Daniel Menaker

Onconversations XXXVIII

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

(In Pokhara, Nepal, on a speaker’s tour for the U. S. State Department. Having dinner with my wife and the two young people–I will call them Amood and Laksmi–who have organized our schedule and who, among other things, run a library/cultural center in Kathmandu. We have been here for six or seven days, and have been going around to universities and receptions and dinners, and it is all fascinating but also exhausting. Now the official part of the trip is over. We are eating outside at a Thakkali restaurant–the ethnicities in Nepal are so varied and numerous that they’re hard to keep track of, but…well, but nothing. Except that everyone is very friendly and quite shy, generally. Often people want to ask me what it was like to work with Salman Rushdie–as I did, on his novel “Shalimar the Clown,” when I was at Random House. I tell them that Mr. Rushdie is a wonderful writer and was very sure about what he wanted and didn’t want in the way of editing, at one point telling me–about a modest suggestion or two for omitting certain passages–“Thanks, Dan, but my British editor thinks the book is fine just as it is.” So as we’re talking about Indian writers I tell them the following story.)

ME (in answer to Amood’s question, I think): Yes, I met Naipaul once, at some party at Columbia, I think, but only very briefly. I was told by a friend that earlier at that same party someone my friend knew–drunk, a troublemaker–said that Ved Mehta, another Indian writer, blind, was standing nearby. The troublemaker said, “I don’t believe he’s blind. I think he’s just making up. It’s just a way to be different. Watch this–I’m going to prove it.” He went over and made a sudden lunge forward and put out both hands toward the man’s face. The man didn’t move or respond in any way. Then the jerk did the same thing again, and someone else pulled him away and said, “What do you think you’re doing!” The drunken guy said, “That’s Ved Mehta and I wanted to prove that he’s not blind.” The other guy said, “That’s not Ved Mehta, you idiot–that’s V.S. Naipaul.” A little later that evening I talked to Naipaul briefly, and he was very grouchy. No wonder. Though I understand he’s generally pretty grouchy.

Amood and Laksmi: (laugh)

ME: So besides all those lectures and workshops and everything, is there anything else I can tell you about? I think maybe I’m talked out.

LAKSMI: Well, I’ve been reading your blog.  Um, about … cancer.

ME: Yes, well.

LAKSMI: But you are OK.

ME:  For the time being, it looks like.

LAKSMI: I have a … condition too.

ME: Sorry to hear it. I hope you’re OK.

LAKSMI (as I recall): Yes, it’s just something I have to watch.

ME: Good luck to us all. My next scan is in November. You know, I was reading in the paper that this guy from M. D. Anderson, the leading cancer center in the world, said that very soon many cancers will be much more treatable, because they are learning to target the molecular structure of an individual’s particular kind of cancer. It will be like going to a tailor for a suit—height, weight, inseam, arm length, shoulder width, and so on. Each person will have a different treatment. Or each group of cancer patients will have a custom-made treatment.  Maybe I can hang on long enough for that. One thing is for sure. In twenty-five years, the cancer treatments of today will look primitive.

MY WIFE: You know, Dan was told that this one particular drug, a very effective one, wouldn’t work for him, and then they did more molecular analysis and the doctor said it would be very effective for him after all.

ME: Yeah, he said, “By the way, Tarceva would be a good treatment for you after all.” And I said, “By the way”? And we both laughed. I keep telling this story, because the “by the way” was like finding a surprise present somewhere.


(Later, going through security at the Pokhara airport, to fly back to Kathmandu, the security officer–with very little English–looks through my tote bag and finds a plastic bag with quite a few bottles of prescription drugs. I am at that age. Or at least at that age with certain …. conditions.  Some pills for non-insulin-dependent diabetes, for nausea, a thyroid supplement, a beta blocker.  None have anything to do with cancer treatment. He opens one and shakes its contents a little. He seems concerned.)

ME: Yes—there are a lot of pills. I have some … conditions.

OFFICER: What for are these?

ME: Non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Diabetes. Do you know?

OFFICER (to older officer beside him): [Nepalese]  Dyerbits?

OLDER OFFICER: (Says what is obviously “No” in Nepalese.)

OFFICER: (Picks up another bottle, opens it, peers inside for five seconds, as if the bottle held deep secrets.)

ME: Blood pressure. (I put my hand around my wrist, like a blood-pressure cuff–or so I would like to think.)

OFFICER (clearly baffled by my gesture, consults with older officer, surveying the bottles of pills in general, with what looks like growing suspicion):  [Something in Nepalese.]

ME (growing a little desperate, wondering what the food is like in Nepal’s jails; drug laws and punishment for breaking them are draconian in Nepal): There are no bad drugs here. (Unless, I say to myself, you count a little Valium, for a fourteen-hour flight over the North Pole.)

OFFICER: Bad drugs.

ME: No—no bad drugs. I promise.

OFFICER (confers with older officer; they look as if they are going to take this matter further, because the older one puts his hand toward me as if to say “stay here” and turns away, maybe to get the police or something)

ME: I have cancer.

(Everything changes—the older officer turns back, the younger officer looks upset.)

OFFICER (in clear English): Cancer?

ME: Yes, cancer.

OFFICER: Very sorry.

ME: It’s OK. I am OK. For now, anyway. But thank you.

(The officer seals the bag with the bottles in it, gives a cursory look at the rest of my tote bag, zips it up for me when I go to zip it up.)

OFFICER: Luck to you, Sir. Namaste.

ME: (Pressing my hands together): Namaste. Thank you.

(So cancer, like a surprise present, may very occasionally be just what you need. God forbid.)

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