Inspired by the True Life Story of Ramesh Moses Kumar, M.D.
If you were to ask me when, exactly, the pain started or how it was, precisely, that I at first failed to notice my urine changing from its usual light yellow to an alarming shade of red, I’d be hard pressed to tell you; if you were to ask me on what day I was admitted to the hospital, or who drove me there, I’d draw a blank. The only element of the first week of my stay, in fact, which I can recall with any degree of accuracy is what the anesthesiologist, Dr. John Kumar, told me as I was drifting off into his drug-induced sleep.
“Count to ten,” he said.
“One,” I said, and thought of the disarray I’d left on my desk, wondering if I’d ever see it again.
“Two,” I said, and wondered about the hospital I’d been born in, and whether the walls had the same shade of blue as the ones here.
“Three, four, five,” I said, and remembered, for no reason, what my uncle had told me when I was only ten years old about the terrible reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II over the Congo.
“Six,” I said, and remembered that my car was desperately in need of an oil change.
“Seven,” I said, and thought of how my grandfather had been a plane mechanic for the navy during World War II.
“Eight, nine,” I said, and realized that I no longer felt my body’s terrible pain.
“Ten,” I said, and didn’t know what else to think about.
“That’s odd,” said Dr. Kumar. “You’re not supposed to actually reach ten.”
I don’t like it when doctors say, “that’s odd.” It’s unprofessional, not to mention unsettling. I think the Hippocratic oath should be revised to explicitly ban phrases like that.
“Can you see my face?” said Dr. Kumar.
“Except for the part covered with a mask—yes, I can,” I said.
“That’s quite odd,” said Dr. Kumar. “Close your eyes. Can you still see my face?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Can you see the ceiling of this room?”
“Yes, now that you mention it, I can.”
“Can you see the surgeon’s instruments on that table over there?”
I shuddered. “Yes. I can see everything you tell me.”
“Really?” said Dr. Kumar. “That’s quite interesting. Can you see the moon’s reflection in the scalpel?”
It was at once terrifying and beautiful.
“Can you see the leprechaun-shaped scar about a quarter-inch above the surgeon’s eyebrow?”
I swore that it was smirking at me. “Yes, I see it.”
“Can you see the monster under your bed?”
His chest rose and fell in a sickly, uneven pattern, and he seemed to have a bad case of pinkeye. His fur was falling out in patches, and in a few of the bald places there was a strange scabbing on his skin, probably from some sort of fungus. He shivered violently in the hygienic cold of the operating room. I felt myself becoming overwhelmed with nausea. “Yes, I can see. I can see.”
“Fascinating. Can you see into my heart?”
The nausea receded as I focused on the way the soothing green of Dr. Kumar’s scrubs gave way to the brown of his chest, then the pale yellow-white of his tendons, the grayish-white of his bones, and the deep purple of his heart. Tiny letters and diagrams were tattooed in ever-so-fine print all along it, but, out of a desire to be a good patient and follow my doctor’s directions precisely, I ignored them and looked around at the aorta, the pulmonary veins and arteries, and even the thick, pulsing surface of the left ventricle to find a way to peer inside the heart.
And then, all at once, I was simply there in the muggy warmth and blackness of it.
“Can you see it?” said Dr. Kumar.
“I’m quite sure I’m there, but I can’t see anything yet,” I told him.
“Isn’t there any light?” he said.
As a matter of fact, there wasn’t. Or was there? Yes, there, in the distance I could make it out: an ancient and frail-looking lamppost. And there, under it, a young boy with a book and skin even darker than Dr. Kumar’s.
“Who’s the boy under the lamppost?” I said.
“He’s reading a book?”
“And his brow is furrowed? As if he’s reading with great intensity?”
“And the air around you is warm and dark?”
“Like a night in the tropics.”
Dr. Kumar sighed. “That’s my father,” he said. “I was afraid he’d gotten in there.”
“Scalpel,” said a voice from somewhere far out in the sky.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t think you want to see that,” said Dr. Kumar. “Shall I tell you a story instead?”
“Tell me anything,” I said.
And so it was that he did.
