Sandhyarani N: Thumbe Hoo… Biography of Dr. G. N. Narayana Reddy
Authors : Translated from the original in Kannada
Editor : Umesh P N
Publisher : Bengaluru SSRP Publishers
Year : 2017
Number of pages : 220
In keeping with the principles that have inspired Dr. Reddy, I must declare that I have known him over the past few decades and have always been treated with unfailing kindness and courtesy by him. At the end of this review I narrate one incident during our interactions.
Some readers may be puzzled by the title. We learn on page 7 of the book that Thumbe Hoo refers to the flowering plant Leucas Cephalotes. Curiosity aroused, I explored further. The plant belongs to the same family as the cooling mint. It attracts butterflies and a continuous column of busy black ants by its sweet nectar. It is often sought for its traditionally recognized medicinal properties and used for the cure of headaches, snake and scorpion bites among other ailments. Understanding on the wisdom of the title dawns as one continues reading.
Ms. Sandhyarani has performed a labour of love and her respect and admiration for her subject shine on every page. She has interviewed most available relatives, many of those who worked with Dr. Reddy at different stages of his career, and some patients. What was learnt at interviews is woven into the principal narrative but from page 122 onwards, we are provided the gist of several interviews with a few details on the person interviewed. As you might expect, the first person featured here is Dr. Reddy's better half – Dr. Chandramukhi. More on her a little later.
We learn of Dr. Reddy's childhood and his lifelong love for Gunjur, his village, and its residents. We follow his development as a child, during his education in school, college and Mysore Medical College. We learn that he was the first person in his village and family to be thus educated. After practicing medicine for a while in his village, he joined Victoria Hospital in Bangalore. On the advice of Dr. Ramalinga Reddy, Director of Medical Services, Mysore State, he joined the Mental Hospital in Bangalore in October 1955. The Director, Dr. Govindaswamy, persuaded him to study for the Diploma in Psychiatric Medicine. His subsequent career is described in considerable detail.
The web site of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, on the internet notes that Dr. Reddy was its third Director, following Drs. R. Martanda Varma and K. S. Mani. Dr. Reddy was succeeded by Dr. S. M. Channabasavanna. (There were six directors, starting with Dr. M. V. Govindaswamy, during its earlier avatar as All India Institute of Mental Health.) This note also credits Dr. Reddy with the setting up of the integrated outpatient department, rehabilitation centre and adding five departments Neurovirology, Epidemiology, Psychopharmacology, Health Education and Human Genetics.
Since Dr. Reddy started life as a psychiatrist out of compulsion and only later realised his longing to be a neurosurgeon, there were unexpected benefits for NIMHANS. On his appointment as Superintendent of the hospital, his understanding of the needs of psychiatry patients drove him to create a residental quarter on the campus for the families of those who had travelled long distances to reach the hospital as well as other facilities for their welfare.
The book does not dwell long on his achievements as a neurosurgeon and provides only a few anecdotal instances of his concern for his patients, the fact that he operated in the middle of the night without any hesitation when necessary, and that his patients often showed their gratitude. It does, however, describe in detail his administrative abilities, high standards, careful scrutiny of every activity on the campus and the means by which he ensured discipline.
A common theme throughout the several interviews conducted by Ms. Sandhyarani is that Dr. Reddy almost never accepted any gifts from patients (or anyone else whom he dealt with in the course of his work in NIMHANS). On a few occasions, he accepted fruit that the patient had brought from his own orchard but soon distributed it amongst his staff members. All those interviewed are unanimously in praise of his need for total transparency in all his official dealings, especially when they involved funds.
Dr. Reddy's equanimity, discipline, ability to obtain the acquiescence of all concerned in the performance of tasks that improved patient care and the reputation of the institute are proclaimed by all those interviewed.
I will not steal the thunder of the author but would like to dwell on some parts of her narrative.
