General Practice

My uncle, a GP in India

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7030.553 (Published 02 March 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:553
  1. A S Coonar

    My father's elder brother, Dr P S Coonar, qualified in medicine from Amritsar, India. Singapore had fallen, the empire was in retreat, his own father was an army doctor, and men were needed in the forces. After the war a young decorated doctor could go in many directions, but he decided to come home to the Punjab, north India, where he still works as a general practitioner among the farms and towns that run up to the Himalayas. Though just over 70, he still sees about 100 patients a day. In the years since he founded the practice its stone steps have been worn smooth, polished by so many feet.

    Since Indian independence the Punjab has prospered but in the 1980s calls for a separate Sikh state emerged and increasingly became supported by armed fighters. Throughout the turmoil my uncle continued to work, seeing patients in the morning, supervising the farm in the afternoon.

    One hot June evening, after such a day, he was admiring the star rich sky when two young men burst into the house, pointing guns at him. Despite my uncle's remonstration that he was over 70 and his command that if they were going to kill him they should “do it now,” he was blindfolded and led into the night and imprisoned.

    Telephones had not reached my uncle's village so servants were sent with the news to the homes of his children. In five minutes it was around our village, in one hour it had reached the state capital, and in another five minutes the edge of northern Europe, as my father, woken in the early hours, took the call with the news that only happens to other people. What to do? Anger, fear, and helplessness could not last as we were overwhelmed by amazing events. While the sarpanch (mayors) of over 100 nearby towns and villages exhorted for his release, and as thousands of old patients, colleagues, and friends converged on our village, the army swept the countryside for my kidnapped uncle.

    Later he told me that he had expected to be taken to a deserted place and killed. From the first moment, however, he was treated with respect. He was moved from place to place, always blindfolded, but never manhandled, and during his meals the captors would sit and savour his medical or war stories. On the third day shouts came from outside the house, soldiers were in the village. As his kidnappers encircled him, guns ready, he thought that a dark time had come, but instead they apologised and asked for his forgiveness. As he was led through a door into an alley lit with bright sunlight he turned and saw them praying in the shadows before the battle which was now only an instant away.

    As the firing began the police found him and led him back to us. His escape, alive and well, caused celebrations in our village. His relief, he told me, was tinged with regret at the news of the death of those young men, who three days before had taken him. The next day he went back to work. It was a busier clinic than usual.—A S COONAR is a cardiology research fellow in London

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