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By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Quest for my lost Ithacas

J. Anthony Gomes

Antonio Gomes

Antonio Gomes

Not all those who wander are lost. ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

During my childhood days in paradisiacal Goa, I had no toys to play with, nor were there any children’s books to quench my thirst for stories, but there were imaginary journeys while walking from Carona to the Portuguese primary school near the St. Thomas Church, and subsequently to St. Thomas High.

Often, I took the main winding dirt road together with other boys and girls, but sometimes, alone or together with a friend, I wandered into the shot-cut forested path, passing green paddy field, coconut groves, ravines, and thick undergrowth. We played hide and seek and pretended we were lost, at other times we encountered tigers and lions, and a fairy queen who always rescued us at the very last moment when the battle was almost lost. At other times, I was Tarzan of the Apes, and I gave a loud, shrill cry, and the beasts stood paralyzed in their tracks. I rode elephants and ate with chimpanzees and apes, and when I arrived home, I wasn’t hungry. One lucky day, I encountered a large Bora Tree that magically turned into an apple tree. I shook the tree and red apples showered all around me. Apples were my fantasy during my childhood, and I lived this fantasy, years later, after I bought a house in New York and planted my first apple tree. Sometimes in the wooded area below my house, I played with stones waging territorial wars where large stones were generals and the small ones were soldiers. This game had come to an abrupt end when one of the generals came crashing on my foot.

The world as stage
At about the time that national and international acknowledgement came my way in the field of Cardiovascular Medicine, my wife, Marina, took ill. Her illness came about at the very prime of our lives, and when I was at the peak of my career. Soon after she finished radiation therapy and was deemed cured from Hodgkin’s disease, which turned out to be a false supposition, I was invited to Argentina for their Cardiology National Meeting that was to be held in Salta, at the foothills of the Andes in the Lerma Valley. Nicknamed Salta la Linda, it was founded in 1582 by the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Lerma.

As soon as the plane landed in Salta, late in the evening, we were met by my friends Dr. Carlos Ribas and Dr. Daniel Bocardo and their wives. These two cardiologists had trained with me in New York City, and they and their charming wives were assigned the job to look after us.

Attractions in the city included the 18th century Cabildo, the neo-classical style Cathedral, the 9 de Julio central square, and the diverse topography of this part of Argentina: red rocks, green rivers, vineyards and thorny cacti, snowcapped peaks and desert land—as if by masterful design nature had painted an entire continent’s worth of landscapes into this remote land.

On the day before our trip to the Andean mountain range, we were taken to a Flamenco restaurant frequented by gauchos (cowboys). I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the company of the famous, vibrant, and vivacious Argentinian heart surgeon Dr. Rene Favaloro, who had performed the first coronary bypass surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, in the US, on May 9, 1967. At  our table was seated a gaucho who was totally charmed by my name and was flabbergasted to learn that I could speak Spanish having being born in India. At our table was seated a gaucho who was totally charmed by my name and was flabbergasted to learn that I could speak Spanish having being born in India. He was at a loss when I told him that I came from Goa. He seemed to have heard of Gandhi, and kept on calling me Gomes-Gandhi. He offered me his knife, which he carried on his belt. I politely told him that he did not have to part with his knife, but that was not his intention. The gauchos carry their own knife to carve their steak, and his offer was for me to use his knife to carve my steak. I was told that it was an honor to be offered a knife by a gaucho. And so, I carved my succulent pampas steak with the sharp gaucho knife.

We left the restaurant in the misty cold morning at 3:00 AM to board the bus at 6:30 AM to the Andes range. On the Andean plateau, for lack of oxygen, Marina passed out, and our local guides provided us with coca leaves to chew upon. On our way down the mountains we saw cacti that soared into space, and at dusk, their shadows were like minarets piecing the bleeding red and darkening sky. Within this landscape of emptiness, I felt a sense of mystery, of wonder, a desire to stay there longer, to be a part of the landscape, and as the bus made its way down the mountain, I felt as if we were leaving a part of ourselves there.

A couple of years later, after Marina passed away, I wrote a poem entitled, ‘Visions’, (in the book, Visions on Grymes Hill) where I go on an imaginary journey in search of her in the Andean mountains, crossing to the other side: Wondering in the moonlit night/On the mountain slopes to find the gate/Chewing leaves of coca, resigned to my stormy fate/Dazed, we entered into a cleft in the mountain/Into a tunnel so cold and dark with freezing walls/And falling embers of yellow fire…To seek the end of the tunnel, to find my lost Princess.

Many years later I had a similar feeling when I visited Machu Picchu in Peru: a lost civilization hidden on a mountain ridge, in the depths of the jungle, surrounded by snowcapped peaks where the sky had the clarity of crystal glass, and the emptiness, the silence was from another universe.

