The Poet Physician
I’m sitting at the nurse’s station cleaning my glasses with an alcohol prep pad. Looking though the newly cleaned lenses, I’m dismayed to find that not only are my scrubs wrinkled but there’s a brown smudge on my pant leg. What is that—betadine? Peanut butter from when my kids hugged me goodbye this morning?
Dr. Lakhera walks in. She’s wearing a pink dress and leopard print boots under her white lab coat. I ask her for a medication order and she says, “Sure, that sounds great. Thanks beautiful” and flashes me a fuchsia smile before practically sashaying down the corridor.
Dr. Nivedita Lakhera, a full-time physician at Regional Medical Center, is also the internationally-recognized, award-winning author of the poetry and art collection Pillow of Dreams. This past year, her book was awarded the prestigious Silke Irina award and has held the number one spot on Amazon for most 5-star reviewed poetry book. And all this she accomplished looking so chic without mysterious brown stains on her clothing.
Later at home, I call Niv and say, “I just had this crazy realization. You’re like the only writer I know who lives the writer life with so much style. It’s like the show Sex in the City brought to life.”
“Oh my God your right!” she laughs. “I’m an Indian Carrie Bradshaw. I love it!”
“You totally are. That is, if Carrie lived in the San Jose and also just happened to be a doctor.” I ask if I could write an article about her.
“You want to write about me? Oh my God, Allison, sure! Give it to The New Yorker, I don’t care!” She laughs. “Just go for it. Anything we get in this life, from mankind, they are just trinkets in the scheme of the universe. If I ever get a Nobel Prize for my writing I’m going to say, ‘Oh, that’s cute’ and not think of it as anything more than one of my Amazon reviews.”
“Really? You wouldn’t care about a Nobel Prize?”
“I hate taking credit for it, really. I’m just the antenna for the universe to express itself. The thing is, you have to give yourself space to have a clear signal. You’ll get that clear signal, too, when you start writing more. Maybe it happens to people who go through some kind of catastrophic life event. I had my stroke and it was like, an outer-body experience. It just cleared out everything.”
You can’t tell by looking at her, but Niv had a stroke at 27 which temporarily left her paralyzed and unable to speak. She recovered after the placement of a brain shunt and speech and physical therapy. That year, the stress of her medical issues caused her already troubled married to collapse and Niv turned to writing and art as a sort of therapy.
“I think I know what you mean,” I say. “Like when a storm happens in nature.”
“Yes. Exactly like that,” she says. “Life’s like that too. That’s the way of the universe.”
I step into the cool night air away from the playful laughter of my two children. I think about what Niv said, how we need storms to clear the land for new life to emerge. How we need to know darkness to truly appreciate the beauty of the dawn.
“Hey Allison,” Niv interrupts my thoughts, “for your article, do you think you can put in that picture of me wearing my yellow dress?”
We meet up at her apartment later that week. Her paintings adorn the walls: 50 by 50 inch paintings of Niv draped in cascades of color with quotes from her book printed on the side.
“I’m afraid my décor is fairly narcissistic,” she says.
“They’re gorgeous,” I gush. I think about my walls at home covered with snapshots of my kids and family. To put up paintings like this—with no family or occasion behind it—takes a lot of self-confidence.
I ask Niv about her confidence. Was is something she was born with or something she had to learn?
“Confidence is a very learned trait,” she answers. “My dad was a feminist, which of course classifies a very finite amount of men, and my mom had so much trust in me it was beyond belief. She would say ‘you can do anything’ and it stuck with me.” She cuts a watermelon, hands me half, and digs into her half with a fork. “Also, once you hit rock bottom in your life and you come out of it, it becomes your second nature. Like, ‘I will come out of this.’ And even if you don’t come out of things and stay on the bottom, you can make it beautiful.” She gestures to the walls. “You can start painting your rocks on the bottom and make it like a museum. Then people can visit your artwork.”
I study one of her paintings: a side view of Niv in aquamarine gazing at the sunset with her hair and skirt flowing in the breeze. I read the caption aloud: “I am not a princess I am a complete fairytale.”
“Do you like it?” Niv asks. “That’s the title of my new book coming out in May. This one is all about empowering. Most of us are running in a hamster wheel. We get to work, we go home, we have sex. Unless you’re me, that is,” she puts her fork down and covers her face in mock devastation. “God! I’m like a virgin or a nun or something.” We laugh. “Anyway,” she says, “nobody teaches us what life is all about or helps us understand it. My book will have poems and prose about all of that.”
“That’s why I think the arts are so important,” I say. “It helps people understand life.”
“Yes! When I was a child I found a poem of Emily Dickinson from a Reader’s Digest someone left at the bus stop. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And sings the tune without the words. And never stops at all.’”
I feel goosebumps prickle up on my arms.
“I was just crying” Niv says. “People compare me to Pablo Neruda or Achebe but I hope somewhere in me is Emily.”
“It’s amazing how Dickinson was able to write so authentically considering she was a Victorian woman,” I say. “Is it hard for you to write about personal stuff and, on top of that, see it published? Do you ever get afraid of what people might think?”
“I didn’t tell people about my stroke for a long time. I was like, ‘I don’t want people to judge me’ or whatever. Then I learned. I realized that when it comes to pain, people are ashamed of their experiences. They are ashamed of their pain, their suffering, their sadness. It is so liberating when you can own your sadness and be like, ‘Hell yes, there is sadness!’ I wasn’t really joyous and celebrating when I had a stroke or got divorced. But I think it’s important to own who you are where you’re from.”
“What about your love poems? Was it hard to write those and then put them out there?”
“It was very hard but… one thing that age does to you is that makes you shameless!” Niv laughs loudly. “Or wisdom whatever you want to call it. Some of my poems are very sensuous and I was worried about what my family would think. I was raised in a culture where dating and love, other than marriage, is really not celebrated. It was very hard. But when I talked to my mother and father and found they were cool with it, I went all in. Like I told you, four lines of Emily Dickenson changed my life. I just wanted other women, or men, who were in the same boat to feel like they would be able to…like, cross this ocean of hell”—we both laugh—“because there is a beautiful island on the other side! Just keep going!”
“With all these projects, traveling, and book tours what would you say was your most memorable encounter this year?” I ask.
Niv looks thoughtful for a moment as if trying to find the best way to start. Finally, she says, “Two women in-boxed me and said they didn’t comment suicide because of my book. I always say validation is a fake currency; you can’t buy talent, you can’t buy validation with that. But that was not validation. That was impact and there’s a huge difference. If what you have in your soul can extend in someone else’s soul and make a bridge—get to their soul and say ‘everything is going to be ok’— that’s a very powerful thing. As artists, as doctors, as engineers— that’s how we live a life of substance. Whatever we are creating has a positive impact on people outside our immediate boundaries.” Niv gets up and throws out her hollowed-out rind. “I’m starving!” she says, “Are you ready to go out to dinner?”
“Alas, woman cannot live on watermelon alone,” I say getting my stuff together, “Any last thoughts?”
“The future is yours to do whatever you have to make it better. You cannot fight your destiny but you can hug it and make it beautiful.” Niv throws a beige coat over her black dress and slips on a pair of magenta heels. “Oh and Allison, can we do a photo shoot together when we send this to Oprah? I’ll let you borrow some of my clothes!”