Published on: January 30, 2020

Nick Surawy Stepney, a PhD Student at King’s College London, whose research concerns morphine use in northern India, spent 2 weeks in Pallium India. Working with palliative care teams, regulators, and pharmaceutical companies, he aims to understand how morphine is produced, regulated and consumed here. He is currently continuing his fieldwork in Himachal Pradesh.

Nick writes:

 

Vocabularies

From the room, they drift

like dandelion

seeds; unfamiliar destinations,

lost histories. Yet each has the weight

of an ocean in their eyes.

The pains of others are

distant galaxies

that I can’t begin to describe.

 

In the final two weeks of January, I spent a little time with Pallium as part of my PhD research. As this came to a close, it was mentioned that visitors usually contribute a blog post. To the promise of being taken out for chai as a reward, was added the note that this contribution could take any form. ‘Blog post, eight-line poem, even a song!’ I was told. Well, how could I refuse?

Before launching into an explanation of my potentially ill-advised attempt, I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the organisation. From the music on the morning bus (Udta Punjab and a song about cats were both highlights) to the warmth and generosity of the staff, it has been one of the most pleasurable periods of my research.

But one afternoon, a patient died.

I was working just outside their room with a couple of others. A woman whose shoulders were hunched in grief came out through the doors and sat beside us. A young child stroked her hair. Those with whom I have worked, despite their good humour, know the gravity of their roles. For me, it was a timely reminder.

As the essayist Elaine Scarry (on whom the poem draws) once noted, pain destroys language. In the face of this however, I took up the throw-away invitation to write a poem for Pallium. I have tried to capture something of that moment, and the idea that language is aligned rather haphazardly to the experience of physical and emotional suffering. It was only after a lot of wrangling that I reached the modest target of eight lines!