How a Cardiologist Broke My Heart

If there is such a thing as a Compliment Blacklist, circulated among the male species through some means known only to man, my name was on that list last week.

After publishing “Insult to Injuria Formae” (May 24), in which I had related how a member of the male species had slighted my intelligence, I left for Pioneer Blvd., the street for which my book is named. (Please, please spell out Boulevard when referring to my book. Even an unitalicized title doesn’t make me wince quite like a Pioneer Blvd. does.)

I must explain upfront that the cardiologist who broke my heart on Pioneer Blvd. on Saturday did not insult my intelligence. Neither did he pass so much as a comment, complimentary or otherwise, on my looks. I was wandering about a strip mall on the east side of the street when I noticed two guys having a cuppa, and I figured they’d have time for a chat. They were chatting with each other, after all, and three can be company. In some contexts three’s a crowd but these guys are from the Indian Subcontinent, where it takes three million to make a crowd. Surely they’d say yes.

Sharon Edwards Hearbreak 1

They did, so I introduced them to my book. Sometime during the conversation I discovered that they are doctors. The Indian is an internist, and his Pakistani buddy is a cardiologist. When I heard that, I naturally asked, “Can you cure a broken heart?”

Believe it or not (and I won’t blame you if you don’t), I wasn’t trying to pun. I was simply asking the question a woman who has made the Compliment Blacklist would want an answer for.

Sharon Edwards Heartbreak 3

I can’t repeat his answer because he didn’t give me one. Instead, he returned my question with a question: “How come your name is not Sapna or Kalpana?”

In “Insult to Injuria Formae,” the insult to my intelligence had resulted from a question I couldn’t answer. Not so here. Not only could I answer the cardiologist’s question, but his breaking my heart had nothing to do with my name not being Sapna or Kalpana. I wasn’t offended with his question because:
(i) He rhymed. Maybe the reason for his rhyme was that he thought that I, being a writer, would like a bit of poetry. I did, because I am a writer but especially because it spared me from saying what Horatio tells Hamlet after the play-within-the-play (“You might have rhymed”). You see, reader, I don’t want to be Horatio.
(ii) It’s a fair question. Even Indians ask me that. Well, Indians usually ask me why my name is Sharon, which requires a different response than the one about why it is not Sapna or Kalpana. I tell Indians that my name is Sharon because it’s what my parents chose to name me, whereas I told the Pakistani cardiologist something I’ll share in another post.

No sooner had he asked me why my name is not Sapna or Kalpana than his internist friend remarked, “He’s having a sapna about Kalpana.”

Sapna and kalpana are Hindi words meaning dream and imagination, respectively. Kalpana represents creativity in general and the arts in particular, so I said, “My book is about kalpana.” Not the best pun, I admit, but it’s the best I could do. And at least I didn’t stoop to saying something about Kalpuna.

Humerus

A word about the Indian love for wordplay. Indian puns are not rare, and they are usually well done. Like rare meat, bad Indian puns (which are rare) are not my cup of chai. But what I cannot stomach are puns about Indians.

At the farmers market where I sometimes help a friend at her booth, a customer of hers once asked me if I’d heard about the Indian programmer who’d had to work as a standup comedian during the recession. The previous week this customer of my friend’s had become a customer of mine when he bought a copy of Pioneer Boulevard from me, and I thought he was referring to my book, which is set in the context of the crumbling economy. Delighted that he’d already read the book and now wanted to discuss it, I immediately said no and waited to hear more about the poor programmer-turned-comedian.

It was a wrong assumption on my part. Our (not-so-cool) customer hadn’t read a single story in Pioneer Boulevard, and he didn’t want to discuss it. He gave me a pitying look (for the bubble he was about to burst) and said, “They called him a pun-jobbie.”

Hay job

To finish my Pioneer Blvd. story, at the end of the conversation with the Pakistani cardiologist, I realized I had the chance to do my bit to mend Indo-Pak relations. Diplomacy can come in many forms. There’s cricket diplomacy (which stirs up more passions than it subdues). There’s Bollywood diplomacy (which is one-sided, since only one country can offer it). There’s chai diplomacy (which doctors know contains caffeine, raises blood sugar levels, and can be interrupted in a heartbeat). Surely my brand of diplomacy, storybook diplomacy, would be more effective.

