Book Review: Dr Sanduk Ruit’s biography could have been brilliant but it lacks lustre

The first time I had heard the name of Dr Sanduk Ruit was in 2006 when he was awarded with the Magsaysay Prize. As uncommon his name sounded to me, the determination to help the poor by treating their eye diseases at an affordable price was also uncommon.

Despite his revolutionary work in treating cataracts and establishment of the famous Tilganga Hospital, Dr Sanduk Ruit is not as famous as he should be. This is probably due to his low-profile attitude, his appreciation for his team, and insufficient media coverage from Nepal. This is a book that helps one understand Ruit and appreciate his hard work in helping the helpless. It gives insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the beloved doctor. It tells about his family, his beliefs and his passion. These factors make the book valuable.

The book is interesting at first. The early life of Ruit engaged me. The hardships of his and his parents’ lives tells a lot about the struggles the blind have to go through in the rural Himalayas. However, their journey to Darjeeling, Dhankuta and later to Kathmandu makes them more privileged than most people in the area. The book has not emphasized this, however, which seemed quite odd to me.

Dr Ruit’s greatest achievement lies in the establishment of a cheap and efficient method of cataract surgery, and the book does wonderful work in capturing that. His work in the Upper Mustang is the best because the team had suffered a lot to reach there and establish a camp. In spite of all the hardships, they were able to restore sights of hundreds. This and several other camps are inspiring.

The non-linear narration gives the feel of watching a documentary. In some places, it is good but in many places, when the timeline shifts from one to another, I felt like I missed an important matter. The non-linearity also means that sentences, paragraphs, and at one instance, a case are repeated.

There are some issues in the book that disappointed me. One is the exaggeration of the caste issue. In the part where Ruit’s parents get married, class could have been an issue instead of caste. But it does not matter because it does not take the narrative anywhere. The wedding is accepted by both the families and there is no pride in them. In the chapters of his childhood in the school at Darjeeling, he is said to have been bullied and he was left alone because of his caste/race. A picture in the book itself, however, tells a different story.

When the doctors of Nepal Eye Hospital refused to follow Ruit’s method, caste system is blamed directly. The reasons are obvious: (1) Ruit’s method had not gone through a proper clinical trial, and (2) people are always sceptical about new technologies that have not appeared in peer-reviewed journals. To bring caste, in this case, was absolutely unnecessary.

This one part of Ruit’s life that made me sad and furious. Ruit pulled off a cheap Bollywood style stunt in order to make Nanda talk to him. This is the worst part, and the most uninspiring. The fact that Nanda, despite being great at nursing, left her job “to look after the family” is also uninspiring. She did what is traditionally expected of women in Nepal. But I felt they could have done so much more, had she and Ruit been together in all their camps.

I wish Nepalese journalists gave more emphasis on inspiring works of common people instead of conspiracy theories and political figures. It’s a wonder we did not have a Nepali book on Dr Ruit before this book came out. The translation of the book has also arrived, but Khagendra Sangraula has not been able to deliver an interesting retelling in Nepali. There is literal translation in most places, including titles, that put me off.


Book: The Barefoot Surgeon (Sanduk Ruit in Nepali Translation)

Author: Ali Gripper

Rating: 3/5

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