BUTTERFLIES IN the stomach. Or was ‘abdomen’ medically more correct? Whatever it was, a rabble of them was fluttering in my stomach as I entered my friend Rajesh’s car. He had come to pick me up. This was to be our first day at medical school.
‘Hi,’ he greeted me with a light-hearted wave. I was surprised at his poise. The man looked totally relaxed. I tried to hide my ashen face and trembling hands. They were so cold and wet that I couldn’t offer them for a handshake.
‘Man, today – the first day. Oh my god, I can’t wait,’ Rajesh trilled like a schoolgirl with an ecstatic grin on his face, as if it was his wedding night or something. I felt like hitting him.
I glanced at Aswin, our common friend, standing on the other side, and was gratified to see that his face was an appropriate green, and his smile lopsided with badly disguised terror.
He had a baby face and studious eyes framed by thick, round glasses. Noticing my eyes on him, he started chattering about some books he had bought for the first year.
‘Biochemistry is easy, I think. Anatomy – that is the issue, heh, heh.’
I resisted a strong impulse to catch him by the throat to prevent him from speaking non-stop. Studies were the last thing on my mind.
‘All of them are easy, man’ Rajesh countered. ‘The right technique of study is important. If god is with us, MBBS will be a breeze.’
He had a superior air about him. I shot him a look of pure hatred. Wasted on the bugger, of course. He was a geek, and had the hide of a rhinoceros.
Lately he had become especially religious and god-driven. These two were my closest friends. I remembered them as normal schoolmates two years back.
They had changed a lot since then. As for me, I felt normal enough, but that could be an illusion.
You see, all of us had worked our asses off to get into the prestigious medical school. But why did we do that? What was our motivation? I can tell you mine.
What else was there for a reasonably bright and ambitious youngster to aspire to, in the nineteen eighties, who was not interested in or skilled enough for mathematics? I was passionate about Biology and, those days, the only choices we had were medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences, and agriculture. Pure science was taboo. There were no jobs. No future there.
As for my friends, I don’t know. You generally don’t ask your friends about their personal choices. Not at that age.
Even though our reasons were nebulous, we had worked ourselves to the bone. We had read till our eyes bubbled with tears, written till our fingers ached, and done complicated physics equations till our minds became numb with the effort.
For the past two years we had stayed up nights, and woken up early, to stagger in like zombies to Prof. K.C. Mani’s coaching classes every morning at seven.
The professor’s crisp, matter-of-fact voice rang in my ears. ‘Why should you study? Why should you strive hard to become doctors or engineers? You need not do it. But consider the alternatives. What else can you do? You might consider business. You could be an entrepreneur or an industrialist. But it needs cash for initial investment. Even if you start at the bottom, it requires persistence, prodigious energy, cunning, and skill. Besides, there is risk. There is no guarantee you will reach your goal. After putting in all the effort, you might fall flat on your face. The competition is fierce. So, to do a job-oriented course is the only way out.’
How practical! How wise! None of that self-realisation, follow-your-dream, realise- your-destiny kind of bullshit.
‘What a load of baloney,’ Arun Kumar, our classmate, had exclaimed rebelliously. I knew he came to the coaching classes only because of his parents, who had vowed to mould him into a doctor.
‘You stop any expensive car on the road, man,’ he continued, brushing away the wild hair which kept falling into his eyes. ‘I will bet my ass, eight out of ten people in them will not be doctors or engineers.’
It was an intriguing thought. At least eighty percent of the people who were rich enough to afford expensive cars (1989, remember) were neither doctors nor technically qualified people. Who were they? What mysterious trades did they ply? What had they studied at college?
All these questions remained unanswered, as we never got around to carrying out the experiment. Apart from the technical difficulties associated with stopping cars on the roads and asking questions, we were too busy trying to become doctors.
The familiar potholes on unfamiliar terrains jolted me out of my reverie. We had left the town of Trichur and were approaching the outskirts.
About ten kilometres away from the city, as we moved away from the highway to Wadakkanchery, Rajesh’s faithful driver suddenly took a sharp ninety-degree turn into a side road and stopped. There was a railway crossing and the gate was shut.
