Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jebon mein hum raatein liye ghooma karen..

"Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." - Berthold Auerbach.

Listening to Aashish Khan on the sarod playing the deeply mellifluous Raga Chandranandan devised by his late father, I feel somehow more alive than I've felt in weeks. Perhaps it is because it starts off on a (to my ears) discordant, almost chaotic note and slowly but surely grows melodious and harmonious and ends in an incredible crescendo of joyful strumming. In a way, it reflects my own mental trajectory these past few days.

I've always thought of the sarod as a rather sombre instrument with the Raga Lalita Gauri being the traditional melancholy music that underscored melodramatically tragic scenes in old Hindi films. That's pretty much why I've been so wary of listening to it.

But I'm starting to discover its playful side. And what Chaitanya once scornfully called the "glorified Indian mandolin" is finally starting to appeal to me in ways that not much has these days.

It's like looking anew at an acquaintance you've vaguely known pretty much all your life but befriended only recently after a long heart-to-heart. Which is exactly what last night's conversation with S. felt like. I have her to thank for the recording that fills me with so much joy right now.

It'll be a while before I completely reconnect with the world I guess. But atleast there is this night - this magical musical marvellous night. Like there was Christmas eve. It's feels so good to be myself again.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Empty spaces

For the past few days, I notice I am becoming increasingly restless. It's something I've felt before and felt in exactly these circumstances actually. I am studying well which is good but it's not as fulfilling right now as it was six months ago. Piyu reckons it might be a mild case of burn-out but I don't think it's that. I am not less enthusiastic or less prolific but I am just less fulfilled.

Learning something new and getting a concept in place is not giving me that sharp jolt of pleasure that it used to. I wonder if it's desensitization to over-much stimulation.

And it's not just the studying. It's a lot of things. I find I can't sit down in front of the television like I used to. TV with it's blurred-cleavage-and-overzealous-bleeping on the English channels and the shake-what-yo-mama-gave-you item girls on the Hindi channels is starting to feel like a gentler version of the pop culture torture methods some psychopath designed for use in Gitmo.

I find my attention wanders from movies I think I should be riveted to, and I feel guilty for it. I've been reading A Pair of Blue Eyes but Elfride's inconstancy does not help with my own occasional meanderings.

Music is a salve. Sometimes songs help with the uneasiness like the serendipitous Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu followed by Traumerei last night, sometimes I suspect my iPod's shuffle has started feeding on my subconscious. I am particularly thankful for it at times like last night. But today, try as I might, I couldn't feel the yearning in Lag Jaa Gale with the same gale-force I used to.

Talking with friends feels like over-stimulation. I haven't been good with them recently, I know. I've been defensive and sarcastic and I don't like being this way. Mitzi theorizes it's the winter doing its thing. Piyu figures I'm withdrawing into my shell like the unbalanced Gemini-Cancer cuspian she insists I am. Astrology does not help soothe my frayed nerves, never has really. Then again, nor does this blackguard of a Bombay winter.

I'm taking long walks again. I crave solitude and sometimes, even silence. It's like needing a fix of tranquility.

I am never overwhelmed by crowds but lately I'm comforted by the anonymity and blending they offer. I don't understand it. It doesn't often happen that the voice in my head speaks with emotion in this much contradiction with reason.

Reason claims I should be satisfied with my life at this point. Emotion points out I am not.

I have a vague sense that there's something missing. Something that was once close that is now not within reach. A piece of the puzzle that has wandered off, refusing to yield a whole picture.

I recall those earlier days of restlessness, what Pushky called 'my blue periods' with liberal seasonings of irony. What I don't recall is what helped me get out of them. Did I wait for them to pass me by? Or did I push them away by plunging into over-activity and 'distractions' - what Rohith recently wrote about. Maybe dad is right. Maybe I just need to take a vacation after a relentless and rather eventful year.

Perhaps I need to seek out Bukowski again. "There is something wrong with me besides melancholia." he says. Does it apply to me tonight, I wonder.

Christmas is coming and that usually helps. Until then, I guess there's always homemade cake.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jahaan main chaloon, wahin tu chale..

I was talking with Chaitanya yesterday; it was our first real conversation in almost three months. Which for me was odd because to me, he is still the person whom I had to absolutely tell every single thing for pretty much every single day of my life. For a long time, it was always us against the world. However, stupidly dramatic that sounds now. Then we grew up. And he left home. And our lives started to slowly but certainly diverge, no longer the closely entwined strands they once were.

But it didn't matter how many years we spent apart. We could always pick up the thread of any conversation from wherever it was once left off. I could notice his light Marathi accent has for some time now been replaced with a light San Franciscan lilt. He still rolls his 'r's the same way though. And taps the 't's.

Yesterday, he seemed to be in a mildly contemplative mood which was thoroughly uncharacteristic of him. I wondered what was on his mind.

"Do you remember a day when you were wholly entirely completely happy?" he asked suddenly.

"Yeah, I've had many days like that." I couldn't help smiling. It wasn't every day my pragmatic brother asked me questions like this one.

"Recently?" he queried, slightly disbelieving.

"Yes, and inspite of internship." I said confidently.

"Right." he said somewhat dreamily. "I was thinking more of the past. Of the time when we were children."

"What about it?" I tried to guess at what he was thinking of, maybe it was some memory he thought I shared. Or it was just an abstract thought that caught his fancy one day.

"Just that, you know, back then. Time. Somehow, there was more of it."

I chuckled at that. "Of childhood summers when days were short and afternoons endless." I said paraphrasing a half-remembered but much-loved quote.

"There are some things that drift away like our endless, numbered days." He quoted back to me.

"What's that now? Could it be nostalgia?" I had to tease him.

"Yes, exactly." he laughed good-naturedly. "So what have you been doing these days apart from studying?" he asked and I realised the nostalgic dreamer was gone.

I wondered if it was one of those threads he'd pick up in a future conversation. But for now, the old familiar realist was back.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sing to me of the man, Muse

Dustin: So you're a painter?

George (nodding): Yeah. I mean I'd like to be. I just don't know what to paint.

Dustin: What do you mean?

George: It's just that every time I think of a subject, or even try to visualise an image of what I think I should paint, I just feel like I'm full of shit. Like I'm trying to be something I'm really not.

Dustin (staring at a painting on George's bedroom wall): Yeah, that's the hardest part, you know?

George: And what if it's not any good? What I can do -

Dustin (shrugging): Some say it's bullshit. Some say it's a masterpiece. You gotta be honest with yourself, man. Figure out what you're in it for. You might think it's art. You might think it's money on a wall. If you've got some talent, you gotta hone it. Read about it. Look at stuff in galleries. You can't live inside your own head all the time.

George: Does that make me not a painter?

Dustin: No, that's not what I meant. What you're doing is fantastic. This is what you should paint. Atleast until you evolve into something else. The fact that you struggle with it is a really good thing, you know what I mean?

George: I guess. But I keep thinking is it really meant to be this hard? If it's hard, then it's not natural. And you can't force something like that.

Dustin: Yeah, but you gotta exercise that muscle. It gets easier, I promise. Besides, how can you call yourself a painter if you don't paint?

- from The Art of Getting By.

You raise me up

I remember as a dreamy teenager on a summer afternoon after watching BBC's Pride & Prejudice, sitting with Piyu and Momo discussing what our respective Mr. Right would be like. You know, the prince on the white horse, the knight-in-shining-armour, the Mr. Darcy, the One, or whatever the latest romantic comedy told you to look for when looking for love.

All three of us had a list of things. Qualities, we hoped, the boy (it's a little silly to say man when you're fourteen and making lists) we fell for would possess.

I remember mine was something like this. "Can recite the dialogue to entire scenes from Friends episodes". "Likes Tennyson-y poetry". "Is good at math". "Doesn't think crying is for wusses but isn't too sensitive either". "Gets sarcasm". "Smells like fresh-cut grass". "Has a pet dog". "Plays a musical instrument or can convincingly whistle song tunes".

As you can see, it was a very exhaustive list. And it wasn't completely unrealistic. Or so I thought till my mum pointed out I wasn't likely to find a sitcom loving, poetry reciting mathematician and part-time gardener with a dog, in real life.

And growing up, what my mum said really started to sink in. I thought, okay, I could compromise on a couple of contentious items. Like, maybe we could get the dog later or maybe our kids could get my awesome math genes instead.

But Tennyson. Sigh. Tennyson can be so persuasive that he refuses to allow you to let go of your romantic ideals.

One of my favourite poems by him is a particularly recklessly romantic one I read from Piyu's mum's old, much-read, frequently-thumbed copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse.

It goes like this -

"O, were I loved as I desire to be!
What is there in the great sphere of the earth,
Or range of evil between death and birth,
That I should fear, - if I were loved by thee!
All the inner, all the outer world of pain,
Clear love would pierce and cleave, if thou wert mine."

Reading that again tonight, I remember once again what it was like to be in love with the idea of being in love. And I smile knowingly with the wisdom that only ten years of dissecting romantic films can bring. Yeah, maybe we could get the dog later.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Music of the Heart

Evenings at the NCPA are turning into a most delightfully regular weekend fixture for me. Tonight was very special indeed. On a whim, I'd picked up tickets for a performance by the Bombay Chamber Orchestra at the plush, truly beautiful Tata Theatre a couple of weeks ago, hoping that when I finally heard it, I'd actually like chamber music. And voila! It turns out I needn't have worried after all. It turned out to be so spectacular that time flew by and my mind is swimming with happy thoughts.

