Literary writing is a mirror of sorts; it enables you to see yourself in its pages.
For the first 20 years of my life, I had never read a book that reflected my life as an Indian or Indian-American. Then came my middle 20 years and with it, two miraculous decades of discovering myself through the fiction of R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Sadly, with the explosion of books from and about the Indian subcontinent’s diaspora for the next two decades, I began to take Indian literature for granted.
Murali Kamma’sNot Native reminds me of the paradox of abundance; when we have too much of a good thing, we tend to diminish its value. Not Native is a marvelous reminder to appreciate the reflection in the mirror. Over the upcoming decades of my life, a life that is increasingly settled and looking in the rear-view mirror when life was more unsettled, I commit to reading more books that remind me of who I am and where I came from.
“Settled” and “unsettled” are good descriptors of the characters populating Not Native’s short stories. Grouped into four thematic clusters, these 20 stories are not always happy, but they are consistently heartwarming in how they bring to life the immigrant’s experience of leaving a settled space (India) for an unsettled one (America) and sometimes revisiting India.
Many of Kamma’s endings have a gentle hopefulness about them. To wade into Not Native’s waters is to be soothed by them in the same way a gurgling brook takes one’s troubles away. Especially in the first half of the book, one is reminded of how the legendary storyteller R. K. Narayan transported readers to his make-believe Malgudi. The gentle language slows you down, makes you forget about your worries, takes you nostalgically to a simpler time. And in Kamma’s elegant simplicity is an engaging sophistication.
There is a fine range in Not Native, which makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of readers. While I was especially fond of the first half of the book, some readers will lean toward the back two sections (“Schisms and Surprises” and “At Cross Purposes”) which are somewhat edgier and more overtly political, especially the short story “Fragments of Glass.” A couple of the stories have elements of a crime drama, with one hinting of tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York. But none of these pieces retreat from the hard-earned trust Murali Kamma has built with the reader in the opening chapters of his superb book. Surprise endings don’t end in tragedy, and endearing characters do not degenerate into mawkish sappiness.
In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Oza recently recently published Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas. He can be reached at www.satyalogue.com or at https://amazon.com/author/rajoza where he has launched his new book.
I have grown up in parts of the world that have memorable seasons: Rajasthan with its summer “Loo,” a dry, hot wind that is the very opposite of a gentle summer breeze; Bombay with its monsoon outbursts that seem to be the only phenomenon that can slow down this ever-moving metropolis; Ontario with its winter that is whiter than its very white hockey leagues; and Chicago with its variegated autumn that brings baseball fans of all colors together to bemoan yet another failed season for their “lovable losers,” the Cubs.
Thus, I have for a long time been sentimental about the charm and change of weather. Indeed, whenever I listen to the singer-songwriter James Taylor croon, “Winter, spring, summer, or fall,” I join in with a teenager’s enthusiasm, “All you have to do is call.” And Sweet Baby James responds, “and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.” A warm, comfortable smile spreads across my face, as I conveniently forget the song’s darker lyrics.
While Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is also structured across four seasons, the chapters—Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn—are all dark chords until the Epilogue sheds a softer strum at the end of a trying year for four not-quite friends. Inhabiting seasonal struggles, Sahota has etched four inter-connected protagonists: Narinder, Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi. The reader empathetically meets these memorable runaways in the dead cold of England: “The street lamps were still on, spreading their winter yellow. The chill was as sharp as needles … The National Lottery sign reverberated in the wind.” Sahota’s United Kingdom is united only in a dreamy way. Avtar, Tochi, and Randeep arrive from India with hopes of rich earnings and heroic returns to India; they’ve left modest, fractured lives behind, believing that the gardens of London are “everyone’s” egalitarian possibility, imagining “it’s like we have the city, then the gardens, then the countryside.” But the “freshies” learn soon enough that there is no jackpot, no lottery winning to save the day. Dreams confront nightmarish reality.
This is not the London of Fodor’s Travel Guides—Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and all that. This is Sheffield, Southall, and other “little Punjabs” where residents are more likely to go to a gurdwara than to Westminster Abbey. This is Rawmarsh, Pitsmoor, Crosspool, Burngreave, Killamarsh, places “that sounded so angry … like they wanted to do you harm.”
These are emotionally distant lands that some readers will need to search on the Internet, and others might search into their own internal ethical maps. These are places where undocumented day laborers are ferried about in the back of vans that serve as holding pens, places where low-paying work dries up suddenly, and migrant workers of London’s underground, who shiver together in dank, dilapidated urban abandonments during the night, find themselves competing with each other during the day like scabby mongrel puppies sucking on a dry teat.
All this and more in this inventive novel for readers who have time and energy for an intensely disturbing and morally challenging narrative. Such readers may not be unlike the well-established professor in the novel who struggles with his Indian origin and the sense of not belonging to England; this comfortable complacency inspires Avtar’s disdain: “What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.”
Newness for Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi is different: it is like a sudden winter wind on a false spring day that gives lie to Alexander Pope’s aphorism that hope springs eternal; it is a wind that demands that one face the elements or return home, vanquished. And while Narinder is not new to England, England is new to her; she has run away from a protective home and gurdwara to do good, to make amends for having failed to help a young man leave India on the back of a visa marriage; thus her marriage to Randeep is a means of expiating guilt. Her story is the most psychologically transformative of the bunch. Slowly, “imperceptibly, in the way that the night gives way to dawn,” Narinder evolves from a cloistered saintly life to one where she chooses her very human path while staying true to her essence, her goodness, her friendship with those in need.
