Sunday, July 25, 2010


When asked, "How do you write?" I invariably answer, "one word at a time." - Stephen King

For a similar question I will have to answer,"one letter at a time." As you can guess, this is not the best method for indulging in repartees. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote:
But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter.So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball - and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition.
In the early years after my stroke, when a splendid retort occurred to me in response to some comment, I used to think that this was an opportunity to get a few claps. I will start dictating my comment to Jaya. After ten minutes, I will wait for the applause. None would be forthcoming. The problem was that no one had the patience to wait reverently for my gem and had been talking about other things with the result that they had forgotten what it was that I was responding to. I will try to remind them of it. Fast forward ten minutes and again the claps will be conspicuous by their absence. The problem this time would be that people would have forgotten a few words from my comment. As everyone knows, a repartee minus key words is as witty and charming as a weather report. Maybe a special computer would have been able to decipher the layers of meanings in my riposte but in the world of real people, it was a miserable failure. By now, knowing that the inordinate delay had killed the punch in my repartee, my initial enthusiasm for displaying my perspicacity would be on the wane and I will wish that I hadn't started the whole thing in the first place. But I will have to plod on because everyone would be curious about what I had thought of. I will accept whatever interpretation anyone puts to my words, my only indention being to complete the damn thing as soon as possible. After the mess gets over, I will wish that I could, like Little Jack Horner, sit in a corner in order to lick my wounds in peace but since this option is not available, I will continue to sit quietly and smile for the sake of the optics.

Steven Pinker said, "In our social relations, the race is not to the quick but to the verbal..." , which is doubly true of repartees. Initially I was eager to show that my mind was functioning as before but now, since most people know that I am a bit better than one of the wax statues at Madame Tussauds, I don't mind keeping quiet. Sometimes, a pithy remark occurs to me in response to some statement but chastised by the memory of the earlier disasters, I resist the temptation to give in to my delusions of wit and wisdom. Heywood C. Broun said, “Repartee is what you wish you'd said”. I am sure he did not say it thinking of a patient with locked-in syndrome.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I once read an article about Christopher Reeve where he said that a tragedy brings out the best or the worst in a family and he was glad that it had brought out the best in his. I will say the same except that along with the word 'family', I will include the word 'framily'.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that Jaya has been like a rock. The task of a caregiver is unenviable. Sujit quickly accepted the idea that a person can be physically decrepit and mentally normal. Family members and relatives have been uniformly supportive. I have often been surprised by how much time they have for me. I sometimes feel like Julius Caesar: "When Caesar says Do this, it is performed."

My friends have always been ready to help me. When I was about to be discharged from the hospital, I heard about some obscene amount in the bill and I wondered how it will be settled. I learned later that a lot of friends had contributed to settling the bill. I keep hearing horror stories of people getting bankrupted because of some medical emergency. I have never had to contemplate such a nightmare. I came across a Greek proverb which said - "It is better in times of need to have a friend rather than money." I got lucky. Money is a double edged sword. Unlike Oliver Twist, I don't get looks of horror at my temerity when I ask for more.

The doctors, physiotherapists and nurses have also been very understanding. They have no problems answering my queries to my satisfaction. In the initial months after my stroke, when I was more cantankerous than I am now, when the nurses used to be bemused by my dumb charades, I used to think darkly, "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."But of course, I was being uncharitable. It is not easy to understand the actions of a guy who couldn't speak and whose facial muscles were not very mobile. It took quite a while for me to realise this. Though wisdom oft has sought me,/I scorned the lore she brought me.

And what do I have to do in return? Sometimes I may have to listen to conversations that I may not be interested in. Sometimes my request may have to take a backseat because something important has cropped up. Sometimes my communication may be misinterpreted and I will have no option but to bear it with a patient shrug. Sometimes I will laugh at jokes that I may not have understood properly - I may be feeling too lazy to ask for clarifications. I will laugh because I see others laughing.

Too little payment for so great a debt.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Early morning wake-up call

Religion has good and bad aspects. The tendency of people to think that anything and everything that is religious should be docilely accepted by everybody whether they like it or not does not sit well with me. You will have loudspeakers blaring religious music in the middle of the night or a place of worship springs up in the middle of a road but no one will protest.

One night, I woke up at around one thirty to pass urine. Producing a few grunts to wake somebody up takes a lot of effort and my sleep goes for a toss. I usually get back to sleep in less than an hour but that night, sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned (figuratively speaking), thinking about this and that. You know my methods. Apply them. It was around five (I could see faint shafts of daylight), when I finally dozed off. Almost immediately (it was still quite dark outside), I was woken up by loud noises. In my hypnopompic state I thought someone was being murdered. When the mist finally cleared, I realised that it was a religious procession, the crowd oblivious to the fact that their raucous behavior was causing a huge disturbance.To say that I was annoyed would be an understatement. It was more like a sneaky hate spiral.

I used to come across such behavior when I used to travel in trains. Some pilgrims will enter the train, make a lot of noise waking up sleeping children, empty the water tank, dirty the compartment, etc. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?", is the thought that occurs to me at these times. Believers by their actions seem to suggest, "We are as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee and to spurn thee too and for thus much mercies we demand your respect."

Being a devotee of Schrödinger's God, I am ok with 'strident' atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris criticising religion at every opportunity. They are not 'just' preaching to the converted. They help to shift the Overton Window.The Internet has helped push the issues they raise from the sphere of deviance to the sphere of legitimate controversy. For people who think that their atheism is like religion, James Randi has a quote: "If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby." If some people don't like their combative tones, too bad. As Dan Dennet said:
“I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”
You can see that I am not thrilled about having had to listen silently for over a decade to Miss India beauty pageant type twaddle about how religion is great. I had more exposure to religion after my stroke than I had had before it and I didn't like it at all. Folks at home know that I am not religiously inclined but it was news to many visitors. Religion comforts many people but I find it boring, which used to leave many nonplussed. Some people could be very persistent in pushing their antediluvian ideas. I soon realised that arguing with them would be as frustrating as asking Senthil about the second banana so I generally kept quiet. Of course, the believers I meet are pleasant people who genuinely want to help me and are very far removed from the fundamentalist types one reads about in newspapers. But I often felt that many of their thought processes were circumscribed by impregnable mental walls whose foundations were laid in childhood. The reluctance to let go is difficult to overcome.

Recently I read The Emerging Mind which describes an interesting experiment on a split-brain patient:
We also tried testing the personality and aesthetic preferences of the two hemispheres independently using the same procedure – namely by training the right hemisphere to communicate ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ non-verbally to us by picking one of three abstract shapes with the left hand. Imagine our surprise when we noticed that in patient LB the left hemisphere said it believed in God whereas the right hemisphere signaled that it was an atheist. The inter-trial consistency of this needs to be verified but at the very least it shows that the two hemispheres can simultaneously hold contradictory views on God: an observation that should send shock waves through the theological community. When a patient like this eventually dies, will one hemisphere end up in hell and the other in heaven?