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Exactly half a century ago, a successful young Indian doctor, his wife and their three little daughters (all under five years old) made the move of their lives – all the way from New Delhi to Invercargill, to build a new life in this country.

Vasu and Maya Hatangadi with their daughters.

It was a highly unusual move because at that time it was the trend for Indian doctors to seek new pastures in the US and the UK. But for this young doctor, it was the challenge that he was tasked with and his infectiously positive can-do pioneering spirit that brought him to this country.

Last week Dr Vasu Hatangadi, with his wife of 56 years, Maya, his daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren quietly celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their arrival in New Zealand on December 16, 1968. The couple shared their beautiful memories with The Indian Weekender.

In the early 1960s, Dr Hatangadi was working with New Delhi’s respected All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which, interestingly, New Zealand helped set up with a generous grant in 1956, just a few years after India’s independence, under what was known as the Colombo Plan.

It is there that he met with visiting New Zealand medical professionals. A few years later he was offered the opportunity to come to New Zealand as Director of Anaesthesia and Associate Director, Intensive Care at Southland Hospital in Invercargill. Dr Hatangadi took up the challenge – and there was no looking back. He was certainly among the earliest if not the first India-qualified doctor in New Zealand.

“We didn’t quite know what to expect when we arrived in Invercargill,” says Maya. “But they were wonderful. We were given a home that was fully stocked with everything we needed – the fridge and pantry were full of food and the people were so friendly and made us feel at home.”

Finding Indian food and ingredients was nearly impossible in the Southland of the sixties but Maya quickly innovated and adapted. Meanwhile, Dr Hatangadi earned new qualifications and certifications and successfully set up the first pain management clinic at Invercargill Hospital that got the seal of approval from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1970.

“I was working 70 hours a week – night calls, anesthesia, intensive care… while also setting up the pain management clinic,” he said. He also set up a pain management clinic, the first of its kind at the time, at the hospital.

The family moved to Auckland in 1971. Working with Dr Bob Boas, Dr Hatangadi set up a multidisciplinary pain clinic at Auckland Hospital – also the first of its kind. Starting out as Registrar, he quickly became a full time specialist in anesthetics, and then the Deputy Director of Pain Management. He worked at Auckland Hospital and then with private surgical hospitals until retirement in 2003.

Maya worked with a private insurance firm and later as a tax inspector with Inland Revenue until her retirement.

“Life was very different when we arrived,” Dr Hatangadi says. “We were very comfortable on an annual salary of $6000.” Milk was 4c a litre and sugar 10c a pound, Maya reminisces. “We never locked our homes when we went on short errands – and we never locked our cars.” A brand new Mini cost just $1500.

The couple bought their first three-bed home in St Heliers for $25,000. “That was less than three times my annual salary then,” Dr Hatangadi said.

On Christmas Day next week, Dr Hatangadi will turn a sprightly 84. “Jesus Christ beat me by 2000 years,” he jokes with that characteristic twinkle in his eye. But he carries the Christmas spirit – the spirit of generosity and helpfulness – in his heart and in his actions along with his wife all the time.

Having been among the earliest Indian professionals to have made NZ their home, the couple have been unflinching in their support to newly arrived migrants, particularly from their own Saraswat community that hails from Goa and coastal Karnataka. The humble, soft-spoken couple has helped dozens of families find their feet in this country in a variety of ways.

“I wanted to retire the way a plane lands – losing height gradually,” he says. “It’s important that you don’t find yourself in a sudden vacuum. I dropped one work day every two years going from five, to four, three, two, one to none.”

That helped him pursue his interests – of which there are many, ranging from golfing to music and spending time with his daughters, their partners and five lovely grandchildren.

Since age 60, he has been a keen golfer who tees off three times a week even today – he has three holes-in-one to his credit. In the 1990s he teamed up with likeminded connoisseurs of Indian classical music and formed Kalaranjani, which brought many famous Indian performers to New Zealand. He also hosted Prakash Padukone (later world badminton champion and star Deepika Padukone’s father) when he visited NZ to play in a tournament.

Currently, he is Vice Chairman of the Mohan Nadkarni Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to the performing arts in New Zealand and Patron of the Association of Konkani Kiwis of Aotearoa (AKKA).

Family means everything for this adorable couple. All twelve of them travel together internationally every so often and meet every other month over dinner “so that the young cousins stay in contact.” Quite a feat, considering the daughters and sons-in-law are all busy professionals – successful psychologist, author and television host Nigel Latta is one son-in-law.

But years after his retirement, the professional world remembers and values him. In November, he was offered the Lifetime Membership of the New Zealand Pain Society for his great contribution to pain management in this country and internationally, where he has lectured extensively.

It is hard to find a couple younger at heart than the happy, helpful Hatangadis. The Indian Weekender congratulates them on their fiftieth milestone in New Zealand and wishes them a long and happy life together ahead – and a Happy Birthday to the good doctor.