“If I gave you a copy of my book, would you read it?” I asked the Pakistani cardiologist.

And that’s when he broke my heart.

Just say no, says the anti-narcotics slogan, and perhaps that two-letter word, which can save a person’s life, is his instinctive response as a heart doctor. But that two-letter word cut me so deep, I’m still nursing my broken heart.

Insult to Injuria Formae

Anyone who has read (read: read) my last post knows that spretae injuria formae means “the affront offered to her slighted beauty.” (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too. Latin is Greek to me.) I’d have ignored the remark had it been an affront to merely my looks. But the guy slighted my intelligence, and that deserves to be blogged about. (Had he not, I’d have had to think about how to meet my weekly posting goal, so I suppose I should thank him for adding insult to injuria formae.)

It happened on Wednesday evening at Ralphs. (I feel uneasy writing Ralphs without an apostrophe, but I have consulted their website, their flyers, and my receipt, and can’t find the apostrophe. O, for an apostrophe!) I was standing near the deli, eating a strawberry-flavor Greek yogurt and minding my business (which meant minding my cart, since I’d already paid for my groceries). I had just finished my workout and was on my way to a meeting at which they don’t serve dinner, and since I didn’t have the time or the money for a five-course meal, I settled for a cup of Greek yogurt.

I could have eaten my dinner while driving to the meeting, but with all the loonies who drink and drive in this city, it’s risky to eat and drive. And strawberry-flavor yogurt mess is not pretty. It’s pretty ugly, and pretty hard to clean. (Trust me.) For those reasons (and one I don’t wish to tell the world) I chose to eat my yogurt at Ralphs. I chose to eat it near the deli for these reasons:
(i) The deli is near the cash registers.
(ii) The deli is near the exit.
(iii) The deli is near the spoons.

Sharon Edwards at Ralphs

I was in that lethargic post-workout frame of mind in which you feel so proud of yourself for being disciplined enough to go to the gym instead of sitting at your computer, staring at the New Post screen on WordPress in an attempt to meet your weekly posting goal. Well, maybe not you, but you know what I mean. (In case you don’t, I mean I.) Please don’t ask me what I was thinking as I was eating my Greek yogurt because I forget. It was not this blog, I remember that much, so it can’t have been interesting or profound. But I wish I had been thinking about this blog, because then I wouldn’t have noticed the guy who added insult to injuria formae. For whenever I think about this blog, I enter a state that renders me oblivious to elderly men standing near empty shopping carts, clutching coupon booklets in the left hand. But alas, I wasn’t thinking of this blog so I noticed him, his booklet, his cart, and what looked like his toupee.

Although he clutched the coupon booklet in his left hand, he was not referring to it. That was a sign to me that he was probably going to spend the night in the doghouse. I mean, why would his wife go through the trouble of going through the coupons in the Sunday newspaper, matching them with the flyers in her mailbox sent out by the major groceries (and one or two minor ones), picking the items she needed (and some she wanted), and then making a list for him to take to Ralphs, Vons, India Sweets & Spices, etc.? To have him scratch his head (or toupee) in front of the bleach shelf and then turn his cart around without picking up a thing? No! To the doghouse! (Virginia Woolf would agree. After all, every now and then a woman needs a bedroom of her own.)

ToTheLighthouse

I lost interest in the doghouse-bound husband as he was turning his empty cart around. I was scraping the last blob of yogurt from my cup when I heard these concentration-shattering words: “You look like you’d know where the pasta aisle is.”