It was also kind of a payback treat for KKD (mgeek, if you will) who invited me to watch a fabulous collection of short plays with him at the NCPA some months ago. I asked him if he was alright with chamber music and he said he actually preferred it over symphonies because it was more concentrated and more vivid.

That settles it, I thought. I wondered if I should look this stuff up on youtube to put in, you know, a sort of preparation. A practiced ear is better for appreciating classical music, so my music teacher told me way back in school. But then, I thought, what the hell? There's something to be said for spontaneity. Besides, nobody ever acquired a practiced ear over a fortnight, anyway.

Now, I'm not really trained in music unless one counts eight months of harmonium and three years of tabla lessons in my early teens. Much to the dismay of my music-loving parents, I am nowhere near disciplined enough and I think I tend to get easily distracted from the task at hand. So that was the end of that.

My brother is really the musical one. He plays the tabla and the guitar and aajoba's old harmonica with equal felicity. He is comfortable with classical and popular music and not stuck up about either.

I am mostly a sort of occasional listener. I like listening to music and it doesn't matter if it's a smattering of jazz, or the sharp, exotic wailing of the zither or even, the foot-tapping, hand-clapping of East-European gypsy songs.

I actually prefer it eclectic, which is further testimony to my easily-distracted mind and short attention-span. I cant listen to one thing for too long. And then, certain songs go with certain moods. It's Schumann's piano concertos on sleepless nights alternated with Shubha Mudgal's soulful songs with the tiniest amounts of old Hindi film songs thrown in. For early morning train rides, it's Red Hot Chilli Peppers or U2. And for endless evening bus-stop waits, it's Coldplay or in desperate times, Enya even. Music seems rather deliberately tailored to fit moods.

Which is why I was surprised to find that today, listening to relatively short concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, and finally and most magnificently Dvorak I realised that sometimes, good music creates its own mood.

You cant but smile when a flute pipes up in a mischievous little love song or listen in wonder when the cello purrs the lower notes in the silences before a soaring symphony.

I have often heard people say music is a kind of universal language. This was illustrated rather literally when the conductor was a young Japanese woman and the musicians were a mixed group aged between 15 and 75, not to mention from atleast three different countries. The listeners in the audience were equally disparate. I love people-watching at the NCPA. It's a more polished, more genteel, more eccentric crowd than you'd find at a multiplex. It's also older and more worldly somehow.

There was something palpably electric in the air I thought towards the end, when the applause just wouldn't die down. People seemed proud of the home-grown musicians, especially cheering on an old violinist who looked like she'd been one of the founder members when the Bombay Chamber Orchestra was formed way back in 1962.

The two soloists, the flautist and the cellist had to come out and bow atleast three times before everyone stopped clapping.

It was almost magical to experience how good music evokes in people such strong emotions, and such unique thoughts. But I wondered if I could go one better on my experience. What if I could borrow the ears off of a trained musician and hear, really hear the nuances and the technique that I clearly miss?

But then perhaps, it doesn't matter. It is enough to derive pleasure from it without knowing all the nitty-gritties. After all, it seems tied in with our basic biological design. KKD mentioned a rather interesting fact about the scales of music. That no matter, how we divided sound frequencies, the octave relationship remained constant, a perfect interval, a "basic miracle of music" as wikipedia calls it. So in that sense music really is universal. Well, turns out we wont be needing that famous Babel fish after all!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Day

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or of flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that one memorable day."

- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hello, I Love You

Oh, what joy it is to hear a beloved voice over the telephone after an unbearably long time! It's incredible that those familiar cadences can bring such a tidal wave of warmth sweeping over one's heart. It's like listening to a particularly intense piece of music. Without realising it, I had closed my eyes and was concentrating on every pause and every syllable as if something of significance would be lost if I did not imprint that voice on my mind. And if I did not manage to hold on to it in my memory, it would be lost to me forever. I feel so silly when I realize I am attaching this much significance to a couple of sentences that go, "Hello! How are you? Can you believe it's snowing here?"

And I happily lose myself to a voice that sounds like auditory perfection, mesmerised really. But then I relax. I smile. I can almost hear the smile in his voice and I marvel at the magic of telecommunications. I remember when I was a little kid and Dad used to attend conferences in Delhi or Calcutta and we would have to place what we called a 'trunk call' to get through to him and then it wasn't much of a real conversation but consisted mostly of yelling out niceties and assurances of safe arrival as if to someone at the other end of a small-sized football field. That scene from a Harry Potter book where Ron shouts into the phone to make sure his voice carries to Harry through the phonelines has me in splits every time I read it.

But now, I cant help exulting over how lucky I am to exist in this 'golden age' to put it in particularly purple prose. I wondered if my happiness was out-of-proportion with a mere phone call. But then, I realised I didnt care how daft my thoughts sounded, even to me. It was the most wonderful happy floaty feeling to hear G.'s crisp and clear intonations in his dear deep voice over the phone after what must have been months since we last talked. I was so overwhelmed that for the first several seconds I couldn't say anything of any real import. I think I just laughed a great deal because I felt positively giddy with joy.

It is amazing how vividly our minds can connect a unique phrase or a known peculiarity of wording with the exact expression a friend's face will bear at the time of uttering it.

M.'s text messages are much the same. I know the exact way she would scrunch her nose and screw up her eyes with that characteristic expression of puzzlement when her text contains the words "I simply dont remember where I kept my microbio journal."

And I know the exact look of cheerful delight that G.'s face wears when I hear him say, "It is wonderful to hear your laugh again." I wonder if it works both ways, this lovely little conjurer's trick our minds pull.

I once watched a rather fascinating anime film called Voices of a Distant Star that chronicled a literally very long-distance relationship between two close friends who communicate across interstellar space through their phones writing each other emails and as they move further apart from each other, the time-lag it takes for their messages to reach the other increases relentlessly, and towards the end they have 'conversations' poignantly spanning years.

And thus, there is great comfort to be derived from knowing that while those you love are distant in space, they are wonderfully immediate in time and that atleast while their touch cannot be felt, their warmth can.

I remember the same feeling flooding me years ago, when Dada made his first international phone call home and we were all so stupidly excited to learn a basic geographical fact, that while it was early evening here, it was dawn there and we spent the precious first few minutes enthusiastically acknowledging it, even forgetting to ask him about his first international airplane flight.

Thus, the vastness of our planet becomes suddenly obvious to one and the idea of a loved one sent out somewhere in that incomprehensible vastness is unnerving, even frightening. I must say, I am rather glad they invented satellites and email while I'm still alive. Carrier pigeons and smoke signals would probably just not cut it. :)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Mystery of the Cupboard

For some weeks past, on an unofficial study leave from internship, preparing for the upcoming unholy trinity of post-graduate entrance exams, life's been trudging along at a rather deliberate pace and things have been as uneventful as they come. Which is a relief after what must have been the most frenetic eight months of my life so far.

So, the only thing of note apart from the relief of being able to tick one exam off that list yesterday was Mum realizing I was finally at home for a whole day and not hiding behind a pile of ponderous tomes.

"So will you clean out your cupboard today if you're not doing anything else?" Mum asked rather drily while I furiously tried to think of something, anything that required doing elsewhere. Somehow I never can rustle up enough enthusiasm to clean my room, particularly my old cupboard that has some stuff that is positively ancient, although Mum regularly reminds me how it's overstuffed and creaking under the weight of unnecessary things that were either too old or consisted of something I could have always done without but had simply stored up on a whim.

Now while mindless hoarding came way more naturally to me than performing a triage, deciding what to throw away or pass on or use up seemed an extremely unappealing task to get down to on a lovely Bombay quasi-winter morning when there was no studying to be done right off.

However, as was not-so-subtly reinforced over breakfast was that it had to be done some time and if I didn't get around to it myself, she would. Well, that last bit worked like a charm every time! Mum is a little too well-versed with my discomfort at letting other people arrange my things. And what looks like randomly thrown-together junk to most looks to me like a just-right pattern amidst the chaos.

Well, there was no avoiding it. I threw open the cupboard doors and quickly caught in my arms the small mound of old T-shirts that fell out. I held onto them and their comfy reassuring old-tee softness as I stood there staring at the six shelves for what must have been more than a couple of minutes.

The small mound was then transferred to the bed while I started with the top-shelf and decided to progress downward in reverse-chronological order of accumulated stuff.

It was amazing that I found not mere knick-knacks and odd objects but memories and remarkably, a couple of forgotten hobbies.

There was the cowboy hat from Munnar that immediately brought to mind the sunny day near the dam and the steaming Maggie, extra-extra spicy washed down with sweet milk and a home-made chocolate bar. A cowboy hat that was bought for a laugh because it was cheap and kitschy but now was too dear to abandon.

Then there was a seashell studded purse acquired on the college group-trip to Goa, much-admired because it was so pretty but never used because it was too fragile to withstand the crush of Bombay buses.

And a green woolly jacket from Manali obviously impossible to wear in the middle of these laughably non-wintry winters.

A bunch of photographs clicked on a shikara on Dal lake, of Mishti and I dressed up in Kashmiri-garb for tourists that stayed on with velcro straps. Those kept me entertained for a few minutes.

An old bathing suit from junior college days that was a particularly horrid shade of purple so was never worn to the beach or the swimming pool.

