Book Chat: A Doctor and A Gentleman

Biju Parameswaran, a much traveled literary and movie enthusiast writes:

As a front-ranking neurosurgeon of the land, Dr. K. Rajasekharan Nair is a jewel in the crown of Thiruvananthapuram.  A product of one of the earliest MBBS batches of the city’s Medical College, he went on to serve his alma mater as a Director-Professor and later Emeritus Professor. His studies and work had taken him to UK, US and Libya among other places. He chaired all the premier neurological associations in India. Dr Nair also happens to be the son of a truly great Indian scholar of the twentieth century, the late Dr. Sooranaatt Kunjan Pillai a multi-lingual expert who researched into 35 lakhs words in Malayalam and compiled a seven volume dictionary in the language.  I was not aware of this connection when I accompanied a kin to visit Dr. Nair at a private city hospital where he consults. The venerable doctor struck us as refreshingly different as he chatted us up on a wide range of interesting things around the prolapsed disc that we were dealing with. In spite of specializing in surgery for his PG, he did not believe in surgery as a definitive solution for anything, he said. This doctor empathized with the patient, and was certainly not condescending or aloof.  Not much later I chanced on a book of his that instantly made me a fan. Manasinte Bandhangallum Saithilyangallum is a delightful journey through some of his case studies from all over the world coupled with autobiographical accounts like the sacrifices his family made as he procured his DM from Delhi AIIMS and later a Fellowship from Glasgow. We know for a fact that psychiatrists make excellent story tellers because they tend to meet the most intriguing of people in their profession. P.M. Mathew Velloor and A.T. Kovoor (as also his hypnotist disciple, Johnson Airoor) come to mind. Kovoor practiced mostly in Sri Lanka. I stumbled on him via Punarjanman, a B/W Malayalam movie on Oedipus complex featuring Nasir and Jayabharati based on his case diary. The mechanical engineer turned psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar with his explorations into Indian sexuality is another favorite.  Generally all fiction writers are undertaking psychology studies, aren’t they? Turns out neurologists are perfectly positioned to tell stories that tread the thin line between fiction and non-fiction. Reading Dr. Nair immediately had me seeking out two of his other books and they turned out to be absolute gems as expected. Vaidyavum Samoohavum brings out the writer’s deep love of literature and throws light on his vast reading over the years. Having brought up in an environment of free thinking and intellectual debate at home it is no wonder that he talks of Bengali writer Tarasankar Banerjee like an admirer would about a movie idol. It is clear to us from the outset that his role model is the good doctor Jeevan Masai, the hero of Banerjee’s immortal novel Arogya Niketan (there is an excellent translation by Nilina Abraham). We are introduced to some of the pioneers of neurology and medicine like William Osler and Hippocrates. A chapter examines the hemophilia of both Queen Victoria and the wandering godman whose name itself means rascal in Russian, Rasputin.  The third book Rogangallum Sargatmakatayum tells about a dozen clinically abnormal geniuses.  Any child knows that artists including writers are anything but normal. Their art is a product of inner turmoil and a discontent with the way of the world.  Creation stems from a need to challenge the status quo. One often wonders if some of the greatest actors are not schizophrenics in actuality. The savants that Dr Nair studies here are Kuttikrishna Marar, C.J. Thomas, Swati Thirunal, Earnest Hemingway, Gustav Meyrink, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neil, Richard Selzer, Sigmund Freud and Guy de Maupassant as also Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.  In the poet-king Swati Thirunal it is acute stress that took his life at age 34 but the others are more severe medical cases. Nobel laureate Hemingway’s shooting himself to death had intrigued MT at that time and he wrote at length about it in his study of the American novelist. An offshoot of reading Dr. Nair is that it led me on to brilliant doctor-writers I did not know earlier, for instance his friend Oliver Sacks. His The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars are a good for starters. Although not a very easy read, USA-based Dr. V.S Ramachandran’s neuroscience study Phantoms in The Brain is another outstanding work.  While talking about the lobotomy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Dr. Nair gives us the aside that he liked better Priyadarsan-Mohanlal’s Malayalam adaptation film Thalavattom with it song-dance-romance.  No study of neurology is complete without Fyodor Dostoevsky, a contender for the title of the best novelist ever and also one of the most famous epileptic cases of history, along with Alexander the Great. His characters like Meshkin in The Idiot and Smirdyakov in Brothers Karamazov suffered this condition too.  Rashkolnikov of Crime and Punishment had frequent ecstatic seizures like his creator. Medical novels come in different flavors, from the racy thrillers of Robin Cook to weightier tomes like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. That great short story writer Chekhov was a doctor as was the ophthalmologist whose greatest creation swamped him out in fame, Arthur Conan Doyle.  Closer home, Punathil Kunjabdullah balances medical practice with fiction writing.  On the non-fiction side, Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country and in recent times Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies have been bestsellers. Another medical doctor Deepak Chopra is a New Age book industry to himself. Dr. B. Eqbal – neurosurgeon and former Kerala University Vice Chancellor is the author of a curious book called Alice inte Adbuda Rogam. The premise is that doctors of the mind and the nerves seek many an answer in works of literature than in medical books and journals, so rich is the writing featuring mental illnesses. Lewis Caroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was a professor of Mathematics. And what does his Alice exhibit? Hyper/hypo schematia, de-realization, de-personalization, etc. Dr Eqbal tabulates all the brain disease cases from the Sherlock Holmes stories. He devotes chapters to the studies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Chekhov’s Sixth Ward and Gabriel Garcia Marques’s Love in The Time of Cholera.  Artist Namboothiri’s accompanying illustrations are illuminating. For more related cases we can move on to the late Malayalam critic K.P. Appan’s Rogavum Sahityabhavanayum. This is a study of writers and/or literary characters who fought tuberculosis, AIDS, syphilis, cancer and general insanity. It is well-know that Vaikom Muhammed Basheer spent stints in a sanatorium.  Changampuzha’s poem Kalithozhi gave forebodings on the TB that took his life at age 36. Plague was the theme of Albert Camus’s eponymous novel. MT describes a cholera outbreak in his native Kudaloor in Asuravith. To know about smallpox read the recently deceased Kakkanadan’s Vasoori. There is cardiac arrest in S.P. Snow’s Last Things and a sublimated description of the pox in O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakinte Ithihasam. Like Ramachandran who heads the Centre for Brain and Cognition at San Diego, California asserts, poetry and literature are more scientific than most people would care to accept.  This combined with what has come to be known as narrative medicine sheds shining light on the abysses of the human mind that fails to register on any number of CT scans, MRI and echocardiograms.

Happy Reading!

Biju Parameswaran  (bijupost@yahoo.com)

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This entry was posted in Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Leisure and Recreation, Personalities in news and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Chat: A Doctor and A Gentleman

  1. doney joseph says:

    Brilliant Biju! Keep it flowing and more frequently.

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