PET

 

When you think of a pet, you think of a cute cuddly dog or cat or fishes in a tank or pond… my younger son had even asked for a pet elephant at a point. However, the only thing I could see were fishes on the ceiling. The pictures of the fishes looked almost alive trapped in colourful glass, perhaps an attempt to cheer patients undergoing the scan.

The full form of the PET in medical parlance is Positron Emission Tomography. One goes through this scan to check for various diseases in the body or the absence of thereof if you have already completed your treatment/ surgery as I had…what they called a follow up scan. It sounds like an intimidating procedure as it involves injecting a radioactive substance into your body and then doing a scan inside a machine, much like a futuristic gizmo. Perhaps, it could be a thing for putting the human body to cold freeze and storing it for posterity like they do in Star Wars! But currently it functions only as a scanner.

When I was called in for the procedure, a pink shirted radiologist (all of them wore pink shirts) came and explained the process to me in a PET suite, a little cupboard of a room with an austere bed and medicine trolley filled with needles, gauze and stuff. The radiologist told me about the radioactive stuff and then I asked him if it was similar to carbon dating… you know the stuff they do to unearth the age of Egyptian mummies and Neanderthal men…he seemed a little nonplussed and told me it was nothing like that!

The most intimidating thing for me was the insertion of the cannula (the plastic needle that is used for multiple injections or drips). They could not find the veins in my hands! It took nearly half-an-hour and a few nurses to complete the procedure. After that, I was given the medication and told to relax… again a hard task as I was also told not to move or turn or sing or read or talk. I was told to sleep. I could twitch my muscles and my mind had the freedom to swing. The nurse offered to turn off the light for me. No, I said, I wanted the light. I tried to rest as I felt the radioactive stuff course through my veins. It would have been nice to have some attractive pictures or tiles on the walls and ceiling to assist in making the atmosphere more relaxed, I thought.

Then there was the explosion of the matter and antimatter in my veins… I was drifting… my sons had told me there was anti-matter in the radioactive stuff… but here I was praying for a long life to the Creator of energy, matter and anti-matter.

I could actually feel the stuff coursing through my body while I lay like a stiffened mummy of the Egyptian genre, my stomach rumbled and grumbled. I had been instructed to starve over night for the scan. This time it was for the radioactive glucose to react exactly to the sugar absorption levels in ones body. Presence of sugars would distract the readings.

After half-an-hour, they toddled me off to the scan as the medicine has a short life of only a couple of hours. The medicine chose or chose not to light up during the process, bright lights indicated a concentration of sugar. The lighted-up part could be cancerous.

I had been thinking of going into the machine with my hands crossed like an Egyptian mummy and pretending to be Cleopatra, instead I went with my hands above my head, trapped by straps with Velcro like a captive prisoner… my turn to be nonplussed! I felt like a princess in harem pants or perhaps princess Leia of Star Wars fame, imprisoned by Jaba the Hutt. I tend to analogize with anecdotes from Star Wars and Harry Potter as my sons are addicted to these. But, then, I think that is a good thing as they have positive messages of hope. In Harry Potter, we are taught to dispel our worst fears (embodied in the form taken by creatures called bogarts) with ‘riddikulus’   and in the original Star Wars, the good always wins in addition to John Williams’s upbeat music. Despite all that, I was a little zapped (or taken aback) to have my hands tied above my head.

And then I noticed the ceiling in the room was like an underwater scenario… as much as it could be. So, perhaps, one could dream of being a prisoner in Nemo’s submarine hold! Or, princess Leia captive during an adventure to JaJa Binks underwater world… a new idea for another Star Wars episode, take note Disney films. Actually, I thought of neither. I just looked around because everything was so strange, so different from what I imagined. I was just very glad thinking this might prove to be the end of my medical journey battling with tumours and rumours.

My imagination could have taken flight across the Egyptian desserts and across vibrant blue skies. But wanting really to live, I prayed, I waited, I sighed… hoping this would be my last ride to realms of futuristic fancy under the influence of medication.

Once I was through with it and the radiologist came to free me, one look at him smiling and I knew I was free of cancer. Earlier, before my surgery, the radiologist who did the Contrast Dye CT Scan had looked so sad when she came to release me from my strapping.

It all happened so fast and I was cleansed off the deadly growth in a jiffy. I found that the journey back was not as daunting as I had feared. It was a matter of how you addressed your fears. I have learnt that the best way to overcome anything is a vivid imagination, laughter and support from family and friends. If one gives in to fear as one does to bullying, one crumbles to ashes. You just have to stand up to it, pray very hard and suddenly you are back to enjoying the sunshine, bird calls, children and life in general. It does take time to recuperate fully, but that is not so bad as long as you have hope, friends, love and happiness.

 

 

 

 

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Pages from the Past

IMG_0278

 

Somya was researching Partition stories with the hope of writing a book. Her fascination with the subject escalated as she delved deeper. One day, a friend, Paulomi Sen, invited her home to meet a lady whose grandmother had suffered from the throes of Partition, the great divide that ripped the Indian subcontinent into multiple nations. The ripping, like all acts of violence, was characterized by brutality and angst. The lacerated wounds refused to heal over generations. And all this happened in a land that had earlier, for multiple centuries, witnessed syncretization of different cultures, creeds and religions.

Paulomi introduced Somya to the grand daughter of the Partition victim, Mona. Mona was a PhD student in her mid-twenties. She had been born and brought up in Singapore. She spoke with a Singlish twang at times with a mild smattering of ‘lahs’ but by and large she stuck to Queen’s English, quite different from the expat Indians who flocked to Singapore in the new millenia.

