St John's Medical College has educated many reputed physicians and researchers who are making remarkable contributions to the world of medicine. What is remarkable about this Johnite physician is that she practices as a surgeon in rural India and is also a well-known fiction writer .
She is Kavery Nambisan and was born in Coorg. She graduated from St John's and went to England to do her FRCS. To quote from her novel, The Hills on Angheri : When she had had enough of "sunless winters" and felt that "something must be done before the frost settled in my heart," she decided to go back home to India. Two of her St Johnite colleagues, Sr Ann Elzabeth and Sr Ancilla had written to her about their desperate need for a surgeon at St Nazareth Hospital in Mokama, Bihar and on a whim, Kavery agreed to work there. Mokama, a dacoit-infested rural town, was thus her first experience of working under difficult conditions and it was one she would never forget, for she went back again after nearly 15 years to work there when they had difficulties. She later worked in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. She won the Tata Excellence Award in 2001 for her work when in Tamil Nadu. She now lives and works in Maharashtra with her husband, the reputed poet and journalist, Vijay Nambisan.
Kavery began her literary career writing for women's magazines. Detecting the false note in her own voice when trying to write for that market, she tried her hand at writing children's books, and won the UNICEF-CBT award for her adventure story Once Upon a Forest, which was later serialised on television. Her first adult fiction was The Truth (almost) about Bharat published by Penguin India in 1991 is about three months in the life of a medical student, and written from a male veiw point. It was reissued in 2002. Her books are based on her personal and objective views on life around her. They include The hills of Angheri, Mango coloured Fish,The scent of Pepper and On the Wings of Butterflies . Kavery also writes about healthcare issues for the national media and is vocal about injustices and female fetocide. She is an active member of the Association of Rural Surgeons of India (ARSI) and has been a governing council member for several years.
In 2007, she was invited to the University of Iowa as a fellow of the International Writing Program. During her stay in the US she lectured at Cornell, Yale, Berkeley and Columbia universities and did readings from her novels. She also received generous contributions for ARSI following her talks to physician groups in the US.
Her latest work, The Story That Must Not Be Told is one of the 21 books chosen on the list for MAN ASIAN LITERAY PRIZE 2008. The winner will be announced in November 2008 in Hong kong and all Johnites will no doubt be rooting for her. The Man Asian Literary Prize, sponsored by the Man Group which sponsors the Booker Prize as well, is open to works of fiction in English written by a living person of Asian origin that have not been published at the time of submission.
An e-mail interview with Kavery:
1:Did you have an arranged marriage or did you fall in love with your husband?
Love marriage. My first marriage to Dr K R Bhatt who was a colleague in college sadly ended after 18 good years. We have a daughter, Chetana. I subsequently married Vijay Nambisan and we live in Maharashtra.
2 :Did I get the list of all your books?
Yes, except for the childrens' books, many of which are out of print.
3 :Do you write as a hobby or is there something that compels you to write?
I have said this elsewhere: I started to write with the rather callow intention of wanting to see my name in print. Subsequently, when I started to write for children, I realised that I had much better reasons. I love telling a good story as much as I like hearing or reading one. Fiction reaches areas of the mind unreachable in other ways -- it sees round the corners and helps the reader identify with characters and empathise. Almost all good fiction teaches sensitivity. I write as honestly and truthfully as I can and hope it fulfils some of the above.
4 :Could you list in chronological sequence where in rural you have worked since you came back from England?
Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. I'm leaving out here the brief period in Madras (I could not adjust to city practice for various reasons) and a private hospital in Kerala (where I was asked to leave the job because I refused to indulge in the malpractice blatantly practised there.)
5: What do you see the future holds for you?
Much as I love my career as a surgeon, I've always wanted to try my hand at other things -- like being a simple, ordinary doctor treating every ailment. That's what I do now from a clinic I run for the migrant labour who come from interior Maharashtra and from North Karnataka in search of work. My husband and I also run a learning centre and library for their children. We have recently taken up similar medical and educational work in a nearby village, through our Trust Nalanda Learning Centre and Library Project(NLCL). We have a small group of friends very keen to simulate this work in more places. This type of work is as challenging as surgery and leaves me as little time for my writing as before.
6 :Which year did you join and gradute from St. Johns and what made you join there?
I joined in 1965, third batch. My father who had heard about the college agreed to let me do medicine only if I got a seat through merit, in either St Johns or at CMC Vellore. As it happened, I only applied to St Johns.
7:Are you working on any other book at this time?
A non-fiction book commissioned by Penguin and tentatively titled: "Why should health be a Luxury Item?"
8 : How do you find time to be a surgeon and writer at the same time?
The same way as any woman keeps a good home, cares for her family(I have barely managed) and holds on to a career.
9 :What has hapened to the Associations of rural surgeon?
It is very much alive and active. The annual conference will be held this year at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (MGIMS), Wardha which is one of the best medical teaching institutions in the country.
10 What made you chose to practice in the rural area as opposed to urban areas?
I'm a rural person and I love the challenges of rural surgery. It demands a very different type of skill and imagination, to tackle cases which a general surgeon in the city can send to a specialist. One has to keep in touch with learning always. And there is wonderful interaction with the community. I also believe that I am needed there, while in a city there are any number of surgeons who can do what I do.