“My paternal grandfather born was a dalit, one of an untouchable caste, in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India,” Dr. Kumar said. “He converted to Christianity as a young man, but became no more touchable in the process. He then wore away his body piece by piece as a sharecropper—and I mean that literally: every day he would come home ever-so-slightly shorter, as if he walked on sandpaper instead of earth. By the time my father was born he’d lost two inches, by the time my father could read he’d lost five, by the time my father left for medical school it was eight, and when my father went home again to visit some years later just before taking a job in Iran, he found that his father was dead with nothing to dispose of: worn away to dust almost as if he’d been cremated by life. But I haven’t told you yet, have I, about my father?
“My father, Ramesh Moses Kumar, born three years before three bullets pierced the heart of our country’s new Father, was determined to bring this heritage of grinding poverty to an end, and thanks to the Constitutional Mandate of 1950 on education, had a place to wear himself away doing so. He attended a new school in the mornings, worked alongside his father in the afternoons, and then went out after dark to the city’s only lamppost to study through the night. ‘The streets may be named Gandhi only,’ he used to tell me, ‘but the lampposts we should name for Maulana Azad.’ That’s independent India’s first minister of education, you see, and one of my father’s great heroes, what with his black fez like the top of a lamppost, and his unwavering commitment to free light.
“My father spent every night under the Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost of the village of Panipatnam, as he called it, studying in the metaphorical presence of the recently-deceased minister he idolized, cramming square roots, textbook definitions, the Sanskrit and Latin names for this bone in that frog’s leg into his young burning-with-ambition head until one night, smoke came out his ears and ascended to heaven like a ritual sacrifice. That’s the night the angel came.”
“Angel?” I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt your story, but hospitals are expected to be built on science, not religion.”
“There was a time when all knowledge was considered religious,” said Dr. Kumar, “and for many, the drive to heal is still inspired by faith.”
“That may be the case,” I countered, “but I’m still not sure how my insurance will feel about a doctor who anesthetizes using angels. Could you switch to something more realistic?”
“That’s odd,” a distant voice from the sky said. “You’d better hand me that retractor...”
Dr. Kumar sighed. “This is a true story,” he said. “If you’d like, though, I can stop telling it and update you on your surgery instead.”
“I’ll take the angel,” I told him.
“I’m glad,” he said. “You know, angels really aren’t that difficult to believe in if you see them as the dead, now glorified and doing the will of God. What else should the saints do after their violent ends? This particular angel, it may interest you to know, had once lived a mortal life as the Apostle Thomas, who was cured of doubt forever by being sent to India, which is so vast that everything impossible has already happened at least twice. He died once in Gandhara, then again in Karnataka, then was sent back as an angel to watch over the Christians of his adopted country, a task that has kept him quite busy since.
“For example, as I was telling you, in 1959 he appeared beneath the glow of the Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost of the village of Panipatnam to one Ramesh Moses Kumar, who would later become my father. Ramesh, who was preparing for his last exams in the public school and had been hampered on recent nights by persistent brownouts, didn’t notice the angel at all at first, but said a quick prayer thanking God for the light, then closed his eyes and tried to remember the Latin name for a snake’s kidney—until he heard the light say ‘Moses!’
“A chill went down my father’s back then in spite of the heat and humidity of the night. Then came the voice again ‘Moses!’ out of the lamplight above, and my father slowly began to raise his head until he could see, standing above him in the air, an angel descending in a pillar of fire from heaven, or possibly from some intermediate staging ground in the stratosphere. My father covered his face then and started to cry, which is, I suppose, the natural thing to do when you’ve never been descended upon by a pillar of fire before and then all at once—shoom!—it’s upon you, the night before your last and most significant publicly funded exams, threatening to melt to a worthless metal lump the Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost, which is the only local publicly funded source of nighttime light available.
“All this should not have surprised the angel, who, after all, had nearly two millennia of experience, but for some reason, the whole twentieth century had proved rather disorienting for him, and so he paused for a moment before giving any comforting pronouncement, and my father simply sobbed into his book. The presence of a book, however, quickly reminded the angel what he had come for, and he spoke with a voice as radiant as his countenance and said to my father: ‘Don’t worry. You’ll come in at the top of your class on exams.’ That’s when my father stopped crying and first really looked at him.
