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Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan

The video show

Some months ago, I awoke in the dead of night with a sharp pain in my upper abdomen. I am so unwilling to have my sleep disturbed that rather than panic, I just lay peacefully in bed describing the pain to myself. It felt, I decided, as if I had swallowed a lance, then made the mistake of bending over to tie my shoe-lace.

After a couple of hours the lance dissolved and I fell asleep once more. In the morning I told myself that the symptoms of all fatal ailments are mere variations on the theme of gas and dismissed the episode as trivial. Two weeks later, when it happened again, I told myself to avoid heavy dinners and to drink steady doses of liquid Gelusil. The third time around, I applied a hot-water bottle to the afflicted spot and moaned softly till the pain had passed.

By the sixth time, I was beginning to wonder whether I could afford the expense of having an ulcer. And by the seventh time, when the pain refused to budge all night, when it seemed likely to last late into the day, making it impossible to get any work done, it finally occurred to me ask my gall bladder whether it was trying to tell me something.

Two days later, on the advice of my doctor, I had checked into Aashlok Hospital to have the offending organ surgically removed. It was going to be done laparascopically, which meant that I'd have four small cuts rather than one seven-inch scar decorating my abdomen. I was embarrassed to realise that despite having owned a gall bladder for some 43 years, I had barely noticed its existence until it chose to make its presence felt.

When my surgeon told me that it was possible to make a video recording of the surgery which I could watch subsequently, I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed miraculous to think that I could actually catch a glimpse of my own interior without the nuisance of being gifted with supernatural insight.

After spending just one night in the hospital, I returned home with my video cassette, feeling abnormally healthy. It was hard to believe that a vital piece of my personal furniture had been shuffled off into the void with nothing more than a few patches of sticking plaster to memorialise the incident. I even went out for a Chinese dinner on the first night home after the surgery. But it would be a week before I and two friends got around to watching the forty minute drama starring my liver, gall bladder and sundry instruments.

Presented in lurid technicolor at twenty life-size, it was as astonishingly colourful as X-ray films and sonogram prints are not. We are accustomed to seeing our internal organs portrayed as shadowy continents floating in a sea of murk, grey as the anxiety which heralds the need for most investigations.

The radiologist behaves like a taciturn guide to inner space, revealing frustratingly little of what is, after all, one's own most intimate estate. By contrast, the rosy chamber which popped abruptly into view as my documentary began was reassuringly familiar. It looked as if it belonged within someone's body, even though it was bit difficult to relate it to my own.

There was a bright flash of steel as a blade cut its sudden way into the frame of the picture, exiting instantly to leave a gleaming pipe in its place. Within seconds, the lead actor had made its entrance, an instrument which looked like a steel-billed toucan. Then in quick succession, another two pipes appeared, with no time wasted on bleeding or remorse.

The toucan nosed and prodded the fleshy structures in the foreground, just as two assistants popped into view, eager as mynah-birds. Their purpose seemed to be to hold down the villainous gall bladder as it writhed about on the crimson bed of my liver, leaving the toucan to peck away at innumerable sheaths and layers of organic cellophane.

It took a surprisingly long time, punctuated by intervals when the chamber was sluiced down with what looked like water, then drained by an officious little suction pipe. Towards the end, just as the audience's attention was beginning to wander, the toucan's mate appeared with staples held in its gape. These were applied to a tube-like structure, presumably the bile-duct.

And then, like a last-minute plot twist, a new character appeared, a razor-billed ibis. A couple of snaps of its beak released the gall bladder from its slippery moorings. Once more the toucan pounced, to haul it out of view. And with that the show was over! Leaving me with two little stones preserved in a bottle and a minor crush on my surgeon.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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