Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra belongs to those rare breed of INCREDIBLE women who have proved her mettle both in the field of scientific research and literary/artistic expressions.
In her heart-to-heart interview with IWI’s Creative Editor Lopamudra Banerjee, she speaks about her childhood, her tryst with books, and also with science, world travel, translation and her other interests/passions. Excerpts.
LB: Hello Chhanda di, welcome to Incredible Women of India. It is such a pleasure and honor to have you onboard among our bevy of talented, enterprising women of substance. We are here to share some memorable snippets of your life’s journey, your accomplishments and inspirations.
Can we start with your childhood days and your formative years? How were it like, and any special, life-changing event you would want to share with our readers of IWI?
CB: Thank you for inviting me. I feel honored to be included among such accomplished ladies. I’ve been reading the impressive stories of them featured in IWI. I am afraid, compared to them, my childhood was rather boring and uninspiring. I was born at home (perhaps the last of my generation) in a large joint family in rural Bengal. It was the time of no electricity or running water, no radio or newspapers, no shampoos or toothbrushes, not even cookies or chocolates (I have not a single cavity!). Perhaps most of you can’t even imagine a time like that. Being a plain girl in a joint family of many children, I was no one’s favorite; nobody paid any attention to me. I was brought up in ‘benign neglect’.
Till age 9 my cousins and I were homeschooled by my grandfather. Later I started regular school in Delhi. There too, my parents were busy and I was pretty much left alone. Being an introvert I didn’t have very many friends. My family was very conservative old school Brahmins (Chattopadhyay). My school was my escape and books were my friends from the very beginning. I read voraciously, good stuff, bad stuff and mediocre, anything I came across. I read ‘books for adults’ right from my childhood, hidden from my parents (for fear of punishments), and I must say those books were my real educators. I have been a bibliophile all my life. (Once, in hotel when I had no book with me, I actually read the telephone directory!) I’m also a speed-reader. I read and write both English and Bengali with equal ease. Whatever life lessons I learned as I grew up, I learned from reading books, not from teachers or parents or any other elders. Sadly, I never had any coaches or mentors in my life.
As for becoming a doctor, that too was a decision by default. My parents had no particular ambition for me. But as I was a good science student and won scholarships in science, they could not discourage me either. I loved biological sciences and human body intrigued me the most. It was that curiosity that pushed me towards medicine. I had no advice or help from anyone. I knew no physicians. I had no idea about the life style, workload or income of doctors. We never even visited doctors or dentists. If we fell ill, we got well by ourselves (or we died, I almost did die of typhoid in my childhood).
In short, my childhood was quite boring and ordinary, just like millions of girls in India.
LB: You have graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi before stepping your feet in the Midwest of USA in the 1980’s. How was the journey of yours from a qualified doctor to professor of pathology at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska? Would you want to share some of your experiences, the initial challenges of settling down in the US and the milestones achieved over the years?
Also, tell us how your life blossomed there as a professional, a wife, a mother and a proud grandmother, and what do you consider the most Life changing of all these experiences.
CB: You ask some big questions, so my answers will be long too. I warn you ahead!
I graduated from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Getting there too was my own idea as I heard from friends that it was the best medical school in the country so, of course, out of curiosity I took the entrance exam and was selected. There was rule of mandatory in campus lodging which got me out of strict parental discipline at home. For the first time in my life, I had my own space and could spread my wings. That is where I broadened my interests in photography, music, cinema and arts along with medicine (Yes AIIMS is that kind of a med school). That is where I made life long friendships and that is where I found my husband. It was a small school of only 50 select students from all parts of India and we lived in the campus with all the teachers like a close-knit family. For the 60s India, there was a remarkably permissive, liberal atmosphere in the campus and even the teachers encouraged intercaste, interfaith, inter-ethnic friendships and marriages. Post-independence, I think we were the first generation that started such marriages breaking the taboos of castes and religions (I feel quite a pioneer!).
My husband and I belong to different castes, different ethnicities, different languages, customs, and food. Now of course such pairings are pretty common.
Coming to USA was not too stressful. The only hassle was taking various qualifying and licensure exams, which too were easy compared to the ferociously hard exams we had to take in medical school. I selected Pathology for further studies as that is the subject that deals with the ‘why’s and ‘how’s of the disease processes, the main focus of my initial curiosity. Human bodies and diseases are the same everywhere, so there was not much of a learning curve.