Aajoba's harmonica from the seventies, rusty but tuneful, he'd play "Zindagi ek safar hai suhana" on it. Wonder how it ended up with my stuff.

Dada's old Archies comics, stowed away in my cupboard when he began to think they were too corny/girly for his.

A strangely furry pink doggy-shaped duffel bag filled with lego blocks and superhero magnets from a bygone era.

And a green candle from Piyu's candle-making experiment days gifted to me with the boast that it was scented with green apple fragrance but it rather inexplicably smelt of vanilla. It doesn't smell of anything but old-newspaper smell now after being wrapped up for seven years.

There were greeting-cards sent on Diwali and Christmas from dad's old students in Belgium and UK. I still can't figure how they managed to source Diwali cards in Belgium!

Stolen blue tokens from the Metro stuck to the inside of the drawer. A rosary from Mount Mary's purchased for the pretty blue beads and the dramatic silver crucifix.

A brown wooden ring bought for five bucks in the second class of a Borivali local because it made me feel medieval and ethnic at the same time.

Cheap red rimmed goggles bought from Bandstand or Colaba Causeway and broken because Pushky sat on them one afternoon.

Things got more interesting the further back in time they went. Obviously, they were more important because they were kept the longest.

An old embroidered handkerchief with Dad's initials stitched on, remarkably, by me, inspired by a class in school. That I had once attempted to learn to embroider felt rather incredible now.

Then there were a couple of battered old books. An old diary with Hindi film song lyrics like "Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam. Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum." That made me smile because it was a diary from 2000, the year I saw Kaagaz Ke Phool at our school film club screening and had to hold Kallu's hand because she was upset over her Geography marks.

A book titled "Learn German in 30 days: For Beginners" that had helpful devanagari renditions of words like 'ahbent' and 'allgemeine'. Similarly, a pocket book titled "Oscar Wilde's Aphorisms". Those went into the keep-for-posterity pile.

A tin-can half-filled with old ten paise and twenty paise coins that Dada had slyly passed on to me before I realized they were obsolete currency.

A scrapbook dedicated to childhood heroes, mine and Dada's with a delicate old newspaper cutting of Zinedine Zidane after a world cup win in 1998. Back when he had a head of rather lustrous hair.

A box of glass beads that Aaji would make string necklaces out of, for my work experience class.

A broken kaleidoscope from a fair at Mahabaleshwar. And a colorful mechanical pencil from primary school days.

All this lay inside a box beside the bed after lunch and Mum said it was junk that would have to go. And I realized letting it all go would be tougher than earlier suspected. I reasoned with myself that I was attached to silly ephemeral things but then you know, these things, these inanimate objects that lie around your house and build up in your room, in your loft, in your cupboard because they are seldom used or because they are old sentimental things that hoarders like me cannot bring themselves to discard.

But there's more to them, I think. Unknown to us, they become receptacles of the past. They're not necessarily family heirlooms or showy keepsakes or even minor mementos but they store up inside them tiny little pieces of our selves. Our selves, the way we were when we first kept them, stored them away with a little thought or thoughtlessly.

They keep pieces of who we used to be, who we hoped we would become, who we were almost sure we had become. And of course, who we really are.

There's a wonderful coda at the end of Never Let Me Go where Kathy imagines a place where all lost things from her childhood washed up. I gave up the box filled with the stuff from the cupboard and I had a mental image of being at a Viking funeral. It felt like I was sending it all away to the same place that my old storybooks and toys and favourite audio cassettes wound up. So that they never really went away from the world. And nothing could ever really be lost. Even if it is only old stuff from a cupboard that needed cleaning out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lesser of two Tragedies

I was surfing channels in the afternoon and landed up on BBC Entertainment playing reruns of an old sitcom from the late nineties, I think. What intrigued me was the sight of a very young Benedict Cumberbatch playing a character called Peter Powell as a more-or-less milquetoast preppie trying very hard to be cool with a group of similarly wannabe friends in what looked like the Brit version of a honkytonk bar. In the scene I landed in the middle of, Peter eyes the young bartender, a sassy lanky leggy brunette with a throaty laugh, downs a pint of beer for Dutch courage, walks up to the bar and asks her to make him a cocktail of her choice, she raises an eyebrow and mixes one called Tequila Tragedy. And in what is definitely not the smoothest move in the book, he proceeds to offer up the glass to her and says, "Actually, I just wanted to buy you a drink. What's your name?"

And in true Brit tv tradition as a friend informs me, the bartender turns out be a no-nonsense Aussie gal who flatly turns Peter down. "Well, atleast, tell me your name. Come on!" he pleads.

"I'm Fee." She replies shortly, turning to another customer.

"What, like Fiona?" Peter persists.

Fee rounds on him looking rather pissed off, "It's Ophelia, if you must know! Ophelia Scherbatsky."

'That's an interesting name. I like it." Peter smiles at her.

"Well, I hate it! I hate it because any girl would hate being named after the two most tragic women in all of literature." says Fee with an air of finality.

"Yeah," replies Peter, desperately trying to prevent her from jettisoning the conversation, "Yeah, Ophelia is rather tragic. Losing her mind and getting dumped by Hamlet and drowning and all that. But Kitty Scherbatsky wasn't tragic. She and Levin lived happily ever after, right?"

Fee shakes her head vigorously. "Kitty Scherbatsky went from being a free-spirited, independent young woman with a mind of her own to being married to some hypocritical, monkish country farmer who cheated on her with Anna Karenina and she had to take him back and spend the rest of her life with him because Russian law in those days wouldn't permit her to divorce him! I think hers is the sadder story. I mean, I know I'd rather drown!"

Deflated but not dejected, Peter nods lamely and adds, "Yeah, drowning does sound like the lesser tragedy when you put it like that. Erm, it was nice meeting you, Fee!" and walks back to his friends, making up his mind to have a longer conversation with Fee the next night.

Watching this led to exactly two revelations - that Robin Scherbatsky from How I Met Your Mother is not the first sassy female television character to bear that last name and that only the BBC could possibly produce a Friends-style sitcom that has characters discussing the fates of women from world literature in a honkytonk bar over a glass of tequila!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Denmark and back again

For the past few days, my mind has been a jumble of half-formed thoughts. It is only today that I begin to see the rather startling and somewhat oddly elegant symmetry of the past week. It began with reading about renegade political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his phrase 'getting to Denmark' from his book The End of History, a phrase that suggests that a liberal democracy like Denmark represents the end-point of the world's socioeconomic development. It ended with Michael Frayn's maddeningly complex meditation on the physical, the political and the personal, the incredible play, 'Copenhagen' a play drawing its name from that great Danish capital city, I previously associated with Hans Christian Andersen alone.

The play suggests that if events on a fateful evening in Copenhagen in 1941 had played out differently, Denmark wud have been not the end-point of the world's development but the starting-point of the end of the world as we know it.

The nearly three-hour long play is peopled not by characters, but by ghosts. Ghosts with a haunting, restless, questive quality. Ghosts that refuse to let us rest in peace. They make us, the unseen audience, the judge and jury to a decades-long argument - an argument that has followed them from life into its after.

What made it impossible for me to write about the play, is that all things that are discussed and described herein happen in a place located in memory or in limbo, not in any place inside of the space-time continuum.

The ghosts of Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg push past the pages of the history books, striding onto the creaking floorboards - questioning, always questioning the past, the present and the future.

When the play starts on a September evening in 1941 in the middle of the Second World War, on the eve of the atomic age, in German-occupied Copenhagen, the Bohrs, the rather apprehensive Danish couple are expecting a visit from their former protege and friend, German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. They try to guess at the purpose for his visit, both implicitly agreeing that it is not simply to revisit the past. "He wants to show off to us that he's a famous German professor of physics now." says Margrethe. "He wants to talk about fission. And he's not that famous!" grumbles Niels.

"Talk about physics, and not politics." Margrethe warns her husband. "The two can be difficult to keep apart." replies her husband coolly. By the end of the evening, they are about to realize exactly how difficult.

Heisenberg walks in, as on an ambush, we want to warn him. He is treated equally as old friend and new enemy. The conversation is a minefield. Old memories of colleagues, and skiing and three glasses of wine are brought forth, but are not enough to smoothen the rough edges of the conversation that alternates between assertions of patriotism, the detailing of how friendships go sour, the possibilities of escape and immigration, and of course, the war that is on about them. The war that has recast an old friend, teacher, employer as a possible source of information about the enemy's war effort.

There is also the painful awareness that the house is bugged and wired and Hitler's silent sniffer-dogs, the Gestapo are waiting in the shadows. The awareness brings with it long silences, and painful pauses.

Margrethe is a commentator in the silence. We learn that it was all different in the 20's. Between the wars, Bohr and the upstart young German he'd befriended were as close as father and son, Margrethe informs us with a strange but characteristic mixture of warmth and bile. She tells us about Christian, a son they lost in a sailing accident, how he had been all but replaced by the charming, brilliant Heisenberg in Bohr's heart, long before Heisenberg was lost, too, this time to the war and we can see how things would never be the same between them again, no matter which side won the war.

As the silence ends, the reminiscing over, a walk is suggested. For old times' sake. A walk that Margrethe says lasted barely for ten minutes, ending as abruptly as it began.

