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A universal giver Dr. Kumar Bahuleyan went from extreme poverty to lavish living, only to find joy after donating his fortune to his village in India DR. KUMAR BAHULEYAN: "I'm in a state of nirvana ... I have nothing else to achieve in life."

He was born into the "untouchable" caste in India, so poor that he didn't wear his first pair of shoes until he went to medical school.

Then he came to America, where he made millions as a Buffalo neurosurgeon and lived a lavish life, once owning a Rolls-Royce, five Mercedes-Benzes and an airplane.

But he felt empty, almost soulless. So he donated his personal fortune -- some $20 million -- to establish a neurosurgery hospital, a health clinic and a spa resort in his native Indian village, Chemmanakary.

Now, at 81, Dr. Kumar Bahuleyan has come full circle: from dire poverty in India, to the lifestyles of the rich in America and back to his native village, where he's traded his Mercedes for a bicycle.

"I was born with nothing; I was educated by the people of that village, and this is what I owe to them," Bahuleyan said recently in Buffalo.

"I'm in a state of nirvana, eternal nirvana," he said. "I have nothing else to achieve in life. This was my goal, to help my people. I can die any time, as a happy man."

The Bahuleyan story seems almost too good to be true, a rags-to-riches story that has taken him back to his impoverished roots.

Another Indian native, Dr. Pearay Ogra, the former chief of infectious diseases at Women & Children's Hospital and the president of the Bahuleyan Charitable Foundation, said he believes he understands why Bahuleyan donated his fortune.

"He grew up in a traditional Hindu culture, with a deep sense of universal giving," Ogra said. "If you can afford it, give it back to the people who brought you up."

Others are moved by Bahuleyan's infectious spirit and energy.

One is Bill Zimmermann, executive director of a Buffalo sailing school who is helping Bahuleyan set up a sailing and boatbuilding school in Chemmanakary. The venture is designed to teach sailing and boatbuilding skills to the Indian villagers, provide more jobs and use its profits to help fund medical treatment for the villagers.
Once Bahuleyan got hooked on the concept, he started spending 50 hours a week at Zimmerman's Seven Seas Sailing School, located on the Buffalo ship canal, trying to learn about his latest venture.

"He's not mesmerizing or evangelical, but he seems like a living saint," Zimmermann said. "He does nothing but imbue a sense of calm and decency. He brings out the best in you."

Bahuleyan has never told his full story before in Buffalo, where he has lived since 1973.

>Miserable conditions

One reason may be the kind of reaction he got when a young woman, after hearing about all his charitable works in India, approached him at Seven Seas a few weeks ago. If he made his fortune in Western New York, she asked, why didn't he donate primarily to the many needy charities here?

Buffalo and Western New York, he replied, don't need his help as badly as those in his native village, where he knew first-hand the extreme misery and poverty. That feeling fueled his passionate desire to give back to that village.

About 20 to 25 years ago, when he was earning a fortune as a neurosurgeon, Bahuleyan returned to Chemmanakary and was struck by how little it had changed.

"This village remained absolutely the same -- not a road, no school, no water supply, no sanitary facilities," he said. "I looked in the [people's] faces and saw the same people living in the same miserable conditions I had grown up with."

Ogra put it another way.

"For the kind of poverty he's dealing with in southern India, there is no other outlet for support," he said.

It's impossible to understand Bahuleyan without learning more about those "miserable conditions" he came from -- including the cries of anguish from his dying brothers and sister in the 1930s. Two younger brothers and a sister, all under 8 years old, died of roundworm infestation after drinking polluted water, he said.

"I was the oldest, feeling very helpless, listening to the screams of these dying children, one by one," he said. "Their cries stuck in my psyche. Even now it haunts me."

Bahuleyan suffered from smallpox and typhoid fever..

"The good Lord saved me for a purpose," he said. "I believe that, even today."

As an "untouchable," Bahuleyan had to take a roundabout route to school because he wasn't allowed to pass within a few hundred yards of the Hindu temple, even though he was born a Hindu.

Bahuleyan never saw ice cream until he was in medical college in his early 20s. And he remembers buying his first pair of shoes as a young adult; he put the right shoe on his left foot and realized it didn't fit.

