rolling with the punches

My first voyage was on a ship called Faith-1, a small product tanker on which my husband was Chief Mate.

As Faith-1 had a shallow draught she could enter and dock at most ports. A gangway would be lowered onto the jetty and we would go down and take a cab into town. Immigration gave us each a shore-pass and that was apparently all we needed to go anywhere in that country!

To my luck, a month after I joined Faith-1, she went off the monotonous Boston-Newfoundland charter she had been on for a whole year! She became a tramping vessel, going to any port where there was cargo to carry.

And so it was that Faith-1 left Boston and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

She crawled through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar into the blue Mediterranean . . . sailed around the Cape of Good Hope en route to Durban braving dangerously huge waves . . . got dragged by mechanical mules through the locks of the Panama canal . . . cruised through the picturesque Straits of Magellan from the Pacific into the Atlantic Ocean . . . navigated up rivers like the East river into New York, the Rio de la Plata into Buenos Aires, and the Humber into Immingham . . . She docked at tiny ports like Come By Chance in Newfoundland and Ilo in Peru, as well as at large ports like Rotterdam . . . She dry-docked at Lisbon for three whole weeks for an overhaul and paint job . . .

For me, it was like jumping from my narrow life of hospital/home onto that dear little bright orange ship that went everywhere, crisscrossed oceans, landed up on the shores of so many different countries, gave me new towns and cities to explore, new people to meet and a whole lot of new stuff to be amazed by, apart from giving me a lovely cabin, great food and good company on board!


A voyage, in all its variety, is so much like Life itself. Ship and ocean and weather conditions are perfect metaphors for person and life and life’s challenges. And dry-dock is the equivalent of going on vacation to rejuvenate!

Like life, a ship constantly moves forward and has deadlines to meet. She floats on a sea that expects her to navigate responsibly. She is alert to the appearance of unpredictable winds that can quickly go from calm to gale force and unleash Nature’s formidable might. All of this makes a voyage a toy version of the journey of life.

A ship sails for a while, berths at a port to load cargo, sails out again, then stops at another port to discharge it, which is quite like the rhythm of life with its hectic and quiet phases, of doing and just being, verb and noun. To be a chartered ship or a tramping ship is probably one choice we do have – if we have the luxury of freedom!


As in life, other lives go on around us as we sail along our charted course. Pods of dolphins with smiling faces race towards us to play at the ship’s bow. A lone sea lion occasionally floats by with a puzzled look on his cute little face. Flying fish frequently flash past in a streak of silver, just skimming the surface of the sea. Whales spout water in the distance.

Birds roost among pipes on the deck for a few days when we pass islands. Other people in ships and boats pass by. In coastal waters fishermen in their tiny boats come close to us to stare curiously up at our huge vessel and wave to us. Seagulls keep up a raucous din as they swoop down to catch fish.

Aft, the ship wake stretches back quite a ways, to fade away like traces of our day-to-day lives and, ultimately, of the years we walk the Earth. All that remains is the ship’s log.


Some events in life are like surface winds acting on the freeboard, superstructures and deck cargo of a ship. But, just as a ship is stable and can sail in all sorts of weather – not pitch and roll or list every time there are strong surface winds – you mostly manage to go on with your life even through rough times. There is a threshold for a distress alert, and it can’t be the sight of a few whitecaps in Force 4 winds!

Same way, you don’t run to a therapist every time you feel a little anxious or low. That would be like a ship calling a Mayday in ordinary bad weather! You find your balance like you do when you learn to cycle or skate. You do not catastrophise.

Unlike the effects of surface winds, forces acting on the submerged part of the hull of a ship are not easy to discern. When there is an ocean swell – due to a distant storm – you feel it in the way the ship moves. The Captain alters course to keep the swell on the port or starboard bow and makes sure he doesn’t steer the vessel into it. Sometimes he even stops the ship to let a storm pass.

A lot of your deepest feelings are like a swell acting on the part of the hull below the water. They are gut feelings, not intelligible thoughts that come into your mind in clearly formed words. They are like a foreign-language movie without English subtitles. Gut feelings can make you uneasy the same way a swell can make you seasick and nauseous.

A ship’s radar can only detect objects in the air or on the surface of the water, including the periscope of a submarine, but not the sub itself. That would need sonar. Your mind is more like radar and can’t detect stuff deep in your psyche. Therapy attempts to be like sonar but works more like radar. It only sees the periscope of a submarine and tries to reach the sub through it.

Sometimes a naval ship on a mission might mistake a whale for an enemy submarine and torpedo it like the British navy did during the Falklands War. They killed three whales by mistake! That can happen in therapy too. You might waste time and energy zooming in on something that might turn out to be totally irrelevant, a whale that had nothing to do with your war.

Though a little hindsight and analysis are good for course correction, I sometimes wonder if there might be a better way to approach some of life’s more common problems – a common cold has a simpler treatment than pneumonia does.

As a psychiatrist I have done a lot of therapy since it is one of the mainstays of treatment. Over the years I’ve realised that there are limitations to how much you can rummage through infinite stored memories, or plumb the depths of your subconscious, and draw connections to solve your current problems.

There’s also a limit to how much you can transform into a person far removed from your genetic and cultural heritage, your inner self, to fit an image you have in mind, and still be authentic and comfortable in your own skin, though you might feel relieved that you’re dealing better with things and people, and sometimes that’s good enough to reduce stress . . . However, if there are deep-rooted reasons for whatever is happening in your life and your coping mechanisms aren’t enough, you definitely need a therapist.

Telling children “you can do anything” and “you can be anyone you want to be” – so they feel less overwhelmed and more confident – works for some. However, some children grow up taking it literally, believing they are totally invulnerable to life’s blows and roadblocks. As adults they may break rather than bend in a storm, the way a ship might break at amidships due to bad structural design or improper weight distribution of cargo.

A little humility, a little common sense, a little distance, much resilience, more-than-a-little courage, a degree of self-acceptance, and some support from a parent, sibling or friend, should ordinarily help get your derailed life back on the rails. And if it doesn’t, a therapist should be able to help.

Accepting that things won’t always work out the way you plan is one way to bring down your stress level. Life is unpredictable. Luck does play a role. So does your personality. You do not have total control over all that happens. Everything that goes wrong is not always your fault, or anybody else’s; it’s a bad experience, and no doubt you paid a heavy price for it. Yes, and it hurts like hell and you can’t stop crying.  

