[Issue 2 / August 2012]
Like any successful clinical psychiatrist, Dr. Zbig has already celebrated his fiftieth birthday. His beard, his BMW, the walls in his clinic, the rosebuds in his reception and most of his shirts are off-white. He is a 'non-aggressive personality'; he asks rather than speaks, listens rather than talks. His stethoscope is locked along with a prized bottle of Blue Label in the cabinet drawer behind his chair. The blood pressure gauge and the thermometer case lying on his desk look as good as new, because he hardly ever needs these instruments.
Dr. Zbig’s manner and movements are smooth, but his rough hands betray a garden fanatic. At home, he tends his beloved Chinese ferns, roses, buttercups, and wildly flourishing bougainvillea every morning. His weekends are garden weekends. He likes nothing better than watering the healthy plants with fresh buds and clipping off the rotten ones. For him people are 'stressed' not loony, 'psychologically maladjusted' not insane, 'substances dependent' not junkies or drug addicts. Words like mad, whacko, or crazed do not exist for him.
Dr. Zbig is too old fashioned, perhaps too confident, to keep a taped record of his patients. His diaries are written in a convoluted version of shorthand, a technique he learnt and developed during the long stay in the hospital awaiting his stenographer father’s death. Only Dr. Zbig can decipher the case histories in his bulky leather bound books.
As usual Dr. Zbig wears a calm, inscrutable face, plays with his spider silk tie for a long moment and asks the patient sitting in front of him, "End of our last session today. Let me ask you this Mr. Symonds. What is the single best thing about your life? You know, a pleasant moment from your past, a tennis game you played with your kid, the taste of chocolate and walnut cake you had. Maybe your first accomplished job as a grown up man or some significant personal achievement or victory. Maybe a haunting piece of music that will stay with you till your last breath? Any special sparkling moment or scintillating detail of your life that defines you as a person."
Mr. Symonds smiles. "Only one fact—my life is coming to an end. I am in charge."
"You are forty-four. You are sound in mind and body, going by your excellent medical reports. By most standards, one might call you a very successful businessman."
" That, I am."
"Can we celebrate my failure?" Dr. Zbig asks.
"How do you mean that?"
"Do you drink?"
"Not as a habit."
"Neither do I. But you do have a drink once in a while."
"I have a drink occasionally."
Dr Zbig continues. "In a way, this is against the rules. My rule number one - never drink on the job. But, say, my job is over. Thirty-eight sessions with full cooperation from the patient, but I couldn’t help you in any way. Out of this door, you might swallow a mouthful of Campos or slash your wrists to fall asleep forever. Rule number two - never get friendly or personal with a patient. But after the end of therapy, I must admit we are friends. I can consider you my friend? You do know more about me than any other patients. That’s a fact."
"We are friends, why not?" the patient says.
"So let's celebrate my failure. I am a bit of boast. We are celebrating because I don’t fail so often and so completely, as in your case." Dr. Zbig gets up from the chair and unlocks the walnut cabinet. He plants the Scotch bottle on his desk and brings out the spare water glasses and an ice tray from his office fridge.
"The man who gifted me the Blue Label Scotch told me—this is more precious than blood.” Dr. Zbig laughs as he points at the bottle. "His son, a boy of nine, had a compound fracture in his leg. A terrible car accident. Femur—his thighbone—broke into several pieces and slashed through the torn muscles and skin. After the boy was successfully operated on by the best orthopedic surgeons, I was consulted for the post accident trauma as a psychological precaution. Nothing. I did only two sessions with the boy. We mostly talked comics, Archie’s and Calvin and Hobbes and Batman. The boy didn't need any psychological help at all. He is a perfectly normal lad now."
Dr. Zbig carefully pours one drink for himself and says, "Tell me how much."
"Three fingers, yes, and enough ice to chill it."
The psychiatrist and his adamant patient click their glasses and slowly enter the twilight zone. Dr. Zbig resumes his conversation in the same level voice.
"I am a neo-liberal. When you say that you don't have any control over the kind of life you lead, that you want to control it by bringing it to an end—it has some weird logic to it. You have done it all. I don't recommend the drastic course you have chosen but I don't have anything against either. It's like euthanasia. Voluntary self-annihilation, frequently exercised by some monks on the final lap of their journey.”
The patient nurses his Scotch before saying, "Dr. Zbig, you have hit the metaphorical nail squarely on the head. Don't know why we consider death as a kind of final-moment thing."