Sahota opens his book with a seemingly domestic scene. A newly married man (Randeep) welcomes his bride (Narinder) to their cozy flat in the Brightside section of Sheffield. A handful of pages in, and it is clear that all is not sunny and warm in Brightside. Randeep shuffles off to a grimy hell-hole he shares with other men in similar dire straits; but he’s a lucky one because he and British-Indian Narinder have their visa marriage: quick ceremony in Punjab, one year of pretending with fake photos of domestic bliss for the government investigators, a divorce of convenience, and Randeep will have legal rights to a British life. The others are so-called illegals or on the edge. Avtar has arrived on a student visa, but it is a precarious lifeline because technically he cannot work in England, and he must give the visa fixer more money than he earns on London’s mean streets, otherwise he jeopardizes his family’s life back in Punjab; there is no time for the dream of an education that enables a solid job; indeed Avtar’s first year report card is a “column of Fs,” matching the furious string of F-bombs he and his compatriots regularly hurl to stave off the grueling work, the growing bitterness. Tochi’s low caste follows him from Bihar to Punjab to England; even if he had legal papers, his birth status would have rendered the passport into a fail-port: doors that open ever so slightly are slammed shut in his face when Indians ask him about his last name—Kumar—an indicator that he is a chamar, an untouchable, thought to be polluted by the leather-making occupation of his forebears.
The tour de force plot of this Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel begins with all four strivers at the center, as if they’ve taken different routes to arrive at some downtrodden Trafalgar Square. While London remains the hub, Sahota moves the narrative’s many threads back to his runaways’ origin stories. The technique of beginning with convergence and then pulling back to the divergent back-stories makes for a compelling, and at times harrowing, mystery.
The reader is drawn in close to Narinder, Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi, sympathetic to their plight, rooting for them to survive; on edge, I found myself contemplating the socio-economic systems—caste, creed, and capitalism—that envelop these flawed heroes. A few pointed questions kept rattling my cage: Would their lives remain wedded to these systems that churn like inexorable wheels? Is The Year of the Runaways a fictionalized version of Leviathan, with its semi-lovable characters populating Thomas Hobbes’ classic treatise, which postulated that absent strong governance, man lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death … and the life of man [would be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” Or is there foreshadowing at work early in the novel when Tochi gazes incoherently at a map of the subcontinent and considers Kanyakumari?
“The place of ends and oceans. It seemed amazing to him that there could be an end to India, one you could point to and identify and work towards. That things needn’t go on as they are forever.”
For Dhanu and Diddhu, and their belief in social justice, their trust in new beginnings, their faith in deep abiding friendships across all seasons.
In the epilogue to Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh cleverly makes mention of some 50 sources which have informed his novel. I imagine that few, if any, of these were likely to have been read on an e-book. And I imagine that the novelist and his novel are richer for it. By being in tactile, perhaps even sensual, contact with the scholarship that drives the facts of his own writing, Ghosh has given life where before there was none.
However, the same cannot be said for me in my much more distant “eRelationship” with Flood of Fire. Due to the size of this novel, and resulting from a last-minute need for reading material on an overseas flight, this was the first time I read a book on a Kindle. First, and hopefully last, for this was one of the worst reading experience of my life.
As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message. Thus my experience of reading Flood of Fire was certainly influenced by the Kindle. So let’s get my antipathy for Jeff Bezos’ vehicle for bookstore hegemony out of the way before I consider the merits of Amitav Ghosh’s book. As with my review of books, my review of e-books will attempt to be fair and balanced:
When I was a penniless college student, I would scrounge used bookstores for novels, scholarly works of nonfiction, and even textbooks. I recall one particularly memorable Sunday spent in Powell’s Bookstore in Hyde Park, walking distance from the University of Chicago. I roamed through the extensive collection of works on South Asia. Literally, day became night as I made the stacks my home, discovering the ideas of so many fine scholars who had dedicated their lives to the study of India. As warm sunlight gave way to a snowy night, I came across a book edited by Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn. I had long wanted to be an anthropologist like Professors Cohn and Singer, living in Indian villages and cities, writing books like Structure and Change in Indian Society.
Although this hardback was used, it was in pristine condition, and priced at a princely sum of $9; all I had was a crumpled $10 for the groceries that I still needed to purchase for the week ahead. I debated whether to come back some other day when I had more money or to buy the book. I took the middle road and read much of the book right there in a cozy corner of Powell’s where no one would take notice of me. Several hours later, I knew that I had to make Singer and Cohn’s Indian society my own. With the remaining buck, I bought enough bread and milk to last me for a week.
The Internet had not yet been developed on that wintry Sunday; and, of course, that meant that there were no e-books for impulse buying. I had to think long and hard about whether I would invest in a book, and that investment was about time given and choices made, and thus the value of the book was already greater than its purchase price.
But enough of Bezos’ bookstore; let us return to Ghosh’s goods.
Flood of Fire is the third in a series of novels, “the Ibis trilogy.” I read the first two siblings as all fine works are meant to be read: on paper. And like Structure and Change in Indian Society, they too have a place of pride on my bookshelf, albeit in the fiction section. But next to those two novels, Flood of Fire will always be some kind of “buried child,” present but lacking substantial form (apologies to Sam Shepard for appropriating the title of his elegiac play, but sadly there will forever be an empty space beside Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke).
Sea of Poppies, the first born, was nothing short of brilliant. It’s as if the highly accomplished Ghosh (who is not only a novelist but also an Oxford-trained anthropologist) was writing for the first time. The language of colonial India was inventive, the descriptions vivid, the ideas fresh, and the characters unforgettable. I was so moved by the novel, that I can recall shedding tears when Ghosh pulled me in close to the people he had brought alive on paper, only to gently require that I let a loved one escape and make me wait some three years before the next novel’s birth.
While River of Smoke had all the earnestness of a middle child trying to live up to his elder brother, it had to leave home to find its footing. This novel sparkled in its inventive ability to see all sides of the Opium War waged in China and see that globalization was alive and well long before Tom Friedman claimed that the “world is flat.” Ghosh enabled the reader to be sympathetic to Chinese mandarins, while understanding that the British had an empire to expand; this particular reader found particular pleasure in experiencing what it must have been like for Indians finding their way on distant shores. Perhaps that’s what those in the middle do—see multiple perspectives.
