Memories of letters lost.

I ate a bit too much. I knew it, the breakfast has breached the threshold of contentment. There is no going back. There isn’t much that I can do about it now.

This morning is quite atypical of a summer day in Trivandrum. Just a few days ago, I sat at this table, sweltering under an unkind summer ceiling fan. Whenever I look at the ceiling fan, I see a shape shifting beauty of quotidian ignorance. In winter, he could be seen silently humming above me. I would lay clothed in my bed, face up and neck deep in a book or two, as the silent ceiling fan gives out a lull, a mourn. The unassuming ceiling fan metamorphose into a buoy that keeps me tethered to this world. This was in stark contrast to the noisy summer ceiling fan that constantly reminded me of this reckless, unkind world. These fans kept rotating between my past, present and future, connecting them together.

As a kid, I was afraid of the macabre associated with books. Not any genre in particular, but them in general. From those slender books meant for me to the tomes that took up the topmost rows of my mother’s wooden cabinet. There were no rules, but the most recondite prose was intensely lusted after and raised more awe. I had the keys to those shelves and all the time in the world. I would keep on reading till I grew enervated and afraid. Enervated for the kid couldn’t afford to lie down for hours with stars growing on his back. Stars that flowered along wedges created on my back by the accidental pleats on a bed sheet. Some days, it would be the wooden settee with my flesh sliding into its cracks after a couple of hours. When it starts to hurt, I might shift myself into the golden yellow diwan beside the settee. The diwan cot boasted a salubrious short winged ceiling fan right above it. It was capable of giving out a gush of wind, which normal ceiling fans could only dream of. This would give a pass to the enervation rising out of my ceaseless reading. But not soon after, fear takes over.

I would lay on the diwan, trying to dive into the book once again. But then, I slowly realise that a bent elbow had blocked blood for long enough to make it numb. Soon paresthesia would take over the limb. This was dreaded, not just for uncomfort that it caused - but for the infectious paresthesia would take over the characters in the book too. The character, in the middle of a love sequence or a reconnaissance mission, would start moaning due to the vexatious paresthesia temporarily incapacitating her. My beloved protagonist would try to figure out this mysterious ailment in utter bewilderment. It isn’t long before she discover my face at the end of the ‘tunnel’. Our eyes would meet shortly before she curse me for my irresponsible transgression. My head would hang in shame for the incompetent way in which I have desecrated her world. This world inside 500 odd pages that has remained stagnant for many years before this reckless kid wreaked havoc there. But we both would silently acknowledge the fact that both us didn’t quite well understood the mechanics by which this tunnel operated. As we derive a moment of contentment from this one thing that was common between us, we start wondering about the mysterious tunnel that has opened up between our disparate worlds.

This tunnel, an irresistible piece of my mind’s craft, survives to this day. It is saved as a relic of my wanderings across different worlds dreamt up by different authors. As much as I admired its beauty, I dreaded the fact that I knew too little about it. What would happen if I were to lose access to it? Will I be struck in that world forever? That world of exuberant stars and oily skies which was crafted by somebody else. If that world is to lose its sheen, will I be able to repair it? After a moment’s reckoning, I will close the book and spring up to take a walk through my father’s arecanut plantation. When I come back, the character would have resumed her position in the book. The tunnel would have disappeared. As any other unassuming reader, I will continue reading. Never did I cross this threshold, not even once. I don’t know what lies beneath this abyss - an abyss that has given me a glimpse of what insanity looks like. But the fear survives. This remains a lacunae in my own understanding of myself. This should be fixed, but I dared not cross the creek. I might one day. I don’t know.

As these thoughts flashed in my mind, I made a terrible decision. It was to read “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery” by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

It was suggested by a friend. I had sent it to my Kindle and was waiting for an opportune moment to start reading. This morning seemed perfect. I can’t read anything else. But little did I know that the images that Knausgaard conjure up would have profound impact on myself.

