Archive for June 5, 2011


That suicide of the creative process Hemingway describes so accurately in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” He had destroyed his talent himself–by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, by snobbery, by hook and by crook, selling vitality, trading it for security, for comfort. Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A. E. Coppard, Angus Wilson, Joyce Cary—all close to, or in their forties before they came published writers; Lampedusa, Maria Dermout (The Ten Thousand Things). Laura Ingalls Wilder, the “children’s writer,” in their sixties. Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.

The Pulitzer citation describes it as, “an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science.”

Delectable prose

“Elegant” is an apposite description of the New York-based oncologist’s prose, whether he is rephrasing Tolstoy: “Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways”; or explaining the book’s provocative title: “This book is a ‘biography’ in the truest sense of the word – an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behaviour”; or extrapolating, from cancer’s ability to mutate, into the realm of philosophy: “If we, as a species, are the ultimate product of Darwinian selection, then so, too, is this incredible disease that lurks inside us.”

Mukherjee weaves together multiple stories about medical advances, doctors and scientists, and the patients who teach us something in the living or dying.Emperoris a historical account of cancer; we understand how cancer rose to prominence as a leading cause of death – as a direct result of human beings living longer now, and more likely to develop cancer. A greater understanding of the disease however comes with the caveat, the more you know, the more aware you are of how much you don’t know.

Another doctor/author who combines the three key ingredients that makeEmperorsuch an un-putdownable read — medical expertise, literary elegance and the ability to tell a story — is Abraham Verghese. His first two books,My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDSandThe Tennis Partnerare gripping and finely crafted — more, they are candid and compassionate.

Addressing our fears

By dealing with two of the worst monsters of our time, AIDS and addiction, Verghese’s books address some of our darkest fears, whether our own demons or those of our loved ones.

A couple of years ago Verghese took the plunge into fiction withCutting For Stone, which borrowed elements from his personal history to tell the story of a family enmeshed in the world of medicine across multiple lands including India, a mission hospital in Ethiopia and an inner-city hospital in New York City. Verghese has previously written that “to tell a life story [is] to engage in a form of seduction”; no surprise that he has his readers hooked.

Do Indian doctors make good writers? While more research — blind tests, even — would be needed to prove or disprove the assertion, another hyphenate making the bestseller lists is general surgeon and MacArthur fellow Atul Gawande, author ofThe Checklist Manifesto,BetterandComplications.

The Checklist Manifestois an unusual exploration of the power of the to-do list. The author uses his own experiences to show that surgery today, for example, is far too multifaceted a task to perform without a detailed checklist. We fail, not because we don’t have the knowledge, but because we haven’t developed a methodical system to use that knowledge.

Doctors aside, medical writers also come from the world of journalism, such as Lisa Sanders. Her claim to fame is that her Diagnosis column for theNY Timeswas the inspiration for the popular TV drama, HouseMD, for which she serves as technical advisor. Her book,Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosislooks at how misdiagnosis can be at the root of medical errors. She suggests that tests/scans can’t be the only basis for diagnosis; a doctor needs to employ a full range of techniques from the physical exam to listening to the patient’s story.

The doctor’s story is worth listening to, as well, hence the popularity of the medical memoir. InHeart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon, author Kathy Magliato strikes a chord when she describes “the thrill of touching the human heart”. As one of the world’s very few female heart surgeons, she offers a different viewpoint on what is largely regarded as a male preserve.

Author Tim Parks inTeach Us to Sit Stillshares how reading a famous self-help book,A Headache in the Pelvishelped with his chronic pelvic pain syndrome. There’s a book out there on pretty much any medical condition you want; for example, while on pelvic pain, you could find a purely woman-centric one on the subject such asEnding Female Pain: A Woman’s Manual – The Ultimate Self-Help Guide for Women Suffering from Chronic Pelvic and Sexual Painby Isa Herrera.

