It was a persistent itch. I scratched my cheek as I walked slowly to the Pathology lab. I hadn’t shaved for the last three days and, already, advanced stubble had appeared. My face was not used to this. I usually had a shaved, clean, and glowing countenance. Medical school was not good for me, I decided. Apparently, the androgens were responsible. The same androgens seemed to be chasing the hair away from my scalp, the Physiology tutor had said. The impending baldness was driving me crazy. Would I become like Dr Thampuran, the chief of Microbiology? At least he was tall and dignified. What would I be if my luxurious top was gone? Let me confess I was not as tall as I would have liked to be. I stayed in denial for a long time. I used to stand erect to make up for the shortness of my spine. When Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry were done with in the first year, I was relieved. But Microbiology turned out to be worse, and I had failed the recent Pharmacology exam.

‘Pharmacodynamics is what the drug does to the body, and Pharmacokinetics – what the body does to the drug.’ In my mind, I could still hear the Dr Bhagavathy’s voice delivering the lecture in a soporific monotone, at two in the afternoon. The subsequent classes did not bore me. One cannot sleep and be bored at the same time.

Walking in front of me was Meena. She was also on the way to the Path lab. She was a tall girl. How anyone could exude so much oomph through that thick lab coat was beyond me. Some would consider her too large. But, for me, she was the correct size. Her big buttocks moved gracefully. I felt the warmth shift to my loins as I watched her back. She must be a distraction to the entire male community here. Such girls should not have been allowed inside the medical school. It should have only taken small, spectacled ones.

My friends thought that my stubble was a consequence of my failure in the Pharm exam. Actually, Meena was responsible. The thick growth was a Taj Mahal erected in her honour. She had not died, obviously. But her feelings for me perhaps had. It was notoriously difficult to tell with women. That curious flutter in the pit of my stomach was love. I first had it in the fifth standard. The girl was in the ninth, I think. ‘Oxytocin release,’ the Physiology tutor would have said. Intellectual bastard.

We did not have a fight. She had grown distant slowly. I thought we were well matched in our outlook. She didn’t want to kiss; I didn’t either. I was not familiar with the correct technique. We were simply comfortable in each other’s company.

‘But she is taller than you. How do you always bump into these female giants? You have a Residual Electra Complex,’ said Surendran, the self- professed psychiatrist in our batch.

I realized we were at cross purposes when I told her that I considered Jeffrey Archer good.

‘Who is he? Oh, you mean Jeffrey Potter, the man who first synthesized quinolones?’

‘Yes, it was Potter, wasn’t it?’ I said, with some disappointment.

‘Could I borrow your Lawrence and Bennet?’

‘Who are they?’

‘What are you studying for Pharmacology?’


She looked at me indulgently. Now I suspect it was contained disgust and pity. To me, it came as a mild shock that she was one of the studious girls. She had come to Medicine through the ‘arts quota’, and had once been the best actor at the arts festival. How the pursuit of the stethoscope changed people!

I did not want to lose her. I was devastated when she started going out with Chester. Had she found out that I secretly put rubber blocks inside my canvas shoes? Or was it because of my failure in Pharmacology?

I saw her chatting away with Chester now, who had joined her near the corridor. They were almost touching each other. I was surprised at the animosity I felt towards him. Love brought out the beast, not the best, in man.

Chester the Master. How could anyone acquire such a nickname? No, I am not going to tell you mine. What aspect of his personality could possibly have appealed to someone like Meena? He was a hopeless geek. But a confident one. That probably made a difference. A meek geek doesn’t attract girls. He looked like a Hollywood hero, who had starved for months to act in a film about life in the Indian slums. But only guys can recognize assholes. Girls have a different yardstick for judging guys.

What were they discussing? He was probably teaching her Pharmacology or Microbiology: how staphylococci turned the indicator yellow when cultured in blood. Or the correct method of plating meat broth medium with your own shit so that you could see the dirty green colonies of Ecoli bloom like flowers, emanating – you can imagine – what kind of scent . I could not match him in all that.

I found Pathology tolerable. It suited my present mood. After all, ‘pathos’ meant ‘suffering’ in Latin. It dealt with the causation of various diseases, and screening of urine and blood samples. And then there was Histopathology.

