Jiggs, the Indian pizza-guy who lives next door wanders in looking glum. “My stomach,” he says, rubbing his middle. “Hurts.” I tell him to see a doctor. “Can’t,” he says. “No insurance.” I look sympathetic. I’m in the same boat. I don’t have the money to sign up for Obama Care so I can’t afford to be sick. But Bins’s ears prick up. “Stomach pain? Ah. I have a book for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” I say. We’ve both finished reading an interesting and entertaining bestseller called Gut. It's by Giulia Enders, a young German microbiologist. “It won’t help him get rid of his problem.” But of course Bins is unstoppable. “Don’t listen to her! She has no faith in anything. Really, this WILL help you.” He brandishes the small yellow paperback in the air. “For instance, the place you are touching is not your stomach at all! It is your small intestine. Really, your stomach is up here–” He pats his chest.

“It is NOT!” I say in the loud commanding voice of someone who can’t bear it when mature human beings are unable to locate the major organs of their own bodies. Jiggs scowls and says, “Why you are calling my intestine small?” I point to the area under where my ribs join up. “THIS is where the stomach is. And believe me, the book will NOT help you get rid of the pain. In fact it will make you fret about how hopelessly incompetent we human beings are at keeping our digestive systems in working order.”

“Knowledge is Power,” intones Bins. “In the book, you will find out how many times you should go in the week—” Jiggs looks puzzled. “Go where?” “—and why your poop smells bad and what is the best colour for it to be.” “Chee!” says Jiggs, grimacing. “Indians do not talk about such matters!” “But they are fascinating, these poops!” says Bins, undeterred. “They are three-quarters water, one-third bacteria. Miles of intestine and trillions of cells, everyone working together to help you to stay alive.”

“Bacteria is germs!” says Jiggs, looking alarmed. “And we need lots of them,” says Bins. “Even though some are bad for you,” I chime in. “Sometimes the bad ones are good for you BECAUSE they’re bad for you.” “But why is my stomach hurting?” asks Jiggs. “Maybe you ate something that your intestine cannot process,” says Dr Bins. “Then it will try to protect you by throwing it out from your mouth.” “Vomiting? No!” cries Jiggs. “It’s something that rabbits, horses and rats cannot do,” I say, soothingly. “So be grateful that you’re human. It’s the body’s way of protecting us from toxins.”

“The digestive system is mostly not under the control of our conscious brain,” says Bins, ignoring my inputs. “We can say: it’s like an extra-terrestrial inside our body, doing its own work, quietly, efficiently—” “Stop!” says Jiggs, getting up to go. “You’re feeling better?” I ask. “The pain is gone from my tummy and into my head,” he says. Bins hands him the book. “Just read it,” he says. “It will help you enjoy the ache.”

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

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