Language is alphabet in disorder – Gertrude Stein
It was the smell of death …
To be precise; it was the smell of wanting to preserve death …Unbearable stench ….pervaded the air. Eleven aluminum tables stood in that hall each contained a cadaver. The cadavers were dead for a while; they were taken out of formalin tank. Rigor mortis had gone on and they were all stiff, skin was blackened …but when I did go near them, they appeared like real people who were dead. I tried not to close my nose. Though the cadavers may not be offended, it would appear inappropriate…. Death must mean more than just the smell of flesh not allowed to rot …
I looked out of the large French windows of the hall. There were lush green trees, a bird on one of the branches, blue sky with white cotton clouds strewn around …..it looked unreal like a post card from a foreign country I had not seen.
Eleven dead bodies waiting to be dissected seemed more real than the silent life surrounding it.
They were all naked, covered in transparent plastic sheets. The hall felt cold like inside a cemetery. I felt like a prop in a diorama, rendered lifeless by a taxidermist and every dead or living being was just a caricature …..Not real…. I was uncomfortable with the nudity, especially around the two female bodies in the hall. I looked away from the pubic areas of the dead, I moved away from them, avoiding eye contact with other students in the hall. Many of these bodies belonged to those not claimed by any living person.
To be dissected by medical students aspiring to learn human anatomy was not their agenda before death. I was clad in my brand new apron, fiddling with brand new dissection blades safely in a dark red velvet case. My brand new classmates were speaking in hushed voices; I lacked the confidence to whisper small talk. I preferred to have attended the funerals ……All the eleven cadavers were once living human beings , brushing their teeth , washing their hair ,wearing their clothes , feeling ashamed if anyone saw their genitals. Yet, now they were here ….bodies without a feeling.
When I had seen funeral processions of a dead body on the streets with a music band in tow, I used to get irritable, as if the dead man can appreciate this circus? Why can’t they silently cremate the body? The pyramids of Egypt awaiting the resurrection of the mummies or a tomb like Taj Mahal, a stony poem or an awesome obituary …..Were acts of love towards the dead….What if those left behind did not remember …? I thought of the obituaries column with a sort of respect now….carrying the names of those left behind…
……. There were no cries here….No lover feeling possessive of this nudity… No child attached to the last shirt on his father’s body, smoothing the wrinkles…… I looked in to the eyes of a guy, a class mate with huge eyes … one dead body between us on the table…he seemed affected by my presence ….he was idly curious about the dead body … he feigned an academic interest by quickly looking at the Cunningham manual, when our eyes met….I may have looked deeply inappropriately sad…..as though I knew the dead person lying on the table.
A middle aged man entered the hall. He beamed importantly, “Good day students. I am Doctor Prakash I will supervise the anatomy practical of dissection of upper limbs and thorax… First of all, you must respect the human body, I will not tolerate anyone holding their noses…Respect is the key word. Hundred students for eleven bodies….not a bad ratio …one cricket team for the entire nation …ha ha “he was quite impressed by his own joke. He seemed to have grown up in this hall, on this smell, he seemed to thrive on it .As an afterthought he roared “Respect “….Just that one word made him feel powerful. He started to call out register numbers dividing us in groups of ten, leading each group to one table. After calling out my register number he chuckled. “Bad luck “
I frowned, luck had nothing to do with dissection .He did understand that I did not get his joke, he explained “Female bodies have more adipose tissue, they stink more “I felt myself blush, as though he had alleged me of stinking…. This was his idea of respect …? The feminist consciousness of mine whimpered, I fiddled with the buttons of my apron as if some completely feminine body part of mine was a colossal waste and just adipose tissue…. I thought of Simone De Beauvoir, she would not have been polite to Dr.Prakash‘s facts about the second sex.
The corpse on the table was that of a middle aged woman … the coarse features suggested a hard life, the soles of her feet had cracked heels , her nails had chipped polish , …She had a metal ring around her finger , perhaps due to the rigor mortis they could not remove it. Was that a gift from some unfaithful lover? Her breasts had a moderate size; there was a bruise on her shoulder. I tried to imagine a little mouth suckling and then growing up and leaving her …..May be she had no children. Would she have loved someone in her life? Her face was serene; she probably did not know that she was going to die….and die all alone. There were some flower designs tattooed on her forearms and a blue dot on her chin …..She definitely had a family in childhood ….I tried to imagine a child with her features…
The smell continued to nauseate me…..I remembered reading that olfactory cortex in the brain was the ancient part of the brain, alongside limbic cortex where all emotions did circuit ….photograph of my mother did not have her safe smell ….any man using my father’s after shave may get my instant trust…..I was beginning to feel home sick or sea sick on a ship with eleven cadavers…..