But living in a midwestern city in the 70s provided some new experiences. There were very few Indians in Omaha and no Indian restaurants, temple or grocery stores. We used to buy groceries in bulk by mail order from Denver or Chicago. Most lay people (including my 5 yr. old) would not believe I was a doctor. I was a woman; therefore I had to be a nurse! Many children would ask me about my bows and arrows (confusing me with American-Indians). There were very few women physicians as residents (post grad trainees) or staff doctors in the hospital where I worked, merely a dozen girls in the medical school class. There were overt misogyny, bigotry and discrimination among my professional colleague physicians. It varied from irritating to amusing but usually was not too serious. Once they came to know me they respected and made space for me. In return I too developed a thick skin and made allowances for genuine ignorance and poor taste from real malice or desire to harm. I ignored small battles and reserved my energy for bigger conflicts, (an advice I give to all my students).
Going to a male gynecologist/obstetrician for my pregnancy was an eye-opener. Being used to female Gynees in India (and female pediatricians, radiologists, pathologists), it was not easy to open up (pun intended) to a male doctor. At that time (in the 70s) there was not even one female doc in the entire tri-state area. Amongst the post grad residents, I became the first pregnant woman, and nobody knew quite what to do with me. When I told my boss –bless his heart—that I was expecting, he asked naively, ”Expecting what?” But, later on he treated me with great TLC. When it came to take maternity leave, he—totally clueless– asked me how much time I needed. Without any reference, I just said, ‘3 months’. And I got 3 months with full pay and without any penalty. Of course I used the time for some long distance car trips with my newborn!
In US, there were some odd things that caught my attention when I first arrived. (I’m sure all of us have had similar experiences). One was the width of the highways and number of lanes. Just crossing one of those on foot was scary; also scary were the massive, gigantic semis, five times bigger than the Indian trucks. After being almost killed by them twice, I am still very scared of them.
Seeing snow for the first time on a November morning in upstate New York, on our way to Niagara Falls was a magic moment. I had never seen snow falling before. Even now I get that feeling when it snows, love to stick my tongue out and taste the snowflakes. If ever I return to India, snow is one thing I will surely miss.
Similarly magic is the rapidity with which everything turns green in spring. Living in Tropical India, where everything is a varying shade of green all year, one does not appreciate the changing seasons as it happens here. Grass in the lawn turning green literally overnight still amazes me.
As for my professional work–becoming tenured professor is an acknowledgement of one’s many long years’ of work. It is always humbling and gratifying. But balancing family and professional career was not easy by any means. If it were not for my husband (who fortunately had more manageable work hours) and a very good, dependable childcare-giver (who still is a family friend and like a second mother to my kids) I would have never made it. As I say, ‘Behind every successful mother is a good childcare helper’. Also being in the Midwest helped. Cost of living is less here and public schools are much better than most larger cities. Life is less hectic, and bringing up kids is easier, more relaxed.
At the risk of boring the readers I might explain here what exactly I do (or did, I just recently retired) at work, I had to juggle three balls—1. Clinical diagnostic work—which is the main job and brought the money. Here I diagnosed cancers and other diseases from bits and pieces of tissues removed from body (biopsy) or from blood, urine or pap smears, advised surgeons about what to do next, how to treat, examine post mortem to determine causes of death etc. this is the job I love, the detective work ending in an ‘aha’ moment, most of the times. 2. Teaching, traditional lectures, non-traditional small group sessions and on the job training and mentoring of post grads (residents), many of whom became my long term friends who still keep in touch with me. Some of them have taught me other things too. This is the most rewarding part and the reason I remained in academics in spite far less pay than in private practice. 3. Research—the prestigious part, as well as the inquisitive job. In addition to gynecological and breast pathology (my specialty) I got interested and self taught myself Paleopathology—examining mummified tissues of ancient dead bodies to determine diseases, infections etc. I even worked with an anthropologist and studied tissues of 200 yrs. old remains of local Omaha tribes. I have been fortunate to have many colleagues and collaborators to help me in my studies. In turn, I have mentored many junior colleagues in the world of writing papers and publishing. There is a discipline in organizing and writing precisely which have helped me enormously in writing my travelogues and other non-medical stories.
Personally, of course my foremost achievements are my two daughters, both Ivy League graduates and both engaged in fields of medicine. Lately I have been blessed with three grandchildren who are absolutely the apples of my eyes.
LB: Do share with us your insights on your take on human life, as you perceive it. What, according to you, defines you, and what keeps you going.
CB: What defines me? Hmm. In one word—Curiosity. It is curiosity that got me in medicine. Later, curiosity brought me to a new country half way around the world. Same curiosity kept me in Pathology. It is curiosity that urges me to travel all over the world, experiencing different cultures, people, food and ways of life. It has often gotten me into trouble. Even after retiring, the bug still remains active and will probably not end till I die.
