Human herds

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on February 22, 2019

So! I’m in Mumbai, to attend a workshop about Medical Humanities (MH). This is a field about which I knew zip one week ago. The aim of the workshop was to bring together a small group of people affiliated with this field in one way or another. It was organised by Columbia Global Centres, Mumbai, and held at their office in Nariman Point.

It’s been a fascinating and enriching two days. MH is a discipline aimed at helping the medical community improve the quality of its service through, for instance, literature. That’s where I come in. Dr Rishi Goyal of Columbia University, New York, designed the workshop. He sees my play Harvest as an example of a literary work built around a medical procedure. We talked about the play and my novel The Island Of Lost Girls to an audience of about 80 people.

It was intriguing to see my writing from this angle, as a kind of interface between the arts and medicine. I’d not produced my work with that aim but hey! If it works in more than one context, that’s a bonus, right? We talked about the way that science fiction can be a powerful medium for social and political commentary. The audience was warmly receptive and a group of maybe 12 college students who were all studying Harvest were happy to get their books signed by me.

The next day, I participated in another aspect of the workshop, which was about techniques for teaching empathy and effective communication between people. The same small group of about 10 of us was shown ways of overcoming social inhibitions through physical movements and interactive “games”. This was very enjoyable and also instructive. I wasn’t obliged to participate in this second day’s activities but I came away from it feeling stretched and augmented.

Meanwhile, the taxis! Bombay cabbies are characters, each one different to the next. My hotel was in Churchgate, less than 10 minutes away from the venue of the workshop. Getting back to the hotel after dinner wasn’t easy. The drivers of at least six cars all clicked their tongues and shook their heads.

At night, their little black-and-yellow vehicles looked like a fleet of tiny space ships, parked on the side of the road, beside towering constructions of glass and concrete. One was lit up inside like a bordello, bright blue. “They won’t go,” we said gloomily to one another. “Herd dynamics. If one says no, they all say no.” Then a seventh cab drifted by. He stopped, heard the name of the destination, nodded and opened the back door. Relief and delight! An individual.

The next day, I was in another cab. We stopped at a light. A scooterist drew up alongside and said to the driver, “Got water?” The cabbie handed over a huge green plastic bottle. The scooterist drank deeply, then washed his face! “Oi!” said my driver. “It’s good drinking water! No face wash!” The lights changed and he drove off, still grumbling.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on February 22, 2019

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