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The nurse from Kerala, with a smile nearing smugness, tests the temperature of her patient. “Give me that!” she says. The plastic wonder is passed along to her. Her fat fingers grab the thermometer. The patient is there, wired, strapped, connected to a device that acts as a medical Global Positional System, tied into contraption that feeds him morsels through tubes.
“Telemetry,” he says, intrigued by the nature of the word. The device lies cuddled in a pocket. Any movement, any cardiac disruption, will be relayed to Central Command. This is suitable terminology: everything about the nature of disease, including the most dangerous ones, suggests military struggle, internecine conflict. We are told that the human race is in a war against cancer, one of the most remarkable of diseases. But we are only at war because, secretly, we all wish to be immortal. Absent this moral dimension, we are either dead or alive.
This is not a war that humans can win for one simple reason: we are living too long. Our bodies eventually breed our downfall. But the machinery is there to fight, to attempt, vainly, to cheat the wasting efforts of a condition that makes Attila the Hun look like a toddler in search of a spade.
Our refusal to die in quiet acceptance suggests an onset of other condition: cellular, depraved, the unseen inserting themselves like combatants into our skin, goring, gnawing, nibbling and incising. We are mortal, they seem to say, and remind us that there is no Holy Grail, no sweet water that will drag us, lingeringly, into another hundred years. We are, in other words, being killed for our durability, our obsession to see the sun rise, have the next glass of wine, or sigh in post-coital bliss.
Cancer, and its lethally enthusiastic friends, is combated in the command centre known as the oncology ward. That ward is located in the broader hospital apparatus, a detestable place where illness reigns as god king, and the maggot queen fronts up with disdain, striking at a moment’s notice. Everything here suggests battle, warfare, campaigns, fought in dry, near dehydrating conditions. There are struggles, and being in such a ward exhausts, deprives, drawing the heart beat.
The hospital, in short, mortgages your life, places you in a form of emotional, and sometimes economic bondage. It suspends life, it quarries resources of depression, and it suspends the routine of the living. Visitors to the oncology ward start looking like ventriloquists for the un-dead, gaunt, haggard. They become mirrors of disease and enervation.
The theatre of operations in an oncology ward seem much like preparations before a gas attack at Ypres during the First World War: wipe, wash, clean hands before engagement. (There, it was gas masks.) “Germs kill!” goes the sign at the entrance point. Enemies are unseen; they thrive in the subterranean field of invisibility – to our naked eye. They may strike, your unwashed hand being an unwitting carrier for the next assault, the next disabling attack. You, in other words, may be responsible. Collaborators, recoil in guilt.