“‘The Lord,’ said the angel of Saint Thomas, ‘has seen your afflictions and sent me to bless you. As matter of fact,’ he said, ‘the Lord saw your affliction long before you were born and began arranging things even then. When the great Brahmin Vikas Anand’s daughter grew alarmingly sick in 1895, the Lord sent Christian missionaries to his home to bless the girl. Out of gratitude for her life when she miraculously recovered, Anand declared that she would be raised a Christian and inherit one-half of all his wealth. And wouldn’t you know that her granddaughter is about your age and that your pastor, even now, is mulling over how to ask her father if he’ll offer her in marriage to a low-caste boy who shows great promise as a student, as, you know, a sort of scholarship to get him through medical school? And won’t you be surprised when after ten, fifteen more years of work, people are calling you Dr. Kumar? And in this way, the Lord will—’
“But before the angel could tell my father what else the Lord was going to do, a growl that shook the dust up from the earth sounded in the not-so-distant darkness and my father saw there in the black, the glint of terrible teeth and the dull sheen of venomous fingernails. A rakshasa, a Hindu demon, was lurking just past of edge of the light—and whether it was Maulana Azad’s secular or the angel of Saint Thomas’s religious light which kept him at bay, I do not know, but he still spoke into the space occupied by a light he was unwilling to touch.
“‘Now wait just a minute,’ the raskshasa said, ‘along with each of your blessings, he ought to hear my curse. He is, after all, a traitor to the soil that gave birth to him, the son of a bastard father who took up the religion of a firang.’
“That’s not a nice word, by the way,” said Dr. Kumar. “I wouldn’t use it if it weren’t absolutely necessary to evoke the attitude of the demon.”
“What does it mean?” I said.
“It’s used to describe a person who arrives in a place where it’s not felt that they belong,” said Dr. Kumar.
“And the demon said this to your father?”
“He said it about my father’s faith. As you can imagine, that upset the angel a great deal, and he began to grow sarcastic.
“‘I had no idea you cared so much for a few dalits,’ said the angel.
“‘It’s a new age with a new politics,’ said the rakshasa.
“‘New? I’m surprised one of your kind knows the meaning of that word,’ said the angel.
“‘Die again and go to hell this time,’ said the rakshasa.
“‘Can someone please tell me what is going on?’ said my father, who bore both the Hindu name Ramesh and the Christian name Moses.
“‘I bless you to become a doctor,’ said the angel.
“‘Ha! If that’s your blessing, what is a curse?’ said the rakshasa. ‘If he wants to look at pus-filled wounds and contaminated stools all day, why should I stand in the way of that?’
“‘I bless you to be married, as I’ve stated, to the great-granddaughter of Vikas Anand,’ said the angel.
“‘That half-Tamil girl? So dark, how will he be able to find her in the night?’ The rakshasa laughed and the stench of his breath reached the angel’s feet, bringing back to him unpleasant memories of how it felt to be alive.
“‘But that’s not all—,” said the angel. “Your life’s course will carry you far away from here to the land where Daniel the prophet once dwelt, a few kilometers east of where the Garden of Eden once grew.’
“‘Now you’re upsetting me,’ said the rakshasa. ‘If you want somewhere old and noble, try the Ganges or the isle of Lanka. I curse the lands of your book. When he goes there, may they be engulfed in war! May a bomb fall at his very feet!’
“‘But I bless him,’ said the angel, ‘that the bomb won’t harm him. And that when the curse comes true, he’ll find his way out of there and eastward again.’
“Ha! Though he walks from one end of Iran to the other, wars will follow him. On the west side or the east, if he leaves this soil for that land, he’ll be punished!’
“‘I bless him to do God’s work for the humble and oppressed, wherever his feet carry him.’
“‘And I curse him with no paycheck! If a revolution itself has to get in the way, I’ll see that he’s not compensated.’
“‘I bless him with children to care for him in his age.’
“‘And I curse them with resentment toward him for forcing them all to be doctors! Let’s see if they love pus-wounds and sniffing stools. Let’s see if they love his short temper and angry lectures about grades.’