I was caught off-guard, or I’d have told him he was wrong on two counts:
(i) There’s no such thing as a pasta aisle – at least, not in that Ralphs. Maybe the groceries in New York have pasta aisles but not in my city. They don’t even have salsa aisles, when by rights they should. Everything must share aisle-space and try to coexist with each other as best they can. Even the chips have to coexist with the cookies and crackers. No wonder the chips are down. In other words, the chips feel blue. In other words, they are blue chips.
(ii) I do not look like I’d know where the pasta aisle is. I am Indian, not Italian. Granted, I hadn’t opened my mouth yet (not to speak, anyway), so he had no way of knowing I am Indian. Plus they keep the deli deliberately dim, so he had no way of knowing I am not Italian. Besides, I’ve been pasta-free for three months now. People say it shows, which shows that I do not look like I’d know where the pasta is. And if he’d missed those clues, he must surely have noticed that I wasn’t wearing a Ralphs uniform so I could not look like I’d know where the pasta was. I don’t work at Ralphs. I only work out near Ralphs, but that’s neither here nor there.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

I said it in an apologetic tone even though I had nothing to apologize about (being Indian and pasta-free, and not being Italian or a Ralphs employee). I could have snapped, but I don’t snap at strangers. (Not while eating strawberry-flavor Greek yogurt, anyway.) My civil tone didn’t deserve the uncivil response it got.

“Oh, so you look more intelligent than you are.”

Reader, I do not misquote the speaker, much as I’d prefer to say he said, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more etc., etc.” No, “Oh, so you look more intelligent than you are” is exactly what he said. Had I been into giving measure for measure, and had I not had that last strawberry-flavor blob of yogurt on my mind, I’d have told him that:
(i) Knowing where the pasta is in any given grocery is no measure of intelligence (or lack thereof).
(ii) And if it is, then his not knowing reflects on his own intelligence (or lack thereof).

People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, especially when they’re about to spend the night in the doghouse. Maybe he had pasta dreams in the doghouse, maybe he didn’t. All I can say is that I, who had dined on strawberry yogurt, had nothing but rosy dreams on Wednesday night. Last night is another story so I’ll save it for another day.

Modern Superstitions and Postmodern Miracles

I have a love-hate relationship with video links forwarded to me. Well, like-dislike is more accurate, but sometimes clichés are better to open blog posts with. I usually watch forwarded links based on the forwarder’s track record (and I usually don’t watch them at all), but in the past week two guys with a good track record sent me links to videos that I watched, enjoyed, and am going to blog about.

Modern Superstitions
No doubt some reader is thinking that I have ended two sentences in the foregoing paragraph incorrectly. Notwithstanding the intentional awkwardness of the first instance, let me say that prepositions are not wrong words to end sentences with. While the rule may be good Latin, Latin is a dead language, and the Brothers Fowler (who, sadly, are also dead) call it a modern superstition that can result in slovenliness. (In writing, they mean, but superstition can result in other forms of slovenliness as well.)

In the third edition of The King’s English (1931), in a note at the end of the chapter on syntax, Henry Fowler (Francis having died in 1918) writes:

Mention has been made . . . of the “superstition” against ending clause or sentence with a preposition; but in 1906 it has not occurred to us to examine seriously the validity of what, superstition or no, is a widespread belief. It was indeed spretae injuria formae that brought home to us the need for such examination, a reviewer having condemned our book out of hand on the ground that the first paragraph of its preface ended in a preposition.

The first sentence of the preface to the first edition is a paragraph long. While referring to it in “Fowlers Howlers: No Levell’d Malice” (February 15) I had quoted only the second part, but I will now quote it in full, as I had quoted another first para in my last post, “Unfatefully Yours” (May 7). I too have a track record to maintain, you know.

The compilers of this book would be wanting in courtesy if they did not expressly say what might otherwise be safely left to the reader’s discernment: the frequent appearance in it of any author’s or newspaper’s name does not mean that that author or newspaper offends more often than others against the rules of grammar or style; it merely shows that they have been among the necessarily limited number chosen to collect instances from.

Unlike the unnamed reviewer, I don’t mind that the Fowlers ended that paragraph with a preposition. What I take umbrage at is the length of that sentence. Had I been their editor, or even their lowly proofreader, I’d have marked it thus:

Kings English 1st ed preface

Postmodern Miracles
The first of the two video links forwarded to me recently was a TED talk that led me to one by the great Indian novelist Shashi Tharoor, then India’s minister of state for External Affairs, today for HRD, and tomorrow for Kuch Nahin (his party having lost the elections). Tharoor was talking about why nations should pursue soft power, which he describes as “the ability of a country to attract others because of its culture, its political values, its foreign policies.” 

