July 07, 2020
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Healing With Prose

Abraham Verghese blurs the border between fiction and seizing the terrible beauty in death

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Healing With Prose
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ABRAHAM Verghese cavorts with death. For doctors that is no big deal but for Verghese it is. Death pains him, death drags him to unexplored regions of the human mind (and body), death does all sorts of things to him, death drives him into a cocoon of creativity from which he has now again emerged, multi-hued wings flapping. Two books—the first My Own Country an international bestseller, and the just released second book The Tennis Partner as soul-wrenching as the first—are woven around death and have stretched the limits of the genre of medical writing. His books have blurred the border between the vexed art of fictional writing and the tortuous science of creating terrible beauty out of the grim, etherised ambience of hospitals.

"Many of us would rather not think about death. But I feel we should realise death is very real and it is not something that could happen at a faraway time. I take my children to funerals. Death is precisely what gives poignancy to our lives. Life is not a practice run," Abraham Verghese said while in the midst of his book-promotion tour in Boston.

Verghese's grim tales chronicle human despondency and weaknesses but through it all he is the compassionate deathbed observer playing the healer. He goes beyond the prognosis and the catheters and the bronchoscopes. This specialist of infectious diseases, AIDS especially, is the right man to have beside the deathbed. He is the diagnoser of diseases that he knows will eventually win that unequal battle with life, and he is the provider of the last warm hands that will clutch on to your feeble pulse as you go about your business of dying.

Once this man-nature battle reaches its inevitable denouement, the angel of hope becomes the messenger of the tragic news. Here is Verghese during one such mission in The Tennis Partner after he calmly gives out a no-hope news to family members of an AIDS victim. "His mother, stoic till then, brushed tears from her face. She said something rapidly in Spanish. The sister explained, 'He loved Christmas. My mother says she's glad he had a wonderful Christmas. She thinks it's as though he is ready to go.' I didn't know what to say. Then mother touched my hand and said, 'Gracias, Doctor.' The sister came forward, her face inches from mine, and hugged me and said thank you. I could smell her hair, her body, a crisp unadorned scent. I didn't want to let her go."

We don't want to let go of his grim tales either. His debut bestseller My Own Country reminded us, in case we had forgotten, that America is AIDS country. The placid Johnson City, nestled in the Smoky mountains of Eastern Tennessee, comes alive when one by one its brave sons return to die there. Verghese is in the middle of all that, the specialist in infectious diseases, trying to cope with the gradually growing influx, trying in vain to get hold of death. He knows that there is no winning against AIDS. Yet he is there because of hope in the wards where death is only a gasp away. In those moments Verghese is not just a doctor with a defeated look behind the surgical mask. "In the weeks after Ed died, my life changed. Not in its circumstances but in its shades and colours. Now it seemed as if everything I witnessed was imbued with this sense of loss. I was a doctor, a scientist but all the usual postures seemed satirical in the face of AIDS. I felt these deaths." My Own Country was the laying bare of a prosperous country's troubled heart through a surgeon's sensitive soul.

In The Tennis Partner too Verghese feels for death. David Smith (not his real name) was on the pro-circuit and has joined the Texas Tech hospital, trying to finish his internship and get on with life after many breaks in studies due to a cocaine habit. Verghese is David's boss trying to instill confidence in him; in the courts David, of course, is the boss. The very fact that David agrees to be his partner is a matter of gratitude for Verghese. At a time when Verghese's marriage is breaking up, tennis sessions with David become a lesson in how to cope with nature's lobs and how to chip-and-charge against adversity. "I put more pace on the ball, exploring a few angles, not hitting at him so much. David had a quick first step and great anticipation. Shots that would make most opponents scramble, he returned effortlessly. If my ball misfired in depth or direction and if it sometimes wobbled off my racket, David's stroke applied the necessary correction and the ball came back restored, landing in my court with reliable depth."

Tennis is a lingering and sustaining metaphor in the book. Neither Verghese's affectionate nurturing nor the tennis lessons help as David relapses and hurtles towards a tragic end. But even out of the morbidity of the El Paso morgue, where Verghese has to identify the body of his friend, he creates intensely evocative prose. He looks at the toe with the "prehensile curl", sees the pear-like calluses over the joints of his second and third toes and remembers that the "toe cap of his right sneaker would wear out long before his left, from his dragging that foot to the line as he launched into his serve".

Verghese's skill lies not just in making readable stuff out of the doctors' charts hung by the side of deathbeds. His light-toed prose takes you along and at every turn you discover more of your mind and your body. To unknot the mysteries of strange diseases, to cauterise medical writing off its jargon, Verghese is an unparalleled craftsman and a rung above Oliver Sacks. But then Sacks primarily deals with syndromes and his ambit does not stretch beyond the medical, which of course he writes with a delectable touch.

For Verghese the patient and the disease are an avenue that leads to a larger arena; Verghese loiters around the wards and stalks high literary game just as he chases lowly viruses, medicine his medium, man his canvas. The way David struggles to remain clean, how Verghese tries to push him along, the look of horror on that guy's face when the test shows HIV positive, the last gasps of dying patients, Verghese's own research, the way his wife like a wayward virus slips out of his hands, all segue effortlessly into the larger story of human relationship that makes the Tennis Partner a universal heart-tugger.

Verghese grew up in Nigeria, where his parents found comfortable jobs as schoolteachers, studied medicine in Madras. His rides through the streets of Madras on an old Jawa bike, the smell of jasmine flowers all intrude into his memories in that desolate outbake of an American city where he is an icon of hope. Coming back home from a Code Blue (emergency) manoeuvre, the smell of pappadam which his visiting mother has fried for him invigorates him. In the midst of all this Verghese studied the Surat deaths and in an article in the New Yorker concluded it wasn't plague.

VERGHESE could not save his marriage even as he grappled tirelessly with death's million agents. Rajani  Chacko, an extraordinarily beautiful girl from Conoor in Tamil Nadu, who chose Verghese over the many eligible starry-eyed men her parents invited to her house, slowly got weary of AIDS and his obsession with gay men, cringing in fear as he reaches home late and narrates the story of the latest AIDS death of Ed or Gordon or Johnson or someone. His fixation with gay men disturbs her no end and one day she poses the question while brushing her hair. Verghese has his answers ready. Just as his books too lay out the answers.

Verghese is now married to Sylvia, and has a child by her apart from Steven and Jacob from his first marriage. "Sylvia lost a cousin to AIDS. That is how we met. She works for a refinery in El Paso (Texas). She understands why I do what I do. She has brought a great deal of stability to my life," Verghese said.

Verghese does not think he will be a full-time writer. "I thought often that it would be nice to take the liberty of taking off a few months to write full time. But the nature of medicine and academia is such that you cannot do it. You lose skills as a doctor. Even when I took off a year (nine years ago) to do a masters programme at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I worked at the AIDS clinic."

 It is a fiery obsession. In one of the many poignant passages in My Own Country, now made into a film by Mira Nair with Navin Andrews playing Verghese and Ellora Patnaik playing Rajani—he describes seeing the face of his two-year-old son Steven pressed against the window-pane of his house, as he drives past from one clinic to another hospital in Johnson city. He did not even have the time to pick up his son and mumble a rhyme into his ear. He didn't have time to stop for his son. How could he when he was on death's call?

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