But Flood of Fire, the last born, although wonderful in weaving together loosely linked lives, is not nearly as inventive or earnest as its sibling novels. It’s as if Ghosh is fulfilling a parental duty, husbanding this novel to complete the Ibis trilogy; while parenthood can be a marvelous experience of giving life and shaping life, here it feels as if the father of three is spent and is going through the motions to meet a commitment (perhaps made only to himself, or perhaps made explicitly to publishers and tacitly to readers). To be sure there is completeness; by the end of the 616 pages, readers come back to some of the characters we cared about from the very first installment. But for this reader, it’s as if I was doing my wifely duty, helping to jointly raise this last child by reading every page.
I am grateful to Ghosh for having written Flood of Fire. Somehow my reading life would have been incomplete without this novel. But I don’t feel transformed by it. And oddly, though all of it is in a foreign place and time, I don’t feel transported by it. Quite likely it is altogether my fault. Unlike most every other book which I have reviewed, this one has no marginalia of mine: I did not scribble notes in the white space on the top, bottom, and sides of each page; I did not draft ideas on the blank sheets in the front or back; simply put, I did not engage as I have always done. I sped through pages, making trivial comments enabled by an odd little note-taking feature of the Kindle. I felt that I was in more of a conversation with Bezos than with Ghosh.
And thus I end a dissatisfying read with an equally unsatisfactory review. I must apologize to the novelist and to potential readers of the novel, for I have been neither fair nor balanced in this so-called review of Flood of Fire. But I have been honest in conveying that the medium does inform the message.
For Nirmal, Savita, and Kamlesh (RCO’s brothers and sister); and for all siblings who attempt a fair balancing act of being first born, middle born, and last born
Yes, the title of this review says it all: Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is about people finding their way away from God, courtesy of a War of the Worlds between dark and light jinns (genies) with magical powers; since this is another fiction from Rushdie’s brilliant world of magical realism, his ordinary humans play a pedestrian role of characters lost in an age of fear and unreason.
And, yes, for those who count while they read, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights add up to 1,001 days and nights. As with his more modern literary allusion to Harry Potter’s heroic journey, there is nothing subtle about the author’s homage to Scheherazade’s tales.
Right up front, Rushdie writes, “There was a Persian book called Hazar Afsaneh, or One Thousand Stories, which had been translated into Arabic. In the Arabic version there were fewer than one thousand stories but the action was spread over one thousand nights, or, because round numbers were ugly, one thousand and one night more.” Because of this reader’s love of numbers, the palindromic 1001 becomes a philosophic set of questions: Do we end where we started, with nothingness in between, with life being a gift that our Gods give and take, standing tall like two 1’s? Or is there no god, and round and round we go like a couple of zeros from pillar to post, from womb to tomb, from ashes to ashes? Or can faith accommodate the god-less and the god-believing, enabling each of us to make what we will of the 1s and 0s that make up our digital and analog lives?
The story-teller asks and answers the above questions in his own wildly inventive and wacky way, but the stories are a bit clumsy and seem hastily stitched together.
His opening chapter is titled The Children of Ibn Rushd, reminding one of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; but the chapter, like the book, is less about the semi-autobiographic Rushd (a philosopher “formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas, which were unacceptable to the … Berber fanatics”) and more about the love of his life, Dunia (“a jinnia … known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt”), and about Rushd and Dunia’s melting-pot children who, under Dunia’s leadership, will fight the War of the Worlds that populates the remaining chapters. The war is also a battle of words, of ideas, a reconciliation of “‘reason,’ ‘logic’ and ‘science’ with the words ‘God,’ ‘faith’ and ‘Qur’an.’” Rushd is on the side of reason, logic, and science; and his arch foe, Ghazali, believes that in “God’s universe the only law is what God wills.”
The thematic engine that drives the rest of the novel is Ghazali’s belief that “fear drives men to God” and Rushd’s “plea for a world ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge and restraint.” Dunia and four dark jinns play out this conflict. The actual war between the jinn leaders is not altogether interesting; and the stories about the foot soldiers who are Rushd and Dunia’s descendants are only slightly more interesting in this lumpy novel. Foot soldiers may be a bit of an odd phrase for these oddballs, for after lightning storm, they all seem to float above the ground; like the “human balloons” in Rene Magritte’s painting Golconda, “They rise! They rise!” Rushdie calls these oddballs “Dunia’s raggle-taggle brigade [of] gardeners and accountants and murderesses.” They really should have no chance against the dark jinns. And because they are not altogether sympathetic, they shouldn’t have much of a chance with the reader. But for this reader, they become a faint echo of J. K. Rowling’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione. So in the end we find ourselves rooting for the good guys, for light to defeat darkness, good over evil, and all that.
Mr. Geronimo is the gardener, our Harry Potter. The accountant (Jimmy Kapoor as a Natraj-dancing- Ron) and the murderess (Teresa Saca as a scary Hermione) are along for the ride. Mr. Geronimo is the most compelling; perhaps because Dunia falls for him, the reader looks for something special. And the something special, is what has always been special about Rushdie’s writing: the sense of loss and displacement of the emigrant and the desire for “solid ground beneath his feet” for the immigrant. Perhaps like Rushdie himself, and certainly like many of the diaspora, Mr. Geronimo misses his Bombay while making his home in New York: “He wished he had never been detached from the place he was born, wished his feet had remained planted on that beloved ground, wished he could have been happy all his life in those childhood streets, and grown into an old man there… but then he would never have met his wife.”
One really wonders what Dunia sees in Mr. Geronimo except for a vague outline of the long-deceased Ibn Rushd; and what does Mr. Geronimo see in Dunia accept a wistful memory of his wife? Perhaps Rushdie is right that “at the beginning of all love there is a private treaty each of the lovers makes with himself or herself, an agreement to set aside what is wrong with the other for the sake of what is right.”
