Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Meeting of minds: When scientists and artists meet

James Mathew
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States

Salim Yusuf (left) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Toronto, September 13, 2016.
Photo credit: James Mathew, MD

Away from the glitter and noise of the Toronto International Film Festival, two men met for dinner on the thirty-eighth floor of the Westin Harbor Palace. They dined on vegetables and seafood while enjoying a spectacular view of Lake Ontario, its gentle ripples sparkling with the colors of the setting sun, its surface sprinkled with the white fluttering sails of myriad boats.  The two men had been engaged in life-long efforts to uplift humanity, one through science, the other through art. Their conversation drifted from English to Hindi to Malayalam, and from topics mundane to profound. Dr. Salim Yusuf, a global leader in cardiovascular disease research, had come to meet the internationally acclaimed Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who was in Toronto to show his new film Once Again at the festival. Dr. Yusuf, Distinguished University Professor at McMaster University and current president of the World Heart Federation, had recently been inducted into Canada’s Medical Hall of Fame and made an  Officer of the Order of Canada.

Bottled water, sir? Still or fizzy?

Dr. Yusuf was quick to place his order. “Thank you, but no bottled water for me, please!”

Aside to Mr. Gopalakrishnan, “I am against bottled water.”

To the waiter who appeared to be Indian, Dr. Yusuf asked,  “Aap ka nam kya hai? Aap kahan se hai?” (“Where are you from, may I know your name?”)

“Bangladesh se, sir.”

“Acha! Sub teek hai?”
(“Good! All well?)

“Han, sir.”

“Glad to meet you. Tap water please!”

The dinner began with the scientist improvising a bread-dip for the artist with a sprinkle of salt and pepper in oil and vinegar. Then the conversation got underway. They had long admired each other’s work and had much in common. The scientist believed in promoting the arts and the artist was keen about science.

Dr. Yusuf talked about his origins from the village of Kottarakkara, not far from Adoor (Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s birth town) in Kerala. He described his life as his family moved from Mumbai to Kolkata and then to Kochi, and how life changed when he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. “What do you do when they give you a Rhodes scholarship? You do research. That is what I did, and then I got hooked,” he said with a smile.

Turning to the origin of Kerala, they recalled the legend of Parasurama, said to have founded the state by splashing the Indian Ocean with his axe. They discussed books on the history of Kerala and its culture. Mr. Gopalakrishnan talked about the times when land was not privately owned but enjoyed by everybody, and how the onslaught of civilization and the influence of foreign rule had introduced private ownership.

On public health, Dr. Yusuf observed that “health is not a concern of science alone; its determinants are social, economic and political as well. About ten percent of deaths in the world are from injuries. Overall, however, global health has greatly improved over the last 100 years. The average life-expectancy at birth in the world has risen from about forty years in 1900 to about sixty-five years today.”

Dr. Yusuf mentioned “KIRAN,” the million-person project that his group has been developing in Kerala. Sponsored by the state government, this project will establish the root causes of ill health and death in Kerala. “Only if we know the causes of various diseases we can do something to avoid them. What is the health effect of exposure to smoke from cooking with firewood, air and soil pollution, or our eating habits?”

Mr. Gopalakrishnan then observed that art and literature had flourished at a time when rulers and wealthy citizens patronized artists and poets. “How much of our budget is marked for art and literature today?” he lamented. Both agreed that cultivating the arts was an essential investment for preserving cultural heritages and important, along with science for the ascent of mankind.

On dealing with the strain of long journeys and jet lag the scientist had advice for the artist: “Work out a routine, exercise on board, eat light, get a good sleep, and take a long walk when you reach your destination, especially in daylight.”

“Would you like to see the dessert menu, sir?”

“No, thank you! The food was excellent.”

Their sails now furled, the boats lay moored along the pier. The sun had set. Reflections of electric lamps quivered along the shoreline. On the sidelines of the film festival these two remarkable minds met for the first time.

JAMES MATHEW, MD, is a cardiologist in Milwaukee who is also interested in art and literature. Besides many scientific papers he has published an article, “Of Pine and Man: Reflecting on Henry David Thoreau’s Sentiment in ‘Chesuncook’”, in Hektoen International. He wrote and directed the dramatic reading performance “Life and Legacy of Henry David Thoreau” in Milwaukee and screened the video of the performance at the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society 2016 in Concord, MA.

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