In memory of my father, Dr. Arun N. Shah

Jay Shree Krishna. Thank you for coming to pay your respects to Dr. Arun N. Shah. I am Dr. Shah's son.

My father was, to say the least, a remarkable human being. He was a talented surgeon, a wise teacher, a supportive husband, a loyal friend, and doting father, grandfather, and uncle. Those of you that know him, know that my father was rather understated, and sometimes referred to his life as a "failure". If this is failure, then I hope my failure is as spectacular as his. This humble eulogy can hardly capture in words the true measure of this man and the innumerable lives that he touched. 

Today, I want to share a glimpse of my father, what I learned from him, and what I carry forward. My father led by example, and his life is the quintessential example of the Hindu principle of "dharma" or duty — the duty of a son, the duty of a brother, the duty of a husband, the duty of a father, and the duty of a teacher. I'll share a brief history of his life — perhaps a history that is unfamiliar to you. And, even if it is familiar, I’ll share it from my unique perspective as a son. 

Like more than 80% of Indians of his generation, my father was born into a humble family in a village, the village of Sardav. Sardav is an agricultural community. Growing up in the village, he partook in his share of mischief with his two best friends. They were his older brother, Suresh — I call him “Suresh Kaka", and his close-in-age uncle, Krishnakant — I call him “Krishna Kaka". I've heard many stories of these musketeers. For example, they once slept all night in a cemetery to catch ghosts because someone told them if they caught one, he'd give them a gold car. When they were teenagers, Suresh Kaka and Krishna Kaka convinced my father to cheat by posing as Suresh Kaka and taking his high school matriculation exam. He passed. My grandfather knew that my father was extraordinarily talented and urged him to pursue a career in medicine.

My father went to high school in Mumbai and medical school at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He earned his bachelors of medicine in 1968 and his masters of surgery in 1973. My father was the first to earn a doctorate in his family and still remains one of few. More importantly, he was a professor of medicine at the Orthopedics Medical College in Gorakphpur, U.P. from 1973-77. In 1977, we moved as a family to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and he held positions such as chief surgeon in hospitals and ran his own medical practice. He was compassionate and charitable with his practice. He often provided services and surgeries pro-bono to those in need. 

He spoke fondly of these years. He was young, accomplished, well-respected, and his career and stature were only accelerating. When my father walked into a room, he didn't say much, but people paid attention when he spoke. He also was well-respected in the family, and we enjoyed an upper middle-class life.

Then, my grandfather asked him to take a step further and move to the U.S, and as a dutiful son, he listened. We moved as family to the U.S. in 1980, and he struggled in the early years. He took odd jobs until Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD offered him a position as an assistant surgeon in 1982. Still life was tough, and I remember he continued with multiple jobs and double-shifts at drug stores to make ends meet. While he did not ever show it, these circumstances hurt his pride. For example, I remember that he once applied for a modest car loan and was denied because of his low income. He also refused to let me pay reduced prices for school lunches even though we qualified for them. There are many more stories like this. He eventually gained more credibility, earned more money, and didn’t need to take extra jobs.

Growing up, I remember he was indefatigable and had an unparalleled work ethic. Life moved along fast with two children. My sister and I graduated high school and went to top-tier universities. He needed to pay off college loans and later wanted to pay for our weddings. Again, he worked extra hours, nights, and weekends. And if he wasn't working, he was doing construction: building his deck, remodeling his basement, installing tiles, replacing toilets, and building furniture.

His is not a typical immigrant story. He had a promising career, and mid-career around the age of 40, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he started from scratch. I want to pause for a moment and reflect on the courage this took. He respected his father so much to listen and give it a chance without much evidence. Although he still commands respect from his colleagues as one of the smartest surgeons in the area, and young residents and assistants look up to him as a trusted mentor, his career never regained the trajectory that it had in India. 

So why did he sacrifice his career? He did it for his children. He did it for me. We grew up in a cleaner, healthier, and more just environment with more opportunities in every way. 

I still remember how proud he was of both of me and my sister when we got into college. After applying, I remember struggling to choose between Caltech and MIT. I asked him for advice, and as a supportive father, he simply told me that he trusted me to choose. Thanks Dad. In reality, my guess is that he didn't care because inside his head, he was doing "the happy dance" just knowing those were my choices. Once at MIT, he bought a sweatshirt with “MIT DAD” embroidered in huge — let me emphasize huge — letters, and he wore it everywhere and all the time. I was embarrassed then, but now I understand. I wear a "Carnegie Mellon DAD" sweatshirt ... all ... the ... time. He was also proud that my sister went to Wash U. and later earned a masters of public health. And yes, there were sweatshirts involved there as well.

While quiet and understated, my father was also eloquent and wise. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it to comfort you in your most insecure moments. I remember buying my first house in Fremont, California, then the next in Saratoga, California, and then embarking on a complete renovation. I remember founding my startup with no salary, no prior experience, and family to support. Each time, we stretched ourselves, and I was nervous that we'd go bankrupt. To comfort me, he always used to tell me, "Why do you worry, when I am here?". And each time, the outcome was well worth the risk. He'd repeat that phrase, and with him as a backstop, I felt free to take risks that otherwise would seem out of reach.

