Book: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publication: Bodley Head
Price: Rs 599
In Atul Gawande’s bestseller, Being Mortal, the central question of the book is: If your time becomes short, what is most important to you? What is your definition of a happy, purposeful life? In his memoir, Dr Paul Kalanithi writes that death is not a surprise, but how does one live one day at a time if you didn’t know how much time you had left? In 2013, the 36-year-old neurosurgeon at the Stanford University School of Medicine had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. So begins When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi’s deeply philosophical memoir that tells us of his lifelong curiosity and engagement with a single question: What makes human life meaningful?
The son of a cardiologist, Kalanithi was quite certain he was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was going to be a writer, till his girlfriend tossed him a novel that posited the idea that while man had free will, the mind was governed by the brain, a biological organism that ran its own ship. The teenage Kalanithi is struck by this and considers studying biology in addition to his literature classes at Stanford. After getting an MA in literature, Kalanithi went on to earn an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine at Cambridge and returned to America to attend the Yale School of Medicine. He was a rising star at the hospital when the cancer dealt him a terrible blow. In trading his surgical gown for a blue hospital one, Kalanithi grapples with the loss of identity and wonders, “Who would I be, going forward, and for how long?” He died on March 9, 2015.
When Breath Becomes Air is a lyrical account of a philosophical mind that strove to find meaning in literature, medicine, religion and mortality. Kalanithi was a seeker of beauty in the world around him; in the operating room where he walked the tightrope between life and death, where the decision to operate does not solely rest on saving a life but to ascertain the quality of the life that has been saved. As a patient, Kalanithi pondered over the times he equated his patients with paperwork, when he dissected cadavers with clinical precision; he wonders what does it mean to be human in that environment?
Kalanithi’s writes, engagingly, of his career as a neurosurgeon, of grey matter, pink matter, and what matters when science no longer has the answers to the mysteries of the world. “Human knowledge grows in the relationships we form between each other and the world,” he writes. Each of his endeavours, through his teenage years till the last few weeks, was an effort to merge the languages of science, faith, philosophy and literature, so that even if one were not to know the final answer, the journey itself would be meaningful and unique to each person.
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