5 Questions with Kiran Kumbhar

December 2, 2022

Kiran Kumbhar is the Dr. Malathy Singh Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at the South Asian Studies Council for the 2022–23 academic year.

Could you tell me a little about your background?

I studied medicine in Pune. This was the degree which we call MBBS [Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery]. After that I started practicing. I was a medical officer for a few years. And then in 2014 I went for an MPH degree. I came to Harvard for that. And then in 2016 I was back in Harvard, this time for a PhD with the History of Science department.

Do you ever miss medicine?

Yes, but I think I’m happy with what I’m doing and learning. There is a lot of satisfaction in thinking about history and teaching history, especially in a time when critical thinking has become a very important skill. When I started my PhD, there were a lot of assumptions I had about how we think about the past and how we think about healthcare policy and politics through my previous encounters with medicine. But when I came into the social sciences there’s a lot that I found of value in the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology. I feel very fortunate to have taken this path.

Could you speak a little bit about your research and dissertation?

Around 2014/2015 there were several incidences of violence and assaults against doctors and other health professionals. A lot of the incidents received a lot of media attention. People were talking a lot about what was happening, asking “Why are people so distrustful of doctors? Why are people so angry?” And that’s when this received wisdom that in the past people were very respectful [to doctors became common]. The proliferation of that narrative during that time drew my attention.

In my dissertation the main question I was looking at was the rhetoric of public trust in medicine and doctors which medical professionals employ [in India]. They like to say that “There’s a lot of violence against doctors now, but in the past doctors enjoyed a very high status in society. People used to consider doctors as God, and it’s only in recent decades, especially after the 1990s, that people have started losing trust in doctors.” That’s the dominant narrative in the medical world in India, and that is what I was trying to explore: how can we use historical sources and archives to inspect the reality behind this narrative. What I discovered is that the majority of people in India have always felt alienation from doctors. It’s not that there was a time when people used to think of doctors as some kind of entity in whom they could confide; that’s not been the experience of a large majority of the public. That has been the experience of the privileged, of urban elites. Since it is these kinds of privileged people who have also dominated mainstream media, their experiences have often been a stand-in for all of India, and that has often given this impression that there was this camaraderie between doctors and the public. It was [in reality] only restricted to the privileged public. There’s a lot of evidence if you look at the archives. In the ’50s and ’60s people were still skeptical of doctors, skeptical of going to hospitals, and considered doctors to be representatives of urban elites or governmental elites and not someone like a community practitioner who they could feel very comfortable with.

Can you tell us a little about your teaching experience?

My course this semester is Biomedicine in the Global South. One of the central themes in the historical literature on medicine is that biomedicine, what is often called modern medicine, was a uniform entity which was transplanted from Europe to the global South. That’s the dominant narrative that’s been around for many decades. In this course we’re talking about literature which throws light on this narrative and shows that in different periods and contexts biomedicine has been different and every region and every community has used it, adapted it, and co-produced it in different ways.

In the spring my course is on ideas about modern and traditional medicine, and on the discussions and debates on them in the South Asian context.

My teaching experience so far has been very good and it’s been fulfilling. I have a small seminar with five students. All of them are very invested in the topic. They do the readings and then we have very vibrant discussions on the themes of the readings and the course. It’s been a great experience.

What have you enjoyed about the SASC community?

You know the answer—the chai, for sure! But the community at SASC has been a very affable community. It feels good to be around people who are genuinely invested in you and your work and your development. That’s been my experience with SASC. I like the fact that it’s a very vibrant department. There’s a lot of people from all over Yale who’re associated with the SASC in some or the other way. That kind of makes it very productively interdisciplinary. That’s another highlight I have benefited from.

Read more of Kiran’s work here, and listen to his podcast, Becoming Modern, here.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti