My dead friend walked into the classroom: The Arundhati Collections – 3

My dead friend walked into the classroom Loading

Introduction: Aru had sent this story to one of her friends. This story is loosely based on the experience of Aru’s maternal grandmother who was her role model. Aru’s grandmother was one of the first Hindu girls in Goa to do medicine in the oldest medical college in Asia: Goa Medical College. She was Aru’s inspiration, in more ways than one.

This is the introduction she wrote to her friend and quote:

“I wrote this story about a year ago. It’s getting hazy in my mind. I have tried to keep it the same as it was when I first wrote it. We have an intra college fest every year back in Tamaka, Kolar, land of stubborn cattle and rotten tomatoes! A prose – poetry competition is one of the events so I participated in it (Duh!!) and surprised myself by winning. I really liked the topic they had given us for prose: MY DEAD FRIEND WALKED INTO THE CLASSROOM. It was one of many topics actually, but the instant I saw this one, I forgot what the others were. So, this is the story as much as I can remember.”

***

It is the first day of medical school and the first dissection class. I am sitting at my dissection table with twelve others. Thirty minutes ago, we had all trooped into the dissection hall. The professors were waiting for us. “Thirteen to a table. Sit”. That’s all they had told us.

We had split ourselves according to our roll numbers, dragged a stool each to the table and sat, and waited. The professors sat at one end of the hall, looking at us, savouring our discomfort. To while away the time, I did what everybody around me was doing. I looked around the hall. How was I even going to start? I had never come across anything as voluminous or deep as medicine. Anatomy was a fathomless ocean, and I felt as though I would drown in it, and never reach the shore. Hush, I reasoned with myself, everyone is in the same boat.

At this point, I hear an instruction from the teacher. Two attendees hurry forward, and, one by one, start removing the sheets of cadavers. The senior professor speaks. “Welcome to dissection. I shall let you sit for an hour today, but from now onwards, I do not want to see anyone sitting during dissection. You must stand before the cadaver. This hall is a temple, and the cadaver is a God. Girls will please tuck their hair into their lab coats. No rings, no watches, no bangles. Your dissection manual, scalpel, forceps, probe and magnifying glass must be brought to ever class. Anybody chewing gum, eating, laughing, or joking in front of the cadaver will be asked to walk out of the hall and you need not bother coming back. I shall repeat this, treat the cadaver assigned to you with respect. This is the only place where you will find the dead teaching the living”.

SILENCE

“You may turn to page 15 and start dissection.”

I think about what he said. I know very few people decide to donate their bodies. Most of the cadavers are very poor people with no relatives who could claim their bodies or they are people who died in prison. I looked at the rubber sheet and wondered, male or female? Poor person? Convict? What kind of a life did he/she have?

The attender moves forward and removes the rubber sheet in a sweep. My eyes settle on the shrunken face.

And instantly, my head spins. My eyes are blurring and a heavy buzzing fills my ears as I try to make sense of what I have seen. Suddenly, it is very cold. Then I’m half aware of shouts and I feel some support behind me…somehow I find myself staring at the ceiling…the white light in my eyes is blinding me…rushing footsteps, water trickling between my lips…murmurs”just nerves”..

“Do you know if she ate lunch?”…”happens often”…”just nerves”….nerves, nerves..

It’s her!

I’m propped on a stool and asked to rest for a while. Out of the corner of my eyes I see my classmates..probably wondering how weak I am …they don’t know..how can they?

It’s her!

I don;t know how old I was when I first saw her. All I know is I’d been seeing her face for as long as I can remember. Vimalamaushi is what I used to call her, though she was old enough to be my grandmother. She would come to our locality to sell lemons. That was what she did a living. In a tattered saree and worn out Paragon chappals, with the smell of lemons and mustard clinging to her. Pale skin, tranquil eyes. A lilting old-woman voice, and a laugh like a hens cackle. I never thought of her as a stranger in our house. Her face was as old as the sun and the stars. She had seen my mother grown up and now me. I adored her when I was younger simply because she seemed too busy to listen to my idle child’s prater unlink the other grown ups.