But it could be a catalyst for switching tracks and changing your storyline. Who knows? Well, actually, I do. Chapters end, pages turn, new characters appear, new events occur, circumstances alter . . . life unfolds, and you learn to roll with the punches.


To hold his gaze for longer than half a minute or so would have been improper, but she had time to imagine, in the condensing way of thought, what he saw in the chair by his bedside, another grown-up with a view, a grown-up further diminished by the special irrelevance that haunts an elderly lady.

This is from a novel I just finished reading, The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Fiona Maye, the 59-year-old protagonist, is a High Court judge in London. Here, she is visiting her 17-year-old bedbound client in hospital.

This line certainly gave me pause. Really? Am I ‘diminished’ by the special ‘irrelevance’ that ‘haunts’ me as an elderly lady? Perhaps I am, in the eyes of some. But, somehow, the question of my relevance itself seems irrelevant.

I chose to retire early from work. I was tired of the hurly-burly of life. I felt depleted; I had nothing left to give. I just knew I had to call it a day. Besides, I had never had a burning desire to be relevant to the running of the world or its institutions – ‘brighten the corner where you are’, that beautiful old hymn, was more my thing.

When she resigned last month, Jacinda Ardern said she no longer had “enough in the tank”. She said, “We give as much as we can for as long as we can and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.” Two days ago Nicola Sturgeon said she knew “in my head and in my heart” this was the right time to step down as the first minister of Scotland.

As many have said before, life is like a river, and the way of life is to go with the flow. A river cannot have the energy of a noisy little brook bounding cheerfully down a mountainside, plunging into ravines to create waterfalls, then racing into the next valley . . . A brook has a long way to go before it grows into a river, while a river remembers being a brook once and is happy to watch the progress of the bubbly brook, the way we watch our children’s progress with pleasure.

A river flows somewhat sluggishly when it nears the sea and the last part is only about meandering or forming a sediment-filled delta or a marshy estuary as it gets closer to the sea. But it is still a part of the Water Cycle, it supports life in many ways, it is still as relevant as grandparents!

I was once on a ship that sailed up the Mississippi river to New Orleans. The mighty river was as still, flat and featureless as a vast lake. There was no wind, no waves, no spray, no swell, nothing. It was as still as Coleridge’s ‘a painted ship upon a painted ocean’. A river at this stage of its course can be that calm and peaceful, its waters unruffled by passing traffic.

Being a relevant agent of change in the world is transient. Today’s relevant people are replaced in less than two decades (very conservative and generous estimate!) by another batch of relevant people. They wait in the wings, then take centre stage to perform their part, move into the wings again, then step down from the stage to make place for the next troupe. To the constantly changing audience they are relevant only for the time they see them on stage. This is what we call Samsara, or flowing on.

With relevance comes responsibility. It’s horrifying to think that the views and diktats of people like those who declared Galileo guilty of heresy four centuries ago were relevant at one time! Today, governments and corporations are most relevant to the management of the world and its resources, and I’m not sure they realise what an enormous responsibility that is.

At times, being told we are irrelevant is a justifiable rebuke. When the 25-year-old New Zealand M.P., Chloë Swarbrick, brushed off a senior parliamentarian during a discussion on climate change in 2019 with “OK, Boomer”, we deserved it.

Often, something you knew almost nothing about becomes extremely relevant all of a sudden. Last year, that something was cancer for the non-medical people in my family. Today, reading the statement posted by Bruce Willis’ family about him – “frontotemporal dementia is a cruel disease that many of us have never heard of” – my heart goes out to them.


To get back to The Children Act, Fiona is mainly relevant in her roles as a High Court judge and as a wife. Relatives sometimes visit or stay over on holidays and then she’s a warm aunt, or whoever she’s required to be, going back to being mainly Judge, her dominant identity, after the interlude.

However, when she stops at a grocery store once, she briefly sees herself through the eyes of the boy at the checkout counter:

She bought a frozen fish pie. At the checkout she fumbled with her money, spilling coins onto the floor. The nimble Asian lad working at the till trapped them neatly with his foot, and smiled protectively at her as he put the money in her palm. She imagined herself through his eyes as he took in her exhausted look, ignoring or unable to read the tailored cut of her jacket, seeing clearly one of those harmless biddies who lived and ate alone, no longer capable, out in the world far too late at night.

Sure, the boy might see her in that light, but how does she see him? As an Asian bagboy, someone who is too unsophisticated to appreciate the elegant cut of her jacket, someone who spends all his waking hours bagging groceries for customers and has no other life. That is how he will live in her memory. Irrelevant. Diminished. So it works both ways.

Seen cross-sectionally, people appear only as their current role. Their relevance lasts only as long as the interaction does. We would see them differently if we were to take the long view and see their lives as videos rather than as snap shots. But that would be overwhelming! I guess that’s why it’s reasonable to take people at face value in short transactions.

In general, people have doubts about their own relevance, their place and role in the world, without being made to feel irrelevant by anyone else.

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.

Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?

I have no idea.

My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,

And I intend to end up there.

I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.

I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

Many patients who seek treatment for ‘depression’ come from a place of feeling invisible, unheard, unloved and disrespected – basically dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant – with a need to have their relevance to the significant people in their life restored. It’s hard for people to value themselves without some validation from people who matter to them.

Sometimes people are too depressed to wait for ‘whoever brought me here to take me home’ and might decide to find their own way ‘home’ if they feel they are not needed.


Going back to Ian McEwan’s observation, ‘a grown-up further diminished by the special irrelevance that haunts an elderly lady’, an elderly lady is like a matryoshka doll and carries the lessons of decades within her. She can hark back to any age and draw on her experience of being that age. She can read an “O.K., Boomer” subtext in someone’s look and decide if it’s worth thinking about.

The important thing to remember is that relevance is relative: relevant to what or whom at this stage of your life? If the answer is clear and pleasing, nothing else matters!

the daily newspaper

I might not have read newspapers at all if the things they wrote in them weren’t so far removed from things that personally matter to me. Some of them are mildly entertaining; some are shocking; some are familiar from last night’s channel surfing; some set off thoughts that gain new dimensions as the day wears on. A lot of them are banal and don’t stick.

