She had a BA and a Law degree under her belt, and was a hugely successful entrepreneur dealing in electronic safety devices, when her mother’s prolonged illness egged her on to consider becoming a doctor. Married, and mother to a 12-year-old son, Dr Sharda Bapat fought several bureaucratic hurdles, and naysayers, to not only become a doctor at 42, but to also take flight, literally. She learnt to fly an airplane and play the piano, trekked in the Himalayas, planted a thousand trees, baked cakes, and is working towards facilitating trust between doctors and patients. An avid traveller, Sharda has toured 30 countries and 10 states in India. Here, she tells SheThePeople.TV’s books editor Archana Pai Kulkarni why age is no barrier to learning, why all women are super, and what makes her so unstoppable.

Sharda Bapat
Dr Sharda Bapat

Tell us a bit about your childhood, the influences that shaped you and your thinking. What were your dreams as a child?

I had a regular middle-class childhood with loving parents, brother, pets and house guests.  My parents encouraged us to participate in anything that interested us and never talked about prizes. My father encouraged me to read both Marathi and English. My favourites were P.L. Deshpande, Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand. I was good at studies and picked up a variety of skills really fast. I enjoyed dancing, singing, horse riding, elocution, table tennis, swimming, knitting, and won many prizes. But, very early, I realised that the joy was in the ‘doing it very well’ and not ‘winning’. I also loved hanging out with friends and loafing about. I was never ambitious. I would just set short-term goals like learning a new skill or participating in an activity and enjoying it.

Very early, I realised that the joy was in the ‘doing it very well’ and not ‘winning’.

You chose to study language for your degree and went on to study law. What made you turn to computers and partner an enterprise dealing with electronic safety devices, which was so far removed from your academic proficiency? Was it an easy transition?

While doing my eleventh science, I realised I hated dissecting a live frog even though it was unconscious. I changed over to the Arts stream to get more free time to explore life, and study language, as my aptitude test told me that I was weak in languages. I began working at the age of 16, and volunteering for SPCA. It broke my heart to see what we humans were doing to other species and the environment, and began to ponder over the vastness of the universe and our relative insignificance in the larger scheme of things. I also knew that I needed some professional skill to make a decent living. Computers opened a new fascinating field just then and so I enrolled in the first batch of Diploma in Computer Applications and became a proficient programmer. Just when my data processing work with nationalised banks began to dry up,  my childhood friend’s younger brother approached me with a proposal for setting up a trading firm. He needed infrastructure and capital. My father offered to help. I looked after accounting and the setting-up processes. I also studied law which helped in business and taxation.

You were a successful entrepreneur, when your mother’s prolonged illness evoked your interest in medical books and journals, leading to your desire to become a doctor so you could ease her pain. You were 35 then, well settled and with access to the best of medical aid. Why did this thought cross your mind? What reactions did it elicit?

The idea was insane. No one took it seriously except my husband, Narendra,  who knew I wasn’t joking.

My mother had been unwell for more than 15 years and I had begun to wonder what was going wrong with her health and treatment. We consulted many specialists but there was no relief. I tried to read up on her condition but realised that medical science is complex and one needed formal training to understand it. The only way to get it was to get admitted to a medical college. The idea was insane. No one took it seriously except my husband, Narendra,  who knew I wasn’t joking. Quite understandably, he was very strongly against it. We fought for over a month and I begged him to ‘let me try and fail’ instead of ‘regret later’.

When you were told by your alma mater that they wouldn’t admit you to the twelfth standard despite your eligibility, and also refused to give you a no-objection certificate to enable you to join another college, did you not feel discouraged by the bureaucratic muddle?

I knew this was going to be next to impossible. I also expected the negative response because the idea itself was new for everyone concerned. I decided to calmly try my best until it proved impossible to continue since the urge to know just wouldn’t go away.

While mourning the loss, I slowly realised that the curiosity to know what the doctors know and do not know only got stronger, and I just had to study medicine.

You were just a few days away from your board examination, when your mother passed away. The very person for whom you had returned to college was no more. How did you cope with the grief and yet not veer away from your goal?

I was devastated. I had struggled through the year with studies, work and family responsibilities; so my husband encouraged me to appear for the exams anyway and decide the next course of action later. Maybe he thought it would take my mind off the grief. While mourning the loss, I slowly realised that the curiosity to know what the doctors know and do not know only got stronger, and I just had to study medicine.

You faced several difficulties while securing admission in a medical college despite there being no prescribed upper age limit. Private colleges rejected your application. You finally secured admission at Wadia Hospital which had a collaboration with  Angeles University Foundation, Philippines. Tell us briefly about the challenges you faced then?

