Dressed in a crisp cream sari with pastel borders, I still remember how Dr. V. Shanta walked patiently to her cabin for her biweekly outpatient consultations at the Cancer Institute (WIA). Always on time, she greeted everyone with a warm smile. One that I am sure many people are now going to miss. Having had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions — both in a professional capacity and private — I found that Dr. Shanta was someone whose gentle demeanour instantly put you at ease. Despite a packed schedule, she always took time out for interviews or to discuss how we could assist her several endeavours, something my father and I are eternally grateful for.
“It was destiny that took me to the Cancer Institute,” Dr. Shanta had told me in an interview. She spoke at length about the time when she joined the Institute in 1955 to support Dr. Krishnamurthi and his mother, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. “Ever since, there has been no looking back and I have been part and parcel of the Institute, in all its tribulations, vicissitudes, share its fears, hopes, successes and failures.”
Not many know that at 94, the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner maintained a work schedule that was unimaginable for many much younger — doing her regular patient rounds, handling consultations, as well as the various tasks associated with the smooth running of the Institute. In another interview (for the Centre for Social Initiative and Management), Dr. Shanta spoke to me about how she belonged to an era when women professionals were few and she was determined to follow her dreams in the field of medicine. “I dreamt of being a trained physician, a doctor, from my school days. Back then, a majority of women settled down to a married household life and very few women took up a career. None of this appealed to me and my mother was very supportive of my choices,” she said. Strong-willed and generous, Dr. Shanta was always encouraging when approached for interviews, and provided tremendous support when I spent a year researching tobacco and its links with poverty.
She always spoke of how it was under the tutelage of Dr. Reddy — the first woman medical graduate of India — that she learnt how important it is to sustain an initiative and ensure that its performance speaks. “Back then, gathering support and donors was easy, as we had the backing of Dr. Muthulakshmi. As we grew, I have learnt that it is your transparency and effort that pays off. Your change should be measured by patient satisfaction and not on monetary grounds,” she said. A learning that she not only stuck to but taught several others in the decades that she spent making cancer care affordable for all.
For someone who spent her entire life dedicated to her profession, it is not surprising at all that she lived on the premises of her Institute. I was always curious to know how she spent her time at home — if there was a life beyond the hospital. “There is so much to do, think and act towards the betterment of the Institute that there is hardly time to think of anything else. There has been no ‘personal’ time for me,” she had said then. But when she did have the time, Dr. Shanta told me that she read. “I have to keep in touch with the advances that are happening.” And on other rare occasions, she listened to music and read literature — “mainly classics”.
Dr. Shanta leaves behind an extraordinary legacy, one that is going to be tough to match. While I am yet to come to terms with the call I received this morning from the Institute, I wonder how the many patients who travel from the small towns and villages — to be treated by her — will take the news of her passing. But there is a lot to celebrate in her life and a lot to learn from her achievements. Rest in peace, Dr. Shanta. May you finally have your personal time filled with books and music.