The years have moved at a fast pace, and during these last 20 years or so, there were trips to other countries: Venezuela, Spain, Chile, Peru, England, France, Italy, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Portugal, Australia, India and the list goes on. In every place I went, in those times, I felt that we in the US were the lucky ones in the forefront of our field. The appreciation, the respect, and admiration we garnered from the academicians of the host countries were remarkable. Of the places I have mentioned, I fondly remember the visit to Brazil, particularly Rio de Janeiro with its beaches and Corcovado with my Brazilian colleague Dr. de Paula with whom I collaborated. I enthusiastically recollect the wonderful six-course dinner in Marseilles, France, with Professor Samuel Levy, each course with its matching wine and an edible flower. In the beginning I was simply mesmerized by the flower staring at me from the corner of the plate and I was filled with trepidation to eat it as if I was about to slaughter a thing of beauty. But as I went on eating and looking at the flower through the corner of an eye, I gave in. I distinctly remember the pungent taste of the Nasturtium, which blended perfectly with the woody flavor of the riche Bordeaux.

I was much honored to lecture at the Hammersmith, in London, England, where many years ago as a medical student, I had dreamed of specializing in England, the place of higher learning for most Indians of the time. Years later, lecturing in Lisbon, Portugal, meant a lot to me; however I shied away, regretfully, lecturing in Portuguese. A year or so later, when a group of Portuguese doctors visited The Mount Sinai Medical Center, I took it upon myself at a great  effort on my part to give my lecture in Portuguese.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Journey from medicine to poetry to fiction
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you/You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach/Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know/Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.” ― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Ever since I was a young boy of 9, at St. Mary’s High School in Bombay, I was fond of reciting poetry: By the shores of Gitche Gume/By the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis … ..From ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Subsequently, in Lyceum, it was the poetry of Camões: E tembém as memórias gloriosas, daqueles Reis/que foram dilatando a Fé, O Império/e as terras viciosas de Africa e de Asia/andaram devastando ….But it wasn’t until I was in Dhempe College in Panjim that I attempted verse, which I shared with my close friend Nitant Kenkre. After college, and in medical school, and during my years of training in cardiovascular medicine and cardiac electrophysiology in the US, poetry and literature left me, although I yearned to come back to it.

In the late 1980s, medicine was my god, and together with my associate, Dr. Stephen Winters, and our top heart surgeons, Drs. Ergin and Cammunas, we did some extraordinary procedures and saved many a life. Thus, my doctoring left me full of hope, and I was riding high. After Marina’s death, and my disappointment with the practice of oncological medicine, the god of medicine crumbled all around me like the shards of a mirror. I entertained the thought of abandoning medicine and seeking refuge in literature and poetry. In hindsight, it was the journeys to lecture around the world that kept me going, but it was poetry (writing and reading) that kept me emotionally afloat. A year after Marina passed away, on December 28, 1990, on a snowy stormy day, her birthday, I sat at my desk and wrote an Ode. After that I never stopped writing. I wrote, fast and furious, as if I wanted to catch up on all those years of silence, where feelings, happy moments, tragedies, sadness, images, remain hidden, silent, deep within the crevices of the mind. And so my journey from Medicine into Literature began; the two have lived happily and symbiotically thereafter. In 1994, I published a collection of poems, entitled, Visions from Grymes Hill, and more recently, another collection of poems entitled, Mirrored Reflections. I came to realize that medicine offers a whole lot of stories of real people, and I sought to capture some of these stories in poetic form that occupy the fourth part of Mirrored Reflections, and a non-fiction book I am currently writing entitled, The Broken Heart – The Enduring Spirit.

In the early 1980s, I had read V.S Naipaul’s, A House for Mr. Biswas. I was so impressed that I was motivated to write a novel based in Goa. I tried some writing but it was simply awful and so I gave up; but in my mind I always felt that I would someday revisit that inner desire. In the late 1990s, I felt it was time to try again. Two poems I had written, ‘House’ and ‘Homecoming’, which appear in Mirrored Reflections, were the catalyst for The Sting of Peppercorns. My long friendship with the American poet, Grace Schulman, has not only been highly pleasurable, but also a source of inspiration. Other prominent individuals in the humanities crossed my path including: Jilian Lindt and David Koch from Columbia University, NY, and Pearl London from the New School, NY; writers of Indian origin: João da Veiga Coutinho, Ralph Nazareth, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, Margaret Mascarenhas, and Pankaj Mishra; and more recently, Professor David Jackson of Yale University, the novelist Maureen Howard, and the poet Tanya Mendonsa. A nod from these individuals was heartening and encouraging.

I’m deeply indebted to Frederick Noronha of GOA1556, and Broadway Books for giving me a voice; a very special thanks to Isabel for inviting me to pen this article which unexpectedly opened up dormant memories of the past.


J. Anthony Gomes is Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), The Icahn School of Medicine, at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and Director of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Consultative Service and Senior Consultant, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust Center for Cardiac Electrophysiology,  New York.

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