For the writer-surgeon duo Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed (better known as Kalpish Ratna), surgery and writing aren't two separate worlds. Ask them what came first: the pen or the surgical knife and they answer, “The pen or the sword? In our case there is no ‘either' or ‘or'. They are both versions of the same. Surgery is writing with a scalpel in living tissue. There are no rewrites. And second chances? Almost never!”
Author of the recent Nyagrodha: The Ficus Chronicles , books for them “were refuge and constant friends. Until, of course, we met as postgraduates in surgery.” Surgery might have been first love and ambition but books, especially their making, were always a passion. Therefore questions like ‘why did you start writing' are met with, “Why? Why does one do anything? Why do we breathe?”
Books, patients and writing might keep them busy but they don't like the word ‘relax'. “Not the prefix ‘re.' And the suffix ‘lax' even less. Puts us in mind of laxatives, which are employed when all physiological reason has failed. Both surgery and writing bring us joy. What could be better? What's that definition of happiness? Whistle while you work?” they ask, categorically.
No set style
Their first column was animal inspired. “We'd written individually for years. Then one afternoon we put down one of our conversations on paper. It became the first piece we wrote together, The Song of the Tuatara. It led on to a column on zany zoology, Animal Crackers,” says Kalpana.
They have no set style or way of writing but “are compulsive readers, and there's something to be learnt from anything one reads. Writing, though, can only come about in silence, so we don't read much when we're writing.”
As surgeons, they believe, writing adds immensely to the practise of medicine as the subject for both is the human condition. Kalpana reflects, “Writing is a profession too. But it allows training on the job. Writing makes one more alert, observant and sensitive. Somehow it makes everything matter more.”
Their material and inspiration comes from everywhere and medicine is an excellent ‘basic education.' Both agree that being a doctor helps by way of ‘special knowledge'. “Especially when we're writing science, which we do very often. It opens many a door to the curious mind. Every book is an influence, because we react to it. Surgery is even better in this regard. Naturally, our first profession provides plenty of puzzles we enjoy,” they say.
They write for children and young people and think it's easier to write for children because it is pure joy, nothing delights them more. “The imagination is free and exulting. It's playtime! On a more serious note, it's the best writing one can do, so it's a challenge”, they say. That's why Ordinary Mr. Pai was written, “because fairytales frequently happen in crowded cities and to very ordinary people.”
Reflecting on the challenges involved they say, “It's not always easy to reach a child's standard of excellence.”
“Consciously, we haven't used much of our medical or surgical experiences in our writings as yet. Some day we might. Most of our material is imaginative. That's what our name Kalpish Ratna translates into: the pleasures of imagination. There's so much of that still awaiting transcription. So much to do and so little time!”
They rate, without any doubt, their last book, Uncertain Life and Sure Death , as their most difficult book to date. “It is an itinerant history of epidemic disease examined from the vantage of our city, Bombay. We practically lived in the 16th century for two years vicariously through research and reading. It also necessitated the integration of very old medicine — ancient and medieval — with very new contemporary science,” explains Ishrat Syed.
The Quarantine Papers , scheduled for publication next year, ranks as their most memorable. It incorporates all that they enjoy —medicine, history, art — and a mystery. But “everything is relative. Today we are helplessly in the grip of the novel we are writing now. When we finish it perhaps we may have to qualify this answer.”