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Syndic Literary Journal

The Poetry Reading

Written by Dileep Jhaveri

Narrated by Bill Wolak



She was sixteen or seventeen, her respiratory rate was thirty, pulse was one hundred twenty, and temperature was one hundred three. She coughed relentlessly, andher handkerchief was speckled with blood. For a long time she had been treated by a chest specialist with costly medicines that her father could barely afford. I had a reputation as a successful tuberculosis doctor among the poor, so she came to me for treatment.

            Because of the daunting number of drugs she had been prescribed, she could hardly eat. The previous doctor was a vegetarian Hindu and had advised a non spicy vegetarian diet with lots of fruits. The young girl’s name was Nargis, she was Muslim, and her father was an impoverished tailor. She needed protein, calories, and iron, which these costly fruits could not provide. Beef was cheaper and more nourishing. So my first task required changing her diet and stopping hemoptysis. Also, it was imperative to start her treatment with basic first line drugs in the proper order and dosage.

            Her breathlessness had to be improved, and pills alone would not be sufficient. So I decided to teach her some rudimentary breathing exercises. The muezzin’s call to prayer at the mosque ends in a beautifully sounding line of sixteen syllables. It would take about six seconds to utter this line. All she needed to do was whisper the name of her great and kind God while inhaling and repeat it while exhaling. This would bring down the respiratory rate to five or six in a minute while allowing the lungs to expand their capacity, strengthen the intercostal muscles, and stabilize her pulse. She was an exemplary pupil. Within a month, her fever came down, her coughing decreased, her appetite improved, and her bleeding stopped.

            By the next month, she became playful with me. She also began regretting her extended absence from school. Yearning to learn was an irrefutable sign of improvement, and now the little Narcissus bud was beginning to bloom. The pallor on her lips changed to pink. Her greetings and smile were open and enigmatic at the same time. She was a child and a woman simultaneously. Her words revealed her faith in me as her physician, while her heart throbbed with indefinable desire associated with the Electra complex.

            Her father, of course, became less anxious since he was spending a smaller amount on her treatment and had more time to concentrate on his sewing machine. Once or twice her sputum was stained with blood, but that was not alarming. Six months passed and a fresh x-ray of the lungs revealed some improvement. I was scheduled to give a poetry reading at a literary festival for two or three days. Because of this, I had explained exactly what to do in case of an emergency, provided her with the name and address of a reliable doctor, and told her when I would be back.

            She did not return for her monthly check up for nearly two months. One day her father arrived with a glum face and told me what had happened. While I was gone, she had a slight fever and some bleeding. Forgetting that I was away, she had rushed to my clinic by auto rickshaw, but seeing the closed shutters of my office returned home. She refused to see the doctor I had recommended and died within two days. Thanatos had entered the space between her heartbeats in my absence. Her ineffable adolescent romanticism had blindfolded her and enticed her to the grave. The intensity of faith and extension of love may help healing, but being Janus-faced also dooms one to darkness.  I used to scoff at romantic sentimentality in poetry, but Nargis made me regret my cynicism.

Written By Mumbai Poet/Writer Dileep Jhaveri


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