Attired in a white coat, a black stethoscope dangling over his shoulders, Dr. Tiny Nair, Head, dept. of cardiology, PRS Hospital is busy examining his patients, as I wait for the interview. Sick patients, anxious relatives, uniformed nurses and the ‘antiseptic’ hospital smell, – an unusual setting for an interview on an unusual topic – ‘poetry’.
“At night, after my wife sleeps off, I sneak out of bed, take out my laptop and transport myself to a world that would seem very inappropriate for a doctor of my stature; writing poetry” says Dr. Nair, as I take out my notepad and start my interview.
“The world of rhyme and rhythm always fascinated me, and a casual poem about doctor’s life, published in the open-page of the Hindu newspaper kicked it off. I started writing poems about doctors, nurses, and wide ranging diseases, from heart ailments to cancer, from quitting smoking to adopting healthy lifestyle. But unlike usual poetry, a medical poetry always gives you the feel of a cold wheel chair and emotionless scanners”, he added.
“Scanners and manners in hospital are cold Adds up to the tension of patients untold.”
“Hospital is a place where intense emotion plays hide and seek, every nook and corner oversees transition from hopelessness to joy, from desperation of imminent death to miracle of birth, every day. The doctor has to balance the use of cutting edge technology with the art of palliation, a real mixture of science and art. A right ratio, makes the concrete strong, but unfortunately the concentration of art has become negligible in medicine”.
Q. Does high-tech medicine need poetry? Isn’t it waste of time, given that already doctors are stretched heavily on time?
A. Well apparently hardcore science and soft hearted poem doesn’t rhyme, but there is more to that than what meets the eye. Functional MRI scanning (fMRI) studies have shown that poetry, in contrast to prose, goes to a different area of brain for processing; an area called amygdala and cingulate gyrus. This is an area which modulates human emotions and mould empathy; and poetry does just that. Empathy and understanding of human emotion is a must for a successful doctor. This is the reason why many American universities in their curriculum, have made it compulsory for medical students to learn either poetry or art.
Q. Do you write poetry with a medical theme?
A. Yes, most of my poems carry a medical touch. A doctor gets so absorbed by his profession, that whatever he creates, smells of ether and formalin, what ever he paints has a shade of traumatized tissue, and whatever he thinks has a touch of grey matter.
Q. Tell us about your poetry book
A. ‘Quote white coat’ is perhaps the first medical poetry book in India. ‘Jaypee publishers’ were initially skeptic in taking up the project, despite the fact that I have done quite a few medical books with them.
Q. What about poetry in medical journals?
A. Medical journals especially cardiac ones are tough to crack. They devote every available square inch to hard core science and late-breaking drug trials. I had to convince the editor of Indian Heart journal to publish my first poem. Now I regularly write poetry for many national and international journals.
Q. Tell us one of your favourite poems
A. Here you go, this one is about ‘Nurses’.
Q. Can you tell more about ‘Medical Poetry’? Is it a new stream that is opening up in the medical field?
A. New? Not at all. From John Keats to Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, all were poets in white coat; All I am trying to say is that, this is not a new stream. In fact, it is one of the oldest. Over time, the science of medicine bulldozed the art. But today mail any publisher and ask about the prospects of publishing a collection of poems; most likely you would never hear from them again. The commercial value of poetry is dead, but I think it can still come back. Poetry is an essential balm to the troubled mind, a soothing wrap to the traumatized soul.
Q. A poet I believe, always need inspiration… working round the clock as head of cardiology department, where do you draw your inspiration from?
A. I don’t think doctors need inspiration in writing poems. The emotions that play out in his daily practice, is a good enough to make it a study character in a poem. All I need is to keep a small note-pad in my pocket (not an ipad) and jot down whatever strikes unusual, lest my poor memory fail. The ingredients of a poetry are always there, all you need is to cook them to your taste, garnish and serve.
Q. Compassion is one of the qualities that makes a poet -as a doctor can you tell us about your take on this?
A. Compassion is integral to the doctor, but for some doctors, over time, sustained exposure may make their mind numb, and less sensitive. I think, that’s how the nidus of the evolving poet die in such doctors. A doctor without a compassion becomes a technically trained robot, devoid of emotional response. To me he migrates from ‘beautiful’ poetry to ‘tasteless’ prose
Q. We have discussed about your writing part. Can you shed some light on your reading habits and also who are your favourite poets/authors?
A. Yes, I read a lot. Fiction of the youth has slowly given way to non-fiction. This year my best pics would be ‘The Gene’, by Sidhartha Mukherjee (may be being a doctor I am biased here) and Elon Musk’s biography by Ashlee Vance. Since I travel a lot for my medical lectures, books make sure that no flight delay can perturb me.
I thanked the poet in the white coat and left. Not too sure whether I need to take that painkiller for my next headache or read a poetry.