Her lifeline

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 4 January 2019

At 101, Dr Leela Gokhale-Ranade’s autobiography, Mazhi Goshta, will have some lessons in fortitude, strength and ethical practice for the young generation 

It was a kitchen accident that spurred the then eight-year-old Leela Ranade to dream of becoming a doctor. In becoming one, she challenged and won over many social stereotypes of the day, without making a big hoo-ha.

“I was born in 1917 to Ranades living in Shukrawar Peth. We were a large family of about 100 members. We had a maid helping us out in the kitchen. One day, she balanced herself on the chul (kitchen hearth) and leaned forward to pick a dabba off the shelf. She slipped and fell in the hearth and was in pain.

She kept asking for water and I got her some, but that didn’t stop her from crying in pain. She quietened down when a doctor administered injection. At that point, I realised a doctor can reduce your pain and make you feel better. Later I began telling all and sundry, ‘I am going to be a doctor’, ‘I am going to make people feel better’,” says Dr Leela Gokhale-Ranade, who released the second edition of her book, Mazhi Goshta, published by Mauj Prakashan in Pune, on Thursday. 

At the age of 101, Dr Gokhale is sprightly and avidly tells you her tale of becoming a gynaecologist. “I studied in Sevasadan School till Std VII. I had made many friends there and was very happy. But my mother, who liked the idea of me becoming a doctor, said that I should take a transfer to Hujurpaga School, if I wanted to study medicine. In Sevasadan, they didn’t teach Physics, Chemistry etc which would help me in my quest to become a doctor,” she adds.

Gokhale matriculated at the age of 16 with distinction and then went on to study in Fergusson College, where she topped in Chemistry and was one of the three girl students to feature in the Merit List. “I took admission in Grant Medical College, Bombay. Then, 10 per cent of seats were reserved for girls. So we three and 12 other girls took admission for first year,” says Gokhale, adding, “Getting a medical seat was difficult even then. I was a good student so I passed my examinations every year.”

But every story has a character that changes the course of the plot.  Gokhale’s tale was thrown offtrack a bit, by tuberculosis. “I moved to Mumbai in 1933-34.  My college didn’t have a hostel for lady students, so I took up boarding at Arya Mahila Samaj’s hostel in Gamdevi. I used to travel by tram. I studied well, but I kept falling ill intermittently. Mumbai’s weather didn’t suit me. In my fourth year, I had back ache and it was discovered that there was pus in my rib cage. The doctors decided to clean it and remove the pus. I felt that this would recur and requested the doctor to remove it surgically. He asked me if I was sure and I replied in affirmative. I underwent surgery and a small part of the rib was removed. This operation cost me six months and instead of appearing for my annual examination in December, I cleared it in April, next year,” she explains.
Moving on to the talk about her studies, Dr Gokhale says that the lady students had to visit Cama Hospital to study and observe 20 surgeries. In her case, Dr Zerad said that the students should spend a month in the hospital, which in retrospect helped Gokhale and her batchmates hone their skills in mid-wifery. “After passing out, I was given the honorary position of House Surgeon in Cama Hospital. I worked there for nearly 10-11 years. It was in this period that I met Baba or Balkrishna Gokhale, my husband and a Communist leader. I have included a chapter titled ‘Baba’ in the second edition, which was not there in the first. Baba and I have deep love for each other, and we were also very good friends. But since I wrote about my life in the book, I didn’t include many details about him in it. This resulted in some people coming up to me and asking if we didn’t get along well,” she adds with a chuckle. The second edition also includes another article, ‘Me Aani Maze Dev’ which she had written for another publication. 

From Mumbai, Gokhale moved to Pune and here again she worked in various hospitals, private clinics and set up her consulting room and a eight-bed hospital, putting to use her medical experience and homegrown common sense. “During my first delivery, a nurse told me to bring ‘toop’ or ghee from home, because it could have been adulterated in the nursing home I was admitted to. In those days, nursing homes used to serve meals for the new mothers. That was one lesson I didn’t forget. So when I started my hospital, I would make toop at home and hand over those jars to the new moms, so that the staff couldn’t pilfer it. In my family, special meals were served for new mothers — meals which included ghee, lime pickle, varan (dal) and Ambemohar rice, haaliv ladoos etc (ladoos made from garden cress seeds). I ensured that my patients got all this. When I was a visiting doctor in Rajgurunagar’s health centre, managed by Bombay Mother and Children’s Welfare, I would do my vegetable shopping in the wholesale market at Chakan and use them in cooking meals for the patients. I would marinate lime pickle for a year and so on,” says Gokhale.

On medicines and treatment, she says that the discovery of antibiotics was truly a life-saver and made surgeries easy. “Infertility amongst women and men was a problem even then. When such cases would come to me, I would first send the husband to undergo a few tests. I would encourage artificial insemination of women with their husband’s semen. As far as surgeries were concerned, antibiotics made our work easy. I believe in ‘prevention is better than cure’,” she adds.
Now, she prefers to concentrate her energies on knitting, and solving sudokus and crosswords. “My mobility is limited now because I need a walker. But my brain and hands work. So I spend my time knitting, making mobile covers and sling purses,” she says with a wide smile. 

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