Thursday, July 20, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi- this was a book that lay dormant in my to-be-read pile for quite some time and it was just recently, I finally got around to reading it. I am not a non-fiction reader but the book was very much hyped and of course it has an emotional angle to it also- a brilliant physician who is forced by fate to face his own mortality. I had another reason for wanting to read this book-my own fascination about death. I don’t talk about it loud with people around me-like family and friends because they will assume that either I’m off my bonkers or I’m under deep depression. You see fascination with death is considered to be morbid, but at the same time we are all aware of our own mortality.  


Paul Kalanithi who believed in a purpose to life, in finding what makes life meaningful and worthy of living, comes face to face with his own death when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. As a successful neurosurgeon-scientist, at the end of his residency in Stanford, he is shattered. The book can be seen divided in two parts-the first part deals with his journey in his profession as a doctor and the reason why he considers neurosurgery as his calling. The second part deals with his battle with his disease and how he chose to bring in a new life even when his own days on earth were numbered. What comes across of his persona, is a man who is passionate about the work he does and strives to not only cure his patients but also make them understand (to some extent) of what they will have to endure because of their illness. Such empathy and kindness in doctors is rare-we may have doctors who are brilliant in their field of work, but Paul wanted to know what made his patient’s life worth living so he could ensure that his treatment did not strip off his patient’s identity. This makes sense with the ending that he preferred to his own life.


However his narration is very clinical and that may be the reason why I remained dry eyed through the first two parts. He approaches his illness as a doctor but the epilogue by his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, shows how Paul’s family had to come to terms with their loss. It made me tear up to realize that often death leaves a profound impact on the people who are left behind rather than those who leave us.


Most of us are scared about death, scared of talking about it and discussions about it is considered as ill-omen by the elders in the family. What is it exactly about death that scares us? Is it that the phenomenon of after death is still a mystery or the fact that we don’t know when exactly we would die- makes death appear ominous? Here again Paul’s insight helped me to understand more on my own musings. He says, in the book, that his diagnosis of cancer changed nothing in his life. He knew that he’d die someday but he didn’t know when. After cancer this still remained same. Terminal illness made him realize that his life on earth was short but he still didn’t know if he would live for 2 months or 2 years.

I remember few lines from a poem of Sri Aurobindo

Life only is, or death is life disguised, -
Life a short death until by Life we are surprised. 

Sri Aurobindo considered death as another kind of life, an after-life and he compares life to a short death on earth until we are surprised with the after-life.

Paul Kalanithi’ s book may be a memoir to his daughter but it also helps people like me(with a “morbid” fascination of death) to gain a deeper and philosophical understanding that death is not dying but withholding from life and not living life to its fullest possibilities.



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