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Dr Taj Kirmani – A blessing for the blind

April 14, 2013

World-renowned Dr Tajuddin Hasan Kirmani passed away on Friday in his sleep and in doing so, marked the only time he did anything peacefully. A congenitally restless spirit, he fought frantically all his life for more – more knowledge, more ability, more ambition and more servitude.

I pen his obituary not only to celebrate his life but also to share his secret that you can challenge fate by following his simple recipe. Equal parts faith, education and ambition, shake well, and drink deep of this heady cocktail until luck and fate dare not knock on your door.

The enfant Kirmani had no right to be as successful as he became. The odds were cruelly stacked against him. Born into abject poverty into the already bustling house of a humble policeman, he rejected his apparent fate early on.  From the start, success was important to him and he chose the medical profession to serve as an apt platform. But how would a penniless young man ever dream of preparing for the pre-schooling and preparation that would allow him to be admitted to King Edward Medical College.

A relentless networker, he shared a common trait with most great men; the sheer magnetic ability to draw the attention of kind benefactors who saw great potential in this man. With one such benefactor, he worked as a typist and watch repairer by night in a small shack in Saddar while attending college by day. Another he impressed enough to help him gain admission into King Edward Medical College. With yet another he facilitated his journey to England to successfully earn the right to be a Fellow of the prestigious Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, once again repaying his debts by toiling as a road repairer by night.

It was in England that he polished his skills as a surgeon, quickly gaining renown as a young phenomenon. He had the whole package: talent, emerging fame, movie star good looks, and the world at his feet, finally.

Yet, he chose at this pivotal point to come back to Pakistan, to his mother, father, his many siblings and his country. He never forgot where he came from and set about to dedicate his life to helping the underprivileged.

The great wealth he accepted as a reward for his efforts never seemed to fit comfortably with the man who, for four decades, arose at 4 am to go to work, giving the poor the gift of sight as the Head of the Ophthalmology Department at Jinnah Medical College.

Dr Kirmani’s fame soon spread to the outside world. He was invited to a myriad of conferences and symposia to share his insights into field surgery and he even graced the cover of the UK Panorama magazine celebrating his contributions to Pakistan and his skills as a surgeon. His commitment to Pakistan never waned; he used his countless trips abroad to always bring something back to Pakistan. He was an early pioneer of advances such as inter-ocular lenses and laser surgery, often at his own cost.

It was incomprehensible to him how anyone could be content or still. He had but to spy you in a room full of people and his loud boom would fill the room, commanding you to come over. A hallmark warm hug, a clutch of the hand and you were his willing prisoner. A kaleidoscope of information enveloped you: the latest news, the latest research, world affairs, books, authors, travelogues, all for the inexpensive price of temporary hearing loss.

Spontaneity marked his life and it was always a thrill to hear the insistent honk of his car outside our gates, sure in the knowledge that as he swept into our lives, the next few hours would not be dull.

Every year he would pack all of us into an aging Land Rover jeep and trundle us off to some remote part of Pakistan where he had set up free eye clinics. He took no credit and no reward for this. As word spread throughout Pakistan of these clinics, more and more people would throng to these camps where he would perform under the harshest conditions often with no equipment.  It was a life lesson in humility for me to wade through this sea of old men and women, sitting under the hot sun all day for their turn with him – and all would come out praying for him as he returned to them the gift of sight.

For him, thought was action and action was life. There he was one day in my cubicle in New York with the only advance notice the familiar boom of his voice pricking at my ears as he advanced upon my location. Why? Because he had an idea that he needed to setup a philanthropic organisation to deliver medical help to the downtrodden in South East Asia and I was to help him gain support for his idea.

He promptly brushed aside my careful admonishments of how much effort it take to realise his plan, commandeered my car and before the week was out, he had – with me meekly in tow - barged into homes and offices and signed up three of New York’s best known doctors for his cause. This led to a series of clinics established in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in other parts of South East Asia.

His recent years were marked by the ravages of age but with no loss of energy or enthusiasm. He was a giant of a man, never failing to inspire. The world is a less fecund place now.

Friday marked the end of an era for us but he will never be far.