LB: You share so many facets and keep evolving in all of them–as a globe traveler and travelogue writer for Parabaas, a translator of Bengali literary fiction, as a professor of pathology and also a researcher of the sciences. Which of these roles do you think is the more inspiring and most cherished to you, and can you describe why?
CB: In other words, I have too many interests and hobbies. ‘Jack of many trades, master of none’ type of case. You are right. I am often out of time/energy/money to do all that wish to do.
You mentioned travel. It has been my lifelong interest. Growing up in India I didn’t get to travel much except for visiting relatives or holy places. Recreational travel was not popular in India in those days. But I made up for it after coming to US. Even before we got proper jobs, we were borrowing money, riding Greyhound buses and visiting Blue Ridge Mountains, Niagara Falls, Statue of Liberty and Smithsonian museums. Being in academic medicine, both of us get to attend many medical meetings, which are always held in big cities with lots of things to do and see. Sometimes they are also held in Hawaii or Aspen and often in other countries. We always took the kids and made mini vacations. That got me in pretty much all 50 states and many countries in Europe and Americas. After the kids grew up I did solo traveling for longer periods of time, volunteering in countries in Africa. Many of my friends want to travel but put up kids or jobs as excuses. I don’t buy that. I think if you really want to do something you can always make time for it. We always took our kids with us. It was a bit more expensive but well worth the experience they gained.
Not surprisingly, many of my interests are related. Learning medical photography in pathology refined my old interest in photography. We have to do a lot of it and be good at it too. This interest of course easily meshed with travel and publishing my travelogue writings in both Bengali and English in Desh, Parabaas, India Abroad, and many other places. www.parabaas.com
Mixing nicely with both travel and photography, is another newer interest in bird watching. One of my post grad resident (an ex-hunter) was my guru. I taught him pathology and he taught me bird watching. By now I too have written and lectured about birds in many places. The skill of quickly locating and identifying a bird is a fun activity that is quite similar to medical diagnosis making skill. I have been writing a few articles in Parabaas about birds too.
My other interests are more sedentary. I love making quilts by hand. Most of my relatives and friends have one made by me. I also regularly donate handmade quilts to the wounded veterans and Children’s Hospital where I have also been volunteering for past 17 years.
I also love to draw designs (I call them doodles) All my friends and colleagues know about it as they see me drawing elaborate designs during long boring meetings and lectures. In fact longer the meetings more elaborate my designs. These initially originated from my fascinations with Bengali alpanas, but later on incorporated mathematical drawings, Islamic calligraphies, Celtic knots and many other elements. I use them in decorating clothes, designing quilts, screensavers, Easter eggs, bridal mehendis and even temporary tattoos.
LB: As much as I know, you have visited many countries, destinations that are not explored by many travelers. Which of these exploits, according to you, have been the most memorable and inspiring to you? Can you share with our readers what triggered your interest to explore that place?
CB: My first ‘unusual’ trip was to the deep Amazon rainforest with the staff from Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. They were constructing a ‘Rainforest’ exhibit and offered a few spots in their group for lay people like me. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life. I wrote about it in Bengali (my first attempt in that language) and was instantly accepted in the premier magazine ‘Desh’. My mother was thrilled to read something written by me at last. She knows no English and was not interested in my scientific publications.
Another unusual trip with unexpected experiences was to the Antarctica. We even tried camping one night on the snow! That was some experience I wouldn’t like to repeat. I use such trips to memorize birthdays or anniversaries. Instead of pricey gifts or parties, I prefer these ‘experiences’ that stay with me life long.
After the kids left for college, I started doing overseas volunteer work. The first trip took me to Madagascar—a really out of the way place. It was a fabulous experience. I took paid sabbatical leave (a perk in academia) from work to go there and a few years later also went to work in Ghana and Timbuktu—another out of the way place. In both countries I met friendly, appreciative people. I learned so much from them. These volunteering sabbaticals were my way of recharging myself after being burnt out at work, reminding myself the real purpose of practicing medicine. I’ve also done non-medical volunteering like researching birds in the jungles in Puerto Rico and helping in an archeological dig in the forests of Northern Poland. All have been educational and I’ve been a better person for them.
LB: You have quite an illustrious library in your Omaha home. Can you tell us something about your own journey with words, reading and writing?
How it all began, and what inspired you to sustain this journey? How did your association with Parabaas, one of the largest and oldest online magazines carrying English translations of literary work by major Bengali authors, begin?
CB: As you know, one can never have enough shelf space for books. In spite of using e-readers, my house overfloweth with books.
