Book Title: Three Countries, Three Lives: A Doctor’s Story
Author: Lindy Rajan Cartner
“Why did you not tell me you are a communist?” inquires Miss Beavers, the headmistress of the Panchgani school where Alice (the author’s mother) taught. This question arises in 1954, as Alice organises the acquisition of Encyclopedia Britannica, having Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution. The narrative previously transports us to a pivotal era when the British Censor Office in Bombay contemplated banning Tolstoy’s timeless classic, ‘War and Peace’, casting ominous shadows over intellectual freedom and cultural discourse in the 1940s.
These instances are just a glimpse of the prevalent prejudices of that time, some of which persist today. ‘Three Countries, Three Lives: A Doctor’s Story’ by Lindy Rajan Cartner unravels a tapestry of historical biases, illustrating their enduring impact on society. It is an extraordinary exploration of the intersectionality of colonialism, feminism and the evolving landscape of healthcare, all woven into the real-life narrative of a remarkable individual. Set against the historical backdrop of Burma, India and the UK from 1870 to 1977, Cartner masterfully blends fact and emotion.
At the core of the narrative lies Lindy, a prodigious child whose journey unfolds as a testament to the resilience of human spirit, forged within the confines of an unhappy marriage sustained solely by her father’s absence. An agnostic woman of unconventional beauty, remarkable intelligence, actor, dramatist, elocutionist, athlete, dress designer and gardener, she is a good wife, caring mother and ideal daughter, excelling in everything but cooking and Hindi. The Tamil protagonist’s struggles are a poignant metaphor for the challenges faced by women in a world shaped by colonial legacies, patriarchy and other prejudices. As the story unfolds, we witness her evolve into an excellent hematologist.
While the central character possesses commendable qualities, Alice emerges as the centrepiece of the narrative. An astute, free-thinking woman, she serves as a beacon for her daughter. Through this mother-daughter relationship, Cartner unpacks the struggles and triumphs of women striving for autonomy and recognition in an era marked by patriarchal constraints. The book introduces an array of intriguing characters, but one finds oneself yearning for deeper exploration into their intricate stories.
The exploration of racism is complex, reflecting the deep-seated prejudices ingrained in the colonial experience. The story also acknowledges certain praiseworthy attributes associated with the British, such as discipline. In a moment of nuanced reflection, Alice articulates a perspective that transcends absolutes, asserting that no one can be better than the British or worse than the British — an observation that encapsulates the complexity of the characters’ perceptions, prompting contemplation on the lasting legacy of colonialism on all aspects of life.
One may be tempted to believe that the author’s lens on the world might be shaped by her privileged upbringing, but her and her “socialist” husband’s deliberations on their daughter’s education (public vs private), while living in the UK, provide a more nuanced glimpse into their personal values, societal ideologies and the choices parents make for their children.
A major highlight of the book is the medical perspective, which carries a personal significance for me. Lindy’s maternal grandfather was a doctor, so were both of my grandfathers. One of my grandfathers, a practitioner with a compassionate touch, maintained a box where patients could contribute any amount of money after a consultation, if they were able to. The other, a retired Army doctor, possessed a wry sense of humour, once remarking to a patient seeking a tablet for headache at night, “You have given me the headache!”
The exploration of medical education is a thought-provoking dimension in the book, particularly the section detailing the system for selecting students for admission to CMC, Vellore. This alone makes the book worthwhile, especially for medical educationists. The protagonist’s as well as her husband’s prowess as physicians, juxtaposed against their struggles, adds a humanising touch. The attention to historical details and medical intricacies enhances authenticity.
‘Three Countries, Three Lives’ is not just a historical saga, it’s an attestation of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and a celebration of the diverse paths that lead to healing, understanding and self-discovery, a chronicle of a life traversing borders and decades.
Cartner’s ability to blend personal experience with larger socio-historical themes creates a narrative that is both intimate and universally resonant. It is not a mystery novel that you breeze through from start to finish in one sitting. Although the curiosity about the fate of the characters tempts you to hasten your reading, the book’s true essence reveals itself when enjoyed at an unhurried pace.