In the process of winding tape back, I was also reminiscing about how I got into JIPMER. Paraphrasing in the words of recently deceased VS Naipaul, “there’s no landscape as interesting and intriguing as the landscape of our memories.”
All my early education was in Tamil at the Ramakrishna Mission School, Chennai. We had some exceptional teachers, most notable among them Sri TS Ranganathan, who taught us English and Science. He was also an amazing tennis player with a booming service. Clad in his panchakacham - five yards of dhoti tucked in five places - he had a dominating presence on the court. It was always a demanding and humbling experience to face him on the other side of the court.
Having completed SSLC, I had two months of a breather. The practice in those days was to ensure that boys learnt typewriting and short hand, to prepare them for a career at least as a clerk if nothing else worked out. Every day in the typing institute I sat in front of an ageing typewriter and monotonously typed the lessons, starting from asdfgf;lkjhj! Somehow I passed the lower grade typewriting exam.
The next task was to prepare for further studies in college where English would be the medium. It can be a daunting task for a person who had spent all his formative years learning in his mother tongue. Fortunately, the British Council started a program called the Bridge Course to prepare students who had studied in their mother tongue to switch over to English as a medium of instruction. It was a wonderful experience. We were exposed to the nuances of the language in all its forms.
Exposure to English opened up an entirely new vista of exploration. I started devouring English books and novels, often finishing a book a day. This was also made easy through daily expeditions to the Eswari Lending Library on the bicycle. Awash with books, it had a lovely feel. The owner ( I forget his name), used to silently hand me yet another stack of books when I returned the previous pile. Accompanying my mother to the Connemara Public Library was yet another enriching experience.
Between learning typing and losing myself in the new found love of the English language, I also spent time discovering the beauty of Batik painting under the tutelage of the famed artist Krishnamurthi. I spent countless hours, often extending late into the night, testing my prowess in the new medium. Krishnamurthy introduced me not just to painting but also to the enchanting world of aesthetics.
The SSLC results came in and having done well, I got into Loyola College. Among all the subjects, I fell in love with physics, thanks to a wonderful teacher, CC Ouseph, who also authored the text book which we studied. I made it to the principal’s merit list in physics in the first term thanks to his inspiring inputs. I also got interested in the innards of biological processes through dissecting slimy frogs and delicate cockroaches. Altogether, it was a fun filled period of learning. With the stimulating ambiance and efforts of great teachers, I secured distinction in all the subjects in the final exams.
Now it was time to plan the next move. Hailing from a family of doctors (my grandfather and grand uncle were doctors), the choice was made clear. I applied for admission to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu and patiently awaited the call for the interview. When the call came, I gingerly walked into a big room full of stern looking people. I sat nervously on the chair. The imposing man in the center asked me in a booming voice, “What is your caste?” I murmured the answer in reply, looking forward to the next question. There was none. They asked me to leave. I wondered what the purpose of the question was and the mystery was revealed shortly after: I was not among the selected candidates, in spite of scoring impressively in the qualifying exam.
It was a traumatic experience in many ways. A sense of exclusion, not entirely of my making had a demoralizing impact on me. Needless to say, this must have been an unnerving experience for many in the past who have faced discrimination based on man-made separations systematized by social institutions.
While I was ruing this unanticipated setback, a small envelope landed at home one day. It was from JIPMER, informing me to take the entrance examination at Pondicherry. The letter carried a ray of hope. I made the journey to Pondicherry, travelling alone for the first time out of Chennai on my own. I stayed with a relative of ours and to my pleasant surprise found V who was also taking the exam at this place. On the exam day, there were hordes of students and anxious parents thronging the school where it took place. The examination itself was a smooth process and I didn’t find it tough. As I made my way back to Chennai, I was wondering whether I would be able to make it among the several thousands who took the exam.
Several weeks later another envelope arrived from JIPMER. I opened it tentatively, preparing myself for the worst and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a call for an interview. The letter also specified that I would have to pay the fees on the same day that the results were announced. Taking cognizance of the fact that arranging money at a short notice would be a daunting task for my parents, I told them that since Pondicherry wasn’t too far, I would make a trip immediately once I was selected and take the money back to pay the fees.
On the interview day, all of us waited patiently in a room adjacent to where the interview was taking place. Anxious students were brushing up their knowledge with books with restless parents hovering around them. But among them all was M who was sitting quietly reading Adventures of Father Brown by GK Chesterton. Occasionally his face would burst into a repressed guffaw and a tentative chuckle. I envied his calm and cool demeanor in a sea of apprehension.
Worried parents stationed themselves outside the interview room, asking the students who finished their interviews as to what questions were being asked and rushing back to their wards to brief them. It was my turn. I walked into the room and strangely I felt calm. Once I sat down, an impressive looking elderly man asked me the customary question “Young man, why do you want to study medicine?” I said without much thinking “I want to study medicine because I love literature”. I cursed myself was saying something that was not too appropriate. To my great relief the elderly man asked me as to what was common between medicine and literature. This drew me into a discussion on physicians who were also writers and how literature can sensitize the physician to understand patients’ experiences in distress and disease. I must have talked non-stop for five minutes on this! But the next question surprised me further “What is your view on the cultural revolution in China?”, which again resulted in a long reply from me. Fifteen minutes had passed by now. The interviewers looked at each other and finally one of them asked me, “Young man, where would you go if you have to stitch a fine suit?” Without batting an eyelid I said ‘Hong Kong’. And that was the end of the interview. It was much later that I came to know that the elderly gentleman who asked me about the relationship between medicine and literature was none other than VK Gokak, President of Sahitya Academy and recipient of Jnanapith Award!
When I emerged from the room, people crowded around me enquiring as to what kind of questions were asked. As I briefed them, I could sense their incredulity and barely concealed sympathy that I stood little chance of making it since no question on the subjects had been asked of me,. Nevertheless I personally felt a sense of relief and went to the town and took a walk on the beach. I came back around 5PM to JIPMER and the results were up on the board already. To my great surprise and joy I found my name among them.
The next task was to pay the required fees. I walked up to the cashier and informed him that I had been selected and that I would rush back to Chennai and bring the fees next morning. Looking at me sternly, the cashier told me “Is it not mentioned in your interview letter that you have to pay the fees immediately after your selection, as otherwise you will lose your seat?” I tried desperately to convince him, but to no avail. While this conversation was on, a man with an imposing mustache was in the next counter, drawing his pay. He walked up to the cashier and told him that he would pay the fees. I was moved to tears by his spontaneous gesture and told him that I would return his money the next day. He put his arm around me and said “You will be here for the next five years, that’s a long time to pay me back, don’t worry”.
My entry into JIPMER was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. A random act of kindness from a stranger ensured my passage into the healing profession. To this day I cherish that moment and it has had an enduring impact on me, especially in my profession of tending to minds in distress.
In the words of Dalai Lama, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness”.
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