The same type of contract is made between reader and writer. Thus though I find quite a few “wrongs” in this novel, I set them aside for the “rights.” These rights come more in the form of hard-earned knowledge rather than narrative flight, character development, or the magnificent plot development that are the entertaining engine driving each page of Rowling’s novels. Indeed, what I will take away from Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights are not 1,001 unforgettable stories, but rather two memorable epiphanies that Rushdie uses to make his argument against religion and for love: “A child understands nothing, and clings to faith because it lacks knowledge. The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age. It is not that God does not exist but that like any proud parent he awaits the day when his child can stand on its own two feet, make its own way in the world, and be free of its dependence on him.
“In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”
For Neo (aka Aryaman), who at the age of nine can approximate the number of pages of all Harry Potter books, give or take a baker’s dozen (with three right to the exact page count).
Time. We all have 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year (366 if a leap year). We all have a finite number of years in a life (though depending on one’s belief in reincarnation, we may have multiple lives). But how we spend those hours, days, and years varies by person, and often for the same person at different stages of his/her life.
Regardless of how much or little time you have left in your day, your life, please find a few hours to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. And if you have only a few minutes, kindly read this review of a vital book. And if all you can spare are a precious few seconds, I request that you skim through the quotes below transformed by line breaks into poems.
Kalanithi’s slender memoir on living and dying was written in the final months of the author’s brief, but fully-lived, time. As his wife, Lucy, writes in the book’s epilogue, “During the last year of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by a ticking clock.”
~~~ Relentlessly. Fueled by purpose, A ticking clock.
If it seems odd to begin a review with a poetized quote from the book’s epilogue, please know that the intent here is a frame-break, to invert your sense of time as linear, to urge a sense of urgency, to have you believing that “I must read this important book. And I must read it now!”
But if you are more invested in the author’s words than those of his widowed spouse, first read the last paragraph that Kalanithi wrote and reverse the illusion of forward time.
As Abraham Verghese encourages in the book’s foreword, “read it aloud.” Read the paragraph in a church, a temple, a park. Read it to someone you love in a kitchen, a study, a bed. The paragraph is meant to be read aloud, each syllable to be given life with each breath. Though the author is no more, When Breath Becomes Air assures him an immortality through readers who care enough to make time to connect with the life of a writer-physician-patient-scientist, a father-son-husband-friend, who sought to make sense of death through his own life.
Perhaps this book is not meant to only be read; perhaps it is meant to also be lived, like life itself—a precious gift. In considering this gift, Verghese, who like Kalanithi is a writer-physician, became aware not only of the author’s mortality, but also his own. Perhaps Verghese was looking in the mirror when he wrote about Kalanithi’s dream of writing a book: “One day. He thought he had time, and why not? And yet now time was the very thing he had so little of.”
~~~ One day. He had time, So little of.
Squeezed between the foreword and the epilogue is Kalanithi’s life: Prologue, Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death.
With the prologue, it is all there at entry. One is about to read a literary memoir of a dying man—a young, observant, and caring neurosurgeon whose mortality is self-evident. There is no mystery as to how this book will end; indeed it is right there in the opening paragraph: “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious … Cancer, widely disseminated … I’d examined scores of such scans … But this scan was different: it was my own.” The power in reading Kalanithi’s narrative is to appreciatively learn about the life that he has lived and empathetically understand how he will live out his days.
What Makes Life Meaningful?
This reader did indeed appreciate learning about the immigrant’s life in Arizona that Kalanithi and his family experienced after being twice displaced—first from India and subsequently from New York. Young Paul had a childhood of books in the desert; he was a precocious reader for whom “books became [his] closest confidantes, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.” As a Stanford undergraduate, having earnestly questioned “what makes life meaningful,” Kalanathi was at a fork in the road: pursue literature for the “best account of the life of the mind” or study neuroscience to understand the “rules of the brain.”
Under the tutelage of the philosopher Richard Rorty, Kalanithi came to recognize that a multidisciplinary approach suited him best, and yet the intersection of biology, morality, literature, and philosophy still left him pondering the meaning of it all. It was during his time at Yale Medical School—time with donor-cadavers that taught much more than anatomy and living-patients who taught much more than diagnosis—that Kalanithi would better understand that it was in “human relationality” that he could understand the meaning of life and death. And practicing medicine would be his path to further build human relationships. Because Kalanithi elected to specialize in neurosurgery, he found himself researching the brain, “the crucible of identity,” recognizing that the “question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”
While the desert, college, and medical studies are either mildly entertaining or intellectually fascinating, it is the foreshadowing of Paul’s deeply personal response to the question “What kind of life is worth living?” that captivates and inspires the reader. There is the simile of the two premature purple babies: “like tiny birds fallen too soon from a nest.” And there is Kalanithi invoking Samuel Beckett’s metaphor: “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
The Doctor and Patient
Kalanithi ends Part I of his book with what appears to be guidance to young physicians: “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” But these words can be—should be—guideposts to all who strive for meaningful lives.
~~~ Perfection: An asymptote Ceaselessly striving.
“Ceaselessly striving” captures perfectly how Kalanithi lived his life, how the author wrote this book. Indeed, Part II of the book is titled “Cease Not till Death.” At the tipping point of his residency, when he began to reap all that he had sowed, the 36-year-old neurosurgeon-scientist was confronted by the sense that with cancer, all that he had been building toward would now become unrealized potential. The doctor had also become a patient.
And as he had counseled so many of his own patients, Dr. Kalanithi “had to face [his] mortality and try to understand what made [his] life worth living.”
