A few days ago, I met Dr Rajan from Dr Smilez, a dental clinic in Chennai. There was a brief article in the Times of India about a happy UK man who’d travelled to India to get some work done on his teeth. So, how could I not call? They agreed to meet me, even though the receptionist and the doctor both seemed a little perplexed at my explanation – that I was writing poetry about people who travel for medical treatment. “How can you write poetry with a medical theme?”, he asked. Fair question really.
We chatted for a while, and they both laughed and relaxed when I told them how shocked I was at my hotel the first night. The good people at Dr Smilez try to convince patients to not cut any corners financially, to stay at the best hotels, ideally allowing the clinic to facilitate their travel while here, too. I, of course, was not staying at the Park or the Hyatt.
Of the many fascinating things that came out of our chat, I just want to mull over this one – there seems to be a peculiar paradox going on with overseas patients when they come to India. I keep reading and hearing that they want the absolute best treatment, which I’m sure is true – we all want to save money, but not of course at the cost of our health. Still, the other theme that keeps coming up is how anxious non-Indians are about hygiene, how when they see the overflowing rubbish bins, the plastic and sewerage in the streets, these images risk spilling over into and upsetting their faith in the medical profession here. As Dr Rajan said, the clinics are sterile and clean. But it seems some kind of fear haunts them or their experience.
I’m keen, of course, to talk about this with a real live patient, but all things take time, especially here.
Over the weekend, I also attended some of The Hindu newspaper’s “Lit for Life” festival – a weekend of literary talks and interviews. The Hyatt’s function room was absolutely overflowing for the session with Bollywood star Shabana Azmi talking about the translation of her mother’s memoir (Shaukat Azmi writes in “Kaifi and I” about her partnership with the famous Urdu poet, about activism, art & poetry in 20th century India). The organisers chalked it up to Chennai’s literary enthusiasm, but I could cynically say it would have something to do also with their love of film and fame. Looks like a fascinating book, though. Anyway, the highlight for me was the session with Karukku Bama, K Sivakami and Susie Tharu. The former two are Dalit writers, poets and activists. There is much for me to learn about India, a lot of which I feel has to do with caste and its power and persistence. I know very little. But what blew me away was the strength, insight and courage of these writers. Bama at one point said “who decides how human I can be? who says, this far, no further?!”. In a more gentle tone, Sivakami said something to the effect of “I follow my words and they take me to interesting places”. Interesting indeed.
What’s interesting too is the response. One audience member asked why they have to keep writing about the negatives, why can’t they write about all the good things that are happening to Dalits? Hmmm. Questions like this are often thrown at many oppressed people, variations of a desire for silence, to not be reminded of ongoing suffering and inequality. It also reminds me of the backlash against “Slumdog Millionaire” in India… As we were often reminded in this session, society needs the broken perspective, the outrage, and militancy is a healing movement.
Speaking of pleasant surprises, I also found Oasis books – 29 Kutchery Rd Mylapore, run by the gentle, informed VRJ Prabalan. Oasis stocks some fascinating political books, left-wing philosophy, books on caste, feminism, ecology, organics, poetry, and a lot more. It’s not a huge store, but it’s very rich, and to me an affirmation that there is counter-cultural thinking going on. If you’re thinking of dropping in, best to call in advance – it’s not always open (ph 044 2461 3445).
It hasn’t all been wondrous though – I’ve been sick, bored, frustrated, sweaty, drenched with rain, and homesick. Reliably, India, in all its enigma, contradicts me as soon as I think I know it, infuriates me as soon as I’m getting comfortable, and embraces me just when I’m about ready to run away.
Interesting , Andy, especially re Shabana Azmi, who was a favourite actress when I was young in India.
And yes, India is indeed an enigma.
And have you written a medical poem?
It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma deep-fried in a paradox….! Why, of course, I’ve written some medical poems. Well, they’re in very early stages, and very rough, but yes, poetry is coming!
I like the sound of a deep fried paradox – I imagine it delicately spiced with a late palate-searing chilli burn. Best served accompanied by a cooling conundrum raita.
Enough of that. Medicine, health, disease are so intimately entwined with the human experience that it is a natural subject for writing. I have a lovely collection of poetry by medical practitioners called ‘Verbal Medicine’ and Geoff Goodfellow has recently published a collection about his experiences with the medical system at the time of his diagnosis with cancer. Clearly the answer to ‘how can you write poetry about medicine?’ is ‘one word at a time’. Hope you find a real live patient soon. Can you advertise at the local clinics? Ethically tricky I guess.
Absolutely one word at a time (with quite a few deletions too!). I guess when people think “medicine” they think the scientific angle, whereas I’m interested in the interpersonal subjective. Advertising’s not a bad idea, but yes, it’s that personal element, meeting people face-to-face that has helped me get the small distance I’ve gained so far – will keep pushing.