“I spent twenty years searching for this book… careful with it, the only known copy,” said Hamid Shah. He placed a gloved hand on the limp binding made of cloth and plucked his beard with the other. There was no title on the cover, which had dark stains that covered much of the faded gilding that perhaps had their own story to tell.
I did not open the book, afraid that the loosely bound pages may come apart. I reached for a pair of gloves as if ready to perform a delicate surgery. He shook his head and said, “Your hands are clean. No need. Where I come from, we don’t judge a doctor’s hands. Pick it up. It’s yours.”
I first met Hamid Shah at a checkout line in a grocery store a couple of weeks prior. In front of me was a lady who appeared to be shopping for a village. She was asking for price checks as if the entire store was on sale, carefully placing fruits on the counter after examining them for damage.
I was in a hurry to get home. “I always pick the wrong line,” I muttered to myself as I began fidgeting with my phone and rocked side to side, trying to send a silent message to the lady in front, hurry up.
Behind me was a short, pudgy man wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat, a pressed t-shirt, khaki shorts, and loafers, holding a gallon of milk in one hand and a bunch of bananas in the other. His copious facial hair parted, revealing a smile. Not helpful, I thought. My mind was on the traffic which would turn into a crawl if I delayed any longer.
Spying my hospital-issued lanyard dangling from my neck, his dark eyes rimmed with a half-circle of grey popped. Arching his bushy white brows, he said, “Oh you are a doctor, how wonderful, hee hee hee,” in a voice that was rich and musical. “Can I have your card?” He must have heard me letting out a quick and forceful breath. He said, “Please, thank you.”
I had let a couple of demanding patients ruin my morning, and the river of frustration was in spate, which made me breathe harder. “Can’t I find a place free from prospective patients?” I said to myself under my breath. Not wanting to be rude, I gave him my card, my place in the line, and walked away, leaving behind a shopping basket with a box of tea bags, and sugar.
Work consumed me. Each day blended into the next — an endless stream of patients, the volume of prescription refill requests made me wonder how pharmacies ever keep up, the ER had me on speed dial, working through the insurance maze trying to get approvals for tests to evaluate legitimate patient complaints — a treadmill that never stopped.
It was by accident that I found an outlet through writing. I was to talk about ‘Living Heart Healthy’ to a group of sixty-something-year-olds. Looking at the heaps on their plates with a decadent dessert to follow, I felt that no amount of words coming from my mouth could replicate the pleasure that their taste buds gave them. I was simply an excuse so they could get together and eat a hearty meal.
So I spoke about life instead, starting with advice my grandmother gave me. She would say that crying and laughter accompany the beginning and the end of life. When we are born, people around us are happy and laughing, and when we die, people close to us cry. Life happens in between. Personal fulfillment is ours to explore and enjoy. I seemed to have caught their attention with that opening.
The sounds of forks, knives, and plates colliding died down, and their eyes turned towards me. I was no expert on life to pontificate to others. I got away with it that night. Poetry, on the other hand, gave me a license to let my imagination run loose. One cold, dark, and snowy night, sitting by the wall heater in a hotel room, I wrote a poetic verse that became the seed for my first book.
I had forgotten about the encounter in the grocery store. A few days later, a croaky voice on the intercom interrupted me while I signed a stack of papers in my office. “There is a Mr. Hamid Shah on line two. He says it is important.”
“Mr…Hamid, who?” I said, trying not to sound irritated. I put my pen down and began to massage my temples. “Calm down, what has gotten into you? That person is just trying to do their job, relaying a message,” I thought to myself.
“Here’s his call back number if you want to call him. I don’t see that he is a patient here,” my scheduler said in a tired voice. This meant that a callback was optional. Not a patient of the practice meant there was no duty owed. It could be one of those advisors wanting to manage money, I thought, as I tossed the piece of paper on which I had written the number down. Of late, they had become more persistent, cold calling with wild pitches promising high returns.
Hamid Shah called the next day and broke through an invisible barrier I had around me by uttering two words ‘Red Ruby‘. It is the title of my first book. I was flattered. A stranger calling me about the book, my book—every word had come out of my brain. “Put him through,” I said in a hurried voice, afraid he would hang up on me. I cleared my desk and placed a copy of my book in front of me while I spoke to this mystery caller.
“Doctor, hee hee hee…remember me?…the other day at the store you left in a hurry.” The musical tone of his laughter was unmistakable.
“Ah, yes, while we were waiting in the line,” I said as I began to fidget with my phone.
“Your book, the Red Ruby… I loved it. With me is a book that may interest you…poetry. I’m no writer, but I collect rare books. Do you want…” I interrupted his pitch. “Look, sir, I am not interested in your offer. I’m busy. Anyway, thanks for reading my book. I appreciate your interest in my writing,” I said and quickly kept the phone down.
Lately, there was an overpowering impulse to be abrupt and irritable. The stress of work was playing havoc with my nerves. Years of training my body and mind to get out of bed in the middle of the night and be ready to snake a thin plastic tube through a tiny hole in a distant artery — once a badge of achievement — was now making me jumpy all the time.
What would I have lost if I had spent a few moments with that caller? I thought as I resumed signing papers in front of me.
