Year : 2021  |  Volume : 25  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 227--228

Book review: A luxury called health

Bobby Joseph 
 Department of Community Health, Division of Occupational Health Services, St. John's Medical College Hospital, Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Bobby Joseph
Division of Occupational Health Services, Department of Community Health, St. John's Medical College Hospital, Bangalore - 560 034, Karnataka

How to cite this article:
Joseph B. Book review: A luxury called health.Indian J Occup Environ Med 2021;25:227-228

How to cite this URL:
Joseph B. Book review: A luxury called health. Indian J Occup Environ Med [serial online] 2021 [cited 2023 Mar 20 ];25:227-228
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Full Text


Title: A Luxury Called Health

Author: Kavery Nambisan

ISBN: 978-93-5447-069-1

Name and Location of Publisher: Speaking Tiger Boks LLP; 125A, Ground Floor, Shahpur Jat, near Asiad Village, New Delhi 110049

Number of pages: 303

Price INR 599

At the outset, let me admit to a conflict of interest—I have known Dr. Kavery Nambisan for many years now. She is one of the celebrated alumni of St. John's Medical College, Bengaluru—our alma mater. Way before I first met her at Valparai, in 1999, when she was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the Annamalai Division of Tata Tea Limited, stories of her legendary exploits in Bihar were handed down to every young batch of “Johnites.” She hosted me at her bungalow at the Uralikal Estate in the Annamalais. Respectfully, I addressed her “Ma'am …” only to be promptly reprimanded by both herself and her husband! “What Ma'am?” Vijay questioned “It's Kavery!” And though she joined medical college even before I was born, “Kavery” she has been all these years.

The danger in reviewing an autobiography is the possibility of the reviewer criticizing the author's life—in this case, a professional life of more than five decades! Despite the familiarity with the person and the perils of such a review, why do I stick my head out to examine this book?

Though a surgeon, Kavery is an occupational health physician. As CMO of Tata Tea Limited, and later, as CMO of Tata Coffee Limited at Pollibetta in Kodagu, her concern for the employees of the company, those thousands living in the lines and their families was always evident—a characteristic that we find impossible to imbibe yet always desire. A second reason being that she is a devoted rural surgeon—a breed that can be described as one of those that would qualify to belong to the “unorganized sector,” if ever there was one among the various sub- or super-specialties of the medical profession.

It is the latter role that finds expression practically throughout the book and there is so much to learn about in those pages—the difficult surgical challenges in rural Bihar (Mokama), dealing with administrative problems in rural Uttar Pradesh (Mathura), and finding professional satisfaction despite all this. It is a rare life indeed—to give up a budding career in the West and transplant oneself not in a tertiary care hospital in any city in India but in Bihar—to find purpose in providing care in the most challenging of circumstances. Thereafter, in the evening of an illustrious career to settle down in the pastoral settings of one's roots to still care for the local populace. And when there, to find humor and irony in being ensconced between two hairdressers—forerunners of the surgical profession, as she alludes to on occasions. History is never lost as part of the storytelling—footnoted in many pages are facts that have long been forgotten in the history of medicine.

Devoted as Kavery is to the cause of rural surgery, her insight into the role of a CMO of one of the oldest industries in the country—the plantation sector—is sparingly mentioned in the book. The health and welfare audit (which she refers to as the medical audit), which was more regularly conducted during her tenure, provided the forum for discussions on the social and economic improvement of the population on the estates.

Where occupational health is concerned, there is that small chapter devoted to the health of workers – Can Your Job Kill You? I wish she had run this chapter past me. Kavery, silica dust and not silicon contributes to pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis! A few other technical errors manifest themselves in this chapter—employee contribution to the Employees State Insurance is 0.75% and that of the employer is 3.25%—a more recent change in the scheme—but then, this paperback was not meant to be a textbook for students of occupational health. Elsewhere, there are fleeting references to occupational and environmental health and lessons therein for the discerning reader.

That said there is much to learn about life itself—the two chapters devoted to Vijay's last days and the haste with which death came—are as much a learning of how helpless we as doctors are when calamity visits us as much as it is of an understanding of the emotions that one experiences when terminal illness invades one's home.

Raghuram G Rajan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India says “Autobiographies are always written as if the author had it all mapped out with perfect foresight, ignoring the risks and uncertainties at that time.” “It is not an autobiography as such,” Kavery cautions, “not even a memoir but a record of all my real-life experiences as a medical student and doctor. I bring in the personal element only where it is required—for the reader to understand a little of why I do what I do.” In that, through A Luxury Called Health, Kavery seems to surrender to the serendipity of what life has to offer, and narrates her reactions to what has been given to her. It is a must-read—definitely for any doctor but also for the lay reader and for anyone who is looking for ideas on how to write their own story.