I was away from my home where I grew up. But this little flat in the heart of Trivandrum would feature a diwan cot too. Not exactly the golden yellow splendour of my childhood, but a reddish brown rococo print that mimicked ornate tapestry. Sustained use has diminished the quality of print on cheap velvet. But it wasn’t quite a pastiche. In a well kept flat, this velvet with a predilection towards dust has assumed a special place. Like the sole creaky bench in a classroom ruled by an exacting teacher, it would remain at the centre of my attraction. Once in a while, my mind would levitate towards its irresistible promise to my aching backbone. But the vision of a dust cornucopia would drive me away from it. In days I find myself overwhelmed by nostalgia, I would succumb to that seductress metamorphosed into this diwan cot. She was no voluptuous siren, but once you have crossed the line, there’s no going back. I grabbed my Kindle and let myself spread over her. A vision of squalid bacterial colonies pushing against my back flashed over my eyes, but a sudden distraction would help me tide over it.

This distraction was the latest incarnation of love in my life. The doctor’s special. Not the renowned scotch whiskey, but this was a woman to whom I have developed a special interest lately. The fact that she is a doctor is of scant consequence. But I was going to read about neurosurgery, written by an author who describes the medical paraphernalia in great detail. This, activated strange circuits in my brain. Knausgaard was writing about an unconventional doctor. This doctor took up neurosurgery after reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford university. It reminded me of Dr. Paul Kalanidhi, another neurosurgeon who read literature before taking up neurosurgery. Dr. Kalanidhi was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer right before he was to take up active practice. He would succumb to metastatic cancer after committing himself to the gruesome, decade long routine that chisels a neurosurgeon out of a rookie doctor. In the book, he asks about Kaplan-Mier curves that points to his chances of survival. The oncologist politely refuses to oblige. Dr. Kalanidhi was left to meditate in peace without any knowledge of statistical improbability that mandated his death. It precipitated a halcyonic segment towards the end of his life. In this divine communion, he wrote “When Breath Becomes Air”. The book would make him posthumously famous. His wife would go on to publish it and it will entertain millions like me. The snob in me would occasionally bitch about the stale philosophy that religion has deposited over an otherwise beautiful mind. Yet, one feeling or rather aspiration that this book evoked in me was the desire I felt to take up medical profession. I had discarded this option once in my life. I had cleared the entrance examination and could join a medical college. I decided against it for I found engineering more ‘fascinating’. Ironic enough, I know naught about either disciplines at that time. Much like in love, most decisions in life is bound to be irrational. It is better to flow, rather than trying to exact impossible standards. The face of this woman comes back to my mind. Can I live up to the standards that she would have kept for herself? Will she let down the guard and look at me with kindness, for I am no knight in shining armour. I am just a wretched soul, trying to patch up an existence away from misery. I sometimes thought highly of myself, but for most part, my own life was an enigma. I enjoyed looking into her serene eyes as I tried explaining about the futility of abolishing private property. There was a mark on her forehead, which resembled a potteresque lighting rod. It reminded me of how different we are. She was committed to her ideals, and her smile irradiated a strange conviction unknown to me. I was a buoy that was let loose over the sea. If you look deep enough, you will find a nylon rope and a rusty anchor under which lies a chest of mummified ideals. But it didn’t define me much. The amorphousness in my character was abominable, but there isn’t much I can do about it. Her face was well delineated and her sharp features shone under the diffused sunlight in my modest flat. As I sat there looking into her eyes, I knew for once that I will never know this woman as much as I would want to. She will never know me either, for she would simply float away like everybody else. This is destiny, I comforted myself.