A sample of headlines from the international section in today’s issue of my daily newspaper:

UK govt says BBC is independent

Online, it is described as ‘quasi-autonomous’, ‘authorised by royal charter’ and ‘operationally independent of government’. See? As independent, incorruptible, unbiased and totally balanced as Themis! We just have to ignore the ‘quasi’ to accept the UK government’s claim!

Four PIOs named to key US House Committees

These three beaming people brimming with happiness – and the fourth guy appearing to be calculating his next move – have apparently reached one of their life goals. Time for some wheeling and dealing, TV appearances and impressive sound bites; also a chance to make a difference, until their relevance fades, as it surely must.

Indian princess, known for role in UK women suffrage, to get blue plaque

Sofia was the daughter of the pre-teen king Duleep Singh who was forced by Dalhousie of the East India Company to ‘gift’ the Kohinoor to the British queen, Victoria, and then exiled to England after they took away his kingdom.

Sofia lived and died between 1876 and 1948 in England worrying about lots of things, one of them being the UK women’s suffrage, for which they are now fixing a blue plaque on her old house. Her other worries and troubles tell another story, like what it meant to be an Indian-German-Ethiopian-British person growing up in England.

IMF junks Pak’s revised debt management plan

The plan is called Circular Debt Management Plan. Circular?  Like a Ponzi scheme?

Maybe they should drop that word. It conjures up an image of a snake swallowing its own tail, ouroboros, symbolizing infinity, suggesting that the loan will never be repaid.

Eye on China, Philippines gives US greater access to its bases

Great headline – no need to read the article at all! Game in progress. Ball in play. Another String of Pearls in the making.

Zelensky wants tougher Europe, Putin evokes victory over Nazis

Ukraine sees itself as being attacked by Russia, while Russia sees ‘the collective West’ (as it calls it) as attacking it. Perhaps the Pakistani word circular applies here? I wish this circle could be opened and flattened into a straight line with a beginning and an end, across which diplomatic talks can be held, and the matter resolved . . .

But, no. The next headline says what is happening instead.

Banks in Iran and Russia move to link their systems to counter sanctions

Meanwhile, elsewhere . . .

Australia to remove British monarch from banknotes

Looks like they politely waited for the British queen to pass on and hoped that the new king would understand that they needed to give their indigenous people their due – finally.


And the rest of the news:



Bangalore traffic, Rs.530 crore due to the police for our collective traffic violations!

Man bludgeons wife to death with dumbbell, alerts police

Case of the missing passports of a family of four from Australia

Aero India show coming up

School uniforms for RTE kids

Improved railway stations – yay!

Full-page Ad: Deepika and Ranvir endorsing a grocery store

Elections, ECI, freebies, surveillance cameras to curb malpractices

Axing of trees planned on Sankey Tank flyover

Movie reviews – all three movies reviewed today got four stars – nice!

And, after a long time, there’s no mention of the Supreme Court collegium on the front page, so maybe it’s sorted, or shoved on to the back burner


Analysis of budget

Supply of weapons to Ukraine from Europe

Then, the Tech page of alphabet soup and neologisms:

AI: where are we today?

Mixed reality headset battle heating up

Google testing ChatGPT rival

We are looking for cloud engineers, DevOps, AI and ML engineers and full stack developers

Next, the sports page:

Lots of cricket and football. A little of archery, hockey and golf.  A tiny column on races, with a list of strange horse names.

What have I gained by my perusal of the newspaper for half an hour?

As a retired person regarding life from the sidelines, I get a sense of where I stand in relation to the outer world, like a sailor who has dropped anchor a little distance away from a busy port but is keeping the port in sight. It helps me ascertain that the anchor has not dragged and set me adrift in the open sea, which is my inner life.

Like figures carved on stone in bas-relief, my thoughts get defined better as I process what I read, chipping away, shaping my opinions of the world I live in. To me, this daily reset is necessary.

2020 was about COVID, 2021 about Afghanistan, 2022 about Ukraine-Russia, i.e. they didn’t fit into a regular news cycle but went on and on. These are a part of the collective experience of being on Earth at this point in time. They give me a sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger than my little life.

These macro-events are balanced by the small things that vary a little every day, yet remain comfortingly the same – things that keep life from being all about the impersonal big issues amplified in newspapers. There’s work to do, friends to meet, books to read, music to enjoy, movies to watch, places to go in town and beyond, different kinds of food to sample, time to bond with family and friends . . .

Dx: Depression. Maybe not?

Thoughts never stop. You think at least 6000 thoughts during your waking hours. Constant processing of data from both your inner world and the outer world – even minute details that you might not consciously register – generates thoughts.

Unless you’re concentrating on something, thoughts switch 6-7 times over 1 minute, and each thought creates a corresponding fleeting micro-mood. If you’ve had an unproductive, lousy morning it could be because the average of these micro-moods has kept your mood below the baseline-neutral one that you usually bring to work.

Your thoughts stay focused if you’re in problem-solving mode, or totally immersed in something, or meditating, and your mood remains stable. Otherwise, they come and go like puffs of wind and you go through finely nuanced mood changes that give a particular colour to the ‘I’ of the moment, like flag colours of different countries that are shone on monuments like the Eiffel Tower to mark an occasion.

Or, moods are like visible shifting sands on the beach, thoughts like invisible gusts of wind that cause the waves that shift the sands.

Sadness is a mood. It is a biologically designed response, like pain. It tells you that something hurts inside you. You can’t always trace the feeling back to a particular thought because the link between the thought-clip and the mood-clip often disappears instantly.

You might self-diagnose depression because you see no obvious reason for you to be sad. Actually, feeling blue, being in a funk, being down in the dumps, being in the doldrums, feeling low – describe these passing bouts of sadness better. They happen to everyone.

Sadness is the tube of black paint nestled in the midst of greens, browns, blues, reds, yellows and whites in the box. Mixed with any other colour in a small amount, it adds depth. Too much of it smothers the other colour out of existence. Nevertheless, it belongs on your emotional palette and underlines the importance of someone or something in your life. It is also the basis of necessary emotions like empathy and compassion.

