– Donald Barthelme
Certain books take my hand and walk me into their melancholic core. I think about them for a long time afterwards, but I’m the passive and often distant reader. It’s only sympathy that wobbles up.
On People Who Gifted Me Books
Only four persons gifted me books I love and thus brought upon them the misfortune of being gushed over for life by yours truly.
|Ruskin Bond’s autograph|
There is Mannan, my classmate from medical college, who is straight out of an Austen novel- brooding, intense and frighteningly intelligent. He was in Mussorietraining to be an IAS officer and I had asked him to try to get me Ruskin Bond’s autograph. A few months later he sent me a book autographed by an author whose stories populated my childhood. Thank you, Mannan. I really appreciate the gesture. He gifted me Dust on the Mountains by Ruskin Bond.
|Reading it now|
There is Shakeel, a friend from high school who writes like a dream. He is living a life I covet and admire; writing and getting paid for it. Someday I hope to read a book written by him. Our mutual friend, Snata, is an amazing writer too and I’m simply happy to know this talented duo. I received a book from him today; and it was so unexpected and it made me so happy. Shakeel, prepare to be gushed over for life that would embarrass you enough to hide behind doors and duck under tables whenever you see me. He gifted me The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi.
The third is Amrita, who is nothing short of my soul sister. We have conjoined hearts and minds. She is a quiet person weaving her own world; and it’s a beautiful world peopled with soulful thoughts. I’m glad she invited me into her world where we can talk about books, movies, love, life, men and hills. She has gifted me a lot of books including Paulo Coelho’s The Fifth Mountain.
|Heart-felt essays and poems|
Then there is Priyanka, who is courage personified. She brims with intelligence, wit, confidence and a passion for writing and for making the world a better place. She has taken risks in life that I highly admire; she is vibrant and full of infectious energy. She recently got into MIT as the prestigious 2012/2013 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow and it makes me proud beyond measure. I cherish you, Priyanka. She gifted me Kora by Tenzin Tsundue.
I write about love, but I’m not a lover. I read about love, but I don’t live it. I see love, but I am a mere observer. Even when I was in love, when I was a lover, when I thought I was loved, it was emptiness and detachment wrapped in a thin crust of passion, that was a ghost of some earlier self, and a dollop of forced interest. This detachment and ambiguity of feelings scared me and I tried to be involved; I became neurotic about it and felt re-assured when I experienced symptoms of romantic jealousy or missed someone, which gave a false sense of being in love, or capable of being in love. I am often swept off my feet, but never by a person; it’s always a singular attribute: a warm smile, owning a common set of books, very often it’s the eyes, or kindness, sharp wit, ambition, intelligence, a fancy pair of shoes, arrogance, clean nails, someone who dines with family, writes poems, well-travelled, chivalry works every time too, or sometimes it’s just a mix of serendipity and hormones.
The first is Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’. This movie seduced me! It curled my toes, sent a shiver up my spine and unspeakable parts of my anatomy, and haunted my dreams for the next few nights. The simple act of passing each other on the stairs on the way to buy noodles can be orgasmic for the viewer. It told of a love that crept up unknowingly, discreetly; a love that would be illicit yet the purest form of love. Intense gazes, dark passageways, metaphorical rain when the tension brought you to the edge of explosion, a haunting melody that intensified every gesture-a bend of the neck, a touch of the earlobe, a wave of the hand. ‘It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered, to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.’ The agony stayed with me, I lived that tale of doomed love for two hours and a long time thereafter. It reinstated something I thought I had lost.
The second is Before Sunset. Its prequel is one of my favorite movies of all time. But this movie edged ahead with a subtler love and longing that I could identify with better. It’s set in Paris over the course of an hour; two people who met just once and had spent an amazing and meaningful night in Vienna, meet again after nine years. They are still in love, but are cautious and bound by new commitments. They walk around and talk about everything under the sun. The effortless conversation portrayed in the movie is what I crave. No mushy talk, no promises, no flattering. But the love is palpable as it surfaces with every passing moment. The fragility of it all and the fierceness with which they protect it and hide it is touching. The way he looks at her, the way she looks at him, secretive yet fully aware, melted my heart.
The third is Barfi! I don’t need to elaborate on this; by now everyone and their uncle must have watched it. It felt like a warm, fuzzy cocoon. Misty hills, the humor (Saurabh Shukla takes a nervous bow when he is caught peeing in the field by the hidden farmers), the dizzying visuals, the refreshing silence that spoke volumes, the Chaplin-esque acts, the lifted sequences (like the train scene from Fried Green Tomatoes) that blended so well and thus forgiven in an instant, the charming Barfi and the adorable Jhilmil ignited in me a love for the whole world! So this weekend I feel everything is possible and good things will happen. I put Libya and Egypt and diesel hike away for a while and basked in the mellow Barfi daze. But it’s the tender innocence of a love so giving and so enduring that rejuvenated my sense of romance.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Of all things I didn’t expect my ’20s’ to resemble the opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities“.
Everything overlaps in my memory. I can’t pinpoint what happened when.
