Friday, June 27

Against staggering odds

After the sad passing of Sameer and Vinay, I wanted to share a story with a happier ending. Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s and the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., wrote about our mutual friend Shalini Malhotra’s accident in his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Shalini used to edit the first desi zine I ever worked on, Hum (Us), a slim black and white mag published from South Park in SoMa, SF. She started out in a cubicle next to Might and Mark Frauenfelder’s bOING bOING, the blog’s predecessor. These were the days before well-funded startups crowded the buildings around the park. They were replaced by VCs, then vintage clothing stores sprouting like fly agaric after the first bubble.

A wide-eyed sweetie, Shal used to trade in charm and backrubs so Dave and Dave from Might would help with mag layout. She hung out with a fun crowd. Eggers went on to hipster acclaim. Mark played ukelele and later moved to a South Pacific island with his lovely wife Carla Sinclair, who once posed for Playboy’s ‘Girls of the Internet.’

Hum was the first second-gen publication I write for — right after a summer on, before Sepia Mutiny, before Ultrabrown. The mid-’90s were exhilarating, a good time for zines, before the era of blogs. Subscriptions never quite covered costs, but we loved our subjects intensely. It all came to a halt after Shal’s accident, which Eggers described in his book:

‘Shalini’s been in an accident… You know that deck that collapsed in Pacific Heights? She’s in a coma…’ There were maybe twenty people on it when it went, the supports giving way, and all the young people floating down…

· · · · ·

We all got the call that evening and flew back immediately to see our Shalini. She looked like an alien with an impossibly swollen head sprouting tubing like Brazil, her body taking in fitful, fragile breaths:

Her face is broken, her eyes closed, inflamed, huge, red and purple, blue and red and purple and yellow and green and brown, her eye sockets black… they shaved her head and removed part of her skull to alleviate the brain’ swelling… Her arms are smooth and brown, without a mark…

We meet Shalini’s friends, her aunts, uncles, men in suits and gray-haired women in saris… sometimes we feel welcome among the relatives, and other times we do not feel as welcome… We are not to smile, not to laugh, at anything, unless the family smiles or laughs first… We are not to… take up too much time once inside, keeping waiting the college roommate or uncle from India… after you have gone in to see Shalini, and have seen her cuts healing and have held her perfect small hot hand, you must stay in the hallway, talking to anyone who might want to talk…

One day I bring… the tiny mohair bear that I have kept in the door compartment of my car for years, since my mother passed, because I think that there is something of her in this bear… I will nestle the bear in between her arm and torso… and will let myself believe that it means something… That the bear will be magic and I will save the day and bring Shalini back…

We’d been told to come say our goodbyes — the doctors had given her only a 5% chance of survival. And she beat the odds. Her regeneration was astonishing. She was resurrected without even a major personality change, all too common with head injuries:

Her eyes are open… she’s really watching us. the stunned, mute look of a newborn. God her eyes are huge… The world is in bloom. She is back, we have not lost her… maybe in a few days… chatting, creating, assembling, and finally resuming the backrubs… We tell her to wiggle her toes and she waves her foot back and forth… It’s Jesus and Lazarus and Christmas.

· · · · ·

Aside from physical complications, the main thing Shal lost was her short-term memory, something like 50 First Dates. She couldn’t live unassisted and kept a journal at hand to write down events in ten-minute blocks. But she’s well loved and has had excellent treatment, as her parents are doctors. And after the survival chances her specialists had originally given us, everything else was a gift, mere frosting. We were ecstatic to have her back, though we’ve lost touch over time.

I prefer to think of her not as someone with short-term memory issues, but an ur-blogger. In this decade she’d have run a large South Asian blog, charming and cajoling writers, notepad always at hand. As computers shrink, she will eventually get one small, quick and prodigious enough to be a nearly invisible mimetic assistant. And then she’ll be running the world again with friendship and backrubs.



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  1. 1DJ Drrrty Poonjabi

    Thanks for sharing this, Manish.

  2. 2brimful

    Strangely enough, Staggering Genius and Shalini’s story introduced me to Hum, and ultimately your blog many years ago. It’s indeed heartening to hear that she is doing so well.

  3. 3Malathi

    If I remember correctly (it’s been a while since I read it), Eggers had also depicted the large-South-Asian-caring-family angle beautifully through his portrayal of Shalini’s family. I assumed he was (like I am) especially sensitive and receptive to those scenes given his own circumstances.

  4. 4tamasha

    Her story, and how he rather delicately, and poignantly, described her and her family was my favorite part of the book. And both his and your descriptions of the time made me wish I was six years older.

  5. 5midnight toker

    A colleague of mine nearly died from injuries to the head, after falling down a cliff-face. We were in a desolate part of the konkan, a couple of hours from transportation and then a few more from a hospital with a surgeon. He was barely saved, but not before severe trauma and heamorraging.

