Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I will not tell you the name!

Recently I discovered that my professor of General Human Anatomy back in medical college, KK Bisaria, was dead.

I don’t know when he died; the news reached me indirectly through an alumni group on Fakebook, and nobody specified when or where Bisaria had shuffled off this mortal coil.

I remember Bisaria. Oh, I remember him so well that I named a fictional African country and its capital after him: Bisaria, and Keke.

He used to walk into the auditorium of the anatomy department, a clerk carrying the attendance register behind him because carrying a register wasn’t “his job”. He would start in on his lecture while drawing diagrams on the greenboard: red arteries, blue veins, yellow nerves, brown muscles, all colour coded.

I’d be sitting at my desk, a packet of felt-tipped pens in front of me, copying the diagrams as fast as he drew them, and scribbling down the notes in my own shorthand. He used to go along at a cracking pace, and I developed that shorthand specifically for him. It served me well in later years.

His lectures were, theoretically, an hour long, However, he’d follow a set pattern. He’d teach for about twenty minutes, and then he’d talk about...other things...for about twenty minutes, and then finish off with another bit of teaching.

Now it’s those “other things” that made him memorable.

He was a big, burly man, probably in his late fifties, with a greasy mop of hair and a habit of squinting ferociously as he spoke. He intimidated by his very presence, both in the classroom and later in the dissection hall where he would stalk around in a spotless white coat and a disapproving glare. Once in a while, he’d bend over a cadaver and work away with a Bard Parker knife, and take photographs when he was done. I can still see him doing that now.

Before I go further, I should probably explain that Bisaria wasn’t an anatomist by choice. He’d started out to be an ophthalmologist, but run into certain hurdles (what those hurdles were, we never quite got to know) in the ophthalmology department, quit and took up anatomy instead. And  though he became, as he was fond of loudly proclaiming, “India’s second-greatest neuro-anatomist” (I don’t know who declared him that), he never forgave the ophthalmology department, and the people who had put those “hurdles” in his path.

Again and again he’d talk about those people, giving us all the information we’d need to identify them (“The bugger’s the head of the department, drives a blue car...”) and then, at the end of it, say (with a finger raised) “...I will not give you the name!” That was his signature; “Naam nahin batayenge...I will not tell you the name.”

That became so well known that we even parodied Bisaria in a skit (which the staff didn’t see, of course) where one of my classmates declaimed that he was “the country’s second greatest fucker...would have been the greatest but for so and so...I will not give you the name!”

All that boasting and ophthalmologist-excoriation, along with Bisaria’s incredibly lame jokes (no, you don’t want to hear them. Trust me) and tall stories, would pass the time quite satisfactorily between his bursts of teaching.

He was a misogynist as well. That was true for most of the older members of the staff, who couldn’t quite accept that women wanted to learn medicine or dentistry as a career rather than just to hook more qualified husbands, and would drop snide remarks about why we males allowed the females to score higher marks since they had smaller brains than we did.

The strange thing was that he was actually a good teacher, far and away the best in his department. Afterwards, reviewing my anatomy notes, I realised that he was the only one of them in the Anatomy department who actually taught us rather than just going through the motions. This was especially significant because the Anatomy textbook we had, by one BD Chaurasia, was certainly the worst single piece of medical literature it has ever been my misfortune to lay hands on in my career. I still get angry when I think of it.

At the end of the year, we had the final examinations in Anatomy, and Bisaria set the paper. This was his first time as an examiner, and he decided to ask what he wanted, and not what anyone would think would be important for a lot of dental students.

So, he set a full question on the trochlear nerve. He’d done his thesis on it, so by god he wouldn't let anything come in his way; he asked a full question on it.

Now, the trochlear nerve, which is the fourth cranial nerve, has nothing at all to do with the mouth or jaws or neck. It’s a nerve that supplies the muscles that move the eyeball inside the socket. And, because we had one hell of a lot of stuff to learn, we had to prioritise, and other cranial nerves were much more important than the trochlear. I, for one, ignored it completely. That’s right – I did not study the trochlear nerve at all.

Considering that there were no choices – you had to answer every single question -  and 50% was passing, can you imagine my emotions when I looked at the question paper and saw that I’d got to write all about the damned trochlear nerve? A full 20% of the marks were on it.

For all of a minute, I froze.

Slowly, then, my brain started working. Remember all those diagrams I mentioned? Well, I didn’t know a thing about the trochlear nerve. But I knew the diagram of the middle cranial fossa (the interior of the skull), and the nerves that originated there. So I drew that. Then, I knew the diagram of the orbital fissure (the hole through which nerves pass from the brain to the eye socket) and the relative positions of the nerves. So I drew that. Then I knew the diagram of the muscles that moved the eyeball, so I drew that as well.

You get the point? I drew every single diagram in which the damned trochlear nerve featured, however marginally. I wrote virtually nothing. I just drew diagrams (for two and a half pages) and labelled away.

And, you know what? I got pretty high marks on that test. Higher than a lot of others. Near the top of the class.

I think a certain examiner was so grateful he didn’t have to read an essay that he graded me on the diagrams alone.

But I will not tell you the name!


  1. Bill, this story is priceless!!!

    Education appears to have no real gulf between countries or cultures - I studied history from a fellow (and I, too, will not tell you the name) - he squinted a bit when he spoke, and had a godlike persona (at least, in front of the class).

    I was there with you.

    Thousands of miles and some years apart, perhaps - but there.


  2. You're a very smart man, Bill.


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