There is no question of me pursuing her, I told to myself. I don’t want to end up the bete noire of this gorgeous woman. The absurdity of a strange, implausible love affair was lost on me. I opened my Kindle and started to read Knausgaard. While I read about the gruesome details of craniotomy, I saw flowers between the letters. In the article, Knausgaard writes about a patient who would see flowers and floating objects due to a tumour that was pressing on her visual cortex. While reading this, I saw flowers and floating objects too. I wondered of what love does to people; it isn’t much different from the steps of neurosurgery. Anesthesia, incapacitation, delusion, bouts of mania and unsolicited visits of depression. All the while, someone working on your brain. Love and neurosurgery are very much similar. Too bad, a subset of those who suffer lose the capacity to touch and feel. For a moment, I was in love with her. For a moment, I lost interest. I didn’t know of where this train of thoughts was taking me. As I was often reminded, roller coasters need to breathe too. I decided to give it a break. When she’s reading this, she’ll know of what to feel about me. I will leave it at it.

Knausgaard goes on to describe how scalp is cut and cranium removed for surgery. I was once again thrown back to reality. This was the vision of a motorcycle accident that happened right in front of me. This happened in the night after that evening I first met her. It wasn’t long ago and I can still vividly recall the details of the fall. He lost control and his head hit an electric post. The helmet was thrown away in the impact. I curse the chances that led me to see this, I saw his body take a 150 degree turn mid air post hitting the fateful electric post. If there were no post, he would slide for a while and be left with minor scratches. But his head hit the post and he flew down, hitting facedown on the footpath. The scene was terrible, but I had a greater guilt to carry.

I was talking to my friend as his bike went past me swiftly. I made a snide remark about the unnecessary speed, especially at that time of the night. As I glanced over the man and his bike, I saw him slowly breaching the road and taking to the footpath - in full speed. The gravity of the situation didn’t strike me. I would ask my friend, the pillion rider, to look at the ‘stupid biker’. I guffawed - “look there, that dude is going to fall”. I guffawed. I guffawed as this man was driving towards that fateful post. I was in no way responsible for his accident, neither did I know that it would turn fatal, but I hate every cell of my body for having reacted like this.

The laughter would stay only for a split second, for I instantly saw what was transpiring. He hit the post, and was thrown to the footpath. The bike kept sliding, giving away brilliant sparks out of its encounter with concrete and tarmac. In the backdrop of a dark night permeated by faint glow of sodium vapour lamps, it was a display of mini-fireworks around the fallen man. This bike may suffer the hit, but can the man make through this?

I stopped my bike and found him lying face down on the footpath. My first instinct was to pick him up. But then I saw a puddle of blood slowly taking shape around his head. Like reluctant chick taking its baby steps for the first time, his blood was tasting earth. There was no damage to his posterior. It looked as if the man was sleeping face down, oblivious to what is happening around him. But the puddle of blood was growing insidiously around him. The viscous fluid flowed around to claim its own territory over the manmade concrete pavement. It dared explore the cracks in interlock bricks. It formed slender channels through it which explored slight depressions on concrete floor, as if trying to expose the imperfections in construction. Was he breathing? I couldn’t say. I knew that he isn’t dead yet. He still had an earphone plugged into is ears. What was he listening to? His favourite song, or the sound of his beloved? I froze at this thought. What would be the horror on the other side of the phone call, when his voice was cut and followed by the sound of that ominous crash? For a moment, I thought about the beloved doctor and missed her terribly. I wished she was around, for a doctor would be handy. For the man who is lying down and to me, who was clearly out of his wits standing near him. I didn’t quite love her. I wondered of why I was reminded of her. I took out my phone and dialled the ambulance.

Before the ambulance arrived, I saw him trying to breathe. The profuse bleeding has slowed down, with the scarlet liquid having colonised enough territory around him. It has been replaced by a thick, blackish fluid - possibly clotted blood. Many of the components that held this human being together is now lying on the ground, out of his body. I didn’t dare look at him once again. I involuntarily visualised the person to whom he could have been talking to. A chill passed over my spine. I desperately tried to maintain my cool, calling the ambulance control room once again. If you don’t come soon, this man will die, I barked at the operator. They tried to pacify me, I thanked and cut the call. This man should live at any cost, I told myself. Someone from the assembled crowd suggested that we take out his mobile phone and call someone. The images of a terrified woman on the other side of line flashed in front of me. She had the face of the woman I was in love with (not exactly love, but at this point, it doesn’t make much difference). I didn’t allow them. When the line fell silent, she would have assumed a weak signal and went back to her daily chores. Or was the line still active and she listening to my desperate calls for help? This made me more morose, but I surprisingly held ground. Time seemed to be frozen, and I was elated to hear the ominous siren of the ambulance from afar. When it stopped at the landmark that I gave to the operator (which was a good hundred metres away from the spot), I found my legs racing towards it. I waved my hands and screamed - and they responded. They drove faster past me, stopped and took him to an awaiting hospital.

