My Pains and Gains in Becoming A Doctor

The autobiography of an independent- minded neuroscientist – Part 1

Dr. Prithika Chary*

Senior Consultant, Neurology, Neurosurgery and Epileptology, Kauvery Hospital, Chennai, Tamilnadu, Trichy, India


The Prologue: Impatient to be born into an Independent India

The British landed in India at Surat on August 24, 1608.

The British East India Company came to India as traders in spices, a very important commodity in Europe back then as it was used to preserve meat. Apart from that, they primarily traded in silk, cotton, indigo dye, tea and opium.

While India has a rich and recorded history going 4000 years back to the Indus Valley Civilization in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, Britain had no indigenous written language until the 9th century, almost 3000 years after India. How was it possible for the British to start capturing this huge country and control it from 1757 to 1947?

Robert Clive won over Bengal in 1757, which was a major province/kingdom in India. Mysore state was won over in 1799, Marathas were defeated in 1818, and the Sikh empire was finally defeated only by 1849. The British took nearly 100 years to conquer India, and then ruled India for another 100 years.

In fact, the suppression of the 1857 revolt was when the rule really consolidated and officially passed to the British Empire.

The rebellion of 1857 shall be remembered as the first blow that shook the edifice of the British rule in India. In August 1850, the British Parliament passed the Act for Better Governance of India. The act ended the rule of the “Company” in India. The governance of India was transferred to the British Crown. After the revolt, the British pursued the policy of “Divide and rule” to consolidate the empire.

1858 to 1947 was an exploitative time for India. The British who came as traders quickly colonized and became the masters over the Indian subcontinent, marking it as a Jewel on the Crown of the British Empire. The process involved their infiltration, waging wars and taking over the country portion by portion.

Our achievement was our obtaining our freedom from this oppressive period without violence or a war, but by peaceful resistance and non-violent non-cooperation. India gained her independence from the British Raj on 15th August 1947.

Gains beyond just independence!

Thus, began the first of my gains – I was born on June 2, 1947 and soon gained the good fortune and opportunity to grow up in a free India. I yearned to retain, revive and renew the rich and varied culture and traditions of India, and to see it recover and rejuvenate from the heavy-footed influence and impact of several years of anglicized attitudes and behaviors.

My father had served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot and was decorated for bravery in the Indo-Burma war during World War 2. He thought of himself as a British Indian.

My mother on the other hand studied in Shantiniketan in Calcutta under the sunshine of the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and brushing shoulders with a young Indira Gandhi, future Prime Minister of India. She thought of herself as an Indian – Indian and preserved, protected and propagated several of India’s traditions and cultural practices. She also trained in the 3rd batch in India under Madam Montessori herself.

My two sisters and I imbibed from our parents’ discipline, integrity, sincerity, hard work, belief in our abilities, self-esteem and self-confidence. We were exposed to the twin culture, habits and ways of both the British and the “modern” Indian, but free to make our choices.

Looking back on my childhood I consider it a unique upbringing that I believe made me into a person with traditional values and modern thinking. The fact that we were three girls led to us being introduced early to caring for a home, but since our parents were educated, our studies were deemed very important. We were free to aspire to be anything we wanted; we were given the liberty to explore new avenues and acquire any skill we wanted to learn irrespective of our gender.

Since the age of two years, I was obsessed with becoming a doctor. I played doctor, bandaging dolls and putting them to bed. I acted doctor in fancy dress competitions and in school plays. In middle school, I volunteered at a doctor’s office during my holidays, explaining to patients how the “dispensed” mixtures and powders were to be taken.

So, naturally I focused on excelling in academics. Till the seventh standard was in a co-education school; I competed with the boys to stand first in class, played pranks on them, got punished for my mischief, and learnt to hold my own even if it had to wind up as a boxing match. This was a very happy time of my life. I was a voracious reader, loved to learn new things and was very curious about everything around me.

My father made us learn a new word every day (spelling, meaning and pronunciation) by randomly opening the dictionary; and also learn about a new place, and know something about it from the atlas. I soon became very adept in general knowledge, expressive in essays and active, animated and aggressive at debates in school. Early in life I became comfortable at performing in public, with no stage fright, and acted in plays right through school-years.

Father emphasized another important lesson when he said – “Always do what you have to do as best you can, because it is your autograph, and people relate that to you.”

In the middle of the seventh standard, I was shifted to a girl’s school as we moved house and perhaps also because I was becoming a tomboy of a teenager. I could play hockey, throwball, netball, sprint, climb trees and swing and roll 360 degrees on the outdoor gym equipment. I loved the outdoors.

The first of my pains was learning how to be “a lady” when I joined the new school. My leadership skills soon made me the leader of the class, but my rough and tumble, and boisterous ways, led me often to the Nun-principal’s office to receive the admonition that I was setting a bad example. Slowly but surely, I learned that society expects boys and girls to behave in a certain way, different from each other, to be acceptable. At many homes this change may have been welcomed as inevitable and appropriate but no restrictions of any kind were imposed on us at our home, leading us to believe that our abilities were limitless, if we were willing to put in the work.

