Meet Dr Balesh Jindal, The Reluctant Doctor Who Worked For 40 Yrs In An Indian Village

The Reluctant Doctor: Stilettos to Stethoscope - True Stories from inside a Clinic is a medical memoir by Dr Balesh Jindal who grew up privileged but worked as. GP in a village in India.

Today, on Doctors’ Day, here’s a look at the memoir of a doctor who reluctantly began her career as a general practitioner in a village outside Gurugram 40 years ago and has a host of interesting stories to tell of how the place grew along with her career.

Compelling, hopeful, and also shocking. Worth a read not just as a medical memoir but also as a glimpse into the changes in India over the last four decades.

I’ve recently become wary of reading books by indie Indian authors because of the disappointing experiences I’ve had. Unfortunately, this is even applicable when the author belongs to RF, and I’ve had to toe the thin line between friendship and honesty many times. Before picking up this memoir, I was filled with trepidation. Would it be yet another indie dud?

I’m happy to report: No!

When Dr. Balesh Jindal approached me to read and review her debut book, I was intrigued. I have loved whatever medical nonfiction I’ve read in the past few years but these were more on the lines of investigative journalism than about actual medical practices. Moreover, there has been a trend of releasing anecdotal memoirs, the most popular being the format used by Adam Kay in This is Going to Hurt, but most of these are set in the USA or UK. It’s not like there are no books by Indian doctors, but most are not set in India.

Quite sadly, many of us know more about the NHS than about our own healthcare system. This is where such memoirs can fill the lacuna. Dr. Jindal being a woman doctor was the icing on the cake as I was sure her gender also would have had some role to play in her life lessons. (It did.)

The Reluctant Doctor and her journey

Dr. Jindal’s journey began in 1982, when she was a newly-married young doctor looking forward to joining her husband in London and working as a paediatrician there. When her father open a tiny clinic for her in the rural area of Kapashera (near Gurgaon), she reluctantly started working in it to bide time until her husband returned from abroad. As circumstances would have it, the clinic and not London was in Dr. Jindal’s destiny. This memoir chronicles her experiences over the forty-year period with great clarity, covering topics not just related to the medical practice but also of social importance, right from the farmers’ attitudes towards medicines to the changes wrought in the village by globalisation.

I am not a fond reader of memoirs as I find many of them self-centred and falsified. Most memoirs I have read have been about people promoting themselves and their thoughts under a façade of fake humility. The focus is on ‘I, Me, Myself’ and after a point, such self-aggrandisement gets to me. There are very few exceptions to this. This book is one of these exceptions.

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There are many factors that made this an impactful book for me

Dr. Jindal belonged to a wealthy family even before marriage. To go from there to treating the poorest of people was quite a jump. Her revulsion, her uncertainty, and her forced acceptance of unfair situations comes out very clearly through her words. She doesn’t hesitate in calling a spade a spade.

Unlike many professional memoirs, Dr. Jindal doesn’t digress much into personal avenues. The book focusses on her experiences in the Kapashera clinic, and whatever social comments she makes, she routes them through her clinical learnings.

Without any offence to anyone here, this part of North India is known to be terribly patriarchal and misogynistic. Imagine a woman doctor catering to such a clientele. It was eye-opening and unnerving to read this first-hand account of what I had only heard.

Through her work, Dr. Jindal was exposed first-hand to the changing social mores, and she doesn’t skip an opportunity to speak her mind about them. Topics such as dowry, favouritism for sons, attitudes towards women during their periods, rape, premarital sex, drug abuse, alcoholism, honour killings – all find a mention herein, and supported by examples too.

The anecdotes in the book often scared me a little, and not for the right or medical reasons. The focus is on rural health problems and the difficulties of dealing with patients who are sometimes illiterate, oftentimes superstitious, many times aggressive and defensive. Some anecdotes left me jubilant, and some left me with tears in my eyes. Some gave me goosebumps. It is not an easy read, especially in the second half. The last 2-3 chapters left me shocked and speechless.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the book is perfect

The start of the book is as shaky as the NH-8 highway (that Dr. Jindal mentions often) was in the past. There are many repetitions, the thoughts meander back and forth into various events without a clear timeline, and there are a few details that are left unclarified. However, the author soon gets into the groove and after the initial few chapters, the writing becomes much smoother.

The author is very bold and not pretentious, even when offering opinions that might not be politically or socially correct. This could go either way with readers. However, a book should be judged for its content and not for the person behind it, all the more when it’s a memoir and pointing fingers at the writer is that much easier. I truly appreciate Dr. Jindal’s candour in this book. She speaks her mind without any filter. It is exactly how memoirs ought to be – an honest peek into the heart and mind of the writer.

Two things I wish I could have changed about this book. First, I would have added some photos of the clinic, the patients (with faces blurred out), Dr. Jindal’s paintings – photos make a memoir come so much alive. Secondly, I would have liked some kind of an afterword or a parting note. The current ending is, as I said, jarring to the senses. Of course, this might have been a deliberate choice so that the impact of the data isn’t nullified by a happy adieu.

This memoir made me look at GPs with an even greater respect than before

They are always underestimated and taken for granted. Many a time in the book, Dr. Jindal refers to having an inferiority complex due to being “just a GP.” However, both she and we learn that even a GP has a crucial role to play in a community, all the more in a rural locality. I am glad she has at last made peace with her broken London dreams, and realised how important her role has been in the community of Kapashera and nearby areas.

Definitely recommended not just to medical professionals but to all readers. This is a wonderful and authentic look at how Indian clinics have had to function in rural areas.

4.5 stars, rounding up despite the fine tuning required in the writing to iron out the repetitions and smoothen out the timeline. This book deserves an audience.

The book is available to KU subscribers in India. This review contains my honest opinion about the same.

After completing this book, I did search online to see if there were other comparable memoirs by Indian women doctors and set in rural areas. I found only one: A Luxury Called Health: A Doctor’s Journey through the Art, the Science and the Trickery of Medicine by Kavery Nambisan. I hope to read this too some day.)

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up The Reluctant Doctor: Stilettos to Stethoscope – True Stories from inside a Clinic written by Dr Balesh Jindal, use our affiliate links at Amazon Indiaand at Amazon US.

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