Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: A Luxury Called Health
Author: Kavery Nambisan
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
India is a country of staggering inequality. It is a fact which is much more apparent in the general ward of a government hospital. The author says that a brief visit to one will tell you everything about the healthcare available to poor. In a country where getting two square meals is arduous for most of them, can they manage when struck by grave illness? Or is health, perhaps their only resource, also a luxury unaffordable for them.
Kavery Nambisan, a doctor and an author, who has been a rural surgeon for most of her life, through this book attempts to bring our attention to the basic healthcare that must be the right of every citizen of this country irrespective of class. She studied medicine and surgery at St. John’s Medical College in Bangalore and then went onto get a Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons from London. This book, her memoir, is her first work of non-fiction.
This book is not just a memoir. It is also a commentary on and a critique of the state of healthcare in India. Nambisan’s decision to return and then to serve as a surgeon in the rural areas of her own country is a testimony of her commitment towards the service which demands complete devotion. Her words echo with integrity, exemplifying her allegiance to her vocation. When she expresses concern over the low percentage of budget allocated to health care or the dismal infrastructure available in government run hospitals, the urgency of her call finds its way to the reader.
Being concerned about the increasing corporatisation of Medical Services in India, which has made good health services much expensive and out of reach of the middle class and the poor, she advocates the concept of Universal Health Care. Her suggestions are based on the system of National Health Scheme as offered by Britain to its citizens as well as on the efficiency of health care systems of countries like Germany, China, Russia, Spain, Cuba, Malaysia and Sri Lanka who seem to be doing better than countries like US and India. Her anxiety over miserable condition of health system in India reverberates with an earnestness which is sadly missing from the present national discourse. Though COVID did bring some attention to the terrifying reality of our incapacity to tackle pandemic like situations, it still hasn’t transformed into any visible effective change.
In the current times when private hospitals have more or less become business ventures focusing mainly on profits, there are few exceptions one may find. Nambisan tells us about her own heroes in the medical field. She talks most admiringly about the Dr Banerjees, a couple who after studying in UK set up Rural Medicare Centre in the outskirts of Delhi. They are the founder member of Association of Rural Surgeons of India (ARSI) which comprises of a spirited group of surgeons who have opted to practice in the rural areas of the country. It is heartening to note that nearly thousand surgeons are its members.
Account of her own experience as a surgeon is frequented by patients from every walk of life, whether it is a gun wielding youth from Mokama in Bihar or close aide of a Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a daily wage laborer or an upper middle class working women. Their appearance, accompanying the realities of their social lives, is also followed by the struggle and hardships which the doctor sometimes went through while treating them. She writes about the management of everyday affairs at different hospitals she worked in, about the frustration and vulnerability she was exposed to at times or the complete discipline of a hospital which would become much effective in managing a day.
Though in most of her writing, it is her practice in different rural areas of the country which takes the center stage, she does talk about being on the other side of the table. When her husband, the late poet Vijay Nambisan, was diagnosed with cancer she took the role of care giver. She writes about her nervousness and her apprehensions, about her helplessness and anger while watching him suffer. Her pain, subtly woven in her sentences, is like a palpable rap which makes the reader ache with an intensity unspeakable.
During the course of her narrative, Nambisan also gives the reader a peek into the history and evolution of medical practices. She emphasises the need of team work, touches upon the gender biases in the medical field, talks about the struggles a working woman grapples with and focuses upon the huge class divide much evident in the unequal accessibility to health care facilities.
A Luxury Called Health bravely courses through impeachment and defence as the writer compassionately tries to write about what she feels needs to be done. Sincere and spirited, candid and captivating, this book makes a compelling appeal for equity through the strengthening of India’s public health system by bringing in a national health scheme in operation. A timely and relevant advice the country may ignore at its own peril.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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