Short Story Excerpt–The Surgeon

by Eland Robert Mann

ganges, the surgeon

The Surgeon

After 3,029 open-heart procedures, 58 deaths during convalescence, 117 failures under the knife, 16 congenital, unavoidable demises, 63 articles in the Journal of Medicine (a dozen or so the standards in the field), two failed marriages, two failed relationships with otherwise successful children, and one lauded stint as Chief of Surgery at the thirteenth ranked hospital for Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery in the United States, Dr. Raskhan Shukla—balding, but without the paunch he remembered budding from the midsection of his father, due to his weekend hikes in the mountains around the city and his weeks where he spent an average of 57 hours on his feet while at work—renowned heart surgeon, had found himself alone in his Mercedes on his way to an empty home, when the freeway’s pattern of white headlights and red taillights recalled to him the vague ornamentation of some forgotten shrine, its flickering votives and spiced scents, and he realized he was still alive.
He told everyone he was leaving to spend the remainder of his days fly-fishing clear mountain streams, and watched their eyes dim as they wished him luck, and told him to enjoy himself. Only the woman at the American Airlines ticket counter and the TSA agent who glanced at his boarding pass knew of his one-way ticket to Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, with lay-overs in Shanghai and Delhi. The trip, the first return to his native country in 51 years, took 33 hours. He savored the taste of the dirty martini on his tongue as he left the air-conditioned safety of the plane, for he knew, as a blast of heat and the murmur of Hindi echoed down the jetway, that this was the last trace of habitual comfort he was to experience before the chaos of India overwhelmed him.
He spent several idle days acclimating to his new environment from the balcony of his modest hotel, taking the city’s pulse, until his feet grew restless. At the end of his first week, he found himself descending the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the many stairwells around the city leading directly into the Ganges, when he stopped to observe the unusual number of fires burning on the banks and barges about the river.
“Manikarnika Ghat is always burning,” remarked a cross-legged yogi. “Many come to Varanasi to die. To die here is to end the cycle of death and reincarnation.”
The heart surgeon turned to the yogi. “Is that why you are here?”
“Yes,” said the yogi, “and no.”
The surgeon noticed ashy soot darkened the facades of every building in the vicinity.
“There was a temple I visited once as a child,” said the surgeon. “I wonder if you might know its location. I think it must not be far from here. There was always a great quantity of sandalwood incense in the air, but it never entirely masked the smoke lingering from the cremations nearby. The temple was for Krishna, and portrayed him standing on a large serpent.”
“Such a temple I know well,” said the yogi. “I will guide you.”