A few days later, I saw the name Hamid Shah on my schedule. This was a formal appointment that I could no longer ignore. Next to his name was his complaint, ‘passing out, needs evaluation’. Fortunately, he was the last patient of the day.
Reasonably sure that he would bring up books, I resolved to make a conscious effort to slow down listen to him without cutting him off. I made a deliberate plan to address business first and then listen to what he had to say about books, mine and his.
As is customary with any new patient, we spent time going over his past history and present issues. A scalpel was yet to invade his aging skin. The only pill he took was an aspirin—de rigueur for someone his age.
While waiting at a traffic light, he had fallen asleep. That was his version of events. However, the ER doctor thought he had either a seizure or a heart condition. The first stop was the brain doctor, who said his brain activity was ‘perfect’. He came with a folder containing copies of tests that proved his brain was not the culprit. It was up to me to proclaim his fitness to get behind the wheel of a car.
“Has something like this ever happened before?” I asked.
“Yes, a long, long time ago.” His eyes rolled upwards as he scanned his memory. I nodded my head as if to tell him to go on. “I was a student in London at that time. A very, very exciting thing happened to me.” He continued. I put my phone on silent and set it aside and rolled my chair next to his.
“I am from Afghanistan, the southern part… At that time, we were under a king’s rule. My father held a high post in his court, and he managed to get me a scholarship to study in Europe. He wanted me to become an engineer, preferably in oil exploration.
That was his desire, but my heart was in literature. I led a double life until he passed away. He never knew of my interest in medieval poetry.” As he said this, he leaned forward, and he pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket. On it, he had scribbled a few lines in Arabic script. “Can I sing this?” His eyebrows arched as he thrust the paper into my hands.
Holding one hand to his ear, he raised the other one into the air and began an impromptu rendition of the words in my hands. Even though I did not understand any of the words, his voice boomed in the narrow space, and I felt like I was in the front row at a concert.
He closed his eyes and began to shake his head as he hummed a musical tone after each line. Finally, he pulled his head back and went silent. Oh no, he is passing out, I thought as I reached for my stethoscope. As if suddenly awakened from a deep slumber, he sat up and took a deep breath.
“You know, these lines put me into a trance. I have sung them countless times, several times a day… for years… My wife is sick of it, and she forbids me from singing at home… hee hee hee.” We were veering way off track.
“Let’s talk about the first episode… Where you lost consciousness, you said it was years ago and caused by emotion?” I asked, hoping to steer his attention back to the present.
“Ah, yes. Sorry, I got carried away. Not many people I can sing to…freely,” he said. I wondered what made him think he had the freedom to do it in a doctor’s office. “My scholarship was generous. I lived frugally, not like an emissary of the king, as did some others. The money saved was spent on books. Not just any kind. But rare ones.
I frequented an antique bookshop in London. There was one book, in particular, the first edition of a classic printed in 1823. The owner said he had seen that book once before. He thought it was in the hands of an Arab prince. He promised to write me a letter if he ever saw it again. I went back to that bookshop on and off for twenty years…” His voice trailed off, and he became misty-eyed. “Forgive me, doctor, it is more than a book…it is my first love.”
As I handed him a box of tissues, he continued, “I heard about this book from the court poet. Our king wanted it, not for study, but for bragging rights. He promised anyone who could lay their hands on that book a handsome reward…. rubies and diamonds. A sackful.” He said, holding his palms in the air as if holding a bag containing rare gems.
He paused and looked at the blank wall behind me. “I tried to interest my children in my love of books. They have no interest in the old world. I thought you may be interested…” His voice trailed off, and he grew silent, looking at me with hopeful eyes.
“Sure, Mr. Shah. What do you want me to do? But first, let’s run a few tests to ensure your heart is not the cause of the incident that brought you here as a patient. By the way, did you have anything to drink that day?”
“I get drunk on the words of mystical poets, perhaps that day I was lost in that world when I got pulled over for falling asleep,” He said, his eyes lit up, and his smile was back. I scribbled a few notes, examined him, typed in orders for tests. “So you had stopped at the bookshop in London…” I said, leaning in to hear the rest of his story.
“Ah, yes. On one of my visits to that antique bookstore in London, I finally laid my eyes on the book, a handsome piece. I could not believe my luck. How it ended up in the bookstore was interesting. A debauched prince who had gambled away his fortune took all the rare books from his father’s collection and sold them. One of them was this book. But, the shop owner said it was not for sale.
“A sheik from the middle-east, with deep pockets, had put down a generous advance.”
His smile widened as he continued, “I told the man that the book would end up as an ornamental piece, it is unlikely that the rich sheik would ever open the book. He knew my passion for such works of literature. I begged him to part with it, promising that the book would be in good hands. He sold the book to me for a small sum. Not a day has gone by without me reading from it. Those lines I sang are from this book.”
Stroking his marble white beard, he said, “Age is catching up. I’m looking for a good custodian. This book has passed through many hands. Kings, princes, sheiks, ordinary men like me. It is dead without the reader. I thought you might be the right one.”
“I’m flattered, Mr. Shah, but something so meaningful to you should remain with you.”