K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: Last Sunday I was at Salem in Tamil Nadu with my family. We were there just for a day and it was a journey of only about 270 kilometers each way. But for me it was actually a long voyage back in time, spanning over more than 35 years.
It was a journey back to the era of my days as a young medical student in distant Gulbarga, then and sometimes even now, considered by all those in government service as the most befitting punishment posting.
The year was 1975 and it was Monday the 18th of August, perhaps the best time of the year, after the soothing rains had cooled and greened the place a little, to introduce the unwary and the uninitiated to the vagaries of a land that is famous for having only two seasons: summer and very hot summer.
We were a batch of 67 students who were all seated well in time for our first class of the MBBS course.
It was a bright sunny morning and all of us were at the peak of our happiness and eagerness, as only those who become medical students will perhaps know.
At the stroke of eight, a dark, bespectacled man in a long white coat, looking every inch a professor, entered the hall, automatically muting every one of us and sending the hall into pin drop silence.
He introduced himself as Dr Vissa Ramachandra Rao (VRR), the professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and from his language and bearing it was not difficult for me to quickly surmise that he had acquired much of both in Britain. He had served in many medical colleges in Andhra Pradesh and had joined our college after retirement from government service.
He was so impressive that what he said in one hour on that day is still so deeply etched in my mind that I can reproduce it verbatim even today although many things which I learnt much later have faded from my memory.
Fortunately for us, we had many very great teachers almost in all subjects who were all able stalwarts in their fields to whom we owe all our learning and professional abilities. But Dr VRR, as we all affectionately called him, perhaps by being the first one of them to teach us a difficult subject like Anatomy for a full eighteen months, soon became our favourite.
Beneath his stern exterior he was a very warm and understanding person who was always very sensitive to our problems which he tried to set right with great concern.
Once, while on a college trip to Ajanta and Ellora we happened to reach Aurangabad early in the morning after an overnight journey.
We stopped for breakfast at a hotel where the prowess of the cooks somehow could not match the appetite of a busload of hungry youngsters. I decided to do my bit to ease developing tensions by becoming the self-appointed coordinator between the two groups.
Unnoticed by me, Dr VRR, who had been accompanied by his wife Lalitha and his daughter Usha, was watching me closely and after all the students had had their fill he asked me to join them at their table for breakfast. He then asked me where I was from and appreciated my patience and helpful nature.
After our return to Gulbarga he recommended my name for nomination to the students’ council as the representative of the pre-clinical batch. With this beginning, my relationship with him became very close and he would always turn to me whenever some responsibility had to be entrusted to someone.
With my interest in writing and photography he used to be very happy to ask for my help in preparing scientific presentations for seminars and conferences.
In those days our college could get this done only by approaching M/s Vaman & Dastur, a firm of photographers on Mouledina Road in Pune which was a rather long and cumbersome process. I used to then process Ekta-chrome slide film along with black and white film in my bathroom which on weekends would do double duty as my darkroom!
With the strong and lingering odours of Metol, Hydroquinone and Sodium Thiosulphate overpowering those of my soap and shampoo, all my friends used to say that on Mondays I would always smell very strange!
Dr VRR although quite friendly with me was always a very unforgiving taskmaster whenever it came to academics and would always keep himself and my parents too updated about my progress as a student. His classes used to be both sessions for the learning of anatomy and also for the inculcation of the essential values required for leading a good life.
During my frequent periods of personal interaction with him he used to tell me all about his life including the time he spent in England in the company of some of the most well- known stalwarts of medical science, especially the trio of embryology: Hamilton, Boyd and Mossman.
I still have a picture of him standing with them which he gave me.
He was invited by the Royal College when he, along with his assistant at the Guntur medical college, Dr G. R. K. Hari Rao, discovered a new blood vessel in the heart which was later named the Rao & Rao Artery.
While working at Kakinada he was the man who dissected and preserved the body of the noted British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane who donated his body for the advancement of science when he died in the year 1964. He was instrumental in creating and developing anatomy museums in most of the medical colleges where he worked.
When I completed my MBBS and it was time for me to leave Gulbarga, Dr VRR invited me home for lunch which his wife and daughter had very painstakingly prepared taking into consideration my favourite dishes. He then gave me a bundle of manuscripts which were his most important notes and his trusted German camera saying, “I think I have no use for them now but I know you will value these.” He could not have been more right.
I have preserved them among my most treasured things even to this day.
We were always in touch over the years after that and I would never fail to send him a birthday card every year on the 21st of March. After he lost his wife he settled down at Salem with his daughter Dr Usha Sri who has done a commendable job of looking after him through the ups and downs of old age.
About five years ago when I had to attend a seminar at Yercaud, the hill station near Salem, I called her up and informed her that I would visit them in a couple of days. It appears he was so eager to meet me that he was constantly asking her exactly when I was expected and had insisted that she should prepare my favourite custard which her mother used to prepare and which I used to relish as an young boy.
I visited him with my family and for both of us it was a very emotional reunion.
When we were about to part he smiled and said, “I have taught thousands of students over the years but I cannot expect every one of them to remember me or be in touch with me. But now that one Javeed has come and spoken to me so many years after my retirement, this Ramachandra Rao can die in peace and happiness.”
We visited him a second time a couple of years later with my brother’s family and my mother accompanying us and this time too he was overjoyed. At both these meetings I discovered how much joy a teacher gets when he meets his old students and I think this holds true for every teacher on this earth.
As usual, this year too I called him up on the 21st of March to wish him on his 95th birthday.
He felt very happy talking to me but this time it was a one sided conversation because his already bad hearing had deteriorated so much that he could not understand what I was saying. His daughter Usha said she would convey my good wishes to him and said that the Tirupati Temple authorities in recognition of the contribution of his father Vissa Appa Rao and his father-in-law Veturi Prabhakara Shastri to the field of classical music and Telugu literature would be honouring Dr VRR on the 1st of April at a function in Salem. She said it was his desire that I should be there on that occasion.
Three days later there was another phone call and this time the grand old man himself was on the line.
He said, “Javeed, I am already 95. I do not know if I will live long enough to see you again. So I want you to be here for this function with your family. It will make me very happy. I cannot hear what you are going to say but I am sure you have heard what I had to say. Thank you.”
I had heard him right but I had nothing to say. He was my guru and I was his sishya and this is how the relationship had to be between us.
His wish was my command and so I went. It was a very touching occasion. A few other old students who had come there like me narrated their experiences of his generosity and greatness. A few friends had sent me messages on my cell phone which I read out.
The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) board had sent two representatives with a citation and a shawl to honour him and much to our surprise he rose to the occasion by making a brief but most impressive speech in reply.
Then turning to me, he clasped both my hands in his and said, “Ah, my favourite student from Gulbarga is here. I feel so proud and happy.”
(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician, who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)
Photograph: courtesy Star of Mysore