I have always found my solace in words, for as long as I can remember. I have been most influenced by characters I have read about; no matter if completely fictitious or generously inspired. I somehow could not make sense of people I met in real life. They either obfuscated their motives or didn’t give me the opportunity to read them. At the time when I was engrossed in Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and R.K. Narayan I also started developing a taste for popular fiction, as written by John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon and most importantly Robin Cook.
Dr. Robin Cook writes medical thrillers; the most famous being Coma, which became a movie. I didn’t know anything of the kind back then. I didn’t consider at the time that medicine could be thrilling. All I knew of medicine was the burning disinfectants, bitter syrups, pills too large to swallow and offices too sterile and sinister.
I had just turned thirteen and had always liked Biology. I had a rudimentary idea about the human body and beginning to grasp its complexity. It was an innocent time. We giggled when anything ‘reproductive’ was mentioned and blushed furiously when the same was diagrammatically explained. We had had the ‘special talk for girls’ the year before. My male classmates were annoyingly inquisitive for the rest of the day for they knew what was ‘Whisper’ed. Yes, I remember the taunts.
We had 40 minutes for lunch every day and some of us would stay back in our classrooms to eat while reading our books. We didn’t have a cafeteria or a mess hall. I saw one of my classmates reading Chromosome 6 by Robin Cook. It had a bright purple golden cover and I found the cover-art fascinating. It was a chromosome. I had just heard the word chromosome in a documentary on the Discovery Channel. I was more familiar with the term DNA fingerprinting since I loved shows on true crime solved using forensics. But I didn’t really know what DNA was either. I asked my friend bravely if I could borrow her book after she was done. She was a sweet, quiet girl named Bhavana. Or was it Bhavna? I don’t even remember her last name. She was happy to lend it.
The next two weeks are a blur. I don’t think I had ever been addicted to a book before then. I even switched seats and moved back so I could read during class! I was introduced to the character of Jack Stapleton – a daring pathologist who, along with his colleague and love-interest Laurie Montgomery, solves mysteries. The mystery I had in my hand starts off with a body going missing after autopsy. It turns up later – mutilated and bullet-ridden. Our hero Jack figures out that it was the same body that had gone missing. His examinations reveal that the person had had a liver transplant. Surprisingly the liver that had been transplanted has the recepient’s immunological markings (thus not rejected) but has… primate DNA and primate parasites. I will say no more. As a 13 year old my mind was blown. I discovered the world of genetic engineering, the industry of biotechnology, medical malpractice and the underbelly of scientific research. Of course, the story was not meant to be a treatise on emerging technologies in biological research and thus there are some loopholes. If you are interested in a more scientific review then please read this.
I went on to read more by Robin Cook that included, amongst others, more from the Jack Stapleton series, such as Contagion, Vector. I liked some of his books more than others, and these ended up being the ones in which medical research was involved. I couldn’t get enough of it. I started watching more documentaries. Something in me recombined and a new gene was being primed for expression. We didn’t have internet at home back then for me to learn more than what I could gather from The World Book encyclopaedia. This was 1998.
The next year I started high school and we were formally introduced to Biotechnology. Nurture influenced nature, as it always does. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a biotechnologist, a genetic engineer, a medical researcher.
This is not a book review. I could never review Chromosome 6 objectively. I don’t know if the ‘writing’ is any good or even now – after a Bachelor in Biology and Chemisty, an Advanced Diploma in Genetic Engineering, a Master in Human Genetics and a PhD in Cancer Biology – if I would not be able to tell you what is ‘technically’ wrong in Chromosome 6. To me, it is personal and it is perfect. It ignited a passion that has not slept for 15 years and one that still refuses to even lie down.
Now that I am asked to give thanks to someone who has helped without ever realising it: Thank you Dr. Cook for giving me a reason to wake up every morning. Equally important – I would like to thank Bhavana/Bhavna for being kind enough to lend me her book and trusting me to return it. God knows I have troubles doing the same! I don’t know where you are and how you are doing. You may never read this but I really wanted to let the world know that without your kindness I would have probably become a bad lawyer. And we don’t need any more of those!
Photo of Dr. Robin Cook courtesy robincook.com