There was a short boy with thick bifocal lens in my group “Hi, guys, I am Vishesh from MES college, I had an aggregate of 99.99%, I scored the first rank in the Common Entrance Test” He said all of it in one breath, expecting applause. I thought of the Olympics gold medal winner from Japan who was not told that her mother was dying of cancer so as to facilitate her concentration, he seemed to have suffered to get here, he sounded like a stoic…..He did take the silence in his stride “The first lesson will be the dissection of the hand, I have been told, I have read most of it …It has the largest representation in the cerebral cortex. I can start the dissection if you guys permit me”. A girl with an oily plait and some marks of blessings on her forehead from several powerful Gods raised her voice “I had 100% in Biology, that is the highest for the state, I have a brother in final year, you are right. Dissection of the hand is the first class; I am familiar with the instruments of dissection also. Are you?”A tall boy stammered “This body has to be shared by all of us. Just the two of you dissecting the hand is not how it is supposed to be. In anatomy practical and viva voce’ we will be examined for our knowledge too.” The race had begun …Everyone wanted to cut up this woman, with her shriveled breasts, closed eyes and an outstretched hand with that unfaithful ring….
I shifted weight from my right leg to the left; I felt an ache in the arch of my feet. Perhaps my classmates were immortal angels, they flew over the issue of death, oblivious and blithe .The boy with huge eyes looked amused like audience in a wrestling contest. He saw that I was stupefied. He stared at my hand placed on the back rest of a chair, plucking at the nylon threads. I withdrew my fingers in to a fist. “Come on, name the bones of the wrist, you need to know the skeleton” The girl challenged the short boy. Perhaps this was Eve asking Adam to count his ribs….Hearing was not adjourned. Though I hoped it would be….
I stared at my small wrist wearing a new watch from Titan with a moon dial. The studious owl looked at her sullen. Now she seemed to be in charge. “There is a mnemonic -She Looks Too Pretty Try to Catch her’, Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate and Hamate …..So easy …my brother taught me “The group was a bit subdued.
I looked at the broken heart line on the palm of the dead woman , Cheiro ‘s book of palmistry was familiar to me…..I was still trying to predict if ever I will fall in love and have children . At the bottom of my little finger ,on the mount of mercury , there were thin slanting lines and Cheiro called them “ medical / healing stigmata “ …I was reassured that I could heal someone in pain….. I wanted to predict the life ahead of me and this girl had actually sat and memorized the names of bones of the wrist. Suddenly I had a doubt, may be Cheiro was wrong ….. Maybe I was a wrong candidate for this course. I was not as unprepared for death as prince Siddhartha nor was responsible for any death like Ashoka the great ….yet I was not sure if I could skin this woman , layer by layer …..Like messing up with a doll, with which I was not interested to play …..
That was when a tall fair girl in a long skirt and painted lips came in, accompanied by a clerk; she brought in a faint fragrance of a perfume with her. Dr.Prakash spoke to her and she opened a book, it looked similar to Bible, she read from the book, haltingly. Her eyes were unsure, though her stance was ready for a battle…..She was a foreigner; she joined in the last group. Dr. Prakash removed all the instruments of dissection and brandished them like an experienced soldier with hunting knives, explaining the techniques. The oily plait was eager to show off her knowledge. I continued to stare at the crevices of the corpse, her half opened mouth. She had a vaccination scar on her thigh; it was shaped like a kidney. So she definitely had a mother as a child, I felt a bit placated by that scar … I wished to be told her name at least. Whom can I ask that I pondered…..?
The class was over, no dissection happened that day. As we moved out of the class, I once again met the glance of the boy with big eyes. I felt uncomfortable; if ever I felt a stare, I should not look in that direction….he may get some stupid ideas about me. In the same direction of his gaze was the foreigner girl. I smiled at her. She seemed hugely relieved, eagerly walked towards me with an outstretched hand. ‘’ Hi, I am Nasrin Ataei from Iran, I am from the capital of Tehran” Her English sounded like an exotic dialect.
I asked her where she was put up, was she in the hostel? I was a day scholar. She apologized and opened the book that looked like a Bible again; she read it from the end, right end of a line backwards to the left. It was Persian -English dictionary. I liked the fact that their written world was in opposite direction, so would it make English less or more confusing? So, nothing was universally correct, I felt relaxed that there were no absolutes. She was a paying guest in a house close to mine. She had to pass the test of English as a foreign language in one month, and then she could understand the lectures. I nodded. I asked her casually if she liked the class. She shook her head sideways, “Nah, very bad, everyone talking about cutting “…Perhaps because of the paucity of words, her expression was intense.