I walked into the lab. It was Histopathology today. Microscopes, like miniature aliens waiting to strike in a sci-fi thriller, stood battle-ready in rows. I was supposed to squint with one eye into each, for twenty or thirty seconds, straighten up with a triumphant gleam, and write carcinoma – large intestine, acute appendicitis, or whatever.  It was depressing. Morale-sapping. The pictures in the sleek Robbins Textbook of Pathology were very clear. You could plainly see rows and rows of columnar cells with irregular cells of cancer encroaching on the basement membrane. The fact that the picture was a part of the chapter on ‘Carcinoma of the large intestine’ was a bonus.

The view through the microscope was arresting, picturesque, but incomprehensible. It was like looking at a large impressionist painting made only in violet and purple by a particularly eccentric artist during one of his manic spells. I could imagine a dishevelled, bearded chap painting one of these under the influence of marijuana. Intricate floral designs. Circular patterns. Detailed complex formations symbolizing something. But what?

            The students had found a solution to this. Down the generations, they had come to know that the department used the same slide year after year for teaching purposes. Everyone understood that by noting the external shape of the tissue placed on a particular slide, you could identify what it was.

I looked, not through the eyepiece, but from outside, at the shape of the slide. Was it ‘boy jumping off someplace looking at the ceiling’, or ‘the naked beauty in lithotomy position’? Then I saw Dr Parvathy coming my way. She was the new assistant professor in charge of Histopathology. My heart had that peculiar flutter again. She was a voluptuous woman with as many curves as the road to Munnar. And I could look up to her. Literally. I was extra-susceptible at this stage, I knew. Immediately after you have been spurned by a woman, every other woman looks appealing. But when has self- knowledge stopped me from making a slip? I was a compulsive slipper. I knew the whole business was just ridiculous. But worshipping from afar was not a new thing for me.

She came and stood behind me. I peered intently through the eyepiece at the floral design.  I got a whiff of her mild perfume – probably a foreign brand, not one of the strong ones most girls of my class usually wore. I wondered if she could see the balding patch on the top of my head. Her husband at the East-fort hospital was fully bald.

I wanted to please her desperately.

‘Can you see the acini in the salivary gland specimen?’ she asked.

.           In these kinds of situations, my intelligence quotient, and understanding of life in general, got a boost.

‘Yes, Madam. Serous acini.’

‘Yes, you are good,’ she smiled. ‘Come now, Jimmy, why were you looking at the slide from the outside?’

She was wearing a deep blue sari. I liked saris. They were elegant, and yet so naughty. Her sleeveless blouse flaunted smooth, clear skin. I smiled sheepishly.

‘When you have a natural talent, why you are being dishonest with yourself? Try to do it the correct way. The lab is open till five. You can come in and practise whenever you are free.’

            I felt inspired. Dr Parvathy’s interest seemed to kindle my dormant pattern-recognizing neurons. I had a natural ability. And I rapidly got better with practice. Within a few months I became surprisingly adept at recognizing Pathology slides. But it was useless. Chester was also a favourite with Dr Parvathy, and the realization began to bother me. He scored much better marks than me in the subject. 

Then Dr Parvathy got promoted to associate and changed the rules. She introduced scores of new slides into the collection without prior notice. This resulted in panic and resentment.

‘It is not fair!’ Biju exclaimed.

Marks in Pathology plummeted. And I, with my ‘useless gift’, was suddenly elevated above the poverty line. My sudden ascent bothered the hell out of a dozen toppers, especially Stu Sindhu (Stu for studious), Anu Pillai, Chester the Master, and a few others. Chester seemed really worked up, even more than the others. He suspected I had cheated at the exam. He was not impressed with my intelligence. I felt like a worm he had found in his lunch box.

Meena was almost always with him. True, I wanted to believe that Dr Parvathy was enough. But I needed something more tangible, somebody I could touch. I had held hands with Meena once. It was a big deal in our community those days. A couple seen holding hands in public was sure to be married, and separation (in case there was one) was ceremoniously mourned. However, she had always been careful not to let our relationship become public. To keep her options open, no doubt. These girls were calculating monsters when it came to love.

Whenever I saw her with Chester, something happened to me. My body turned warm. It might have turned red, but it did not show on the deep brown skin.  I had an irrational desire to know what they were talking about. Why was he laughing? Was she telling him about my second-standard tryst with incontinence? Or the fact that I was reading Tripathy for Pharm?