Sadness is physiological, i.e. feeling sad is a normal response to a sad situation, unlike depression, which is pathological. We shouldn’t brand a patient with a label that signifies a ‘disorder’ when he has cause to be sad. Every low mood is not depression. But since ‘depression’ is used interchangeably with ‘sadness’ in common parlance, it is compromised as a diagnostic term, though it’s still in use.

Depression, unlike sadness, doesn’t tell you something is wrong, but falsely makes you feel something is terribly wrong, because it takes away your insight. It’s like too much black paint. The visceral howl that escapes when a patient chokes out, “Why can’t I be like everyone else? Why can’t I just be happy? It’s so-o-o-o hard . . . ” comes from the depths of her being. Her misery is agonizing as she fights to understand how and when the dark abyss yawned open in her inner world.

This is depression, not sadness. It is closest to the grief of bereavement, a deep sorrow mixed with a sense of irrevocable loss. Here, it’s the loss of the Self that used to be a happy, normal girl before the bouts of black moods set in.

According to DSM-5 criteria, Major Depressive Disorder is diagnosed if sadness has been present for more than two weeks, there has been a loss of interest or pleasure in most activities, physical exhaustion, inability to think clearly, marked changes in appetite, weight and sleep pattern, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, recurrent thoughts of death and suicide. At least five of these, along with the sad mood, have to be present.

So, intense sadness lasting over two weeks and adversely affecting a patient’s ability to deal with day-to-day activities, eat, sleep, work and engage with the world as expected, qualifies for a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and is to be treated accordingly.

In practice, the DSM has to be used along with clinical judgment and common sense, and the context in which depression has occurred must be taken into account to plan sensible treatment.

Sadness and depression are not synonyms. Sadness lies within the normal range of human emotions and doesn’t need medicines, except perhaps a dose of a mild sedative if there’s accompanying anxiety, insomnia or crying spells. Whereas, depression often benefits from antidepressants – they take the edge off melancholy, reduce anxiety, bring a little clarity to thought, and improve sleep. They are given for only a few months unless depression persists over time.

Depressed people need to return to normal and we have to use all available resources to help them along. Medicines may not be effective all the time, but we need to get what use we can out of them.

That’s not all. The probable trigger, the circumstances in which the episode originated, the course it took, coping strategies used, have to be examined for treatment to be complete, and to find ways to recognize and limit the effects of future episodes. Resilience is built into the human mental make-up, and most people process the experience and find ways to make sense of it, and therapy might help tap into that natural resilience.

The DSM-5 criteria for the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder are not set in stone. They get revised every few years based on current research in the domains of genetics, epigenetics, stress (hypothyroid-pituitary-adrenal stress response), neurological biomarkers, neuromodulators, individual variables, and psychic and social processes.

Here are a few representative references from research articles on depression, but please note, they are only by people working in the field of mental illness. People in other fields like Philosophy, Sociology, Evolutionary psychology, Psychological anthropology and Religion have their own take on why people get depressed. And I think every individual has his own theory too!

There are 227 possible ways to meet the symptom criteria for major depressive disorder.

Zimmerman, 2015

The current criteria for major depression have been criticized for the heterogeneity of the clinical syndrome they define. The genetics and neurobiology underlying the depressive disorder still remain largely unknown.

Østergaard, 2011

Diagnoses, like many psychological terms, are concepts that refer not to fixed behavioural or mental states but to complex apprehensions of the relationship of a variety of behavioural phenomena with the world.

Rosenman and Nasti, 2012

Neuroticism, morning cortisol, frontal asymmetry of cortical electrical activity, reward learning and biases of attention and memory have been proposed as endophenotypes for depression.

Goldstein and Klein, 2014

Neuroimaging studies have identified that anhedonia, a core feature of major depressive disorder, is associated with dysfunction in reward and cognitive control networks.

Liang Gong, 2018

Links between specific depressive symptoms and areas of the brain have been identified, for example, crying with fusiform gyrus, irritability and loss of interest with hippocampus, worthlessness with cingulate gyrus.

Hilland et al, 2020

Data-driven studies have identified biological subtypes of major depressive disorder based on clinical features, biological variables, disturbed neurotransmitter levels, medication response, inflammation, and weight gain.

Beijers, 2019

But here’s the thing. One group’s research often contributes only one little fact to the existing body of literature on a subject. It might not have an immediate application, or none at all, ever. It’s like how water has been discovered on the moon and on Mars – so what are we going to do about it? For the moment, nothing. Maybe future generations will.

Depression needs a tighter definition to be useful as a diagnostic term. It is the outer manifestation of many different processes. Two examples:

  • Many people respond with a low mood to reduced ambient light, a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder caused by a process that leads to decreased serotonin levels in the brain. This sort of depression, then, comes from somewhere else, not directly from thoughts.
  • Then, there’s depression associated with low motivation, a lack of interest in chasing goals, apparently because of low dopamine levels. This is controlled by the limbic system in the brain, so emotions influence the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system first, then the person uses thought to figure out why he does not particularly want what he is supposed to, and gets depressed.

As the current diagnostic criteria are based on symptoms and not the yet-unknown cause of depression we use the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder to address symptoms. This way, the patient can get his life back on track to an extent.

So ‘depression’ has been reduced to the status of ‘cough’ or ‘fever’. Without knowing the cause of a cough or a fever, the only treatment given is a dose of cough syrup or an antipyretic rather than an appropriate antibiotic.

For depression, it is a course of an antidepressant, which is like giving a course of a broad-spectrum antibiotic when there’s no lab available to run a culture and sensitivity test – not the best, but a fair chance that it will help. This is not the ideal way to treat a life-wrecking condition.

We are constantly looking for ways to define and diagnose depression, but we aren’t anywhere close to giving an irrefutable statement of what it is. Medicines and therapy are the best we’ve got at present, imperfect though they both are. Tracing the history of depression from Melancholia to Depressive Disorder through the centuries shows that it has been a fraught journey, and still is.

and this is my robe, slightly singed

Narcissus, gazing at his image in the pool, wept.
A friend passing by saw him and asked, “Narcissus, why do you weep?”
“Because my face has changed”, Narcissus said.
“Do you cry because you grow older?”
“No. I see that I am no longer innocent. I have been gazing at myself long and long, and so doing have worn out my innocence”.

I don’t know where this passage is originally from. It was quoted in a novel I read in my twenties soon after graduating from NIMHANS as a psychiatrist.