This walk is also the reason the play was written. Heisenberg said the sole reason he had come to meet Bohr in Copenhagen was to discuss a terrifying possibility that had occurred to him - the possibility of using radioactive uranium to build atomic bombs and the moral repercussions of scientists becoming involved in such a project, a project whose disturbing outcome Bohr preempted. Bohr balked at the idea, refusing to discuss it, or even consider the calculations involved, ending the conversation before it had begun. What was said that autumn evening, or rather what wasnt said, would change the course of human history.

In assuming that Heisenberg would build the bomb and help Hitler win the war, Bohr had jumped to a conclusion that Heisenberg would defend to his dying breath. It would also ensure that a fatal error in Heisenberg's calculations would not be corrected in time. The bomb would be built in America, not Germany. Bohr himself would later be part of the legendary team that successfully built the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Heisenberg would fade from glory, ostracised by the international community for running Germany's ultimately unsuccessful nuclear programme, punished severely for his idealised patriotism. As a consequence he would never have the blood of innocent millions on his hands. By misunderstanding his friend's intentions, Bohr had unconsciously done him a great favour, it would seem. But, of course, this is only one version of events that occurred that night and throughout the play, these events will be subjected to various revisions and additions and editions. No one can know for certain what really happened in Copenhagen. Skepticism and Uncertainty dominate all to the very end.

(From left to right, Veera Abadan as Margrethe Bohr, Vivek Tandon as Werner Heisenberg and Tom Alter as Niels Bohr in "Copenhagen" at the NCPA.)

Another recurring theme throughout the play is the connection between the material world, governed by the laws of physics and our inner worlds, governed by rules of the heart alone.

"A particle, when observed, changes its behaviour." Margrethe intones as she shrewdly but silently observes Bohr and Heisenberg as they awkwardly attempt small-talk.

"Doubt always cast a shadow on your thinking. That is why you discovered the uncertainty principle." Bohr reproaches the impetuous Heisenberg as he boasts about his impulsive strategies - strategies that helped him win not only skiing contests but also the woman who wud be his wife.

"You always assume the worst about people, and then you decide to forgive them for it. Complementarity is in your very nature." a crestfallen Heisenberg bristles at Bohr as he brings up a discredited former student.

It is as if we were nothing but extrapolations of the billions of subatomic particles that constitute the behemoths that are our bodies - our actions as random and chaotic as anything else in the quantum world. This is at one point rather vividly illustrated as Heisenberg and Bohr pretend to be electron and photon - colliding in the darkness, spiralling away, forever changed by their singular interaction.

As for the characters, it is, of course, incredible to view famous scientists whose names have become by-words for theories and principles in physics textbooks come so forcefully to life as people in whose hands and in whose minds lay the key to saving or dooming the lives of millions of people, the key to changing the face of the twentieth century, and the outcome of the Second World War.

"Theoretical physicists are of no use in wartime. They are yet to find a way to kill people using theoretical physics." jokes Bohr at the beginning of the play. And an hour later, we learn that this very man, a half-Jewish proponent of quantum mechanics, which Hitler called "Jewish science", forced to flee his country in the face of the Holocaust would have a hand in building the two atom bombs that wrought such death and destruction as the world has scarcely seen.

The characters are brilliant men but they are played by actors who seem to follow not from the at-times assiduously scientific language of the play but from the deeper feelings behind it. Tom Alter plays Niels Bohr with a defeated air, a man who sees no hope in the world and who assumes only the very worst of his former friend.

Heisenberg is played by an actor who, unfortunately for the character, goes for breadth over depth. As a result, this Heisenberg is hapless, but not haunted. He is bright but not clever. He is confounding but never enigmatic. He is at his best in the scene where he recalls his childhood in a defeated, war-ravaged Germany, a memory that strengthens his resolve to do everything in his power to prevent Germany's defeat in yet another war.

Margrethe seemed most perfectly formed to me. A woman who stays mostly in the background of the play but sees with most clarity what happens in the foreground of her life and the lives of those around her.

My favourite part of the play was a monologue in the second act, where Bohr explains to us that in the early 20th-century was born an idea that humanized physics like never before. Einstein's relativity theories that restored man's place at the center of the universe. "That measurement is not an impersonal event that occurs with universal impartiality", but "a human act that had meaning only when carried out from a specific point of view in time and space."

Thus, man can stand at the center of the universe and while he can see all the world, he cannot see what lies behind his eyes. This fundamental unknowability of people, even and especially to themselves, is an important idea the story plays with. If man is indeed the measure of the universe, then nothing is really quantifiable. This is a surprising idea, my favourite from the several brilliant ideas the play threw up.

And as the evening comes to an end, we realize the three characters have brushed against each other in such different combinations that this friction has caused them to each emerge more clearly. At the end, we have come to know them all, from the inside out - rather than the reverse.

There is so much thought here, even when we choose to look past the layers of the science and the politics, we find the fervid, ambivalent father-son relationship between the two men. The sharp marital protectiveness and the simultaneous subtle resentment that Margrethe possesses, the pain of the loss of a child, the personal tragedy of war and how it scars forever even those that survive it bodily unharmed.

By the end, what they transmit to us most, is their spirit of ravenous curiosity. We may yet learn the secret ways of strings and quarks but we cant ever know exactly who we are, or why we do what we do. Our motives and intentions are often shrouded in ambiguity, moreso than the fate of Schrodinger's famous cat. Our memories are as unreliable and dynamic as an electron on its unpredictable trajectory.

As we witness the different permutations and versions of what may have happened on that September evening in Copenhagen in 1941, we learn that definite knowledge is probably unattainable in "Copenhagen". But how much more interesting life is, as a result. You know, that familiar letdown as you reach the end of the story in a mystery novel? Well, you wont find that here. In the world of "Copenhagen", no such anticlimaxes exist. The thrill of the chase is infinite.

P.S. Heisenberg, ever ebullient father of the Uncertainty Principle, has an epitaph over his grave that reads 'He lies somewhere here.' Uncertain in death as in life.

P.P.S. A friend who watched the play the same evening as me and who sat beside me in the latter half of the play, whose post pushed me to finish my own has perhaps a clearer, more elegant set of thoughts. Here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I get by with a little help from my friends

A rather gregarious, albeit long-forgotten, school-mate called me up last night. It must have been six or seven years since we last spoke and I almost didn't recognise her voice. We hadn't been particularly close in school but we'd had some entertaining conversations over the years. She always hung around the school with a rather large and extremely loud gaggle of girls, while I had what she called a 'dedicated but small group of followers' which is for all intents and purposes, rather close to the truth. I had exactly three best friends then and I have exactly five best friends now, the latest two acquired in the first two years of college. The years haven't exactly made me any more of a friend-magnet than they have made her any less of a chatterbox.

So around an hour of filling-each-other-in-on-what's-happening-in-our-lives later, she suddenly piped up that she had this idea, for a school reunion. Just some old friends, not the whole class, she said. I told her that I thought that going by her social butterfly status, inviting her old friends wud be the same as inviting the whole class.

She quieted down perceptibly at that and I wondered if I'd hit a nerve without having realized it. I tried to placate her with, "Oh c'mon, you've always had a lot of friends. You can talk with pretty much anyone and be friends with them an hour later. I'm sure you have a thousand new friends in college by now."

At which point, she said, "No, but it's not the same. School friends are different. Besides, I cant really talk with these friends."

Why not, I asked her. Because they weren't all that close to her, she said. For someone who was as socially inept as I, this was a concept that didn't really get through to me right away. If somebody had a hundred friends, they must be close friends with atleast one or two of them.

She sighed at the other end of the phone line, and said, "Sometimes, people have to make new friends because they cant hold onto any old ones."

Then, of course, we made plans to meet up over the weekend and I realized how much I'd really missed her without knowing it, and that it wud be a real pity if we had to let each other ago.

On Thinking Different

Looking at my facebook homepage last morning, I cudnt help but be overwhelmed by the collective outpouring of tribute for and quotes by Steve Jobs. I had this slight sinking feeling in my stomach, a somewhat delicate sense of loss and it was strange that it was for a man I didn't really know at all. But what he dreamed up changed the daily habits of millions around the world, what he created was what all of us grew up desiring. Atleast, I did. I remember brokering deals with my parents, deals that ran along the lines of 'If I get a Distinction in every subject this year, will you buy me an iPod?' Well, I did get both. The Distinctions and the iPod. It was incredible, the idea that something so small and so elegant cud be kept safe under a pillow at night while Elvis Presley crooned into my ears or V. S. Ramachandran delivered personal lectures about phantom limbs and Capgras syndrome.

It didn't feel like just another consumer product. Even if some people insist that's all it really was.

Whichever side one takes, in all the debating and discussing over Apple and their iPods and iPads and iPhones and Macs and all that, one can't help denying, it is awesome technology, marketed rather effectively. And Steve Jobs, who made most of it possible, is gonna be sorely missed.

I rather liked this quote from the long and lovely list of quotes that flew around in newspapers and forwards and on facebook yesterday.

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them.

About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that's never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

And cradling my iPod as it plays a rather soulful Rosanne Cash song, it's nice to imagine being one of those people he's talking about so passionately. And that's a feeling you can't quite put a price on.

Friday, September 23, 2011

This Land is your Land

I must admit my middle-class upbringing has been allowed to colour my view of the world around me much, much more than it ever should have been. Thus far, I have always considered slums to be a symptom of a societal ill; sad, dirty places overcrowded with the oppressed haves-not of a country divided along the fault-lines of class, caste and recently, religion. I haven't been impressed with the 'Slumdog Millionaire' spirit they were recently cast into- that technicolour, rags to riches, destiny-rules-all view of things was as many worlds apart from the truth, I thought, as is the first world from the third.