“‘I bless his children to find strength in their faith.’
“‘I curse them to join a lunatic sect that doesn’t even let them drink chai!’
“With this, the rakshasa inched forward ever so slightly into the light. He rose to his full height of somewhere between three and five meters and howled: ‘I curse him with the legacy of Brahmin and Britisher, of always thinking that light skin is better than dark. I curse him to care more for a prospective son-in-law’s status and wealth than for his character. I curse him with a spirit of patriarchal autocracy. I curse him with an inability to ever step outside these early years’ struggle and consider the feelings of someone else!’
“‘I bless him,’ the angel said, ‘that when he is old, he will have a fig tree to care for, and that it will both occupy his hands and fill his heart.’
“And for that, the rakshasa had no answer, so he turned and fled back into the night. And the angel of Saint Thomas the Once-Doubter turned and looked down at my father, who, exhausted by the collected weight of years of study both behind and before him, had fallen asleep even before the angel and rakshasa had told him everything that was to come.”
I vaguely remember waking up to a duller shade of pain than I’d known in more than a week. I celebrated this, naturally, by retching as thoroughly and exhaustingly as possible, trying to shake off the after-effects of that most unusual anesthetic I’d been given. Had the angelic light I’d witnessed been no more than the surgical lamp? Had the rakshasa been the surgeon himself, tearing into my body, carelessly leaving the toxins that would soon manifest themselves in a robust, hospital-strain staphylococcus infection?
“Uuuggghhhh?” I asked the first time I heard a nurse come in to check my vitals.
“That bad?” said the nurse.
“Where is—?” I began, trying my best not to sound desperate. “Where is Kumar, you know, the doctor: Kumar?”
“Kumar?” said the nurse.
“Junior. I have to see Dr. Kumar, Junior,” I said. The nurse glanced over some papers.
“I’m not quite sure who you’re talking about,” said the nurse.
“In anesthesiology. Looks Indian,” I said. “It’s not that complicated!”
“Sir, half the doctors in this hospital look Indian,” said the nurse. “Can I get you another pillow or something to drink?”
It is at moments like this when I often remind myself to breathe deeply. By breathing deeply, one can avoid many unpleasant and embarrassing experiences. Such as, for instance, berating an overworked nurse for failing to know the younger Dr. Kumar. Or, to take the example a step further, attempting to use one’s IV to pull down the bag-carrying metal rack onto an unsuspecting nurse’s head. If one is to persuade a nurse to take time out of his busy work schedule in order to look up the phone number of a certain anesthesiologist, one must use any respiratory technique available in order to see beyond such options and establish a relationship of trust. Or so I reasoned. Unfortunately, however, attempting to breathe deeply while intensely nauseated can also lead to such mishaps as, say, a fit of vomiting out of an already impoverished stomach (which contains, let us imagine, only acids) and onto an overworked nurse.
The nurse did not get me a pillow or a drink. When I asked again about Dr. Kumar, he left for some time. I was probably either asleep or delirious, or perhaps both, when he returned.
In my dreams, bombs are falling on the street between the hospital and a mosque. A middle-aged Dr. Kumar, Sr. walks to work with an umbrella. The umbrella is incredible—it is painted in pure whites, bold saffrons, deep greens: colors which are, for a bomb-filled street between a mosque and a hospital, rather abrupt, rakish, even—shall I say it?—gaudy. It is an umbrella that I, for one, would never have the courage, self-assurance, or brashness to carry. Perhaps the doctor has none of these. Perhaps the doctor is simply oblivious. Perhaps the doctor is too absorbed in his work to notice what umbrella he is carrying, or even how the bombs, aimed (as if by some curse) toward his head bounce casually off of it and go careening off hundreds of feet to explode in dark alleys.
My envy for these bombs must be acknowledged. They are launched by hands that value them more than life, they shine in their Icaresque ascents, they dive with a self-consuming passion toward their destination, which is, conveniently, also their destiny—and then, and this is what wrenches my gut—they hit the umbrella, it destroys their perfect arcs and carefully calculated plans, it sends them spinning off at unexpected angles on unplanned odysseys and instead of falling apart, like any reasonable person would, at the life-breaking interruption, they flip like happy dolphins, they rush off athletically to the wrong deaths. How do they manage this with such fatalistic grace?