Here, Narcissus mourns his loss of innocence from gazing too long at himself. I could relate to this feeling. As a post-graduate student of Psychiatry I often felt disconcerted by gazing too long into other people’s minds, then gazing into my own to fathom the meaning of what was going on in those other minds. Lectures, seminars and case conferences were also about much the same thing, as they had to be.

Studying the human psyche too closely can recalibrate the filters of one’s mind. I realised this when I stepped out of University into the regular world, because looking for layers of meaning had become second nature.

Like Narcissus, I keenly felt the loss of innocence.


A couple of months ago I bought a book of poems by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska from a tiny bookstore in New York, the sort where poetry books sit cheek by jowl with books on philosophy, history, geology and other things, crammed together without strict categorisation, exactly the way I like bookstore shelves to be. It leaves room for serendipitous finds like this one! I had never heard of Szymborska but the first few pages got me hooked.

I am halfway through the book now, reading one every two-three days, savouring each poem slowly. This is one I read last week.

Soliloquy for Cassandra

Here I am, Cassandra.
And this is my city under ashes.
And these are my prophet’s staff and ribbons.
And this is my head full of doubts.

It’s true, I am triumphant.
My prophetic words burn like fire in the sky.
Only unacknowledged prophets
are privy to such prospects.
Only those who got off on the wrong foot,
whose predictions turned to fact so quickly—
it’s as if they’d never lived.

I remember it so clearly—
how people, seeing me, would break off in midword. Laughter died.
Lovers’ hands unclasped.
Children ran to their mothers.
I didn’t even know their short-lived names.
And that song about a little green leaf—
no one ever finished it near me.

I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.
From the future. Where it’s always empty
and nothing is easier than seeing death.
I’m sorry that my voice was hard.
Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried,
look down on yourselves from the stars.
They heard me and lowered their eyes.

They lived within life.
Pierced by that great wind.
Trapped from birth in departing bodies.
But in them they bore a moist hope,
a flame fuelled by its own flickering.
They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Having never formally studied poetry I don’t know how to critique a poem. If it speaks to me, that’s it, I read it over and over again and enjoy it for a long time.

One of the reasons I read poems is because the glimpses I catch from not being able to fully understand them make them tantalising, like an unsolved mystery, or an entrancing world spied through a lace curtain. I love the fuzziness of impressionist paintings for the same reason.

I hadn’t heard this story before, the story of Cassandra who was given the gift of prophecy but was fated to never be believed. Her triumph was only in knowing the future, because the predictions turned to fact so quickly. How frustrating that must’ve been!

Cassandra raving
Met Museum collection, impression from an 1852 reissue of the 1795 original


It’s how I feel about mental illnesses like schizophrenia that can only be managed, not cured. So triumph is only in diagnosis, while the poor prognosis of the illness, sadly, turns to fact quickly. That goes for a host of physical diseases as well, not only psychoses.

Patients diagnosed schizophrenic often relapse because of missed doses despite the time and effort I put into explaining possible outcomes to the caregiver, with diagrams, with special emphasis on the need for regular meds. But there, that’s how it goes. I know how hard it is to care for someone 24/7, so I simply slip into damage-control mode, like the GPS in my car that merely suggests a different route when I miss a turn.

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.

Yet –

They lived within life.
Pierced by that great wind.
Trapped from birth in departing bodies.
But in them they bore a moist hope,
a flame fuelled by its own flickering.
They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all

They lived within life. I admire their moist hope (which I take to mean either ‘alive’ or ‘tear-soaked’) that tomorrow will be better, their son’s new medicine will work better, they will soon see him going out to work like other youngsters, getting married, being ordinary. A flame fuelled by its own flickering. This, to me, is hope, not denial.

When they smilingly report an incremental improvement it seems they really knew what a moment means, any one at all before . . . Maybe not. Maybe I read the hope in their eyes that way, or they reflect the hope I convey, because I never give up until there are no options left and the disease inexorably settles into chronicity.

After all, schizophrenia is caused by a gene connected with the immune system, one that was meant to control the handling of invading organisms and cell debris, but has unfortunately been repurposed – wrongly – for pruning synapses of brain cells. The logical treatment for schizophrenia is still in the future, reducing current treatment to controlling symptoms and normalising the patient’s life to the extent possible.

Individual lines in the poem leap out at me like coded messages, exhorting me to look back at the years I spent working with patients, to ask myself if my voice was hard, and my caring ever seemed haughty because I had to school my expression most of the time.

Did I inadvertently make patients lower their eyes, make them feel judged by the impatience that crept into my voice when they fiddled with their doses? When I urged them to see the big picture, to look down on yourselves from the stars, did it come across as patronising?

And this is my head full of doubts.

This poem gave words to some of the feelings that swirled within me for the longest time, especially helplessness in the face of illnesses that could only be managed and not cured.

That’s the thing about Art and Poetry; they gently tap and feel and nudge around what lies dormant in your heart and, in so doing, shake loose a repressed feeling that has been sitting there like a stone in a shoe. They make you feel lighter – at least for a few moments – that you are not alone in your turmoil, that somebody, somewhere on earth, possibly living in a different time, has felt what you feel.

And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.

My robe – my old lab coat – now lies folded in a corner of my wardrobe, unlikely to be used again since I stopped working some time ago. Books, notes, photocopies of journal articles, and more than twenty years worth of patients’ case files – my prophet’s junk – lie in a cupboard in my study, to be eventually shredded and sent for pulping.

The last two lines of this poem are harsh and bitter. I don’t know what to make of them. They bring up a completely different set of images in my mind.

And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Cassandra’s inability to use her gift was due to Apollo’s curse, and the backstory has parallels in today’s world – of broken promises, misunderstandings, anger and retaliation. A significant number of women – and a smaller number of men – in bad relationships consider their life a curse and seek help for depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, breakdowns and other mental health problems.

Could any of us have come up with a solution for Cassandra’s predicament? I don’t think so, just as we can’t for some illnesses that can’t be cured, no matter how much we know about them.


in passing

When we went to New York in spring we flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. There was a layover at Addis Ababa and the onward flight picked up passengers going to Lomé in Togo.

The man sitting beside me was Togolese. I confess I know nothing about Togo except that it is a tiny country sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria, along with another small country. Ivory Coast? Benin? I asked him when we got into conversation later. Benin, he said.