"I don’t. Death is a lifelong process. We start dying as soon as we are born. The clock is always ticking. The other day I saw my grandchild. He wouldn't stop somersaulting on his bed. Backward and forward. Forward and backward. If I dare try that, I might suffer a heart attack. I would definitely end up with a ghastly fracture or worse, a slipped disc. You can call me a lunatic for trying that kind of thing. My point is a five-year old child is more alive than a fifty-year-old person. A child’s fracture can heal within fifteen days. Bones will melt and bind like new. Three months after his operation, X ray people won’t be able to find the joint. For the same injury a middle age man can take three months or more to heal. A sixty-year old man can take a year and orthopedics still won't call him completely safe."
The patient takes another deliberate sip from his glass.
Dr. Zbig remembers the summary of Mr. Symond's case and mentally catalogues the critical details:
Mr. Symonds started out from an underprivileged family. Not bright or serious till tenth standard. His father died the same year he entered college. No one to shoulder the family responsibilities including a sister’s marriage. Clawed a scholarship for an engineering degree. Loafed about a year or two with his degree, waiting for a job, any job. Then he was forced to help a distant relative in the laundry business. He turned out to be much better than expected. Good head for numbers and handling people. Claimed a partnership in the same laundry within two years. Then he retired his partner. Started a gasket-making workshop for kerosene stoves on the side. Most of the stoves were so bad during those years that for every stove there were a dozen faulty parts and repairs. Went for the gaskets and spare parts making in a big way with bank money.
Mr. Symonds married above his status. Ran the largest chain of laundries in the city. Riding on a boom, his company went public within a year. Sold out the entire laundry chain of 17 branches to a multinational detergent maker but kept the controlling stake in the holding company—a kind of strategic alliance. Fast cars, palatial mansions, and holiday farms followed. Put most of the profit into the gas-stove business against everyone’s advice. His profits in the gas stove industry exploded. Went into gas-filling franchises. He used his engineering background with vengeance, expanded the business to several states and settled his children in the business before they could finish their graduations: fine vindication for his jobless days. Family grew big and fat. No day-to-day responsibilities anymore. Owns a stud farm on the outskirts of the city. Presumably sitting on several Swiss bank accounts. And finally, wrote a terrible poem before starting therapy.
"Whatever got you into poetry?" Dr. Zbig says.
"One of those silly things. That poem you read is my first and last."
Dr. Zbig rummages through his memories and rewrites the patient’s poem he’d read and felt compelled to analyze. He shows it to the patient.
"You got it down correctly, line for line, word for word."
"It is incomplete and below average. Frankly out of character for someone like you. Elusive, incomplete and unsuccessful." Dr. Zbig downs his whiskey before continuing. "So, can we propose a toast to your failure now?"
Blue Label, like any good Scotch is super smooth, its effect slow and almost imperceptible. Mr. Symonds feels lucid as he replies.
"You'll have to wait a while for that failure toast."
Dr. Zbig nods. "I am not a poet but I am enough of a reader to give you a fairly objective opinion about your poem. It is trash. I don't know the method of writing poetry or process of becoming a poet. But I hear that some people take decades to finish a half decent fifteen-line poems. Do they, really?" Dr. Zbig keeps his voice smooth as usual.
"I don't know, I'll have to find out. The toast has to wait a while," Mr. Symonds says.
They sit in the thick, unfamiliar silence of the sound proof psychiatrist’s chamber. After a while, Dr. Zbig replaces the cap on the Blue Label and wishes good luck to his patient.
As Mr. Symonds steps out of the chamber, Dr. Zbig closes his eyes and sits in typical repose fondling the tip of his tie.
He reads the floating words of "Elusive and Incomplete" poem:
Tangles of gray steel wires that surround me
Like thin tentacles of wily wild wine.
They grow and multiply before my microscopic eyes
As the stark room walls I am locked in
Begin to compress with a slow forbidding finality.
I wait as the pressure mounts in my throbbing head,
I count from ten to zero out of an old, worn habit,
I remember my distant gods and daily demons.
Hazy images of my whole life breeze past
As I smell the feral fear, the exquisite exhilaration,
and a deep, oblong disgust,
Rising from this "Illusive and Incomplete" insult.
I close my eyes in sterile anticipation
Of the final, crude and crumbling impact…