In those days, my ambition used to change faster than a chameleon’s colours. And I made sure she knew everyone of them – teacher, carpenter, princess, architect, milkmaid, lawyer, balloon seller, gardener, fairy, tooth fairy, monkey trainer, dhobi woman, lemon seller.

And not once did she discourage me. At the more absurd ones she merely chuckled as she listened to my enthusiastic ramblings and at the reasonably sane ones, she showed a genuine interest. At the end of such conversations, she’d say, “Be whatever you want to be, little one”.

So, it came as a surprise to me when I was nine years old and had announced my intention of becoming a doctor, she said after a few minutes of complete silence,”I think that is a very good idea, little one, I think that is what you should become”.

“Really?”, I asked, all wide-eyed. She had always been supportive but it was usually coupled with amusement. She had never backed my whims so seriously before.

“Yes”.

“Why?”, I asked.

“Because it’s the greatest of all”, she stated with simplicity.

“Why?”, inquired the ever curious me.

“Because you can save a life, child!”

“Whose?”

She gave a wry smile and huffed.

“Milkmaids, and dhobi women, and monkey trainers, and tooth fairies…and lemon sellers.”

I giggled.

She continued “Anybody’s life. You can help so many people..men, women, little children.”

“I like playing with little children. Maybe I can become a children’s doctor.”

“I like playing with little children. Maybe I can become a children’s doctor.”

A spasm of something passed her face. Then it was replaced by a smile.

And suddenly, I was struck by a thought. “Do you have children, maushi?”

There it was again. A stamp of ache that rippled across her features.

“No”.

“How come?” Looking back, I could have just kicked my nine-year-old self hard on the backside.

“I had a little girl once…a long time ago.”

“What happened?”, my mind was catching up now.

“She died. She had been very sick and I couldn’t ger her help in time.”

“Maushi…”

She quickly bent down to retrieve her basket of lemons. I saw her wipe her eyes with the corner of her saree.

“I should be going. Tell your mamma that I’ll come the day after tomorrow.”

“Okay…um..Maushi..?”

“Hmmm…”

“If I become a doctor, will you help me study?”

She looked at me, carefully and said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you, little one.”

“Really?”

“Yes…”

She had kept her promise.

I hadn’t seen Vimalamaushi in eight years. When I was ten, we had shifted houses. The last time I met her to say goodbye, I said, “Don’t forget me.”

She laughed and said, “You are not going to be the one who is forgotten.” I had missed her a lot during the initial years after shifting.

But I hadn’t thought about her for some time now.

To see her suddenly…and like this!

How did she die? When did she die? Was her body sent here, or did she herself donate it?

And how, how, could I possibly run a scalpel through Vimalamaushi’s body?

I pressed a shaking hand to my forehead. I can’t do this, I thought to myself.

“Ah yes, you can”, another small determined fraction of me said to myself. “You have to”.

This was not a coincidence. It was a sign. God wanted to help me. He’d sent my old friend to help me.

“I will do whatever I can to help.”

Yes, she was here. She had kept her promise. She had come to help me so that I could help other people.

I looked at her on the table. My teacher…my friend.

The others were standing around, holding instruments, but not touching. And I suddenly knew what I had to do.

I took a deep breath, walked to the table and instinctively grasped her hand in mine. I read the dissection instructions and picked up my scalpel with hands that did not shake. There were murmurs and whispers coming from my table mates, but I didn’t listen.

I just looked at my dead friend. “Do it!”, her voice seemed to call from across space.

I drew the scalpel and made the first incision across her body.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Arundhati Foundation is a private, non-profit foundation started by Dr Shubhangi Sanjay Tambwekar and Mr Sanjay Achyut Tambwekar in the memory of their daughter Dr. Arundhati Sanjay Tambwekar who passed away in a gruesome road-traffic accident in Vellore on the morning of the 9th September 2014. Arundhati was on the way to CMC Vellore where she was Post Graduate Registrar pursuing her Diploma in Clinical Pathology. She was riding pillion wearing a helmet. Vellore roads are extremely bad and possibly this is the main factor which took away the life of a brilliant, talented, hard-working girl and a gem of a human being.

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