Somya belonged to the expat category. Singapore had been a difficult country for her to fathom. People had seemed cold and distant when she moved to Singapore in 1991. But what she eventually realized that people just did not know enough about all of India. They were mostly focused on the Southern Indians who were very different from the Northern, Eastern or Western culturally and in appearance. The consciousness had started creeping into the Singapore mindset as the number of expats increased. Somya herself was from Eastern India, West Bengal. That complicated things further as they associated Bengali, her mother tongue, with Bangladesh and Bangladeshi workers. Culturally, she was closer to a Bangladeshi than to a person from Southern India as their food and habits were more similar. A little more than two hundred years ago, when the lines had not been drawn, her ancestors had been chased out of Dhaka by a ruler who historians have described as ‘depraved’ and ‘ cruel’. Her ancestors had made a home in the Dutch colony of Chinsura that fell into the portion of India when the country was sliced. Somya’s family continued Indians and others became East Pakistanis in 1947 and subsequently Bangladeshis in 1971.

Mona was a person of Indian ethnicity but a Singaporean. She valued a past, she said, because the country was young compared to the antiquity of India or China.

As they talked, Somya learnt that Mona’s mother had migrated to Singapore long before she was born. The story grew more and more complex and interesting.

She said, “My mother was a child of the Partition, born in 1948. Actually, my grandmother’s past had forced the family to move out of Calcutta and eventually many of us moved out of India… you know lah… how it is for some families…”

Somya waited for her to continue but Mona was clearly struggling to explain things that may have been unpalatable to her or her family. She was also fumbling with her bag and pulled out a diary from it.

“This is the diary of a tenant who stayed in our ancestral home in Calcutta for some time. There are only a few entries. I have book marked them for you. Most of it is just appointments and meetings. Perhaps, it is best you read it yourself… But please don’t tell anyone that the story is about our family lah. You know how people are lah… “

Somya assured her that her book was fictitious and the diary would only help her recreate a fictional character.

“It was brave of you to come forward with the story in any case,” she concluded.

“ No lah. I came forward because I think that people need to understand that holding on to anger and shame is destructive. One needs to let go of the angst and move forward towards the creation of a better world… you know lah… You can return the diary to me when you finish. There is no hurry. But my family should not be mentioned… please lah…”

“That is a promise,” Somya reassured her.

Somya returned home with the diary and started reading. The diary belonged to Mr Debnath Mukherjee. There were a few written entries only… it was mostly filled with cryptic time schedules for meetings, appointments and deadlines, as Mona had said, except for the entries made on particular dates.

The first entry was located in the middle… on the date of 25 th April, 1973.

Calcutta, 25 th April, 1973

I have decided to write down these strange occurrences in this diary to maintain a record. I have never experienced anything this weird.

I was praying in the prayer room upstairs today when I felt someone had entered. I turned around and stared in surprise.

Before me, stood a woman who looked like the Goddess Durga herself. She was of an indeterminate age; anywhere between twenty-eight and forty-five I would say, clad in a white saree with a red border. Her parting was filled with sindoor. On her forehead was a big bindi and her lips were reddened with betel juice. Hip length hair fell in dark ripples down her back. Her feet were defined by the alta on it. Her head was partially covered with the pallu of her saree. Strangely, her clothes seemed a bit damp though I never touched them. In her hands, she held a copperplate of offerings for prayers with flowers, sweets, a small brass or copper container with water and a lamp. She smiled at me and beckoned…

I felt compelled to follow. I followed the mysterious woman.

She led me to the courtyard. It seemed to have changed completely… what had happened? I moved as if in a trance behind her.

A huge bonfire burnt in the middle of the courtyard. And a sturdy Brahmin priest in a traditional dhoti was feeding the flames with papers and books and shouting, “Om Agni swaha! Om Agni swaha!”He seemed to be in a tremendous rage. He seemed larger than life with his pent up anger and violence. I could sense it…feel his bloodshot eyes and angst. Some women sitting and wailing added to the tragic and frightening effect. A woman dressed in bridal finery lay on the floor in a faint. She looked exquisitely beautiful too, so young and so innocent.

I turned towards my strange guide seeking an explanation. My guide had disappeared from my side…

Where was she? Was she among the wailers?

I looked around. Suddenly, I saw her.

There she was … by the side of the old brahmin…

I could not move or call out… what was happening?

The flames from the bonfire leapt higher and higher. Everything was covered in a haze of smoke and the chanting filled my head till I felt myself ready to swoon…

Suddenly, everything was back to normal. I could move. There were our potted plants and the swing and my birdbath. I could hear my wife’s voice from the kitchen calling out to check if I was ready for tea. My wife had obviously not seen or experienced anything different. I did not alarm her by telling her about my strange ‘encounter’.

I was intrigued and shaken by the whole incident. I decided to write to my landlord and ask him if he knew what was it that I had witnessed. Did this house have an unholy mystery concealed seething in the superficial calm of its ambience? Was it safe for my family and me? Or should we move house?

My landlord, Mr Avinash Bhattacharya, lived in New Delhi. He wrote back quickly, urging me to continue, saying there was nothing dangerous in the house and he would describe the incident to me when we met.

I decided to give him a chance to explain himself and agreed not to move out if there were no recurrence of such events.

New Delhi, 23 rd June, 1973

Thankfully, there was no repetition of the weird experience I had this April in the house I rent in Calcutta.