Dr. Kumar, Sr. stops, stoops, picks up a newspaper that has been discarded on the street. A bomb falls, bounces of his garish umbrella, glints—I swear—as if to wink at me. It flies rapidly upwards again, mistakes my window for the sky. Showering glass shards across my body like confetti, it bursts into my room. The heat radiates off its body and it pauses for a moment like some Kabuki actor above me in the air. A mechanical voice in my memory tells me, Breathe in. Hold—your breath. A moment passes. The MRI machine’s voice says breathe and the bomb explodes, though I’m blinded too quickly to appreciate the finer points of its pyrotechnical culmination.
I began to write, after I noticed that I was awake, in a note to be delivered to Dr. Kumar, Junior.
— once worked, according to the angel of Saint Thomas, near the Garden of Eden. I am not a religious man, but my grandmother firmly believed the Garden of Eden to be the original site of the invention of death, so I can see why your doctor-father would have been asked to work so near it. Assuming, of course, that your father is a doctor. I’m not sure whether I know that. I remember you telling me, but I might have been seeing things at the time. You see, I’m having difficulty establishing what’s real and what’s not real, what I know and what I don’t know, what matters and what doesn’t matter, and whether any of those mean the same thing.
You have to help me. The anesthetic has gone wrong. Or else I have reason to believe that the cancer has spread to my brain. Or else I am delirious and fevered and seeing visions of your father crossing the street in a city where bombs fall like rain.
P.S. The nurse is not helpful and doesn’t even know who you are. Please come quickly.
I tried to read over the note once more to see what I’d forgotten, but focusing on the words hurt my eyes. Terrible, isn’t it, never to be sure just what you’ve said?
“There are two Doctors Kumar in anesthesiology,” said the nurse, who had a disconcerting Cheshire-Catly habit of appearing and disappearing without warning, “Dr. Satish Kumar and Dr. John Kumar—neither with a junior. I didn’t see either name on your chart, but you seemed to know what you were talking about.” He handed me a slip of paper with their phone extensions before checking my catheter.
My face flushed. “That’s very kind of you,” I said, ashamed of having committed to writing my impression of his uselessness.
“You’re welcome,” said the nurse, “but it’s really not that difficult. The urine is all encased in plastic.”
“For the phone numbers,” I said.
“Oh. Sure thing,” said the nurse. I watched him swap out my old drainage bag for a fresh new one, and marveled for the first time at my easy access to such useful resources.
“You’re right about the bags, though,” I said, “amazing technology.”
“Oh?” said the nurse.
“Crude oil into plastic. It’s better than water into wine,” I said.
“I’d never thought of it like that,” said the nurse.
“Neither had I!” I said, “To think I’m kept clean by something which was once thick and black and spewing out from beneath the earth in a place like Iraq or Iran—it’s magnificent!” I laughed then, long and hard—or at least until my throat, eyes, and sinuses ached from the exertion. Is it possible that even after my own laughter had receded, I could still hear a sickly, cough-smeared echo of my laugh coming from beneath my bed? I looked up to alert the nurse, but true to his Cheshirely ways, the nurse had already somehow gone away. I lay alone, or perhaps only almost alone, in the darkness, wondering what the laugh-echo I thought I’d heard might promise or threaten.
That’s when I felt the claws piercing the sides of my chest.
In my dreams, Dr. Ramesh Moses Kumar is walking across the same street as before when a bomb falls—plunk!—at his feet, having missed the protective umbrella by mere inches. In this instant, Dr. Kumar’s obliviousness is demolished, and though the bomb is a dud and just lies on the ground in an impotent heap, I can tell that in his mind, Dr. Kumar, Sr. has been killed by this bomb already once and will be again the next hundred times he closes his eyes. So Dr. Kumar decides not to sleep. He and his wife each pack one bag that night, leave a big case of their belongings with a local nurse-friend, and walk away from the sunset, feet trudging all night in the direction of the coming morning, eyes straining to stay awake until they’re safely away from that city where bombs rain down from the sky, which lies just east of the border where men stand in line at the gates of paradise and hell.
