India Diary: One

The sun rose and the sun set and yet he did not leave the bed.

—John Keene, Annotations

In 1988, it was called flying abroad for treatment. A year of misdiagnoses, an arrogant doctor, a shrinking body, an inability to have, do, and be. A house left to two children who knew something was wrong, but with a confidence now long lost, believed that everything was fixable: parents are superhuman. We ate ice cream almost every day of those three months, stayed up late, watched The Princess Bride, became those who waited without facts, those who waited because they were children, those who encountered a stalking death and didn’t know enough to run and hide, to kneel before the ancestors and demand a hearing: we were training to be devastated.

Was it 1987, instead? The benign neglect of my standard 6 teacher over the casual cruelty of my standard 7 teacher? One so easygoing as to be absent—a strategy for managing our hormone-raging bodies; the other, intent on suppressing changing bodies and feelings, using vicious beating to corral what escaped in dreams and visions, in unruly body parts finding direction where none had existed.

Under a tree, a precocious boy, two years younger, slid his shorts down to display emerging pubic hair. I had not imagined that one could be proud of pubic hair. I was proud of my fingernails. I carried around a metal file—I don’t remember where I got it—and spent almost all my free time shaping my nails. They were long and elegant, a tribute to those TV women who haunted my imagination. Sharp, healthy, capable of stripping flesh from a body, capable of leaving scars. They left scars, but never on girls. Boys played football and I filed nails. The smell of ground nails is familiar, comforting, little bits of dead me floating in the air, marking something of what I was losing.


A change of time occasions a change of pace: now, sitting here, in a medical facility in India designed to look like a hotel—but nothing takes away the horror of words like test, radiation, consultation, oncology. Here, facing this, the scars from the past offer little protection. I am unable to read cancer memoirs; instead, I linger on medical sites, relishing what I cannot know: the relationship between grade and stage, stage IIIA and stage IIIC, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, medicine and sickness. 5-year survival rates arranged by age. Nothing sticks. The body’s geography is rendered technical—but, no, that’s not it. It’s rendered extractable: How much shall be removed? How much shall be killed? How much must be killed?

Here, now, in the move from room to room office to office, test to test, doctor to doctor, here, now, trying to plan for what comes next—time moves and is suspended, but it is also banal in these full waiting rooms, where I’m trying to distinguish between patient—is that the word?—and attendant. Whose body looks in need of treatment?

And, still, waiting.

The helpful literature explains,

PET scan is a nuclear medicine technique, which produces images of the human body’s function at a molecular level. Usually it is a whole body scan. PET uses radiopharmaceuticals or “tracers,” which are labeled with isotopes such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and flourine. These isotopes mimic sugars, water, proteins and oxygen. These radioisotopes act like molecular level probes which seek out disease in the body while giving out radio signals which are captured to produce an image. PET can thus often reveal much more about the cellular-level dynamics of a disease than any other modalities like Ultrasound, CT or MRI.


There must be a joke: having one parent suffer a terminal condition is bad luck, having two parents is carelessness.


My visa reads Medical Attendant. It ’s a strange designation that combines all the other visa designations I’ve had—student, worker, tourist, alien. One is sick with worry, loses appetite, loses sleep, but also fetches and carries and lifts and pulls and signs and arranges and attempts to find space for oneself—through writing, perhaps. That I am visiting India with a diminished appetite strikes me as an absurd punishment from some petty deity I once offended.


I do not like hospitals. I spent standard 6, 7, and 8 shuttling through hospitals—M.P. Shah, Aga Khan, Nairobi, following my father as he went in and out of ICU and private rooms. He could not eat solid food, so I ate from his menu. I have eaten a lot of hospital food. I find hospitals difficult. I am not averse to how they smell—I grew up with the smell and I find it comforting, even pleasant. It is, instead, the scenes of attrition. Even now, this cannot be written.

Because I hate hospitals, especially Kenyan hospitals, it’s comforting to be in a foreign country, to be surrounded by unfamiliar vernaculars, bodies I do not know how to read, conversations that I cannot follow, conflicts that I cannot map. Disorientation provides space. But it’s not really disorientation. Rather, this foreign space does not yet hold the sediments of who I used to be; it does not produce the weight of feeling—repressed, deformed, disorganizing, deranged, anarranged, expressed—produced by Nairobi’s hospitals. That deep sense of rage and betrayal that flooded my 11-year-old, 12-year-old-, 13-year-old body, leaving little room for much else.

I’d be a poor literary critic—though I claim I’m not one—if I didn’t notice how the language of cancer and its treatment now permeate my writing—excrescences and floods, expression and repression.

As I would had I come for different reasons, I have perched myself in a café, and I’m writing in my notebook, wondering how much of this, if any, to make public.

I’ve been waiting for about an hour. Two or three more hours to go.


I cannot allow comments on the India Diary. I hope you understand.