But I may have been very wrong, very middle-class in my thinking. After spending a month travelling the length and breadth of our confoundingly claustrophobic metropolis, visiting healthposts in 'slum' areas, setting up health camps inside houses, no, not houses, but huts, I have understood that these are real communities, teeming with aspirational, upwardly-mobile, intelligent, hardworking people, most of them immigrants from the far-off regions of distant states, others hailing from war-ravaged countries in our South Asian neighbourhood.

I always had this fantasy in my head, of people being seduced by the mirage of Bombay as a glittering city with the untold promise of wealth and luxury, luring them away from their clean, pastoral existence into the grimy muck of the ruthless, heartless city. Now, I realize that this was an oversimplification of the highest order.

People leave their homes, only and only when their existence becomes unbearable there, only when they realize that there is absolutely no way for their lives to improve, if they stay where they are. In other words, they immigrate from a place of no hope to a place where they think they can hope, hope for better lives, if not for themselves then at the very least, for their children.

My own great-grandfather left his ancestral home in another state, persecuted for his religious beliefs and linguistic allegiances, to come to this benevolent leveller of a city where three generations later, his great-grandchildren no longer speak his dear mother tongue with any felicity, nor do they hold that sacred religion close to their heart. But they survive. They thrive. I wonder if he would have believed, as I do, that tradition was a good thing to barter with, in exchange for prosperity.

I admire each day these people I meet. They are smiling, hard-working people, not as disillusioned with the state of affairs as me and my friends are. They want the very best that their money can provide for their children, education and healthcare that wud have been impossible to achieve in their native villages.

Everywhere we went, we were spoken to politely, greeted smilingly, invited into humble but tidy homes for tea and biscuits. There were old women who asked after my family, young men who shyly asked me my name, children who asked me how they cud become doctors, too. These were not the tragic half-starved working-classes of my overheated imagination, these were robust people, confident in the future they cud build in this incredible 'maximum city' as a writer called it. They did not despair, they just got on with their lives.

I wondered if Gregory David Roberts did not grossly exaggerate the life of slum-dwellers in Shantaram; I was always doubtful if his foreigner's eye and subsequent rise in life did not colour his 'somewhat true' story. But I was perhaps more foreign to these places than he was. He'd lived here, right beside the people he wrote about. And I understood now what fascinated him.

As for Danny Boyle, I admit I was wrong about his film. I can see now, just as he saw, the traces of great beauty in the harshest of faces, in the darkest of places.

My parents have always tried to educate me about the importance of keeping an open mind when visiting foreign lands. I begin to understand they did not mean only other countries. I can also see that it's hard to leave the comfortable world one belongs to, to dip into unknown worlds with unknown dangers, but these journeys are definitely worth it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A little-known fact about Fiction

"In my work as an author, I traffic in fiction. I do not traffic in lies. With fiction, Art and writing, it is important that even if you're dealing with areas of complete outrageous fantasy, that there is an emotional resonance.

It is important that a story ring true upon a human level, even if it never happened."

- Alan Moore

This quote encapsulates exactly everything that I've held in my mind as a more-or-less nebulous idea for a very long time. One cant help but be gobsmacked when that happens; that someone puts down in words so precisely, a sentiment you were almost certain you were doomed to experience without sharing with a kindred spirit. It engenders an amazingly strong feeling of kinship with that person. And when that person happens to be Alan Moore, it is all the more incredible! :)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The heart of a Mother

In the MICU of our hospital, which is where I've been posted the last couple of weeks, the hardest part is watching people take bad news. A patient we've had for a week was a particularly bad case to handle. A nineteen year old boy, already a regular drug abuser addicted to Fortwin injections, had overdosed and was brought in with severe respiratory depression. His mother was the only one of his family to stay with him, she was literally alone. The father had left her while her son was still an infant, she had worked as a housemaid to put him through school. Only to have him drop out with no prospects of a job and friends who taught him to single out veins in his forearms with more finesse than my internship's taught me.

His breathing normalized in a matter of days but as soon as he came out of his drug-fuelled stupor, we realized he'd had a very alarming psychotic breakdown, a rather scarily common occurrence when one goes cold turkey. His personality had started a strange sort of rapid cycling. He alternated between aggression, abusiveness, even violent outbursts when he threatened us to let him go home, on the one hand and an eerie calmness, accompanied by spells of sobbing and pleading with us for a discharge, becoming moody and depressed on the other.

It was pointless to explain to him how delicate his condition was, that he needed psychiatric help. His mother, who stayed up for days without sleep, rushing to his side every time he called out for her, begged us to save his life, keep him in the ICU till he recovered completely. That he needed to be transferred to a psychiatric ward seemed unbearable to her.

He wud scream at her, abuse her, beat her even, but she was always the same with him. Talking with him affectionately, bringing him sweets whenever he asked for them, even at 2 AM. Tonight he slapped her hard across the face because he thought she was conspiring with us to keep him in the hospital and we had to call in security to help restrain him. She wept, insisted how he was a really good boy at heart, and once he was placed securely in restraints, went up to him, stroked his hair and kissed his hand.

Our registrar looked visibly disgusted at this show of affection and asked her why she simply did not leave her son, when he so obviously was the cause of her misery. The woman looked at the two of us and simply replied, "How can I? He is my son. You two will also understand when you become mothers, yourselves."

I wondered at that last statement. Will birthing a child really turn me into the sort of person who could possibly love an unreasonable, unrepentant boy simply because he was my son? I really doubt that.

I had not thought of love this way before. Love as some kind of malignant disease, which does not allow you to think or reason clearly. It makes you selfless to such an extent that you lose all understanding of self altogether.

As I was getting ready to leave at midnight, my co-intern turned up and we were talking about how a mother's love is unconditional and Darwin's disciple that he is, it turned out he had a slightly different take. "The idea is to pass on our genes, if we did not love those things, those semi-parasitic, annoying, screeching bundles of flesh unconditionally, we'd be tempted to kill them off and the human race would die out. Unconditional love is just a biological imperative disguised as an illusory ideal."

He may be a little bit further from the truth than he believes, I think. As I was walking to the main gate, I passed the Paediatrics ward where a new mother played with a child with Down's syndrome and I watched the little girl laugh and laugh as her mother tickled her. I went in and ruffled the girl's hair. The mother smiled at me as the kid giggled happily, and said, "I know she'll never be like other children, the way I wanted her to be, but the doctors say she'll be a happy child in her short life. And somehow that doesn't sound so bad. I think it could have been much worse."

I left her, realizing that I will probably never be a very maternal person, even if I managed to become a mother. That's alright. But to love so deeply and so truly is not something one should dismiss as mere biological imperative, even when that love brings nearly as much sorrow as joy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Waiting on the world to Change

"The busy have no time for tears." - Lord Byron

Or for anything else, really. Yesterday, as the rest of my generation set out from their homes with the renewed belief that their actions cud change the world, I set out at 6 AM to spend the next sixteen hours working in the ICU. Every second minute, I received messages from friends telling me to take a day off from work to head to Azad Maidan to stand up for real democracy and in protest against corruption, and there were more messages saying the objective was to get arrested, to go to jail, in Anna Hazare's Jail Bharo Andolan.

I realised the girl I used to be four years ago wud have believed it was my duty as a citizen waiting on change to do exactly what those messages exhorted me to do. To stand shoulder to shoulder with my friends, and chant slogans with them. To believe that I was doing everything an ordinary person possibly cud, by way of peaceful protest, to walk along a path set out for us by the greatest Indian who ever lived.

But this time around, I had work that needed doing that seemed wrong to abandon, even if anyone was naive enough to believe the future of the country depended on it.

How does one order one's priorities, a disappointed friend's sms asked. He rather dramatically asked me if temporarily relieving the suffering of ten people ranked higher than catalysing societal change for a billion.

I said yes, for a doctor it does, and that it was all deja vu for me. I had done this thing before, going to Azad Maidan, climbing into a police van, being detained in a warehouse for four hours. All for an issue I had rather strongly believed in - back when the protests were organised by students against the Supreme Court ruling for 27% reservation in all educational institutions over and above the existing reservations. I protested, felt good about myself, believed I was doing the right thing, doing what Gandhi wud do. Four years later, nothing's changed on that front.

This time it's a different kind of fight staged by the same kind of people. A rather curious mix of young people who're optimistic about the future and older people who've managed to shake off their apathy atleast for the time being. I hope for their sake and mine, the outcome this time around is a favourable one. Simply because this time there is more at stake.

I hope that something truly good comes out of this struggle in the end. And that when it does, I am not as busy as I was yesterday, so I can celebrate with the friends I had to say no to. And go out dancing with them after ages. Because, like a wise man said, 'a revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.'

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The day you fly without me

I look out my window tonight as your plane etches a line in the sky
Outside, this mad city recedes from me
with its million teeming hearts in a million sleepy chests

I sit still in the night, you move towards dawn
I remain a fixed point on the map as you consume its longitudes

Our pact to read our farewells
at two in the morning
with you in the air, and me on the earth
weighs unbearably on my mind

While your unopened letter
lies on my desk,

Saturday, August 6, 2011

There is a Light that never goes out

In our hospital, the fact of life and death going hand in hand is somewhat ironically underlined by the placement of the Labour Ward from the OBGY department along a corridor right opposite the Male Medicine Ward for Seriously Ill Patients where I am posted right now.