We are in Delhi for my children’s summer holidays. We are staying with my elder brother, Manibhushan Mukherjee, and his family, comprising of three sons and his wife. Today, I went to visit my landlord. My twenty-six year old nephew who works for a law firm in New Delhi came with me. He took me to the landlord’s house in Chittaranjan Park after lunch.

Avinash Bhattacharya seems to be a kind man. He had a strange story to tell.

It seems in 1947, his parents from Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh) took shelter in his home during the Partition, leaving behind their eighteen-year-old daughter, Gouri, to the mercy of ruthless kidnappers who raided and razed their home and their tol (village school, mostly religious). His father was the pundit (learned teacher) who ran the tol. Gouri had been married for four years but was childless. She had been visiting her parents during Durga Puja that year. As the flames of hatred and violence devoured the village and burnt their home, some of the Islamic hooligans picked up the beautiful Gouri and carried her off. The helpless parents were forced to flee holding on just to their lives. The father and mother managed to evade the fire, blood and fury and make it to the safety of their son’s home in Calcutta.

Avinash had just bought the home he had been renting. By then, he had a son and daughter. His twenty-two year old brother also lived with him. He himself was just touching thirty. His other sister was twenty-seven and safely living with her in-laws in Jamshedpur, Bihar. Only Gouri remained unaccounted for.

The family lodged a report in Calcutta. But the police could do nothing. Six months passed. The Bengali New Year was limping its way towards their home as the bereft parents tried to adjust to life in Calcutta. Mr Bhattacharya’s father could not stop looking for his sister, Gouri, on his own. Her in-laws, who had also fled to the safety of India, visited them. They assumed Gouri was dead. They praised her to the skies but were certain she was no more. Only, her own father could not stop feeling that she would return.

And then, one day, she did.

It was the 5th of April, 1948. The cold nip in the air had given way to flowers and blooms all around. But, the pundit, instead of visiting the gardens in Calcutta visited police stations and the railway stations in the hope of gathering news about his youngest daughter, Gouri. How could she just disappear?

That day, he found her at the railway station. It seemed that she was being sent to West Pakistan by her kidnappers along with two more girls. They were all made to wear burkhas. Despite that, Gouri’s father recognized her walk and managed to rescue her with the help of the police and crowds. The kidnappers were handcuffed and taken away. Avinash was a bit fuzzy about the whole episode, probably because he was not present.

Gouri had become shrivelled and dark with manhandling. Many men had handled her. But she was regaining her strength and looks under the loving care of her family. They rejoiced at her recovery. Her father decided to invite her in-laws so that they could take her back to her own home.

The Bengali New Year on 15th April was one filled with hope and happiness for the Bhattacharya family.

On twenty fifth April, Gouri’s husband, Mukund, and her father-in-law were invited to lunch. They lived in Vardhaman now. They took a train to Calcutta and it was only after resting and lunch that the pundit had sprung the joyous surprise on them. Only they did not find it joyous, they left without so much as wishing her well. Her father-in-law declared her to be ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ for having survived the trial. Her husband, his father’s obedient son, left his wife for life in a lurch for good and followed in his father’s footsteps… except he had tears in his eyes when he left. Again Mr Bhattacharya was at work and he could not describe the scene exactly.

But when he returned from work a little early, around 3.45pm in the afternoon, he found the scene I described being enacted. The enraged pundit, who had tried to justify the ‘purity’ of his daughter by calling her heart untouched and clean, was burning all his religious books, which condemned the abused girl as ‘impure’. His sister was lying in dead faint dressed in bridal finery. She had been decked up for her husband and in-laws as she would be starting her life anew… but now… now there could be no fresh start.

Mr Bhattacharya saw the chaos and his heart wept for his young sister. He rushed himself to get a doctor.

The doctor had the girl carried to the bed and examined her with care. At the end of the examination, he congratulated her parents for their daughter’s pregnancy.

Gouri had been impregnated by the unholy seeds of a rapist!

Her mother passed out clutching her heart. The doctor stood there. He could do nothing. By the time he reached out  to her, she was no more… that was 25 th April, 1948, twenty-five years ago.

However, today, the biggest shock I had today was seeing the girl who had been decked in bridal finery and one of the wailing women, enter the room with tea and snacks!   They had aged but I could recognize them. Gouri was still alive as was her sister-in-law who had helped dress her. She was Avinash’s wife.

After Gouri came in, nothing more was said. The story had been related while the women were preparing tea. Gouri’s daughter joined them a little later. She had been watering the garden. She was really beautiful with fair skin and black hair and tawny eyes. I could see my nephew gape at her!

I was dying to know the rest of the story. After the women served us tea and joined us, there was no possibility of finding out anything. The conversation moved to generalities like the weather and how beautiful a city Delhi was.

I looked at my watch and indicated it was time for us to go. Mr Bhattacharya smiled and accompanied us down the drive to the gate. He lived in a bungalow with a garden. My nephew had parked his car outside the main gate. As we walked out, I could not help ask Mr Bhattacharya, “Was that not Gouri, girl in a faint decked in bridal finery?”

“ Yes,” he replied, “and her daughter. You mean you recognized her from your vision?”

“ Yes,” I responded. “How are they now? What is it they do?” I blurted out.

