Two Beautiful Books- Deepa Nisanth, Paul Kalanithi

What is common to  a book written by an extraordinarily gifted young  neurosurgeon in Stanford during his fight with lung cancer, and the memoirs of a young professor who teaches Malayalam in a verdant campus in Kerala?

Both are breathtakingly endearing.

Paul Kalanithi’s book, ‘ When Breath Becomes Air’, stuns the reader with its beautiful prose, its penetrating observations, and the sheer magnificence of a well lived life. The author, who had done formal studies in both Literature, Philosophy, and Neurosurgery from some of the world’s top Universities, lost his life while writing his book. It is dedicated to his  little daughter, Cady.

As soon as I finished the book, I found myself rushing to give it to a colleague who appreciates fine writing and thoughts- especially on life and death. “Please read this today,” I said, “it is simply amazing.My only thought now is- Thank God for a healthy life. It is the most precious gift  granted to me but denied to many who probably deserve it much more than me.” We had been discussing stupidities which entrap our life energies earlier that day.

Certain books have to be read. With a pencil in hand. The poems and philosophical quotes which liberally glitter in almost every page of this small book, showcase an incandescent mind. With his surgeon’s hands, Paul saved  many, many lives. With his poet’s mind he observed and tucked away memories to recreate a beautiful philosophy of living for his readers.

I was struck by an anecdote when Paul describes a patient saying,’ Everything is so sad…’ as he puts an electrode in his brain. Certain areas of our mesmerising brains, apparently cater to feelings of overwhelming sadness and melancholy.Could it be, I wondered later- on  reading about his  doctor friend Jeff’s suicide after a failed surgery on a patient – that relentless toil without any rest,  overwhelms that particular part of the brain? Another memory flashed: of a top graduate of a Japanese University hurling herself to a similiar death after working overtime for three days in a row without any rest. Could sleep, that much eulogised nectar, be truly a life giving breath? That angel stroke which will release the pressure building  due to overwork and lack of rest on that  spot of brain attuned to melancholy ?

Looking at a patient as a human being vs looking at him as a problem to be solved (tick off boxes) : Paul elaborated on that aspect from two angles -when he himself became the perpetrator , as when he became  the sufferer. By describing his brilliant, empathetic oncologist who epitomized what an ideal cave giver should be, he made me reflect on the  ineffable ways of healing.

Paul’s wife Lucy completed the epilogue in this book.

Reading about people who knew what to treasure, and how to treasure -that is always eye opening. When we live lives fraught with pettiness, dealing often with hollow men all around, such books come as a refreshing breath of air.


Deepa Nisanth’s book, ‘ Nananju teerta mazhakal ‘ is the second in her series of memoirs.  I was new to her writing but immediately felt a close affinity. The childhood scenes, the adolescence, the waking up of a young woman into a sensitive observer…the book made delightful reading.

I admire her simplicity, lack of pretentiousness, her scalpel sharp observations, her truly liberal soul confident of deep love from those who matter.

The death of her cousin brother who taught her cycling, the memory of escaping a brutal man in the nick of time, the realisation of toys being denied to children in some repeated pattern of ‘storing away’  that we learn from our own parents, the hilarious episode of bingeing during family visits, the episode of falling sick and yearning for one’s mother…I finished the whole book in one sitting.

What a loss it would have been if Deepa had studied engineering instead of Malayalam. When K R Meera recounted in a channel, her story of intentionally derailing her father’s plan of making her an engineer, and escaping into the world of literature and journalism  albeit through a convoluted study path of Chemistry and Communicative English, I had felt the same relief! Professor Leelavathy had been guided to study Malayalam by her professor when she had topped Science in the whole jurisdiction. I recollected that too.

Or perhaps, I am wrong. I adore Dr.Gangadharan’s writings and he is a renowned oncologist. Paul Kalanidhi was a scientist and surgeon. Dr Abraham Verghese who wrote the foreword for Paul’s book is again a very successful doctor who is also a brilliant writer. And Priya A.S. who wrote the foreword to Deepa’s book, is working in a University in the administrative side. Ah, the  lovely lines she writes!  So a formal education in literature may not be imperative to becoming a great writer.😁

As for me, it is a truly blessed day, when I get to be in the company of dazzling minds-expressing the best of what we can be.


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