4 Victoria Terrace: Memoirs of a Surgeon By Subir K. Chatterjee, Social Science Press, Rs 625
Two things that readers need to understand clearly while reading the memoirs of the paediatric surgeon, Subir K. Chatterjee (picture), are the complicated family tree that he lays out in detail, and the number of places that he has called home. You find out that even though Chatterjee was a very good student in school, he took time over his decision to study medicine because “there were some who said that a good academic record was by no means a predictor of success as a doctor, in fact those who got good marks generally did badly in the profession”. You also find out that his fond memories of all the places in which he has lived are tied in very closely with his love of medicine and the realization of his dream project, the hospital known as Park Clinic. On the last day before he and his family moved from 83 Park Street to 4 Victoria Terrace — the nursing home that they ran, called Park Nursing Home, was to be expanded as a result of this move — the famous novelist, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, was admitted to the ground floor of 4 Victoria Terrace for urgent treatment. He had refused to go to any nursing home run by the British. Even though he was operated on by the renowned surgeon, Lalit Mohan Banerji, he passed away on January 16, 1938. Chatterjee writes that a photograph of him hangs at the main entrance of Park Clinic to this day.
It is anecdotes such as these that make up much of Chatterjee’s memoirs. His wistfulness for an early 20th century Calcutta is palpable. With school boyish delight, he speaks of the P.C. Sorcar magic show his parents took him to watch after he did well in the primary examination for the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; he rues the poor condition of the once-grand city palace of the Nawab of Murshidabad; he fondly remembers the famous British-era departmental store, Hall and Anderson, that used to stand at the junction of Chowringhee and Park Street. Among these memories he weaves in stories of his wife, Rekha, his children and grandchildren, and all the friends and acquaintances he has made throughout his life. It is easy for the reader to lose her way in this jumble of memories; Chatterjee writes of his life’s events in no particular order. Thus, the reader might end up confused and be forced to go back a few pages once in a while to pick up on a thread of the narrative that had been left hanging.
But even though Chatterjee’s memoirs are densely populated with friends, family and acquaintances, memories of his career and experiences as a surgeon have pride of place in them. In the vivid descriptions of his days at the Medical College of Bengal, of his stints in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and finally of his years at the Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College, the Ramakrishna Mission Sevapratishthan and Park Clinic, are included stories of intricate surgeries and miraculous recoveries. His pride is evident in the fact that he even names patients with crippling illnesses who now lead normal lives after having received treatment at the Park. But one wishes that a doctor of his stature and experience had written less about the various conferences he attended all around the world and more about the dismal state of healthcare in India and in West Bengal. For a legendary doctor’s memoirs, Chatterjee’s tales are uncomfortably sanitary and give the impression that his experiences in the medical profession, though great in number, were restricted within a bubble.