Medical drama spiced with humour

Book facts: Chilli Chicks and Heart Attacks by Sanjaya Senanayake. Reviewed by Ashwin Swaminathan

Chilli, Chicks and Heart Attacks is a rollicking, comical tale describing the Internship year of its charming, testosterone-charged protagonist, Dr Manjula Mendis. This is the first novel from the physician-cum-author, Sanjaya Senanayake.

The novel is set in the hallowed halls of St. Ivanhoe Hospital, an institution modest in size, giant by reputation. The storyline is presented in the form of personal diary entries of Manjula (or ‘Manju’) written during his stressful first year as a doctor. We follow his progress though a series of entertaining, at times excruciatingly humorous, encounters and adventures with fellow colleagues, patients, family and love interests.

Due to the demanding and unpredictable nature of the Intern year – a stark jolt from the relatively protected, supervised reverie of medical school - all doctors can vividly recall their seminal journey from naive, wet-behind-the-ear ‘pretenders’ to hardened, wizened professionals. Through popular TV shows such as “ER”, “Scrubs” and “Gray’s Anatomy”, the wider non-medical audience can also relate to the tumultuous nature of this period – and its comedic potential.

The characters that Senanayake conjures up are zany yet strangely familiar. Amongst this motley crew, we meet the pompous, aggressive surgeon Professor Bonkzalot, the ambitious, self-aggrandizing, “physician-to-the-stars” Dr Spyder Croquet, and fellow interns Alternaria, a hippie lesbian and frustrated musician, and Lucky King, a blond-haired, blue eyed, cultural identity-confused Indian surfie chick.

Manju must learn to deal with the inflated egos of his medical superiors propagated by an unyielding hospital hierarchy and the demands of celebrity patients such as the sinister banker Milton Honeypot, Hollywood bombshell Salma Cruze and English football super-star Greg Smythe (who offers £100,000 to the doctor who can cure his debilitating, mystery illness). The medical dramas that Manju finds himself involved with are frequently bizarre – even to the ears of seasoned physicians – but always hilarious.

An interesting backdrop to Manju’s hospital adventures is his often torturous relationship with his traditional, religiously devout Sri Lankan parents. Manju finds himself torn between his inclination towards being ‘an obedient son’ to his overbearing (but loving) parents, and his desire to be an independent, sexually liberated, modern male living in a Western culture. Though a familiar story for children of migrants the world over, this underlying tension provides a believable context for the fiery relationship decisions that Manju ultimately is forced to make.

This novel shares similarities with the medical cult classic House of God by Samuel Shem. However, Senanayake differentiates this story by incorporating themes such as the power of celebrity, racial and class stereotypes, and the delayed maturity that often arises in those who have spent long periods studying before working in “the real world”. Though Senanayake is quick to point out that these stories are not autobiographical, he clearly has used his experiences growing up within a South Asian family in a Westernized country and as a doctor training within the Australian hospital system to imagine such colourful characters and vivid storylines that are infused with the insight provided by living within two cultures.

Chilli, Chicks and Heart Attacks is a very enjoyable read. The characters and storylines will resonate with anyone who has worked or spent time in the health system or who enjoys medical dramas. Senanayake is gifted with an easy, understated writing style that complements this type of satirical humour.

I look forward to reading the further adventures of Dr Manjula Mendis!

Chilli, Chicks and Heart Attacks is available at all good bookshops at Rs 900.

Ashwin Swaminathan is a Consultant Physician in Infectious Diseases and a Lecturer at the Australian
National University.

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