Book Review : The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

I’ve found my ‘Book of the Year

It may seem premature to declare it as early as July, especially given the stellar line up of titles on my ‘to read‘ list. But I think this won’t change by December (or even beyond) – because of just how brilliant Alex Michaelides‘ debut novel “The Silent Patient” is.

I picked it up to read over breakfast. All through a busy day, I was constantly tugged towards it, grabbing every chance to read a few chapters. With all my work done by 10 p.m., I sat in a quiet bedroom. The rest of my family was deep asleep.

I, however, was trapped inside a world created by a gifted writer, unable to return to my own until everything was resolved, explained, settled. That happened around one ‘o’ clock in the morning… and only then could I go to bed!

Look, I’m a prolific reader, and have devoured thousands of books. And so for me, to be a contender for ‘best read of the year‘, a book has to check several boxes. This one does.

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Connectedness

Take for Granted

I paused in the street for a few seconds on my return from another college drop-off.

The lady who sweeps and cleans the streets was working in front of our drive. Just as she does every day, for the last 3 years.

She glanced up. Noticed my car. Hurried up a little.

I waited until she was finished. Opened the gate. Drove in and parked.

We didn’t acknowledge each other. Not even a smile or nod.

A nebulous socio-economic divide insulates ‘classes’ of people almost completely from each other, more so in my country than others. Apart from transactional interactions, ne’er the ‘twain shall meet.

Yet natural disaster has an equalizing effect.

It rips asunder this false shell to expose – and connect – the human heart that beats under us all.

Unites us in an all-encompassing embrace.

When a terrible storm flooded our city for a fortnight some years ago, this same lady and I had a lengthy conversation about the damage in the area where she lived.

She shared horror stories of shanty towns washed away in the deluge. Of families who lost everything. And of being rescued by lifeboats.

For a few precious moments, we connected – as fellow sufferers of an act of Nature, as co-passengers on the journey of life, as human beings.

And I wonder… why is this connection so rare?

I ask myself:

Should it need a disaster to make us recognize our mortality and connectedness?


P.S.: On December 8th, 2015, I had posted this after chatting with her:

“The lady who sweeps the roads had her colony submerged in Vadapalani. Relief workers provide food that is meager in quantity. Only yesterday, she got a tasty plate of biryani. All her clothes are wet and unwearable. No place to cook, even if she had rice and pulses. And the mosquito menace is intolerable. Just a conversation, lasting 5 minutes, threw up these priorities – clothing, food, mosquito repellant, cleaning up houses. Go out and TALK to people. See what they need. Then do what you can to help. #ChennaiSpirit”

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Banana fingers

Banana finger

A few of us grandkids walked home from Marina beach one evening with Grandpa.

We stopped by a fruit-seller’s cart. He sold bananas.

“How much are they?” Grandpa asked.

They haggled. The vendor pointed at the other end of his cart.

“For your price, you’ll get those.”

Grandpa glared for a while and said, “But those are so tiny.”

The wrinkled, elderly man in a torn, sleeveless vest held up his right hand, fingers splayed apart.

“Are all these fingers the same size, sir?” he asked.

It was a philosophy that cut through to my eight year-old mind… and has stayed with me since. I’ve used it several times over the years, in dozens of different contexts.

It always made perfect sense!

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Circular Logic

By and large, I’ve had an interesting, eventful, and rewarding life.

And am fairly content with it.

Yet, from time to time, when I get together with someone who knew me from a young age, they’ll remark that I could have achieved so much more – “if only I had wanted to“.

More money. More fame. More professional ‘success’.

After such conversations – for a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a week – I’ll wonder if I really have set the bar too low, not been ambitious enough.

And then, inevitably, this argument comes to mind.

What if I had strived harder for 10x more – and got it? Would I then be content?

Or would I feel it was possible to have tried even harder – for 100x more?

And beyond that – for 1,000 times higher?

What THEN? Carry on, extending this limit… endlessly?

Each time, this argument is convincing.

But not always comforting.

Sigh!

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Contentment

Muffin on the Window

Contentment. Satisfaction. Bliss.

It’s Muffin‘s trademark position. Sitting on the windowsill, gazing out into our backyard.

Since her operation, we’ve not dared let her upon that precarious perch. Today, as a stop-gap solution, I pulled up a chair and lifted her onto the cushion. Watchful of any misstep on her part, I sipped my coffee.

The little one settled down – and then remained motionless as a statue. After a while, I set down my empty mug and glanced into her face.

