Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti
Title: In A Better Place: A Doctor’s Journey
Author: Bornali Datta
Publisher: Bloomsbury, U.K.
The author of In a Better Place is a highly respected medical practitioner with a long and distinguished career in U.K. and India. Given the vast knowledge and wide-ranging experience that have gone into the writing of this book, it is surprising to note that it is not an academic work. It is a novel, written with effortless ease, that proves to be as informative as it is readable and interesting. Bornali’s language is simple and has a gentle mellowness and her style, though lively, isn’t racy or trendy. It has a leisurely flow but demands close attention. She gives her reason for writing this book in her ‘Author’s Note’:
“While reams of clinical history and medical notes are written arduously every day in every hospital by its diligent doctors and nurses, there is hardly anyone to document the human stories that unfold continuously in the long corridors and lonely wards of hospitals.”
The book, as per her own admission then, is not an account or analysis of medical research and clinical practice. It is a story of human lives caught in the cusp of aspiration and reality. Of sickness and suffering entwined with the pressures and frailties of care givers. It draws from detailed and extensive research into the lives of Indian doctors during the last thirty years of our history. A momentous period which saw globalization and the waking up to a Many countries; One world, concept in a big way.
The writer shows a comprehensive understanding of her subject. Her characters are a group of idealistic young doctors, who are genuinely eager to use their medical education to treat the sick in the best way possible. They inhabit two worlds, India and England, sometimes physically; sometimes in spirit. They are confronted with two choices to begin with. Adherence to convention and traditional ways. Or carrying out their aspirations for what they think will be a better life, in defiance of social and parental pressure. Those who are unhappily trapped in India’s heat and dust, poverty and primitive systems, crowds and chaos yearn for foreign shores. Those who have made it to the West are ill at ease in the strange new life they have embraced. A sense of not fitting in, of somehow being reduced to the other despite all their education and proficiency in English, dogs them. Swamped in nostalgia and exile they are confused and bewildered.
Both sets of lives are seen as fragmented. Places define people and relationships. The book provides a fascinating kaleidoscope of yearning and aspirations in a direct, not always complimentary way. The value of the book lies in its creation of complex emotions, use of empirical data and honest telling.
The chief protagonist of the novel, Sudha, undergoes post graduate training in a government hospital in Delhi before moving to England with her husband, another young doctor called Girish. Their friends, Jai and Sanjay, also make it to their dreamland. All four are overwhelmed, initially, by the difference in the two systems and take a jingoistic delight in having reached where they wanted to be. The dirt and squalor in Indian hospitals, the rusted equipment and callous attitude to suffering by overworked doctors and nurses, is a shameful contrast to what they see in English hospitals. At first the picturesque buildings, manicured lawns, spotless beds and hushed corridors win their total admiration and respect. But, gradually, they get a sense that all is not as it appears on the surface. They, who only wish to do their best, encounter hurdles, injustice and racism and the cold, hard superiority of people who will never forget or let them forget they were once their rulers. An immigrant angst overtakes them. Some make a desperate bid to overcome it and manage to carve a groove for themselves in the land of their exile through unequal, often loveless, marriages with British citizens. Some begin to consider going back to India. But the choice, either way, is equally hard.
Dr. Chatterjee, a senior doctor in the hospital Jai works in, has made two attempts to return to India. Both proved abortive and he was forced to return. His wife and children, having lived too long in the West, could not adjust to India. He has become the proverbial nowhere man, unable to find a comfort zone anywhere. Though an excellent doctor and an intelligent, cultured gentleman, he knows that he will never reach the top of his profession or be accepted socially by his colleagues.
“’The Whites…,’ he tells Jai, ‘don’t want to socialize with you. Take Dr Smith and Dr Weldon. I’ve called both of them for dinner to my house, their entire families, not once but two times. But there is no reciprocation from their side. Not once have they invited me over, although they get together quite often.’”
Aspirations die but hope continues. People suffer but they also find solutions. The author is non-judgmental.
“There is never right or wrong, she says in conclusion to her story. Just what works for one and what works for another. Life goes on regardless, both inside and outside of the hospital, through the trepidation of change, of migration, of loss and adoption of a foreign land.”
But what, in the end, is a better place? Though Bornali doesn’t provide the answer I am tempted to do so. I quote from a poem I used to recite as a child:
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home.
Aruna Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with a number of published books on record. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince is her last novel and Through a Looking Glass, her latest short story collection. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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