If you like your humour on the wild side, then ‘Chilli, Chicks & Heart Attacks- the misadventures of an intern by Dr. Manju Mendis’- the latest offering from the Perera Hussein imprint Bay Owl, its long-winded title notwithstanding, is as racy as they come.
The book follows the exploits of Dr. Manju Mendis, a Sri Lankan living in Australia who having come through medical school with first class honours is starting off his year as a medical intern in the much vaunted St. Ivanhoe Hospital. It all sounds very impressive but right from the word go, author Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake leaves the reader in no doubt that this is no mere diary of hospital life. Manju’s escapades, all told with great candour right from the opening chapter are alternately salacious and mind-boggling.
From priapism (look it up), to the case of the carrot contraceptive, and the pig’s heart, the action unfolds faster than you can blink. Manju is the archetypal second generation Sri Lankan male out to conquer the world. His fond and well meaning parents like most Sri Lankans, hold the medical profession in high esteem and are thrilled that their handsome clever son is now a doctor.
That pride is only equalled by their determination to fix him up with a ‘ good’ Sri Lankan girl lest he be caught by a ‘hora’ white girl. In their book, Sri Lankan girls back home are unsullied angels. Manju having seen enough of Colombo nightlife on his trips home knows better but dutiful Lankan sons always bow to parental dictates. Or do they?
How Manju skirts the manouevres to find a match for him and copes with his finding his feet as a doctor, surviving the bizarre episodes that seem to crop with increasing frequency- whether he’s interning in Emergency Medicine, Surgery or Infectious Diseases is the tale that unfolds. He has a motley bunch of fellow interns- the Indian who disguises her identity, the fiery Russian with his sawn off finger, the brilliant Delilah and the superior Smegman all of whose lives have strange and curious twists, not to mention the eccentric and double crossing specialists who seem determined to derail their futures. Throw in some spirited and stunning women and every hot-blooded young man’s dreams are on the verge of coming true.
“Ït’s Scrubs meets Bend it like Beckham,” quips the disarmingly modest author, when he meets us on one of his visits to Sri Lanka.
Sanjaya Senanayake’s own background makes him eminently equipped to explore both the medical angles and migrant issues that he deals with in the book. A Consultant Physician in Infectious Diseases and Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University Medical School, he is also the author of two books, ‘‘Clinical Cases in Infectious Diseases: A Public Health Approach’, and ‘Common Clinical Cases: A Guide to Internship’, published by MacGraw Hill. These though are medical textbooks, which he was prompted to write when teaching and found there was a lacunae in the students’ knowledge.
This book evolved, he says, in a different way. “I kinda let myself go,” he confesses, admitting to being a trifle nervous about the kind of reception it might have. For a number of reasons, he explains; “It’s my first novel; it’s the kind of humour and the kind of book that Sri Lanka would not have seen.” But you can tell he had a lot of fun writing it.
Sanjaya grew up in New Zealand and Australia, his family moving away in the early ‘60s, but is no stranger to the country, having come back to Sri Lanka frequently throughout his growing years. “I’m Sri Lankan, but I’ve never actually lived here,” he says. Which places him in quite an enviable position to understand the complexities of the diaspora and the ambivalent sense of identity that sometimes accompanies it (of being Sri Lankan but also different), the stubborn desire among the older generation to hold fast to their culture and values, their idiosyncracies and apprehensions; all aspects he touches on with humour and some times brutal honesty.
The book, the fantastic and farcical notwithstanding, is thus bound to resonate at some level with his readership, whether migrant or otherwise. Which Sri Lankan abroad has not felt the bitter sting of racism, and which young professional has not faced injustice on the job? The author is Sri Lankan enough to bring in the curry and the cricket, the latter spun in unexpected fashion, no, not on the field and some titillating songs (though not baila) for good measure.
Will his character’s wacky adventures be seen as Sanjaya’s own? He is categorical that the book is not autobiographical and all the characters and incidents are purely the product of his own imagination. “Definitely. I can confidently say that the main character Manju is not me. And his family and friends are not my family and friends. It’s only natural and inevitable as a writer you bring out bits of you into that character, but this book is not about me.”
Medical life is a rich field for any writer to drawn from with its broad spectrum of hope and human suffering. An early influence was a book he read as an intern himself, Samuel Shem’s iconic The House of God, published all of 30 years ago, a satirical look at the life of a young doctor which at the same time explored the damaging and sad aspects of the medical experience.
“This does that to some extent but it’s a much more positive novel,” he says. The humour may not be to everyone’s liking, he is quick to say, but humour is something quite integral to him. “It’s important to have a sense of humour, not just in medicine but life in general. You take everything seriously and you’ll go nuts. You can’t control the world. Although I’m in a profession where a lot of people think they can,” he smiles.
“The human condition can generate so much humour,” he goes on, pointing out that it’s not his intention to trivialize but rather bring out the rather absurd things that could happen.
Living in Canberra with his young family -- a supportive wife and two lovely little daughters, Sanjaya’s chosen speciality is infectious diseases, a field he is passionate about, relishing the challenge of piecing together the big picture. Infectious diseases have implications that encompass the social, political, economic, he says, talking of recent outbreaks the world has seen-- swine flu, Sars and the like, and way back throughout history, when the Black Plague for instance decimated large numbers in the Middle Ages.
“You’re like a detective, unravelling the mystery. You have to look at the social aspects, the medical aspects of someone’s life, to see what’s going on,” he says. To be involved in the social aspect of medicine is something, he obviously values.
‘Chilli, Chicks & Heart Attacks’ is a light-hearted rollercoaster read, fluently written, in snappy and colourful language. While the puns can sometimes seem overdone and the frequent Editor’s notes a tad irritating, interrupting as they do the flow of the narrative, Sanjaya’s strength is in fleshing out his characters.
With all their follies and foibles, they are distinctly endearing and though their escapades may leave you either wincing or chuckling, at the end of the day you want to know what happens to them. Does Manju’s stormy love affair have a happy ending, does his foul mouthed elder sister succeed in getting her child into the private school she so wanted, does his pal Lucky come to terms with her identity ..yes, we care what happens and that is, after all, the acid test.
Priced at Rs. 900, the book is available at all leading bookshops.