“ To conclude my telling… You will find all your answers there. We were forced to leave Calcutta because of the scandal. I took a transfer to Delhi and my younger brother to Bombay. My father died before we left Calcutta, before the child was born. We do not really go there anymore. I use my home as an investment. Here, we pass Gouri off as a widow and her daughter, Mala, has grown up believing her father was killed during the Partition… but there will be a time we will have to tell the child the real story…”

Calcutta,10th August, 1975

My elder brother is very upset. My nephew, Nikhilesh, the one who drove me to Mr Bhattacharya’s house, has eloped with Gouri’s illegitimate daughter, Mala. Mala was doing her PhD in History from Delhi University. It seems Nikhilesh had been smitten by her the first day he saw her! He met her again and now he has married her.

My brother is very angry, especially now that he knows the girl’s background, which has been explained to him by his son in a letter. My brother has sent me a photocopy of the letter asking me for an explanation if I have one. I am gluing the letter to the diary.

The letter

Dear Father,

By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore.

I am marrying the girl I love, Mala, and we are leaving for Singapore tonight. By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore. I have taken a posting here. I told you that I will be going on tour and left.

Mala is the love of my life. I cannot live without her. Yet, you are both so against a love marriage that I cannot even mention her to you. That is why I rejected all the matches you suggested.

I also need to tell you that Mala’s mother was a victim of abuse faced during Partition. Hence, Mala’s father is an unknown factor. Her mother passes herself off as a widow. Mala, as of now, still thinks her father died during the Partition, killed by Muslim mobsters.

Mala’s family will have already received the note that she would have left for them two days ago. I posted my letter on the way out as I wanted to take no chances.

If you find it in your heart to accept Mala and me, please write to us at my office address in India and they will forward it to me in Singapore.

We would love to live with your blessings, love and goodwill.

Regards, love and best wishes,

Nikhilesh

After that the entries ended.

Somya was left thirsting with curiosity to know what happened in the aftermath in Singapore.

The next Saturday, she contacted Paulomi again saying she was through with the diary and would like to return it to Mona.

This time Paulomi asked Somya to meet them in her office in the NUS campus. She was a professor at NUS and Mona was her student.

Somya reached there just as Mona entered for her discussion with Paulomi. Mona was surprised to see Somya, who returned the diary to her and asked, “ Would you like to share the rest with me?”

“ There is nothing more to share. My parents lived happily here. No one from both the sides contacted my parents. My mother did write to her mother and send her the address. In response, my grandmother sent her blessings by post, and died in 1980. My father received a letter from his uncle, blessing him but making it clear that the family was upset. My father’s family never contacted him.”

“Does your mother know her past?”

“ She does now. Her mother wrote to her all the details when she sent her blessings and said it was better that she stayed where she did, making a fresh start. By what I figured out she had not been much of a mother to mine… always caught up in her own world of angst and anger. My mother did not have a very happy childhood but she gave me a fabulous one… The outcome of the revelation, I have heard from my father, made my mother sad for a few days. I have only had love and support from my parents as far as I can remember. It was a wonderful childhood for me. I think my parents had too much happiness between them to let the past destroy the present.”

Meandering to Machu Picchu on Morphine…

 

As I sped through the jungles of Amazonia, I could feel, hear and see the splash of grey green water on my face. My hair flew wildly in the breeze created by the speeding hydrofoil as blue, emerald and red parakeets flitted among the trees. The sky was almost invisible amidst the foliage. The creepers and huge palm like leaves on the banks of the river studded the bottom of the tall trees that sped past in a haze…Then I skidded down a long road with corn fields on both sides. It was a sunny day. The road was a blur of tar and white paint. The soil was brown and the corn, yellow. Could I have arrived at Peru? I had always want to go there to visit Machu Picchu, the amazing city of the Incas with wandering white Llamas…

And every time the monitors beeped me back to reality, to the fact that I was being revived after a surgery. Each time I came back to the reality of being on a bed and not a speedboat or a sleek race car. They anaesthetized me and later had me on a drip of morphine… which is why I had all these wonderful trips to places where I have never been and have always wanted to visit.

Doctors, dentists and nurses are nice to know socially… very kind, vivacious, people who can relate to all and sundry and all kinds of good things can be said of them… but at a professional level, I prefer giving them a wide berth. However, when I had this searing pain in my upper abdomen, I was rushed to the hospital. Then started the preparation for my imaginary trips to various places of interest.

First they put me on a drip. I had only had a toast with honey and chamomile tea at 6.30 in the morning. They wanted to do an ultrasound, they told me and I needed to be starved. I argued, I had ultrasounds through my pregnancies and had never been denied food. With a patient voice, the senior physician informed me that this time, it was the abdomen, the food churning machines, and therefore I had no choice. I was made to lie down.

An enterprising young man came and beat my hands till the veins started to show and then he jabbed. They put me on a saline solution so that I could starve without getting dehydrated. My stomach started craving for food. But I lay there still, on a drip.

Around noon, they let me walk with hands pierced by the drip needle to the radiologist. I was asked to lie down on a narrow shelf-like couch that seemed to grow out of the wall, only it had a soft rexine-like finish. It could barely accommodate my ample girth! Then she asked me to relax. They always do… is it not? To avoid plunging into the depths of an abysmal chasms of frozen fear, I recited Wordsworth’s Daffodils under my breath as her cold scanner smeared a colder gel on me. Then, with due apologies to the great poet, she scanned and scanned but little thought what curiosity in me it wrought, especially when she put me on hold and ran out to get a full abdomen scan order from the doctor. And then, she did her stuff and let me go. I was sent back to the drip.

Every now and then, the needle poking young male nurse ambled in to check on me and offered me pain-relieving injections, which I politely refused. What would be more painful, a needle or the pain I had?

I tried to converse with the young man but the conversation always reverted to poking needles or starving me… he seemed to be obsessed with jabs.

