Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXI No. 4, June 1-16, 2021
The demise of Dr. C.V. Krishnaswami, the eminent diabetologist, in Chennai on 21st May, leaves a void in the field of study and treatment of type I diabetes that cannot be easily filled. The pioneering work done by him in opening India’s first juvenile diabetes registry, the yeomen service rendered by him for over 50 years in VHS Hospital, his charitable activities in supplying free insulin to diabetes afflicted children from poor families and his keen interest in alternative systems of medicine, are all well-known and have also been covered in the newspaper reports.
As one who had the pleasure of knowing him as a close friend for over 75 years, with a friendship going back to our childhood when we were neighbors in Pelathope, Mylapore for nearly 20 years, I have knowledge of his early life and some aspects of his personality, which I would like to share with the readers.
Dr. CVK was born in an illustrious family, with the family name Calidas (spelt with a ‘C’ in the tradition of usage in the days of the Raj). His grandfather Rao Saheb Calidas V. Krishnaswami Iyer served as a judge in the prestigious Judicial Service of the then Madras Presidency. He served as District Judge in various districts in the Presidency, and was Under Secretary in the Ministry of Law in the Central Government, the first Indian to hold that post. Dr. C.V.K’s father was Advocate C.K. Venkatanarasimhan, a leading criminal lawyer of the Madras High Court in that era. He was a patron of classical music and dance, and served as Secretary of the Music Academy for over two decades. He was among the pioneering architects who built the Academy into the world famous institution that it is today.
Dr. CVK had a brilliant academic career. He studied in P.S. High School, Mylapore, Vivekananda College and in Stanley Medical College from where he qualified with an MBBS degree. He married his childhood sweetheart Prema, who graduated with an MBBS degree from the University of Bombay. Both of them then went to UK for higher studies, where Dr. CVK qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Dr Prema got a post-graduate degree in obstetrics and gynecology. They returned home and together set up practice with a clinic in Murray’s Gate Road in Alwarpet. It is well known history that both of them rose to be the leaders in their respective fields of specialisation.
It is also well known that Dr. CVK had very many noble qualities like humility, kindness to his patients and a very charitable disposition for which he was loved and respected. But the quality I admired the most in him was his sense of humour. It goes to back our boyhood days, when, in the best traditions of that era, we indulged in a lot of leg pulling of each other – called ‘daboichu’ in those days. He would always come out with the wittiest remark, eliciting peals of laughter. Later on he became an ardent fan of P.G. Wodehouse and developed a very sophisticated sense of humour.
They say that the real test for a man’s sense of humour is the manner in which he takes a joke on himself. I will narrate just a couple of illustrative instances to show what was Dr. CVK’s attititude when it came to laughing at himself.
When Dr. CVK and Dr. Prema started their specialist practice together, Dr. Prema built up a roaring practice very soon, and Dr. CVK lagged behind. The reason was that there were more children being born in that era and less diabetes patients. Dr. CVK himself made up a self-deprecating humour story about it.
A diabetes patient comes to Murray’s Gate Road for the first time looking for Dr CVK’s clinic.
“Can you tell me where Dr CVK’s clinic is?” he asks a passerby.
“Oh, yes” was the answer “ It is next to Dr. Prema’s clinic”.
And then there is the story I made up about him, which I narrated at a meeting held to honour him – and he was the one who laughed the loudest.
A Tamil family moves from Bombay to Madras, and go through the painful process of changing addresses, shifting their bank account, getting new gas connection, telephone connection and so on. They get their new ration card and get to collect their first quota of 2 kilos of sugar at subsidized price. On suspicion they weigh the sugar when they reach home – and, sure enough, it was only 1.5 kilos. The head of the family goes to Dr. CVK’s clinic and complains about it. Dr. CVK is surprised beyond measure.
“But why do you come to me?” he asks in disbelief, “You should go to the Civil Supplies officer”.
“I don’t know, doctor” was the reply, “ When we moved to Madras, people here told us that in Madras if anybody has sugar complaint, they go to Dr. CVK”.
“I feel that a good human being has gone away forever,” said a friend on hearing of Dr. C.V. Krishnaswami’s passing. And I could not agree more. There are many who have penned their tributes to this noble doctor, and we feature two alongside. But there was a less well-known facet to him which was his close involvement with Carnatic musicians.
CVK’s father C.K. Venkatanarasimham (the ‘m’ at the end became n in keeping with Madras traditions) was a prominent lawyer of the Madras Bar, specialising in criminal law. If memory serves me right, he was a junior under K.S. Jayarama Iyer and later branched off into independent practice. The family lived at Pelathope, the street that runs parallel to and just north of North Mada Street, Mylapore. In the very old days it was almost entirely populated by lawyers and some of them became very prominent practitioners. C.K. Venkatanarasimham was one. He was also a close associate of Rao Bahadur K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer (see MM, Vol. XXII No. 20, February 1-15, 2013) who lived on North Mada Street, in a vast house named Swaminatha Vilas that later made way for Saravana Bhavan.
