A Luxury Called Health review: A discovery of India’s fragile health care system

Among the perks of being a wallflower is the ability to generate the finest version of history through the ages. Being a wallflower provides an author an interesting seat — to watch from a vantage position, observe people, events, the comings and goings and record events as they happened, without fear or fervour.

Kavery Nambisan is a perfect wallflower, in the positive sense of the term, perched on the wall of Indian medical history, unravelling its journey of nearly five decades, beginning the story just as it is poised on the cusp of change. Indeed, far-reaching changes will alter the very shape and texture of health care since the 1970s, and here we have someone who lived through it, guide us through, navigating that maze with surgical precision. A Luxury Called Health is an engaging sort of Bharat Swastha — Ek Khoj, a discovery of the Indian health care system, an expansive view packed into just over 300 pages. What a vantage it turns out to be.

When you have in your hands an award-winning author’s first non-fiction book, it generates certain expectations. One assumes it will be well-written, engaging, perceptive, with somewhat tongue-in-cheek as well. There is all this and more; there is sympathy, truth telling, and, predictably in her endearing manner, Kavery calls a spade a spade.

A story to tell

She takes us on her well-documented journey with medicine, through the classrooms, introduces us to cadavers, on to internships, house surgeoncy, choosing a specialisation, studying abroad, exams, the anxiety of working abroad, the anxiety of doing well, the blessings of being guided by masters and the horrors of bad surgeons... Everyone who’s been through the thresher of a medical education likely has a story to tell, but this story is one which is well told, and with sympathy and awareness.

Ultimately, the best narratives are those of the stories of people. That’s how Kavery lets this book talk too, through the people she meets, the patients, their attenders, the nuns, the nurses, the swamis, the surgical assistants, the duels she fights with the human body, and in nearly every single story there is also a larger life lesson to be derived.

Sometimes it is about the right bedside manner, even about the right skillsets for surgery; it exposes avarice, other times lethargy, sheer stupidity, and is often about the increasing dominance of the private health sector, and harps on inequities in health care.

Kavery carefully removes any bewilderment the reader might have by settling everything in a neat context, achieving that through a measure of using data, recounting exact accounts, using reference texts, and setting the age-specific social, cultural, political and gender context as and when required.

Few are spared too, especially medical professionals who fall short, while patients, never mind how difficult they are, get a sympathetic understanding.

Lessons from life

Notably, from someone who gave up a lucrative career to work in poor resource settings in remote Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the angst sounds well intentioned, angry, and rings right. She seems justified shaking her fists at the powers that be, with concerns about serving everyone with the same level of care, private versus public health care, reducing out of pocket expenditure, and a burning desire to enforce an ethical and scientific medical practice, to mention a few.

There is one chapter in the book that stands out; it is visceral writing, an account of losing her husband and poet Vijay Nambisan to cancer. Few accounts exist in the genre that speak of love, longing, loss and pain with such intimacy and power that they shatter the last remaining sangfroid of the reader, unsettling something inside.

Even when she’s no longer a wallflower, this book works.

A Luxury Called Health; Kavery Nambisan, Speaking Tiger, ₹599.

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Printable version | May 8, 2022 8:17:21 pm |