At last, the senior physician came and said, I needed to go for a CT scan with a dye injected in me… How comfortable does that sound on an empty, rumbling stomach?! This time they did not ask but put me on a wheel chair. Again I was made to lie down on a long, narrow, plank-like couch that would go into a circular tunnel. Then they warned, it might hurt and they put a drip of a brownish liquid. The radiologist told me I could relax then and breath in and out as the machine instructed. She made me wait ten long minutes with my needle poked hand positioned above my head savoring the brown fluid coursing through my veins. The machine started talking and asked me to hold my breath in and out as the plank on which I lay moved in and out of the tunnel. I felt like I was going through a futuristic process and wondered if the medical investigations in Star Wars or Agents of Shield would be as intimidating in reality.

At last around 6.30 pm, I was freed off machines and told that I could eat. But by then, I had lost my appetite. Remember, I had been starved for twelve hours. I found it difficult to eat. So, they continued me on the saline and would not let me go home till I had a hearty breakfast and they took me off the saline.

The doctor gave me a three-day break to ready myself for a surgery scheduled for that Saturday. He said as it was a major surgery, he wanted to be relaxed! So, it would have to be the weekend!

On Friday, I had to go to visit not just the doctor but also the phlebotomist. In case you are wondering what the latter is, they have the jobs of vampires, except the vampires draw blood for the selfish intent of consumption and the phlebotomists do it for the noble cause of medical investigations. The lady phlebotomist was nice. As she drew vial after vial of blood, we chatted about our lives’ works…

The next day was Saturday. I remember, going to the hospital, being visited by the anesthetist and the pain doctor who explained to me how to use the morphine shot that would be given to me after my surgery, saw my doctor and his team mate, another surgeon. The anesthetist was kind enough to say I had veins like a lady as he found them difficult to locate and then it all blanked out.

I lost a whole day and woke up in the evening with my family at the ledge of my bed, bringing me back to reality. I was strapped to all kinds of machines and could barely move!

I could not sleep well the whole night at the High Dependency Unit for the beep of monitors. When the anesthetist came in the morning and I complained of lack of sleep, he told me that I was not meant to sleep but to wake up. I still had the morphine drip and shot when I was wheeled into my room.

I lay in on my high-tech bed with drips dripping saline, morphine and medication. Though I was surrounded by friends and family, again I found my bed encapsulating me and whirling me into outer space. I flew among the stars in my white and blue space ship and the machine that massaged my legs to prevent thrombosis became the controls of my ship. As I glided noiselessly in a dark vacuum studded with stars, I was drawn back to reality with the look of concern and affection on a friend’s face by my bed.

Next day I was taken off the morphine and my journey towards heading home started.

Now, I sit at home recuperating and writing. I had always wondered how ST Coleridge could write a description of Xanadu without ever stepping into China… His Kubla Khan written under the influence of opium made me a fan of Kublai Khan. I not only read on him but lived in China for eight years and walked the Great Wall four times, only parts of it, not all of it.

Now I wonder if my trip through Amazonia and Peru on morphine will take me to the real Machu Picchu ever… or, perhaps, the Egyptian pyramids on camel back…or maybe, to Easter Island among those huge rocks where like a shaman or a druid of yore, I could feel the elements tear at me and wrap me with their mystery…

 

Toothfully True

Optimized by JPEGmini 3.9.20.0L Internal 0xbbbdf264
With due apologies to Edvard Munch…

This is dedicated to all those who have sat and are likely to sit on a dentist’s chair, under the threat posed by drills, pliers, needles and jabs.

I have a friend who told me that she and her sister kicked dentists in terror of all the paraphernalia and the horror of being under the tooth doctor’s surveillance. In the last week, I too have had three sessions or three and a half hours of dental care. After the second session, I felt like wobbly jelly in a bowl till… I was advised by a co-sufferer to think happy thoughts. As I waited to be called for my third session, he suggested I think of floating or flying in the sky… I looked daggers at him…

However, when I sat on the chair, it started… I could not stop laughing while my mouth hung open in imitation of Edvard Munch’s Scream, my tongue stayed in place under a clamped rubber sheet, which under normal circumstances would have generated a fear of an asphyxiating death. As the dentist jabbed and drilled to her heart’s content, my stomach shook with laughter… and my throat gurgled in delight.

I was thinking what if Edvard Munch’s Scream screamed not for the angst in him but was holding his mouth open for a dental job… what if he floated up to the skies, as my messiah had suggested, and in a fit of dental angst doubled up with ‘laughing gas’, which is also a title by P.G.Wodehouse. Unfortunately, they do not use laughing gas on adults any more. My dentist said they use it only on children now.

As my stomach shook and I snorted masked and goggled on a chair, the dentist paused in concern, “Everything all right?” she asked in hesitation.

I struggled to keep my snort under control as I indicated all was fine. A1… as much as possible under a dentist’s drill.

Nowadays, they make the patient wear goggles while doing the job so that, they explained, the sprays of water etc do not go into their eyes or the bright lights disturb their introspective meditation of the toothy kind! My introspection took me deeper into the realms of uncontrollable mirth. I thought of what Wodehouse might say looking at all the paraphernalia, especially the x-rays. Those looked like equipment out of Star Wars or Agents of Shield. Maybe it was too post Wodehouse. But if the creator of Laughing Gas (the book, not the gas) had seen them, he would definitely have much to say. There was an x-ray machine where the doctor stuffed a film in a sharp plastic case in my mouth and told me to relax so that it would not hurt. How you relax with an object like that in your mouth held in place by knife like metal protrusions is a question only a dentist can answer if she undergoes a similar trial.