When I asked what language they spoke in Togo I was surprised to hear it was French. I said, “ You all don’t speak anything else? I mean, what is your original native language?” He said, “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” and shook his head sadly. I said, “Hmmm . . . They did that to my country too, but the English language they left behind has fortunately proved useful in some ways.”

I found out later – from the net – that they speak about forty different native tongues, but French is the official language. From 1884-1914 it was German; from 1916-1957 it was English and French as they were colonies of the British and the French. Togo was the heart of the slave trade in Africa. Now the UNGA has listed it as the saddest country in the world in its World Happiness Report. The meaning of his terse “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” became perfectly clear in the light of what I learned.

As we approached Lomé he looked out the porthole in the fond way one looks at one’s child. Lomé did look pretty from the air – low buildings, many with blue roofs, lots of greenery, and no tall buildings at all. One wide asphalted highway ran down the middle of the city. Untarred roads of warm reddish-brown compacted mud crisscrossed the city. Maybe they were meant to let rainwater percolate down and recharge the water table.

When I got up from my aisle seat to make way for him to exit I said, “Your city looks so pretty – and I love the colour of the soil – is it iron-rich?” He said “No. Phosphorus – we have lots of it.” He smiled and gave a quick wave as he walked down the aisle towards the exit.


We flew back home a month ago, again by Ethiopian Airlines. Same route in reverse: NY – Lomé – Addis Ababa – Bangalore. We landed at Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. It was cold, and we thankfully got into the coach for the 5-minute ride to the terminal.

I found a seat beside a young Togolese woman with a bright-eyed, smiling baby excitedly bouncing on her lap. The baby reached out and touched my arm with his tiny hand. I asked his mum how old he was. He had just turned eight months. She told me his name and he recognised it when I called him. I stretched my hands towards him and he crawled into my lap smiling his cherubic smile. It was nice that ‘stranger anxiety’ hadn’t set in yet, though it was due, I thought. Wrong! He immediately struggled to go back to his mum! I handed him back and wished her “Happy Mother’s Day” as that day was Mother’s Day.

I casually said kids grow up and leave home before you realise it, and she was lucky to have so many years ahead with this baby.

To my surprise, tears welled up in her eyes and she told me that she was visiting Bangalore for the baby’s medical treatment. He had a hole in his heart. I asked, “At Narayana? Dr. Devi Shetty?” She nodded. By then we reached the terminal and the coach stopped. As we left our seats and walked towards the exit I couldn’t think of anything adequate to say except express my hope that the surgery would go well and the little one would be fine.

She looked scared and doubtful, on the verge of tears. In a bid to comfort her I told her that Dr. Shetty was my senior in medical college and he was a good surgeon even then, and yes, I had watched him operate, so maybe she should trust he’d do his best, and try not to worry too much.

Now I hope Narayana Hrudayalaya lives up to my endorsement. I have no personal experience of the place to draw on, and the reputation of an institution or individual found online is not reliable. If you look me up, will tell you I am an orthopaedic doctor, while another site gets my specialty right but says I have zero years of experience!

ruled by mercury

One morning, when I was walking around the lake near my house and thinking of nothing in particular, two unrelated streams of random thought intersected.

Why does the world seem to be constantly in turmoil? Could it have something to do with the zodiac signs of the men and women that run the world? Ha! That’s funny!! But, wait . . . aren’t there too many born under Gemini* in this lot? Just an impression – but I thought it would be fun to find out anyway.

Now, I don’t know much about Astrology except what I picked up from Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs during college days. There were a couple of copies of each around and they were in much demand as everyone in the hostel used them as ready reckoners to figure out roommates, friends and boyfriends.

So I looked up the zodiac signs of people who routinely take the lead in world affairs.

There are three types of Signs:

  1. Cardinal – leaders
  2. Fixed – organisers
  3. Mutable – communicators

The world now seems to be run largely by people born under Mutable signs, i.e. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces!

Among the G-20 nations, 9 are Mutable!

  • India, Modi – Virgo
  • China, Xi – Gemini
  • Turkey, Erdogan – Pisces
  • Saudi, MBS – Virgo
  • France, Macron – Sagittarius
  • Germany, Scholz – Gemini (Merkel is a Cancer, leader)
  • Italy, Draghi – Virgo
  • UK, Boris Johnson – Gemini
  • EU, Charles Michel – Sagittarius (represents EU at G20 summits along with Ursula von der Leyen as far as I know)

There are only 5 Cardinal signs in the G20:

  • Russia, Putin – Libra
  • Indonesia, Widodo – Cancer
  • Brazil, Bolsonaro – Aries
  • Canada, Trudeau – Capricorn, and
  • Argentina, Fernandez – Aries

Of these, two (Brazil, Indonesia) are born on the cusp, the 21st, and might not even be Cardinal.

The remaining 6 are Fixed signs:

  • Japan, Kishida – Leo
  • Oz, Scott Morrison – Taurus
  • S Africa, Ramaphosa – Scorpio
  • US, Biden – Scorpio (cusp, 20th Nov)
  • Mexico, AMLO – Scorpio, and
  • S Korea, Moon Jae-in – Aquarius

These people are supposed to keep things steady and may not lead change. Biden might’ve been more relaxed if he didn’t have the world scrutinizing his every move intently. He might’ve been more like pre-COVID Scott Morrison, or Moon Jae-in without the Kim factor!

It’s not surprising the G20 doesn’t come across as a cohesive, focused, pro-active group. There aren’t enough leaders in it, especially after Angela Merkel retired.

Now, look at Europe.

These 7 are ruled by Mutable Gemini:

  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Romania
  • Bulgaria
  • Hungary
  • Estonia

Gemini is also Trump’s sign, Pence’s too, also the late Gaddafi’s, and Xi’s and Boris Johnson’s, and IMAFT head Raheel Sharif’s.

The following are ruled by the other three Mutable signs, viz. Virgo, Sag, Pisces:

  • Spain – Pisces
  • Turkey – Pisces
  • Austria – Virgo
  • Switzerland – Sag
  • Portugal – Sag
  • Serbia – Pisces
  • Norway – Pisces
  • Latvia – Sag

That’s a lot of communicative leaders in Europe who may mesmerize people with their silver tongues but not necessarily lead their country anywhere, nor hold on to gains and keep things stable. You can expect some amount of drama and chaos with Mutable signs.

