Life Imitates Art by C. Vedavati

I am not sure whether this is a story or not. Nor do I know if this should be started only in this manner. They say that the stories should come from people’s lives and those stories are only the good stories. Sometimes however it is also natural to find lives that resemble fiction, I suppose. The problem however, we, who try to see the real lives in stories, ignore the stories in real lives and walk away from them with indifference.

Here is one of those stories. I am putting one of those stories, what has been ignored and let go, in front of you. Instead of saying that I am telling this story, it is better I admit that this was told by the medical specialist who lived three doors away from ours.

I sat on the front porch, sipping tea in the evening. Two boys, who were steering buffaloes everyday on our street, came running to me and said, gasping, “Ma’am, our buffalo got sick and fell on the ground. Let’s pick a few neem leaves for treating the buffalo.”

I nodded directing them toward the tree and leaned over the compound wall to see the animal. The buffalo was on the ground two houses down the road on the other side of the street. Its legs were fluttering in the air. Several people gathered around her and giving advice as they pleased.

My eyes were stuck on the buffalo. A full life was struggling with inexplicable pain. It looked like the life-breath could neither stay put in that body nor snap out of it.

The buffalo was on the ground with the four feet wriggling agonizingly, gathering the entire strength in her body and thrashing about. Poor thing. She could not describe her agony in so many words. She had no tongue to speak. Even otherwise, she possibly could not tell. Her eyes were fraught with fear that no words could describe.

I could not watch that scene or her mute suffering anymore. But I could not turn away either. Does a creature have to suffer so much at the time ending its life? Or, is that the jeevi[i] does not obtain redemption without it?

I had seen several deaths. I had seen long time ago when my father died, a few years back when my mother died, and a few other close relatives and friends. All those memories had been there with me always, like fresh wounds.

Even as I was watching, each one of them slipped into the lap of the goddess death. I had watched them as each one of them left their earthly bodies. Some were in coma at the end, some were aware of their impending death, and a few others died unaware … In all these forms of death, there was one similarity, I had noticed. There was one common characteristic.

You want know what it is? It was the agony the jeevi had suffered in the last few minutes. The unbearable pain it had suffered at the time the breath of life left the body.

Probably it is inevitable for a human or another creature to suffer that agony in the final hours.

Even as I was watching, that buffalo struggled for a few minutes and finally became motionless.

It seemed to be saying, “My suffering has ended. Now you can wail all you want.”

I had been grappling with the logistics of life and death for sometime now. Before birth, where did this jeevi come from? Thereafter, where is it going? In fact, what does death mean? Is it stop breathing? The exhaling of the breath of life for the last time? Does life mean only breathing? Or, is it a matter of Brahman? Why the death experience is so agonizing and so frightening? Some people talk about others as having a painless death. How is that possible? At the time of death, if one possesses the cognizance of the mundane world, how would he feel?

Whom should I ask to learn about this? Sometimes the doctor who could give life is stuck in a helpless situation while the life is gone from the body. Do the doctors who fight fiercely each day with diseases and death know the answers for all these questions?

Recently a doctor moved into a house on our street, three doors down the road. He was a renowned cancer specialist. He worked in the government cancer hospital and came here after his retirement. He was working from home, offering his services to cancer patients in the evenings.

Cancer is the kind of disease that would not let go of a person without taking his life as well. He was an experienced doctor who had seen, at close quarters, numerous cancer patients who were standing at the death’s door or were about to die. I used to wonder if he could answer some of my questions. Yet, up until now, I had not the courage to approach him.

However, after watching that mute animal struggle for life and finally die that evening, I could no longer hold myself.

That evening, after all his patients were gone, and he was strolling in the garden relaxed, I went to his home and introduced myself.

“Doctor sir, I am a writer who daubs the white papers whenever I am bored. Until now, I used to think only about life. Recently, I am getting more interested on wanting to know about death. You doctors are the closest to the issues of life and death. Let me share my thoughts with you for a few minutes. I am certain you can clarify my doubts,” I said, explaining my intent.

For some reason, the doctor looked at me compassionately. It was like the look on his face when he was going to inform the patient that he was afflicted with cancer. I was scared for a second. Was he going to tell me that my brain was afflicted with cancer?

He and I were pacing up and down. It seemed like my questions had invoked some questions which were not present on his mind before. It was clear to me from the knot of his eyebrows.

“You’ve made a mistake in coming to me with these questions. You should have gone to the metaphysical scholars or philosophers who could explain the secrets of life and death. In all my service as a doctor, I never thought about death in that manner. I spent all my time only to fight the death in order to save the patients who had come to me. I try to shoo away death, what can I say to you about death?” doctor said.

“Doctor sir, I don’t think I made mistake in coming to you with my questions. Philosophers and religious leaders will tell what they’ve learned from the books they had studied. They might be scientists and intellectuals but they could not have seen the death from such proximity as you have. You have to tell me from the perspective of your experiences. You have to, unless you consider me a pest, and that I’ve come to bother you,” I said, laughing.

The doctor also laughed at my words. These lighthearted words seemed to have helped to alleviate the gravity of the subject and offer some comfort.

“Friend, I have worked on numerous cases as a specialist in the field and performed surgeries. Some cases gave in to my treatment. And other cases appeared to have succumbed up for a while and then flared up again. Some cases slipped away from my hand even as I watched. Some patients recuperated and lived a little longer while others were beat by the disease quickly. I considered it my duty to fight with all my might the death lurking in the shadows of this disease.