I believe the happiest period of my life were the years till I finished school. New friends, new skills, new games, new role models, new achievements – I was really on a roll. I learned how to cycle, swim, throw the discus, javelin, shotput, played netball, throwball and a game called rounders, similar to baseball. But I stayed focused on the need to get good grades-, high marks – to get into medical college, so I added skills like St. John’s Ambulance Brigade’s training which would serve me in good stead. I also learned to play the guitar, piano and veena.

I am so grateful for these diverse gains made during my adolescence, thanks to supportive, understanding and encouraging parents. They taught me that a successful life has to gain a balance between academics, work, hobbies and enjoyment of life, which I follow to this day.

I secured a first class on graduation from school and joined a pre-university course after which only I could apply for entry to Medical College. Success in that was to be determined by the marks secured at the pre-university final examination in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and on the outcome at a face-to-face interview with four “examiners”. So, I put my nose to the grind stone and scored the highest marks in Stella Maris College that year in Biology.

Should I accept pain so that somebody else gains?

Another painful realization came – Independent India was still mired in divisions based on caste. Being in a ‘forward caste’ reduced your chances to win the academic stream you wanted to enter even if your marks were good. To beat the odds against me, I had to excel at the interview.

I whispered a thanks to my schools for honing my stage skills. I had no fear facing four serious looking professors at the interview; fortunately, I got chosen!

My joy knew no bounds when I received the selection letter.

Another painful realization came ahead. The children of influential and important parents were posted to Madras Medical College. The next in the pecking order received admission to Stanley Medical College. The rest were shepherded to Kilpauk Medical College which had just got converted into an Allopathic Medical College from an Ayurvedic one.

Where do you think I was posted – my dad was just this hardworking engineer working in an auto company and was not famous or renowned (The fact that he had fought in the air to hold off the Japs on the ground from marching into and invading India and imposing another imperial ruler did not matter!) – so off to Kilpauk medical college I went!

The divide and rule policy that the British had driven deep into the Indian psyche, which was already steeped in its own discriminatory attitudes towards caste and creed, now stood in the way of education, and determined the fate of students not based on merit, but on misplaced social norms.

Undeterred that our college was in some way considered inferior to the other two medical colleges in the city, we took advantage of our good fortune in being blessed with excellent teachers who made us competent to hold our own at all competitive examinations. There was no gender bias; boys and girls worked together in harmony. We did not even have the privilege of being an examination center and had to go to either Stanley Medical college or Madras Medical College to appear at our examinations.

Many of my class mates felt shy and inadequate in the more impressive environment of these institutions, but I was so keen on getting through the examination and becoming a doctor, I just did not have the time to feel inferior. My eyes were set on my goal and nothing could stop me.

My paternal grandfather who was my guardian suddenly passed away on the day of my first paper in Surgery theory examinations. I had my second paper the next day and went for it after the funeral. The pain of my loss fortunately did not affect the gain from my efforts and I passed the MBBS at the first attempt, with good marks, and also gained a few certificates of merit in academics and sports.

I believe the time you finish your undergraduate degree is a very crucial and difficult stage. You felt proud of having become a doctor, but you are not sure what direction to take after that – join the government, join the private sector, set up private practice, pursue further education were some of the choices, but each posed its own issues which had to be confronted, and difficulties to be surmounted.

I loved children and wanted to become a Paediatrician; I was also inspired by my Chief and Mentor Prof D. Mathuranayagam who was a Physician and a Paediatrician.

As a house surgeon I was lucky to be posted to Govt. Royapettah Hospital where my exposure and experience were greater than what I would have gained had I been posted to Kilpauk Medical College Hospital. I worked hard, learned a lot, enjoyed the thrill of being a practicing doctor, and acquired every skill I could possibly learn.

Then came the next pain. Classmates became competitors when it came to seeking jobs or seats in postgraduate programs. No one shared valuable information about application dates and deadlines and the “how to” for various pursuits. One essentially had to be hyper-alert and fend for oneself.

I learnt about applying for the MD almost near the last day, and had to hurriedly file my application, with the relevant documents, just in time. As a precaution I applied both for MD in General Medicine and in Paediatrics.

I learned then that my future as a doctor would meet both fair and unfair competition, and collaboration or co-operation, offered with a hidden agenda. I just had to accept it and grow up.

I got the seat in both Paediatrics and General Medicine. Seats in Paediatrics were limited and as a Minister’s daughter was keen on it, I was “advised” to surrender that seat, and take up General Medicine. That was the way things worked in the 1960’s.

The sum of all gains, and pains, is a continuum

I now come to the end of the first part of this series of episodes in my life and career.

Between 1947 and 1971 India went through several pains and gains as it matured as a Democracy. India was a strained democracy in 1971 transitioning from single party government to coalition government. It needed to deal with communism and population control and also accept the fact that several central policies would be vehemently opposed by the people.

Like India, between 1947 and 1971, my becoming a physician was also filled with several pains and gains.

In retrospect I feel each of the pains were valuable lessons for the future, and actually led to the gains.

For example, if I had not become a general medicine MD, I probably would not have become a Neurologist or Epileptologist.

More on that later.