How strange that in my dreams, the doctor strains so hard to keep from sleeping! I can’t recall if it was that juxtaposition or the insistent and abnormal beeping of the machine I was connected to that jarred me awake.
The doctors and nurses ran as if the bombs had spilled into the hospital from the street of my dreams. And maybe they had, maybe this explained the burning sensation I felt, maybe this and not a monster under the bed explained the clutching pains on the inside of my chest.
If you were to ask which doctor’s advice of another surgery I responded to, I’d have to make an uneducated guess. If you wished to know what permissions I gave and which forms I signed, I’d draw a blank.
I remember most clearly that, as they wheeled me in for surgery once again, I caught a glimpse of Dr. John Kumar. He didn’t ask me to count, simply slipped some solution into my saline and watched electronic signals for signs of life or else the approach of some angel of death. I wanted to speak to him, to ask him about what happened to his father, but couldn’t find my voice or any words. Standard English mixes poorly in the mouth with the tastes of certain sufferings. To speak to the doctor at a time like this, I needed another tongue.
When I was a child, my grandfather’s wartime years were smothered in silence. This is, I think, what happens to most people who serve in foreign wars: the languages of there and of here are so different as to baffle the would-be translator mute. Take, for example, the syntax of pain: in the grammar of there, it is invariably rendered as an exclamation, whereas in the grammar of here, it is most often formulated as a question. How dare one even hope to speak of such a devious shape-shifter?
From my grandmother, I learned about pain as manifested in an old and decaying Bible picture book: David, bearing Goliath’s severed head. Sampson, blinded by Delilah but praying to find strength for one last act of terrorism. Jesus, arriving at last on a cross he’d been carrying for three years. But where were those pictures when I needed them? Where were the old yellowed pages I could point at like a pain chart to tell the doctor: “Tell me a story, because it hurts like this”?
My uncle used to set out to visit foreign countries, only to arrive somewhere in their pasts. When I asked him for bedtime stories, he would tell me about real atrocities. “We live,” he’d say, “but we don’t learn, at least not very much and never for too long. And so we’re always gambling against cruelty at losing long-term odds.” And then he’d leave me to lie alone in the still darkness, where I’d imagine dice that summoned Leopold’s men on a one, revived Hitler on a two, started a Cultural Revolution on a three, brought Pinochet north to our country on a four, brought a plague on a five, and killed your grandparents and uncle on a six.
Long before I was old enough to develop any coherent perspective on pain, of course, my parents were both dead.
I only remember their faces from photographs, but sometimes the strangest smells fill me with a nagging sense of lost memory and half-forgotten longing.
“One,” I said, and Dr. Kumar looked down at me, surprised.
“Two,” I said, “Three. Four. Five.”
I opened my eyes. “Tell me a story about your father.”
“No,” said Dr. Kumar, Junior. “I don’t like to think too much about him. I’m sorry you had to see him in the first place.”
“Please,” I said, “please, just tell me another story.”
“Shall I tell you about the way he used to treat our mother? Shall I tell you about the time he tried to arrange a marriage for my sister with a man whose only qualification was an MD, who turned out to be an abuser of both alcohol and his own parents? Is that what you want to hear? Or would you rather hear about what he expected of me, demanded of me? Is that what you’re fishing for?”
“You do resent him, then, just like the demon predicted you would?”
“There is no demon. I made that up to keep you doped up for the surgery. I made everything up: the angel, the demon, the vision, Maulana Azad, everything. None of them exist! None of them ever existed!”
“Well, okay, that part is true. You saw it with your own eyes. I have a father and he studied under a lamppost long ago in a space and time very much unlike now and here.”
“Did he go to Iran?”
Silence. Dr. John Kumar said nothing for a while. “Why are you so interested in this?”
Silence. I said nothing for a while. “I keep dreaming about him there.”
“Maybe Iran doesn’t exist. Maybe I made that part up, too. Or maybe he made up one Iran only to arrive in another. And maybe that other Iran was made up, too, and was therefore overthrown by a third Iran, at once as real and fictitious as the rest.”
“Did he go to Iran?”
