Her Majesty’s English that was a delight to the ears, and the like of which has ceased being heard in this country long ago. He elaborated on his Constitutional prerogative to recruit advisers, and almost ordered us to look at the cyclostyled sheet he had given, which apparently contained an extract from the relevant section of the Constitution or whatever.

It was practically ten minutes when, huffing and puffing because of his corpulence, he suddenly sat down in his chair at the head of the table. Trying to catch his breath back, he leaned against the chair, still waving one of the sheets, and looked towards us with eyes that were practically fuming. At a pre-agreed signal from the president of the GMDOA, we all pushed the unread papers towards the centre of the table, and he addressed Harold Walter softly: ‘Thank you Mr Minister for receiving us, but we did not come here to hear about your powers under the Constitution. We came to declare industrial dispute, and here is the letter from our lawyer.’

As he pushed the letter towards the head of the table, we all got up and started walking out through the door in single file. Furious and taken completely unawares, poor Harold started to chase us, shouting, ‘but come back!’ and told the Chief Medical Officer Dr Wong, ‘Wong, call them back!’

I do not quite remember events after that, and I think that Dr Pillay was appointed adviser nevertheless. In January 1976 I left for my specialist studies in the UK, coming back in 1980. I did not meet him again until the 1990s, at a common friend’s place in Quatre Bornes a few times, usually over a meal. By then he was already scaling down on his practice as an eye surgeon, and by the by I learnt about what he had been doing since that turbulent meeting so many years before.

He had been Consultant at the Moka Eye Hospital, and it was under his watch that a new hospital was constructed on the site, and named Subramania Bharati Eye Hospital after the famous Indian freedom fighter. Finicky about quality of care and efficiency of service, amongst other things he pushed for clearing of the waiting list for surgery, gathering some pearls and criticisms on the way on the part of certain colleagues with whom he tried to share his way of doing things.

Distant politicians

In 1983 he left the service to have a go at politics as an MMM candidate, and again in 1987, but failed to get elected both times. This happened to a very dear friend of his too, a very successful general practitioner, who stood once only. The reason for their failure was given by the electorate: they preferred that their doctor remain as such to treat them rather than to become distant politicians. However, Dr Pillay went on to serve as Mayor of Vacoas-Phoenix for one term.

He was Director of the Mauritius Institute of Health at Pamplemousses for a couple of years, and was a member/chair of some Commissions of Enquiry/Investigation Committees. He was awarded a medal for services rendered in the field of medicine, and became involved in social activities relating to the Tamil community.

Winner of the English scholarship on the Classics side, he left in 1954 to study medicine in Belfast, something that was not unknown at that time: a number of laureates of Latin and Greek switching to medicine, and doing very well for that matter! He did a BA (English) concurrently with pursing his medical degree, and returned to Mauritius in 1962, joining the Civil Hospital as a Resident Medical Officer, where he worked until 1965 when, unhappy with the way the services were being run, he asked to go to Rodrigues, while another colleague resigned to go into general practice. He went to the UK after his tour in Rodrigues, to specialize in ophthalmology, returning in the early 1970s.

While he was at Civil Hospital in the pre-independence years, a disturbing incident took place once. One evening, a rowdy band of political hotheads came into the hospital premises and went up to the administration building which also then housed the rooms for doctors on duty. They were shouting, ‘Cotte sa banne malbar, banne doctere ki pe rode l’independence la!’ and were armed. Hearing this and seeing them coming, Dr Gajadharsing quickly ran into his room and closed the door. They started to run after Dr Bala Poulle. All of a sudden, Dr Vel Pillay sprang up from nowhere and pushed Dr Poulle into a room and bolted the door, thus saving themselves from the fury of those troublemakers.

From 2007 onwards I started to meet Dr Pillay more regularly at meetings of the Council of the University of Mauritius (UOM). Gradually friendship developed between us and Dr Pillay morphed into Vel for me. Given his seniority, and according to an Indian tradition of respect to elders, I had always addressed him as ‘ou’, if only because when I had first met him socially, it was at the common friend’s place who was also his age and whom I addressed similarly. As our friendship grew, a number of times he rebuked me and urged me to ‘tutoyer’ him. I could never bring myself to do that!

