“Your turn,” said the doe-eyed girl. The woman nodded and dipped back into the book she’d been reading. It was a slim book by Toni Morrison that at any other time she would have been so immersed in as not to have heard a wall collapse behind her. She sighed, stuffed the book into the large tote she was carrying and knocked.
“Sorry Dr. P. I should have been here last week. ”
“Yes, yes. Please have a seat.”
“I did a master health check up…” she began lamely. She was already afraid of him finding out that she had not completed the course of medicines he had prescribed for her. She was not a woman who finished her courses, medicinal and otherwise. She believed, secretly, that doctor’s gave more medicines than needed; a few missed doses had not harmed her so far.
The man smiled politely. “You’ve brought my earlier prescription?” He studied the paper and asked her if she had any problems now. When she shook her head, he told her to sit on the leather topped stool meant for patients being examined.
The chamber radiated a bright white light that seemed to wash over every object in the room and reflected back to the air in turn. It was a continuous process, and already the woman could feel her eyeballs start to ache. She stared at the poster on the wall detailing the parts of the ear nose throat. She read some of the names on the poster. Eustachian Tube. Palatine Tonsil. She has suffered from tonsils all her life. Now she cannot sing. The tunes raging in her mind refuse to soar from her throat. Sometimes even words disappear as she speaks. Half words, even whole words. They come pouring out from her head and then coagulate in her throat. She had told the doctor about it during her first visit, adding self consciously that since writers these days were expected to read out their work, this could be a problem. Now the man took a periscope like instrument and peeped into her ears. First the left and then the right. “The infection seems to have cleared up,” he said, lifting up her nostrils with a tong like instrument. “Are you taking your nose drops?’
The woman looked sheepish. “Wasn’t that a three day dose?”
“Actually it’s for a month. I had told you that.”
The woman looked at the kidney shaped steel tray near the basin at the corner of the chamber. It looked hard and shiny. No germ would dare sit on it. There was another steel tray next to it, a rectangular one. Just as hard looking but not so shiny. Some instruments and other steel objects were sitting in it.
“I would like to look inside your throat. We couldn’t it last time.” He smiled, “Since you’re one of those.” The woman smiled back, faintly. The last time she had nearly gagged on him. “Well,” he said, leaning back a little. “Please continue your nose drops, and those tablets were for clearing your throat; that problem you said you have. Did you finish the course?”
The woman nodded hastily, but looked away. Now there was a pause. They seemed to be waiting for something in the hard light. The man lowered his face to his chin so it looked like he was looking down. His thick black framed square spectacles hid the direction of his eyes. But the woman knew he could see her. Suddenly there was a shyness wafting into the room, like a cool breath. It came from him.
“I read your poems. They are very nice.”
The woman looked at him properly for the first time. Her eyes widened. “You read my poems? Oh! I mean this is so kind of you.”
“No they are nice poems. I liked them.” He knitted his fingers and rested his chin on the bridge of his fingers, elbows seeking support from the handles of his chair. He was not sitting up so straight now. “You know I also used to write. I mean I have always wanted to write. I read poetry…”
“This is wonderful! You’re a doctor and you find time out to read poetry. This is so …wonderful. I.. I’ll. I mean if I had known I would have brought my chapbook along…for you.” The woman waved her hands about to make up for the way the words had jerked and bounced out of her. The words dispersed gracelessly like shooed chickens. She smiled enthusiastically and nodded vigorously.
“No no. That’s okay. Um.. I used to read Russian poets…” And he mentioned a Russian name she hadn’t heard of; a name she could barely catch.
He repeated the name, but she still couldn’t catch it. Her mind fluttered around inside her head like a scatter brained spinster- aunt suddenly embraced by guests. She searched for the names of Russian Poets that she had read in the distant past. Mussa Jalil was all she could come up with for now. “Have you read Mussa Jalil?” she asked earnestly. “I recently lost my copy of his poems and I am still angry about it.”
“No I have not read Mussa Jalil… I read a lot of Sappho, you know,” he says leaning back into his chair and clasping his hands behind his neck. “Sappho.”
“Ah yes Sappho. Yes yes Sappho. Did a lot of him in college. Ancient stuff but so relevant even today.”
She had forgotten that Sappho was a woman. The man smiled, but said nothing. He looked at the poster, the thick medical books on a glassed in shelf beside it. It seemed like the conversation was over for him. He began to fold back into his professional self, when an impulse stopped him. “My daughter,” he said. “She also writes you know. She writes very well. I mean I am not saying this just because I am her father. She really writes very well. She writes poetry, but it’s a private thing with her. You know I respect that. So I don’t push her.”
The woman looked at him eagerly. “Oh? That’s so wonderful! But I understand. You know I used to be like that when I was young. In school.”