While this leaves much room to philosophize, ground reality presents a rather different set of observations to be made.

Four nights ago, on the night of my second consecutive emergency inside of a week, at around 3:30 A.M. approximately, while our houseman and I were trying our level best to maintain some semblance of conscious brain function while struggling to stay awake, two of the 'seriously ill' patients in our ward simultaneously took a turn for the worse.

That I wud have to watch my houseman, in his sluggish although frightened mental state, perform a quick but random triage in his head, did not occur to me while he rushed to the side of the patient on bed number 1, ordering for the intubation tray and the emergency cart. He began what he knew was about to be a failed attempt to resuscitate the dying man, when he gave me a sudden deer-caught-in-the-headlights look and as if just then remembering we had yet another dying man to deal with ordered me to bed number 27, and as I began to do what I hoped wud bring about a miracle, he yelled at me to call for help. From the MICU or the EMS, anywhere.

And unless somebody came, he seemed to imply, we wud likely lose both patients simultaneously. Asking the student nurse to hold my mobile to my ear while I was doing chest compressions, I managed to get two very sleepy medicine residents on the other end of the line, both of whom declined to come, citing reasons slightly churlish but wholly practical.

And as soon as I heard the call disconnect, all my slowed-down mind could grasp was, this was it. This was the first patient I wud watch as he died with my hands compressing his silent chest. I wud have stopped when I knew he was not coming back but the look on my houseman's face meant I wud have to keep going. I did it for ten whole minutes before he stopped and it meant it was okay for me to stop as well.

I must have looked really sad or distraught becoz he talked with both sets of relatives himself, I was relieved he'd spared me from having to deliver the news of the death. I walked slowly back to the side-room and lay down on the bed before he entered around an hour later and kindly asked if I was okay.

He said to me, in what he hoped was a comforting voice, "You'll get used to it. It happens all the time, every day. People die and you deal with it. It's strange, isn't it? Their bodies, out there, have everything the same as before, nothing's changed in them. Yet, the force that animates us all, is gone. Just like that."

"How come no one came to help?" I asked him. He sighed and said, "It's late at night, they've got their own work to do. Don't blame anyone. It was my job, anyway." He turned away from me and fell asleep for what little remained of the night.

Outside, in the lightening sky, I heard birds chirping, signalling dawn and a new day. In the corridor outside, a woman was sobbing, loudly at first, and after some time, she stopped, only whimpering now and again. In the next wing, newborns cried as they took their first breath of life.

As I rose to start the morning blood collections, I realized I had learned a new and important lesson. That it takes more than adequate knowledge and good intentions to save a life. It takes luck and random chance. And acceptance of the fact that saving one man does not mean you'll save another the next day.

But life goes on. Atleast, until death intervenes.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man

But that's not even close to the most remarkable conversation I've had this week. That privilege goes to my latest co-intern, a boy with a disarming smile, and an almost ridiculously filmy back-story with a rags-to-riches spin to it.

In the spirit of our 'Too Much Information To Handle' conversations, he leaned over conspiratorially over the three bottles of Sterilium that separated our workstations and loudly whispered, "You know, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to learn to smoke. And two years ago, I actually did!"

His stage whisper alerted me to the thought that he probably wanted me to be either really shocked or really impressed. I, therefore, decided it was best to neglect to mention that he wasnt the only one with a fun tale of trysts with cancer sticks.

So, I let him proceed with his 'secret' outpourings. "I smoked for a month, one cigarette a day. And I really liked it! It made me feel so, so, umm.."

"Uninhibited?" I supplied.

"Free." he smiled back.

"So if you liked it, how come you quit in a month? To test your moral fortitude?" I had to ask, struggling hard to stop the question sounding as cruelly sarcastic as it obviously does.

"Well, I thought, what wud my dad think? He wud be hurt if he knew, and I wud have to tell him. He wud think his son's going bad." he shrugged.

"Yeah, becoz all the boys from your village are good Marathi boys who dont smoke, right?" I said rather distractedly, as the distinctive smell of formalin wafted in through the window.

"Oh come on, Karishma, we're both not that stupid. And we've seen enuff people here to know that every person who isnt a smoker is not automatically a good person. One bad quality does not indicate the presence of other worse ones, and one good quality cannot compensate for the absence of many better ones." His face momentarily clouded over before his genuine, boyish smile shone through instants later and he giggled before adding in another theatrical whisper, "You know what I've always wanted to try though? Ganja!"

A Dangling Conversation (if ever there was one..)

Internship is turning into a real goldmine of life experiences, all of a sudden.

I've spent the last fortnight in a relatively mildly irritating posting in a unit run by a registrar who until today I'd put down as a moderately effective, watered-down sort of a dictator. A stickler for punctuality, a nitpicking nag, that kind of a person. Not remotely a malicious bitch so much as a typical trope, instead of a real person, I thought. She was often short with patients, frequently snapped at her clueless but kindhearted housemen, relentlessly ordering them to get their act together, she was painfully particular about us turning up in the wards at 7 AM to do blood collections, only if there were just two patients that needed to be tested. The only time there appeared to be anything to humanize her stony countenance was the few occasions when she presented cases to the professors, an activity that in the Psychiatry department involves having long, sometimes really ridiculously silly-sounding conversations with patients. Her histories were detailed and thorough, her cases peppered with witticisms and a somewhat wacky sense of humour, that was decidedly at odds with her otherwise apparently hostile demeanour.

I was glad to be finishing the posting really. Just take her signature and get the hell out of there, I thought.

Then, it so turned out that we didnt really need her signature, the saccharine sweet lecturer and the histrionically entertaining professors were ready to sign all our work.

So, in what felt like a minor coup, we paraded into the office, stamping our own logbooks with the department seal and there she was! My co-interns all thought the best strategy was obviously to not look her in the eye, and simply troop past trying to look as innocuous as possible, as if willing themselves to be invisible cud actually work.

I, however, am more than a little worse at that, and blending into the background wont ever really be a strong suit for me. So, I thought that I shud use that to my advantage and contribute a cheeky parting shot instead.

So, trying to look her in the eye with what I hoped resembled bonhomie, I gave her a big smile and I said, "Ma'am, so we're done with psych. Today was our last day." 'And you wont be able to boss us around any more.' being what was left pointedly unsaid.

She looked at me, as if really noticing me for the first time in that very moment, and to my great surprise, smiled, although sardonically, and said, "Then I guess you're lucky. Do well in your exams." before turning and leaving.

My co-interns gave me a 'why do you always have to do this, Karishma?' look and marched into the office. I, however, realized that I was seeing the woman in a whole new light, and a really rosy one, too.

It dawned on me that she was probably the only rigorously competent person in the whole unit, the reason we were called on for blood collections daily was becoz the sweet but simpering houseman had no idea what bore needle to use, or what bulbs to take, or even which laboratory the blood was supposed to be sent to. That the other gruff but kindly houseman was bad at remembering drug names and repeatedly badgered the registrar for dosages.

That the honey-tongued lecturer often left rounds half-way and the much-renowned professor was on holiday for much of the month.

She was single-handedly responsible for all the patients in the unit and the obvious stress from all that work was probably what made her lose her temper so often.

And I realized what I really felt was not exhilaration at having gotten another barrage of signatures out of the way, but the slightest hint of guilt towards and a somewhat grudging admiration for the woman who delightedly wrote words like 'mendicants' and 'verbose' and 'lotuseaters' on the case-sheets, a woman whose name I hadnt even bothered to ask for all of the two weeks I was posted alongside her.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What's past is prologue

For the third time in the five years that I've been studying to be a doctor, this city gets bombed by terrorists. This time I feel better equipped to deal with the casualties but as luck wud have it, a relatively lighter posting had me heading home in the middle of terrible traffic the same time as news of the blasts started to filter thru.

I was on a completely different route, of course, but one cudnt help but get infected by the panic in the air on the roads today.

After making several futile attempts to call mum and dad on their cellphones on jammed networks, my driver suggested we switch on the radio where helpful RJs told us about the location of the blasts, the condition of traffic on the roads, what routes to avoid, and where brand new checknakas had sprouted up.

So a usually forty-minute long ride morphed into a two hour-long odyssey punctuated by frequent text messages asking me if I was home and safe, all the while I was frantically trying to call mum and dad.

With the radio our only source of reliable information we had it switched on the whole time and as reassuring messages from family and friends started pouring in, so did news about patients pouring into our hospital, when this unexpected song started playing on the radio.

And for a few minutes I was dumbfounded. The ridiculous optimism of the song sounded hopelessly and naively out-of-place in these dangerously cynical times.

But in those minutes, I realized that this song was from another time and place. That it was recorded in a city which had never been laid siege to, in a country that had not gone to war against its neighbour numerous times, by idealistic people who had believed that the battle for freedom had really been won. Once and for all. And that the beautiful, peaceful utopia they'd dreamed up wud come to exist in the future, that their children wud inherit this vision of a perfect world.

