As water levels surged in his south Kashmir village in the 2014 floods, Khurshid was stranded on the rooftop of his small house. He wasn’t sure if he would survive. And, as if as a last wish, he wanted to make a call. While everyone else was trying to connect to relatives in the village and elsewhere, Khurshid was desperate to call someone far away at Chandigarh. This man was unrelated to him. For Khurshid he was just chacha. He wanted to speak to him before a looming death would take over and snap all lines for ever.
The ravaging floods had broken down mobile connectivity across Kashmir, but Khurshid was lucky to get his call across. “I don’t know when we will be able to talk again, Chacha, I am not sure whether I will live,” Khurshid told this man at Chandigarh where he had been for the treatment of his failed kidneys sometime ago. The call snapped. And so did Khurshid’s life some days later. An infection from the flood waters got him as his kidneys gave in. Khurshid’s Chacha — Baldev Babbar — is the rarest of the rare Good Samaritans.
When Khurshid was at Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER) for treatment, he had run out of money for dialysis. Baldev happened to drop by and found Khurshid distressed. Baldev and his son Prateek were on their way to the market for some purchases, but they decided to spend the money on Khurshid’s dialysis which he urgently required. Later Baldev would publish, on behalf of Khurshid, an advert in a newspaper seeking monetary assistance. Help poured in. But the most impressionable, recalls Baldev, was that of a man who asked them to meet him at a specified location. Baldev arrived there along with Khurshid. “The man came on an old red scooter, verified our identity and handed over a bundle of 500 rupees note. It was about forty to fifty thousand rupees,” says Baldev. The man kick-started his scooter as soon as he handed over the money. “I asked him his name, and he told me ‘What good would it do to know,’” recalls Baldev.
Khurshid’s call to Baldev before his death remains etched on Baldev’s mind. “I cannot forget that phone call from Khurshid when he was trapped in flood. That turned out to be his last call from him.”
Khurshid hasn’t been alone in receiving Baldev’s benevolence.
Mushtaq Dar from central Kashmir had come down to Chandigarh for his father’s treatment at PGIMER a year ago. One afternoon he was walking down a street when a stranger approached him, took him by the hands and asked, “Are you a Kashmiri visiting the PGIMER?” As Mushtaq said yes, he was perplexed why a stranger should ask him so. “Then there was an outpouring of concern and warmth from the stranger. He kept enquiring if I needed help with accommodation or the treatment of the patient,” says Mushtaq. Content that Mushtaq didn’t need any help, he told him of the assistance he provides to patients visiting the PGIMER. The stranger offering Mushtaq all help was again Baldev.
Many other Kashmiris visiting PGIMER for treatment recall acts of unsolicited and unselfish help from Baldev.
Located at the edge of Chandigarh, a good number of Kashmiris visit PGIMER for specialised medical treatment. Baldev is a vital contact for most of these patients who face difficulties on various accounts. His reference is passed on by those who have previously visited the institute.
Baldev, a soft spoken and upbeat man in his sixties, provides free assistance to people visiting PGIMER from all places. Kashmiris seem to benefit most from him. His help ranges from providing accommodation and related facilities, medicines and monetary assistance. He also arranges for picking up patients and their attendants from the local bus stand to PGIMER.
Baldev’s phone rings throughout the day with people informing him about their expected time of arrival. He makes a mental note of all this. “On average I handle about a dozen families every month which along with the attendants means about 40 persons,” says Baldev.
It was over a decade ago when Baldev first met a Kashmiri family in Chandigarh which was there for the treatment of a relative. “Baldev sought us out, enquiring about our well-being. He would help everyone in the quarters where we were staying,” says Ramzan Dar, a member of this family. And when Ramzan’s relative patient needed a blood infusion, Baldev was the man who stepped in. “Baldev got his own relatives to donate three units of blood,” says Ramzan who is now close friends with Baldev.
What drives Baldev to this compassion? “I follow the footsteps of my late father who was a doctor. He would provide free consultation and medicines to his poor patients,” he replies. He says it is also his religious beliefs that make him stretch out his helping hands to the needy. “Things don’t go well for me if I am sometimes lax about helping others.”
Baldev is mightily unworried about spending any amount of money on others. “The more I spend helping people, the more God sends my way,” he says. Just as he was talking a client walked in and Baldev left with him. An hour later he returned having earned a substantial amount from the client.
Moved by the troubles patients and their attendants face in getting affordable accommodation in Chandigarh, Baldev has set up a three room facility for accommodating patients. “This way we do our bit for the society,” says Baldev.
To expand this facility, Baldev is seeking government help for allotment of land to construct around 50 rooms. “My friends have already pledged support for the venture. Some will provide building material; some labour and some have pledged to lay the marble.”
Baldev’s compassionate ways of social service run in the family. His late wife, he says, would do the laundry for the attendants. When she died, Baldev adds, three Kashmiris shouldered her bier.
He recounts that a relative of Hurriyat (G) patriarch Syed Ali Geelani had once stayed at his facility in Chandigarh. Geelani had appreciated Baldev’s efforts when he was on a visit to Srinagar. “But I don’t do it for the recognition or a place in heaven,” he says.
Baldev and his friends, however, are wary of politicians. And, not without reason.
A few years ago Baldev and his friends wanted to organise a blood donation camp in Budgam. They approached a representative of an Indian political party to apprise him of the camp. The politician, Baldev says, showed no interest and discouraged them, asking what he stood to gain from it. “He told Baldev to get his daughters married instead of organising a blood donation camp in Kashmir,” says Surinder, a friend of Baldev.
This did not discourage them and a blood donation camp was organised at Chadoora with help from Baldev’s long time Kashmiri friend Ramzan Dar.
Baldev’s children flew to Kashmir to help in organising the camp. Buoyed by the success of the camp, Baldev again visited the politician and informed him that he had done it. “The politician was surprised that we could do it despite his discouragement. Our only motive was to tell the political class the importance of reaching out at the grass roots level in Kashmir,” says Surinder. He recalls asking this politician if he visited the villages to look into needs of the people. “He told us he only visits the party office in Srinagar.”
Despite this forgettable experience with this politician, Baldev admires former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah for his “sensible” tweets. He is quick to add though, “I don’t like his father Farooq Abdullah for calling Kashmiris ‘maha-chor’.” He says he has never been wronged by a Kashmiri. He talks about the gifts he often gets from Kashmiris whom he has helped at PGIMER. “If you give Kashmiris a little respect and love, they return it manifold,” Baldev asserts. His friends, who have gathered for an evening drink, nod in agreement.