Dr. B. T. Maskati: Life is Beautiful : Indian Journal of Ophthalmology

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Dr. B. T. Maskati: Life is Beautiful

Maskati, Quresh; Sen, Mrittika1; Honavar, Santosh G2

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Indian Journal of Ophthalmology 71(2):p 335-338, February 2023. | DOI: 10.4103/IJO.IJO_5_23
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“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” - Albert Camus

I stand alone in my study, the tall rows of bookshelves cast comforting shadows in my all too familiar surroundings. My desk, my chair, my journals, my Olympia typewriter, my spectacles, my framed awards are exactly as I left them, duly cared for and dusted daily. I look around, they are all there, curiously oblivious to my presence. In the dancing flames of the flickering candle, I see flashes of a life well lived.

I was 6 years old when I was orphaned. I was brought up by my eldest brother, who was 20 years my senior. My early education was in Surat. Our home did not have electricity and just like in the movies, I grew up studying under gas-lit street lamps. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue my matriculation in St. Mary’s School in Bombay. I would come home to Surat for the holidays and always looked forward to assisting my middle brother in his eye clinic there. I think that was the beginning of the dream.

I was able to score well and secured admission in the prestigious King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Bombay in 1945, but I was in no hurry to pass my MS Ophthalmology [Fig. 1]. I brought some of my brother’s surgical instruments with me and during anatomy dissections, I removed the cataracts of all the cadavers! I did rotations and posts in general surgery, ENT, and even dentistry before finally attempting my MS examinations in 1955 for the first time. That year, only two of the 20 students passed – one was Dr. Piyush N. Dixit, who later became the Head of Department of Ophthalmology of Nair Hospital, and the second one was me. That same year, I married Mariam. For the wedding reception, my good friend lent me his coat! Although KEM wanted me to join the department as an Assistant Professor, the rules demanded one to be ‘foreign returned’ to be eligible. I had no money to go abroad, so I accepted my fate and was looking for other options. My Dean, on the other hand, had not given up. “You have a lot of potential,” he said, as he loaned me a princely sum of Rs. 5000 to go to the Mecca of Ophthalmology, Moorfields. I trained under the stalwarts, H. B. Stallard and Sir Duke-Elder, with Sir Eric Arnott as my co-resident. Few years later, I was able to go to Europe and USA with my own funds for further training under the giants of ophthalmology, Prof. Weve and Dr. Custodis for retinal detachment, Wills Eye Hospital for retinoblastoma, George Spaeth for glaucoma, Irene Maumenee for ocular genetics, and many more [Fig. 2].

Figure 1:
Dr. Maskati as a student in KEM.
Figure 2:
The Maskatis with Dr. Jerry Schultz (next to Dr. Maskati) and Dr. Ken Kenyon, Boston, USA

On my return from Moorfields in 1958, I was appointed Assistant Professor at my alma mater and remained there as an honorary consultant and subsequently as the Head of Department, finally retiring as Prof. Emeritus in 1983. Our ophthalmology department at KEM had many firsts to its credit. We were the first to have xenon arc photocoagulation for treatment of retinoblastoma, Eales’ disease, and diabetic retinopathy, an operating microscope, a phacoemulsification machine, and the first to start vitrectomy, thanks to my colleague, Dr. T. N. Ursekar. Interestingly, we were the first to introduce day-care surgeries (or 1-day cataract surgeries as we used to call them) in a municipal hospital. During our time, the Boss did all types of ophthalmic surgeries including cataract, glaucoma, orbit and eyelid, dacryocystorhinostomy, retinal detachment, squint, and keratoplasty and the post-graduate residents were trained to become ‘complete’ eye surgeons.

Eye camps in those days were held in school halls and community centers, with cataract surgeries being performed under overhead lights or large torches held by assistants. We pioneered free squint surgical camps. Almost all the squint surgeries were performed under general anesthesia with our anesthetists from KEM. Children were given the first preference, followed by young, unmarried girls since orthotropia drastically reduced their dowry demand. Our team covered almost the whole of Maharashtra and traveled to Gujarat, Rajasthan, and even Madhya Pradesh. We also trained teachers in squint detection in Jalgaon, a rural district in Maharashtra, as a pilot project, and in the process, we detected over 1600 cases of squint for further management.

I had the privilege of learning from some of the best teachers and that was, possibly, one of the reasons that I loved to teach. I would happily travel across the country, at every opportunity, to teach students from different institutes and as an examiner for MBBS and MS. Once, my former student, who was the head examiner, invited me as an external examiner for MBBS to Kashmir. It was a time when terrorism was at its peak. “No teacher from the nearby states is willing to come. If the exam is not held, the students will have to wait for another 6 months,” he said. I immediately agreed and the examination went off smoothly. Of course, in the journey from Srinagar airport and back, I was lying under the false flooring of an ambulance!