I perfected my art with hours of practice. The weird shapes and abstract patterns congealed into meaning. Robin’s textbook did not seem so formidable now. The photograph of the bearded man on the back of the book subtly changed from a horrific demon’s to a serious but pleasant gentleman’s.

            After the next exam, I climbed above Chester the Master. Not comfortably above, but above. Chester was astonished, and irritated. Soon after the exam he accosted me in the corridor.

‘I checked your theory paper. Your answer to the first theory question was total crap.’

I looked at him. Did the hate show?

‘Parvathy has given you a good score even on that. How did you manage that? You have a knack with older women, though the younger ones avoid you,’ he laughed.

‘Fuck off.’ I began to walk away.

‘Hey, congrats man,’ he changed his tone, and grinned. ‘What is the secret behind this sudden brilliance?’

‘Oh, a sudden streak of luck I guess.’ I tried to evade him, but he blocked my way.  

‘Hey, wait a moment, wise guy. Let me see your score card.’ Noticing my face, he added reluctantly, ‘Please.’

I showed it to him after brief hesitation. He had scored more than I had in theory and other practicals, like Clinical Pathology, but I was way ahead in Histopathology. He caught on to it immediately and pestered me about how I had done it.

I couldn’t think of any good reason why I should offer him an explanation. I didn’t like him; he didn’t like me. He had just mocked me not even a minute ago.

‘Well…,’ I shrugged, ‘let’s say I have a special talent for it.’

‘Goodness!’ he exclaimed. ‘Is it an inborn thing or developed over time? Can you give me some tips?’

Usually, people asked me my opinion about the latest film or a new restaurant in town. I wanted to bask in my new academic avatar. But how could I forget what Chester had done to me? He wanted me to help him. Didn’t the bugger realize he had stolen my girlfriend? He was a menace to the society.

I stood absolutely straight. What if I slapped him? I was not going to, of course. You cannot wrestle with a pig in the mud. What he needed was cold, haughty treatment. I brought all my coldness to my .lips. Just as I was going to speak, I heard a voice behind me – feminine and warm.

‘Good show, Jimmy.’

 It was Meena.

‘Th – Thanks’ I mumbled.

‘I was listening. You always had a good brain.’

Now, that was something I could not ignore. I smiled.

‘Could I join Chester when you coach him?’

I wanted to say, ‘What makes you think I am going to mentor Chester?’ But I couldn’t. The problem with breaking up with a girlfriend without a major fight is that you are still supposed to be friends. You’re still supposed to help her out, and even listen to her troubles regarding her new boyfriend. Besides, I wanted to teach her, even if it meant being Chester’s benefactor against my will. There was still hope in my heart. Every Tuesday and Saturday, during the afternoon, the three of us walked to the Path lab.

            ‘You said the salivary gland was the submandibular one. Why not the parotid?’ Chester asked, leaning over the microscope.

‘The first is full of mucous acini, the other serous,’ I said.

Dr Parvathy walked by, smiling at me. I smiled back, looking at her sari. I noticed for the first time that the floral pattern on it resembled the slide of a sympathetic ganglion. Recently, she had ceased to be a fascination. I was afraid, and looked furtively at Meena peering into another microscope. She looked up unexpectedly and caught my eye, smiled, and lowered her gaze.

‘Look here, man, don’t lose your focus. Tell me about these acini. How do you tell them apart?’ Chester pestered me again. He flattered me a little, aware that I might rebel any moment. He was remarkably smart and persistent.  Would he become as good as me at this task? I did not want that.

A few days later, when he had learnt how to distinguish tuberculosis from other granulomas, he looked up from the microscope and said smugly, ‘I have got Histo, man. Now, no one else  has a chance against me, haha.’

How subtle. How grateful.

‘Sure, you are unbeatable, Chester,’ I replied drily.

            I resented what he had compelled me to do. We had much more at stake than marks, I thought. I decided to read up the theory in Pathology. In the next exam, I got ahead of him, but only by a thin margin. It was a Pyrrhic victory, since I had failed in Microbiology. My marks in Pharmacology made me weep.

Meena had scored very well. ‘Thanks for the classes,’ she said. 

