Doctor-poets and resistanceA common love for poetry among medical professionals sustains a unique tradition of Nepali medical pedagogy.
A recent demonstration by doctors of the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences (BPKIHS), Dharan exhibited a creative mode of resistance. The young doctors recited their poems to highlight their demands for reform and proper management of the institute by its officials. The resistance movement was initiated by those creative youths who have been writing poetry for years. The agitation is underway even as I write these lines.
The theme of this short essay is my experience with doctor-poets of the new generation in Nepal. As I have been in touch with this crop of creative doctors at different medical institutes of Nepal, I want to recall some occasions and elaborate why I see the emergence of doctor-poets as the beacon of a great medical renaissance. I will briefly explain the reasons for my faith and my direct encounters with them.
It is natural to expect literary writers to come up with their poems during uprisings for liberty, democracy and people's rights. Those who read poems follow more or less a career in the field of literary writing. And we would know them as literary writers. That is easy to understand. But when doctor-poets use poetry as a weapon of resistance and source of strength, we know that something important is happening.
I want to recall my experience of meeting the doctor-poets—medical students and practising doctors both. The common energy that binds them, among other things, is poetry. That is the reason why I, as a literary writer and poet, got closer to them.
I want to begin with the BPKIHS experience. The students of this institute have established an organisation called Parikrama Samuha. The semantics of parikrama would be a wise and purposeful quest for meaning. The doctor-poets at different stages of their careers become members of this organisation. They are primarily students who hand over their responsibilities to the new batch when they graduate and start practising medicine. A common and sustained love for poetry not only creates a bond between the doctors of various generations but also builds a tradition that is a unique feature of the Nepali medical pedagogy. Either they write poetry or continue to be the upasaka or worshippers of this Muse.
I went to Ghopa, Dharan, to attend a big programme organised by Parikrama in the third week of November 2017. They wanted me to speak about the connection between medical karma and creative or literary karma that literary writers pursue in life. It was a great and exciting challenge for me. They were creative doctor-poets who wanted to humanise their medical practice. I recalled in this newspaper, "The students who came to talk and give the invitation immediately struck me as a crop of youths whom I could see as harbingers of a new era in medical engagements in Nepal." ("Doctors, politics and the flute", November 26, 2017).
I see today a number of the self-same doctor-poets using poetry as a medium of resistance. At the conference, I also met many of the erstwhile Parikrama students who had become established doctors. I am deeply confident that what is happening there today represents a clash between the mechanism of obscurantism represented by the establishment and the dynamics of creativity and change represented by the doctor-poets.
The story of my encounters with doctor-poets began about 20 years ago from the Teaching Hospital at Maharajgunj, where a new crop of doctor-poets invited me to their poetry programmes on many occasions as a listener, commentator, judge or an academic guest who distributed certificates. My association with these doctor-poets grew in time. I met them at their own inner poetry readings more than in regular literary programmes where they seldom appeared to recite poems. They had their fora inside their sanctuary in the hospital where they studied or worked. That practice continues even today.
The most outstanding feature of these doctor-poets is that they write excellent poetry. Some of their brilliant poems written in consummate styles still reverberate in my mind. But the sad part is that those poems barely get published. And I have come to know that these doctor-poets are very successful in their medical professions. The doctor-poets are also rebellious, cooperative and humanists.
At times, I bump into some of these poets outside and at hospitals, and I recall when I became part of their poetry readings. I was moved to tears when, after the successful heart surgery of a student and colleague of mine, who is like my son, at the Gangalal Hospital some years ago, they invited me as the first and only person to see him for that moment. One of the several doctors standing around the ventilator greeted me. Later, I realised that she was a doctor-poet whose poetry reading in a gosthi had I attended.
A student of Western literature, I am familiar with the history of outstanding doctor-poets and writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Anton Chekhov, Dannie Abse, William Carlos Williams and John Keats. They are some of my favourite poets. Glenn Colquhoun, a doctor-poet, writes in his essay ‘Why Is Any of This Important to Me Anyway?’: "When I am listening to my patients well, I am writing, undoing stories, taking apart loose threads, and tying new ones together. To do so requires a combination of objectivity but also a well-honed subjectivity." That is what happens when a doctor-poet writes poetry.
Among my favourite doctor-poets of Nepal are those who want to turn the medical profession into meaningful karma and the institutes as spaces of fair practice and efficiency. The good thing is that these doctor-poets are active, conscious and dedicated to their profession. But they are also alert about what stands in their way. They believe that for this profession to be effective and successful, there should be no room for such practices as corruption and mishandling of the medical institutions.
Poetry reading has become the favourite method of resistance in Nepal. Poets have used poetry as a powerful medium of rebellious expression during historical uprisings. That the doctor-poets should use the same medium in their rebellion against institutional mismanagement gives us a deep sense of faith in their mission's creativity, humanity, and sincerity.