Tedros, the WHO chief who has been handling the corona pandemic, is also Pisces. So is Jens Stoltenberg, the present secretary general of NATO.

By the way, Teresa May and David Cameron are Libra, and so was Margaret Thatcher. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, is Libra too.

Wang Yi, the tough-talking Chinese foreign minister, is Libra, so is the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Central and South America:

Only Chile and Guatemala have Mutable heads of state at present. Venezuela too, if you consider Nicolás Maduro President. Other than Costa Rica, all have presidents born under Fixed signs, and six of them are Scorpio – Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Paraguay and Ecuador. Scorpios are good at staying on track and getting people to toe their line.

I don’t know enough about these countries to say how they are faring under these leaders, but my Mexican friend says AMLO has been good for Mexico and is very popular.

The Middle-East:

8 countries are ruled by Mutable signs:

  • Iran – Sag
  • Iraq – Virgo
  • Saudi – Virgo
  • Turkey – Pisces
  • Kuwait – Gemini
  • Syria – Virgo
  • Qatar – Gemini
  • UAE – Virgo

Only 2 by Cardinal signs:

  • Israel – Aries (his predecessor Netanyahu is Scorpio; Benny Gantz is Gemini)
  • Cyprus – Libra

6 by Fixed signs:

  • Egypt – Scorpio
  • Oman – Scorpio
  • Bahrain – Scorpio
  • Lebanon – Scorpio
  • Palestine – Scorpio
  • Jordan – Aquarius

Again, a lot of Scorpios.

We in India have had our share of them during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years, both Scorpio. Morarji Desai and I K Gujral were the only Mutable signed Prime Ministers we’ve had. Four of our PMs were born under Cancer, two Libra, two Capricorn, one Taurus and one Leo.

A preponderance of Cardinal signs. Our country loves monarch-types rather than those that cycle to work like Mark Rutte (Aquarius, not a conventional guy) of the Netherlands!

Right now, we have China, Nepal and Sri Lanka in our immediate neighbourhood ruled by Gemini. Aung San Suu Kyi is Gemini too. Imran Khan of Pakistan is Libra and General Bajwa is Scorpio. Interesting!

I haven’t looked at Africa, the SE Asian countries or all the countries formed when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were fragmented; I’ve also left out places that don’t loom large in the daily news, like Kosovo, Moldova, etc. I don’t want to labour the point . . . This is, after all, not a serious in-depth study but a bunch of observations born out of idle curiosity.

I glanced through the zodiac signs of people who dominated the political scene in the seventies, i.e. the places we heard about frequently in connection with India. Here’s a sampling:

  • India – Indira Gandhi, Scorpio
  • Sri Lanka – Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Aries
  • China – Mao, Capricorn; Hua Guofeng, Aquarius
  • Pakistan – Z A Bhutto, Capricorn; Zia, Leo
  • Russia – Brezhnev, Sagittarius
  • Israel – Golda Meir, Taurus
  • Iran – Reza Shah Pahlavi, Scorpio
  • France – Georges Pompidou, Cancer
  • UK – Harold Wilson, Pisces
  • US – Nixon – Capricorn, Ford – Cancer, and Carter – Libra
  • Germany – Helmut Schmidt – Capricorn, Helmut Kohl – Aries, but Willy Brandt was Sagittarius

In other words, most of them were steadfast/rigid types, and not prone to being all over the place like the Mutable signs that now rule the roost!

Make of it what you will. I’m just a dabbler. I know the sun sign is far from the complete picture. For example, an astrologer would make something of the fact that Brezhnev had Aries rising, Obama has a Gemini moon, and Modi has a Scorpio ascendant.

And that’s why this is merely a light blog post and not a research article 🙂     

*Mercury, the ruler of Gemini, is the god of shopkeepers and merchants, travelers and transporters of goods, and thieves and tricksters in Roman religion. In Greek religion he is Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods. Mercury is also known as quicksilver, i.e. given to changing rapidly or unpredictably.

to be happy

I came across an interview from 2018, where the late David Graeber talks about his earlier book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, that I hadn’t heard of until today, because that’s not my area of obsession, unlike his new title The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. This was recently released by his co-author David Wengrow, and I was looking for a review of it.

The interview is full of great insights, but this line especially jumped out at me:

David Graeber: “I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.”


What he says is a thought that has kept many of us awake nights at some point in our youth. To be happy we need to contribute to the world, we need to have a purpose so we don’t “go crazy or become quietly miserable”, as he says.

We are often told, “If you want to be happy, try to make someone else happy.” Ethical altruism.

For the longest time I accepted this. I believed it was the answer to the age-old question of the purpose of life. This truism dovetailed beautifully with my work as a doctor, so there was no dissonance. Over time though, I stopped being so certain that ethical altruism towards people – or animals as the case may be – was the only way for anyone to find meaning.

My faith in us as a civilisation has been shaken in recent years. Ignorance used to be bliss before Internet. Information was simply not available. Not anymore. It’s frustrating to have an abundance of information about something, say COVID, and still be ignorant because of the contradictions.

Though I know that worse things have happened over centuries past, I have lived most of my life in a period of peace and predictability in the world. The Cold War, and then a couple of wars involving India but restricted to border areas, hardly impacted me. Most importantly, news came only once a day, in the morning newspaper.

I visited many countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia in the eighties and nineties. Boarding an international flight was as simple as boarding a city bus, and it was all fun. The world was a friendly, trusting place overall.

Ever since oil- and terrorism-related events erupted in the world, the sense of safety that I used to have is gone. Now the world doesn’t even make sense at times. For example, I find things like prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex pathological. Just thinking of their ramifications makes my head hurt.

With so much stacked in our favour as an advanced species, this is not who we are supposed to be. We can be so much better. Or I wish it were so – for the sake of my children’s generation.

Governments are squandering away human achievements of the last few hundred years by indulging in all sorts of brinkmanship. This needs to be fixed, but can’t be. The beacon has gone out in the UN lighthouse and the G20’s declarations sound like pipedreams. Sure, on an individual level a lot of people, including me, are happy with their lot.


I wrote this but didn’t hit ‘Publish’ because I was still mulling over what I had jotted down.


