Adventure 5: Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

February, I think will be one of the busiest months I would have had this year. In the first week, I was shuttling between Vegas, Denver, Boulder and Chennai (India) in the space of 7 days. Fun as it sounds, travel does take a toll on the effort to stick to plans. Most of my reading this week was done on flights between cities. (which, I must say, are one of the best places to do have a book read in!) My companion this week was Cutting for Stone. I followed Marion and Shiva Stone, right from the circumstances of their interesting birth to their coming of age, and their subsequent laurels. Through the course of their journey of similarities, differences and disagreements, Abraham Verghese became one of my favorite authors.

Cutting for Stone can be best described as a story of two halves, in more than one way. Both halves begin in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Thomas Stone’s arrival and adoption of the city’s ‘Missing’ hospital as their home. Thomas Stone’s growth as an expert surgeon and his lovely professional relationship with Sister Praise coincides with the growth and reputation of Missing. It is into this world that Sister Praise conceives Marion and Shiva Stone, twins, conjoined in the head during birth. They arrive with a bang, literally, as the circumstances of their birth cause a turmoil in the quiet and unassuming lifestyle of the Missing residents. The choices made by Thomas Stone, Dr. Ghosh, Dr. Hemalatha, and Sister Praise form one half of the dramatic events that unfold. Morality and ethics collide with actions and practicality as we enter a world where everyone is bound and affected by the smallest of choices they are forced to make. The other half of the story is about the twins themselves. Sharing the peculiar bond of conjoined twins, Shiva and Marion grow up to be an inseperable pair. We are introduced to the innocent world and childhood perspectives of sacrifice, pain, first love and revenge, in a story which follows the two of them from the war torn streets of Addis Ababa to the United States and beyond.

First, this book is a really good one. So, in order to not get carried away with praise, let me talk about the negatives in the book first. The book starts off pretty slow, and takes quite a bit of time to establish the characters in the story. While it may work for some books, like The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Adventure 4), here it feels a little draggy. Also, we know the author is a surgeon and enjoys his profession, in more than one occassion, as each of the medical procedures described in the book are detailed, exhaustive, and sometimes, tiring to the reader. While the book certainly revolves around hospitals and medical practitioners in every twist and turn, it is also, in most parts, a family drama across continents. The scientific explanation of procedures on more than one occasion, I felt, sometimes took the charm away from the beautiful story the author unfolds.

“ “Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort,” I said to my father.” — Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

The book impressed me in more ways than one. It is hard enough depiciting and explaining cultures and traditions of a single country. The author does an impressive job of picturizing the contrasts and similarities of three different countries, in vivid detail. The characters give us an insight into perceptions of foreigners in Ethiopia and USA, and how expats are always ‘firangs’ or ‘foreigners’. I really liked how war and political turmoil were kept at the background, and were never allowed to take centrestage in the characters’ lives, but rather served more as stimuli for their decisions.

The book stands out through its depiction of the twins. It is a stunning depiction of how humans could be so very similar, and yet so different. I also loved the entwinement of fates, and the ‘karma’ line which runs through the book. Everyone is a saint at some point, and a monster another time. With more than one main character, the author brings the tale to a fitting end, and makes you feel pain and joy in the journey. Without overly delving into romance, the author manages to explain the joy of love and the pain of seperation, with a striking effect. There is no war, but there are battles. There are no quarrels or fights, but there is anger. The situations are not extraordinary, but the emotions are. This is what struck a chord with me the most.

The book, to me, was a stark reminder of promises, and that some tend to keep them longer, pehaps much longer, than others. And that no one is a bad human. Everyone has their reasons. Karma though, always triumphs.

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