‘Closed, as always’ he said. I can now attest to the truthfulness of that remark, since we would encounter that railway gate again and again almost every day for the next five years.
After twenty minutes or so, the gate opened after the train had passed, and our car jolted along slowly on a much narrower road. There was a subtle change in the surroundings. We were now in an almost deserted countryside.
Thick trees and shrubs lined the road, along with occasional small houses. Another turn saw us on an uneven path made of mud and stone. The surroundings slowly began to resemble the evergreen jungle I had seen at the wildlife sanctuary in Thekkady during a holiday trip.
Houses became fewer and fewer and, finally, almost disappeared. Just as I thought the driver had lost his way, and that we were heading towards the deep forest, the road widened a little.
In front of us were two enormous granite pillars straddling the road, with an arch over them: MEDICAL COLLEGE, TRICHUR, the board proclaimed in plain but bold print. We stood transfixed. I could feel my heart beating furiously in my chest. Aswin’s adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed twice. ‘I have to pee,’ he said.
‘Better do it here,’ said Rajesh, getting out of the car. ‘The seniors will probably catch hold of us, and may not let us do even that, ha ha.’ He smirked in an offensive manner.
Again, I was irritated by his obnoxious calmness. ‘We had better walk from here,’ he continued. ‘They would not like us alighting into their midst from a Contessa, believe me.’
The ‘seniors’ had assumed, in our minds, the shape of pre-historic monsters like T-Rex, ready to pounce on us the moment we arrived. The horror stories we had heard about ragging did not help.
‘What makes you such an expert?’ I asked sarcastically. I must admit I was shit scared.
We left the car, and slowly walked towards the impressive archway. It was a bizarre structure, towering, but slightly ridiculous as it stood alone. There was no accompanying compound wall.
In fact, there was no apparent boundary between the medical school campus and the surrounding countryside. The forested land merged with it and stretched to the horizon before us.
We advanced slowly along the path with our backpacks, like intrepid explorers trudging into unknown territory. Only Rajesh seemed truly fearless, marching with his chest puffed up proudly, Aswin and I following meekly behind.
We could see no people on the winding road. Large trees, with trunks as broad as Maruti cars, stood on both sides of the road, their green, soothing leaves forming a canopy high above our heads.
The mid-morning sun, already overpowering, managed to send in a few rays through the gaps, which made orange splotches on the road, but we were effectively shielded. Different shrubs encroached on the road, leaning over with their leafy branches.
More leaves, dry and brown, laid out a carpet for our cautious steps. A group of grey babblers broke into a cacophony of chirps, surprised at our sudden appearance around the bend, before flying off together.
I peered intently at the undergrowth into which a pair of mongooses had disappeared, when I felt Aswin’s elbow jabbing at my waist. I jumped. We had come to a clearing, dotted with a few single-storied buildings, which we learned later was the medical college.
The auditorium and the old chest hospital, now designated as the college hospital, were in another corner of the three-hundred-acre campus. Both Aswin and I were nervous. Even Rajesh’s perfect composure seemed a little shaken.
‘You will wish you hadn’t got in,’ one of Rajesh’s cousins, who was in third year, had told us very helpfully. My mind conjured up unpleasant images. My heart went thud, thud, thud in my chest. Slowly, but inevitably, we approached a group of young men blocking the way, and stopped. I mean, we had to.
I looked up, not daring to make eye contact with them. I could see four of five thug-like fellows with horrible expressions, standing in a semicircle around us.
In the centre was a hairy fellow with particularly large and protruding jaws. Later, I came to know that this was called ‘bimaxillary prognathism’. The effect was hideous. He looked like a gorilla, complete with bushy eyebrows and prominent brow ridges.
Gorilla and his associates scowled at us. We cowered. Nobody said or did anything. The silence stretched awkwardly for some minutes. It was reaching an intolerable level, when Aswin broke it.
‘S – S – Sir,’ he quavered. ‘Can you direct us to the first year class rooms?’