He was blessed to have a supportive family and to have an oncologist, Emma Hayward, who would guide him through this last stage of ceaseless striving to rebuild his old life or find a new one. Hearing Emma’s facilitator’s voice (“You have to figure out what’s most important to you.”), Kalanithi as a patient internalized what he had long known as a doctor: “the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
When Emma helpfully tells Kalanithi that he has to figure out what’s important to him, he responds, “If I had some sense of how much time I have left, it’d be easier. If I had two years, I’d write. If I had ten, I’d get back to surgery and science.” Reclaiming ambitions without the “surety of time” is at first overwhelming. Indeed, this reader himself had so internalized the author’s dilemma that he was overwhelmed by a twinned paradox of frantic action and paralyzing uncertainty; and this reader was inspired by how Kalanithi “felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering” and “would carry on living, instead of dying.”
The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote that “when one is inspired, time disappears or alters its pace.” He defined inspiration as coming “from the Latin inspirare, meaning ‘to breath into’.” Brooks continued, “the one who is inspired performs his own feats and inspires others.” To be sure, When Breath Becomes Air has already inspired and will continue to inspire countless medical professionals, chronically ill patients, and lay readers who have only a glancing relationship with healthcare. The audience for this important book is vast, for it is anyone invested in living a full and meaningful life. So, yes, dear reader, this memoir is written for you.
But as his time disappeared during his months of inspired writing, I imagine that if Paul Kalanithi could have had only one reader, he would have aspired to breathe his wise words into his infant daughter, Cady: “I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not.”
In her moving epilogue, Lucy Kalanithi tells the reader that her husband died on March 9, 2015, surrounded by family, cradling Cady, “his face serene, hers quizzical but calm, his beloved baby never suspecting that this moment was a farewell.” Echoing Atul Gawande’s influential book Being Mortal, the epilogue is a compassionate primer on the medical fact of death. Just as Gawande asked the reader to consider how to approach the final stage of life, the Kalanithi family was confronted with whether to resuscitate Paul if the only intervention remaining was a ventilator. Lucy expressed to the rest of the family and to the medical professionals that “if [Paul] doesn’t have a chance of meaningful time, he wants to take the mask off and hold Cady.” When Paul said, “I’m ready,” the reader understands that by “ready, he meant, to remove the breathing support, to start morphine, to die.”
When Breath Becomes Air Remove Breathing support Start morphine Die.
Take The mask off And hold Cady.
For Karishma (RCO’s niece who, with her MPH, first recommended this book to him), for Avinash and Amisha (the Oza Family’s aspiring MDs), and for the real and metaphoric book(s) we all aspire to write, to give life.
On November 13, 2015, violence was visited upon Paris; and leaders, again, vowed to end the endless horror of war.
Some three decades earlier, as an informal part of our marriage vows, Mangla and I pledged a lifetime of love; and we mapped France, Italy, and England as blissfully romantic distant lands we would visit someday. But first, we immigrants to the United States needed to learn how to earn our keep and put food on the proverbial table for the children we dreamed of.
Neither Mangla nor I explicitly mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (MHoN), but, like the good migrants we aspired to be, we embraced the 19th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s model of human motivation and dreamed of ascending life’s ladder.
To a large extent, our first twenty-five years of family travel reflected this aspirational climbing up Maslow’s pyramid. Every other year, we would return to India so that Anu and Siddhu (our children) would be tacitly socialized in the ways of our ancestors by staying connected to family in our ancestral land; during the alternate yearly summer vacations, we stayed in our adopted land, with the children tucked away in the back seat of rented cars that would help take them across America, the land of their birth.
Now it was time for Europe.
Reflecting back on my visit, I think of the constrained village life of my grandparents, and consider what President Obama had expressed during a visit to a prison: “There but for the grace of God go I.” While dusty Rajasthani villages are by no means a prison, if I had remained within their desert walls, I don’t believe I could have developed an expansive world-view: the meditative quality of travel that encourages one to challenge long-held beliefs.
Our six days in London whizzed by seeing iconic places and meeting famous faces.
Iconic places included: Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abbey, Big Ben, House of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery, St. Paul’s Cathedral, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tower of London, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Punjab Restaurant, and others either forgotten or perhaps somewhat forgettable.
Famous faces included: Queen Elizabeth II at a distance on her “Trooping of the Colours” belated birthday celebration; “Changing of the Royal Guards” in front of Buckingham Palace, but more interestingly up close at their training quarters; faux Beatles in a musical tribute to George, Paul, John, and Ringo at London’s Garrick Theatre; the real Michelle Obama with mother and daughters in tow, but only seen in newspapers that celebrated their visit and reflected in traffic jams that stopped our bus; a seemingly alive statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi in front of the House of Parliament peacefully confronting a stony Winston Churchill (who once disparaged the Mahatma as a “half-naked fakir” in a loincloth); one ferocious “Tipoo’s Tiger” music box, muted but forever memorialized at the Victoria and Albert Museum slaying a red-coated Englishman; and some 30 angelic-sounding choir boys praising the Lord in song during Westminister Abbey’s Evensong, for which the three of us were democratically and randomly given front-row pews where perhaps the Queen herself might have sat during the many Royal Weddings conducted during her 63-year reign.
Serendipity gave us one of the unexpected highlights of our trip: a viewing of Magna Carta on June 15, 2015, exactly 800 years to the day that this magnificent charter of governance was issued.
From America’s early days, when Edmund Burke proclaimed that colonial settlers should “Sit down … to the feast of Magna Carta” to modern-day lawyers defending the rights of men wrongfully imprisoned at Guantanamo, Americans have rallied around Magna Carta as a touchstone. And in the centuries in between, others like Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have referenced Magna Carta’s 4,000 words to make the claim that rights extend to all men and women, not just people of a skin shade lighter than brown.
Over the next two weeks of our vacation, I would often come across men and women-migrants like my family, and at the same time very unlike us. Existing at our taken-for-granted base of MHoN, these weary souls seemed to have no charter with the modern world; having left their traditional lands, these fellow travelers apparently have no Magna Carta type of document protecting their rights. Their pacts with the past were broken. Their bargain with the present was seemingly Faustian. And with Europe’s precarious position on the world economic stage, their futures were fragile.