He nodded. She nodded back. Both of them contemplated this observation. The man looked down at the floor as if searching for something. “Once they told the children in her school to write a fable and she wrote something very nice about two swans. I mean it was really good, you know. I wondered how she could think of something so different. It was different.”
“So both of you share a passion for writing!”
“Yes. Um .. I used to keep a journal you know. My daughter keeps a journal. I’ll show you…”
He reached down and put something on the table that looked like a large, A4 sized shiny black diary with a metal spine. When he opened it she realized it was a laptop. And she wondered how she could have mistaken a laptop for a diary. She looked owl-eyed at what the man was about to reveal. She thought he was about to share his poetry or that of his daughter’s. A picture of a ten -year-old looking thoughtfully at the camera against a backdrop of pure sky stared at her from the monitor.
“Oh she’s lovely. I mean look at her so thoughtful. She’s looking at you and also beyond you.” The woman tasted the words on the tip of her tongue as they came out; she quickly swallowed to drown out their sour tinny taste. This was not the kind of conversation she wanted to have with him. She had an irresistible and illogical urge to recite poetry, any poetry, not necessarily her own, in that antiseptic room. She felt her muscles jerking. Stanzas from long read but not forgotten poems marched into her mouth. But the words on the threshold of their departure became soundless, slipped out noiselessly and hid behind her chair, scuffing their feet on the floor like awkward children. The man looked at his daughter in the monitor for long seconds with soft eyes. Then he shut the laptop.
“What class is she in? Which school?”
“Class five,” he said, adding the name of a famous school that offers an alternative curriculum.
“Oh? I know a poet who teaches there. He writes Haiku.”
“Yes, yes. I think I know him. I think he’s her teacher. Class teacher.”
“I enjoy reading Haiku. But I don’t write much of that. Do you?”
“Oh yes. Haiku. I read Basho. Love Basho. Have you read Basho’s prose? I think his prose is very lyrical and yet sort of ..um..to the point.”
“No, only his Haiku.”
He looked disappointed. “He wrote this travelogue you know “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”… Very lyrical.”
“No I am not familiar with that.” She said emphatically.
“I enjoy some of the modern woman writers,” he said after a pause.
“Sylvia Plath? I don’t know for some reason I don’t really like her. I mean everybody thinks she’s great but…somehow…”
“I don’t like her much either. Her poetry is too one sided. Narrow scope, you know.” he smiled widely, relieved to share an opinion with her.
“Yes, yes absolutely. But contrast that with Emily Dickinson. I mean just look! Here was a woman who never left her home and what profound stuff she wrote…’tell the truth, but tell it slant.” The woman felt pleased that she had been able to recall a line from Dickinson. He nodded in agreement. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” he murmured. Encouraged she continued, “Eliot is really my favourite, always.”
The man laughed, awkwardly shrugging his shoulders. “Oh? Actually I never got beyond the first few pages of The Wasteland.”
“The Wasteland of course. No I mean you should read it again, slowly. Give it time. But first you must read The Lovesong of JA Prufrock.”
“Love Song of JA Prufrock. I think that’s the first poem one should read of Eliot’s. He really is my all time favourite poet. I keep coming back to him.”
“Just listen to these words,” she said standing up in her enthusiasm. “The smell of steak in passageways”… See here we are in India and I can pass through a street that smells of asafoetida and think of this line and it’s relevant. You just substitute steak with asafoetida or garlic. TS Eliot means something you know. He has something to say that means something. Even though we are in a different land. A different time…”
The man stood up as well. “Yes. Yes,” he said, pausing to chew on her words. “That’s what a poet should do …”
The words fell softly from his mouth, gathered up and oxygenated. Each letter grew plump and the words floated up to the ceiling, softly bobbing against the smooth white surface like trapped helium balloons. The man and the woman stood beneath the words in a shared silence.
“Well I must go to my Gynaecologist now,” she said at last. She gathered her tote bag and medical reports. He saw her off to the door. “Thank you,” he said softly. She nodded and smiled. She paused outside his shut door. It would have been nice if she could have given him a book of poems then and there. Any poems, not necessarily her own. She felt she would have liked that very much.
The man returned to his chair. He sat quietly beneath the words still bobbing against the ceiling. The doe-eyed girl popped her head in to ask whether he would see the next patient. “Give me five minutes,” he said.
In a while the words began to pop, a letter at a time, dispelling a faint fragrance, a whiff of fresh moisture on the man. He waited until all the fragrance had dispersed and then waited a bit more in the starkly bereft chamber before pressing the buzzer.
Rumjhum Biswas lives and writes in Chennai, India. This is a real life conversation with an ENT specialist; previously posted in the writer’s blog