Medical books deal with a subject close to our hearts — us, we, ourselves. Perhaps the ones we are most drawn to – thrillers aside – are those that give us a deeper insight into how the mind-body machine works, why we are sick, how we can get better — and, unhappily, sometimes, why we can’t. The doctor-author hyphenates are some of the most talented storytellers in this field; so when you next get a prescription from your doctor, bear in mind that within that undecipherable scrawl could lurk the beginnings of a literary masterpiece.

One day, Paul Collins, author of strange biographies such as interesting, droll failures who didn’t change the world and lover of old and odd books, decided to move with his family from San Francisco to the book town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. He felt overcome by a powerful feeling to relocate, buy a house there and write. But he also wanted to move his library there, some few thousand books.

Collins doesn’t cram his books with everything he finds out, so it doesn’t feel geeky. The narrative is airy, light, slimmed-down, not thick and intricate. Yet, once you get over the disappointment that he isn’t telling you everything he knows, you feel grateful that he lets you finish his book. He’s a cool literary detective, laconic and terse with sharing his deep and wily knowledge of the case he’s investigating, parting with the facts — often amusing new trivia — just when you think he’s rambling on. Take his new book,The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World, where a reader, even a Shakespeare scholar, can discover things about the creation of the First Folio and its ensuing bibliographical history that is obscure, hidden, surprising. Research that isn’t wide or common knowledge; details he pursued and teased out.

, “reclining on a velvet pillow, where it luxuriates like a monarch…a stout, unadorned leather binding…

Collins is an impassioned literary detective who chases after details, and ends up finding so many, that his telling becomes rambling marginalia. So, this isn’t just a bibliographical history of theFirst Folio, but also a witty, intriguing and finely detailed peek into Shakespeareana.

Collins points to Samuel Johnson’s own food-stained Folio copy, remarking: “Books bear a tangible presence alongside their ineffable quality of thought: they have a body and a soul.”

The author cleverly portrays Ratnesh to be a seedy, uncouth, unpleasant scoundrel and a hardened opportunist. Amit on the other hand, is well to do and well connected with Indian diplomats and people of influence. However, he too turns out to be disappointingly shallow and calculating.

It’s one thing to weave in the history of a tourist’s background as part of the story, but to guess at their circumstances and stereotype people from different nations comes through as a bit insular and parochial.

This is yet another book that portrays today’s modern Indian women as hesitantly liberated. There is a tendency to dabble in the swirl of western lifestyle until incident catalyses their return with the swiftness of a boomerang. Seetha’s problem seems to be her loneliness in a lifestyle she is only getting accustomed to, and a lack of kindred spirits to help her along in the process. The women in the diplomat party are clearly people not in her league. The IT scene tends to produce a plethora of fine, sensitive, educated people who travel in groups and are willing to create a ready ecosystem in which a fresh contractor from India can survive. Not so for Seetha.

Regional language literature has always been a vast reservoir of wealth waiting to be explored and, no matter how much of it is translated into English, only the tip of the iceberg emerges. Hindi writing, in particular, holds an embarrassment of riches that is just begging to be tapped.

Translator and daughter Ira Pande returns with Shivani’sApradhini: Women without Men. As the title suggests clearly, the book revolves entirely around women and twists in circumstances that often make ordinary women rebel against the parameters of acceptability set down by society. And step shockingly out of line. Told lucidly and laced around her true life journalistic investigations, the stories inApradhinichill the bone with their stark simplicity and brutal honesty. There is no attempt to sensationalise the author’s encounters with prison inmates, no indulging in maudlin emotions either, merely a threadbare account of the lives led by women in the shadows of crime.

Also featured here are stories about tricksters in the guise of innocent women, the ambiguous life of a madwoman and the tragic results of excessive irreverence. An entire story is dedicated to the hardships faced by the author’s mother and the magnanimity of spirit that survived all odds.