Getting authentic information proved very challenging. People took time to understand what I was saying and freely gave wrong information/advice. I kept on gathering information and was convinced it was theoretically possible. The Dean of the government medical college advised me to give up the idea since the course was tough for even young students without any other responsibility. Private colleges flatly refused to consider me and even refused appointments for a meeting. My mother had earlier showed me an advertisement featuring this medical college starting in Wadia Hospital which was right opposite her house and my office. The CEO of this international collaboration, Mr David Pillai, was intrigued by my resolve and agreed to consider my application after I passed my twelfth boards.

I had always been adventurous but I was starting to fear that I may not be afraid of anything.

Dr Sharda Bapat flying a plane

When after a year, the medical college could not obtain MCI (Medical Council of India) recognition, you were told that you would have to go to Philippines to complete your medical degree. It meant being away from your family, especially your school-going son Karan, for more than two years. How did you prepare yourself for this most unexpected turn of events?

By the time I finished my twelfth and pre-clinical subjects, my son was already 13. Still, going away for more than two years looked very difficult. I decided to retire from business and made the necessary arrangements. I started training the house helps with a view to prepare them to work in my absence. I urged my husband to understand the basics of cooking so he could provide the groceries. We also decided to hire a driver so my husband would have an additional hand. As for how I was going to cope, I just braced myself and decided to play it by the ear.

You were older than your peers. You were also in a different country, away from your loved ones. Was it easy to make friends? What were the challenges of returning to gruelling hours of study in unfamiliar surroundings?

My sense of humour helped me get along with my young peers. They accepted me as one amongst them in no time and we had a lot of fun together. Going to another unknown land and staying in a hostel was another story. It’s not easy to break out of your comfort zone. I just opened up my heart for all the new experiences and took one day at a time. Studies were the least of my worries. Studying medicine opened another wonderful world to me…the world inside a living body. Being a vegetarian, surviving in the city of Angeles proved challenging. I located a Gurudwara nearby and often had my meals there. Since some peers were in the same boat, we explored our options together.

Studying medicine opened another wonderful world to me…the world inside a living body

You found yourself at a bit of leisure during the weekends while pursuing your medical degree. As if the punishing studying schedule were not enough, you decided to learn to fly an aircraft! What were you thinking?

In my mother’s last few days, I had become extremely sensitive about her…about her moods…and her pain. After bereavement, I realised that she was my weakness. Nothing, no one could hurt me anymore after her passing. I had always been adventurous but I was starting to fear that I may not be afraid of anything. The flying base and school at Clark was close to my residence, and it was possible for me to get a private pilot licence. So, when I came across the possibility of flying, along with the opportunity to learn interesting things like radio communication and navigation, I wanted to test if I were still capable of experiencing fear.

You encountered turbulent weather on your very first solo flight. During another, as you accelerated, a goat crossed your path. On yet another flight the door on your side opened. How did you cope?

I think you gain that calm after being exposed to innumerable situations and problems. I could stay calm and think rationally in most situations and therefore was able to sail through. But, I really panicked when the goat appeared on the runway but immediately transferred control to the captain who was thankfully accompanying me and saved the goat.

You flew a plane to Manila to appear for your flying exam, but were directed to another airport due to bad weather, and had to take a bus, and then a cycle rickshaw (which took a wrong route) from there. You reached late but managed to give your exam. What is the secret of your equanimity?

There isn’t anything that ‘must’ happen or I ‘must’ get. My approach has always been ‘let me try’ and then I don’t give up until I have explored all the options. If you are doing things for the pleasure of it or because you want to, the burden of proving anything to others doesn’t exist. So, things become relatively easy, I think.

There isn’t anything that ‘must’ happen or I ‘must’ get. My approach has always been ‘let me try’ and then I don’t give up until I have explored all the options.

Did you ever feel lonely during your stay at Philippines? How did you stay in touch?

Yes, I felt lonely many times. Internet helped. I used to chat with my family frequently. Having friends in the Philippines helped. My love of tennis helped me make friends outside of the university circle. The first lady I met on the tennis court, Cecile helped me a lot to settle down there and make more friends. Happy to share, Cecile along with our friend Sandy visited India to attend my son’s wedding last October. We met each other after 10 years!

You had to go through an extremely exacting clerkship to earn your medical degree. It meant 365-days hospital duty, without a single holiday, and an exhausting 36-hour duty, every third day. Did you ever regret your decision?

The exhaustion was real but so were the incredible experiences in the hospitals…interactions with the patients…the real learning. Also, it was so hectic that there was no time to think. All we did was sleep when we were not on duty. I put up a calendar on the wall beside my bed and struck off one day at a time.

How did you feel when you returned home as a doctor, at age 42, in 2008? What adjustments did you have to make?

It was great to come back to my son and husband with the degree. They were both so proud of me. After spending so much time alone, I was wondering how it would feel. I couldn’t wait to be home. I was so exhausted, I just slept off the first two weeks. Then slowly, things became just as they were before.

The exhaustion was real but so were the incredible experiences in the hospitals…interactions with the patients…the real learning.

