by Aneeta Sundararaj
One sweltering morning years ago, I met a gentleman to discuss his biography. His first act was to hand me a small plastic bag. I laughed when I saw its contents. Clearly, he still saw me as the little girl he needed to give sweets to whenever we met. Likewise, to the world he’s Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Azlanni Dr. M. Mahadevan, celebrated as the father of modern psychiatry in Malaysia; to me, however, he was, still is and will forever be Uncle Tuan.
It wasn’t his mother who coined this nickname. That honour belongs to a woman called Kono Tano, or as he fondly refers to her, “Oba-san.” She was the mother-in-law of one Dr. Suzuki, a renowned balneotherapist and close friend of Uncle Tuan’s father, Mahalingam Appukutee. When Dr. Suzuki died from typhus fever, Oba-san was invited to stay with Uncle Tuan’s family. “Oba-san greatly appreciated this gesture and looked after us like her own family. She was there at my birth,” says Uncle Tuan, tears in his eyes.
Uncle Tuan then tells a story that resonates with our present COVID-19 situation. During the Second World War, in similar vein, all the schools were shut. Seizing the opportunity, Uncle Tuan’s father saw to it that each week, his eight children took turns to read a book and present a report. By the time schools reopened, Uncle Tuan had read, analysed and was able to quote from all the classics. Once Uncle Tuan completed his studies, he travelled to India to study medicine and, in time, became a much-celebrated psychiatrist.
Although psychiatry filled most of his waking hours, there was an activity Uncle Tuan pursued with unbridled passion – horse riding, particularly the game of polo. This resulted in his entry into a world where he rubbed shoulders with royalty and numerous celebrities.
Fate never let Uncle Tuan become comfortable for long. By the late 1960s, the course of his life once again changed and his worlds converged. Uncle Tuan accepted the invitation by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj to come home and assist in the establishment of the mental healthcare system in Malaysia. One of the first things he did as director of the Central Mental Hospital in Tanjung Rambutan, Perak was to change its name to Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta, to give it a ‘friendly’ and ‘welcoming’ atmosphere.
“Also, I discovered that mental patients interacted well with horses. This generated the confidence in them to communicate with society,” he explains. Uncle Tuan then devoted his energies to the compassionate rehabilitation of the emotionally and psychologically disturbed. He set up the Madhuban Home and the Halfway Home so that therapeutic riding became one of the means to rehabilitate his patients. Next came the establishment of a drug rehabilitation centre in Batu Gajah, Perak. In due time, his achievements were recognised and the accolades, awards and titles came pouring in from all over the world.
Even though he will celebrate his 92nd birthday come 9 September 2021, Uncle Tuan maintains his practice and readily gives his opinion on various issues. In quieter moments, though, he likes to look through the biography which was aptly given the title, ‘Mad Heaven’ to mark the sobriquet he earned from his years in Hospital Bahagia. Giving a deep sigh, he closes it and then says, “I have been very blessed. I came into this world howling and screeching. Life has been pretty colourful and I’ve no regrets. I think that I’ve had a gifted life.”
About the Author – Aneeta Sundararaj trained and practised as a lawyer before she pursued a career as a writer and developed a website called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. Other than writing for magazines, ezines and journals, she’s also worked on several book projects, one of them being Mad Heaven: Biography of Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr. M. Mahadevan. Aneeta’s recent and bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia.