Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3 (1929)
Fiction, like a delicate spider’s web is so light and impalpable, but it yet needs to anchor to reality to be perceptible. Some webs seem to float in air by itself, and it is barely possible to perceive where exactly the web is attached to when the fiction stands very close to life. The existence of the web becomes obvious when it floats gently in the air, its attachments clearer when we attempt to trace the points where the fragile silks meet.
To be able to create a web requires the craftsmanship of a spider. The works of writers like Virginia Woolf make us believe that their webs hang in mid-air. The webs of expression created by Virginia prove to have existence without materialistic attachment. Her effortless prose conveys the deeper meanings of life, even without the very mention of anything human. She draws images in air, and talks in metaphors. Her narrative is highly symbolic and imaginative, written chiefly in verse. Her command in language and futuristic feminist concepts makes her my favorite writer of the twentieth century.
This analysis of Virginia Woolf’s quote was written for Terra Curanda in March 2014.
Disclaimer : This story is a work of fiction. However, all characters, monuments, institutions and places mentioned in this story are real. The author is aware that the thread of this story has resemblance to the incidents mentioned in Chapter 1 of Dan Brown‘s novel, Inferno. The author believes that she was inspired by the novelist’s fast-paced plots that revolve round an intriguing incident described back-and-forth in time. However, there is no content scraping or copyright infringement in this story and any similarity to the writing style of the said author is purely unintentional.
I woke up from sleep after what seemed like ages. I tried to lift my hands, but I could barely move them. I tried to listen to the voices around me. I heard the beep of the life support devices and the muffled voices of people talking to each other. I tried to make sense of the voices, but they were incomprehensible. The peculiar sterile smell of the place was strangely familiar.
My head was aching. I felt like I was being pricked by a million needles all over my head. A sharp shooting pain ran down my spine and I felt as if I being electrocuted. My pulse quickened and the machines attached to me started beeping vigorously. I tried to wriggle out, but I couldn’t. I felt very heavy. I could only manage to move my body a bit in response to pain.
It now occurred to me that I was in a hospital, probably in the intensive care unit. I tried to think hard, but I couldn’t remember how I ended up there. My headache was worse than the worst episodic migraine I’ve ever had, something terrible must have happened to me. The last thing I remember was examining a patient in my hospital.
I tried to open my eyes, my eyelids gave way despite its heaviness. The room was empty except for me and the medical devices. Looking around, I saw that I was supine on the bed, connected to an intravenous line. A bottle of 5% dextrose hung from the pole of the i.v stand like a hideous fruit on a leafless tree. The side rails of my bed were pulled up. I had fresh bandages on both knees. The tip of my finger was attached to the sensor of the pulse oximeter. I looked up the machine on my right side and found that my oxygen saturation, pulse and heart rates were within normal limits. A crash cart, covered with a green cloth stood at the right corner. An ECG machine with unconnected leads sat on the shelf behind my head. There was a window covered with curtains at the far end of the room.
I had no difficulty in figuring out where I was. I was in Calicut Medical College.
A nurse, dressed in blue scrubs hurriedly entered the room. She pulled the plastic stool from under my bed and sat down. She had a long pointed face, neatly threaded eyebrows and gentle, brown eyes. She wore steel rimmed spectacles. Her hair was neatly tied into a bun. It looked like she was in her mid-thirties. I could say from her demeanor that she was from South Kerala. She smiled at me, studied my face for a while, and picked up the clipboard and pen which was on the head end of my bed.
“How are you feeling?”, she asked in English, with a pronunciation suggesting an Oxford sojourn some time in her past.
“My head hurts badly”, I said. “Besides, I can speak Malayalam”, I added after a while of silence.
She looked mildly surprised. She continued the conversation in Malayalam, in what I thought was a southern accent.
“What is your name?”
“Netha Hussain”, I replied.
She noted down on the clipboard.
It was clear that she did not know that I was a medical student. Gone are the days when medicos and nurses knew each other very well.
“I am a writer”, I replied. Apart from being a medical student, I was also a writer. In fact, outside of the hospital, I always introduced myself as a writer. I was mildly agitated because she did not recognize me as a medical student. If the nurse did not know that I was a medical student studying in this college, there was no way I was telling her the same.
She noted down something on the clipboard.
“What day is today?”, she asked, after adjusting her spectacles that stooped beyond the bridge of the nose and was in peril of falling down.
“Tuesday”, I said without a doubt. Tuesday was the out-patient day of my medical unit, when we had to examine patients in the Casualty in the afternoon. I might have had an accident during work or on my way back home, and might have got admitted to the ICU of the same Casualty.
“Do you know where you are?”, when she asked, I knew that she was trying to test if I was oriented in place.
“Calicut Medical College”, I replied confidently. She had finished the questions to test my orientation in time and place. The next question would test if I was oriented in person. I smiled inwardly.
She stood up and reached out to a locker which was on top of the shelf where the ECG machine was kept. She turned the key twice, opened the locker, and took a camera out. I immediately recognized that it was an Olympus SZ-16. She swiped through the controls and turned the screen towards me. Written on the top right of the control button was my name.
“Don’t you touch my camera”, I snapped.
“Sorry. But I want you to identify this man”, she said firmly, pointing to the man in the picture.
It was the picture of a man in his twenties, wearing a t-shirt and grinning widely. I looked carefully. Though I found him strangely familiar, I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know how that picture got into my camera.
“He looks European”, I said. “Probably from eastern Europe”, I added after studying his features.
“So, you do not know him?”
“I guess I don’t”, I replied truthfully.
She then swiped once more and showed the picture of another man. He was taller, and had similar features like the other one. I couldn’t recognize him either.
Then, she showed me a third picture. It took me a second to process what I was seeing. Then, my jaw dropped.
I was standing between the two men whose photographs the nurse had previously shown me. It was evident from the picture that the men knew me very well. Their t-shirts suggested that they were associated with Mozilla/Firefox. Being a Mozilla volunteer for over a year, I tried to recall who they were, but I did not have a clue. I had clearly lost my memory.
I was getting increasingly confused. I told the nurse that I did not know the context of the photograph. She smiled empathetically and asked me to relax.
She looked up the monitor of the pulse oximeter and scribbled something on the clipboard. Then, she went out to call the doctor.
In around ten minutes, the doctor arrived. He was a white, tall man in blue scrubs. He had a long pointed nose, golden hair and thin lips. There was a stethoscope around his neck. What struck me was that he didn’t look Indian at all. I knew that it was possible for foreigners to intern in my hospital, but since when did they start seeing patients in the ICU?
The nurse talked to the doctor in French. She said about me being désorienté and embrouillé.
Disoriented and confused. I knew enough French to make out what she was talking about.
“I am not disoriented”, I shouted at them in English.
The doctor looked at me and gave me a compassionate smile. He sat down on the stool near me and asked me in English if he could examine me. I did not protest.
He took out a pen torch from his pocket and examined my eyes. When he took out another torch, I knew that it was for testing consensual light reflex – so I placed the medial border of my hand on my nose to help him to shield the light. He looked amused at my gesture.
During the course of examination, I cooperated with extreme dexterity. After he examined for wrinkles on my forehead, I took the cue and shut my eyes tightly. Then, I blew my cheek, showed my teeth and grimaced, in that order, without being instructed to do so. I was helping him to test my seventh cranial nerve.
The doctor’s amusement turned to surprise. He asked me if I were a healthcare practitioner. I replied that I was a medical student. He asked many questions during the course of examination, and I knew that he was trying to assess my higher mental functions. He told me that he had to catch up with many patients that day, so he had to be really quick. We ended the examination with me demonstrating dysdodakokinesia and Brudzinski’s sign without waiting for instructions from him.
The doctor told me that except for a few superficial injuries on the arm and one knee, I was normal. It was a case of retrograde amnesia and he said I would recover soon. He told me that I had already started shaping new memories, indicating that it is a good sign. He assured me that he had looked into my CT scan reports, and had found that everything was okay. He left after giving instructions to to the nurse in French. I felt reassured. But I couldn’t yet recall the happenings that led to the hospital admission. The nurse moved the window screens before she left and I could look outside the room.
The view was stunning. I could see a Gothic-style tower with a square tower body that narrowly pinnacled to an octagonal spire. The metal statue of the archangel Michael was clearly visible through the glass window. Thanks to my high school research on medieval architecture, I knew that I was seeing the 96 metre long tower of the Town Hall. This monument was unique, and has long been the icon of a city and a UNESCO world heritage site. People visiting this city never miss taking pictures of this monument. The tower looked even more stunning in the night light.
I swallowed at the thought of where I was. There is only one place in the world where this monument could be.
Brussels, Belgium. I was over ten thousand kilometres away from Calicut.
I now knew why the doctor spoke French, the native language of most Belgians, and why the nurse described me as disoriented when I recognized the place as Calicut Medical College.