And then the song ended, the next song played, and it was "Bombay Meri Jaan" and what cud I do, but wistfully change the channel? It was the only way to stop the past from seeming like some sort of paradise, to stop feeling that now, whenever the world changes, it is always only for the worse.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Last place you looked

And thus it ends, what must be one of the singularly most frustrating and strangely fulfilling postings of my internship. Assisting the BMC pull off what must be a rather childishly futile PR exercise, against our will, shunted from real clinical postings, to act as default blood collectors in the freshly created Fever OPD in daily twelve hour shifts for 15 straight days without Sundays off, or any other day off for that matter, really puts some things in perspective.

That spending twelve hours with someone at a stretch, chattering about Delhi Belly and Kishore Kumar over mechanically sticking needles into people's veins does create a rather unexpectedly strong bond of friendship with your fellow intern. That spending five years attending lectures in the same class as this person will teach you nothing about them while spending fifteen harrowing days with them will fill you in on everything from their boyfriend's favourite flavour of ice-cream to their favourite boy-band from the nineties.

Also, long nights spent chit-chatting with the first really sweet and warmly human registrar (she even bought us three scoops of ice-cream on our last day of work) I've met in KEM so far are well worth the endless hours of thankless hopelessly boring work. There's nothing like strife and loneliness to teach you to appreciate the goodness inside of other people, the kindness of strangers that goes unnoticed on ordinary days.

Isnt it just incredible that friends really can be found in the most trying of times and in the strangest of places?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One more time

So, umm, this is the customary birthday post all about this particular birthday. I am starting to get a bit bothered by the amount of these that keep stacking up but well, each year is quite a different experience from the one before, so I dont think they're all that pointless.

There have been quite a few years in the recent past when I've been trying to do the grown-up thing and just stay home having a nice dinner and spending quality time with friends and family. But somehow it always turns into this raucous milestone thing - hey, you're 21 now, let's go get beer! Or, hey, look you earn now - let's go to a fancy place to celebrate.

But this year, for reasons rather beyond my control, I think I shall end up getting the mature birthday that I'd always wished to have. With Piyu's eternal altercation with assorted viruses continuing into this year as well, it's just going to be an intimate dinner at her place after all, with movies on the DVD player and four big bowls of buttered popcorn.

And as against bunking lectures and going out for cake like always, today I woke up bright and early and went to work in the OPD, to examine patients and prescribe for them. It was like every other day at work, but I just felt so much more enthusiastic and cheerful than usual. Which for me is really saying something.

And finally, mum's gift to me was a gorgeous red Kanjeevaram silk saree, almost exactly like the one she has, one I have been coveting for several years. There's something special about the way this is the year that she thinks I am finally old enuff to get one.

Growing up can be a tricky, and sometimes, messy business. You must allow yourself to accept that you will make mistakes, while simultaneously trying to learn from them to avoid making more as you grow older. That is the very essence of lessons learned throughout this particular Psychiatry posting. Mistakes will be made. The way you deal with the fallout makes all the difference. Some people give up and others break down, while there are those that will just get up, brush themselves off and keep up the good fight. Maybe I'll know for sure what kind I am by this time next year.

Whatever the answer to that is, I hope that I'll be alright with it. That's what birthdays are for. We're all growing old all the time, every moment of our lives, inching slowly towards death. But one day every year, all of that catches up with us quite all of a sudden when we're busy chalking up another year of life wrapped up.

Irrespective, introspection must be one of the actual benefits of having a birthday. Like getting free beer from friends is. Boy, it sure feels great to be a grown-up! :D

Friday, June 17, 2011

Lessons in Humanity.

When I was eight years old, my dear Aunt Bhanu had given me a birthday present that was a big box full of five illustrated and abridged versions of classic books. Now these weren't your regular books for kids, not Oliver Twist or Treasure Island or The Prince & The Pauper. These were slightly odd books to be giving to an eight year old. They were Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Journey to the Centre of the Earth, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and of course, my then least favourite - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

It was reading these books perhaps that ignited my life-long fascination with science-fiction and more-so with morbidity.

I dont think their impact wud have been as great had they been the regular unabridged novels read without illustrations that I acquired in my teens, in my attempt to recapture the sense of wonder I had first felt when reading them.

The illustrations had been singularly excellent, and some scenes just stuck fast in my head. I still remember them as vividly as if I had the pages in front of me, alas, the books are lost to me now. Given away to classmates as grown-up novels took precedence or borrowed by younger cousins and not returned.

My mind's eye returns to me certain images though, and I can imagine them even today, my memory perhaps embellishing on what I had originally seen.

A large tear glistening on the hard brown cheek of the enigmatic Captain Nemo's usually stern, shuttered face as the mysterious young man with a hole in his skull, covered by blood-soaked bandages lay dying on a bunk in the background.

The explorers sailing on makeshift rafts, battling against violent storms, lost in a vast ancient underground sea filled with some magnificent and some monstrous fish.

Count Dracula, his long black cape whipping in the wind as he scared off hungry wolves with a snarl and a wave of a sinewy clawed hand as Jonathan watched wide-eyed from the carriage window.

The Time Traveller, adventurous yet afraid, shrinking from the Morlocks in the dark tunnels, realizing that the menacing creatures are the descendants of the downtrodden working classes of the distant past.

They were all stories that touched something inside my eight-year old heart and moved me to wonder, and sometimes fear.

But Frankenstein perplexed me. I did not know what to make of it. I did not know if I felt sympathetic towards the Creature or repulsed by him. I didnt know if I blamed Viktor Frankenstein or if I pitied him. But the haunting image of the Creature, who having received nothing but beatings and tauntings, longingly looking in through the window at a happy family eating a warm dinner around a simple wooden table, thinking how he would always, always be the outsider, shunned and reviled, lingered uncomfortably in the dark corners of my mind.

Tonight, I watched a screening of Danny Boyle's brilliant new play based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, at the NCPA, and I watched it alone as my erratic schedule and busy weekends wud allow.

I dont really watch movies or plays alone. I enjoy them as the communal experience they were probably meant to be, before home theatre systems and personal computers arrived. I am usually the obnoxious person in the audience who regularly gets shushed by people for whispering too loudly to my friend sitting next to me. So this was my first time watching this play all by myself, in a corner seat at the extreme right of the second row.

And while the staff at NCPA are always and extremely courteous, they seemed to take special care in showing me to my seat, literally walking me to it and asking if I was alright, probably becoz I was a girl who'd showed up all alone. They even seated three delightfully chatty old Parsee ladies next to me!

But perhaps it was appropriate that all my thoughts about this marvellous play were confined to the solitude of my own mind becoz perhaps that's the lesson that I needed to learn from it.

Of course, the play with the fantastic ensemble cast of Jonny Lee Miller as the hard-hearted Frankenstein, Naomi Harris as the compassionate Elizabeth and the always-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch in a strangely moving performance as Frankenstein's Monster is chock-full of subtle and not-so-subtle messages if you'll look for them.

Everything from the Biblical idea of Original Sin, the onslaught of science in the modern age, the grave consequences of hungering for power without responsibility, the hypocrisy of society, men trying to play God, slavery, love, loneliness, poetry, childhood and its innocence lost to the very nature of the human condition is covered in the sparklingly witty dialogue of the play. And inspite of the frequent ideological heavy-lifting required of it, the lines of dialogue pronounced by the excellent actors crackle with surprising humour and comic whimsy in a way they never did on the page.

The play may be about a lot of things but at its centre lies the relationship between the man and his creation. And how that creation, abandoned by his 'father', is quickly and brutally taught several lessons about humanity and human beings.

We sense every emotion that passes quicksilver-like on the grotesque face of the Creature - his struggle with his newly given life at the beginning of the play, his abandonment by his creator, his pleas for help as he begs for food, his cries of pain as he is mercilessly whipped, his joyful exultation when he watches the first sunrise of his life, his shrinking from a gentle old blind man's touch, his introduction to music and books by this old man who becomes a very obvious father figure, his sonorous recitations of the poetry he comes to adore, his tender longing for a lover, his violent anger at being rejected and taunted by the very people he silently helped, his heart-breaking anguish at being the only one of his kind, and his cynical but truthful observations on mankind are incredibly and brilliantly rendered by Benedict Cumberbatch (whom I loved as Sherlock Holmes on BBC's new series), and it is a bit of a shock when the actor turns up in his natural handsome avatar at the end of the play.

Also in a stunning reversal from the book, the Creature becomes the hero of the story, so much more than the monster that prowled at the shadowy edges of Viktor Frankenstein's rather eventful life. We experience all that happens from the Creature's perspective. And this is probably where the play triumphs most of all. The Creature becomes a mirror that displays all our flaws back to us, ruthlessly and relentlessly. We tell ourselves we're good people and we'd have been better to him had we encountered him, but there's that nagging doubt at the back of our mind.

We realize that we are indeed guilty of all the crimes he accuses mankind of. We are afraid of what we do not understand, we treat with hatred and hostility those who are not like us, we do not keep all our promises, we are cruel, even and especially to those whom we profess to love. We corrupt the innocent, we exploit the weak, we undermine the strong, we despise the truly good.

The Creature, we learn, is born a somewhat gentle soul, a lover of beauty, nature, and poetry, with a tender heart that is capable of kindness to children and love for mankind.

He desires a bride he may love and keep as his own friend and companion. But Frankenstein cannot keep this terrible promise and destroys her. The Creature exacts revenge as he rapes and murders Frankenstein's wife on their wedding night, cynically declaring "Now I am a real man!" to the grief-stricken Frankenstein who chases after him endlessly to finally destroy his creation.