“I saw him there. I saw the bombs.”
“Then yes, he went and worked willingly but then there was a revolution and soon he was too trapped to visit us in India and so raised us over the telephone.”
“You and your sister didn’t go with him?”
“Of course not, no.”
“But your mother—she was with him, they were walking eastward across the country. Did they leave you alone?”
“We were with family. We were alone. I made Iran up and they were in India with us the whole time. What does it matter to you?”
I closed my eyes. “I have to know,” I said, “what happened to your father when they went east. I have to know,” I said, right about to cry, “whether your father ever escaped.”
“No,” said John Kumar, “and yes. And also no.” He sighed. “All right, I’ll tell you a story.”
“Where to begin? Or rather, where to proceed from where I once before began? Let’s start with this: my father, as you know, married my mother and was thus able to afford medical school, but thanks to persistent discrimination, struggled at first to find work—until a missionary doctor at a leprosy hospital prayed to God to send him aid in the form of a young, native, Christian doctor on the day before my father applied.
“My father worked for wages dictated by the limitations of charity work and a theology of self-sacrifice, and shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was to discover that some members of the staff were robbing the hospital blind. But oh, his righteous anger ran hot, and oh, how he rebuked those men for their corruption, and oh, how he awakened the old missionary to the hospital’s plight, and together they cleansed that hospital like Jesus cleansing the temple, which is how, I think, my father came to believe so firmly in Progress, despite all the subsequent evidence.
“After my sister and I were born, of course, charity wages wouldn’t do, but my father left his post for the siren-call of a far-off Shah who promised good money and golden pensions to Indian MD émigrés with the feeling that, in his own small way, he’d improved the world at that missionary hospital, which of course he had.
“But how does the hope of local improvement hold up against systemic collapse? In Iran, as you know, he had to teach himself to ignore the Revolution, then the Iran-Iraq war, until a bomb fell at his feet and he decided to leave his post and run. All across Iran he and my mother walked. When they were caught, they would work because no one wished to turn in a doctor for discipline or punishment when they could use him instead. He was like a human coin, found and spent a dozen times: don’t watch it, though, and it goes wandering. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, my parents would head eastward again, toward India. Bharat. Hindustan. Home.
“They arrived at last, penniless, at Iran’s eastern borders and were fortunate to find a gurdwara where they were allowed to sleep and eat for free. Their Sikh hosts even offered them soap and water with which to wash before presenting themselves at the pre-1947 borders of the land they in which we, their children, still resided.
“At the border, of course, they were informed that for an Indian doctor and his wife to pass through Pakistan was impossible. For days and days, my father sat and watched Baluchi drug smugglers crossing the border this way and that, trying to imagine how to smuggle himself and his wife home under their vests, but he knew such hopes were vain, and so he and my mother walked again northward until the Pakistan border was out of sight.
“He had hoped to reach Mashhad, and perhaps find some peace in that city of ancient martyrs, but my father had walked too much in step with the pace of war: no sooner had he been caught and put to work in a local hospital in southeastern Khorasan than Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion began pouring into Iran by the hundreds of thousands. The local military commander took my father to their camps, asked him to single-handedly heal their cramped and dirty populations.
“In one camp, there was an outbreak of cholera. Can you imagine? Thousands of people quarantined into a few square miles, in which there is nowhere to wash one’s hands and the sick are losing gallons of their bodies’ water to diarrhea every day. Infected fluids spill unchecked over the cots and the ground. Excrement and disease tinge all the water anyone has to drink. And one doctor should fix all this?
“My father told the commander that under these conditions, everyone in the camp would die. The commander told my father that a doctor could prescribe medicines, but not a new camp. My father asked if some of the uninfected could be moved out of the camp; the commander said no. Then my father filled up with the old righteous anger again and said to the commander: ‘All these people will die here and God will hold you responsible for their deaths!’ The officer grew indignant, said ‘What can I do? Are the Russians my fault?’ My father said: ‘Close the camp and send these people back to Afghanistan. If they die there, God will look to that country for the responsibility.’ And so it was that the commander closed the camp, freeing the people from certain death in Iran, leaving them to probable death in their Soviet-occupied homeland.’