Since she was still with Chester, I kept my distance. The arts festival in college forced the impending exams out of everybody’s mind, except Chester the Master who retreated into his burrow, devouring textbooks as usual.  Meena was the chief dramatist in our batch.

‘Can you act as Mr Pickering?’ she asked me tentatively. ‘This year I am doing an adaption of My Fair Lady.’’

            ‘Why me? Why don’t you ask Chester?’

‘Chester can’t act. Besides, he is busy with the exam. He is a bit too serious about studies.’

‘Isn’t that good?’

‘Perhaps,’ she shrugged.

‘Why did you ask me?’

‘It is … umm… a minor role. No one else was ready to accept it. I thought you would not refuse.’

.           I began to sweat. The stage had always scared me. The crowd in the medical school was not meek. Even though, as Mr Pickering, I would have had hardly two or three dialogues onstage, my role required me to stand there silently for some time. Besides, Dr Parvathy was the staff-in-charge of our batch. I had to accept. The delicious anticipation erased all academic considerations from my head.

            The play was reasonably successful. The discerning community said it was a ‘good effort’. The back seat drinkers enjoyed the show at my expense. They heckled me quite freely and, underneath the suit and tie, I perspired all evening.           

            Only three days were left for the exams. I recovered somewhat by the third day. It was Pathology the very next day. I retreated to my hostel room with a stack of books, and decided to spend the night learning and revising page after page of whatever I had left unread under the pressure of a new career in theatre.

There was a soft knock on the door. I tried to ignore it. One of my close friends, I thought. Better to avoid them today.

But the knocks persisted. ‘Please, please open the door!’

I did. Chester stood outside, shuffling his feet and wringing his hands in despair.

            ‘What is the matter, Chester?’ I asked.

Without a word Chester stepped into the room, head bent and shoulders drooping. Then he sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands. ‘I feel awful,’ he said.

Coming from Chester, I thought for a moment it was some kind of a joke, and almost laughed. Then I saw his face filled with genuine anguish and despair. ‘I couldn’t hide my impatience. Chester was a pest with a capital P. ‘Come on, now, what is the issue? Did you break up with your girlfriend?’

 ‘I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t have anybody.’

I didn’t care if he had nobody. Why had he come to me?

‘I feel weak. I can’t concentrate.’

‘Are you ill? Want me to take you to the ER? I could call up Suresh, the intern in Medicine. He is on duty today.’

‘No, no. I just feel terrible, that’s all. I am so lonely. No one likes me. I am useless.’

Depression was an illness.  It could strike anybody. The stress of exams precipitated it in many people. I had heard such stories. He had just said that he did not consider Meena his girlfriend. That changed my attitude towards him a great deal.

‘No, Chester, you are a wonderful human being with … er …with many qualities.’

‘Yes?’ He looked up at me expectantly. I felt compelled to continue listing the sterling attributes which made him such a wonderful member of the human race.

 ‘I am all of these?’ He was pleased. ‘But what about the voices?’

 ‘What voices?’

‘The voices hurling vulgar abuse at me. Today. And last night.’

I was seriously worried. We had had no experience with Psychiatry yet, but I had read a little bit of the subject out of personal interest.

            Voices? Chester was saying he had been hearing voices. In his head? Auditory hallucinations were a key diagnostic symptom of schizophrenia. I remembered Gopalakrishnan, who had suddenly appeared one morning to join us in our first year. He seemed a studious introvert who never made close friends. Two weeks into the Anatomy dissection class, he complained to a flustered tutor that the dead body was talking to him.

‘What do you mean – talking?’

‘Complaining, of course. He is not happy about me cutting him up.’

Gopalkrishnan was solicitously led away, and was never seen again in the hospital premises.

‘Voice? What did it say?’ I enquired cautiously. I definitely didn’t like Chester, and I wasn’t enjoying this conversation with him at all.

‘It abused me, I tell you. It accused me of being a selfish bastard. And trying too hard. I couldn’t sleep yesterday.’

Again, he buried his face in his hands and began to moan. Personally, I felt that the voice made a lot of sense, but that was not the point.

‘Sit here, Chester, I will be back,’ I told him, and ran out of the room to a few of my classmates scattered in the hostel. I wanted to take Chester to the hospital. I tried to convince them about the urgency of the situation but, most of them, buried in their books, did not even look up at me.

