Book Review – Being Mortal

Published April 22, 2017 by vishalvkale


Being Mortal is a book by an American Doctor, Dr. Atul Gawande; a book written for an exclusively American / Western Audience, with little or no practical utility or learnings for the Indian Landscape, given the massive socio-cultural and economic differences. I do not deny the presence of a segment within India for whom this book is of some utility : but, given our population of 127 Crores, that segment as of now and for the foreseeable future forms a minority, might even be a miniscule minority. The book is about old age, and how to tackle the problems arising out of old age, and your parents {and your own} last years.


Paradoxically, I highly recommend this book for all of us; even more paradoxically {sorry for  butchering ze Eenglees Language like this} – I recommend reading this book despite my rating of 2 stars. That rating is basis its current lack of utility, massive socio-cultural difference between the landscape of the book and our ground reality, and some minor viewpoint differences I have with the author. That last point can be ignored, which would mean an unbiased rating of 2.5 stars. That’s as high as I, an Indian, will go in rating this out-and-out American book written by an American for an American {Western} audience


So, whats bad about the book? Let me get to the minuses first, so that my readers can leave with the pluses. Not much, that’s for sure. It is superb literature; of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. Yet, appreciation of literature has a very strong cultural basis, hence I can both appreciate the content as well as give it a low rating, borne out of my reading, as well as the difference in the landscape mentioned above. Shakespeare and Leary are gibberish to me; I don’t fathom their content. Yet, I find deep interest in reading the Ain-i-Akbari, Nal-Damayanti, Panchtantra, Al-Beruni’s India etc  to name but a few.
For starters, the book is too long; way too long. The content isn’t technical, though it is practical and experience based – and frankly, you require to have gone through a similar experience in life to really appreciate. I have gone through such a brutally hard test twice in my life, so could easily connect with the content, and find it deeply moving and absorbing. For others – this is a boring book, as the content could have been shorter by a few dozen pages with better editing. As to whether you should read this book, read the pluses and make up your own mind.
The second minus is that the content – the treatment of old age & family elders – isn’t as serious a problem in India as it might be in some other countries. I don’t know about lands other than India – I am an Indian, and frankly don’t want to be anyone else. Fine, you might have a situation when one sibling is a naalaayak, or has serious problems that hinder; more often than not- one of the others proves he or she is the true son or daughter and steps forward, not because it is duty, but because it is love. I admit old age homes are rising in India; no point denying the obvious; but their penetration is currently at miniscule levels.
The third minus  deal with the specific content. I don’t profess to be an expert – Dr Gawande is the expert; but I have seen 6 cases of elderly people. And to all those 6, not one of the social aspects can be said to have any application whatsoever; this might be a cultural thing. Of the medical aspects – well, the Author IS a doctor, and a good one at that. So, 100% applicable. My main POV difference is with the collective approach; my experience {limited in comparison with the author} tells me that Old people prefer, in specific order of preference: presence of family, good food loving food made by family, companionship of loved ones, total independence, and a complete lack of haggling in all 6 people I am aware of. {Again – cultural difference?}


Now the pluses – there are many; recounting all is not feasible in a short review of a 1000 words.  First and foremost, as a young man or woman you are brought face-to-face with the ultimate, harsh and brutal reality of old age; respect to Dr Gawande for taking the trouble to write this. We never think of what our old age will be like; we just go after money, thinking that will solve all problems. Well, this is the book you should read if you think the above.
Next, this book forces you to examine yourselves deeply – what would you like your old age to be like? What would like to do? What would you do with your time? Even more, the setting in the American Culture, so totally alien to our own, forces a comparison with our own: a culture where family is paramount, where it is expected by parents and society alike that youngsters take care of elders. And you realise with a hard shock that though the kids may take care of you, you may live with them – you are going to be alone for much of the day. What would you want to do?
Third, this forces a deep self-introspection; as you begin to realise the scope for arguments and problems that may arise in such an arrangement. You also, through the content, understand just what happens in old age, through the myriad and frankly tedious examples quoted in the book at some considerable length. And you ask yourselves – am I physically prepared for that, in terms of health? But most critically, you realise that in all the quoted cases, mental health was the determinant of a full life. Are you doing enough to ensure your mind remains in top functioning health during old age? Do think of that.
Fourth, the hospice method highlighted in the book has deep learnings, even across cultural barriers. This resonates immediately with my experiences about the choice elderly people make. We young ones might find that untfathomable – but that is our love for them speaking. This is an important lesson – the entire way to deal with it, and the problems that can arise. Ultimately it is an individual choice, and we need to respect that; that said, in India, elders have a far deeper role in society and family. We don’t take decisions for most part unless the elders agree, for example. So, the applicability in India will have to be different – but yes, there are decided benefits, one we Indians can learn from and adapt to our cultural reality!  

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