The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean Dominique Bauby

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Jean Dominique Bauby was a former journalist whose career stints included working for the likes of the Quotidien de Paris and Paris Match. He was also a very well acclaimed editor of Elle for four years ending December 1995, before fate decided to intervene in a cold, ruthless and merciless manner.  On the 8th of December 1995, Bauby while driving his son in a gun metal BMW suffered a massive stroke. Waking up 20 days later, in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital, Berck-Sur-Mer, Bauby was left to reconcile with his circumstances. Diagnosed with what is known as the Locked-in Syndrome, Bauby’s entire gamut of physical faculties was restricted to merely blinking his left eyelid. While his mental faculties remained unimpaired, he lay paralysed. In the first 20 weeks after his stroke he lost a whopping 27 kilograms. He was all of 45.

Instead of being mentally traumatized and ravaged by his plight, Bauby decided to take the contrivance of fate and circumstances head on and the result is an eviscerating, extraordinary and effervescent memoir that leaves an indelible mark on every reader. What is most incredible about this small book evocatively titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – a paean to the contrasting plight of a body rigidly locked in as though it was within a diving bell as against a mind which was free to flutter around like an unconstrained butterfly – is the technique employed to pen it. Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head. Blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again employing a technique called partner-assisted scanning, he dictated the whole book one letter at a time. Bauby’s interlocutor, Claude Mendibil listed the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an ode to optimism, a tribute to acceptance and a complement to reconciliation. When bogged down by burdens dire, the wont is generally to take refuge in and recourse to ecumenism. Not Bauby though. Going against the expected and prosaic grain, Bauby lets loose his thoughts and imagination in an unfettered whorl which can only be termed liberating. Juxtaposing morbid humour with magnificent narrative, Bauby accomplishes the incredulous task of virtually disconnecting and detaching himself from his motionless body and looking at himself with a mixture of curiosity and candour. Roaming the corridors of the hospital in his wheel chair he immerses himself in sights and sounds that evoke both enthusiasm and exasperation. For example, he terms the temporary occupants of the physiotherapy segment of the hospital, ‘tourists’. “Elsewhere a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sports, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accidents, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes their shattered limbs working again. I call them ‘tourists’.”  These ‘tourists’ with shattered limbs are also reduced to a state of awkwardness upon sighting Bauby with his rigid and immobile limbs, as he lies in a state of suspension tethered to an inclined board, which is slowly raised to a vertical position. “I would like to be a part of all this hilarity, but as soon as I direct my one eye toward them, the young man, the grandmother and the homeless man turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke-detector. The ‘tourists’ must be very worried about the fire.”

There are moments of seraphic poignancy and sobriety in the book. The chapter where Bauby recollects the last time he met his aging father before his accident, and gave him a shave leaves absolutely no room for a single dry eye. Just take a deep breath, read through the following paragraph in silence and ruminate over it:

“I complete my barber’s duties by splashing my father with his favourite after shave lotion. Then we say, goodbye, this time for once, he neglects to mention the letter in his writing-desk where his last wishes are set out. We have not seen each other since. I cannot quit my sea-side confinement. And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year old legs. We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way; myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment. Now I am the one they shave every morning…”

Multiple passages identical to the one reproduce above dot the landscape of this magnificent book. Jean Dominique Bauby’s normal, run-of-the-mill, taken-for-granted routines might have come to a shuddering end on the 8th of December, 1995. But he did not allow this damning calamity to dull his life. He lived, loved and laughed with more vivacity, verve and voluptuousness. Most importantly he lived with a sedate sense of fulfillment that cocked a snook at adversity if not downright showing it the finger.

We would all do exceedingly well to imbibe even a faint whiff of Bauby’s undying spirit, unyielding passion and undiminished courage.


The book was published in France on 7 March 1997 to resounding success. However Bauby did not live long to bask in its glory. Contracting pneumonia all of a sudden, Bauby died just two days after the publication of his book. He is put to rest in a family grave at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France. A movie adaptation of Bauby’s book was also released to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.  Nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the movie’s Director Julian Schnabel bagged the Best Director award.


Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations – Thomas L. Friedman

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Just as I was coursing through the final two Chapters of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, a brazen group of white supremacists engaged in a violent clash with nationalists in Charlotsville V.A in the United States. Nazi salutes and Ku Klux Klan tenets strode side by side as bigotry, hatred and discrimination raised their ugly heads. The whole charade finally culminated, but not before a demented driver ploughed his car into the banks of protesters killing one. It also did not help that an inherently abrasive and innately abusive President issued a note of condemnation that was extraordinarily reluctant and barely perceptible.

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(White Nationalists marching in Charlotsville. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

There could not have been a more vivid contrast between the values espoused by Friedman in his book and the causes which the protestors in Charlotsville were so unashamedly saturated with. While Friedman calls for inclusivity, embracing diversity and a collegial relationship between the State and its citizens, the white supremacists of Charlotsville demanded racial segregation, discrimination and a bigoted division based on caste, creed, colour and country. This paradigmatic clash of contradictions reflects in no small manner the crossroads at which the world finds itself in this 21st Century. It is this very fork to the end of which Friedman takes us in his very important book.

In this part memoir, part introspection, Friedman identifies three major forces that are currently accelerating and consequently shaping the contours of how an inextricably connected humanity thinks and acts. These three contending and cascading forces are Moore’s Law, Markets and Mother Nature.

While technology has taken quantum leaps with significant breakthroughs littering and embellishing the realms of Artificial Intelligence and Genome mapping, it has also percolated top down empowering every individual desirous of being so empowered. In Friedman’s words, technology is now “fast, free and ubiquitous” and also “fast, free, easy for you and invisible”. When Gordon Moore first formulated his now ubiquitous law – doubling the power of microchips every two years but at a lower cost – it sounded an incredulous proposition. However as Friedman points out: “if you took Intel’s first generation microchip from 1971, the 4004, and the latest chip Intel has on the market today, the sixth generation Intel Core processor, you will see that Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient, and is about 60,000 times lower in cost”.

The Accelerating Moore’s Law also creates a ripple effect on the markets. Using high fibre optic cables, traders now compete for advantages that are measured in nano seconds as millions are made or lost depending upon the vagaries of technology. A rogue trader sitting in London can manipulate the stocks and futures indices functioning thousands of miles away in Chicago or New York and instigate an episode of dances macabres.

Finally the accelerating technology and markets have a colossal impact on Mother Nature as her occupants exploit mercilessly her finite resources in the name of development. Friedman relies on the words of the London based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan who describes global warming as a “black elephant”. According to Sweidan, a black elephant “is a cross between a black swan – a rare, low probability, unanticipated event with enormous ramifications – and the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet that no one wants to address, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast black swam like consequences”
After describing these three unavoidable forces of change, Friedman mulls over the challenges faced by mankind in adapting to this change. The time taken for adapting oneself to such a change is inversely proportional to the speed at which the change itself is being unleashed upon us. Friedman is of the opinion that for the consequences of a new technology to be completely absorbed by the users it would take at least 15 years from the advent of such a technology. But by the time the consequences are deciphered the technology would have ceased to become relevant, being swallowed up by an even newer and enhanced version. Thus adaptability will always be in a catch up mode!

In the second half of the book, Friedman proposes a few nuggets of prescriptive wisdom by which we can not only withstand the accelerating change but also exploit it to make the world a much better, simpler and amicable place to live in. He takes us to his childhood and growing up years in St Louise Park in Minnesota where there was fostered a culture of openness, amiability, cordiality, compassion, equality and acceptance. Banking on an African adage which states that ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’, Friedman passionately makes a case for communities to imbibe responsibility and assume the role of change agents. Using a mixture of top down and bottom up approaches, ordinary citizens and policy makers need to work in tandem to ensure that issues of raging importance such as education, infrastructure and gender equality are given the right degree of attention that they so desperately and richly deserve.

If at all I have any reservations about Friedman’s fantastic book, it is that it is too very inclusive. Although a citizen of the world in its truest and pure sense, I get this unassailable feeling that “Thank You For Being Late” is more for The United States of America in exclusion to the rest of the world. Since the changes of acceleration equally impact every corner of the globe (in some regions the impact is materially greater than that faced by America), I would have expected Friedan to offer a holistic and global perspective.

Then again with a vicious, unthinking, deranged and demented demagogue now at the helm of affairs in the United States, it is the citizens of this world super power who are in dire need of Friedman’s prescriptions. Meanwhile the Neo Nazis still carry on uninhibited expecting to TRUMP….

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 20 ALPHABET T)