She felt exactly like I did, I could tell that. I am not sure why, but my eyes felt moist. She noticed, she could have ignored it, like we often do in our civil society …..But she was upset …she held my hands in hers chanting “No ….no” quickly turning the pages of her dictionary searching for a word, she gave up frustrated. The dictionary could not translate her feelings ….She was slightly older than me, I could see …..Or maybe it was her make-up ….she said in a grave voice, “You, me we are living … …No?” I thought it was profound, yet it was precarious, and death was so completely final ….I pressed her soft hands. I guess the friendship between two persons cannot be measured by the number of words exchanged or the amount of time they have known each other.
Our seniors wanted to rag us whatever that meant….I don’t know what they did to the guys…Perhaps that word like viral fever was non-specific. Sometimes it could get fulminating, vicious …almost a killer disease, or it could be as simple as a common cold. Our seniors looked studious, awkward they assumed a fake bravado when they looked at us, sizing up who is hot, the regular boy meets girl routine. Some girls bonded with each other when they were picked on by the guys , learning to flee in a flock or hiding in some corners of the college building together and playing silly games….like during a power cut , in the absence of light people feeling the other ….touching to see if there is someone with a palpitating pulse….
I did not mind chatting with strangers asking me stupid questions like who is in your heart or proposing to some arbitrary guy who was too shy to even meet my gaze. Nasrin was picked on the first day; they thought because of her attire, she was interesting. I was with her, I asked her not to display the holy dictionary and to say helplessly “Persian“ Nasrin , quickly caught on to the game, most seniors heard “Persian “ to every question……I cheered heartily…..They finally nicknamed her as the Unidentified Perfumed Object (UPO) and had their last laugh…..
I think it was when she was trying to write the time table carefully by drawing a square and struggling with the spellings of Anatomy, Hematology, physiology …I moved next to her and wrote it for her…..she was effusive in her body language of gratitude ….somehow I was comfortable with her wordless articulation. We did become friends, she visited my family, stayed in our house and we did learn and mugged up the names of all the bones for Osteology tests.
The domestic help in our house discovered the skull and bones in my cupboard had occasionally feared me as though I was a witch! I enjoyed scaring her saying that the skull did come alive on no moon day and told me his life and we were friends!
Nasrin was a quick learner and surprised me with her newly acquired vocabulary and honesty of expressions. She read out Omar Khayyam, translating it to English making me cry …..She would often say, you need a sternum to love! A huge sternum ….! I would tell her how during the Second World War soldiers fell in love with refugees who did not know their language and married the girls. But after their wives learnt the language, divorces increased! She would laugh saying that she would never divorce me! There was an impending war between Iraq and Iran at that time. Nasrin had a younger brother who was only fourteen years old but would be forced to go to war if he remained in Iran. So, her parents decided to send him to India for studies so that when he attains sixteen years and be called to participate in the war he would be away.
In the same academic year we were also expected to dissect the heart out of a live frog and record the beats on a revolving drum, with a pointer attached to the innervated heart. Kindness to animals was not yet a fashion or a law. So every medical student had to cut this three chambered heart of the frog and record the heart beats for physiology practical examinations. A jumping frog was pitched to a wooden board paralyzing his spinal cord….I found it gruesome.
The tall boy was clubbed with me it was two monsters against this one hapless frog. I mused about the princess who kissed the frog and converted him in to a prince …..sigh …though I had no intentions of kissing the frog or transforming him magically ……I certainly did not want that cute valentine card model three chambered heart , one auricle and two ventricles dissected out of him…..my class mates as always were keen on mastering this technique . Open heart surgeries were being done on humans, why should this frog lose his heart …..For, Gods to learn their game?
I remained stubbornly reluctant, criticizing the boy who did it as he did not question the rules. I was observed to be inert and asked for an explanation by the head of the department who occasionally came to the labs. The professor had an inexpressive face, was definitely intimidating, and because he questioned me was given a lengthy explanation by me about ethics of dissection and the lack of necessity here. I presumed he was impressed. He probably liked a young girl who could voice her conviction. He was used to machines that obeyed him and answered what was in the text book faithfully like parrots ….suddenly once in few years there was a mind …here, it had a body ….! He noticed.
