The dark cool corridor stretched out in front of us as we filed along. Nervous hands stuck deep in pockets warm, excited hands reaching out felt unfamiliar walls, forced hands listlessly hung. One hundred and fifty of us, strangers scuffled on, into the depths of the Anatomy Department, the year was 2007. We smelt them first, scrunching our noses hurriedly, tears stinging the corners of our eyes, as the dead, the preserved dead announced themselves. Sniffing we entered the Dissection Hall, eleven bodies lay bare, stripped on cold metal tables beckoning. Formalin hung in the air, stifling us as we explored our morbid settings.
“Good Morning…”, the voice exclaimed with finality silencing our sniggers and whispers.
“I am Dr Vidya, welcome to the Dissection Hall, this will be your home for the next year. Daily between 11 and 1 you will be here, studying the human body. Now remember, these bodies are not playthings, people have donated their bodies so you can become doctors. Respect them, no jokes will be tolerated.” She paused, breathing deeply surveying us as we regarded her. No nonsense is the best word to describe her. Her sharp nose, tired eyes and angled cheekbones formed a face not to be trifled with.
“Okay, now divide yourselves by roll number, 12 people per table. Quickly. Silence.” She barked orders at us as we shuffled together our new roll numbers fresh in our heads. I moved to Table 12, roll numbers 132 to 144. Our table alone lay bare, corpse less, lying in wait of its resident. Next to us on Table 11, a huddle of 12 swarmed the stiff form of a fifty something female. Sniggers, hushed giggles rose as we came to terms with nudity. Hundreds of jokes, from childish giggles at the word ‘Pen’, to the teenage ‘cussing is cool’ phase and thousands of innuendo and double meaning jokes were muted in minutes. The dead don’t get humour, there is no riposte.
We stared at each other in the absence of a body, meeting different worlds as we moved around the table. I looked across, faces from Mandya, Delhi, Gulbarga, Warangal, Bangalore stared back.
“Two of you, yes you, come here” Dr Vidya beckoned, me and the face from Mandya.
“Go to the back, help them get the body from the tank.”
Excitement leapt into my eyes, ‘Get the body from the tank’, was a phrase from Mafia movies, not a request in medical school. I strode to the far end of the hall, where an impatient tall man his hands outstretched cloaked in weathered gardening gloves held out two disposable white powdery gloves. Our fingers stretching out latex gloves we walked in behind him, the eyes of the class momentarily on us. An even darker, damper small room lay in front of us, the stench was unbearable here. Acidic notes of formalin wreaked havoc on our green nostrils.
“Banni” he grunted, gesturing past a large cement tank. Peering over the low wall, I saw a murky lake of chemicals in which floated two arms and a leg. Swollen, pale masses of meat they floated askew, meeting skin they had never known. Soles touching scapula, shoulders nudging knees, heels feeling ears. I forced myself back, past the tank to the open sunlight behind the hall.
The scene without belies description. Sunlight chequered through the trees, crinkling my eyes, dried leaves scrunched noisily under my shoes as I walked out under the shade of two large trees. A startled koel flew chuckling harshly between the leaves. Facing up, eye sockets empty to the bending branches of the trees, watching the leaves swish under the drifting clouds lay a corpse on a cement slab. People say the dead look peaceful, the embalmed do not; they look dead, still in a world moving past them, they look inanimate. On the cement slab, more alive than him, he lay.
“Hmm…” gestured the tall man, we were to soon nickname Nithari.
We lugged the body off the slab and onto a waiting steel table. His weight strained against my thin arms as I struggled, heaving him lopsided on the table. Pulling him straight with ease and practice, Nithari wheeled him off, away from his garden of peace, away from the tranquil sunlight into the damp smelly Dissection Hall to the waiting students of Table 12. I followed muted, I would never be able to laugh at nudity again.
I stood amidst the huddle, peering over those closer to the body. His hair matted, clumped poked out from his head, his eye sockets empty holes, stared up at the high ceiling of the hall.
“Don’t touch the body. Take out your Cunningham’s. You have them, right?” Dr Vidya’s clear voice cut through our daze. We dug the green book out of our shapeless bags.
“From tomorrow, leave your bags outside in the corridor, bring only your books and dissection box inside.” She continued as we opened our first medical books.
“For the next week, you will not touch the body or dissect, first read the first four chapters of Cunningham’s and then we’ll start.” She finished and walked out leaving us in hushed groups of twelve, sniffing noses, teary eyed staring down at the muted thirteenth member of our tables.
The human mind is limitless in its adaptive capacity. Within minutes of our mentor’s departure we drifted from table to table excitedly, hushed whispers smirking, giggling at the bare human form.
“She looks so funny…”
“I dare you to touch it…”
“What’ll you give me?”
“Coffee at Nescafe…”
“Oh, it’s so ewww…”
Voices new to being unsupervised rose in confidence and volume, talking across tables, across bodies. Bonds forged over dead bodies last; suddenly where we were from, our backgrounds didn’t matter; only our experiences now forth did. All Judases at our own Last suppers we spoke, met and laughed the hours away. Cunninghams forgotten lay next to bodies, silent conversations between sculpture and anatomist.
At quarter to one, Dr Vidya returned, a scared silence falling over us. “Ok, tomorrow come with Cunningham and dissection boxes.” She said and walked out anticlimactically. We filed out in a noisy jumble, some friends for five years, some for life. The bodies alone lay in quiet conversation, friends in death.