Monthly Archives: March 2013

Peace and the precipice

It is perhaps not an uncommon experience to suddenly feel thankful for the way things seem to be shaping up for you at the moment. Or the way the life is treating you, to put it another way. For the believer it may be relatively easy to feel consistent with a certain sense of symmetry that one has always hoped to achieve by joining the right dots and tracing the curve remaining, hopefully, close to the optimal. For the more religiously inclined, good Karma of following an impeccably laid up enlightened pathway across the garden is perhaps indicated. A clever agnostic will, probably, be disinclined to interrogate his good fortune!

It is but natural to look for, be happy with an apparently extended sunny interlude and quietly pray (not always clear to whom) that the reprieve continues. I am reminded of a song composed by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, that expressed a similar earnest wish with touching audacity of hope (I shall offer an imperfect translation of only the first line) : /Let my days spool over in equal serenity and content/. Whereupon it may become easy to let the mind escape like a bird the skeletal cage into the clouds taking shapes and colors we never thought the tyranny of logic or physics would let us perceive. This could also be one of those fleeting sequences of clairvoyant moments when our body as though it is a well tuned integral part of a majestic symphony orchestra that is universe, seems to sense an enormous fugue rising out of the ocean, dancing down the slopes of mountains, enveloping the parched environment in droplets of rain, leaves, dirt, sweat, flavors of leavened bread, fondness and hope.

Until time like an assassin waylays one into a remorseless dark hole that absorbs all light and lets nothing out. No matter how one looks at it there is an existential fragility about all of us, agnostic and believer alike, our awareness clouded sometimes explicitly and assailed with hints of rains on other occasions. In sickness and separation, debility and death we only face the masks of a faceless, senseless, self-organized and stochastically configured adversary. There is nothing particularly good or bad about it, or right or wrong. Even to call it adversarial or think of it as a benign presence are meant as a set of coloring book exercises the clever among us had invented eons ago to channel the fear, bafflement and feeling of being a derelict in time and space into some manageable ordering and sense, alternately feeling beholden and being cast away.

Are human beings capable of being simultaneously aware of the precipice and the beauty and the peace in whatever lay beyond? Can they face up with equanimity to the spatially or temporally spaced opposites not only in the physical, material world but even as members of a complex human society they have helped to devise and evolve? Who among us would not open his heart to the warmth emanating from hearts of other fellow beings in an apparently unending serenade of goodness and hope only to be persuaded later, equally convincingly, about hearts turning into stone, beautiful and the humane metamorphosed into savage? Haven’t we rained down bombs and missiles from massive machines scorching the skies on the streets and homes and hospitals and granaries in a city or town marked red on a perceived axis of evil, unerringly projected on a screen blanched out of emotion by the no-nonsense generals for the benefit of the wise leaders of men ensconced comfortably in another city or town in a distant continent, where thanksgiving is in progress or loudspeakers are plaintively calling out over the dust and the din of the bazaars to the faithful for the quotidian prayers for goodness, peace and hope to prevail?

Body and mind

There was this recent newspaper story on an experimental alternative treatment of thalassaemia patients using naturally grown wheatgrass or a synthetic equivalent such as hydroxyurea whereby at least some patients (especially those afflicted with thalassaemia-intermedia and even a few suffering from thalassemia-major) got a visible relief in terms of a distinct reduction in the frequency of blood transfusion. A patient from Ahmednagar, Maharastra, India, who normally required transfusion every fifteen days, after taking this treatment finds himself not needing for the past several months this painful and relentless harnessing of his body to technologically stave off the progression of the disease. After coming out of several restrictions that formed an integral part of his life, for the first time he felt that he was leading a normal life that escaped him since childhood. He claimed that his attitude to life has become positive, just as the economics governing his life also looks up.

A doddering tooth that was causing a lot of pain lately came off the other day on its own. Mercifully, there was no bloodletting. The ancient tooth just fell off, tired of its uselessness in the proceedings. And there was a palpable relief. One felt almost liberated. As if one was bound to a barrier suffused with pain that blurred the vision ahead. Now that the barrier fell off one could tear away from a bondage that was coming in the way of moving ahead, thinking, planning, eating, doing, as indeed, living without a reminder of the frailness of the edifice that is one’s body.

I know a diabetic who contracted diabetes (type II) in the early forties. Having had his fasting and post-prandial blood sugar numbers under control over the next decade and a half with diet, minor life style adjustments and mild medicine he became a little smug about not allowing the disorder to take control of his life. However, somewhere down the line he began to see some dark spin offs of diabetes and also the recalcitrant response of the critical numbers to a drug he was using earlier with confidence. As though the sweet assassin busily coursing through his arteries and veins remains unruffled by the puny attempts made by ineffectual medicines and is focused on its long-term goals.

Being pursued by an unseen adversary not knowing remit, living on a razor’s edge doing just the right amount of exercise, eating the right food (denying oneself any indulgence); remembering and taking ever growing number of pills in an involved schedule (some before meals, some after); taking periodic tests and keeping an watch on the numbers staring from the crisp print outs handed in by the analyst’s assistant; living under a cloud of escalating price of drugs and hoping that his chemist does not procure medicines from a wholesaler who passes off chalk or some such stuff in regulation packaging as drugs. Quite apart from the impaired glucose producing capability of his pancreas the man clearly has become a hostage to his worry and spends a good deal of his mental resources trying to be a little ahead of his disease.

Amazing what an illness does to one, whether it is admitted or not. It seems to drive a wedge between one’s body and the mind. It is as if one’s entire consciousness, the carefully constructed mental world, comes under a persistent endogenous threat potentially big enough to interfere significantly with the apparent autonomy of the mind. Illness may sometimes be perceived as a loss of freedom.

Advancing age probably heightens this sense of loss in another way. So much of our perceptions about our own self runs the risk of being systematically undermined, worn out by the ravages time has wrought on the old faithful body (even if younger people, relatives, friends do not add to the loss intentionally or otherwise). One feels perennially threatened with the progressive shrinkage of that autonomous space which our consciousness builds for us over the years that gives us a sense as if we are always in control of our life, as much as our mind is in complete command over our body.