My relationship with ‘Parabaas’ e-zine started about 15 years ago when I sent them a travelogue about my trip to the Galapagos Islands. The editors loved it and asked for more, and thus began a series of articles about my trips near and far and to all the strange places. My photographs too got a showcase.
The English translation section was added later on to the magazine. About ten years ago I contacted the editor for advice about publication of all the seven Harry Potter books that I had translated in Bengali. I did it for my mother who was hooked on to the movies and wanted to read the stories but couldn’t read English. So I translated then long hand. It took me exactly 9 months—a full gestational period. My mother loved them and egged me on throughout. Surprisingly I enjoyed it hugely and was really sad when there was no more to translate. The editor tested me by asking me to translate some short stories by Tilottama Majumder. When they got good reviews from Ms. Majumder and Parabaas readers, he asked me for more. That’s how it all started.
LB: Who are your favorite authors in Bengali literature, and what are the recent translations that you have published currently? Are you working on any other translation at the time being?
CB: Favorite authors! There are so many. Different ones in different ages and different stages of life. Of course all lists have to start with Tagore. In my formative teen and pre-teen ages, the trio Tagore, Sharat Chandra and Bankim Chandra were the most influential. They were my Gurus, guides, mentors and teachers. I also liked Bimal Mitra, Narayan Gangopadhyay. A special favorite was Ashapurna Devi. As a kid I loved her stories for kids. I thought she was the only writer who could actually understand the mind of a child!
In adult years, a few more names were added to the list. Foremost was Sunil Gangopadhya—for his breezy, fun reading NilLohit as well as well researched tomes like Shei Shomoy . I’m so fortunate to have met him in Banga Mela the year before he passed away. (My video of him singing heartily in an ‘adda’ is also in Parabaas). I also ‘re-discovered’ Buddhadeb Basu in my adult years and got quite blown away by his powerful writing, which didn’t impress me in my childhood. It has been very educational to translate his autobiography. Currently I’m very fond of Shirshendu Mukhopadhy’s stories. They all have a subtle touch of spirituality in them that makes them very different from all others’ writings. I also like Nabanita DebSen’s light but insightful writings.
Currently I am also working as an assistant to the editor of Parabaas—helping him in editing various translation submissions. He has become almost my literary agent and through him I have had requests from Nabanita DebSen for translating her short stories and from Damayanti Basu Singh (daughter of Buddhadeb Basu) for translating the autobiography of her father. Also I am translating 3rd novel by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, which is being serialized in Parabaas. All these things were not included in my post-retirement plans but just happened and I am glad that now I have the time for it. Also, it does not take any physical strength—something that is rapidly waning as I age.
LB: Now that you have retired from Creighton University, what are the recent highlights of your life? What is keeping you busy these days? Any other interests of yours, which we do not know about, which you are pursuing now?
CB: When I retired, I had a long ‘bucket list’. But life happens when you are planning other things. Some family and health issues derailed many of my plans. But, to compensate I got this work with Parabaas that I hadn’t expected. Right now I’m keeping busy with writing, reading, birding, and of course visiting grandkids—busy quilting, knitting and crocheting for them. All these are ‘soft’ work. But travel is not out altogether. It is an addiction and if I stand still for a while the mustard seed starts poking underfoot. Currently I’m planning a trip to Barcelona, Alhambra, Costa del Sol and Gibraltar next month to celebrate a special birthday, later in summer a trip to the Glacier National Park and in winter my annual trip to India, perhaps include Andaman and Nicober Isles. If all goes well, in very near future I plan to visit Burma and Iran and perhaps Outer Mongolia. Inshallah!
LB: Any special achievements or laurels in your professional life that you would like to share? Any memorable moments or incidents during your long stint as a scientist and academician, which has shaped the course of your life?
CB: Besides my memorable volunteering stints and a prestigious National Science Talent award and scholarship that I won in my last year in school (which was a major factor in directing me to science, biology and ultimately medicine), the best laurels are the thanks and appreciations of my former students and mentees. For a teacher, those are the most special awards.
I have been extremely fortunate to be able to balance family, work and fun in life. Even more fortunate that I have been engaged all my life in the two most honored and trusted professions in the world—medicine and teaching. What more can one ask for?
LB: Finally, any message or inspiring quote that you would like to share for the readers of our blog?
CB:Just two words: Stay Curious.
Thank you Lopa and the Incredible Women of India for letting me have this opportunity. I wish you all the best in all your endeavors.
Please Note that this interview has been conducted online
Interview co-ordinated for IWI: Lopamudra Banerjee
To know more about Lopamudra Banerjee visit our Editors page.