It’s Saturday. There is a weekend curfew on because of Omicron.

We decided to watch a movie. We picked one without reading reviews. Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, and young Timothée Chalamet in a small role as well. It had to be a good movie, right?

Well, it was. Don’t Look Up is its name. But it left me with more of the same feeling, that we are wrecking the earth through greed and short-sightedness.

No more mulling. Hitting ‘Publish’ now.

lathe biosas

Another year begins. Another blip on the fourth dimension, the temporal dimension on which we can only move our three-dimensional selves forwards. There is no going back. Which means we live with awareness, so there’s no regret, no longing to go back to correct something.

Ever since I began delving into the geological history of Earth my world has become immeasurably larger and more ancient, more awe-inspiring, more precious. The sense of continuity the fourth dimension brings is indescribable. It’s a whole new perspective.

I see myself as a short-lived life form, just one of the trillions of creatures that routinely float across the earth’s surface like soap bubbles and disappear. Our lifespan of a few decades is nothing compared to the earth’s age of 4.5 billion years.

From the time COVID started, this awareness of deep time has become more intense. It’s become the wallpaper of my life. It informs every thought, emotion and judgment. But it’s also a sort of relief, like laying down a heavy load. So much is not in my hands. Not indifference, not nihilism, just que será, será.

Psychic numbing caused by the big COVID numbers of the last two years has added to the befuddlement created by elastic time, time that is marked by random corona outbreaks rather than by clock and calendar. I feel like a child looking hard at the sky to see where it ends.

So much has ceased to matter. Taking the narrower view of life, the health, safety and happiness of my family, friends and myself do matter, and I have been worried when one of them came down with COVID and I couldn’t travel to be there. Thankfully, a good friend, an infectious diseases specialist who lives in the same city, held the fort.

I have had minimal contact with other people for a long time now. Over these two locked-down/social-distanced years I have unconsciously withdrawn emotional investment in human beings and formed some sort of happy connections with elements of the landscape of Karnataka over many road trips and hikes during the last 15 months, like a series of mini peak experiences! If something goes out of your life, I guess something else takes its place, and life goes on.

Lofty boulder-strewn green hills, forests, smooth winding roads, wayside coffee shops, small towns, trekking trails, wild flowers, bird calls, hilltop views, village temples, backwaters, clouds, hill shrines, flocks of farm animals, tiny rills and waterfalls in the ghats, the occasional squall, are like a screensaver in my head now.

I feel I belong with them more than I belong to Bangalore city. I’m very, very surprised by this realization. Life right now is like living in a child’s picture book! It’s like what people say about being invested in characters in TV shows that run into many seasons, and vicariously living those lives.

Day-to-day life is the same, though. Lathe biōsas* works for me. It’s quiet. It’s meaningful.

At my stage of life the present is the future that I had envisaged in the past. I’m here, in the future. This is it. I’m not interested in leaving a legacy of any kind when I depart because, for what? The kids are perfectly capable of making interesting and happy lives for themselves. As for the world at large, it has enough people leaving legacies; I have no such duty or wish!

Lots of people have helped make my life easier. For example, I don’t have to keep a cow in my building basement and milk it everyday as someone somewhere keeps cows, and the milkman gets me half a litre of milk every morning!

The dairy folk and the milkman are glial cells to my neuron, just as I am glial cell to someone else’s neuron. Neurons need support, protection and nourishment from glial cells for complex thought processes . . . We are all connected and need each other, like neurons and glial cells . . .

It’s unthinkable that glial cells were dismissed as packing material for neurons when I was a medical student . . . The universe is a network. Nobody exists merely as someone’s packing material or exclusive support; each one has an identity and is the nucleus of some other subsystem.

Yet, in my current state of psychic numbness, these nice people are only their roles, mere cardboard cutouts. I feel grateful for them, but wearing a mask means unseen smile and muffled speech, so it feels like a video call with a bad connection every time. I miss the warmth, wholeness and rapport of engaging with unmasked faces.

I hope 2022 will be different.

A happier new year to all!

*One meaning of lathe biōsas is to ‘live in obscurity, get through life without drawing attention to yourself, live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.

what if . . .

It so happens that the book I finished today, Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany, and the movie Dev Bhoomi that I had started watching two days ago and finished just now, set off thoughts that converged and kept me occupied all evening.

In both the book and the movie the main characters are in their sunset years, looking back at decisions taken decades ago to leave their countries for better lives. They yearn to go back to the point where the road forked and look at the one not travelled, to paraphrase Robert Frost.

In Dev Bhoomi, Rahul Negi returns to his Himalayan village after forty years and is met variously with wariness, hostility, relief and joy by the different people who used to be in his life before he left for the UK.

He appears so ill at ease, so displaced, aching, regretful, occasionally hopeful . . . A range of nuanced emotions flit across his face, consummate actor that Victor Banerjee is. A step taken at one point in his youth, and he is left thinking of the road not taken for the next forty years. What torture!

In Chicago there is severe confusion and regret regarding the path taken, the one that actually led to the dreamed-of success! The characters – of whom there are quite a few transplanted and homesick ones – go through identity diffusion, loneliness, and a sense of not belonging to either home country or adopted one.

Despite the stilted dialogue and the translated feel that never leaves you through the entire book, you appreciate the conflict between their intense nostalgia for the established societal rules that decide things for them back in Egypt, and the freedom that makes them frighteningly responsible for every decision while living in the US.

You face a fork in the road several times in a lifetime. You choose one. All the paths you couldn’t take are alternative lives you might have led. No matter which one you choose there’s only so much you can do in one lifetime, even if you max out your talents and abilities and make every second count, use every minute being productive. No route is guaranteed to be the right one; even in hindsight you can’t tell if any of the others might have been the right ones. And right does not mean perfect because some things will still go wrong anyway.

When I have the crazy urge to look back and “What if . . . ” about my choices, I ask myself what is it exactly that I hope to gain from the exercise. It’s pointless to dwell on what I could have done differently, because things have turned out well enough.

“What if . . .” is fine if I go into a pleasant reverie in an idle moment, in which case I drift lazily through my parallel universe, enjoy the change of scene, and come back recharged when I finally stop dreaming. Even when I hit the brakes, they work like Tesla’s regenerative braking, using that energy to charge my batteries!