Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dancing king

It’s not the grey hair and wrinkles and gravity-affected flesh. It’s not even the increasing tendency to spend a convivial evening at a bar talking about mortgages and sluggish thyroids and failed relationships with friends. Those are merely incidental. No, the sure-fire way to feel old is to have the people who were part of your youth die on you. Grandparents, parents, old friends, musicians. Movie stars.

When I first read that Patrick Swayze had cancer I simply assumed that he would beat it. Never mind that pancreatic cancer is one of the most virulent and one of the deadliest. If anyone could survive, surely it was he? He was fit, rich, and had access to the best medical care. Much more importantly, if you were a teenaged girl in the 1980s, he had crossed the line between lucky actor and myth, and myths don’t die, they just get older. When I read this week that he’d lost the fight, I went into instant denial. How could he? How could he just up and disappear, taking my teens with him? He was an icon, and icons have responsibilities. Enduring forever is one of them.

Patrick Swayze—actor, athlete, singer-songwriter and trained ballet dancer—hit the scene with the other bratpackers (including Matt Dillon and Ralph ‘Karate Kid’ Macchio) in The Outsiders, but really made his mark with the unabashed chick flick Dirty Dancing. He wasn’t just a guy with a pretty physique who generously took off his top a lot; he opened our teenaged eyes to the possibility that a fellow could be both average looking and impossibly sexy. He could have big hair and tiny deep-set eyes and an untidy mouth and twirl around on a stage on his tippy-toes and not look even vaguely like a twit.

Of course Michael Jackson, who also took some of my youth with him when he died, was a much greater, more famous, more exalted myth. He was a truly original talent, and there was a Dickensian quality to his life that you might have serialised under the title All of a Twist. There was a riveting pathos to his long fall from king of the music world to grotesque pyjama-clad medical mess who dangled babies over balconies.

But frankly, Michael Jackson existed in the stratosphere. You might have loved his music and thrilled to his innovative dance moves and loved his sparkly gloves, but it was all up there in the clouds somewhere out of reach. I, for one, could never really see myself dancing with him, and never wanted to.

On the other hand pretty much everyone wanted to dance with Patrick Swayze, with or without, but preferably without his shirt on. There’s a reason he was voted sexiest man in the world, and it wasn’t his looks; it was the way he moved and his brooding interpretation of Johnny Castle, dance instructor at summer camp. Everyone wanted him to place their hand against his heart to learn about beat, everyone wanted to look into his eyes and keep the frame, everyone wanted to leap into a pond and have him lift them over his head, everyone wanted to…well, watch the movie.

I just saw it again. Jennifer Grey is as vastly annoying now as I found her then, and not just because she played the lucky lady who actually got to dance with him. But like beloved old music—which includes the film soundtrack—the mere thought of Dirty Dancing me back to a particular, precious time of life. Patrick Swayze did what all those gawky boys in real life failed to: made us feel as if there might be some romance in the world. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Q & A

Anyone who has ever attended, in any capacity, a panel discussion or a book launch or talk in Delhi has had to pay an awful price, even when the event is free, which it mostly is because we live in one of the most culturally subsidised cities in the world. (Pay attention, America, those warming strategic ties are just the thin edge of our evil Socialist wedge). It’s like rolling up at the highway toll booth: Did you think this sort of pleasant ride was for free? As illuminating as the speakers or presentation might be, you have to gird your loins for the most dreaded part of the evening: the question and answer session.

Audiences in this city, who ardently believe in free speech unless it hurts their many sentiments, take this constitutional liberty to mean: ‘I have so very much to say, and I’m going to say it whether or not it’s relevant to the stuff you’ve been saying for the last hour, which I paid close attention to except for the bits when my bootlegger/wife/long-lost classmate was on the phone’. A request from the moderator such as “Please restrict yourself to one question” is very much like the sound of one hand clapping. The first question thereafter is typically: “Madam, I will ask only three small questions.” In more acute cases, the offender bulldozes right through Madam’s protests with: “My first question has four parts.”

For a while I thought that this style was the preserve of the greybeards at the very pleasant old age home known as the India International Centre, but soon discovered that the relatively younger folks at the India Habitat Centre are no better. They spend fifteen minutes whipping their arms in the air like tarpaulins in a gale and, when finally called upon, are liable to say, “I don’t have a question. I have an observation.” The observation in question is usually a recitation of their resume, followed by a species of harangue that may or may not be identifiable as a thought, and will almost certainly not be related to whatever event was scheduled in the room.