You joined Ruby Hall Clinic, in Pune as a Clinical Assistant and Research Associate. You also joined a corporate as a visiting physician apart from setting up your private practice. Were you always interested in research?

Since I studied medicine out of curiosity and I had experience handling data, I thought research would be good for me. It would offer more interesting insights. And I got the golden opportunity to collect data in a hospital setting and be a part of clinical practice at the same time.

Dr Sharda Bapat playing tennis

With what intent did you join AlgoAnalytics, the company where you consult now? What is the nature of your work here? Do you feel ‘settled’ now?

Data fascinates me and that’s the reason I joined AlgoAnalytics. I believe, just as the internet democratised information, predictive analytics or machine learning has the power to democratise healthcare. This work definitely recruits most of my faculties developed so far. As for my settling down, I have always been settled in my mind about the fact that I am absolutely insignificant and so I try to make a positive contribution to whatever comes my way and leave it at that.

I believe, just as the internet democratised information, predictive analytics or machine learning has the power to democratise healthcare.

You are also a pianist and have passed the Trinity College London music exams. Tell us more about this passion.

I always loved music. As a child my mother insisted I learn vocal music because I was good at it but I never liked my voice. So, when I grew up, I explored instrumental. I used to play the guitar, the piano and even the mouth organ. After I got married, all that stopped but later when I got the opportunity, I bought an old piano. I used to play once in a while. After returning from the Philippines, I worked the whole day for almost five years. I learned later that someone gave piano lessons nearby so I thought I would brush up a little. My guru insisted I appear for the fourth grade exam; so I did.

You are an avid trekker and have completed four Himalayan treks. Which were they?

The first one I did a year before the first bomb went off in the Kashmir valley. It was in 1988…the trek in heaven…the Kashmir valley. The second was the ‘valley of flowers’ in 1998. The third was ‘Doditaal’ and the fourth was ‘Kuari pass’.

You are part of a green drive and have planted a thousand trees. What is this project about?

While practising as a doctor, I realised that there was something wrong with the food we are eating. We aren’t getting enough nutrition even if we ate enough. The impact of our lifestyle and food on our health is tremendous. I started reading about it and realised it was important how the food is produced. There’s much science to it and our health greatly depends on our interaction with the environment. We cannot isolate ourselves and be healthy. That’s how I decided to do natural farming. We are using minimum water, weed and biodiversity to achieve results. One thing you need in agriculture is ‘patience’. Also, before you can become a doctor, you need to learn to be ‘patient’ first.

We aren’t getting enough nutrition even if we ate enough. The impact of our lifestyle and food on our health is tremendous.

What is a day in your life like?

I plan for a week. There are the usual household chores. Twice or thrice a week I attend office. I spend 2-3 days every alternate week, on the farm. I have allotted some time to work for the ‘Poona Citizen-Doctor Forum (PCDF)’ to facilitate better doctor-patient relationships and build trust. I play tennis or do yoga 2-3 times a week. I enjoy some time with my family. I also play the piano once in a while.

What keeps you going? How do you keep yourself fit? How do you unwind?

Just ‘being’ is joy. I learned from nature that one doesn’t have to justify one’s existence. There’s nothing to prove. I still look forward to contributing to the company I work for, the social causes I support and my dream of creating a ‘Vana’(jungle) and then opting for ‘Vanaprasthashrama’ where the next generation may be able to feel close to nature and experience its wonders. I like to do nothing. I do watch TV and spend some time on social media too.

Who are the people who have inspired you and impacted your thinking?

The authors I mentioned earlier. My parents…they have been pillars of strength and taught me early that the ‘joy of doing’ is important and not the ‘prizes, certificates and recognition’. Nature itself is the ultimate Guru.

I learned from nature that one doesn’t have to justify one’s existence. There’s nothing to prove.

What are the books by your bedside?

Apart from the ones mentioned earlier, ‘Freakonomics’, ‘Thinking fast and slow’ and ‘The Alchemist’ are my favourites. Also, ‘The Third Curve’ by Mansoor Khan. He is a great guy.

Women's Day 2019

What is the best advice you have received? What would you tell other women who want to pursue their dreams?

Super-woman is a myth and all women are super.

What three important life lessons did you learn on this journey?

Life is about ‘experiencing’ and not ‘achievements’.

  1. Compassion is the most important virtue.
  2. Life is about ‘experiencing’ and not ‘achievements’.
  3. Everything is interconnected and you cannot harm the other without harming yourself.

What would you have done differently? Any regrets?

I try not to hurt anyone by word or action but there have been a few instances where I failed to apologise for my lapses. I regret that.

What’s brewing in your mind now? What is the next adventure you are planning to embark on?

‘Vana’(jungle) and then ‘Prasthana’

Also Read : I Never Look At The Clock When I Write: Preeti Shenoy, #AuthorSpeak

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