She is an unsung hero’, says Dr Nilima Kadambi, about her ajji (grandmother), who is the heroine of her novel My Ajji and I. The book, a first by the author, is the story of Dr Sarladevi Khot, Dr Kadambi’s paternal grandmother and her inspiration. She published the book last month, on Dr Khot’s 120th birth anniversary.
Born as Akutai Chitnis to an impoverished farmer in Ajara near Kolhapur in 1897, Dr Khot was orphaned at the age of two. She was married off at nine by relatives and became a child widow at 10. The young girl was, however, encouraged by her grandfather to study medicine and thus graduated as a doctor in 1928 from Pune’s B J Medical College.
“It is during her graduation that my grandmother publicly proposed to her classmate and married my grandfather,
Dr Gopalrao Khot in 1929. The couple spent the next 11 years in the jungles of Tanganyaka (East African British Colony) where ajji conducted her own delivery in a thatched hut when my father was born in 1932,” narrates Dr Kadambi.
Dr Khot then returned to India and established a maternity home for safe institutional deliveries in rural India. “Her grandfather was the first reformer. He didn’t let my ajji tonsure her head after her husband’s death, as was the practice in those days. He wanted her to have a life, and a good one, not a mere survival. In Pune, Maharshi Karve took her under his wings and guided her,” Dr Kadambi tells us.
Dr Khot, who had three children with Dr Gopalrao, was always a favourite among her grandchildren. “Our best pastime was listening to her stories, and not the fictional ones. I would always insist on hearing stories of her life. That’s where I drew major inspiration from and have always wanted to talk about it,” Dr Kadambi explains about the genesis of the book.
A paediatrician, Dr Kadambi currently resides in Bengaluru. With her father in the Indian Railways, she has always led a “nomadic life”. “Dad was at one point sent to Japan on a project and we travelled with him. But my sister and I were soon sent back to India to live with ajji in Pune. That’s when ajji influenced my life the most,” recalls the author, adding, “When my husband and I were travelling to Russia in the early ’90s, many in the family warned me against it because our daughter was just one-year-old. It was ajji who said ‘Kay zala? Tithe kay mula vadhat nahit ka?’ (What’s wrong in going to Russia? Don’t children grown up there?)”
How was the experience of writing a novel? “I began with a lot of research in 2011, starting from her birthplace Ajara and many detailed conversations with our uncles, aunts, and other grandparents. One of my uncles helped me through the entire process,” she says, adding that both her parents passed away in 2013 within weeks, and that brought a temporary halt to her book writing process.
“But that inspired me to add a chapter about my aai baba (mom-dad) to the book,” she adds. Most of the writing took place in her second home on the outskirts of Bengaluru where Dr Kadambi would find “peace and quiet”.
Ask her about the challenges she faced, and pat comes the reply, “Rejecting pictures. We had so many pictures that I had a tough time choosing only 30. My attya (aunt) had preserved all of them well,” she laughs, adding, “Self-editing was another challenge. But my daughter and friends helped me go through the process smoothly,” she adds.
After approaching a number of publishers, Dr Kadambi was told by one to completely rewrite the way the story was narrated. “I tried, but realised that the rewritten story wasn’t mine. I wanted it to be my story. So I decided to self publish it,” she says.
A child poet and an avid reader, Dr Kadambi made this writing debut owing to her immense willpower to tell her ajji’s story to the world.
Follow the writer on Twitter @vinaya_patil