Monday, October 26, 2009

Sweet are the uses of adversity

Sometimes I will be listening to conversations that P.G.Wodehouse would not have described as 'calculated to interest, elevate or amuse'. For example, there will be some banal conversation of the he-said-she-said variety where I will only have a vague idea of who the 'he' or 'she' was. (I have not stayed much in my home state of Kerala and I have only a fuzzy idea of many people and places that form the subject of these discussions.) Or there will be some talks about a temple festival or a puja that is to be held somewhere. I am not a religious person and my interest in these matters can be described as rather lukewarm. Or there may be some polite chit-chat with people who I have never met.

On such occasions my mind disengages itself from the happenings around me and floats away into another world. I will ponder over something that puzzled me in some book that I had been reading. Or I will think about how to explain some topics better to Sujit than what is given in his textbook. Or I will be at the centre court at Wimbledon executing some magical forehands to stun Federer. Sometimes I will remember a funny incident or a quote by P.G.Wodehouse like 'He was so fat that his wife was in danger of being sued for committing bigamy' which will make me laugh loudly.

The problem with this is that everyone thinks that I had laughed because of something that they said and will want to know what it was that I had found funny. Startled out of my reverie, I will look around with the dazed expression that Watson often had when Sherlock Holmes, after a minute inspection of the crime scene with his magnifying glass, tells him something like the murderer was six feet tall, had a cut on his right cheek, was left handed, wore a grey coat, has a pet dachshund and had recently visited Brazil.

It is said that to a man who has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. My hammer is silence and it is a useful tool to have in many circumstances. I just have to keep quiet and smile and eventually everyone will get bored. After all how long do you talk to a wall? Even a smiling wall? Before my stroke, my reticence may have been mistaken for arrogance but now it does not invite any adverse comment. Soon everyone will resume their interrupted conversation leaving me free to drift back to my Walter Mitty mode.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Excess sympathy is problematic

After my stroke, as was to be expected, many people made suggestions about how to treat me. But the problem was that most of them were not sure what exactly had happened to me.

Some assumed that all strokes are the same. So whenever they heard that some stroke patients had recovered completely, they would insist that we meet the particular Doctor. I think some did not know that a stroke happened in the brain. The doctors they recommended turned out to be someone other than a neurologist. One guy said we should consult the doctor who had cured a wound on his son's neck which other doctors could not cure. Some ayurvedic doctors will say their medicines are only effective if taken orally and not through the feeding tube. Why should this make any difference?

Some people will hear that a paralysis patient had recovered and pester Jaya to meet the concerned doctor. That paralysis can be due to a variety of reasons was a minor matter that was always ignored. And there were constant recommendations of various quacks and godmen, about whom the less said the better. (Although I will have more to say about them later. Hope breeds irrationality and there is no dearth of charlatans bearing fairly tale palliatives to provide succour to suckers. I increasingly agreed with Mark Twain - 'Man is a Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute.')

At the end of the day, handling them was a difficult task. On the one hand we knew that their suggestions were made in order to help me in whatever way they could. On the other hand we could see that there were huge holes in their understanding of what had happened to me.

After many wild goose chases, when Jaya expressed reservations about yet another tall tale, some of these folks had the gall to insinuate that her reluctance was because she was not concerned enough about my plight. Of course, these snide comments will not be made face to face. We will hear about them sometime later from another source and we will never be sure whether and how much noise has distorted the signal.

When solicitousness is in measured doses it is gratifying but if it results in a constant stream of spurious "cures" it becomes irritating. Giving a blow by blow account of the various incidents is not possible because most of them happened a very long time ago and I don't remember the details. Suffice it to say that they were wearyingly repetitive. If we had listened to all these suggestions that we had received then we would have been on the streets by now.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


George Bush is supposed to have said that one of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures. I do like many of the pictures but that is not the main reason for my love of books.

Buying a book as a gift for somebody is a problematic affair. You are not sure if he has already read the book. You are not sure if it is according to his taste. You are not sure if his taste has changed since you last met him. I always tell people not to buy me any book unless I specify the title. My reading habits have changed greatly over the last decade and I don't want them to waste their money.