All this happened in under ten minutes, but I was thoroughly exhausted. I was asking myself if I wasted a previous thirty seconds. I knew that I did the right thing by calling the ambulance and wait there for its arrival. I did my part for sure, but will he survive? I wanted to call a doctor and ask, but I couldn’t think of anyone. I wasn’t thinking about her either. All I was thinking about was death and death alone. And my attempt at saving someone from it. I didn’t feel like a valiant soldier battling death, but a hapless peasant fighting with his shovels against an amorphous enemy. Soon after, I stopped feeling anything at all.

I saw his face as they strapped him to the stretcher. His eyes was badly hurt and his right eyebrows completely decimated. I couldn’t look again. There was thick, black fluid on the pavement. As they came closer, he involuntarily started to breathe faster. His face was still on the ground. The sound of rapid breath gave me pangs. He might be sucking in his own blood mixed with dirt, I thought. I wished that I didn’t see this torment. I wished that I didn’t see him suffer. But I was in control of the situation. People around me trusted me when I asked them to wait. The police came and assured that my position was right. The ambulance due in two minutes was much better than other means of transport available. My inner torment was real, but my actions would have saved this man. It was all uncertain still, like all the good and bad things in my life.

As the ambulance speeded away, I was reminded of my friend. He was standing there, shocked to his hilt. As I started the scooter, it started raining. It would wash away the blood, I thought. Before driving twenty metres, I heard my friend’s suppressed weeps from behind. Pangs of horror hit me, I didn’t slow down. I kept driving.

And here I was, reading Knausgaard writing about the eclectic interests of Dr Marsh. His interest in beekeeping and cycling. Marsh once again reminded me of Dr Kalanidhi. I fancied myself going to a medical school after all this and emerging as a successful neurosurgeon. As implausible as all of this might seem, I saw my beloved doctor beside me as I went about these endeavours. What’s wrong with an audacious imagination when most of it is improbable, I asked myself, simultaneously smiling at my own inanity. She would hate my guts when I send her this write up. But come whatever may, I decided to send it to her. If she reads it, she’d know who I am. While I was at it, I did admonish myself for falling to all these fancy thoughts, for love is nothing but a hormone induced euphoria that shall pass. But there was some hope here - with enough of cold, harsh reality constantly poking around me, this isle of warmth was something I can claim. There is no danger of getting trapped in strange worlds because of my over reliance on a mysterious tunnel. If I didn’t wake up myself, she will make me do. Or may be the many people around me. I can afford to dream, at least for now - I told myself.

Then I went on to complete Knausgaard’s article. Many images flashed in front of me. Those of the man who met with accident, Dr Marsh, Knausgaard himself, and my beloved doctor kept coming back to me. I knew that all these mixed up fragments has went on to etch a different feeling in my mind. Later, when I have walked a lot of distance, possibly in directions yet unknown, I might come back to these memories. I may or may not find them. May be, it would have metamorphosed into something else. I will never know. But one thing is certain, as I sit here writing this, my back is starting to hurt and a tunnel is slowly opening to my left. A light paresthesia is taking over my left hand. And this is the precise moment when I should stop. I want to save my characters the trouble of a testing paresthesia. I do care about them, you see. I love this life dearly. I can’t afford to cross the creek, at least for now. I am bailing out. Once more.

You can read “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery” here.

Written on May 4, 2019