One of the worst offenders is the motor mouth. This person will be moved to rise from his or her seat to declare, “I have a question and an observation,” before launching into their unabridged life history, and having got that off their chest, they will leave the room. Then there’s the random shouter, the splenetic chap who thinks a book launch is the best place to air some personal peeve when everyone knows the best place to do that is in a newspaper column. For example at the recent launch of a book authored by an American, a gentleman stood up and shouted, “America is not a holy cow, you know! If there was oil in Afghanistan it would be a whole different story!” Quite apart from the fact that it really was a whole different story from the one that had just unfolded, he needn’t have shouted; it was only a very little room.

Still, I suppose that if we did the sensible thing and just fitted every audience member with a remote-controlled electronic gag, everyone would start bitching and moaning about democracy and freedom of speech and how their fundamental rights were being infringed and all that liberal nonsense. What they don’t realise is that I’m not one of those tin pot dictators. I’ve thought this through. We’d only press the ‘Silence’ button (or the emergency ‘Detonate’ button) if an audience poll, by a show of hands, showed majority support.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Rest In Peace

This last year, two friends of mine lost their fathers to Indian healthcare.

In the first case, my friend X’s father was taken to Safdarjung Hospital at mid-day with what they didn’t know had been a cerebral stroke during the night. The doctors yelled at X’s shocked and terrified mother for bringing him in so late, and said that it was her fault that he probably wouldn’t make it. There were no ventilator beds free, so the family was told that they would have to keep his lungs working with a manual ventilator that must deliver shots of oxygen (breaths) at precise intervals.

The family was expected to do this. They and their driver took turns pumping oxygen into X’s father’s lungs as best as they could while they made frantic phone calls searching for an affordable hospital with a working ventilator and available beds. It was not until 10pm that they were able to secure a bed at Holy Family Hospital, through the kindness of a doctor known to the friend of a friend. The doctors at Safdarjung refused to let the patient go except under Left Against Medical Advice (LAMA), and not only refused to provide a ventilator van but also demanded that their manual ventilator be returned—the equivalent of taking the patient off life support—and would not entertain the idea of letting the family pay for a replacement that the hospital could get.

As X contemplated how to acquire a new one from the market, Holy Family’s ventilator van arrived with a doctor to transfer the patient. But by then X’s father was no longer breathing and was in a semi-comatose condition; the damage had been done. A week later, despite the best attempts of the doctors at Holy Family Hospital, he died.

My other friend Y’s father, a heart patient with renal problems, was rushed to the emergency room of the private Artemis hospital in Gurgaon in the evening, with symptoms of cardiac distress. It was the closest to their home, and in the ambulance that came to fetch him the family made a phone call requesting the attention of a cardiac doctor. When they got there, however, there was only a junior resident on hand, who said they’d first have to pay the Rs 50,000 fee. Since they only had Rs 10,000 on them they asked that doctors attend to the patient while they arranged the rest of the money, but it was a couple of hours before he was taken to the ICU, suffering cardiac pain the whole time.

It wasn’t until mid-day the next day that the cardiac specialist showed up. Various procedures were carried out as they should have been, but throughout that evening Y’s mother was not allowed to visit her husband, nor would anyone tell the family what the patient’s condition was. Enquiries revealed that the doctors who were supposed to be monitoring him were eating dinner; when the family called them, they were told not to worry because the patient’s parameters were the same and he was being taken care of. Then, at 2.45am, the doctors suddenly said that the family should go into the ICU because the patient was slipping away; a few minutes later he died.

These stories show up a whole range of systemic diseases that have nothing to do patients. Both families realise that their loved ones might have died anyway, despite everyone’s best efforts. Nobody expects hospitals and doctors to be able to save every life. But we all expect them to try their damndest. We certainly don’t expect callousness and negligence and casual indifference to the family’s feelings, and we don’t expect them to put bureaucracy above life.

Pain is entirely abstract until it happens to you. From the stratospheric heights of policy-making and economic theory, these things happen; but tell that to X and Y and their families, whose worlds stopped turning.