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Imperfect success vs Perfect failures

Dr. D.B. Bisht

Editor's note

This is the 1st death anniversary of Dr. D.B. Bisht – the ever-humorous Chairman of SAIIIHR. Even while suffering from a terminal illness, he would crack jokes and make all of us laugh. This article was discovered in a few of the things he was writing with a palsy impaired hand. It was typical of him!

Why is it that our plans often fail perfectly and if a few do succeed, they only succeed imperfectly? The reason is not too far to search.

Success has been said to have many fathers, but failures are always orphans. It is not outside that we have to search much: the causes of failures lie within ourselves. We talk too much, plan too elaborately, identifying innumerable reasons why the task will not succeed and act too little or too late.

Pick up any project — their gestation periods are literally elephantine. Our approaches and use of resources are too biased towards political and social angles — we talk of social justice and equity but never practise them in action. Discordance in thought, word and deed is too apparent for any to identify. How can any plan then succeed in such a climate of moral deceit and ineptitude?

Everyone’s life is written by heaven and successes and failures are woven around each life and yet one is apt to forget the orphans and only eulogise the successes. I do not know why I have chosen to highlight my failures when there were a number of successes that have also been scattered throughout various decades of my life. Perhaps each failure has had an ingrained success in it or fresh circumstances were able to carve out a brighter thread from their misery. Failures have been due both to my sins of omission as well as commission. For some I was miserable, for others I was simply unhappy, but for most I have been grateful and qualitatively proud too, since they showed me my future directions more clearly and distinctly. Sometimes I have been successful in following the directions and at others I was hopeless. Whether I liked them or not, whether they were important or not, whether they were major or seemingly trivial ones, I have never tried to ignore them. In my heart of hearts I have always considered them glorious, some more some less, but glorious nonetheless.

Quite a few have doted over the life and times of the world’s luminaries. But how many have written about the unsung lives of those working people who have contributed to the success or failures of the celebrated or condemned?

I am writing not about the failures of my bosses but the failures of a mediocre person such as myself* in the national medical system, which might have meant little to the overall result but which might have made a significant difference to the people I have served in the different phases of my life.

Episodes from childhood

Grandpa’s failure

The story of my life is the story of failures. Some of these I have come to love, particularly the ones that became a beacon light to guide my ship of life through unchartered seas. I came into this world a much valued child amongst my parents and grandparents. I received love and care in plenty. I was fortunate. I did not have a silver spoon in my mouth when I came into this world, but neither was my mouth empty. There was a spoon of love and care. I look back with fond memories on how I was virtually reared by my grandparents. My Grandpa was a retired soldier of the British Indian Army which had its headquarters in Burma — now Myanmar — somewhere near Mandalay, most probably in Min Min. This is only a fair guess and conjecture, but it fits in well with the description that Grandpa gave of the journey to camp from Calcutta. You took a ship to Rangoon and then went north to Mandalay and then went on a foot march with mules onto the camp. He described the surrounding hillocks and large hills beyond. The flora and fauna of the place, the spring nearby with the waterfall — all these coincided very well with the topography of the place when I visited Min Min almost a century later. Some of the old faces that I saw in the park and bazaars there seemed to reflect and resemble the people he had etched in my memory. I almost felt like asking a very old gentleman with pipe in hand, puffing in a remote corner of the park, whether he had seen my Grandpa in his childhood. I would have to give him Grandpa’s description. A stark man with a thick moustache and very Chinese type of beard, he had slanting eyes and thick eyebrows. He never smiled but invariably laughed — a peculiarity our family have inherited from him. And yet Grandpa was a man of few words. He was no talker and never gossiped. In spite of his countenance, he was quite capable of getting into a tremendous fury. He would never shout and would not quarrel but just quietly sulk and take his hoe, going into the fields without any food or water and sweat out his anger. Later in the day, he would come back exhausted and eat a huge meal — he always ate too much when he was angry, another trait frequently adopted by other members of our family, at times even by me.

