By Apala Bhowmick
The Temple Road by Fazlur Rahman is a memoir that cracks you up as often as it teaches you something. Rahman writes in a candid, conversational voice that has the ability to immediately establish a relationship of trust between the narrator and the reader. The book is divided into two parts – the first, tracing the author’s life from his village, Porabari in Bangladesh to his medical training at Dhaka, and the second, dealing with his journey to the United States of America as a medical intern, and his eventual career in the country as one of the best oncologists of his time. Rahman writes of spending an idyllic childhood among the pastoral greens of Bangladesh, where he inhabited a distant world heavily tainted by nostalgia and thickly populated with coincidences. He has a non-dogmatic, almost secular upbringing in an old aristocratic Muslim family, and is exposed in equal share to the rituals and festivals observed by both the Hindus and the Muslims of Porabari. He paints his life in rich, careful detail embedded onto a framework of compelling storytelling. One has no difficulty at all picturing the lush, verdure fields of East Pakistan, the cerulean lakes and skies, and its people – simple but stoic, wise and thoughtful, flintily standing by neighbour and friend alike in times of distress. As a precocious, sensitive child, he has to deal with the grief of his mother’s untimely death, his own painful kala-azar, and competition and hostility from various quarters in his school. He does have many friends though, and remains close to his older brother whom he refers to as Mia bhai throughout his childhood and adolescence. “Myth and history came together to affect my boyhood”, writes Rahman, and indeed, the division between the two are richly blurred in the folklore, traditions, and political history that forms the backdrop of his life in Bangladesh.
The author’s childhood is not, however, all schoolwork and domestic affairs. In one instance, he encounters a tiger in flesh and blood albeit in a flash, but it is an incident which terrifies and fascinates him at the same time. His first taste of communal violence arrives in the garb of a street fight his two school friends pick up with a vagrant Muslim over his consuming a Hindu offering distributed freely to the poor at the local Durga Puja. The incident leaves a lasting scar on the young boy, and allows him a deeper insight into the darkness and the violence inherent in human nature, particularly with regards to matters of religion and caste. One of the most difficult choices he has to make growing up, he tells us, is the one between literature and the sciences and settling for a career in one discipline or the other. Throughout his formative years, he remains a voracious reader, translating poems from English to his mother tongue Bangla, devouring novels, and scoring more in the liberal arts subjects in his final exams than in science or mathematics. Perhaps it was practical concerns that prompted him to make the choice he finally did, or else the memory of the mute suffering he went through time and again while witnessing other people’s and his own torment in death and disease. He also constantly reminds us throughout the book that his mother wished him to become a doctor so that lives like hers and her brother’s, who died of malaria, would not have to be lost in vain.
Just as he faces rejection or cruelty at some points in his life, he also encounters kindness at unexpected quarters. His teachers, professors, and medical superiors in particular, show him incredible kindness and support in his times of need. As a doctor in training at Dhaka Medical College, he has to fight social taboos like physical disability and mental illness, and Rahman paints his young self as a kind, conscientious human being who takes his medical responsibilities in a most morally upright manner. His insight into disease is a uniquely empathetic one, unlike the clinical, impersonal approach which he finds surprising in some of the medical practitioners of the West later in his career. Rahman teaches humanities and medical ethics in the Angelo State University, Texas. In an interview, he says, “I start with empathy and compassion. My own feeling after practicing all these years is that you cannot study empathy … We have too much emphasis on science (in medical schools). We need science to be a doctor. But you also have to understand empathy, compassion, and human rights.” His tone in the book is intimate and amiable, and Rahman describes most of the incidents in his memoir blow by blow, down to the expression on the clerk’s face when he had gone to fill out his application form at the Dhaka Medical College.
It is not merely empirical scholarship or dry theory that shapes his character, Rahman tells us. He is made to take a sip from a cup of potassium when he complains to his superior that his patient refuses to take it in order to heal himself. The foul-tasting liquid teaches him, he says, “to think twice … before lay[ing] blame on a patient.” He faces a new set of challenges in America. Not being quite familiar with what passed for slang in this new society around him, he has trouble coming to terms with the humour of his friends and colleagues. He takes it only too literally when a friendly nurse tells him to “break a leg” before a journey, and takes great offence when a colleague explains, “she was only pulling your leg”. As an Indian immigrant in the US, both he and his wife encounter supremacist prejudice and virulent racism, and the author recounts to us in his half-humorous way how he tackles each situation with tact and skill. His wife, he maintains throughout, has been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. Further, he dedicates this memoir to her in an attempt to express his gratitude and appreciation for her wisdom and her unflinching support. The book will teach one a thing or two about medicine, but also, at the same time render an intensely personal picture of the post-partition life in Bangladesh, and the uncertainty and dread inherent in the political climate that surrounded it. Rahman’s memoir is full of life lessons and funny stories, and is a wonderful, enriching, light read for somebody looking to be both touched and entertained.
The reviewer is currently pursuing her masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a poet and a writer, and has published in places like 3Elements Review and The Light Ekphrastic Literary Journal. She is also the editor of correspondence at the Coldnoon Journal which is published from India.