‘He will manage, man. Don’t worry. Why don’t you tell him to buzz off so that you can study?’ said Biju Antony.  This was the most useful advice I had received so far.

I walked back to the room, determined to do that. As I entered, I saw him staring at his hand. And his hand held my pocket knife I had kept for sharpening my pencils.

‘It is so sharp,’ he remarked, raising it slowly to his neck. I reached forward hastily, and wrested it from his hand.

‘I feel heavy, you know. In the head,’ he continued. ‘I think I will go for a walk in the woods. Please come with me, Jims. Please.’

            So I had to accompany him as he strode through the forest that surrounded Trichur Medical College. He did not help the mood in the least with his dark observations and comments. ‘Death seems to reside here,’ and ‘I wouldn’t mind dying here; it is so peaceful,’ were some of the more cheerful ones. I managed to cajole him back to my room after an hour. I switched on the fan, for I was covered in sweat, and sank into a chair in relief. He looked up at the ceiling and observed it with interest.

‘Will it support the weight of a human body? Do you think – ?’

‘Oh, no, no. No. Chester, it won’t,’ I replied weakly.

            But I knew it would. It was hardly a year back that I had seen Sooryanarayanan, a super-senior who used to fail the finals as a habit, hanging by a rope from the ceiling fan in his room.

            I was thinking of revising Chester’s diagnosis. Suicidal tendencies were not uncommon in schizophrenia, but were much more common in depression. But the auditory hallucinations? There was no doubt that he was an immediate danger to himself. And maybe to others? I talked to him to keep him distracted and, meanwhile, collected all the articles that could be used as weapons, including a tendon hammer and a shaving blade, and surreptitiously dumped them one by one into a drawer. Then I locked it, and slipped the key into my pocket.

 ‘Sleep here, if you want,’ I said half-heartedly.

Chester promptly lay down on the mat I laid out for him on the floor, and hugged my pillow tightly as if it was a teddy bear. It was a rumour in the hostel that he still kept one in his room. I opened my book and tried to read, but it was hopeless. Not only was I too disturbed by now, Chester, instead of sleeping, had suddenly turned talkative. He seemed to be rambling about irrelevant things. He narrated how, as a five year old child, he had talked his father out of contesting for the prime minister’s post.

‘I told him it was not worth it,’ he said emphatically. ‘It was such a thankless job.’

            Finally, he went to sleep. I tried to sleep too, but kept tossing and turning. In the brief spells of stupor, I dreamt of Chester prowling about in the dark with my pocket knife in his hand.

            After one of the worst nights of my life, I crawled out of bed in the morning, looking like something that had walked off an autopsy table. I had decided to call up the warden and the Psychiatry professor for proper help. Chester was still sleeping peacefully. While I was getting dressed after my morning rituals, he woke up.

            ‘Good morning,’ he greeted me brightly, stood up, and started walking out of the room.

‘Where are you going? Stop,’ I called after him.

 ‘Got to get ready. I will go to my room now, thanks. Today is the Pathology exam, isn’t it? See you in the hall.’

‘But – but – ’ I stammered.

            ‘Forget about last night. I just wanted to freak you out a bit. Prevented you from studying too hard, didn’t I?’ he winked.

            Meena topped the exam, with Chester the Master in the second place. Of course, I was somewhere at the bottom of the class. While walking back from the notice board dejectedly, I ran into her.

‘Congrats,’ I said, trying to force a smile.

‘Oh, I am sorry.’ She looked at me with – love? Sympathy? ‘The play seems to have got you real bad. I am responsible for this, I guess.’

.           ‘Yeah, you picked the wrong guy. You should have taken Chester.’

‘Chester can act?’ Her eyes were as large as frisbees.

‘Sure, he can. Acts beautifully – like a professional. You must be very happy he did very well in the exam.’

‘Let’s not talk about him.’ She looked across at a sparrow that had just settled down upon a window sill.

‘Sure.’ I had no intention to anyway.

‘Coming for a coffee?’

Why did she look a little shy? We strolled down the lane, cutting through the short stretch of the forest, to reach the canteen on the other side. We were walking very close. My shoes did not have artificial rubber heels any longer. Somehow, it did not seem to matter. Slowly, she reached for my hand. I smiled at her. The exam was not everything. (Jimmy Mathew)

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .