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Every change in geography changed my destiny: National Humanities Medal winner Abraham Verghese

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Obama confers the nation’s highest honor in the humanities on the Indian American physician and author.

Obama confering the nation’s highest honor in the humanities on Dr. Abraham Verghese at the White House on September 22.
Obama confering the nation’s highest honor in the humanities on Dr. Abraham Verghese at the White House on September 22.

WASHINGTON, DC  – President Obama awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal to Dr. Abraham Verghese, a brilliant physician, professor and author of Indian origin, in the presence of some 240 guests who packed the East Room of the White House September 22.

Dr. Verghese is based in Palo Alto, California, and currently serves as a Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School. A prolific writer, he has many books to his credit including My Own Country, Cutting for Stone and The Tennis Partner.

At the White House ceremony, President Obama awarded 24 distinguished recipients with either the 2015 National Humanities Medal or the National Medal of Arts. “We are here today to honor the very best of their fields, creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft”, he told the gathering.

Dr. Verghese was among 12 recipients who was conferred with the nation’s highest honor in the humanities. A military aide read the citation conveying the medal is being awarded to “Abraham Verghese for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama”.

In an interview following the ceremony, Dr. Verghese told us, “I’m excited. I think I was reflecting on the length of my journey — my parents left the south of India (Kerala) and migrated to Ethiopia” in the 1950s where they served as teachers. “I was born in Ethiopia and I made a second migration coming all the way here. I had most of my medical education in India. I truly feel that I have one foot in Africa, one foot in India, and a third foot in America. Every change in geography changed my destiny and here I am. It feels this was a culmination of it”, he said, about receiving the award.

“That’s the beautiful thing about America that someone with all these geographies can be welcomed and celebrated”, he added.

Asked what makes his work so inspiring both to himself as well as to others, he said: “We write in order to understand what we’re thinking. Writing for me is the way I make sense of the world. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, we are trying to find meaning. That’s what I’m doing”.

About his profession, he said: “Being a physician is a great privilege. We’re really close to the human drama. We are allowed a front seat; we are allowed to change it sometimes. It is inherently full of story. It has been very nice to use that privileged position to write about the joys of medicine. Hopefully, inspire a generation of young people to want to go into medicine for all the best reasons”.

Dr. Verghese said that he is working on a new novel tentatively called The Maramon Convention. “I’m about a year away” from the publication date, he said. “So, I’m excited about it”.

Set in Kerala, in the 1940s and 50s, the author revealed, “It has got a lot of medical themes to it. What is medicine but life plus-plus. So, I don’t feel shy writing about medicine”, he said.

It was interesting to discover that the title of his upcoming novel draws its name from a religious convention in south India — “an old, revivalist Christian meeting that began in 1890″, Dr. Verghese explained.

“We are from that old Christian community which believes that Saint Thomas landed in the south of India”, he said. “I think that story is a wonderful story to tell about that community and all their diverse influences — Christian, but also Hindu influences”.

Dr. Verghese is the second Indian-origin author to be conferred with the National Humanities Medal. Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri was duly recognized with this top US award.

Among other luminaries awarded the 2015 National Humanities Medal were: chef and entrepreneur Jose Andres of Bethesda, Maryland; authors James McBride, Louis Menand, Ron Chernow and Rudolfo Anaya; poet Louise Gluck; radio host and producer Terry Gross; journalist Isabel Wilkerson; musician Wynton Marsalis; historian Elaine Pagels; and the Prison University Project, Higher Education Program.

The National Medal of Arts recipients included: actors Mel Brooks and Morgan Freeman; actress Audra McDonald; director and playwright Moises Kaufman and Luis Valdez; composer Philip Glass; songwriter Berry Gordy; musician Santiago Jimenez, Jr.; dancer and choreographer Ralph Lemon; painter Jack Whitten; author Sandra Cisneros. and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

Lauding the honorees, President Obama said, “Today’s recipients of the National Medals of the Arts and the Humanities are poets, musicians, artists, journalists, professors, historians, and at least one chef. Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that’s what makes them great. They take their piece of this big, bold, diverse, energetic country, they reshape it, and then they share it with us. They open our experience to theirs, and for that, we honor them here today”.

Emphasizing the importance of the arts and the humanities, he told the gathering, “Throughout my time here, Michelle and I have tried to make it a priority to promote the arts and the humanities, especially for our young people, and it’s because we believe that the arts and the humanities are, in many ways, reflective of our national soul. They’re central to who we are as Americans – dreamers and storytellers, and innovators and visionaries. They’re what helps us make sense of the past, the good and the bad. They’re how we chart a course for the future while leaving something of ourselves for the next generation to learn from”, he said.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were established by Congress in 1965 as independent agencies of the federal government. The NEH brings the best in humanities research, public programs, education, and preservation projects to the American people. To date, NEH has awarded five billion dollars in grants to build the nation’s cultural capital and to advance an understanding and appreciation of history, literature, philosophy, and language.

The NEA has awarded over five billion dollars to support artistic excellence, creativity and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities.

Both Endowments are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year.

In a press interaction following the White House ceremony, Dr. Verghese expressed concern about the future of the arts and humanities which, he believed, “are somewhat in jeopardy. There is a sense that humanities don’t matter as much. I think we are in a very delicate moment in time”, he said.

A reporter asked him if the prospects of the arts and humanities would be bleaker in the event of a Trump presidency. “I probably shouldn’t touch that”, he replied, diplomatically.