As we stepped out of the Colosseo metro station, we immediately had in front of us two awe-inspiring sights: the nearly 2,000-years-old Colosseum, with the setting sun giving its ancient stonework a golden glow; and Gabriella Cini (a.k.a Gabri), the youthful grandmother who savvily used Airbnb to host her lovely apartment to visitors like us. Despite the Colosseum living up to expectations, it was truly Gabri who exceeded expectations.
Rome, Gabri’s Rome, became our home for six days. Our initial meeting with Gabri at the Metro prophesied a memorable intimacy; it was actually an Italian embrace, complete with hugs and affectionate pecks on sun-kissed cheeks).
As we walked into the fresh-as-an-Italian-daisy apartment, we appreciated the milk, cheese, and chocolates in the refrigerator, and the pasta, olive oil, and spices on the shelves: so much of a delightful surprise; so much what members of a community do for each other. Gabri’s helpfulness and mindfulness reminded me of neighbors borrowing a cup of sugar in South Asian homes.
One of the capabilities that Mangla looked for when searching Airbnb accommodations was the availability of Internet access-a Maslovian must-have.
Poor Gabri was crestfallen when her modem balked in its transformation from a modern-day convenience to an Airbnb everyday necessity. Although we didn’t make a big fuss, Gabri immediately raced down the six floors of the building, requested that the Volare Restaurant located on the ground floor make available its Internet password to us, and climbed back up the stairs to not only convey “mission accomplished” but also to say that that she would call Vodafone to have the issue resolved. Imagine our surprise the next day when Gabri had provided our various electronic devices, with their appetites for global connectivity, a mobile hotspot that we used all over Rome, except for Bibliothè.
Bibliothè is a charming Indian restaurant-cum-bookstore-cum-salon located a healthy walk from the Colosseum, with the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Museums (considered by some to be the first museum in the world) virtually next door. Like the Capitoline Museums, Bibliothè is a treasure that has much packed into it.
While the museums have at their center an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Bibliothè has Enzo Barchi, the erudite owner who has stocked the kitchen with what he calls Ayurvedic ingredients, stocked his bookshelves with what I call literary India, and decorated his salon and restaurant with what a museum would call a fusion of India and Italian art. The real treat for us at Bibliothè (and the reason we didn’t have the heart to open a smartphone) was Rajiv Roy.
Like a museum curator, Rajiv, who manages the restaurant, understands that with his own artistic sensibility, he can bring to guests all that Enzo and the staff create. Rajiv is an aspiring film student from Bengal who was inspired to be a director by the master, Satyajit Ray, and is studying in the land of Vittorio de Sica, whose own inner eye had produced Bicycle Thieves, a masterful film of gritty Rome that had influenced Ray’s own Bengali neo-realism.
The beauty of this Italian capital is its living people: Gabri, Enzo, Rajiv, and so many others. Some were strangers who guided us to the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin; this minor church is where the “Mouth of Truth” marble sculpture welcomes fans of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s magical scene in Roman Holiday (or is the sculpture actually a huge manhole cover that swallows hands?). Another stranger was Sergio, a street artist who produced a memorable portrait in charcoal of Anu at the top of the Spanish Steps. And two of the others included Manuele and Hiat, the two warm-hearts who ran the Volare Restaurant some fifty steps below Gabri’s apartment.
Manuele and Hiat were so friendly and accommodating of our vegetarian and gluten-free diets that we enjoyed several meals at their restaurant. And we returned every evening after exploring Rome and looked forward to greeting Hiat and Manuele with a smiling (if somewhat travel-weary) “Buonasera.”
Even Rome, with all its charm and hospitality, had us going up and down MHoN as if we were going up and down the Spanish Steps. The government employees were consistently inhospitable at best and downright rude on lesser days. And, unfortunately we even had to climb down a few very short steps of the Maslow pyramid with self-actualized Gabri.
Midway through our stay, the hot-water geyser in our apartment stopped smiling. We were prepared to “suffer” cold showers, but when Gabri sent a WhatsApp text to Mangla (“Hello. How is Rome? All okay?”), Mangla responded, “Buongiorno. Bien. Also, the water heater is not working.”
Gabri came over that evening with her sister Paula, whose English is more fluent than Gabri’s. Together we tried to fix the recalcitrant tank of cold H2O, but to no resolution.
Gabri was not one to give up. She called four “Speedy Repairmen,” but this being relaxed Rome on a lazy Saturday, speed meant Monday or later. Gabri was besides herself. Though we insisted it was no problem, her face clouded with concern and, two hours later, she texted to say that she was returning with Alessandro, a handyman friend. Though Alessandro only repeated what Gabri and I had previously done, he proved to be the “geyser whisperer,” and hot water flowed through our 100-year-old apartment’s modern aqueduct system.
On the evening before our departure from Rome, Gabri dropped by to say “Hello.” She handed us an envelope and requested that we not open it until she had left. There were nine pieces of paper: two 50 Euro bills, four 20 bills, two 10 bills, and a clean sheet of white paper with a note in English. Our Euro compensation for one day of life without hot water was far too generous. And Gabri’s sentimental farewell note to her new-found friends was priceless:
“Dear friends, your courtesy and patience to the problems that occurred during the stay in my house, it was outstanding. I apologize again and I hope to fix with this money to your hardships.
I you leave reluctantly because your presence was one of the most welcomed. I wish you bon voyage.
Presented on white printer paper, these words made that simple sheet of stationary come alive. Il Papiro’s (a lovely vellum shop in Rome) luxurious hand-decorated paper was no competition to Gabri’s heart-decorated pedestrian papyrus. Gabriella’s words (idiosyncratic typos, Italian grammar, grandmotherly hugs, and all) reflect an amazing grace.