I was always a keen reader and I used to read all kinds of books except those on religion/spirituality (they remind me of forty-two) and self-help books (the kinds that have titles like 'Ten Ways to be a Better Something-or-the-other'). But the genre of books that I read now is very different. I had my epiphany when I read A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was the book that I never had in school. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris says:
Visions like this one produced a sensation that I did not know how to express until, years later, I read what Einstein had to say about the lesson he'd learned from his encounter with geometry, which, he recalled, provided a way "to free myself from the chains of the 'merely-personal', from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation."
I had the same reaction when I read 'Brief History...'. By the time I finished it I was sure that I will now read mostly popular science books. With my brother-in-law and my friends ready to humour my whims, I have always had a constant supply of books that most of my acquaintances will not touch with a bargepole.

I read a post on Mind Hacks which links to an article on NYT on anxiety which has the following lines:
Two people can experience the same level of anxiety, he said, but one who has interesting work to distract her from the jittery feelings might do fine, while another who has just lost his job spends all day at home fretting and might be quicker to reach a point where the thrum becomes overwhelming. It’s all in the context, the interpretation, the ability to divert your attention from the knot in your gut.
There is no doubt that reading has helped me immensely in dealing with the changed realities after my stroke.

One of my neighbours, on learning that I have a few books, wanted to borrow something for a light read. She must have expected Alistair Mclean, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham and other usual suspects. When she saw the kind of books that I read, she left rather quickly. No doubt she would have been thinking of me as, in the words of Alexander Pope, 'The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head.'

I don't like to read books online because of what psychologists call "constant partial attention.". There will be the constant temptation to click somewhere and read something else.

I have not tried any e-book reader. I don't think it will be suitable for me. I read by clipping books on to a pillow kept before me. I don't know how an e-book reader can be fixed in front of me. Also I sometimes cough so violently that I disturb the pillows and the book falls to the ground. If an e-book reader is treated with such indignity it will soon become junk. The recent Kindle-Orwell brouhaha has also reinforced my preference for normal books. So that makes me an environmentally unfriendly troglodyte in the age of the Kindle who likes the printed word on dead trees.

When I get more than one book at a time I have the delicious problem, of deciding which book to read first. Quite often I read two books simultaneously. I read a few pages of one book, then read few pages of another book, then switch back to the first book and so on. The more different the two books are the better. For instance, I am currently reading Bully for Brontosaurus and India After Gandhi - two books on subjects that could not be more different.

Bibliophiles will attest to the thrill of the sight, smell and touch of new books. I can't hold a book, neither can I smell it (I breathe through the tracheostomy and very little air passes into my nose so I can smell an odour only if it is strong), but I will admit to getting a frisson of excitement when I see a book I had asked for. In The Boilerplate Rhino, David Quammen says:
Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can hope to read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book, resting unopened in its slot on a shelf,full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper. For instance, I own a two-volume set of Da Vinci's noteooks, an Encyclopedia of Papua and New Guinea, and a biography of Attila the Hun. These are valuable assets just as they sit, making no peremptory claims for my attention. But in my mental card catalog there's another group of books, a small and exclusive group, each of which is tagged: HIGH INTEREST/READ IMMEDIATELY. New books enter that category rarely, and some old ones seem never to get out. I have a volume of Roussseau's Emile that's been classified HI/RI since 1976. Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and a severe, intriguing volume called Scientists Under Hitler are others. Life is too short for an earnest plodder like me, who reads only as fast as his lips can mime the syntax. Bernd Heinrich's Bumblebee Economics falls in the same category. I had never stopped intending to read it-soon, any week now-and meanwhile six years had gone by in a blink.
(Quoting a passage from a book is convenient for me because I can cover a lot of ground in ten minutes which otherwise will take me a couple of hours. In fact, the thought of the tedium involved would probably have dissuaded me from pursuing the idea. Jaya is also happy that she can quickly type a whole paragraph without numerous intervening pauses.)

Before readers latch on to the idea that I keep esoteric titles on my bookshelf in order to impress visitors, I must hasten to add that like Hilaire Belloc, 'When I am dead, I hope it may be said: / His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'