India Diary: Two

Picture what we can create if we dare give ourselves permission to imagine freely.

—Pumla Dineo Gqola, A Renegade Called Simphiwe

One ventures into the unknown with the faint hope—or irrepressible arrogance—that its contours will not be entirely unfamiliar: this might be the meaning of unexpected. Something tethers, perhaps it is the imagination, moving ahead of us, beyond us, through us, frightening in its intensities and desires and ambitions. One faces the shock of the unexpected.

John Keene’s Annotations uses third person pronouns—he and him—to locate the child/hood being narrated. It reminds me of how foreign past selves become—perhaps this explains my ongoing resistance to the first person memoir: to write about one’s past selves as though they can be present, even partially, as an “I” strikes me as obscene. I default to “one,” to mark the strangeness of the encounter with selves whose actions and desires often seem entirely incomprehensible.

India Diary: Two started as a meditation on private and public healthcare in India spurred by the hotel-like lobby of the place we are frequenting: a concierge, a comfortable café, beautifully designed and arranged waiting chairs, not a wound in sight, not a stretcher, no visible signs of distress, and no hospital smell. In these facilities, sickness has been purged from public view—it lives in hidden wards and examination rooms.


A reprieve?

Still not my story to tell.


The chemotherapy ward is sparse, clinical, normal: 4 beds in a row separated by small partitions—attendants dressed in green and white swarm around. They are kind, they smile, they exude calm, they issue instructions: “Just enjoy the view—it is a beautiful view.”


Slow release medication—the idea of it—has prepared me a little for the idea of a drug so powerful—so toxic—that it must be delivered over 3 hours. Medical care is so often what we hear about—they operated on me, I had to use a bed pan, I took my medications, they gave me blood. Caregivers witness it in different ways—it doesn’t take much intelligence to operate an oxygen tank, but it is terrifying to need to learn how to do so at 11 or 12. Again, to keep escaping here, now, what I cannot comprehend. If there is comfort in what I cannot—dare not—understand, there is also the treachery of memory.

This is also wake work.


Here, now, we plan for visits. Tomorrow, next week, next month: medical care demands a future imagination, a way of imagining what we can create: meals, joy, beauty.


From where I’m sitting, I look at two other people receiving treatment. Attendants sit in a row facing their particular patients. The patients watch TV as their bodies receive treatment. It is banal, if that word can be used, but an expensive banal, a treatment that should be available to everyone—that is one factor of economic justice. Here, now, economic justice as a practice of freedom and love—this—this I cannot get away from. This I insist on as a vision of a livable, shareable world.


My concentration is shot.


Wambui Mwangi reminds me to think and imagine from where I am standing, to take the occasion of being in place, no matter how temporary or unstable that place, to think and act, to shift and nudge, to find ways to make that ground more possible, more livable, more shareable. It is not always or immediately clear what that entails—grounds change, and I am often disoriented. But the ethical force of her demand—the reminder that it is a demand—tethers me to the world we co-imagine and co-create.

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