Monday, August 3, 2020

When Breath Becomes Air | Tale of a neurosurgeon | Book Review

‘At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet’, it is said. But one cannot say the same about Death. When Death arrives calling, not everyone stays brave or becomes a philosopher. Not all of us remain the proud humans that we are during our lifetimes, but go begging for another lease of life, no matter however brief that might be. Very few of us have the courage and composure to meet Death face-to-face, contemplate their life so far, take stock of their purpose and progress, and then, finally, do something that would fill them with the satisfaction of leaving behind something worthwhile, something that could set apart their sojourn on this planet from the billions of others. Paul Kalanithi’s was, fortunately or unfortunately, one such life that acquired a glowing purpose and meaning, sadly more during his final phase of life.

Paul Kalanithi was the second of three sons of an Indian couple settled in America. He had everything going for him. A comfortable life with family, marrying the love of his life, pursuing a career as special and as advanced as neurosurgery, reputation that could have landed him a plump career as soon as his training ended. But he also had something else too – lung cancer of an advanced stage. All his plans for the future suddenly vanished like mirage. With a life now cut short due to illness, Paul launched deeply into questions of existential nature, questions he had felt even while he was riding the crest of the tide.


This book is the answer to his questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. And, what an eloquent and poetic answer this has turned out to be! Published posthumously, this memoir recounts Paul’s early life in detail, telling us about what led to his decision to pursue a career in neuroscience, his early days as a resident surgeon and his ascent to glory. Then come the details of his illness, the various stages of cure that were tried and his frantic, determined quest to find the meaning for his life, whatever little was left of it. His wife Lucy’s epilogue is as fitting an end to the book as it could have been – beautiful, full of love and written more in a matter of fact manner than in a mawkish tone, just the same way in which Paul had written the whole book.

Life is a continuum and Death is a part of it, whether we like it or not. Death is in fact the only absolute certainty in the lives of everything, from the tiny sapling to the mightiest of stars. Just like the eyes ignore the nose that is in front of them, in order to give us an unhindered view of the world, our minds push that ineluctable reality behind so that we can plot our plans for decades until, of course, Death arrives calling, putting to waste our best-laid plans. The more we contemplate the meaning of our lives, the more we acknowledge what awaits us all in the end, and the more we chart the course of our lives accordingly, the easier it becomes for us to leave our mortal shells behind with dignity. Just the way Paul did.

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