“But, my dear friend, I must tell you one thing. Death is not as horrible as we take it to be. It is a natural and common occurrence just as birth and life. While the life causes a person to suffer viciously, this goddess of death takes him in, like into a mother’s lap, kindly and gently, and lulls him to sleep!

“Let me propose something to you. There is something that is more horrendous, more disgusting, and more insufferable than the death. You are a writer, right, can you guess what it is?”

I was taken aback. More horrendous than death? What could that be! A tornado of thoughts beset my brain. Doctor was silent for a while, as if waiting for my response, and started again.

“Now I’ll tell you a short story. Instead of calling it a story, it is best to call it a real incident in my experience. After listening to that, you tell me what is that horrendous incident about.”

“Tell me, Doctor sir,” I said zealously.

 

Doctor started telling the story emotionally; the mood of digging up old memories was obvious in his face.

 

He said, “I always believe that the relationship between a doctor and his patient must not be mechanical and businesslike. Patient is a human being and so also a doctor. It is true that the relationship between the two is based on the three elements, namely, the disease, the treatment and money. I however believe that, beyond that, a finer bond between one person and another should also exist between these two individuals. A doctor must treat a patient not just as a patient but also regard him humanely with kindness and compassion. Ever since I had entered the medical profession, I made it my duty to develop this kind of attitude towards my patients, filled with compassion and put it in practice .

“Once, Hema, young girl, about 7 or 8-year-old, was admitted in the hospital where I was working. It was an event I could never forget in my life. Sometimes I even thought if I was developing a more than normal closeness with her. But the truth was I was bound by an inexplicable affection because of her weary and ailing face and ingenuous words. By the time she turned Hema baby to me, I became her doctor uncle.

“Then the time came for Hema to be discharged from the hospital and to go home. Her mother, Sarojini, dabbed her tears meekly. She said, ‘Doctor sir, You took us in not only as a doctor but like a brother. Now you are sending us home. What do you think would happen to us now?’

“I assured her, ‘Be brave, Sarojini. We have done everything we could up until now. There is nothing else we can do. The only thing you can do is to keep her at home and administer the medications as advised. Usually I go to Vijayawada on other business and it is not too from your village, right? I’ll visit Hema as much as possible.’ She wiped her tears, and handed me a piece of paper with her address. She folded her hands gratefully.”

Doctor narrated the story without a break up to this point and then stopped. Although it had happened long time ago, he told the story impressively, I thought.

“Doctor garu, in the story you’ve narrated so far, I could see only the rasa[1] of kindness. Isn’t there more you wanted to tell me?” I asked.

“Friend, You’ve come to me with a kind of anxiety to learn from me. And I told you that I’d give you something more, right?” the doctor said somberly.

“Yes, doctor. I asked you about death. I came to you with the conviction that you, as a doctor, could tell me a few things about the agony the jeevi suffers in the final seconds of his life.”

“I told you that there is a greater pain than death and I’d tell you about it. Alright?”

“Yes, doctor. But, before that, tell me this first. What happened, I mean Hema? I hope she’s alright,” I said.

“How can I tell you? Not even I know what has happened to Hema. After she had left the hospital, for the first six months, I happened to visit them a few times. Those six months were more like krishnapaksham[2] for her. Before the new-moon day came, a huge scandal rose fervidly like a twister and tied up my feet. It made me stop visiting Hema again.”

“Scandal? What’s that about?” I said as I cringed.

“Nowadays, stories are being bantered around everywhere, calling it love between men and women. Don’t you understand what “scandal” means? And you are a writer! Alright. Listen, I’ll tell you,” he said.

“One ordinary housewife stayed in a hospital for a few days in a faraway place because of her sick child. In the government hospitals, doctors usually do not pay attention to even patients. That being the case, why would a doctor go the distance and pay a free visit to a patient who is not even a patient at the hospital anymore? What kind of benefit the doctor is looking for in traveling the distance and visiting the sick child several times a week? There must be something wrong. Maybe something between the doctor and the child’s mother …”

“Don’t say anything anymore, doctor. I understand,” I said, covering my ears.

My head started spinning. It felt like some vague hurt crept into my heart. Are the words like “goodness” and “humaneness” absent in the dictionary of these people? Don’t they recognize mercy, kindness and fondness as characteristics of a human heart? It is alright if they cannot value a good heart. Why should they carve such a distorted form of it? Why do they fan the fire in this manner? Don’t they have anything better do?

Some people take pleasure in hurting others physically and or emotionally. They turn real lives into fiction.

Now I see the goddess of death as a personification of kindness. I see her as a grantor of boons, the goddess who offers solace to those who are exhausted and worn out.

Death does not attribute rumors to people for no reason, would it? It would not even pass crooked comments on the human relationships, which should have been sensitive, beautiful and aromatic.

Strange! Now I don’t see the death as a complex problem. More complicated conduct seemed to have taken roots deeply in our hearts, what about that?

“Thank you, doctor. Thank you very much,” I said and took leave of him. To me he was both the doctor and the philosopher in one person.

(End)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, April 2008.

(The Telugu original, kathavanti jeevitam, was taken from the anthology, kadambam, published by Sakhya Sahiti, 1996.)

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[1] One of nine moods in Sanskrit poetics.

[2] The two weeks when the moon wanes, from full-moon day to new-moon day.

[i] There is no equivalent in English. Roughly translates as the soul.