"The Barefoot Surgeon" | Out of the darkness
Inspiring and uplifting, this is the extraordinary story of Dr Sanduk Ruit who took on the world’s medical establishment to give the life-changing gift of sight to thousands of the world’s poorest and most isolated people; elaborates Arnav Jha
The thing about reviewing biographies is deciding how to evaluate the writer’s own writing. Do you evaluate it independently from the story they are trying to tell, much like any other book? Or do you simply evaluate their prowess through how little of them you can see in the story as should be, perhaps proper in a story that isn’t about them in any way? Naturally, autobiographies don’t suffer from this ambiguity but this isn’t an autobiography.
The Barefoot Surgeon, for the lack of a better expression, is a fairly ordinary book about an extraordinary man. The author, Ali Gripper paints just enough of a picture throughout the book for her work to not resemble a patched up series of interviews spanning some three years. Her narrative work is adequate, particularly in chapters dedicated to describing the surroundings that the book plays out in; other chapters feel more like running interviews. But it may be argued that Ali Gripper is, in fact, putting some of her own self in these chapters as she is a career journalist before she is an author. Her knack for stringing together irrelevant titbits into a narrative of sorts shows and the book itself is written in an easy to approach style.
A surprisingly troublesome aspect of many biographies is testimony like chapters from other people about the person that is the subject of the biography. Many of them read like some kind of paid restaurant review that waxes lyrically like they are trying to sell you something. A proper biography ( in my opinion) does not use these testimony sections in any significant form, instead of relying on narrative flow to draw out the apparent greatness of the subject without spending paragraphs extolling the virtuous existence of these individuals. The Barefoot Surgeon does not conform to this aspect of biographies but it’s not like it doesn’t have a few testimonies sprinkled here and there to pad the book. Much like many things about the book, it lies in the acceptable range.
But, enough about the author and writing styles. Now for the subject matter of the book itself. The Barefoot Surgeon is a book about Sanduk Ruit, a Nepali ophthalmologist who revolutionised cataract surgery for the poor and the disadvantaged by refining a cheap, fast stitch-free surgery that was first developed by his Australian mentor. He is a man who has treated hundreds of thousands from Nepal all the way to North Korea. His medical camps are organised where necessary and the doctor swiftly and skilfully moves from patient to patient, all the while barefoot and listening to Hindi and Nepali love songs that play in the background. Yes, this is why the book is aptly called The Barefoot Surgeon. Not just because the surgeon in question is in fact barefoot but also because of him is what the Chinese call a ‘Barefoot doctor’ which is an old term for a medical practitioner who brings healthcare to rural areas where urban trained doctors would not settle.
The book charts Ruit’s path from being a boy who grew up in a community cut off from the modern world as a son of salt peddlers to a man fighting against the medical establishment who vehemently opposed his methods for a variety of reasons. In all this inspiring progression of moments are quieter moments, moments of absurdity and a fair bit of human drama. Much of this stems from the nature of Ruit’s own work. His patients are those who have been shunned by family and community and have all but given up on normal unaided life. Imagine the impact created by the work of Ruit then, as he gives back the gift of sight to these unfortunate souls. To those who have lived in darkness for years, the sight of Ruit the day after surgery may well be akin to looking upon something divine. This does explain the presumptuous nickname ‘the God of sight’. Yet, for all this Ruit is constantly described and shown to be a man as humble as one could hope for, even given all his achievements and awards. He is described in one of the aforementioned testimonials as being akin to legendary batsman Don Bradman in that he exudes greatness and self-confidence but never feels the need to trumpet his existence above others.
To conclude, I will do as I always do with reviews and try to best present reasons why you should or should not read this book. One of the ways I look at it is to see if reading the book changes anything for the person reading. Biographies of all kinds have the unstated goal of inspiring as opposed to entertaining the reader and this book is set in that same mould. Keeping its average writing aside, it is doubtless an inspiring story that may or may not help you in your life. Maybe instead of aiming for something big like emulating Ruit’s unyielding self- belief, you could start by emulating his compassion for all the strangers he meets and is yet to meet and perhaps you too could benefit from reading The Barefoot Surgeon.
Let’s give this one a solid 3 out of 5.