I liked the fact that he treated me as a human being and merely let it go. He did not argue with me, said that during exams I would have to lose marks, it was a risk I could take if I compensated by doing well in other hematology practical test of pricking my finger and examining the blood, he lacked the power to change the system. Was he apologizing for the system? My classmates thought I was getting away due to my audacity and I thought I was very smart….and I had saved a frog….
Nasrin’s brother did not resort to the dictionary, he often did brilliant dumb charades, irritating Nasrin who wanted him to pass TOEFL quickly and join school. He was mischievous; I often saw that he was a little boy who neither understood war, nor the value of his father’s money that had procured his exit to India. Nasrin retold her splendid mastery of English with my help and how inadequate her brother was ….But it had no effect on Ali …. He looked tall, a racial difference of growth …..But he was a tall child. His only passion was a Bike ….His father bought him a bike within two months of his arrival to India…
I had stayed away from riding a cycle as a child, since I was squeezed in the wrong place by a cyclist before I even touched a cycle. Now, I watched Ali’s fascination with the bike, the way he washed it, literally murmured with joy when he was around it ….I asked Nasrin if I could learn to ride from him, in exchange for teaching him English. She readily agreed, she also wanted to ride the bike. She owned a car, mostly came to college driving. But car was just a mode of transport and bike was something else….
I, Nasrin and Ali started to ride the bike on Sunday afternoons; I fell down several times as I had no two wheeler balance. And Ali not knowing English often would not know to shout instructions, he merely prevented collisions with silent trees and slip to dirty ditches. I had pressed the accelerator and not the brakes and occasionally half climbed a tree…..Ali was helplessly laughing at my plight …..Nasrin cursing him in Persian….. I did get the balance one fine day and the primordial joy of locomotion was felt in my gut , the pit of my stomach felt light and empty as I rode down the long road and wished it would never end….Like coming down a giant wheel it was a childish sensation of pure bliss…..I forgot English and any other language , as I felt like a movement , like the wind……I did finally understand why boys did not feel lonely when they were riding….how possible it was to love movement ……how close to flying it was…..I felt strangely independent of the earth beneath me and Ali laughed that he had taught me to ride much before I taught him English , I felt a bit guilty as a teacher. I continued with renewed enthusiasm to teach English and Ali tried to concentrate, Nasrin would translate my lessons. And often a quarrel would erupt between them; I trying to ceasefire…there was also a question of how much money he spent, Ali would have spent most of it on the bike.
Final exams of the first year began; I and Nasrin got preoccupied with studying. She sometimes came to my house to study as she got nervous. I would study alongside her, calming her. The day before the last exam of that term we spent a long time talking in her car, she was extremely restless, I presumed it was due to the exam and tried all my tricks to get her to concentrate. Biochemistry felt simpler to me than Anatomy, more abstract hence less intrusive. She left before the sunset. The next day Nasrin was absent for the examination, I finished writing the examination, wondering what could have possibly caused her to be absent.
Those were the days of phone booth connecting places, a cordless worked for short distances. Mobile phones were not invented yet, we still had privacy and communication was difficult if someone had a broken ankle. I called the landline of her landlady ……
”Ali died in the bike accident last evening. The body is being autopsied. Nasrin is with a few Iranian friends who are helping her with the legal formalities”
It was like an announcement for fire outbreak or weather forecast for an earth quake said in a calm collected voice totally devoid of emotion like in a dream…I was not sure if I heard right or was my cochlea and auditory nerve was interpreting the signals wrongly. The landlady was mostly absent, this was a domestic helper, she seemed to be saying this not for the first time. Perhaps she had few hours and rehearsals to get used to this information. I wish I was condemned to amnesia or would wake up and make it unhappen…
I wanted to be with her, wherever she was. So ‘yesterday’ it seemed like a million years ago ……when she was struggling to focus on Biochemistry, her brother was battling with death? He did not know “English” the link between Indians, the remnant of colonialism …..How could they have informed her? It had to be traumatic brain injury , I tried not to recall the mangled remains of injured animals I had sometimes seen on the highway……..I had flashes of Ali beaming at me standing under a tree when I first got the balance of a two wheeler to my utter surprise…..I should have taught him ‘English’ …..
My eyes blurred with tears of guilt …..And professor Rao, the physiology teacher who had listened to my human rights argument for the frog with the three chambered heart……..Almost collided with me…. He looked at my eyes as usual there was no pretense between us; for him honesty was a virtue and not obedience. My eyes expressed just sheer agony. He noticed, “Can you come with me?”
