G. Lakshmipathi on life in small-town India, the congenial nature of medical practice and the cultural awakening of Coimbatore
Climate brought me to this city. That, and the desire to teach. A true-blue Madras boy, I moved here in 1968, smitten by the city's salubrious climate, its sweet water and small-town character. Plus, I got the chance to take classes at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital (CMCH).
Those days, the city stayed true to its epithet of ‘Poor Man's Ooty'. There were trees all around and if you drove two miles out of the city, you would hear the mooing of cows and the twittering of birds. Now, it has become more like a ‘Rich Man's Booty'!
Coimbatore had an aura of its own. There were niggling issues, though. We had Siruvani water, but it was not available! So, at 5 in the morning, I would descend the steps outside our house on Lokmanya Street in R.S. Puram to painfully draw up a bucket of water. Any deeper, and we could have struck oil!
Our city has always been a university town. We had three engineering colleges (GCT, CIT and PSG Tech), a medical college (CMCH), the Bharathiar University, Forest College, Sugarcane Breeding Institute … this profusion of educated youth lent the city a unique flavour.
The cost of living was less, and all food was nearly organic. We got the best of vegetables, even English vegetables, from Ooty, and lived in a city where people forged close bonds.
As for medical practice, it was patient-oriented. It was a time when internal medicine ruled. We had few specialities — ENT, Ophthalmology, Gynaecology and Dermatology. And, in the 1970s and 1980s, we saw an explosion of cases of diabetes and oesophageal reflux — lifestyle diseases were making their presence felt!
There were very few consultants in town, and the medical community was a close-knit one. Indian Medical Association (IMA) meetings saw all the doctors of the city meeting up to exchange notes.
Sometimes, two or more doctors would team up for visits to Pollachi, driving through near-vacant roads and village vistas to eager patients. Then, there were the trips to Kotagiri, to a roomful of people who were unwell. Trouble was, I'd be so sick by the time I reached, I needed to rest beside them before I could offer my services!
House calls were common. Consultants came home even if they were not married to your sister! Most importantly, patients had faith in their doctors. And, there was no cut-throat competition; it was a very congenial atmosphere. No one went about soliciting patients. They came to us word-of-mouth, which, I still believe, is how medicine should be.
Even in the 1980s, we would send patients with neurological and cardiac complaints to Madras. Private hospitals gave a fillip to medical care in the city, forcing the government hospitals to keep pace. Today, I'm delighted that we are in the medical tourism circuit.
While teaching at the CMCH, I came across a deluge of people with preventable illnesses such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and cholera, besides anaemia due to malnourishment. We had to treat people keeping in mind what drugs we had in stock.
Keerai vadai and kaapi
In the name of entertainment, all we had were some theatres. They would screen English movies in Srinivas, Rainbow and Central. Central was so famous for the keerai vadai and filter kaapi sold in the canteen by K. Dhamodarasamy Naidu. During the short interval, we would queue up to buy ourselves a crunchy piece of bliss.
There were a couple of drama sabhas, but they needed month-to-month resuscitation. And, we had to go to jail for a dose of culture, as the auditorium was there!
When it came to Carnatic music, the city was near-bankrupt. But for the Ramanavami celebrations at Lalitha Nivas (at my father-in-law, Binny Subba Rao's house) and an association called Ragasudha, there were few opportunities to listen to classical music.
The concerts were hugely popular. Special buses would ply for the Ramanavami concerts in R.S. Puram. The performers were the who's who of Carnatic music such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Once, Madurai Mani Iyer had to be carried over from the next compound to the stage; the venue was teeming.
Once we started the local Kendra of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, we were able to bring in more cultural activities to the city.
The original Coimbatore localities were R.S Puram, Telugu Brahmins' Street, Vysial Street and Tatabad. Bharathi Park was a twinkle in someone's eye. Can you imagine people being scared to walk down Bharathi Park Road? It used to be that lonely and dark.
As regards food, it was Annapoorna masal dosai or nothing at all. In cars, it was the Herald and the Ambassador. Luxury goods were an alien term.
Today, so much has changed. But, some things have not, much to my chagrin. Autorickshaw fares, water stagnation at Kikani underpass (local lore had it that if you stood atop the Kikani bridge, a rain-fed Coimbatore would look like Venice!), badly-maintained roads and clogged drainage systems. We owe our city that much, surely.
G. LAKSHMIPATHI (MD, FRCP, FCCP) Born 1934, he came to Coimbatore in 1968. President of the Humour Society of Coimbatore, he has taught medicine for nearly 30 years and was professor at PSG IMS. He was secretary of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for 25 years. He has been president of the IMA and charter president of the Central Rotary.
At Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, we once organised a concert by the legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi. The response was so phenomenal that we had to convert the Central theatre into an auditorium!