Dr. K. B. KALPANA RAO (1970 batch) – A FEW PERSONAL MEMORIES IN TRIBUTE
Dr. K. B. Kalpana Rao (née Acharya) of the 1970 batch of St. Johns passed away on 21 January 2007. She was only 56. The first I heard of the news was from a short announcement by Rajiv Joseph in the St. John’s Alumni news bulletin on 31 January 2007. A full obituary in the online edition of Dallas Morning News of 30th January 2007 confirmed to my sorrow that the news was true.
As a classmate of hers and close friend, I decided I wanted to write this tribute to her, not as another formal obituary, but to share with other Johnites my personal memories of this wonderful colleague and friend.
It is true that Kalpana touched my life only very briefly in the reality of human existence - we met in 1970 and had parted ways by 1978 – she to the USA and I to the UK. but despite all these years of separation, the news of her passing misted my eyes. Undoubtedly, a part of my grief was a very personal frustration at my own failure to stay in touch for many years before the unforgiving hand of time made it impossible for ever. The event sharply brought home to me the importance of keeping old friendships alive, while we still can, for they carry on our behalf a precious and unique part of our own past.
When I think of Kalpana, the image that always appears in my mind’s eye is of her cheeky grin, either at something amusing that she had spotted or in reply to some banter. She had a way of tossing back her unbelievably long plait of lustrous black hair and conveying a sense of natural exuberance that made her very popular. In fact she was one of a few who made lots of friendships during our college years, not only within our class but across the batches on both sides. And whenever she was in a group, you could be sure that peals of laughter were not far away. But for all that apparent extraversion, she was also a very private person and there were only a few of us who felt the privilege of knowing the real Kalpana.
Kalpana - or “KB” as I called her - and I had two things in common from the outset - we were in the same class group (“D”) and we lived not far from each other. This meant that we did a lot of classwork together and we went home together, which cemented our friendship. She was also an easygoing and fun person to be with, which was fortunate, because I was a rather shy and reserved boy, who felt able to feel comfortable in her company. After all, she already had a BSc in Chemistry and seemed awesomely wise to me.
I remember well and with great fondness those days from the early 1970s, when after the day’s work had been done, we set off home together, draping our great white lab-coats across our forearms imperiously, in the manner of the status symbol of the time and trudging wearily along the long walk to the Spring Factory bus stop to begin our two-leg bus journey to Jayanagar. But I don’t remember it as drudgery. St. John's was a beautiful low rise campus with plenty of open space and Sarjapur road was a quiet country lane through which a vehicle might pass once every ten minutes or so. Although the afternoon sun was hot, the breezes often tempered it and I vividly recall how blue the expansive skies were. Perhaps it was just the intoxication of youth. But Kalpana’s constant stream of giggly conversation also kept the mood light. Now when I picture the scene in my mind’s eye, I seem to hear myself humming the dulcet notes of “Jeene ka din, mar jaane ka mausam (Kishore-Lata, Gomti ke kinare, 1972), possibly one of many I might have hummed on those long walks, being an ardent Kishore fan.
Idyllic though it might have been, we pragmatically kept an eye out for the opportunity of a lift to ease the weariness. And there were two that could be relied upon, the legendary Dr. Mehta in his tiny clattery Morris-8 and the Dr. Thomases, John and Manorama, in their grand Studebaker saloon. These kind souls always stopped for us and dropped us at the Wilson Gardens bus stop, saving us the first leg of our journey, so all we had to do was to catch a bus for the second.
Now, the good doctors left the premises at around the same time as we did and it did not take our mischievous brains long to work out that if we timed our exit right, we could consistently save the walking. It was of course not seemly to thrust ourselves upon them as they emerged from the department. But if we “accidentally” caught our benefactors at the college gates, there would be no impropriety, would there?. We got this down to a fine art. Whilst still in the classroom, Kalpana the mastermind kept an eye on the movements of the Thomases and upon her cue, we sped downstairs, emerging as if strolling casually along the front drive and when the lift was offered, accepted it with expressions of surprised delight!
A second subterfuge was needed at the Wilson Gardens bus stop, where the drivers of the crowded buses to Jayanagar would often speed past without stopping. It was Kalpana’s idea that she should stand by herself about twenty yards further and wave the bus down. The sight of a lone and helpless pretty girl clutching a lab-coat patently too big for her was often too much for the chivalrous drivers, who screeched the bus to an unconventional halt. Whereupon, I emerged shamelessly from behind a tree and we both scampered aboard exchanging smug grins!
But it was not always thus. There were as many days that we got neither lift nor bus and had to walk all the three kilometres. But these were beautiful days too, as we talked and argued of more serious things, about life, about hopes for our futures and about solving the problems of the world. These animated discussions along the rather rustic route through Siddapura that formed the last leg of our journey, round the southern perimeter of Lal Bagh, set against the glorious backdrop of the low evening sun remain forever etched in my memory.
Kalpana, ever cheerful, seldom worried about everyday things, but she did worry about her family. While she greatly looked forward to getting married some day, she worried about the cost it imposed on her mother and the unspoken fear that good matches might come with unaffordable demands. One particular day, in a fit of despair, she asked me, “Vijay, do you think I will ever get a good husband?” Perhaps I did not have her maturity then to be seriously troubled by such matters, I merely laughed and hoping to offer comfort in her own upbeat style, said to her, “KB, you are as beautiful as Sharmila, everyone knows that (one of Kalpana’s nicknames in the class was Sharmila, owing to a more than passing resemblance to actress Sharmila Tagore) and I bet you, you will get your Pataudi one day!” Childish words perhaps, but today, those words seem prophetic – she happily not only got her Pataudi in the form of her husband Ramji, but he has graced her side to the end.
The years simply flew by and soon we were doctors – all too soon, perhaps, because those carefree days were over and the dynamic, exciting but unforgiving world awaited us outside. I remember being huddled in a cluster, making the decision to apply to the AIIMS Delhi and the great joy mingled with pride to find that only three of us – Patrick Kamath, Kalpana and I – had been selected by this most prestigious of centres. I remember the train journey to Delhi in the newly launched bi-weekly Kerala-Karnataka Express with its shiny green and yellow livery smelling of fresh paint and being entertained by the antics of a little sardar boy who kept falling off his upper bunk all night into Kalpana’s lower one, much to her annoyance and our rude merriment.
If we had any hopes that having each other around might dispel homesickness, this evaporated quickly. Life at the AIIMS was exacting, demanding and too endlessly busy to have time to be homesick and we met rarely, invariably en passant, either running bleary-eyed to a case conference or off to grab a mouthful before the next operation. In the end, while her capricornian diligence stood her in good stead to propel her on to pursue neurology with single-mindedness, my whimsy took me elsewhere and we parted ways. In later years, apart from a brief, unexpected encounter in Bangalore, when I met Ramji for the first and only time, our paths did not cross again. although I believe there were occasions when we passed within a few days of each other visiting St. John’s during family vacations. I had thought many times of writing to her but optimistically put the idea away, hoping instead for a more rewarding meeting in person “soon”, which tragically did not happen. This will always remain a matter of great personal regret and profound sadness to me.
Thankfully, Kalpana's illness was brief and with it, hopefully her suffering, a divine blessing for one who gave happiness to so many people. And Kalpana herself would not have wanted me to mourn for her, for she was too full of life and energy. And this is why I write this tribute, as she would have wanted me to, to share with all her friends moments of sparkle from this joyous co-existence that we call life.
Kalpana’s brother Gururaj Prasad (1973 batch) intends to set up a fund at St. John’s in her memory and details of this are awaited.S. Vijay Kumar (1970 batch)