Author: Hema Karve
Publiser: Self published
Reviewer: Zarina Patel
OUR BABAKUBA (Our grand father) is about a remarkable man whom I was privileged to know both as a medical colleague as well as a friend of his daughter-in-law, the author. My keenest memory of him is his response when, as a newly trained physiotherapist, I suggested to him that we start ante natal classes for pregnant women. ‘Women have always given birth so why now . . .’ he stated conclusively.
Yes, Dr Shankar Dhondo Karve (SDK) was a traditionalist – but note: he was heir to a tradition of great humanitarian service and social reform. His father, Maharshi Karve was an icon in the state of Maharashtra, India where he was renowned for his contribution to education and the liberation of women; the Karve University in Pune is only one of many memorials to him.
SDK followed in his father’s footsteps. After serving as a military doctor with the Indian Services Medical Transport Corps in Afghanistan and Iraq and receiving two medals; in 1922 he travelled to Kenya, settled in Mombasa where he was joined by his wife, Revati and son, Madhav. And that is where his life’s work took shape.
He set up a thriving medical practice but was deeply concerned that while the Africans and Europeans had their own hospitals, there was no such facility for the Indian community. So he opened a small 24-bed clinic in the Fleet Club building, now the premises of the Little Theatre Club. (It faces the Catholic Cemetery and I often wondered how that impacted on the patients!).
SDK offered his medical and administrative services without any remuneration. In 1944 he closed his practice in order to plan and raise funds for a fully equipped hospital. This is today’s landmark Pandya Memorial Hospital. SDK served as its Chief Medical Officer until he retired – his services even in those highly segregated colonial days were available to all.
His concern for the education of the girl child led him to start what is today the Coast Girls School, it was initially known as Mrs Karve’s school as he entrusted its administration to his wife, Revati. He formed the Mombasa Housing Society which then built large blocks of flats to rent cheaply to the needy. Elected to the Mombasa Municipal Council in 1932, he served as councillor for 15 years, elected four times. One of his main efforts here was reform of the Council’s excessive expenditure.
One of the first non-European members of Mombasa Rotary Club; in 1947 he started the Saturday Club to ‘train the young Indian to socially take his place in our multi-racial society’. Drama and music were his hobbies and he organized trainings in Indian classical music.
In June 1948, Dr Karve was awarded an O.B.E. as well as three coronation medals on later occasions. He retired in 1976 with meager savings and the Pandya Memorial Hospital arranged a pension for him. Soon after, he returned to India where he passed away in 1983; an auditorium in Pune’s Karve University was named after him.
The second part of the book consists of the author’s own biography. Her upbringing in India, her travels around the world as a diplomat’s daughter, her spontaneous decision to marry Dr Madhav Karve eleven years her senior, her easy and endearing relationship with her father-in-law (SDK) – all point to her strength of character and an independent and liberated mind.
The book is a deeply personal account of two lives, it gives an insight into the restrictions imposed by colonialism as well as the opportunities it generated. Of interest too is the strength and values of the women as seen in the lives of the author herself, her mother and mother-in-law.
The brief overview of Dr Karve’s life reminds us of the high moral values and sacrifices made by our older generation; a quality which is rare to come by these days. Some additional research and a more detailed captioning of the photographs would have been an added plus. For example Dr Karve’s role in the East Africa Indian National Congress and the experiences of the author’s father, Mr Shahane, as Appa Pant’s first officer during the Mau Mau Emergency need to be recorded. Nevertheless, this very personal account penned by Hema Karve is an easy and informative read and a welcome contribution to the history of the early pioneers.