Being a part of K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer’s friend’s circle meant you would at some time be drafted into all his pet schemes and Venkatanarasimham became involved with the Music Academy, where he rose to be Secretary, a responsibility he fulfilled with his customary grace and more importantly good cheer. CVK would inherit both these traits from his father. His bright eyes, his effusive welcome on meeting you and his infectious laugh were his abiding characteristics. Given his affability, Venkatanarasimham’s house became a home away from home for many prominent musicians, G.N. Balasubramaniam being perhaps the closest friend. Other regulars included T. Chowdiah, Palghat Mani Iyer and Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer. CVK grew up in front of their eyes and when he graduated in medicine, most of them became his patients. “I don’t know if they were correct in trusting a novice like me,” he once laughed. “But there was no convincing them to go to other practitioners.”
In time, CVK became doctor to M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari. And if memory serves me right, they both sang together at one of the events in CVK’s family. What I do know for sure is that a terminally ill M.L. Vasanthakumari made it a point to perform a full concert at CVK’s daughter’s wedding. It was her last concert.
Being a part of Carnatic Music’s inner circle also meant he was privy to many personal details of several artistes. In keeping with his being a medical practitioner of the highest ethical standards, he never ever divulged the health or other confidential matters concerning these musicians to anyone. While as a biographer of several artistes I was naturally disappointed, my respect for CVK went up even further because of this integrity of his. Likewise, he never spoke or even acknowledged the several acts of kindness he extended to musicians, which included not only free consultation but also hospitalisation, surgery and treatment at his expense. I came to know of these from others and when I asked CVK about it he just waved me off from that track.
On the other hand, he opened up readily when it came to his reminiscences of the Music Academy. It was he who filled me in on the canteen history, going to the extent of listing out the names of the contractors. I can still recall his laughter as he described the way the Academy was troubled no end by T. Sadasivam’s Mylapore Sangeetha Sabha in the 1940s.
CVK and his wife Prema were very friendly people and generous as well. A software marketing professional in my office was a chronic diabetic at a very young age. He was introduced to CVK by me and became his patient. Realising that financial anxieties were very much part of the reason for the disease remaining uncontrolled, CVK treated him free of cost. Later CVK set up this person in business, asking him to maintain a portal on diabetes for him The man remained CVK’s protégé but sadly did not live too long.
The departure of Prema from this world a few years ago made CVK a lonely man. And now he too is gone. I am sure a whole host of Carnatic musicians are waiting up there for him, refusing to be treated by anyone else.
In the passing away of Dr. C.V. Krishnaswami on the night of May 21 ,2021, the country has lost a highly respected diabetologist, a great physician and a wonderful human being. His legion of grateful patients, colleagues and friends who loved him for his warmth and genial approach are going to miss him.
I first came to know Dr. CVK, when I joined Rotary Club of Madras South in 1977, where he was an active member with a 100 per cent attendance record. Like many other members of the Club, I also became his patient. He belonged to the old world of doctors who believed in a thorough physical check-up of his patients before he diagnosed the problem and wrote his prescriptions. While he was checking you on the table, he would engage in small talk to help reduce your anxiety. As you left his clinic you felt better because of his reassuring words. But the problem was that he would not accept any fees from his Rotary friends. I solved the problem by donating to a charitable cause he was closely associated with every year, which he did not mind accepting.
Unlike many Diabetologists, he did not believe in starting his patients on medicines from the word go. Depending on the condition of the patient, he would first try to treat with strict diets. I remember, when my father was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 65, CVK prescribed a special diet which helped control his blood sugar without any medication. My father never took any medicines for blood sugar until he died at the age of 79.
CVK and his wife Dr. Prema – herself a renowned Gynaecologist – were a popular couple in the Rotary world. A charming duo, they hosted several family fellowships over the years at their well-appointed bungalow in Neelankarai. I remember an incident at one of those – a spirited, fancy dress party. While it was going on someone mentioned that a police officer was entering the house. Since there was strict prohibition in force those days, we panicked. Bottles of liquor and glasses started disappearing. As soon as the police officer entered the house and removed his hat revealing his bald head, everyone realized that it was a member who had come dressed as police inspector for the fancy dress party. Everyone had a hearty laugh and heaved a sigh of relief.
Though Dr. CVK was a very serious doctor, he was fun talking to after his duty hours. He was also known for his hearty laughter which was infectious. He was an active member of Rotary Club of Madras South for 25 years.
At one stage when he started cutting down on his consultation at the clinic to devote more time to several pioneering projects in diabetic research he was involved in, I lost touch with him. On his recommendation I started going to his protégé Dr. Srivatsa, who is my family doctor for the last 25 years.
Dr. Krishnaswami was associated with the Voluntary Health Services (VHS) Hospital for more than 50 years. He was instrumental in opening India’s first juvenile diabetes registry. Supported by his good friend Rtn R.T. Chari, a philanthropist par excellence, Dr. CVK saw his dream project ‘Ramabhadran Juvenile Diabetes Research Centre’ become a reality at VHS hospital. Chari also helped him establish the ‘TAG-VHS Diabetic Research Centre’ at the hospital. He also served as the director of Prema’s Medical and Diabetes Research Centre (PMDRC).
In his long career Dr. CVK was associated with several professional bodies, presented many path-breaking papers at both national and international seminars, won several accolades besides publishing books in both English and Tamil. More than all his achievements Dr. CVK will always be remembered for his affable nature and genuine affection for people.
I can never forget him asking me ‘Enna Rajan, Eppidi yirukkey?’ whenever I met him at social events over the years. There was genuine warmth in those words.
He is survived by two daughters and their families. My heartfelt condolences to the family. May his soul Rest In Peace.