And saw contentment, satisfaction, bliss.

Curious, I lowered my head to her side, trying to see the world as she did.

For a few minutes, I too lost myself in the tranquil view out of our window.

Enjoyed the silence. The lovely, soft green of leaves, dazzling brightly as they caught the sun. The occasional waft of a cool early morning breeze.

And the close companionship of my dear friend, Muffin.

It was magical.

I wished the spell wouldn’t ever break.

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Recalibrate

CHD Support Groups

“Sister, the potassium level is 6.1 in this blood sample!”

It’s a medical emergency. But the senior ICU nurse, bent over paperwork at her desk, didn’t even raise her head.

“Recalibrate the machine and repeat the test.”

The process takes 3 minutes. A chastened junior nurse returned with the second blood report.

“It’s only 3.5 now, Sister.”

Her senior just smiled.

It was a familiar problem. After a certain time, the analyzer used to measure blood levels of vital chemicals had to be reset. Several minor tweaks and drifts happen. Collectively, they can skew a measurement – sometimes badly. And that could even create a pseudo-emergency!

It happens in other areas, too. Even with people in our lives.

Lately, I’ve noticed this effect in a few of my relationships. Some of them are 20, even 30+ years old.

At first, I was surprised and upset. But then, after thinking it over deeply, I realized something.

We tend to do two things to people:

  • affix a label (e.g. “friend”)
  • assign a set of attributes to it

But over time, things change.

Suddenly, one fine day, it appears as if the attributes don’t quite match the label… and you’re shocked at how everything’s now ‘different’.

Like a blood gas analyzer, our relationships also need to be periodically recalibrated.

Both the label, and its attributes.

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In a hurry

Nature does not hurry

Alway in a hurry.

That sums up today’s typical youngster. In a hurry to enter a study program or course. Then, to acquire a degree. Afterwards, to find a lucrative job or build a busy practice. Get famous. And rich.

All in a hurry.

Yet ‘time’ is a strange concept. It moves at its own pace. You can’t speed it up.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”Lao Tzu

Looking back at how my career path unfolded might be instructive. I got into graduate training programs successively, without ‘wasting’ any years by not getting selected. Yet by the time I got my Masters degree in cardiovascular surgery (which, back then, was a 2-year program), I was 29 years old!

How did that happen? You enter medical school at age 17. It’s 5 and half years. Graduate training in general surgery takes 3 more years. And it requires another 2 years to specialize. That should add up to 27 and a half.

So… where did the extra 18 months go?

Delays. Unavoidable ones. Someone filed a case against the selection process for our All-India PG entrance test. It took 6 months to clear. The super-specialty entrance exam got postponed by 3 months.

And sometimes, timing was off. Despite our batch being rushed to complete internship before the deadline date, there were still mandatory gaps of a few months before I could take the next steps.

I was down with viral hepatitis (thankfully A, not B) for 6 weeks.

At the time, being in a hurry, all of this was frustrating. Everything seemed to move agonizingly slowly.

But in the end, those ‘compulsory’ speed-breaks were really immaterial. They didn’t set me, or my career, back in any major way.

During the wait for the court case to clear, I worked in a cardiac surgery unit – and gained priceless exposure to almost every kind of major heart surgery… even before I entered my general surgery program.

In the period between graduate and specialist training, I worked in a remote Primary Health Centre – where I learned the basics of small hospital administration… that served later in helping manage a surgical unit.

What’s my point?

Nothing is ‘wasted’.

There’s no ‘delay’ – except inside YOUR head. Every bit of time spent along the path to becoming whatever you want to be is actually useful, in one way or another.

So don’t be in a hurry all the time.

Instead, focus on HOW BEST you can use any ‘forced delays’ imposed on your career path. Whether you consciously take advantage of them or not, they’ll still end up making you a different kind of person.

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Book Review: The Lost Decade by Puja Mehra

The Lost Decade 2008 - 2018 Puja Mehra

I enjoy reading books that describe the arc of events and developments over a time frame. It may span centuries, like Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads” (see my review here). Or shorter periods that are more intense and eventful… like Puja Mehra’s “The Lost Decade 2008-2018How India’s Growth Story Devolved Into Growth Without A Story“.

In a politically charged climate, and especially around election time, books like ‘The Lost Decade‘ run the risk of being called biased or partisan – and then dismissed for that reason alone.

But doing that would be a shame. This is a brilliant, balanced account of the pros and cons of fiscal policy decisions made by successive Indian governments over the last ten years which have brought us to where we are today.

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