“This incident, this compromised victory, proved to be my father’s greatest wartime triumph. His courage and dedication awed his Iranian colleagues such that when a different disease invaded my father’s own body some years later, when it set up an occupation which could not easily be expelled, they intervened on his behalf for an early retirement and two plane tickets home. His Shah-promised pension, of course, never followed him.”
I could hear the faint sound of something being cut in the silence that Dr. Kumar, Junior had fallen into. I had a feeling that the thing being cut was a part of myself.
“I’d like to ask your father,” I said, “how to find dignity in a world that makes so little sense.”
“He tends a fig tree,” John Kumar said, “in California, in my sister’s back yard.”
When I woke up again in my own hospital bed, I immediately searched for the scrap of paper the nurse had brought me. I found it near the telephone and left a message for Dr. John Kumar, saying “Do you exist?” and “Were you present at my surgeries last week and last night?” When the nurse came, I asked him to check for a monster under my bed. Perhaps an aging Hindu demon with an oddly comforting sarcastic streak? The nurse laughed, apparently under the impression that I was joking. As he changed my bedpan, I thought of the camp full of cholera. How long, oh Lord of Dr. Kumar’s father, must such suffering go on?
“Thank you,” I told the nurse as a way of clearing my mind.
“For what?” he said.
“For nothing in particular,” I said, “I just feel like I should thank someone.”
Dr. Kumar called back to confirm that he’d been the anesthesiologist for my surgeries, but said he’d had trouble understanding my other question and what was it I wanted to know?
The trouble with asking a person whether he or she exists is that during any given conversation, the answer always seems self-evident: it’s only later, with the murkiness of hindsight, that doubt sets in. So I told Dr. Kumar I wanted to discuss some side-effects I might have had from the anesthesia and asked if it’s normal for a patient to stay awake through the ten count and for most of the surgery and yet not remember seeing anything that went on.
“I’m not sure,” said Dr. Kumar. “As far as I could tell, in that first surgery you were out by two.”
“Do you drink tea?” I said.
“No” said Dr. Kumar.
“And for you, that’s a matter of religious faith?”
“Yes. Have you known other Latter-day Saints, then?”
“Was your father a doctor?” I said.
“Yes,” said John Kumar. “He was.”
“And he encouraged you to become a doctor?” I said.
He hesitated. “You could put it that way.”
“You’ve been thinking about him a great deal lately?”
“I suppose I have...yes,” said John Kumar. “Yes, definitely. Why are you asking this?”
“He lived in Iran once and in California now?”
“Yes... You know him, then?” said John Kumar.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Not quite, in any case. I don’t understand him yet.”
After a long pause, John Kumar laughed. “Of course you don’t. Neither do I.”
My desk is, presumably, still cluttered with papers which, in the not-so-distant past, I found extremely important. My car, I suppose, is still in need of changed oil.
I lie in a hospital room and stare at the ceiling, remembering things my uncle once told me about the brutal reign of Leopold II over Congo. I consider my own position and wonder how exactly the hierarchies of pain and fear operate, wonder where my own suffering currently falls among the hundred billion or so people who have ever lived on the earth. I remember the bright teeth and matted hair of the rakshasa I saw under anesthesia that first night of the current phase of my life. Is the rakshasa also the weakened, rasping monster who lies under my bed, who graces me with the occasional embrace? It’s so difficult to be certain of anything in this world!
I had a sweet dream last night. I saw the fig tree Dr. Kumar, Sr. tends in his daughter’s backyard. He visits it even more faithfully than he once visited the Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost of Panipatnam. The retired doctor tends the tree with a tenderness I would not have anticipated.
I do not know, for certain, whether he does so because the tree actually bears figs or simply because he loves the way that the sprouting leaves remind one—as Jesus said in the Bible, and again through my grandmother when I was very young—of the promise that a summer is still bound to come.
James Goldberg is an award-winning playwright and essayist who earned his MFA at Brigham Young University in 2010. Recent work has appeared in Drash, Irreantum, and Shofar. His flash fiction cycle "Sojourners" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has been translated into Punjabi and published in Jattan Da Pracheen Ithaas.