The play ends as the book does at the North Pole, where the Creature admits to Frankenstein that he feels remorse for Elizabeth's death and admits that he always yearned for his creator's love. Frankenstein confesses that he was incapable of loving and that he envied the Creature's ability to feel love, which made him more human than Frankenstein wud ever be.

And I understood the real reason Bhanu Mami had told me it was important that I read this book properly. She had always known that it was Frankenstein who was the real outsider, and not the Creature. But perhaps, this was a lesson I needed to learn in a darkened auditorium, as three hundred other people collectively drew in their breath at the ending. That, in truth, each one of us is all alone, but those of us who can manage to reach out to another person will never really be lonely.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dance me to the End of Love

Miriam: There's one thing I want from you.

Barney: Anything!

Miriam: Don't answer 'anything'. That's not real. Life's real. It's made up of little things. Minutes, hours, naps, errands, routine - and it has to be enough.

- from the movie, Barney's Version.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


What Iris Murdoch once said, or rather what Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch said in the movie Iris gets one thinking about the exact significance of language.

It may be the one of the best reasons human beings have been as successful as they are as a species so far, but one wonders if its cardinal purpose of communication is served exactly.

Often, people dont say what they really want to say either becoz they think it's not the right thing to say or becoz they dont think they are equipped with the necessary vocabulary to express in words exactly what thoughts form near wordlessly in their minds.

Sometimes people talk in abstractions becoz details cannot, must not be given away. Other times people talk to distract from the truth, or to dilute it, or to embellish it.

To capture a feeling in a few words or a thousand is challenging even for those who love words and self-expression as much as Iris does, or as much as I think I do.

And since words are never enuff, language becomes something lesser then originally intended. Especially becoz people dont use it only for conveying meanings and points. It is a medium of communication, yes, but more often it ends up being about avoidance, misdirection, self-protection and mostly plain confusion.

And the truth probably is that people often talk simply becoz they have nothing to say.

But then, as Iris points out, what else do we have? Unless evolution turns us all into telepaths, and that wud be way more curse than blessing.

"There's something fishy about describing people's feelings. You try hard to be accurate, but as soon as you start to define such and such a feeling, language lets you down. When we really speak the truth, words are insufficient. But they're important to us, nonetheless, because they are what connects us to thoughts other than those belonging to us."- Iris Murdoch

Sin, Sin, Sin

Hospitals are excellent places to take notes on the best and the basest of human nature.

How the human condition incorporates the contradictions inherent in a life which ends as it must but the loss causes grief all the same, though we know something that does not die is not truly alive.

How human society tolerates and stipulates that some people's egos are worth more than some other people's lives.

How it is perfectly acceptable that a fatal error is excusable becoz it is an error, and not a mistake. So that a technicality can smoothen the rigidity of thought over the splinters and shards of a conscience that must have been ripped to shreds.

How it is essential and even praiseworthy to be unemotional, and near inhuman becoz it is the exact useful way of allowing reason and learning to take a judgment call. Becoz allowing yourself to actually feel wud be unbearable.

How knowing that each day, out there in the world, terrible things happen to people and more terrible things will come to pass, that things are much worse for others than they cud possibly be for you, does absolutely nothing to lessen the burden of your own personal tragedy.

P. S. Twelve-hour shifts in an emergency room have taken over the last two months of my life. Writing these posts makes actually ruminating on all that happens easier to deal with, almost like preserving one's sense of peace (since saying sanity wud be closer to the truth but even more close to being hysterically dramatic).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nowhere to Run

A few months ago, I set myself the task of watching every single Martin Scorsese movie I cud possibly lay my hands on. I started with the easiest ones- Shutter Island, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, then I moved on to an unlikely Marty movie called The Age of Innocence simply becoz it starred the beautiful Daniel Day-Lewis who I kind of had a crush on ever since watching Gangs of New York, then I got to The Last Temptation of Christ on Easter fittingly, and last night I saw Taxi Driver, which I thought was my favourite, if I had to pick one at all.

Talking this idea over with B., he told me to watch Bringing Out the Dead for two reasons. One, he said it echoes Taxi Driver though I had no idea what he meant by that, and the second, becoz he thought I'd be able to relate to it. Turns out that he's right on both counts.

I've never seen Bringing Out the Dead before and quite frankly I did not expect to be so deeply moved by it when I read about it. It's about a New York paramedic named Frank, played by Nicolas Cage, who's spent night after night for five years roaming the streets in an ambulance, dispatched to save dying people who need help on an emergency basis. Frank is actually really good with people, he wants to save their lives and does the best he possibly can.

But he is possessed by the idea that for the last six months, he has not successfully saved a single one of the people he gets called out to help and he increasingly feels like his real job is not saving lives but bringing out the dead. He tries to get out of his job by any means he can think of. He starts to drink on the job, calls in sick, turns up late for shifts, anything, anything to avoid having to face the next person who he's certain will die on his watch. To add to his deepening misery, he is haunted by the ghost of a young woman he tried to save one night but cudnt. Now almost every hour of every night he sees the spectre of her staring at him, on the streets, through windows in restaurants, in the emergency room. Frank all but admits his sickness, he knows that he is coming apart at the seams.

And he's not the only one we watch who we suspect is losing their mind. The ambulance drivers on every shift alternate between a man who drives like the best way to reach an accident is by causing an accident and a man who wallops a defenseless loon on the street with a baseball bat, out of sheer frustration.

The movie follows Frank on three nights, from Friday night until Sunday morning and the Biblical reference is immediately obvious. But one wonders if there is any redemption or resurrection to be found on Sunday, or if it's just a temporary respite from an endless cycle of horrors that begins again on Monday night.

And I think I get how this movie 'echoes' Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle also drove thru streets saving people, the only difference was, he saved people who didnt call for help. Frank, on the other hand, attempts to save those who're struggling to live, but all he can do is helplessly bear witness to their deaths. He cynically calls himself 'a grief mop'.

Whatever he may say, we can see that Frank cares about this job. He's actually good at it. He knows how to handle the confusion and chaos surrounding a man who's had a heart attack at the dinner table at home, how to reassure the girlfriend of a junkie who has overdosed in the toilet of a night-club, how to deliver twins in a dingy room in an abandoned building when the Mexican immigrant mother is so far in denial that she claims she's a virgin and the birth is a miracle, how to scare a homeless man who slashes his wrists every other week, into never trying to commit suicide again. He even throws himself off a balcony trying to save a drug dealer who's jumped off the roof, although he admits a part of him wanted to go down along with the unfortunate man.

As gloom and doom as this movie may sound, it is actually pretty darkly funny in the way it treats its life versus death moments, like in a fabulous scene in which a man dies imagining that sparks from a welder's blowtorch are fireworks against the sky. Also it is extremely visually arresting. The whole movie looks like a vivid acid trip with the camera turning ninety degrees in a matter of seconds and staying like that for minutes as scenes play out with the red and blue lights of the ambulance flashing rapidly, Frank's face alight with manic desperation. The soundtrack spews songs at us, that seem completely incongruous at first, but are a perfect fit in some twisted and wickedly funny way. For example, when Frank walks out of a lift onto a blood-stained floor, the song that plays in the background is hilariously, 'Red, Red Wine'. Nicolas Cage himself is awesome as a man teetering at the edge of the abyss, on the brink of insanity, slowly but surely losing his footing, his blue eyes filled with a world of hurt, his pain starkly visible etched all over his pallid face.

Frank riding in his ambulance to and from his hospital reminded me of the mythical boatman on the River Styx charged with ferrying the souls of the dead to the underworld, the steam rising from the manholes cud be smoke from hellfire. New York looks unusually and incredibly grimy, so unlike the summery glittering clean city that is the backdrop for Woody Allen movies.

And unlike what the American dream may tell you, there are many, many lost souls here. Beggars near subway stations, the homeless underneath bridges, illegal immigrants in hovels, crack addicts in crumbling buildings. These are the people Frank tries to save every night and we understand why he's fighting a losing battle. In my favourite scene, the daughter of the first patient we saw him resuscitate tells him that only the toughest of people can survive in this city. Frank shakes his head slowly and says, "No, the city doesn't discriminate. It gets everyone. We're all dying here." And we know that he's right.

And I had an instant sense of recognition every time the action shifted to the Emergency Room of the hellishly overcrowded hospital at night, on the rare occasions that Frank does manage to rescue someone from certain death, with the all-too-familiar (to me) characters of the harassed looking doctor, unhappy to be stuck here at night but trying to do his best without yelling himself hoarse, the nurse who knows the first names of all the "regular" patients and is as kind as she can be, the security guard who deals roughly but efficiently with drunk brawlers and high-as-a-kite junkies, the pizza guy who delivers pizza after midnight from an all-night pizza place and who points out the visible irony in calling a night shift at a hospital, a 'graveyard shift'. There's the same old medication trolley, the same ventilator beeps, the bloody gauze rolls and the same tubing and syringes. If I cud smell the movie, I'm sure I'd know that smell. Every hospital emergency room in the world is exactly the same, in all probability. I kept thinking how this could be the same place that I worked once a week, populated by pretty much the same people.

The ending is at dawn on Sunday morning when Frank falls asleep as the sun rises, after what he claims felt like months of staying awake. He feels like he's broken the endless cycle of death by finally having saved a life and now, he can get back to his job which he does so well, a job that is never, ever over.