>Excessive spending

Bahuleyan had attended a lower-caste school and reached the top level at age 12 or 13. Only a chance encounter between his father and the headmaster of a Brahmin-run, English-speaking school got him into that school, where he never paid a penny.

A star student, he went to high school, then a premedical school run by Christian missionaries before attending medical college in Madras, now called Chennai.

The local government in Kerala sent him to the United Kingdom for neurosurgical training at a college in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he spent six years before returning home. But he couldn't land a job in his specialty.

"They didn't know what to do with me," he said. "There was no position available for a neurosurgeon. Many people didn't know what neurosurgery was."

So Bahuleyan went to Kingston, Ont., then Albany Medical College, before coming to Buffalo in 1973 to work with neurosurgeon Dr. John Zoll. During his 26-year career, Bahuleyan was in private practice, with offices on Linwood and Kenmore avenues and Main Street. He also served as a clinical associate professor in neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo before retiring in 1999.

And he made millions.

"I didn't ask for the money," he said. "The money came to me. My secretary said to me, 'Dr. Bahuleyan, you're making too much money.' I had never had any money. So I went berserk with money."

Bahuleyan also earned a reputation as a shrewd investor, both here and in India.

But his most outrageous moment may have come one day in the 1980s, when he walked into the Mercedes-Benz dealership and eyed a 500SL.

He asked the salesman how much the car cost.

The sticker price was $115,000, he was told.

"Here is my credit card," Bahuleyan replied.

Bahuleyan talks about his spending sprees as if he were talking about someone else.

"I compare it to a kid who gets a toy, plays with it, throws it away and gets another toy," he said. "I knew it was wrong, but I didn't care. It was the hedonistic phase of my life."
It slowly dawned on Bahuleyan, especially after he went back to India, that he was getting no joy from his lifestyle.

"I woke up in the morning feeling terrible," he said. "I kept asking myself, 'What am I doing?' "

>Long-range plans

So in 1989, he set up the Bahuleyan Charitable Foundation, which built a small clinic in Indai for young children and pregnant women in 1993, while also installing latrines, roads and a water supply for the villagers. Bahuleyan's foundation built the Indo-American Hospital Brain and Spine Centre in 1996, starting with 80 beds.

None of the facilities carries his name.

"They wanted to glorify me and put the hospital and a road in my name," he said. "I said 'No.' The whole idea was one of selfless service."

His grandiose plans were flawed, though. His emotions had fueled all his efforts, stopping him from making a realistic plan that would be financially viable. He needed a profitable venture to fund his efforts.

In 2004, the foundation opened the Kalathil Health Resorts, offering luxury rooms, health spas and exercise rooms, and catering to India's burgeoning middle class.

Bahuleyan's next brainstorm brought him back to Buffalo, where he came up with the idea for the new East India Seven Seas Sailing Co.

Early this summer, Bahuleyan went to the Seven Seas Sailing School, where he had learned to sail 26 years earlier. Within days, Seven Seas officials were thrilled with his plan for setting up the sailing school in the southwestern corner of India near the Arabian Sea.

Four sailboats, all 22- to 26-footers, are being shipped to India next month, and at least three Western New Yorkers are heading there this fall to help set up the school.

The long-range plan calls for the new East India Seven Seas Sailing Co. to accept applications from Western New York couples willing to spend a few weeks in India, to volunteer in Bahuleyan's hospital and to teach sailing, as part of the "Sailors Who Heal" program.

"You don't see India's recreational tourism ports dotted with sailboats," Zimmermann said. "We're going to change that, with our Sailors Who Heal program from Buffalo."

The sailing school, to be run in conjunction with the health resort, will open with a zero-interest loan from the foundation. Eventually, school officials expect their profits will pay off the loan, with future profits going to the hospital.

"If I charge more [for the health services] to the poor people, they will go without the services, or they will have to sell their own house," Bahuleyan said. "But I can charge any amount of money the market will bear for a luxurious health resort and to teach them sailing and boatbuilding."

Bahuleyan, who lives in Buffalo with his wife, pathologist Dr. Indira Kartha, now spends half the year here, the other half in India. In his native land, he oversees his foundation's work, gets around on a bicycle and still does almost daily surgery.

"My dream is to see this all running without my help, so I can pass away peacefully, knowing that I created something and gave something back," he said.

"That would justify my existence."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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