We found that we shared a commonality of views on a number of issues at Council level, where he was nominated on a few subcommittees as well, such as the Staff Committee. At one point, the Senate of UOM instructed the Council to consider the setting up of a full-fledged medical school, scaling up from the BSc Medical Science course that had been ongoing for several years. A Task Force was set up, chaired by Dr J Mohith, Director of the MIH, comprising the relevant stakeholders, and including Vel and myself. He was enamoured with the idea, and the final report bore his mark very strongly. It was duly submitted to the Council. Someday perhaps the story will be told of its fate. Had it been implemented, the landscape of medical education in Mauritius would have been altogether different today.

We were part too, of the initial ad-hoc committee convened by Vice-Chancellor Prof Konrad Morgan to brainstorm about the reform of the UOM, after he had completed an initial internal exercise. I was happy to learn that the Reform Plan, championed by Mr Dev Manraj after the unfortunate exit of Prof Konrad Morgan, has now been unanimously approved by Council. Vel would have been very happy to learn this, because his input in that Plan was substantial. Those who were present at meetings where the Plan was discussed would remember the vehemence with which he defended the concept and the nitty-gritty as well.

Newspaper devoted to the Tamil community

One thing leading to another, our friendship took a more social dimension, as a group of us, mostly senior citizens, started to meet at each other’s residence by rotation to spend some quality time and share views about different matters. The past (adviser!) was behind us, and we were indifferent to political leanings or affiliations. We did not always agree on everything – which was all the better, for we could then debate and learn mutually. But we respected each other’s views and knew that we shared a vision of things to come.

Around that time Vel launched his newspaper devoted to the Tamil community, not unsurprisingly given his Classics background and his vast experience and wide interests. We all took a subscription as an encouragement for his laudable effort, and he used to talk about some of the issues he ventilated in the paper.

Of one thing he was very clear in his mind: there was no such thing as a ‘Tamil religion’, and he felt that those of his Tamil compatriots who believed so were misguided. Yes, there is a Tamil culture to which he belonged and of which he was very proud, but he maintained that his religion was Hinduism and that he was a Hindu, a view that he expressed in his paper a number of times.

Other Tamils could be Christians or Muslims – the most famous among the latter being ex-President of India Dr Abdul Kalam – and this itself was proof that Tamil was not a religion. As a matter of fact, many the famous writers and philosophers of Hinduism have been from Tamil Nadu, such as late President-philosopher of India Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, TP Mahadevan, C Rajagopalachari and so on.

Besides, he had some very firm and principled views on the running and functioning of socio-cultural organisations, and about the mixing of politics and religion in those forums. His editorials reflected his stand on these and related issues. The least that can be said is that his articulations were grounded in his deeply-felt experiences and his knowledge about the realities of the country, and he was very sincere about his convictions which he wanted to share especially with the upcoming generations, whose welfare was a major concern of his throughout.

Vel had a fine sense of humour too, and I remember him narrating how, once when he was working in the Casualty Department in a hospital in London, someone called asking for information about a patient, saying he was officer so-and-so from Scotland Yard. Vel explained that he could not disclose confidential information to a third party on the phone, and would the officer come in person to the hospital, with proof of identity, if the matter was really so serious and important. But the officer insisted otherwise. Vel, exasperated, told him bluntly, ‘How do I know that you are not a madman? One fellow called before you did and claimed he was Jesus Christ!’ At which the ‘officer’ hung up.

It dawned upon me that his name was very apt to his character and principles: he was truly Vel – bright, with a sharp, quick mind that could discern truth from falsehood and that did not hesitate to speak out that truth bluntly. Few are the friends who would show such sincerity and steadfastness, and walk the talk seeing the road ahead as clearly. I am sure that the friends who requested and encouraged me to pay this tribute to him, after his demise two weeks ago just before his 81st birthday, would agree that his atman is on its way to moksha, and that he fully deserves that we chant in our hearts for him the Mahamrityunjaya (‘great death-conquering’) mantra:

Om tryambakam yajamahe

Sugandhim pushtivardhanam

Urvarukamiva bandhanaan

Mrityormuksiya mamritaata…

To his bereaved family go our heartfelt condolences.

* Published in print edition on 29 March 2013

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