Deeply conscious of my debt to so many for my rise from rags to riches, I joined Rotary in 1964, becoming the club President and then District Governor – the first eye surgeon to hold such a post (1978–1979) to better serve the community [Fig. 6]. As far as serving the ophthalmic community was concerned, I quickly learnt the ropes by doing most of the work when Dr. D. G. Mody, my senior in KEM, was the AIOS Secretary. This stood me in good stead when I became the AIOS Secretary (1978–1985). I used to receive around 50 letters a day by post card, inland letters, and in envelopes from its members. All replies were dictated to the lone part-time office staff I had, who took them down in shorthand, typed them out, and brought them for my verification and signature the next day – all this took place between surgeries in KEM! I had an Olympia manual typewriter with a font which was in running hand or italics, which I used myself to answer the remaining correspondence at home on Sundays.

Figure 3:
With a Gandhian and former Tamil Nadu Governor, K. K. Shah
Figure 4:
Dr. Kenyon trying the tabla with a spirited Dr. P. Siva Reddy and C. S. Reshmi in the background during the banquet at the All India Ophthalmological Society Conference
Figure 5:
With Maharashtra Ophthalmological Society (MOS) stalwarts, Dr. M. V. Albal and Dr. T. N. Ursekar (center)
Figure 6:
At the Rotary Club

As the AIOS President in 1987, I succeeded in getting the finance minister to waive customs duty on 37 large devices and gadgets like operating microscopes, lasers, and so on. It opened the floodgates for expensive equipment to be now affordable for all. Our eye surgeons were already very skilled; now they were able to use the same equipment as in the West, and Indian ophthalmology quickly rose to be ranked at par with the best in the West!

The AIOS always had a special place in my heart. I was the organizing secretary of the AIOS conference held in Mumbai in 1969 attended by a record 500 delegates. I attended all the conferences till 2015 and have seen it grow by leaps and bounds, from an extended family of a few hundred attendees in one or two halls, with a formal black-tie banquet where I reveled in the role of a toastmaster and emcee for many years, to almost 10,000 delegates now with professional entertainers and almost 20 halls [Figs. 3-5]. We used to rent a bogey from railways and travel by train, often for two or more days to reach the conference venue. It was great fun traveling with our spouses and friends, staying in our bogey at the railway station, with one compartment converted into a mini-bar, and returning in the same bogey, in all spending nearly 7–8 days for a 4-day conference. I daresay, we were busy, but we greatly valued our friendship, and this was quality time spent together. Today, sadly, youngsters choose to attend only parts of the conference, flying in and out the same day. I clearly remember and cherish the day when the AIOS bestowed the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award on me. It was precious.

Dr. Ursekar and I founded the Vitreo-Retina Society of India in 1992, and I am proud to see it come of age as it celebrated 25 years. The Maharashtra Ophthalmological Society, that I helped to establish, has now become the largest state society in the country. My good friend, Dr. Badrinath, founded Sankara Nethralaya and I always desired to have a similar Institute of Ophthalmology with subspeciality experts in Bombay. With the blessings of the authorities at Bombay Hospital, the Taparia Institute of Ophthalmology took shape, another first in my city that I still like to call Bombay. I attended numerous conferences all over the world and was the regional representative for South Asia to the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness from 1970 to 1974. I was invited as faculty to a regional conference in Johannesburg in 1972 at a time when apartheid was still being practiced. The South African government had to give me “Honorary White” status to enable me to attend the conference being held in a “Whites Only” area of Johannesburg.

I strongly believed that there should be one standard qualifying examination for post-graduates across the country, and hence joined hands with like-minded individuals across the country to form the National Academy of Medical Sciences (NAMS); those passing the written and oral exams were given the title of MNAMS. It was later changed to the more prosaic Diplomate of the National Board (DNB)!

I look up. I have been lost in my thoughts for a long time, it is almost 5 in the morning - the clock never stops ticking. It is almost dawn. Soon the house would be awake, alive, aware of my absence. I smile as the lines from my favourite poem come to my mind:

  • “A bell is no bell till you ring it
  • A song is no song till you sing it
  • Love was not meant to be kept in your heart
  • Love is no love till you give it!”

As I depart from this earth, what do I consider my legacy? Not the numerous orations I have given, nor the awards I have been honored with (well, may be the lecture hall they named after me in KEM!). It is my children, my son and daughter, both of whom I have tried to teach how to live a life, so that they can be role models for their children and grandchildren [Fig. 7]. It is my students, those whom I have taught directly or influenced as an examiner or teacher at various conferences across the country and globe. I hope I have taught them not only ophthalmology, but also inculcated in them the values and ethics I hold so dear. If they can influence, by their skills, their demeanor, and their interactions with fellow ophthalmologists and students, the future generations to follow the correct path, I will not have lived in vain.

Figure 7:
Dr. B. T. Maskati with spouse Mariam, children Quresh and Loubaina, daughter-in-law Sajeda, and grandchildren Merzia and Shaista

“A contented mind is the greatest blessing a man can enjoy in this world.” - Joseph Addison

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