The other x-ray equipment looked intimidating. You stand with your hands on the machine and bite a plastic rod stuck to the structure as the x-ray camera revolves around your head on an extended white arm. You feel a bit like the solar system. You keep wondering if the equipment is going to smash your head as it draws menacingly closer and closer. The process continues for thirty long seconds after which the dental assistant comes cheerfully in and helps you out of the contraption. By then, you are hoping the most intimidating is over. And that happens in the first session.

In the second session, decked in sunglasses like Men in Black under the glare of bright lights as I sat with my mouth open in imitation of Edvard Munch’s painting, the dentist said, “ We need to use numbing.” Promptly, the nurse put a cooling gel and I thought, “Ah! Thank god… not a needle.”

Needless to say I am terrified of injections and stopped visiting dentists after the last one told me she needed to use an injection to numb my gums for further procedure. I gave dentists a break for half a decade but then, the pain started at the back again, a dull ache that persisted for days. So, I was compelled to amble into the dental clinic. This time the dentists said nothing about an injection till suddenly I felt a sharp jab hit my gum like a fat needle and it stayed on forever and ever. The nurse kept stroking my cheek with gauze and then my gums and cheek lost all sensations. I saw the dentist use something like a nail wrapped in some kind of sticky tape to jab my gums and pliers to pull them out…Thank God I had no sensation. That time, she was not using the rubber sheet so I could see her hands clearly and I did not have my messiah’s advise.

By the end of the session, I felt I must have spent a few decades on that chair and my left side where the jab had taken effect felt like a fat blob of quivering jelly! My whole being wobbled, shaken by the dental adventure.

That is why before the third session I was like a dish of green jello. Then under the guidance of my messiah, I found the best way to conquer fear is to laugh, to make fun of the situation, a bit like JK Rowling’s description of how to get rid of a bogart, a creature that takes the form of what you most fear. You make it look ludicrous by dressing it in funny gear and shouting out a spell that is a deviation on the word ridiculous! So, that is what you do at a dentist’s. Of course you do not shout it out loud or use a wand to wave around as they do in the movie, but you get the gist.

You sit and imagine… a bogart or Munch’s Scream with dental issues or Voldemort or Darth Vader or Jar Jar Binks on a dentist’s chair…

Now, I have conquered it all… and probably next time, not only will I be ready to battle a bogart in dentist’s garb but the real person… with my new found weapon.

Creativity and competition

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Country road in Provence by Night,  Vincent Van Gogh, !890

 

Vincent Van Gogh severed his ear when he got into a fight with Paul Gaugin, a friend and a fellow artist. He painted a picture of himself with a bandaged ear and died regarded as a pauper and madman. Paul Gaugin fared hardly any better in his lifetime. And yet now, their art is seen as priceless.

In music, Salieri was better regarded than Mozart… and yet Mozart lives today when the only place one gets to hear Salieri’s music is in Amadeus, the movie on Mozart’s life.

The Great Gatsby by F. scott Fitzgerald was regarded as ‘ tawdry’ and ‘ absurd’ by the media when it was published and Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, was dismissed as a ‘minor’ work by critics. And yet both of these have later been made into Hollywood films and popularized.

Did these writers or artistes compete for the top billing?

I think not. But they created what they felt from the heart. They created with passion. They had no intention of double spacing or typifying their art forms or giving exams and fitting it into a mold so that it could get the first place or be selected for an exhibition or a book or magazine by a publisher.

Being a person who enjoys experimenting with words, enjoys the rhythm of them, the feel of them, the sensuality of them, the power they possess and the passion they can generate, I want to share why I do not feel creativity can be measured by competitions.

Creating for me is a form of worship. Each time I try to create perfection. And each time I fall short. Each word I write, each piece I write is from my heart. It is an offering to that energy of which we are all a part, of which each star, each planet is a part.

When I write a journalistic piece or a review, it is with a different perspective. It is written to inform. I have an editor who hones it to perfection for me. A piece that is published ceases to be mine.

Creation is different from publication or limelight. Creation is the process of ascending above the existing world and getting in touch with that part of yourself that wants to soar with endless freedom across the open spaces of the universe, that wants to burn like a flame and rise in a crescendo to a world that only can be described as ecstatic, to give a sense of boundlessness to the spirit…I try to capture this ecstasy in words. Sometimes, characters visit me in dreams. I have to write about them otherwise they keep haunting me. Sometimes lines come to me and if I do not put them down, I lose them. Then I feel incomplete and irritable. Thus, the need to create or express can be painful and intense. The outbursts of lines, colors and people happen naturally. They take me to that point from where I can see a world that is different from what most perceive.

When I was in my teens, my friends used to tease me that I viewed everything differently from others… now people tell me I live in a different world far removed from reality. But that is my reality.

Creativity can be seen as a form of madness or delusion that whirls and twirls you around the world, that helps you rise above the mundane and experience a joy that is beyond competitions and exams as well as torture you to perdition if the right words do not come your way. George Bernard Shaw does a good job of putting it in perspective,

“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not’?”

When you try to relate that dream to others, you create an art form or a poem or a story or an essay…

That is why I feel creativity is beyond judgment, beyond competition.

Creativity just happens. Trying to earn ones living buying, selling or teaching creativity can be daunting. You can sell an idea, a piece of information, a painting that someone likes, a novel that many enjoy. These might be the products of the creative process.