My 20s has been a blur: the years, the events, experiences, people who drifted in and out, people who lingered, the hard-earned and the surprise successes, the vicious cycles of failure, the ennui of adulthood, the simple or extravagant joys, deceptions and lies, the foolish heart that refuses to learn lessons, the heart that has learnt to be and even accept indifference, journeys of self-discovery, the indirect search for the meaning of it all, nights of fervent prayers, indulging in frivolities, still reading books with the same love and worship for the written word, still being the pampered daughter and doting sister, paranoid driving, learning compassion and responsibilities, healing others and not just because it is a job, learning the hard way to follow the advice of my parents, waiting for I know not what, laughing at how far I’ve come along yet how long I have stood still, sometimes mourning an untarnished memory, kicking myself often for wavering in the most important thing in the world-discipline, uncertain steps into writing, accepting deficiencies and along the way accepting myself, wondering what my ten year old self would say when my dreams of a settled career and being happily married and traveling the world by the time I turned twenty seven seems impossible now, telling my ten year old self that it’s okay the way things are now and meaning it, still skeptical about most of the people I meet, creating my own happiness, and not even close to learning how to cook.
When I was sixteen, a person who was over twenty-five was OLD, a fossil. Today I have turned 26. I don’t feel like a fossil. I have yet to embark on many journeys. I have yet to find the utopian true love. I have yet to get kicked in the guts by life and learn few more lessons. I have yet to find contentment. I have yet to make my parents proud. I have yet to travel to places I’ve read about in books and compare my mind’s imagery with the real beauty. I have yet to do something meaningful for the causes I believe in and support.
Miles to go…
(Photo Courtesy: kikimatters)
And then things went horribly wrong. After a humongous shopping spree on 16th, we decided to have lunch in a restaurant on MG road. Pa along with the rest in the group ate seafood, while I being vegetarian stuck to typical North-Indian fare. Pa had slight indigestion the next day. But after I gave him some OTC medicines; he felt quite okay. On 18th we had an early morning flight to Mumbai and from there an evening flight to Guwahati.
After reaching home on 18th night, Pa felt seriously ill and had to be admitted to the hospital. at 10pm. He was shifted to the ICU that midnight. Everything was so sudden, that we were at a loss of what to do. He collapsed and his vital organs began to fail. He had food poisoning which spread in his entire body in a matter of few hours, aided by the fact that he is a diabetic. He was diagnosed with sepsis and multi-organ dysfunction. He was slipping away and doctors said that he had very little chances of survival, but they were fighting hard against controlling the infection. All our relatives from every nook and corner of the country gathered in the hospital. My mother who had recovered from a recent myocardial infarction was another great worry, and I had to make sure she was able to cope with whatever the outcome was.
And then on the third day in the ICU, my father’s spontaneous breathing stopped. I felt my whole world had collapsed. Nothing mattered and nothing will matter ever again. All I could think of was how four days back we were happily discussing the national election result and making guesses about the likely cabinet ministers, and then on the flight back home how I was busy reading a novel and hardly checked on him. I vomited in the corridor outside the ICU. I can’t describe in words how I felt. My sister fainted and I had to take care of my mother too. This can’t be happening to us, this wasn’t how it was all supposed to be. And then my uncle came running to us, and said that the doctors had been able to successfully resuscitate Pa. He was breathing again. I immediately ran to the ICU, forced my way in despite visitor restrictions and confirmed what my uncle said. I, who was never so much of a religious person, began praying day and night after that moment. After ten harrowing days of battling for life in the ICU, my father was finally out of danger. He was shifted to the ward. Two days after that, he was back home. But he needs to be on complete bed rest for a month. So, here I am, thankful for every moment to God, and the amazing critical care specialists in the hospital, esp Dr.Vandana Sinha. I will always be indebted to her for the miracle of my father’s surviving sepsis at the age of 59yrs and with the complicating co-morbidities of diabetes and hypertension. I’m thankful to all my relatives, near and far, who made every effort to decrease this ordeal for us through comforting words and actions. The help my dad’s office colleagues offered is something I will always remember and be thankful for.
It was a bad time for our family; fear, tension, anxiety and pain. Fear of losing the most important person in our lives. Time stood still for us, as we waited day and night outside the ICU, praying for his recovery, dreading every time the doctor called us in for an ‘important‘ talk. But they fade into oblivion when I see Pa at home now, reading the morning newspaper and watching cricket. So many times I’ve taken this man for granted, his very presence as something I would have for life. But this incident, least expected and so sudden, shook me up completely. Never ever I would give my parents a reason to worry or grieve because of me.
A lot of things have changed for me in the past month. My whole life was on the verge of coming to a standstill and picked up at the last minute. At times like this, we realize the true value of family, relatives and friends. And the need to believe in a higher being with the power to drive away all your troubles. I started believing in God instinctively, when I saw Pa in the hospital bed.