    He was in coma for a couple of months, down to a third of his weight and with a toddler’s demeanor when we saw him next. A year of recuperation, and he was cautiously offered his old job back more, i suspect, as an act of kindness.

    Physically he seemed close to normal, and recovered like a true army brat. But he had gaps in the long term memory and no short term memory to speak of. His cubicle-mate would some days have to deal with answering the same question twenty times over.

    He stayed on medication for about 6 years longer, but his memory got better and better and seems fully functional today. The transformation was pretty amazing to witness, though it must have taken every ounce of patience his family could muster.

    I believe he is now married, with a child and last i heard, works for a large software company in Redmond, WA. :-)

  6. 6prakruti

    This is an amazing real life story of survival Manish..
    I hope shalini like 50 first dates found cute guy and she is happy…she seems to be an amazing high energy talented lady…Iam glad she has wonderful parents and friends with good wishes…miracles do happen right..
    I hope shalini can achieve a lot despite short memory by making notes etc., where there is a will there is a way…
    God bless her with a cute soulmate to help her through this hard amazing journey…
    that way I saw two miracles in my life too..
    when I was 5yrs old a student got angry with my dad as he stopped copying in his college and stabbed my dad..Doctor told my dad and us that my dad survived by a miracle. If the knife would have gone deeper even by a hair breadth he would not have survived. Also doctor told my dad that “Ram mohan, being a doctor even I was asked to stab, I could not have stabbed so well without touching one major organ in ur body, u are extremely lucky and ur survival is a miracle”..
    Again when I was 25 yrs old my dads lungs collapsed and went into and my sister kept talking to him when he was in coma telling him a million times he needs to survive for us. even with ventilator help his body couldnot pump out co2 and co2 was building up in his body and bp was going so low doctors thought he had no chances of surival…and you wont believe he came out of coma and he survived…It is lot of prayers and true good wishes..miracles do happen..
    Ofcourse my dad didnot survive when he had leukemia three years back..but I was very fortunate to have him all those years, I came close to loosing him so many times..miracles do happen…

  7. 7Shruti

    Thanks for sharing, Manish :)

  8. 8Maitri

    Still sad over Vinay’s loss, this story brings hope and happiness. Thanks.

  9. 9ylrsings

    that book is really amazing and i really appreciated this post. the passing of both vinay and sameer has been very difficult, but what they gave us will inspire our community forever.

  10. 10manish

    Staggering Genius and Shalini’s story introduced me to Hum

    Serendipitous. I’m so glad we’ve e-met!

    I believe he is now married, with a child and last i heard, works for a large software company in Redmond, WA. :-)

    That explains so much about ‘em :)

    Doctor told my dad and us that my dad survived by a miracle.

    Unbelievable luck, Prakruti. I’m so glad he survived it.

    And both his and your descriptions of the time made me wish I was six years older.

    Oh, you don’t want to be an auntie =O

  11. 11prakruti

    thanks manish, miracles do happen in life..I also believe in strength of prayers and true love…
    Even with leukemia my dad worked 14hrs a day still reading his michenors books until late, managing his 500 employees… while he was taking chemo with no food or energy , he barely could speak..he would remind me to fax his office papers so that his employees got salaries and their problems were solved…he was an inspiration. his last nite on earth my dad was teaching his doctor platos and aynrands philosophies though doctor advised him not to take his oxygen mask as he was running out of oxygen.. i scolded my Dad and told him not to talk, he smiled and said to me dont u know these intellectual conversations are my real oxygen and i want to tell this intellectually thirsty doc of good books i read and he told me to bring books for the doc there….he would work until his last breath telling us to donate free breakfast to everone around the last morning of his life..he believed in giving..
    ..struggling to make a difference against staggering odds…my dad never even complained of pain or his own fears…when I read vinay and sameers blogs, they also did the same and made people smile with their humor despite their pain..that is again making a difference despite staggering odds..
    vinay and sameer and my dads leukemia deaths made me sad and I kinda lost hope for leukemia patients..some diseases are hard to beat, but there are so many survivors too like Pia of wrote to me once when I was going through my dads leukemia struggles, their journey and their love story was a true inspiration for me..that is another miracle , a real life story of two people truly in love..amazing love story that can be written as a book, a real life story of hope, true love..
    I would love to read this book “against staggering odds”

  12. 12tamasha


  13. 13prakruti

    Manish, here is another amazing human being Dr.Randy P who fought against staggering odds and smiled while dying..amazing story of a carnegie mellon computer science professor who knew he will die in 6 months and wrote an inspiring book, gave an inspiring lecture and fulfilled all his dreams and dreams of his 3 little children all under 10 years of age…his last lecture was an inspiration…
    He passed away today of pancreatic cancer but he lives in peoples hearts forever the brave way he fought life and death. May his soul rest in peace . He was worried that hs 2 year old kid woulld not have anyone to lift his kid up when he toddles and falls and I pray the kids find someone always to watch them when they fall…amazing human being who needs a mention in ur staggering odds post.. thanks for this post..
    here is more on him..