Confronting America, Considering France
After our time in Rome, we made our way to Paris, taking the highly integrated Eurail system along the Mediterranean Sea visiting Pisa, Ventimiglia, Nice, and Marseille along the way.
While we were in France, back in our not-so-united United States, President Obama led a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.” His eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston reached the soul of an American summer that uneasily confronted its racist winter. Leading up to the President’s speech in the heart of America’s south were a series of southern and northern killings of innocent black men, women, and children. Some of these deaths came at the hands of criminals; some came at the hands of police officers, hands entrusted to keep our bodies safe.
Upon returning to California, I felt as if I had returned to the racial politics of my 1960s American childhood: Governor Nikki Haley oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s State House; my high-school literary hero, the legendary Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird, was re-presented by Harper Lee, the novelist who gave him birth as an avuncular attorney who saw justice as color-blind, and gave him re-birth as an agitated apartheidist who saw integration as a threat; and the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates enriched the African-American conversation with Between the World and Me, a searing indictment of the nightmarish American fairytale of equality translated to his son as a tale of fear.
Across the Atlantic, I felt safely cocooned in those super fast European trains, riding a railway system that purports to unify rather than divide. But in France, I was to soon learn that the post-racial French dream had at least three strikes against it; in the République française, despite its aspirational motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité, to be perceived as dark and/or Muslim could mean to be outside the protective blanket of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Strike One: On the Train to Nice
The night train from the small Italian town of Ventimiglia to the French resort of Nice had the feel of a commuter train. There were several stops, and people got on, people got off. All along, the Mediterranean Sea gleamed.
Suddenly, the train stopped and stayed stopped. Small groups of men in black climbed aboard each coach. Their black gloves suggested that they were on official business. Intending no malice to us American-passport-holders, these men had a firm look of menace to anyone whose papers were to be handled by those gloved hands.
Since we had crossed into France, when one of these border patrols walked past us, Siddhu and I said, “Bonjour” in nervous unison. Without a smile, without looking at us, he responded with a “Bonjour” that suggested that he had other business.
We saw this officer and his colleagues interrogate several other passengers, all men, all ranging in color a shade of brown darker than Siddhu and me. Only one of those undocumented migrants was allowed to remain on the train. Apparently, these men, and others like them from North Africa, float to Italy on flimsy rafts, and then attempt to float across the European Union’s relatively open borders into France. Some lose their lives on sinking vessels somewhere between Libya and Italy, resulting in a papal plea: “Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” Others make it to the Italian gateway, as a result of the Italian government’s generosity or laxity (depending on one’s point of view). And a lucky few make it to Northern European countries that aid asylum-seekers or at least enable them to sell selfie sticks at street corners.
Though we made it to Nice without being asked for our passports, somehow the racial profiling shook us up a bit with that Obaman sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Paradoxically, and I write this with no small sense of shame or privilege, I felt safer knowing that there were anonymous black gloves controlling the borders. Perhaps Donald Trump and demagogues across the world trade on this type of fear-mongering; they know that if you incite those emotions lurking at the base of MHoN, fear buys votes.
Strike Two: Eating Down and Back Up the Hierarchy of Crêperies
We got into Nice late in the evening, and Siddhu discovered that a well-regarded crêperie was within walking distance and open until 11:00 p.m. We walked in, and I proceeded to practice my rusty French. Immediately, the maître d’ (or maybe he was the owner or perhaps just a tired waiter) said, “We are closed.” It was 10:10 p.m. so we were a bit taken aback. Siddhu said, “Your website says, ‘11:00.’” The maître d’ said, “Sorry. It is wrong. We are closed.” Mangla said, “Your sign on the door says, ‘11:00.’” The maître d’ said, “We are closed.”
I looked around the restaurant and noted that there was a couple waiting for their meal, which the chef/cook was making in the open kitchen near the dining area. The place seemed friendly enough, and the maître d’ was not hostile. So I bantered a bit and suggested that we would be fine with take-out. “We are closed.” I tensed up. After a long day’s night traveling from Florence to Pisa to Genova to Ventimiglia to Nice, we needed to make sure that Siddhu’s ulcerative colitis didn’t flare up.
I was angry, but helpless, so I changed tack: “My son has an illness. He must eat or he will suffer. Please.”
Maître d’: “We are closed.”
“You don’t need to feed my wife or me. Just one small vegetarian crêpe please.”
Mangla, feeling shamed by the interaction walked outside with Siddhu.
The other diners had distressed looks on their faces. I can only imagine how their appetites were responding to the sight of a middle-aged man begging for food for his son.
The maître d’ was unmoved: “We are closed.”
Defeated, I shuffled out the door, wanting to go back to the crêperie and smash a window or at the very least write a scathing note on TripAdvisor.
We started our next day in Nice with a walk to the Old Quarters, which Queen Victoria enabled many years ago when the English royals came to Southern France to escape England’s miserable winters. After the four of us enjoyed a dip in the sea, we headed over to an open market where, just like in California’s farmers’ markets, the food looked fresh, and we gladly paid extra for the aesthetic pleasure. We also had some exceptionally overpriced candy (Okay. Okay. Chocolat.) at a chocolatier founded in 1820. But the culinary highlight of the entire trip was at Crêperie le Trimaran. Not only was the food delicious, but the service was deliciously funny.
Clement Sanchez is the client-facing part of the operation and his less visible wife is the genius in the kitchen. When Anu inquired about gluten-free items on the menu, Clement pointed to his slender frame with a mischievous smile and said, “Sans gluten? Moi aussi. And look at the results!” Like Anu, he also kept gluten out of his diet, and like a mime, he glided back and forth from the kitchen to the diners’ tables. But once he got to the table, the fun would really start. Seeing that I enjoyed my gluten and chocolate, I was tabbed as “Max Gluten.” The humor enhanced the meal, but the singing truly capped it off. When Clement asked us about our country of origin, Mangla, Anu, and Siddhu said, “America.” After I chimed in with an amplifying, “California,” I explained that Mangla and I were originally from India and the kids were born in the United States. Suddenly, Clement burst into a robust rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” I joined in, and Anu captured the border-busting fun on her smartphone. So much for French chauvinism or American parochialism. We were just two happy fools enjoying each other’s company on a lovely summer day.
