Tales of foreigners looking to “find” themselves in India constitute perhaps the most prodigious genre of writing about this country from beyond its shores. The British series The Good Karma Hospital also begins with this premise but updates it for our globalised age. Here, the foreigner is herself of Indian extraction.
Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia) is a doctor in London who is recuperating, unsuccessfully, from a broken heart. She hates her job, where nurses many years her senior boss her around, and her lonely apartment, which is filled with memories of her aborted romance. So, when she spots an advertisement calling for doctors in India, she laps up the opportunity.
In Kerala, she lands at the Good Karma Hospital, run by the formidable Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman), a hard taskmaster who runs a tight ship. The hospital caters to the local populace as well as to the steady stream of foreign tourists, a state of affairs that translates to low funds and long hours. The team includes Ram Nair (Darshan Jariwala) and Gabriel Verma (James Floyd). Walker is plonked in the middle of the chaos that marks any Indian hospital, but the bustle is salvaged somewhat by the sheer beauty of her surroundings.
The series, directed by Dan Sefton, has its heart in the right place even if it cannot entirely avoid tone-deaf generalisations. In the very first scene, as Dr Walker is escorted from the airport to the hospital on roads where vehicles don’t seem to follow any rules, the driver comforts her by saying she needn’t worry. “Not everyone drives like this; only Hindus who are fatalistic,” he adds for good measure.
The show tries to introduce what one assumes is a primarily British audience to some of the pitfalls of Indian society, but in doing so, it often loses context, such as a sense of place. One story arc involves a man’s disappointment at the birth of a third girl child; another revolves around an unwed mother. While both these situations are not unknown in India, I am not sure Kerala comes to mind when we think of them. Plus, the background chatter in many scenes is in Hindi.
Ignore these irritants and the show can be engaging, especially when it is not trying to train the viewer in Indian mores. Fonseca’s midnight rendezvous with a bar owner is a nice counterpoint to her tough act during the day. Nair has installed his son as the manager of the hospital, but the latter’s roving eye is a cause for concern. The handsome Verma cares for his patients with a resolve that can be easily mistaken for arrogance.
It is Walker who is the show’s beating heart. Unaware of Indian customs and rituals in spite of her background (British mother, absent Indian father), she takes to her new home and assignment with gusto, quickly imbibing that all-important Indian lesson of making do with what’s available. (A pediatrician, she finds herself performing minor surgeries.) But it is her deep reserves of empathy – and the gentle eyes of the actor who plays her – that make her the ideal doctor.