SURGEON'S DIARY: Growing up, marking one’s birthday was not common

Sunday January 6 2019

Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader, had decided that to wrest independence from the mighty British Empire, he must apply means other than force. ILLUSTRATION| JOHN NYAGAH

Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader, had decided that to wrest independence from the mighty British Empire, he must apply means other than force. ILLUSTRATION| JOHN NYAGAH 

Yusuf K. Dawood
By Yusuf K. Dawood
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I was in my late teens before I knew the precise date of my birth. This was simply because birthdays were and are not seriously celebrated in the community and culture in which I was born and grew up.

They became important and happy occasions in my life after I went to the UK to obtain my fellowship in surgery, met Marie and she introduced me to her Western way of life.

Since then, and after our wedding, we have celebrated our birthdays and those of our children.

Until then, when anyone asked my father how old I was, I remember him pulling out an old diary from the pocket of his white sherwani — knee-length coat — in which he had jotted down the birthdays of his children along with many other important family events.

I reckon the events were logged in as they occurred. It was not a normal practice but a further evidence of his penchant for preserving important dates and a testimony to his archivist tendency.

The need for my official birth certificate first arose in 1946 when I was applying for admission to the Grant Medical College in what was known as Bombay then.

Among the many documents which needed to be attached to the elaborate application was my birth certificate, duly attested. To obtain it, I went to the municipality office in Bantwa, a town in western India, about 300 miles from Mumbai, where I was born.

The office was a large hall, open plan, where dhoti-clad clerks sat cross-legged on the cushioned floor. They all wore khadi shirts and Gandhi caps made of the same material associated with the struggle for independence, which was imminent.

To digress briefly, Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader, had decided that to wrest independence from the mighty British Empire, he must apply means other than force and advised his countrymen that they must adopt non-violent methods to fight for their freedom.

According to him, the means they must employ were boycott of British goods, which would hurt the economy of Great Britain. Home-spun khadi was devised for that purpose and pictures of Gandhi with a spinning wheel were in circulation through the length and breadth of India.

Gandhi had already given up western clothes and all he had to do was to wear loin cloth made from khadi, provoking British statesman Winston Churchill to call him “the naked fakir of India”!

To revert to my birth certificate, I approached the clerk who looked relatively less dour and, as I explained to him what I wanted and why. He looked at me quizzically from above his moon glasses.


In front of him was a low wooden bureau which he used as a desk. After listening carefully to my story, he brought out an old dusty register, which obviously contained the necessary information.

It was my first encounter with bureaucracy and I have only happy memories of the incident.

After payment of the princely sum of one Indian rupee, the scheduled fee for the service, the certificate was issued the next day.

Chai had not plagued the Indian civil service yet!

I still possess the document among my other certificates. It is a foolscap sheet of paper, vertically and horizontally tabulated, and contains the relevant details in Gujarati, the local language, hand-written by the clerk. According to this certificate, issued on 24 May 1946, I was born at 4am on 13th September 1928 in Bantwa.

The last column in the certificate is for the holder’s date of death — happily still unfilled!

There is another strange coincidence in the date the certificate was issued, which I have just noticed.

Twelve years later, Marie and I were married at Caxton Hall in London on the 24th of May in 1958.


Thus we celebrated our Diamond wedding anniversary in May and my 90th birthday in September last year.

My father was born in a tiny village, known as Kodwav and my mother was born in Akha and after their arranged marriage, the couple moved to Bantwa, a small town nearby for greener pastures.

That explains my surname, difficult to spell and pronounce, a cross I have carried all my life. It simply means “from Kodwav” and applies to all those who hail from that village.

That is why my father carried the cross too and bequeathed it to all his children. The unpronounceable surname was given up by my siblings when they migrated to Pakistan after the partition.

Mine was drastically abbreviated by an Irish Theatre Sister on my arrival in Nairobi on the 20th of March, 1961!

Soon after I arrived at the Aga Khan Hospital, where I was appointed resident surgeon, Sister Robinson had an occasion to call me for an emergency operation.

After a few unsuccessful attempts at addressing the newly arrived surgeon, during which time she distorted it beyond recognition she gave up and asked in desperation.

“Do you mind if I just call you Mr K?”

The name stuck and the hospital staff, mainly expatriate at the time, applauded the Irish ingenuity with relief and accepted the easy name with alacrity.

Many years later, when writing provided a second string to my bow, I decided to shed it too.

I had an opportunity to use a nom de plume and I chose Dawood as my pen name, a name which my family had adopted in Karachi. I did it for three reasons, the first being what I have mentioned here, which is to have a name, easy to spell and pronounce.

The second was to commemorate my dad who had worked hard to get me admitted to a medical school.

The third one was to obtain some anonymity. In my fictional novels, I had to describe hot bedroom sequences and I did not think that my patients would like their surgeon to narrate such scenes.

In time the anonymity disappeared and it was heartening for me to see that Dawood was more widely known than Kodwavwala because more people had been touched by my pen than my scalpel!