When one competes to write a story or a poem for a competition only to win and starts looking for profits in creativity, one compromises oneself. A creative product may not be highly popular when it is born. People may or may not like your experience or the expression that one gives. The world may not be ready for it as yet. But if you can continue practicing the expression for the love or joy it generates or out of a sense of compulsion, maybe the masterpiece will happen.

The famous American writer, William Sidney Porter or O Henry, has written a story called The Last Leaf, which describes the whole process of creativity and masterpiece to perfection. The story is about a failed crusty old artist who painted the last leaf on a tree to give hope to a young artist and help her survive a bout of pneumonia. The young girl was under the delusion that she would die when the last leaf fell. Behrman, the old artist, has been described as such in the story.

Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it.”

He dies painting what one of the characters describes as his ‘masterpiece’.

And this is what I feel is a masterpiece, the swan song of our lives. Once you achieve it, perhaps it will be difficult to replicate… I do not know. Or, maybe, it can be repeated. Though I must say after reading all the wonderful Harry Potters, JK Rowling’s other books leave me dissatisfied.

Creativity should be viewed as Edgar Allan Poe’s Eldorado, elusive, mythical and enchanting… not for sale but something that many of us seek and do not find, the ultimate source of joy, not of mundane fame. It cannot be trapped into a bank vault. It is a divine union, a gift that fills our being with joy and light. There is nothing before or after. It is the gift that touches the beauty in our being, bringing us closer to the eternal Creator of all mankind. It is the song that flows from our soul, primeval, beautiful and fulfilling.

 

 

 

Parenting… rereading and reading

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When I see my sons curled up with a Harry Potter for the umpteenth time, I invariably ask them how many times they have read these books. They call these their ‘comfort food’ and the books do cheer them up. We have the complete series at home. I have read each of them four times too but my sons must have reread them a few hundreds or thousands of times! One of their friends can lay similar claims too. His mother left the series behind at her home in Germany but he still found a way to read the books, by borrowing from the library at school!

I have always wondered what the effect of re-reading a book would be on children and then I chanced upon an article by Emma Court in The Atlantic magazine (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/07/what-rereading-childhood-books-teaches-adults-about-themselves/566261/), which said that rereading is a form of therapeutic activity. Court has written

‘Knecht, the writer and therapist, says of rereading that “when you’re feeling stagnant, like you’ve made no progress, it gives a shape to that experience and suggests it will pass.” In that way, it can be therapeutic because “therapy is about telling your story and having someone challenge you sometimes about the way you’re telling that story,” she says, “until you get it into a shape that you can live with and move forward with.”’

Keeping this in mind, I can perhaps stop worrying. Maybe what happens to the adult psyche, happens to that of youngsters’ too… Harry Potter is their therapy to whatever it is they are facing. And as such is not a bad source for therapy. Court also finds that rereading books give ‘refuge’ to the reader, what perhaps my sons call ‘comfort food’. To me Harry Potter is a good alternative because it imbibes survival instincts, positive values, strength and happy outcomes in a clean, decent story written with a sense of humor and perfect for ages eight to eighty. I had my comfort books too long before the advent of Harry Potter… Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice( in fact almost all the Jane Austens). The commonality I see among all these books that I have reread at different junctures of my life and what my sons reread is that all these are about survivors and are laced with positive values.

Early this year in a panel discussion, I heard a writer say that children do not like to read a lot of text nowadays. And another educator refuted her by saying that it depends on how you bring up your child. To me both the statements held truths that are a modern day reality. Many children prefer other forms of entertainment than books. But then, often, so do their parents. Some see books as redundant in today’s multimedia world. Some feel it is better to read from a kindle or online because books occupy a lot of space and we all live in homes that are shrinking to the exigencies of an ever-expanding population and limited space. Also multi media is a far more attractive way of learning for many.

But is it?

What takes two hours to show in a movie often takes more time to read in a book. I am not referring to lecture notes or a video of the lecture here but to something closer to a novel. A movie can be based on a story or its summation but it cannot replace the whole process of reading the book. Also, books create images with words. We use our mind, our imagination to interpret and understand the book. A movie is the director’s interpretation and understanding of the book… We just absorb what he has shown us, even if it is interactive.

I often review books for an online website, have more than a couple of thousand books at home and cannot stop myself from feeling the rush of adrenalin as I sift through the pages of a new book. Growing up in such an environment, my boys cannot but enjoy reading.

They learnt to choose their own books as they did their toys. I remember my elder son used to love a book called Trucks when he was four. I had to read it to him morning, noon and at night with sound effects of trucks of different kinds. The first entry was on fire trucks and he had the page by heart. Once a visitor to my home told me, my son was an excellent reader because he read the first page without a flaw. Then I enlightened her that he recited it from memory… his reading skills were that of a normal four year old.

Now, I wonder if my kids can recite portions of Harry Potter!

The other thing, which I feel a book does for you, is to help define your values, your principles and your outlook in life. That is why a friend of mine tried to read almost every book her kids were reading… I cannot lay such lofty claims but I did try to read a few books from each of the series they read. Some of the books, I must say, I enjoyed very much myself. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potters, few of C.S Lewis’s Narnia, Madeleine l’ Engle’s series of Wrinkle in Time (I enjoyed them more than my sons did), Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson… These books had the same values that I found in classics that I read during my childhood. Whereas a book from the series by Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, left me feeling that though it was incredibly funny and well written, a child would have to be guided to imbibe the right values from it!

