Saturday, June 02, 2007

Of Papers & Pills

Kavery Nambisan shares with Dibyajyoti Sarma the art of welding the scalpel and the pen with equal élan, and her love for telling stories, among other things

Her last novel The Hills of Angheri was published in 2005. Since then she has already finished her next one. “No, it’s not complete. I just finished the first draft,” says Kavery Nambisan. “She wouldn’t even let me see until she is satisfied with her drafts,” informs her husband, poet, writer and journalist Vijay Nambisan. It is Vijay who sees the drafts first and offers his comments, before passing them to the publisher. Vijay is a stern critic, according to Kavery. “I don’t mind criticism,” she says, “but first, I have to finish the book the way I want. After that, if my publisher wants some changes, it’s okay.”
But writing itself is a long process. “I am not like Vijay,” she says, “who can write once and be done with it. He plans everything, each sentence, each paragraph perfectly before sitting down to write.” Quips Vijay: “That’s because I’m a lazy writer.”
But Kavery is not lazy as far as writing is concerned. “I believe in making notes. Sometimes the notes run longer than the finished novel itself. And I believe in writing regularly, everyday. It’s a kind of recreation for me.”
When it comes to writing, Kavery is meticulous and precise, like a practiced surgeon. And why not, after all, she is a surgeon before she is a writer. “Not really, both the roles are not mutually exclusive,” she says. Not just these two roles, Kavery has donned many other roles with élan, especially the role of a social worker. She has always been working for the underprivileged, be it in Coorg or Bihar or in Lonavala, where she currently lives, and where apart from opening a dispensary for construction workers, she has also initiated a school for the girls of the labourers.
Born in Coorg, Karnataka, Kavery studied medicine in St John’s Medical College, Bangalore, before travelling to England to learn surgery. “When I returned from England, everyone expected me to join a high-profile job. In fact, when I decided to work for the underprivileged, everyone thought I had gone crazy. But that was what I always wanted to do, work for the people who do not have the privileges I enjoy.”
It was her motivation for work that took her to the interiors of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka, where she worked as surgeon and medical advisor at Tata Coffee Hospital, Kodagu, from where she took voluntary retirement before settling down in Lonavala. She has created several programmes for child immunisation and family planning for rural communities. She is also vocal in her critiques of urban-centred health planning.
“People say I made a mistake in leaving the Tata job. But I wanted to do other things. I wanted to reach out to more people,” she pauses for a while and says, “I have done mistakes in life, but I have no regrets. I have always done whatever I wanted to do.”
But how did the surgeon and social worker turn to writing novels? “It began with reading, I guess,” she says. “When I was studying, I was not a bookworm or anything. The texts took all the time. My real reading began in England. The libraries there really inspired me.”
After returning from England, Kavery started writing for children in her maiden name Kavery Bhatt, especially on the now defunct children’s magazine Target. Kaveri also won an award for one of her novels for children.
It was under her maiden name that she published her first novel The Truth About Bharat, Almost, a story of a rebellious young medical student who begins a cross-country trip on his motorcycle.
The book, which was reprinted recently, is probably one of the few campus novels in India. But how she chose to write about a male protagonist in her first novel when it has become almost a matter of politics for women writers to write about women’s issues?
Kavery is genuinely surprised at the question. For her, a story is a story. She says: “There is no rule that women writers should write only about women. If someone does that, it’s good for her. But a writer should have the freedom to write whatever she or he wants. The story needed a protagonist like Bharat. And it was not that I was unaware of Bharat’s world. My experience of studying in a medical college served me well.”
Continues she: “Agreed, India is a male-dominated society, but I’ve also seen men being tortured by the system.”
However, Kavery’s world of fiction has its share of women. Her third novel Mango-coloured Fish revolves around a young girl about to get married, while her fourth On Wings of Butterflies is a parody of about a group of women going militant about feminist issues. But Kavery remains totally non-committal to the issue.
Her most successful literary endeavour is her second novel, The Scent of Peppers, the story of a generation moving back and forth between Mangalore and England. He latest novel, The Hills of Angheri is about Nalli, who travels from her village to become a surgeon, like Kavery herself. “But the novel is not strictly autobiographical. Some of her medical experiences are mine. Other than that it’s Nalli’s story.”
She’s been writing quite prolifically for the past few years. Where does she get her material? “It’s the people around you. I love telling stories. There are so many stories to tell,” she says.
Kaveri loves writing fictions. “I’ve done articles and opinion stories, but I find them a chore. You do it because you have to. It’s telling stories that I really find comfortable.”
A teller of tales, indeed!

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