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Author interview

Juggling roles is like toothpaste, keep squeezing out time: Doc-author Madhurima Vidyarthi

I get miserable if I haven’t written during the day, says author of ‘My Grandmother’s Masterpiece’

Vedant Karia | Published 11.09.22, 06:32 PM

Video by Subham Behera; edited by Ritagnik Bhattacharya

A sparsely educated woman with a passion for athletics who ran multiple businesses.

A woman who completed her graduation with her son on her lap and in between making rotis on the chulha.


A woman who rediscovered her passion for painting, encouraged by her seven-year-old granddaughter.

Three remarkable women, all grandmothers — the first two perhaps the inspiration for the third, the protagonist of doctor-turned-author Madhurima Vidyarthi’s debut novel My Grandmother’s Masterpiece.

Over multiple cups of black coffee at The Tollygunge Club, Madhurima shared with My Kolkata her journey as a medical professional — she is a visiting endocrinologist at many of the city’s top medical facilities, including Woodlands Multispeciality Hospital and RN Tagore Hospital — and author.

What was your childhood like? How did the writing bug bite you?

My father is from Uttar Pradesh, and my mother is Bengali. I grew up reading and speaking both languages. I’m currently also learning to write Urdu because my father’s family is from Faizabad. It was very enriching to have multiple influences, and it helped me in writing and forming my perception of the world.

I did my schooling from Modern High School, before pursuing medicine at NRS Medical College. I have always found expression in writing. The first story that I wrote was when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was based on a story that I had just read, and I remember writing it in a lab notebook. I was very proud because I had actually finished the page and gone over to the other side!

Soon enough, I started writing for the school magazine. I also began contributing to The Statesman. In the early ’90s, it had a supplement that let school students like me function as reporters. We’d go to cover events, write features and do investigative reports. ­­

College was a different experience, because I went from a girls’ school to a medical college where in a class of 150 students, only 20 or 25 were girls. It also had people from different backgrounds and cultures. Even here, I carried on as a freelancer for The Statesman and would often skip classes to type out my stories. I even started getting paid for what I wrote. Those were happy times.

What were the challenges you faced in balancing your writing with your medical career? How did you overcome them?

In my third year, I realised that what I really wanted to write was fiction. Since you can't do both kinds of writing, I stopped freelancing. This was also partly because I was trying to focus on my medical education. I started­­ writing fiction but didn’t publish much as my medical final exams were round the corner and it was a stressful time.

After marriage, my husband and I went to London in 2004. There, we would study, work and earn at the same time, while completing our higher learning. I was actually quite unhappy there, and it made me realise that I can’t live anywhere except Kolkata. I started writing properly again only after coming back to India, because I feel I had a very deep-rooted depression of being away from home.

But despite the writing slump, I’ve always been a compulsive reader. The great thing about England is that the libraries are free and you can borrow up to 10 books at a time. In the beginning, my husband and I stayed in a very humble accommodation and didn’t have a lot of money. But we never needed a television because we would go to the library and come back with 10 books each! Even now, my home is full of books and there is a bookshelf on almost every wall.

I think striking a balance between medicine and writing has a lot to do with deciding what takes priority at that point. When I was preparing for my final exams and later training in London, I had to make medicine my priority, because I had chosen a profession that requires engagement on a deeper level. I also feel it is important to earn money which will keep you going. You can’t do anything on an empty stomach, nor can you support a family. Once you are financially independent, you can focus on your passion. This notion comes because I grew up at a time when art wasn’t a viable career option. In fact, my husband was offered a job as a resident cartoonist with a magazine after he completed school, but he turned it down because he needed something that was more stable.

Even now, juggling both is tough but I see it as toothpaste, where I have to keep squeezing out time. I get miserable if I haven’t written during the day, and my children also notice it and say, ‘jao, likho’. Some days I write 100 words, some days 1,000 words, but I have to write every day.

How has your medical background aided your writing?

William Somerset Maugham wrote his first novel in medical school. He would go to London slums for work and wrote about one of the characters he met there. He said that there can be no better training for a writer than working in the medical profession for a few years and I completely agree. I have notebooks filled with human stories of patients I have met. I really want to write about them. My days in London also inspired my writing, because for the first year and a half, we didn’t have jobs and were only operating on money saved from India. I still remember how we would line up outside grocery stores after 5pm, when the perishable items would be sold at a discount. The great thing about that was that I’m not intimidated by the thought of starting from scratch again, since we’ve already done it once.

Another enriching thing about working in the NHS (National Health Service of England) is that you work with trainees from all over the world. I was once part of a unit comprising an Irani from Mumbai, an Irani Christian, an Irani Muslim, an Afghani who spoke Farsi, and an Irish consultant. Imagine the kind of perspective that gives you.

How did you transition to published writing again?

I was writing in fits and starts when I attended a writing workshop in 2015 held jointly by British Council and the University of East Anglia. The workshop made me realise that my writing needed a sense of purpose and I decided to write a complete work of fiction. I started writing something for adults but it took a little longer because my skills were rusty. After that, I wanted to work on a big historical novel and started researching in 2019. Shortly after that, COVID struck and I had all the time to write. While taking a break from that novel, the first line of My Grandmother’s Masterpiece came to me and then I just carried on writing it. I kept getting ideas and ended up writing two children’s books within the process of writing the historical novel! The second one is due to be published in February next year.

Madhurima Vidyarthi’s second children’s novel is due to be published in February 2023

Madhurima Vidyarthi’s second children’s novel is due to be published in February 2023

Subham Behera

You mention on your blog that it was important for My Grandmother’s Masterpiece to have strong female protagonists. What goes into the making of such a character? How do female writers do it differently from men?

A strong female protagonist is someone who knows her own mind. They don’t have to go against stereotypes, hate men, or dress and talk a certain way. They could be stay-at-home mothers too. So, your grandmother can be as strong a female protagonist as the twice-divorced advocate for women’s rights. My ideal character is someone who doesn’t allow herself to be pushed into corners, can voice her thoughts and bear the consequences every day.

I feel that men tend to write women in slightly patronising ways, which I’m getting tired of. They have to think about the other side of the coin. What if we started writing men as plain black-or-white characters? I’m sure they wouldn’t like it. If you are discerning enough, you can tell by reading a book whether it has been written by a man or a woman because of the way female emotions are portrayed.

Did any women in your life inspire the grandmother’s character?

I’d always heard that my mother-in law was very talented and the reason behind my husband’s (Dr Sanjoy Basu’s) knack for art. In 2012, I came to know about art classes for adults and convinced her to go. She was very happy and started painting regularly at home, too. You could see the obvious pleasure on her face. The idea for this being an entire book came to me in 2020. I was very paranoid about it being reduced to tropes and hence told the story from the eyes of her slightly-bratty seven-year-old granddaughter.

Both my grandmothers were actually quite strong women. My nani wasn’t very educated, but she ran a successful business and was an athlete. From what I have heard of my dadi, she completed her graduation after my father was born. She used to study with him on her lap, making rotis on the chulha. She also went on to edit a Hindi magazine.

You’ve written for both children and adults, across blogs and novels. What changes when you write for different audiences?

I write for myself more than anyone else. I would be miserable if I didn’t write. Once when I wasn’t getting a publisher, I told myself that I would try to find one for a reasonable amount of time, and if I couldn’t, I would put it all up on my website. At the end of the day, when you’ve created something, you just want people to engage with it.

Last updated on 12.09.22, 01:52 PM

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