We all plan our lives assuming we would live at least till the age of seventy or eighty. “In ten years I’d be doing this, and in twenty years after the kids have grown up I’ll be doing that”. At that time the thought doesn’t cross our minds that our lives maybe cut short any moment by some accident or illness. And cancer is the cause for many a life cut short. Recently, Jade Goody’s death has increased the awareness of cervical cancer. A few years ago it was breast cancer awareness that had started on a massive scale.
I lost my grandfather to cancer twenty years ago. He used to complain of irregular stomach cramps, a couple of routine tests didn’t yield any results, so the doctors gave him some antacids and let him go. But the stomach cramps continued, and one day while he was teaching me how to make paper planes (I was three years old then), he collapsed. By that time his gallbladder cancer had reached its terminal stage, and the doctors predicted no more than a month to live. My father worked in Guwahati then, while the entire extended family lived in Jorhat. My youngest uncle wrote a letter to my father telling him of my grandfather’s illness. Telephones weren’t too common back then. My father arrived by night bus, and that was the first time I saw him cry. He didn’t cry when my grandfather died a month later. Two of my younger uncles got married within two weeks of the diagnosis of the disease, because my grandfather wished to see them settle down into family life. I didn’t even realize he was gone forever. I remember I was so irritated I took my drawing book and crayons to sketch, away from all the hue and cry going on in the house! It started to sink in only when I sensed his continued absence that stretched beyond a month.
This year my elder sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s just 39 years old, and a mother of two wonderful girls. She called me up a couple of months back and told me she had felt a tiny painless lump on her breast. She was worried because on my mother’s side there’s a history of breast lumps. Even in our family, my mother, my younger sister and I had battled with fibroadenomas, but we got away with just a minor surgery. She repeatedly kept asking me, “Since it’s painless, it’s nothing serious, right?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s the “painless” lumps that were mostly malignant. I was hoping it was a benign lump, and asked her to get a mammogram and a FNAC (Fine needle aspiration cytology) done. The tests came out to be positive of malignant cells. The whole family went into a collective shock. This can’t be happening to her, she’s so young and fit. But my sister was so brave. Her husband and her entire family’s support and her own will power helped her tide over this crisis. She lost a breast, she went through a harrowing period of diagnostic tests to detect the spread of cancer to other parts of her body, and she lost all her hair in the post-operative chemo and radiotherapy that she’s undergoing now. I marvel at the courage with which she has fought the situation. I was shocked and crestfallen when I first heard about it, but she is the one living the ordeal, and each moment of her battle with cancer has been a lesson to me. About the unpredictability of life, about how insignificant and petty our everyday troubles seem compared to these battles with death, about the strength of human spirit, about hope, about tolerance, about perseverance, about the support a family offers, about love that endures such tough tests and grows only stronger by the end of it. She had relapsed again after three cycles of chemotherapy. But I pray that she doesn’t suffer much agony.
Then there’s this uncle, my khuri’s (the wife of my father’s younger brother) brother, who had been a constant presence in my life while I was growing up, even though our interaction has lessened in the past few years. He was the one who accompanied me and my father when I went to watch a movie (‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’) on the big screen for the first time, and he had got all the scolding from the audience when I got scared and started howling when the fight scenes were on. He was the one who brought me a square tin box as my first school bag! And I happily carried it through kindergarten. He fell ill a month back, lost his appetite and became reed thin. The doctors in his town ran a lot of tests but nothing was found wrong with him but still his condition worsened every day. I asked him to get transferred into my college hospital last week. The doctors here suspected a colorectal malignancy and the results are due on Saturday. When I talked to him and his wife today, they expectantly asked me if he was going to be alright. They had never ever even heard of the word “biopsy”. I said he would be alright. But with the “C” word again popping up, I am praying each second that what I assured them would be true. Whatever the test results maybe, I hope he gets over this hurdle in perfect health.
There had been an immense development in the field of oncology (study and treatment of tumors) in the past two decades, be it research for causative factors, treatment, surgeries, diagnostic techniques and screening procedure for cancer detection, study of the magnitude of the disease. The survival rate has gone up. But it still kills a millions of people every year across the globe. The lifestyles we lead today, toxic agents in the environment, addictions like smoking and alcohol, familial factors etc contribute to the millions of people affected each year. It has slowly stopped being the disease of the old age. A frightening number of children and young adults are being affected by it every year. And although there’s increased awareness among people nowadays about cancer and they go for tests at any suspicious symptoms, some cancers hardly show any symptoms till terminal stages and remain undetected. That’s the sad part of this disease. It can hit you anytime. But people have started fighting hard against it. Their families too. And the fight for survival leads to successes, miracles. A cancer survivor knows what’s it’s like to be alive. Their bravery astounds me every second. Few of these brave people’s chances of survival become bleak, but they fight on till the end. Every time I visit a terminal cancer ward, I can’t explain the gamut of emotions I go through on seeing these people’s calm courage at the face of death, trying to live as normal a life possible with tubes and pipes restricting their movements and confining them to beds, pain affecting most of their waking moments, living on with the knowledge that death is close by, carrying on normal conversations with friends and family. They’re living wonders of hope, bravery, and perseverance.