This seemed to break the spell. Gorilla motioned us to follow him. My initial impression that he was taking us to our classrooms changed, when he and his gang turned towards a side road leading deep into the woods.
I think all three of us felt the same kind of dread. Finally, we reached an open space. Gorilla made us stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a single file. I toyed with the idea of making a dash for it. But it was hopeless. They had us surrounded.
Aswin was trembling. I glanced at Rajesh. His face had turned a curious shade. He looked terrified, I noted with some satisfaction, even through my own anxiety.
‘Off with the clothes!’ Gorilla thundered. All of us obliged one by one, revealing flabby pectoralis major and rectus abdominis muscles. No six-packs. The wind blew in through the trees, caressing our nudity. I shivered, and felt acutely embarrassed in my underwear, which was riddled with holes. ‘Damn these cockroaches,’ I thought bitterly. The gorilla and his friends sniggered. They passed snide remarks about our bodies, and the holes in Aswin’s underwear and mine.
Rajesh’s clean underwear was brand new – and I couldn’t believe my eyes: boxer style shorts reaching mid-thigh. No holes! The asshole has been warned – presumably by the same cousin who was a third year student. And he hadn’t warned us. The traitor!
They made us do a lot of PT exercises and strike different erotic postures in our underclothes. The gorilla made us do the most uncomfortable and sexually suggestive stunts.
He asked me to act out masturbation with a short stick placed horizontally on my pubis. I moved my hand to and fro in misery, and placed the stick on the buckle of my belt. The gorilla virtuously placed it lower.
‘Your sense of anatomy is all fucked up,’ he informed me. Next he made me kiss Rajesh on the lips, as if we were lovers.
My first amorous kiss! But I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. Rajesh spoiled the effect, being a far cry from the lover of my dreams. I would have preferred somebody taller, less hairy, and well – more female.
‘Put more soul into it,’ the ape-man prodded us on. He leered with delight, as if watching a favourite scene from a porn flick.
Bored with all previous manoeuvres, The gorilla began circling Rajesh in an ominous manner. He eyed his neat, hole-less boxer underwear with distaste. ‘Something is not right with this, men,’ he said.
‘Yeah. In fact, nothing is right with this,’ one of his cronies agreed.
‘Off with it!’ ordered the gorilla. I suppressed a guffaw. Aswin giggled. Rajesh pulled it down to his knees, revealing all. Just as remarks about his hidden treasures were becoming the hot topic of discussion, Rajesh acted.
To pull up the underwear, find a gap in the circle of our tormenters, and disappear into the bushes was, for him, the work of an instant. This seemed to throw them off a bit and, one by one, they beat a hasty retreat.
We got into our clothes, which were strewn all over the forest ground, gratefully.
‘Come, it is time for class. We should not miss our first class.’
That was from Aswin, studious to the T. I was tempted to follow him, but pointed out that we had to look for Rajesh, who might easily be lost in the jungle, that too only in his underwear! I gathered his clothes and set off, followed unwillingly by Aswin.
This was our first sojourn in the so-called forbidden forest (as around Hogwarts) in which the few single-storey buildings that were the medical college, Trichur, lay embedded.
Now we were in semi-green country, with tall jamun trees and succulent purple fruit. Shorter trees and shrubs made deeper penetration impossible. A sudden rustle suggested the presence of a garden lizard or a snake, and that made us pause.
No noise reached us from the college; only the murmurs of cicadas all around. We were off the tarred road, and hopelessly lost.
Our cries of ‘Rajesh, Rajesh!’ disappeared into the wilderness. We had almost given up hope. All of a sudden, he emerged from behind a screen of shrubs, his full glory obscured by the orange underwear.
‘Why orange?’ I enquired nonchalantly.
‘One more word –’ He clenched his fist and charged towards me.
It took more than an hour to find our way back to our classrooms. We had missed two classes, which, predictably, annoyed Aswin.
The next month was a kind of cops-and-robbers game. The seniors waylaid us at every opportunity, before, in between, and after classes.
We learnt that The gorilla’s real name was Govindan Narayana Swamy, otherwise known as G-Swamy the Terrible.