I sat in front of him, trying to reconstruct yesterday with the minimum details I had gathered over the phone. He was a patient listener. In the government hospital attached to the college where I studied, autopsy was being done. He knew the professor of Forensic Medicine, I could not truly hear his conversation over the phone, I heard him say “Yes. Ali Ataei“ “Yes, very young less than 18” He looked at my blank, glazed eyes, “The body is in the autopsy room. They have finished, fracture of the skull, herniation of the brain stem, lacerated liver, long bone fractures of both femur and tibia…..it would have been difficult to save this boy even in Breach Candy Hospital, even if father sold an oil well ….most probably your friend will be there , come I will take you to the Forensic lab”
I had nothing of so called ‘will’ in my skull, I had no thoughts. I merely walked behind him like a mute animal finding it really difficult to breathe. I saw Nasrin’s friends studying in private medical college and another older Iranian man, her guardian in the city standing there. They did come to me in a rush and in the typically Iranian accent English told me that Ali had met with an accident a collision with a tempo traveler yesterday morning, he was wearing the helmet, yet his helmet was also shattered to pieces. He was taken to another government hospital and they found Nasrin’s address from the note books in his backpack. He kept calling her name and had cried out ‘Persian’ hoping to find an interpreter. He was conscious for almost six hours and Nasrin reached the hospital soon after leaving me, he died in her arms.
Professor Rao was standing next to me all the while, he ushered me in to the Forensic Lab. I was still in the first year Preclinical syllabus, because of Anatomy dissection of the cadavers I was desensitized to those cadavers in the hall; nothing had prepared me for the so called body of Ali. He was naked on the aluminum table and the skin was cut up and stitched in the middle like a rucksack.
His face looked normal, fast asleep. It probably would take me a long time to watch a child sleep without fearing him not waking up. Professor spoke to the Forensic Medicine assistant professor about the injuries and asked for the quick dispatch of the body to the relatives. He looked at me thoughtfully and left silently. He did not make any sort of speech; first few hours of grief had no language. It is sort of impossible to explain the cruelty of life, that includes death to someone younger …..much younger…….Knowing there is hope is essential when alive and somehow knowing there was little or no hope is equally essential when dealing with death or dead body of a loved one……………So , he had tried to console me with hopelessness, Though I liked him less for that. Even though it was hurting I still wanted to believe there was a place somewhere he could be revived.
Life imitated death in a morbid stony silence. I spoke to Nasrin over the phone surrounded by her Iranian friends who were weeping. She was calm; she wanted me to come to her guardian’s house where she was going to stay for the day. Next morning she was flying to Iran with the dead body of her brother to be buried in his country. When she heard that I was there in the Forensic Lab, her question was “You did not see him without his clothes. Did you?” I managed to lie “No”. She believed me. That ultra nakedness, absolute ghastly nakedness of a corpse that we both despised….His presence could not be stripped of its life…never in her mind. I was not given a choice to make an informed consent, like cattle to the slaughter house…
That evening she was in her guardian’s house, they urged her to eat, her parents called once in two hours. She kept on talking about how it could have been for him in the emergency room of the government hospital where we knew even anesthetics were in short supply. Knowing the language could have reduced the sense of alienation he felt in those hours of pain …….His broken watch showed the time of the accident as 11. 45 am ….She stared at it… We both tried to make the time go by, move on its own, without trying too hard to get through it by ourselves……. We tried to speak of things that could distance us from post mortem .I helped her pack his belongings in suit cases. One note book where I had written English sentences that he had translated to Persian to understand better, Nasrin picked up.
The last sentence was how to say I am in pain? I have fever or I am sick? I had not given the English version. I could not really remember…..She just said “You keep it” …..It was too soon to accept death; and distribute his belongings as if he had written a will ….. He was riding to go to English classes. She had learnt it with me, he had not, she did not want that book ….I could not get the image of the autopsy out of my mind. We silently packed his clothes; a piggy bank with few rupees he had saved upon her insistence ….it was a hazy night. I remember her face in the airport clad in black … When our eyes met, I recalled her way of consoling me the first day of dissection, now it was not enough, we sort of lost each other in that airport of complete good byes…..….It was not a choice, a total numbness pervaded many layers ….Since I had to walk, talk and function on the upper ground and not whimper at the bottom of a well. Presuming that love can survive muteness….One quick hug and she disappeared….
As I traveled back in a taxi home ……I saw a young man on a bike , he had that immeasurable joy of movement ….that sense of being the wind……that did not need words…..joy had no language……it had a smile…