Throughout Life, Dr. Madan Luthra Focuses on Practicing Conscientious Karma

Dr. Madan Luthra with Kavita Tewari as they deliver PPE boxes from Sewa International.

By Manu Shah

Houston: In 2017, Dr. Madan Luthra retired from a long and successful career in Biomedical Research at MD Anderson Cancer Center (UTMDACC), Houston, only to move to the frontlines of community service. He volunteers as a core lead in the Case Management division of the Family Services program of Sewa International, a Hindu faith-based non-profit that helps local communities. As one of the program initiators in Houston, Madan and his team step in “like a family member” to help those  coping with emergencies, accidents, medical issues, death and bereavement and family disputes.

His days are markedly different from his earlier ones. Dropping off groceries or lunches cooked by his wife Rajyalakshmi for families who have been quarantined, connecting plasma donors to COVID-19 patients or tapping Sewa’s network to find accommodation for stranded international students is all in a day’s work with him. Some days are engaged in helping grieving families with funeral arrangements and the organ donation process, setting up COVID-19 testing appointments and even navigating insurance and medical options for those unfamiliar with the process.

At 73, Madan shrugs off his age, downplays his kindness and insists that he takes all the necessary safety precautions. He looks on this as an opportunity to practice “Nar Sewa, Narayan Sewa” (Serving humanity is serving Divinity.) His spiritual leanings are further reflected when he explains that he is “only an instrument and a superior power is guiding him.” In the same breath, he asks, “How can you not help at a time like this?

Madan approaches life with the same kind of mindset, a trait he attributes to his upbringing, the schools he went to and life’s myriad experiences. He was born in August 1947 in the village of Jodhpur, Multan, now in Pakistan, just five days after India was partitioned. From stories recounted during his growing up years, his mother, Ram Piari Luthra fled to India with her parents and five children perilously perched on the coupler between two railway coaches for 18 excruciating hours. His father followed a few months later. The family lived in a refugee camp for almost a year before his maternal grandparents were allotted temporary agricultural land in a village called Leasriwal near Alawalpur, Punjab. It wasn’t easy “growing up as a refugee in your own country,” he says of the experience, “especially as you had to work twice as hard to be counted.” To date, the years serve as a reminder to “never make any other life feel less than yours”.

After three years, the family was allocated a two-room mud house in Alawalpur, 15 miles from Jalandhar. Madan recalls sharing these cramped quarters with his grandfather, parents, four siblings and a cow for at least eight years.  The children, who had been homeschooled by their father until now, were enrolled in an Arya Samaj school. It was here that the seeds of universal brotherhood, service and humanity were sown and would hugely influence him in his interactions with people.  Money was always tight as the family had to survive on their father’s primary school teacher’s salary though his older brothers pitched in by earning money as porters at a nearby railway station. Despite the adverse conditions, life was simple, he says, and there was a sense of contentment.

This experience of living in abysmal refugee and poverty-stricken conditions had one silver lining. The value of education was impressed upon him not only by his circumstances but also by his father who to Madan’s deep regret did not live to see his son’s success. At 17, Madan joined a veterinary college in Hissar but changed course midway to pursue his Masters in Biochemistry at the Punjab University. The University ignited a thirst for knowledge and after completing his Masters in 1968, he enrolled at the University of Leeds in England for his Doctorate, supported by a scholarship from the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At Leeds, Madan discovered an entirely different culture which instilled what he calls a “global approach to his outlook to mankind.” He recalls waking up at 3 am during the busy Christmas season, riding his second-hand bicycle to the post office and trudging through the snow to deliver packages so he could earn a little extra money. A remarkable experience occurred here. For months, a breakthrough eluded him in his thesis on the role of phosphoinositide (a minor but pivotal class of phospholipids) in the brain. Disheartened, he decided to change his dissertation. On his way home that evening, he stopped at the library and stumbled across an article on inositol, a part of phosphoinositide molecules, written in 1864 by a German researcher. The article served as a light bulb moment. Madan rushed back to the lab and worked for 24 straight hours until he cracked the problem. He dedicated his Doctoral thesis to his father Ram Dhan Luthra, whose insistence on education and sacrifices allowed all his children to earn at least undergraduate degrees, if not more.

In 1972, Madan moved to the University of Arizona Medical Center, Tucson for his post Doctorate. He was tasked with conducting research on the red blood cell membrane. Here again, he hit a wall every time he attempted to replicate the team’s results. While working on a joint experiment, he realized that they were using an incorrect math calculation to arrive at the desired concentration of water, the reason why he couldn’t replicate the experiment. Once this was corrected, the team would go on to discover calmodulin, a pivotal protein present in all living cells including plants – a momentous discovery at that time. It was considered for a nomination by the Nobel Prize committee. 

While this was a crowning accomplishment, it was not the only one that year, Madan also found his better half here – Rajyalakshmi, who had come to the University of Arizona, Tucson for her doctoral studies in Biochemistry. Rajyalakshmi comes from an illustrious family of freedom fighters and her mother.T. Pushpavathy was a niece of T. Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh’s first Chief Minister. The two tied the knot in 1973 despite objections from Madan’s Punjabi side of the family. The only person to come to his defense was his mother who stayed with them till she passed away in 2003.

After serving as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology, University of Arizona Medical Center, the Luthras planted their roots in Houston in 1980 where Madan joined the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine. That same year, Madan and Rajyalakshmi filed the paperwork for legal permanent residency for their parents and siblings so that the next generation could avail the opportunities in the US.

A few years later, Madan gave in to an entrepreneurial streak by opening a laboratory for drug testing – a little known procedure in those days. He sold the business in 2003 and joined UTMDACC where he worked until his retirement. Dr. Rajyalakshmi Luthra continues to work for UTMDACC and presently holds a Professorship in Hematopathology and Directorship of the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory.

The couple has one son Jay and daughter Sonia, son-in- law David Meyers and three granddaughters – Kaya, Surya and Cheyenne who they dote on. Weekends are spent with their extended family on both sides.

Madan ends most days with yoga, meditation, and spiritual discourses. In his quieter moments, he mulls over the mysteries of the Universe and tunes inwards for the answers. As his spiritual maturity strengthens, he focuses on conscientious karma, prayer to the Almighty and sharing his resources with others – the three Sikhi principles laid down by Guru Nanak Devji.  Quoting from the Guru Granth Sahib – “Sarbat da Bhala” and from Hindu scriptures “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah,” he wishes for the welfare of all.