We read of some unusual problems in living on the campus of a mental hospital. Dr. Reddy's son, Satish, recalls his hesitation when, daily, the bus conductor asked about his destination so that he could issue the appropriate ticket as the answer always was 'the mental hospital'. Sanjay, the younger son, talks of an aspect of Dr. Reddy that those of us outside his family, have never witnessed. 'I must have been about 8 years old when I stole a few rupees from his wallet. He had noticed me do it… A few days later when he asked me very gently if I had taken the money, I lied to get out of trouble. This upset him greatly and was the only time I have seen him angry and disappointed. Bad grades or other failures did not evoke this response. Integrity and honesty were far more important to him…'
When Dr. Reddy decided that NIMHANS needed a virology department, he selected an untried and untested youngster from Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER), Pondicherry. Dr. V. Ravi recalls the first meeting of the heads of departments he attended. Dr. Reddy pointed out the need for the virology department and the funds required to get it off the ground. Since he could not afford the decade or so that it would take to get the requisite funds and equipment through the usual channels, he asked all department heads to refrain from making any requests for them for a year. After obtaining their concurrence, he directed all resources to the fledgling department that would study viruses. Dr. Ravi's budget was approved, necessary equipment sanctioned and quickly obtained, and an entire floor granted to him. The rest is history.
I would like to introduce to you a few of those interviewed to raise your expectations of the contents of this book. Ms. Sandhyarani introduces Dr. Chandramukhi as a 'straightforward person who speaks her mind'. There is ample display of this characteristic in the text that follows and makes her contribution especially interesting. Her account of their early days, when means were limited, helps us understand the simplicity with which this couple has lived. We learn that Dr. Reddy could not be bothered about what he wore and that she had to ensure that his wardrobe was stocked. Her statement on what made their marriage a success will elicit nods of approval from many gray-haired veterans: 'The important thing in any relationship is honesty.' The last paragraph in this section is touching.
Apart from members of Dr. Reddy's family, amongst others, we encounter Ms. Jayamani, his personal secretary from the day Dr. Reddy was appointed Superintendent of the hospital to the time he retired as Director; psychiatric social worker Mr. I. A. Sharief, whom Dr. Reddy appointed as the head of the temple committee of NIMHANS (later to include a mosque and a church as well); Dr. R. Srinivasa Murthy, psychiatrist; Dr. V. Ravi, head of the virology department (who tells all those who ask that the 'V' stands for 'virus'); Dr. Venkataramana, consultant neurosurgeon and Dr. Reddy's chela; and members of the Richmond Fellowship such as Dr. Vasudeva Murthy. (I shall leave you to learn more on this foundation from the book and other sources.)
Ms. Sandhyarani has included photographs of Dr. Reddy and his family, those tracing the evolution of NIMHANS, persons who brought it to its present eminence and of Dr. Reddy at work. Page 152 carries a photograph that will fascinate many – Dr. Reddy with his faithful Pandu. Dr. Bhagavan, veterinary surgeon and an intimate friend of Dr. Reddy, presented an Alsatian dog to Satish. This dog, named Pandu was followed by Pandu II and Pandu III. Dr. Bhagavan tells us, with some surprise: 'Although I was a trained vet, Dr. Reddy understood dogs better than me.'
Dr. Reddy's interest in the life and works of Sri Aurobindo and Savitri, the epic poem in blank verse, are dealt with in fair detail.
There is, of course, much more to imbibe and ponder, presented clearly and in detail.
In closing, I would like to place on record one interesting experience that illustrates the reason why so many admire him. During a conversation in his office whilst Dr. Reddy was Director of NIMANS, I suggested to him the need for developing awareness of the role of the humanities in medical colleges and hospitals in India. He listened carefully and asked a few questions. The conversation then veered to other topics. I expected that with his immense burden of official work, the topic would soon be forgotten. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter from him, four months later, dated 10 March 1989. 'I recall the discussion we had some time ago about the need to have a symposium on The humanities and medicine. I am happy to inform you that it has now taken some definite shape and we are proposing to have this from 27 to 29 July at NIMHANS. I request you to kindly attend the seminar and also suggest a topic on which you would like to talk. Secondly, please suggest topics and individuals to be included in the programme…' Unwilling to commit himself till he had the means to organize something significant, he had worked quietly behind the scenes till all the necessities for the meeting had been provided and then wrote to me. Needless to state, the proceedings of this meeting resulted in widespread interest throughout the country. Unfortunately, no tangible results followed for quite some time.
Ms. Sandhyarani has provided us a very affectionate and informative tribute to Dr. Reddy. I enjoyed studying it and learnt much from it. I hope you do so too.