Strike Three: Muslim Marginalization in Marseille and Peak Performance in Paris
On our way from Nice to Paris, we opted for a one-day halt in Marseille. At our hotel, we met a mother and son who came down to the lobby with us in the elevator, and, like us, were visitors hungry for a place to eat during their first night in Marseille. So we asked the manager about a place where we could get a bite to eat on a balmy, Mediterranean Friday evening. He enthusiastically suggested La Major, “a huge restaurant that always has open tables without need for reservations.”
At the restaurant, doing my best recollection of high-school French, I expressed appreciation as our beaming hostess led us to our table in the outdoor seating area. Suddenly, a pit bull of a manager in black suit and tie blocked our way. He gruffly asked, actually demanded, if we had reservations. I said, “Non, mais pourquoi?” No, but why did we need a reservation if the hostess was already taking us to the table in a largely unoccupied restaurant.
The manager simply said, “Reservation is required.”
Siddhu firmly inquired, “Until what time are tables reserved? When is the next open spot?”
The manager menacingly smiled,
“We are full all night.” The hostess kept her head down, averting shame-exposing eye contact the whole time. It didn’t feel right, but on the surface there was not much that we could do. No reservation. No openings. No dinner at this swanky nightspot.
As we headed away from La Major, we saw the mother and son from our hotel being escorted to a table. They had told us in the hotel lobby that they might meet us at La Major but were first going to explore the area before the French night became too dark.
Seeing these two fair-skinned visitors seated left the four of us darker-skinned visitors with a collection of emotions: sadness, exasperation, rage, and confusion.
How could these two be seated, but a few minutes earlier we were refused service? Siddhu and I went back to the manager and asked about the two guests who had just been admitted to the restaurant. He blankly lied, “They have reservations.”
I shouted, “No they do not! They are from our hotel, and I know they don’t have reservations. If you’d like, let’s go ask them directly.”
As the caught-in-a-lie manager shrugged his shoulders upwards and pursed his lips downward, Siddhu waved his hands across a sea of tables with empty chairs, “So why do you have space for them but not for us?”
The pit bull found his bark, smiled a little racist smile and said, “People like you don’t have shoes? Must have shoes for a quality restaurant like ours.”
Shod in stylish slippers, Siddhu, with his Stanford debate training, retorted, “Okay, I’ll go change into shoes. Our hotel is minutes away.”
The dog pulled at his collar in the evening heat and said, “You need a blazer.”
Although Siddhu indeed had a navy blue jacket at the hotel, he grew tired of the power game. The manager could have pointed to 75% of the men in the restaurant and made the same demand, since three-fourths of the male guests were sans blazers. The difference, perhaps, was that 100% of the guests were white. And, perhaps, with his four-day fashionable beard, Siddhu “looked Muslim.” And, of course, like blacks in America, Muslims across the world have to be careful about showing anger in public places.
The four of us moved away and marveled at how we could celebrate living in a country with a black President who had a Muslim name. Our America was engaged in a forward-looking, albeit not always balanced, dialogue around what words like liberty, equality, and fraternity mean to all people; their France was stuck in a backward-looking, limited view of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
Later that night, we walked to a tougher part of town and had a pizza. Its owners, Marc and Virginie, were sympathetic to our experience from earlier in the evening. They and the Muslim men they employed told us that while Marseille does have its racial tensions, not all French men and women were like the black suits we had encountered.
Indeed, on the next afternoon’s train to Paris, we met a sweet family of four: an IT manager, his wife, and their two young daughters. We talked, shared cherries, appreciated the verdant French countryside outside the train windows, discussed how technology was changing life, and even had a moment to explain to the elder daughter the significance of the red bindi on Mangla’s forehead.
Our time in pre-November-terrorized Paris was peaceful. And the food, while not optimal for vegetarians, was a pleasure. The outdoor markets were fresh and friendly. And the picnics in outdoor gardens were memorable, especially in Le Jardin du Luxembourg with its outdoor orchestra and quaint little wooden boats.
But it was our penultimate day in Paris that made our Europe trip complete. On the second to last day of our vacation, having seen most everything that the guidebooks suggested we should see except Leonardo’s Mona, we ventured out early in the morning for a full day at the Musée du Louvre.
Upon entering the museum, Anu led us directly to the “Mona Lisa.” Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic portrait did not disappoint us with her beguiling smile. But a smile is but a smile; there was so much more to see in the world’s largest museum. The writer in me was joyous to have drawn the lucky ticket: an image of “The Seated Scribe” in the Egyptian Hall.
As with all masterpieces, this sculpture encouraged my own reaction, certainly quite different from the artist’s intention. I first reflected on the fact that while African migrants aren’t welcomed into France with the visa version of a lucky ticket, their masterly artwork is proudly enshrined in the country’s most prominent museum. And then I turned the gaze more inwards and saw myself in the limestone ancient man seated upright in a lotus position, with hands positioned to document the needed. In his glossy crystal eyes, I saw a mirror of my own writerly aspirations. And I was grateful that the pen and notebook that had accompanied me throughout Europe had given me a privileged view of life in England, Italy, and France. I had come to spend time with family, and that I did. And the pen gave me a third eye, a way of confronting and conflating three worlds: the country of my birth, the country of my residence, and these three countries that over three weeks welcomed my family and me in such uneven mindful and mindless ways.
As part of the MARS gang (Mangla, Anupama, Rajesh, Siddhartha), RCO is a Martian of sorts, forever an outsider, never fully comprehending the war of the worlds.