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Deccan Herald » Spectrum » Detailed Story
Man with a vision
The unassuming M C Modi who performed a record 5,95,019 eye operations during his career,remained untouched by fame till death. M A Siraj pays tribute.
 
Very few knew his full name. Dr Murugappa Chennaveerappa Modi was widely known as kannu kotta annu (‘the brother who gifted us sight’) in rural Karnataka. Helen Keller described him as ‘a light piercing the darkness in selfless service’ at a felicitation in New York. Newspapers all across South India referred to him as the ‘cataract king’. His marathon eye camps for the cataract-blind came to be known as ‘assembly line surgery’.

Dr M C Modi who passed away at the age of 90 on November 11, became a legend in his lifetime.

The hands that so dexterously wielded the scalpel to rid the people of the scourge of blindness, had stopped moving some years ago. Yet the Modi Hospital in Rajajinagar and the Free Eye Touring Hospital became a monument to his selfless service.

The human dynamo in Dr Modi was triggered by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. Gandhi had delivered a speech at Beelagi, a village close to Modi’s native town of Bijapur during his whirlwind tour at the time of the Quit India Movement. Later, Gandhians used to surmise that Modi could be ranked next only to Nehru and Vinoba Bhave in personifying Gandhi in real life. As a medical student, Modi pledged that he would devote his life for free eye care. But while working at KBHB Eye Hospital later, he discovered that cataract patients were coming to him after selling away their cows, jewellry and even houses. It is then that he conceived of the touring eye hospital. Thus the first eye camp was organised at Pattan, close to Gandhiji’s place of birth in Gujarat and some philanthropists arranged the venue, medicine and food for the patients. There was no looking back since then.

For Modi, after the first camp, combating cataract and restoring vision became an all-consuming passion. Free eye camps in towns and villages were organised with the help of local donors and philanthropists and choultries, marriage halls and community centres came in handy for the purpose. Patients were laid on eight tables in a row and Dr Modi would move from table to table lifting the opaque veil from the patient’s eye lens with the flick of the knife. By the time he reached the 8th table, a new patient would be in place on the first.

Even while travelling in a train he would go up and down the coaches to examine the eyes of the passengers. Once while his wife accompanied him on a journey, he completely forgot about her, having examined the eyes of all passengers, felt his work was over and got off on a wrong station leaving his wife in the train.

His crusade against humanity’s greatest scourge kept Modi from being a family man. All through married life, his wife stayed at her native Dharwad and most visits to the family came while eye camps were on in and around the area.

Pressure grew for more camps as Modi’s pace became feverish. Later he preferred Davangere to his native Bijapur because of its central location in Karnataka and finally opted to set up home and headquarters in Bangalore following persistent requests from the then chief minister K Hanumanthaiah who declared him a State guest wherever he went in the State.

Shy, unassuming and a vegetarian, he led a spartan life, relishing black tea, elneer (coconut water) and papaya. Personal well-being could never take possession of him. Selfless service was all that mattered to him. Honours and awards came in a deluge. The Karnataka government documented his services in a 10-minute documentary titled, One man’s war, by filmmaker M S Sathyu. The government of India conferred the Padma Bhushan on him.

Modi’s forte lay in his incredible swiftness. It was around the mid-70s in the holy town of Tirupati that he performed 833 cataract operations in a day and entered the Guinness Book of World Records. The town folk had opened all the choultires on the day. Since 1942, Dr Modi had examined 1,00,94,632 patients and performed a record 5,95,019 eye operations.

Often the very speed of the painless surgery would make the patients doubt the success of the eye surgery. “It was not unusual for the villagers to flee the camp throwing away the baggage in utter disbelief”, Dr Modi had told this author with a chuckle.

Modi had observed, “In the beginning the people were reluctant to undergo surgery, though it was quite simple, but those who regained sight became my ambassadors, mobilised funds and sent hordes of the blind and those with incipient blindness to me.”

Soon the trickle became a torrent. He was like the piped piper driving out the cataract-blind from their crevices of darkness in droves, not to the sea, but to see the beautiful world that was just a thin veil away.
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