Satish Kalra is a curious kind of mechanical engineer: He engineers smiles.
Having worked for around 30 years in senior management positions with Hindustan Unilever and Ciba-Geigy in India, Switzerland and Singapore, Kalra was drawing a blank on post-retirement plans as he neared the end of a globetrotting career in 2000. He wasn’t interested in spirituality or keen on golf, and a consultancy job didn’t seem appealing enough.
Inspired by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: India owes more to him than any other leader. Working quietly, efficiently—with no flamboyance or thought for personal glory—he created an ‘integrated and unified’ nation. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
So, when Kalra met the folks at Smile Train, an international organization that provides free cleft lip/palate operations to children in need, in Singapore by happenstance, he got drawn to the idea of working with a global charity. However, he was sceptical of international charities wanting to work in developing countries. He travelled to China, where Smile Train’s operations had just started, at his own expense. And after being convinced of the charity’s mission and ethics, got on board. He also recalls meeting Wang Li—the first cleft-lipped child that Smile Train was going to be operating upon.
A cleft lip is an opening in the upper lip between the mouth and nose. A cleft palate is created when the roof of the mouth has a hole in it. Kalra explains a cleft abnormality in an infant as a “communication error” between chromosomes during a foetus’ development, which results in a condition that affects the lives of around four million children across the world.
Being born with a cleft in a developing country is largely a curse. Every baby born with a cleft in Uganda is given the name Ajok, which literally means “cursed by God”. Superstition and myth about cleft-lipped children abound. In India, for instance, there is a common belief that if a pregnant woman wields a knife during an eclipse, she will have a cleft-lipped baby. So strong is this belief that the phrase for a cleft lip in Telugu is grahanam-morri, translating to “eclipse-lip”.
In countries such as the US, clefts are corrected right after an infant is born, but in poorer countries where not everyone can afford surgery, they are often not operated upon. This renders the child unable to eat or speak properly and likely to end up facing a life of shame and isolation.
Yet, Kalra has no illusions that clefts warrant unique attention. “There are far greater problems than cleft palates in the world,” he observes, adding, “But one has to start somewhere.” He underlines the fact that a surgery which takes only around 45 minutes and costs Rs10,000 to conduct, can change a child’s life dramatically.
Over the last couple of years, Megan Mylan’s 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, Smile Pinki, has helped raise awareness and funds for the cause. But there is still a lot of work to be done. According to Smile Train, India alone sees around 32,600 children born with clefts every year, and since its inception, Smile Train’s India programme has helped at least 197,000 children.
While talking about Smile Train’s domestic reach, Kalra is reluctant to take any credit for the organization’s pioneering success. But as his colleagues from the New York headquarters explain, it really has been a one-man show.
Kalra spent his first two years without even seeing anyone from the corporate headquarters. He figured out how to build the programme, what type of partners would work best, raised funds and then relentlessly travelled around the country signing up the best hospitals and recruiting the best surgeons. His years in this field have warranted a busy itinerary that calls for travelling the length and breadth of the country, to the most remote locations, and identify local doctors with the potential to become Smile Train surgeons.
Leaning over the work desk at his office-residence in a quiet Delhi neighbourhood, dressed in simple formal wear, the self-starter light-heartedly admits to being both the “CEO and chief stamp licker” of the organization. Very mindful of its emphasis on keeping overheads to a bare minimum, he works without any support staff. “Social work requires more than just an altruistic heart,” he says. Kalra brings in the “more”—his business acumen and strong interpersonal skills are assets.
Kalra’s latest achievement is a programme called Smile Grants. Smile Train hospitals distribute Smile Grants to special families who are in desperate need. These stipends help the families afford simple transportation to and from Smile Train hospitals; make up for lost days at work due to waiting in the hospital for their children to receive cleft care; and sometimes cover registration fees for their children to return to school.
Growing up, Kalra stayed away from medical school because he was terrified of blood. The youngest of six children, he was constantly chided by his siblings—all of whom are doctors—for not following suit. Today, he is somehow in the thick of medical science.
Hirji Adenwalla, head of the Charles Pinto Centre for Cleft Lip and Palate in Trichur, Kerala, and a board member on Smile Train’s medical advisory panel, recalls one of his first meetings with Kalra: “He sat with me in my old consulting room, pad and pen in hand, and started making extensive notes. When we met a year later, he spoke to me on equal terms like a cleft surgeon. I was staggered by the information that he had accumulated. I realized then that Smile Train in India was in safe hands.”
On his desktop, Kalra shows me numerous pictures and videos of cleft-lipped children before and after surgery. The children who have been operated on beam as they swing and run freely in playgrounds, possibly after years of isolation. Kalra is all smiles: “There is something inherently addictive about working with kids and watching their lives transform. It makes you want to carry on.”