Duty encompassed sacrifice, compassion, charity, work ethic, respect for elders, and mentorship. These were among the many principles of Hinduism, also shared by other religions and ways of life, that I learned from my father. Beyond that, he was also a scientist. He taught me how diaphragms drive lungs to breathe, how hearts pump blood, and even how car engines work. As both a man of faith and a man of science, and he also taught me to balance and reconcile these two perspectives weaving them together as if they fit together naturally.

In his latter retirement years, if I can call it that since he still continued doing surgeries, he enjoyed his time. He loved his work. He loved traveling to India and embarking on all kinds of pilgrimages. When he was healthy, he would travel to India for months, enjoying time with his brother, sister, and extended family. He would also spend time with us — his family and grandchildren in California and Chicago. Then, he would quickly rotate back to Maryland to do more surgeries. This continued until he suffered his first stroke 3.5 years ago. 

These past 3.5 years have been excruciating for him both physically and mentally. It is fair to say that he lived for us and not for him. He battled back, learning to speak, eat, walk, and care again. He especially lived for his grandchildren, who gave him unbridled joy. But, his spirits were pulled in opposite directions. He was especially frustrated with his new handicap. He sorely missed his family in India, and wanted to visit them and die there. He could not.

Now, I'd like to share a perspective from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, verse 22):  

As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.

Dad, you've done this before in this life, as you shed your life in India for your life in the US. While your sacrifice pulled your spirits apart in this lifetime, this new transition will bring them back into balance, and you will no longer suffer.

I am reminded of a bhajan, a devotional song, with the refrain:

Paramatma ae atma ne shanti sacchi aapjo

which means

May the almighty creator bring your soul true and everlasting peace. 

You will no longer need to worry about where to be, because I believe you are now with us all, everywhere, and part of the supreme being that permeates.

And, although you are no longer here, I am not worried. This is a farewell from your body, but the —sanskar — or principles and values that you taught are instilled in me. I will do my duty as a son, as a brother, as a husband, as a father, and as a teacher. I will uphold and carry these values forward in your name, as you did in the name of your fathers.

Jay Shree Krishna

6 responses
Very well expressed, but still insufficient n inadequte, because, Dr, Arunbhai can never be described or expressed about, in any words, verbal or written.still, Mehul, you have convinced me, that you are an epitom amongst sons at large. Love you sunny.
When he left India in 1980 I was a kid.but in his last 4 or 5 visits of India we had very good time with him as he loved to be with family. We could have more time together but God may have needed his help.even our trip to USA was remarkable because of him and bhabhi. Will always miss him in Gandhinagar.
Yes, Mehul, I endorse what you wrote. Arunbhai was a wonderful and large-hearted human being. It's painful to hear about his demise. Our families were having great emotional and spiritual relations. Motadadaji, Laxmichand Dada and my grand father were natural friends. The next generation, I.e. my father Vasudev jha and Nandlal Dada were more than friends, they were like non-biological brothers. They used share all pleasures and pains of both the families. My father used to spend every morning with Nandalaldada. This got cemented when I was deputed to Washington for a training as sponsored by the world Bank. ( 1991). It was not reconnection but a reincarnation of relationship when he guided and supported like a elder brother. Very emotional support and very educative experience. Arunbhai and Nayanaben created a Sardhav like support system which enabled me to exell at studies, and become able administrator when I returned. I grew and grew. But, that Washington mark was indelible and infallible. My mind and soul got elevated as you four supported my journey, a journey inward and outward. "A pure man is a gift from God." My father, a great teacher and spiritually awaken soul,told me that my stay with Arunbhai was grand designed by Almighty. When emotionally described events after events of success and brilliance, my father explained that such happenings should be taken as blessings. So, Arunbhai's going creates a void, a golden and emotional chapter which can't be forgotten or wiped out , as Time also stood like a witness. Please accept my deepest condolences. Please convey my Pranams and Jayshree Krishna to Nayanaben. I feel big loss, emotionally got inundated. God gives you and Guddu strength to withstand this big loss. I am more than convinced that he will be best placed and will obtain eternal peace. I join in praying. ૐ. શાંતિ: || Bhagyesh Jha, Gandhinagar. bvjha@yahoo.co.in
It is really heart touching post. I had good time with him in Gandhinagar as well as in USA.will miss him always.
Dear Mehul, You have poured your heart out in writing this warm and touching eulogy for your dad. Please accept our heartfelt condolences and prayers for strength for your family. Sincerely 🙏🏼 Madhu and Jaideep
With this amazing post, you have provided us all with a glimpse of how inspirational and well-loved your father was/is. Praying for you and family. I am sure he’s in heaven smiling down on you. God bless! ❤️