The stark realization made me feel sick. What was I doing here? Did I meet with an accident? How did I end up in Brussels?
I scanned through the pictures on my camera hoping to recall something from my memory. On camera, I saw numerous pictures of people at what seemed like a party. It was evident that I has spent a long time with a bunch of people whose faces I could not recall.
Just then, the nurse opened the door.
“Am I in Brussels?” I asked in Malayalam.
“Good that you started remembering things” she said.
“Ahem, actually, I do not remember anything. I just made an intelligent guess on seeing this tower”, I said, pointing towards the window.
She sat down beside me, and started talking in measured sentences.
“The only thing we know about you was that you met with an accident while you were sightseeing with your friends. Your friends are busy at the hospital administration wing, entering your personal details into the hospital’s database, talking with the police and conversing with the Indian Embassy over phone. Personnel from the Embassy will reach here after 10 am in the morning to talk with you and find out if you need any help”.
“Actually, do you know how I reached Brussels? I only remember examining patients in my college-hospital in India”.
“I have no idea”, she shrugged. “Probably your friends know. They will be allowed to see you in a while. I suggest that you take some rest”.
After checking the i.v lines, she turned to leave. I quickly held her hand, making her look back.
“How, as a Malayali, did you land up here in Brussels?”, my eyes widened with curiosity as I anticipated her reply.
“You might already know that a lot of the nursing workforce worldwide comes from Kerala. I immigrated to Belgium 5 years ago, and I’ve been working here for the last 3 years. I figured you were from Kerala from your passport and I asked the duty doctor to put me in charge of you”, her eyes narrowed as she smiled.
“In fact, my duty gets over by 12 pm in the night, but I stayed on to ensure that you were alright. Now, that you are stable and conscious, I think I can leave”.
I was speechless for a while. I managed to say a ‘Thank you’ at last.
“There is an Indian nurse in the next shift. I have already called her up and asked her to take good care of you”, she smiled as she spoke. “And by the way, my name is Sheila. I have left my visiting card in your case record. If you have any trouble, don’t hesitate to call me”, she added.
I thanked her again. As soon as she was gone, three men and a woman entered the room. All were in colourful Mozilla outfits. I immediately recognized that they were the people I saw in the pictures.
“Good Lord, I hope you are alright”, the woman exclaimed. I later learnt that her name was Ana-Maria Antolović.
I smiled weakly.
“Sorry”, I said. “I can’t remember your faces, though you all look strangely familiar. I think I met with an accident and I can’t remember a thing. Not even travelling to Brussels”.
“Big story”, the woman said. “You reached Brussels for the Mozilla Summit. We met you on the first day of the conference and became friends. You were returning to the hotel with us after the closing party of the Summit. As we were walking, an unknown driver speeded his car through the sidewalk and knocked you down. Luckily, you were not badly injured. You immediately fell unconscious, and we called an ambulance to bring you here”.
“The doctor told us that you would recover soon and be able to return to your country in good shape”, she smiled as she placed a bowl of fruits on to the eating board attached to my bed.
“Eat well and be strong”, one of the men said playfully.
“Thanks people, too bad that I can’t remember the time I spent with you”.
“You already have hundreds of pictures of us and the Summit in your camera. You will remember everything in no time”, the other man re-assured.
We had a hearty laugh together.
Sincere thanks to :
* Ana-Maria Antolović, Dejan Strbad, Saša Teković and Stanić Mihovil from Mozilla Hrvatska, Croatia for letting me use their pictures taken during the Mozilla Summit 2013 in Brussels in October 2013.
* Neethu P.M and her elder sister for cross-checking the consistency of medical facts mentioned in this story.
* Jeph Paul for spending several hours in copy-editing and reviewing this post.
* Neethu Santhosh, Neethu N.T and Sona Sathian for reading the story from a medical student’s perspective and providing me with valuable criticism.
She’d open up lives on canvas :
the infant’s inked footprints in black
and the marbled tombstone in white,
the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb
all painted in black and white
while they conveyed ideas
dominated by shades of grey.
The picture of her chest snapped by the machine
baking her tissues with a beam of rays
was in black and white, too.
When my white-sleeved hand
held it up against the glowing screen,
I saw cannonballs* piercing her lungs.
The back of my mind wished
it was just another picture
painted by her.
Truth is not always what we wish for.
*Multiple pulmonary nodules on chest x-ray are known commonly as cannon ball secondaries. Cannon balls indicate poor prognosis.