It is not enough to be able to read and write to have a career. That is merely literacy. But it is also necessary to have the right values, principles and the spirit to live with ones passion, to create and achieve ones dreams, which is ideally what most parents would want to see their children do. These are skills that can be developed by reading the right books… and perhaps by re-reading them and imbibing their good values and principles.

“ I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

—    JK Rowling.

Parenting … love & reassurance

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I remember it snowed in Suzhou, China, in 2008 … the worst in the last fifty years it was said. Roads were closed. Schools were closed. People were advised to work from home. And my elder son, a full twelve years old, was disappointed that exams had been cancelled! I was amazed a child could be sad that exams were cancelled! The only other kid who I knew of that did was fictitious, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter!

What made me really happy was that he enjoyed his childhood with exams or without… both my kids had fun in the snow that year! It was their first exposure to the snow, making snowmen, igloos and forts and having snow fights with friends. The snowbound days were filled with friends and fun.

Childhood should be a time for adventure, happiness, fun and frolic punctured with small doses of minor disappointments and hurdles to strengthen the youngsters — make them sturdier to face the world as adults later. Children need love and reassurance to get over their hurdles and find their own strengths.

These hurdles could be exams or grades, social interactions, minor failures in competitive sports, music, art, dance or drama. In my elder son’s case exams were not a hurdle but competitive sports were as were dance and to an extent social interactions! I am always told by mothers I am lucky that my children are motivated to study themselves… not fully true… they are motivated to study subjects they enjoy and not what they don’t. If I were to hand them Omar Khayyam or T. S. Eliot, two of my favorite poets, they would both fall asleep. My younger son told his art teacher in front of me at the age of fourteen that he thought cubist art could be created by computers while I gasped. That term the art teacher praised his piano performance and he had failing grades in her subject!

Grades come and go but our children remain an integral part of us and we love them without hesitation, without any ulterior motivation. We always want what we consider the best for them. However, some of us forget to convey the love we have and feel for our children. Our children see us only as critical parents who harangue at them every time they fall short of an A or B or whatever grade or sport or art defines the parents’ expectations. As parents, we hurt every time we reprimand our child but the cycle goes on. Perhaps, if were not so anxious about our children’s success in terms of grades and external achievements and instead we taught them good values that would help them achieve their dreams or targets, they would themselves turn their interest to studying and striving to do well in life. The first thing of course would be to distance ourselves from our own dreams and acknowledge that our children have their own paths and respect those. A hard task for any parent!

The next thing would be to tell the children how much we love them, not only for their achievements or the lack of them, but for themselves. It is always easy to confuse love for a person with love for an achievement, as much for an adult as for a child. We often hear talk from teenagers about how their parents are unable to understand them and only look at their grades. They feel themselves distanced by the difference in expectations. Both sides hurt and feel misunderstood.

We are experiencing a generation gap. What is that? A difference in values and perspectives borne of the experiences we have had in our lives. Should generation gap really create barriers between parents and children? Should we be intolerant and not communicate about our futures? Are parents’ futures not linked to their children’s … then should the dreams not sync? Perhaps, if we could find some time to spend talking of these issues with our children, we might find the gap closing. If they could only understand why we say what we do to them…

The other thing that disturbs parenting is the social media. How often I see parents flashing their children’s grades, report cards and university admissions in Facebook! I find it very strange. Have they forgotten they have friends or family whose kids may not have achieved excellent results or admissions? Is it not rather gross to show off thus? Do they want the world to judge their children only for their achievements and not for who they are?

Sometimes, parenting becomes an unpleasant task for a feeling mothers have. They feel motherhood has deprived them of their academic or professional dreams and they have compromised their own career for kids and home. They look at academic or professional acclaim as the only measure of success. But is it? Is not helping mould the future of mankind a more important task and our children are really the future … they will inherit the planet and their outlook will define the future of mankind. What kind of future will they look forward to if the only focus is largely on personal acclaim? Is it only the academically strong who dominate and run the world? Think of names that spring to ones mind… Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates… of course most dropouts don’t make it big! But then, do all toppers in school exam make it big?

One has to see what is it that drives people to succeed? Big dreams, the conviction that they can succeed under all circumstances… so, is it not more important that we help our children move towards these ideals rather than only academic prowess, college admissions and social acceptance? Big dreams mean passion for what they do. Should we then be so focused on their grades and admissions so as to flash them as an achievement above their personality development and their ability to contribute to humankind?

Why do we study? To prepare for our future and develop the right attitudes; to discover our strengths and learn to deal with our weaknesses and to survive in a highly competitive world. Some stick with academics… mostly to teach or to benefit mankind with research. Why then should we be flashing good grades and university admissions, which are merely a means to achieve an end?

As parents, we need to help our children become strong and develop the right attitudes and survival instincts in a world that is dissolving into a rat race. We should not be encouraging them to become a participant rat in the mad race but to rise above it and create a better, more humane world for themselves and the future generations, a world where they can feel happy and fulfilled.

For all children, love, social and emotional acceptance is an integral part of growing up and achieving their dreams… it is time perhaps for parents to reassure the children that they are loved, not for grades, achievements or any other prowess but for themselves. To elucidate what I mean, I would like to quote the last part from a poem of mine that was published two years ago in an anthology of verses:

 

Perhaps,

Mothers need to say…

‘Child of my womb

For me, you are perfection.

You are adoration.

I want to give you

All that I have and more.

I want the world to praise galore

The person I most adore.

My expectations are born of love.

There is nothing below or above

That can match you

Because you are born of me.

A miracle of God.

Matchless you remain,

Loved adored, accepted,

My child…’