In the British army, he rose to the rank of Lance-Corporal and was made a signaller. However, during an episode with a young English lieutenant, there was an altercation and he was badly abused. His family lineage was offended and it was all too much for his pride to swallow. Without realising the consequences of army regulations, he caught hold of the lieutenant and beat him severely. This resulted in a court-martial and he was not only demoted but deported. Had it not been for a British doctor captain, whom Grandpa had saved from a giant alligator in a bathing incident in Burma, he would have been executed. But the captain had always been grateful to Grandpa for saving his life. In the incident, Grandpa had taken his shooter and shot the beast through the mouth! This episode had endeared him to the captain so, through his intervention, not only was his life spared but he even secured a pension of three rupees a month on retirement from the army. He returned home some time in 1903-4 and continued to draw his pension for another forty and odd years until finally, in 1950, on 18th January, he breathed his last.

Grandpa’s abeyance of honour and capacity to fight for a cause always inspired me. His magnificent failure as a soldier has always inspired me in making my decisions. In Grandpa’s career failure, I even see a silver streak of glory.

The mango tree

Have you ever heard of a sand dune in the mountains? The probability is that you have not, but ask me and I will show you one. Many years back, when I was a young child, I used to go with my Grandpa to the river bed along the ravines of our mountain and there, between two streams, was found a big sand dune. It must have been formed by torrential mountain rains and the flooding of the river. Nothing more than a few harsh shrubs of jungle bush grew on it. As a child I had asked my Grandpa, “Why don’t we plant a mango tree here instead?” Grandpa gave many reasons why it would not grow. Our village was deep in the mountains and mango trees simply do not grow and bear fruit there due to the climate. Besides, it was only a sand dune, and it is likely that when the next river swell came, it would get washed out. But no amount of reasoning could convince me that you cannot grow a mango tree on a sand dune in the mountainous region of our country.

“But why not try?” I insisted. So Grandpa looked into my eyes, shining with innovative enthusiasm and agreed that we could plant one sapling. I was not more than four at that time. We had to walk three full days to the nearest place where a mango sapling could be obtained. Anyway, Grandpa on his next trip to the foothills did bring one sapling and the tree was successfully planted. As you perhaps know, planting a tree has always been considered a sacred ritual in our ancient culture.

So, with all full rituals, the sapling was planted. The location was very close to our village school and it became my duty, along with my school chums, to look after the sapling. We erected a stone wall around it and fetched all the dung we could collect from the river banks where cattle came to drink every day. And, lo and behold, the sapling started taking root! From the four leaves, which it initially shed, the stem started growing new leaves and we began feeling an immense satisfaction and pride in our success.

I was at the school for the next three years and although the sapling grew, its bearing was still stilted, but it had all the features of a tree, so our imagination of it bearing fruit made us dream about its future. However, my family had to shift far away and I had to abandon my village to take up studies elsewhere. I was eight then. With the passage of time, the dream grew ever dimmer, but when I revisited my village after about eight years, the first thing I did was go straight to the place where my mango tree was planted on the sand dune.

But alas, nothing was left: no mango tree or sand dune. Everything had been washed out. I must say that when memories of my mango tree came to mind, I was disappointed. A dejected smile on my face conveyed to my father the sorrow I was experiencing deep in my heart. Well, this is a story of childhood defeat and analysing it today, I still consider it to be one of my more glorious failures!

Perhaps there were some threads in this piece that maybe someone, somewhere, may pick up and pursue. Then he or she might even be inspired to write their own stories of glorious failures.

*Dr. D.B. Bisht was the Director-General Health Services India from 1981-85, Hon.Director, Dr. A.K.N. Sinha Medical Education Unit, Medical Council of India, Hon. Director, Dr. A.K.N. Sinha, Indian Medical Association, Institute of Continuing & Higher Medical & Health Education and Research, Director, Programme Coordination and Information and Director, Health System Infrastructure, World Health Organization, New Delhi, Principal (Director), and Professor of Medicine, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Pondicherry.

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Dr. D.B. Bisht


National medical system






Mango sapling