Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mr kian’s dilemma

There was a little bundle, wrapped up in a shocking pink Thai Airways blanket, on my seat. It was going to be a long flight from Melbourne to Bangkok and I was keen to settle down with my book so I gave it a gentle poke. Something moved, and from under the folds emerged a head that must not have been a day older than 60. He was tiny, not an inch or more above 5 feet. His skin had that typical South-East Asian quality that suggested that you could rub it with sand paper and a towel for ever and a day, and you still wouldn’t be able to rub the oil off it. Bald on top, his hair seemed to have taken final refuge around his ears, but literally rooted out from everywhere else on his shiny pate. He wore his wispy sideburns long and had a straggler of a strand or two sticking to his chin like a forgotten relic. A square jaw, a strong chin and the dark rimmed glasses that sat lightly on the bridge of a broad nose seemed to suggest that he was a man who knew how to have his way, in spite of his stature.

I smiled and told him he was in my seat. He smiled, nodded his head and turned towards the window and gazed at the busy little lights on the tarmac and the darkening Melbourne sky. I clenched my jaw and repeated my words with restrained emotion. The head didn’t turn. I was about to poke him again when I saw the wires of an earphone peeping out of the blanket. ‘Humph! Senior citizen…might as well let him be’, I thought. I slid into the seat next to his and started fiddling with the touchscreen in front. The plane took off. And soon it was time for dinner. My neighbour punctuated his meal with oft repeated requests of “mo’ wed wine please!”. In the middle of his meal, he dropped his toothpick and then kept looking at it on the floor rather sullenly. I asked him if he wanted mine, twice, but he politely bowed, smiled and shook his head. After a while, he asked me if I would need my toothpick. I shook my head and handed it to him. He nodded and this time he took it.

“Whey you fom?”, he asked, as he folded the table away. “Ah, India!” his thin eyebrows danced when I told him. “Vewee smart! Many vewee good brain! Vietnamese boys no can compete… Indian boy vewee smart!” So he was from Vietnam. I wanted to go back to my book but I thought I should ask him a few polite questions as a courteous gesture, from one traveller to another. And so I did…His name was Kian and he had been an engineer with the army. Had he seen action? “Yes…yes…but not as engineer. I fight in Ho Chi Minh campaign and second Indochina (war) with great General Giap. You not know but he great General.” He was surprised to know that I did know about the General, who has been called one of the greatest war strategists of all time. “My leg”, he clutched his right knee, “not vewee good. Still hurt from war.” A war hero! He had my respect and attention now.

Kian lectures in various universities in South-East Asia and sometimes Australia. I asked him about his family. He was quiet. I did not push him. I half imagined a tragic story of a family lost to war, when he said, “Melbourne college want me to move to Australia with my family. Can’t go. My wife not good! Her health…not good…she paralysed…no can move…if I move her, she die…what can do…” For a while, I did not know what to say. “I hope she gets well soon and you can then all go to Australia together”, I offered. Kian closed his eyes and shook his head. “You not understanding…she never get better. Never! Everybody in her house die like this. Father, brothers, younger brother…they all die. But she…she still not die.” He looked sad, but now I wasn’t sure why… “If take her to Australia, doctor say she die…she like this for so many years. I say I want to go to Australia with my children but Australian government say I inhuman if I leave her…I spend so many money, so many years…I need to work in Australia for mo’ money but no can do…everybody in her family die, she still no die…what can do?” He sounded bitter. And I was shocked. He sounded like he was hoping his wife would die and set him free. “I can fight with America but no can fight God…how can do?” He shook his head and smiled a wry smile. An awkward silence followed.

The lights dimmed and I went back to Michael Clayton on the touchscreen. After a while, I glanced towards his screen, and there was Hilary Swank bouncing about in a boxing ring. I did not know what to make of the man. I still don’ you?

Love them to death

While Kian was telling me his story, I was persistently reminded of Michael Schiavo, who for seven years campaigned for the removal of his wife Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube because she had been in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ and there was apparently no hope of recovery. Michael succeeded, through a court order, and Terri’s feeding tube was removed. She died after spending practically all of the last 15 years of her life in a hospital bed.

Admittedly, it is impossible to put oneself in the same shoes as that of a Michael Schiavo or Kian, and may neither you nor I ever need to. And yet, one finds it impossible to believe that there can’t be hope. Incidentally, Robert Herring, an entrepreneur, had offered Michael Schiavo a million dollars to stop campaigning because he believed that stem cell research could have been a catalyst for Terri’s recovery. But now we’ll never know. Perhaps it is unfair but one can’t help but feel that maybe, albeit understandably, people like Michael and Kian just tire of waiting and that emotional exhaustion starts demanding closure. But does one man’s need for closure justify another’s demise?

We need more miracles to restore our faith in them, as do the Schiavos and Kians of this world. But perhaps what the miracles need are a bit of time and faith from us.


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