To have soft power, says Tharoor, a country must be “connected,” and India has become “an astonishingly connected” country. As of November 2009 (when his TED talk was filmed), India was selling 15 million new cellphones a month – a far cry (or a long-distance call) from the state of affairs when I was growing up. Tharoor paints an accurate picture of India’s telecom backwardness back then, when the average Indian had to wait an average of eight years for a connection, the connection itself being average. (In those days SMS stood for St. Mary’s School or, for our rivals, School of a Million Snobs.)

“What is most striking is who is carrying those cellphones,” says Tharoor, giving examples of the istri-walla (the ironing man, not the Iron Man), the toddy tapper, and the fisherman. “This empowerment of the underclass is the real result of India being connected.” He’s right, but as a woman I wish he had included a few underclass women who are being empowered by the cellphone in India. Instead, he goes on to talk about Bollywood. I, who do not want to talk about Bollywood, will stick to the subject of postmodern miracles.

It is no secret that many rural subscribers in India don’t know what a landline is, having taken a giant leap from no phone to cellphone, but I didn’t know how savvy they were until a trip some years ago. One day I was at a kirana store – those corner shops that sell everything from brooms to ballpoint pens to biscuits (in the British sense) – when an Enfield motorbike pulled up and in walked the rider. Based on his dress and a few other clues I could trust my judgment on, the guy was not a city slicker. One of these clues, I will add, is that when he strode past me he didn’t slyly touch some part of my anatomy. In India I find the rural male generally more respectful in this regard than his city-slicking counterpart. I have touched on the touchy issue of inappropriate touch in a Pioneer Boulevard story, but I won’t do so here or we’ll never get to the end of this story.

This story ends with a transformation in my appearance, since my jaw dropped and my eyes popped when the man ordered a SIM card for his smartphone. It sounded like a seam card the way he pronounced it, but he certainly knew what to do with it when the shopkeeper gave it to him. I was impressed because I ain’t tech-savvy and because I had in my hand a couple items whose names I could pronounce correctly in three languages but which I could not decide between.

Reader, let my preposition go. You’ll be better off watching this TED talk by the charming Ahmedabad-based educator Kiran Bir Sethi. For me the most inspiring bit is the literacy campaign in rural Rajasthan (6:49 to 7:30), in which children teach their non-literate parents how to write. That, methinks, is a miracle greater than village people with smartphone smarts.

TED Talks Indian Kids Take Charge

____________
H.W. and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), pp. 3, 179.

Unfatefully Yours

In “Her Greatest Assets” (April 26) I had mentioned Shantaram, the novel a Seattle Times reviewer described as “a huge, messy, over-the-top, irresistible, shaggy-dog story.” I’m going to mention it again, but this time I won’t express regrets about having possibly missed seeing Gregory David Roberts scribble notes on a napkin because I lacked the gall to enter Leopold Cafe when I lived in Mumbai (in what Scott Fitzgerald would call my younger and more vulnerable years). Nor will I attempt to critique this 933-page novel, every word of which I did read at least once. My favorite passages, such as the one in which Didier says he loves the English language “because so much of it is French,” and the one in which Lin hugs an incarcerated bear, I read several times. The Afghanistan bits were a bit of a slog, but I did finish the book.

My enthusiastic raving after I’d read the first chapter inspired a coworker at Warner Bros. to buy a copy, but last I heard he hadn’t got past Part One. It’s not because he isn’t a reader. He’s very widely read, and most of our conversations were about books, but he said that for him “the charm wore off” after Part One. I admit I like that part best, but I’m glad I finished Shantaram because the last paragraph was almost as rewarding as the first. So alluring is the latter that I am quoting it in its entirety, with the disclaimer I’ve picked up from YouTube that no copyright infringement is intended.

It took me a long time and most of the world to know what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in the shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sounds like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

I was reminded of this paragraph on Monday night, because of something someone said at the book club I’ve been attending for some weeks now.

Of Supreme Court Decisions
The discussion entered politics when one of my fellow book club members said he was enraged by how a certain Supreme Court justice had voted on a certain issue. We had not been discussing politics until then. We’d been talking about the human freedom of choice and how it is intrinsic to how we’re wired, and this gentleman, who otherwise speaks in calm, measured tones, became impassioned as he began discussing an issue that is clearly dear to his heart. “I wish I could vote that judge out!” he cried.

