Sunday, August 31, 2008


I was on call a few nights ago, admitting a 4 year-old for some chemotherapy. David* had been diagnosed with cancer in infancy and had been successfully treated until a few months ago when the cancer recurred. The nurses on the floor all knew him well. They had seen him grow up and, like all the cancer patients, they spoiled him lavishly. It was my first time with David, however, and I had to take a complete history starting from the beginning.

In the middle of the interview, I noticed him touching my forearm. I was wearing half-sleeved scrubs and my arms were bare. He ran his hand up and down my forearms, apparently fascinated. I asked him what he was looking at.

"What's that?" he said.

"That's my arm."

"What's on it?"

I looked at my forearm. He was feeling the hair.

"Hair," I said.

David looked at it thoughtfully for a moment. His own arms, much like the rest of his body, were devoid of hair.

"Who put it there?"

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was such an innocent question from a child whose chemotherapy had left him smooth and bald.

"It just grew out," I told him.

He ran his hands up and down, still mesmerized by the sight.

"Will you cut it off?" he asked.

*Not his real name.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


When I was living in Karachi we had a housemaid who would come for a few hours in the day and do the cooking. I say housemaid but Shahnaz was really my mother's age, maybe slightly younger but not by much. She used to make the most awesome parathas. They were layered and crumbly and Shahnaz had this little trick of hiding the ghee in the folds of the dough so that the paratha, when it was delivered to you, would be dry and crisp on the outside but would melt on your tongue with the first bite. It was sheer breakfast heaven and my only complaint was that they were too small, each paratha a diminutive fist-sized portion that disappeared in two or three quick bites.

Shahnaz lived in a squatter settlement some distance from our house and would walk to work every morning. Ours was one of several houses she visited during the day and, by the time I got up, she would already be done with her work and on her way to the next home. The parathas would be wrapped up, warm and toasty in the hotpot. I'd say a quick hello, maybe ask about her health, and then dive into the spoils, occasionally complaining about their size and how I had to eat so many to get my fill. She never said anything and the parathas stayed small.

It occurred to me a few days ago that maybe that was the size of the chappati she made for her kids. She had seven or eight young children - I never asked - and how she fed them I don't know. She worked hard enough but Shahnaz was the only one earning for her family. Her husband had passed away. Keeping portions small would have been one way to keep the children from starving. It embarrasses me now to think of my puerile complaints. What did she go through to maintain that silence, to choose to protect her dignity by abstaining from an explanation of her poverty, her need to willfully deprive her children of the foods she prepared in other people's homes.

What comfort can my words bring her now.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Let a place be made

Let a place be made for one who draws near,
The one who is cold, deprived of any home,

Tempted by the sound of a lamp, by the lit
Threshold of a solitary house.

And if he is still exhausted, full of anguish,
Say again for him those words that heal.

What does this heart which once was silence need
If not those words which are both sign and prayer,

Like a fire caught sight of in the sudden night,
Like the table glimpsed in a poor house?

- Yves Bonnefoy

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