The author has a sharp ear for unspoken words and a keen eye that reads between the lines. Without saying anything concrete, she conjures up the horrors of Indian prisons and the plight of rural women who continue to be at the receiving end of immense social injustice. Domestic violence is depicted, terrifyingly, as a casual and regular occurrence; it is the outer limit of endurance that is the deciding factor of fates. Author interviews and a body of information etch the persona of the late Shivani very satisfyingly.

This book is to be read at the reader’s own peril. A bleak and joyless journey, one capable of evoking deep emotions…. Of these, guilt is likely to ride highest; that such a parallel world exists so close to the familiar one we recognise and yet one is helpless to do much about it. A compelling book but one that could make one a prisoner of one’s own conscience.

The poems in the collection show Satchidanandan as a core romantic with surrealistic tensions. Along Satchidanandan’s poetic cruise, his poems refer often to the gods, saints, philosophers, and the belt of Latin American poets and others by whom he is visibly, and even heavily influenced.

Sublimely sensuous

‘Sulekha’ is one of the best poems in the collection.With so many wings, Sulekha, what are you doing there?/ The white robe of a divine bride, white rose, white dreams: I see everything. (Sulekha). Satchidanandan turns sublimely sensuous and evocative in his poem on the Kashmiri mystic poet Lalleshwari “Lal Ded Speaks against Borders”.So I strip myself to attain my Shiva,/ naked like the breeze over the lake./ My lips are wicks that burn,/ my breasts, flowers/and my hips incense: / I am an offering./ Ask the peepal and the palash/ the soul has no religion;/ nature suckles everything/ The blue sky/ is the throat of the Neelkanth/.

Tenderly attractive lines lace the collection.The winter night trembling by the window/ is pale like garlic (Sulekha), I fly from word to word restless/ like a bird, its nest burnt out (The Prodigal Son), ‘Our brief day is a bird’s tail on fire (We live on Islands).

There are times too, when lines turn poltergeist.Dorota, our words are ants/ that drag in only headless corpses, and times when the haunt fills an entire poem. A moon rises in the lake of her tears/ a bird bathes in it and/ a woman sees her own image. (The Panther in the City)

A sense of mystery envelops in poems asThe Drum, or inWho Said?Who said that waiting is a railway station in north Malabar/ That a morning in uniform will arrive there in a coffin/.Alluring lines meet us inThe footprint on the wet grass/ need not be death’s/ perhaps a folk song had gone by (On wet grass),The wind was turning/ the pages of an apple tree (In Memory Of a Swedish Evening), You quietly placed your palm on mine/ like God polishing a rainbow/ and placing it in the azure sky (Infinite).

In his preface to this debut collection of poems, Balakrishnan speaks of how the poems that came to him on occasion used to “vanish in time”, swallowed up by the “humdrum” nature of his life. Not until 2001 when he brought home a computer was he rewarded by the unimaginable luxury of re-visiting his poems to polish them as he pleased.

His preface reminded me what the American writer Tillie Olsen says in her bookSilences about literary history being dark with silences” – the silences of great writers as well as hidden silences, the silence that falls when a writer ceases to publish after the appearance of one work, or when the writing fails to take the form of a book. Sometimes a writer decides to abandon a genre altogether because there are no readers or because no one will publish it.

To sustain the creative fire despite the fragmentation of time and the self can also pose a challenge. That Balakrishnan has managed not to lose sight of his vanishing poems entirely is perhaps what makes him a poet and indeed it is this that makes us forgiving of his lapses in craft and style. He speaks frequently of the aridity of his working life. In “Doubts from the 7{+t}{+h}Floor”, the speaker looks down from a window on the seventh floor and feels nearer to god and nature. He then wonders if this is merely the “fleeting wish of one who yearns/for something above this mundane life.” There is even a poem about having “no more deadlines to meet”. “Why do you come to me, my muse/At this hour in time/The noon is past, the sun has set/I am in twilight zone/The penumbra of life/Now – why have you come?” asks the speaker of the poem “Are you Saraswati?”.