(To the reader who is more interested in my writing style than my content I say yes, I have indeed resorted to using a dialogue attribution that writing instructors would not approve of. I don’t like “he cried” myself – and not because I don’t like it when men cry. Truth be told, I find it quite attractive at times. But in this instance, even though my fellow book club member didn’t burst into tears, “he said” would have been weak and “he yelled” would have been untrue.)

After my fellow book club member had ended his speech as described above, yours truly had something to say.

“If we’re talking about the human freedom of choice,” I said, “then it must apply to everyone, and that includes this justice and those who voted them in.”

What I meant was that this justice, who my fellow book club member would impeach if he could, had made a series of choices that brought them into the position they now hold. Decades before, they had chosen law as their profession, and over the course of their career they had chosen to accept certain offers and reject others. Add to that the decisions of those who appoint judges at the various levels of the federal court system, from the district courts to the Supreme Court. On that particular issue, this justice had chosen to vote in a manner contrary to the personal convictions of my fellow book club member, and they had done so based on other choices: choices to subscribe to certain values and not to others. Whether these choices were made consciously or not is not the point, although one would hope that judges are judicious in all their decision-making, even when it may not directly affect public policy.

What does this have to do with the first or last paragraph of Shantaram, or anything in between, you wonder? Reader, I have already told you how my thoughts are collected. Furthermore, I had warned you on January 19 that, one way or the other, everything would be connected to life. Granted, I hadn’t mentioned Shantaram in my first blog improper, but literature is about life, and I have been writing this blog choosing to believe that you were smart enough to figure that out for yourself. Most of you, anyway.

US Supreme Court seal

Of Fate and Choice
In the opening sentence of Shantaram, Roberts mentions fate and the choices we make in the same breath. (I’m imagining him reading it aloud, you understand.) At first blush the juxtaposition seems oxymoronic. I mean, either fate is responsible for what happens, or things happen as a result of the choices we make, right? My own opinion is that what happens happens by means of the latter, usually following a battle of opposing wills in which the stronger will wins. Anyone who has lived life or read literature knows this – and that the stronger will isn’t always the nobler. Neither in life nor in literature.

Speaking of literature, I mention fate in at least four Pioneer Boulevard stories. In “Second-Round Hopeful” Charmaine won’t leave anything to the vagaries of Fate, and in “The Favors” Meghana will toss a proviso sidelong at Fate. Fate extends her scepter in a kind of mercy to Vinita in “Crocodile Tears,” and takes revenge on Delia through a bowl of curry in “The Tiffany Lamp.” I have used fate in a poetic sense in each of these instances, but I must explain why I have done so in the last two stories, where fate is not merely an idea personified but where a certain thing seems to have happened as the direct result of the actions of Fate.

I don’t think of fate as a deity or a force that presides over (or occasionally meddles in) human affairs. Whenever I use “Fate,” it is merely a metaphorical way of saying that a certain thing happened. Such-and-such happened to Vinita as she lay dying; such-and-such happened to Delia when she met her bowl of curry. I could have said “As things turned out,” but that would have been prosaic, would it not?

Even though I found the Afghanistan bits of Shantaram a slog, one of the most important things Roberts says in the book appears in that very section:

They’d lied to me and betrayed me . . . and I didn’t like or respect or admire them any more, but I still loved them. I had no choice. I understood that, perfectly, standing in the white wilderness of snow. You can’t kill love. You can’t even kill it with hate. You can kill in-love, and loving, and even loveliness. You can kill them all, or numb them into dense, leaden regret, but you can’t kill love itself. . . . It’s a part of God . . . and it can never die.

Roberts is right. You can’t kill love because love cannot die, but I don’t agree with the statement “I had no choice.” I know, I know. He means that hating was not an option, but his protagonist did have a choice. It’s what the book’s opening paragraph had described as the choice between hating and forgiving. And the choice Lin made, standing in the white wilderness of Afghanistan’s snow, was the right choice. Even if he probably wasn’t thirsting for a Lehar Pepsi at the time.

Lehar Pepsi

—————
Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), pp. 3, 740.