He was undoubtedly the senior, most feared amongst us first-years. Once he caught me in between classes, and ordered me to go down on my hands and knees.
I wondered what he would do next. The man calmly climbed on my back, squishing me under his considerable weight.
‘Come, let us go. Your friend is waiting round the corner,’ he commanded me. I lumbered along, dragging his huge bulk. When we were almost at the classroom again, I spied a splash of colour from the corner of my eye.
There was Rajesh. On his hands and knees. He was practically naked except for – yes, you guessed it right – the bright orange underwear.
I developed a deep loathing for ‘G-Swamy the Terrible’, shared heartily by Rajesh who went around muttering, ‘I will kill the bastard,’ a dozen times a day.
He brought a pocket knife to college one day, took me to a corner and brandished it in front of me. ‘I will show him today,’ he hissed.
Now he claims that I dissuaded him from confronting the gorilla at that time, though I don’t remember doing anything of the kind. I may have said something like, ‘Don’t kill him; just cut off his hands.’ I guess he just chickened out.
At last, after thirty days, the much awaited freshers’ day arrived. This day marked the end of the ragging period, and was followed by dinner. After this we would be considered a part of the campus officially.
Several programmes were organized for the freshers. From the auditorium behind our row of classrooms, we could hear a thundering applause at regular intervals. Those blessed by the Goddess of Song were contesting for the singing prize.
At the other end of the corridor, freshers dressed in various traditional costumes were competing at the fancy dress competition.
I was ecstatic with relief. And yet, I also burned with the desire to teach our main tormentor a lesson. This feeling hadn’t subsided completely yet.
Rajesh arrived with a nearly-finished beer bottle. ‘Thish ish my shecond one,’ he informed me proudly. ‘My bla-bladder is burshting.’
We were in the outer corridor of the third floor in the hostel building. In the twilight I could see the courtyard down below, where festivities were on. G-Swamy the Terrible was holding court directly underneath. I looked around for something to throw at him. A shoe? A waste basket filled with garbage? I could see nothing. Should I at least spit on him? What if he saw us? An idea struck me. Bladder-wise, I was also full to the brim.
‘Rajesh, look at G-Swamy. Down there,’ I pointed at him. ‘Let go, man!’
I lowered my trousers and leaned over the edge. Rajesh was quick to follow my lead, even in his plastered state. I saw a flash of orange and looked on in rapture as the twin streams of golden yellow liquid arched over to the ground below.
By a curious quirk of fate G-Swamy chose that moment to look up, and a substantial amount splashed into his eyes and open mouth. Blinded and spluttering, an animal-like cry erupted from him.
Had he seen us? We had managed to pull back from the ledge in time. Or had we? I was not sure. G-Swamy was tearing up the stairs, yelling blood-curdling threats at the top of his voice.
Pulling Rajesh by the arm, I ran to the fire exit at the back of the building, down the stairs, and reached the ground. We went round the building very slowly, and reached the front, making sure nobody noticed us arrive and mingle with them.
A lot of students were doubled up with laughter. ‘Somebody pissed on G-Swamy, man!’
In a moment Swamy was also in our midst, his chase futile. I nearly cringed with fear, but realised that he had no clue who the culprits were.
‘Damn your orange underwear!’ I hissed at Rajesh. ‘Thank god he didn’t notice the colour.’
This incident had been witnessed by everybody, and ‘G-Swamy the Terrible’ was re-christened Moothraswamy (Piss-Swamy). He was known by this name until he left medical school after obtaining his degree.
For a time it seemed he had been born and baptised with the name. That gave us immense pleasure. I became somewhat friendly with him after a time, even though I never got close enough to call him Moothraswamy, and he never learnt of my role in the incident.
A decade later I met G-Swamy at Cochin. I could recognise him very well – the bimaxillary intact and hideous as ever. Fairly advanced baldness made him look like a decrepit gorilla now. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him what he was doing.
He smiled sheepishly. ‘I am the urologist at KM Hospital, mate.’
‘I can guess your inspiration, Moothraswamy.’ I couldn’t help a roguish smile. It was the first time that I had called him that.(Jimmy Mathew)