I stopped working as a doctor a few months ago.
For years I was completely immersed in my work. I loved what I did. One day I suddenly felt a sort of disconnect, a listlessness, like I was “done with all this”. I felt with a strong sense of finality that I had finished what I had to do as a doctor in this lifetime.
Over the ensuing months the feeling grew stronger. I just had to close this chapter of my life. It seemed like a page had turned. Though, right then, I was staring at a blank page.
When I thought about it, it seemed like at least ten minor reasons had converged to nudge a single epiphanic thought into awareness.
For several months now I’ve stayed on that page. It’s like the blank page you see in novels before another chapter starts. I can’t will it to turn, and I don’t feel the need to. I’ll wait. As someone said, “Sometimes limbo is a tolerable place to be stuck”!
Friends said, “it’s ennui. It will pass. Take a break.”
Other people asked why, and I said it was probably burnout. Though I had only one of the symptoms of burnout: emotional exhaustion. No cynicism, no loss of efficiency. Or maybe there was a general sort of cynicism generated by news – print, internet and television. Like most of my colleagues, I’ve never suffered loss of efficiency even on the heaviest OPD days. And strong South Indian filter coffee from the hospital cafeteria was always just a phone call away.
Time management had become my specialty over the past two decades or so, and I took great pride in it. Here’s an example: It takes 9 minutes for half a litre of milk to boil on the hob on a low flame, and I used that time to water the plants because that takes the same amount of time! How had I come to put myself on this treadmill? And I’m not even Type A by nature.
I warily waited for the emptiness that pervades my being when I’m not compulsively busy. It never came. I felt quite zen. Had I segued into vanaprastha, the third stage of Life that follows grahastya, the householder’s life? I certainly felt calm and all’s-well-with-the-world. And more than six months had passed since I had seen my last patient.
I feel the same way about not working as I feel when I complete a painting. There is no pre-decided endpoint. I just know there’s nothing more I want to do to it. Done. Wash out the brushes in turpentine and stand them upright in the old clay pot. Wipe the palette clean.
Life’s a blank canvas and I chose the subjects and colours from among the choices I was given. I was sometimes restricted by a limited palette, sometimes by limited time.
I was at the Getty museum in Los Angeles recently. There’s a room called the sketching room where you can copy a part of a famous painting. You are given a few pencils, paper and a clip board. I got black, brown and grey and, well, I had to manage. And the museum was closing in half an hour. The lady at the table where ‘Made at the Getty’ is stamped on the picture when you’re done said “you’re gooo-ud”. I certainly felt gooo-ud sketching something after so many years.
Several years ago, after a long road trip through England and Scotland, I painted a landscape using elements from three of the photos I had taken. It was done in bits and pieces whenever I got a couple of hours free. It looks like something done piecemeal, like so many things in my life. Looking back, piecemeal or not, most things got done and some got left, but it doesn’t seem important any more. And the picture hangs in my living room, warts and all.
I once painted a picture of a peach sky and a double rainbow from a photograph taken on a road trip. I didn’t like how it turned out but my little girl loved the pink sky and rainbow. So I got it framed and hung it up in her room. After a couple of years she didn’t find it pretty any more. Something similar seems to have happened to me. My enthusiasm for listening to people and analysing and treating their problems seems to have simply disappeared. It’s like moving to a new place in my inner life and seeing new paths.
One day, many years ago, I took the painting of the peach sky out of its frame and spent the whole morning painting my mood over it, into it. The cadmium yellow and carmine are lost under the heavy grey, but they are there. That’s the inexpressible feeling I had that day, of wanting to break free from routine, wanting the colours to shine out from behind the grey. I couldn’t bring myself to paint the cottage out of the picture as it was somewhere to shelter when the storm broke. I also wanted to keep the bright yellow streak of sunlight on the wild mustard in the distance in the original painting, though it looks incongruous under the leaden sky. It doesn’t seem to matter. The painting served its purpose that day.
I don’t know if I’ll ever finish this painting, but right now I’d be fine with the cottage being hoovered up by a dust devil. I’d be fine standing there engulfed by bracing winds and lashing rain. I am standing on a palimpsest where there used to be a peach sky and a beautiful rainbow before, and there might be a different picture on this canvas tomorrow if that’s what I feel I should do.