The man who cut up his father to farther the cause of medicine.
Holding a small gooseberry (amla) between his right thumb and forefinger, Dr Mahantesh Rammannavar says he has slept well. “I got my full eight hours. Peace of mind,” he says, grinning, hands spread wide and palms open to indicate satisfaction. “Somehow, everyone is concerned about my sleep.”
What about the gooseberry, doctor?
“It is for energy. Instead of taking food, I thought I will have this, and maybe some tea and coffee. I want to stay alert.”
It is a big day for the 40-year-old Mahantesh, an ayurvedic doctor and assistant professor at KLE University’s BM Kankanawadi Ayurveda College in Belgaum. It is a big day for medical science in India. For the first time, a son, Mahantesh, is going to dissect the body of his father, Dr BS Ramannavar, for deeper insights into the human body. This is what the father had wished. The date is 13 November, his second death anniversary. Dr BS Ramannavar was a renowned ayurvedic doctor of his time, known in particular for painless tooth extraction without administering anesthesia. He had conducted 113 free dental camps in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala.
Mahantesh, one of six siblings, says, “In his last days, my father called the family members and expressed his wish to donate his body. He took our consent (a legal requirement). Since I had become a doctor, he wanted me to have an opportunity to dissect a body. He said to all of us, ‘You have seen me from the outside. Now you can learn what I was inside’.”
Dr Balasaheb Desai, lecturer at Kankanawadi College, says, “One of the important principles of ayurveda is pratyekshagyaana (actual knowledge). It recommends the use of all sensory organs in studying the human body. You have to feel the structure. Dr Ramannavar thought his body could be used for this purpose.”
Asked if there was opposition from society, religious bigots or family elders, Mahantesh says, “Our family is out of all that. Besides, it is your own will. If you are above 18 years and want to donate your body, no one can stop you.”
Once cut open, a cadaver can be used for 18 months. “I’m seeking techniques that can lengthen its life, at least the organs,” Mahantesh says earnestly.
There are film families. There are political dynasties. The Ramannavars are a family of doctors and medicine. Even Sushiladevi, Dr BS Ramannavar’s widow, is an ayurveda graduate. Surekha, Mahantesh’s wife, is a dentist. It is a household where the children may spend afternoons playing with bone models and are at ease with human corpses, even if they do not grasp the full import of death. Mahantesh says with affection, “When Atmanand, my younger son, sees my father’s body, he thinks he is asleep. He says, ‘Ajja, why are you sleeping here? Let us go home’.”
Mahantesh is a short dark man with crinkly Sachin Tendulkar eyes and the characteristic Southern habit of ending every sentence with ‘sir’. He has the
lungs to talk for hours. This day sees him belt out numerous TV interviews, student briefings and welcome messages for local dignitaries. His speech does not flag in pace or volume. The gooseberry has worked, it would seem.
The atmosphere in the dissection hall of the college is festive, despite the morbid subject and antiseptic hospital smell around. College is college, after all. Not even elements of death can subdue these islands of positivity. Besides, these are medical students, unfazed by corpses and viscera. At a pinch, lovers may even present each other ribs instead of flowers, to be preserved between the pages of a notebook for years to come.
The stage is covered with velvety red. A large black audio speaker stands nearby. Though their youthful clothes are condemned to a day under white aprons, the students are excited. It could very well have been their annual day. And when one sees a skeleton dangling down from on one end of the dais and three cadavers in tanks of fluid in an adjoining room, one almost expects Michael Jackson’s Thriller to throb out of the speaker. Especially when a dramatic TV reporter does a P-to-C (piece to camera) walking backwards, slowly, around BS Ramannavar’s corpse. It looks like he is doing the moonwalk.
There is one more musical reminder in Dr Ramannavar’s younger brother, Jagdish. He resembles the singer Kailash Kher. He is a software engineer with Hewlett Packard in Bangalore. This is his brother’s moment, and Jagdish, in a green kurta, jeans and trekking shoes, is happy to be on the sidelines. Though he now lives the Bangalore infotech life and has spent a year in the US, he retains a small-town simplicity and a belief in his father’s principles.
“Whoever knows the reality of life realises the sense in donating his body. And this realisation comes only in old age,” he says, in a conversation near one of several banners in the room that advocate body donation. ‘Oh, look dead, teaches living,’ says a poster. ‘This is the place where dead delights to meet the living,’ says another. One wants to be kind and neglect the grammatical errors. But you cannot help wonder why, in all types of Indian institutions, charts and signs are always erroneously scripted. If these guys here in Belgaum could grasp human anatomy, could they not ensure correct lines on their posters?
Jagdish apart, there is Mahantesh’s wife, Dr Surekha, whose bespectacled face permanently seems ready to break into a smile, the way Air Force One is always ready to take off. She wears a green sari with a gold border. The couple’s two boys, Atmanand and his older brother Yoganand, wander around. While playing imaginary games in their heads, they pull faces and make sounds. At lunch time, Atmananad is fawned over and fed from several lunch boxes by Mahantesh’s female students.
Also present is Sushiladevi, Dr BS Ramannavar’s widow. That night, a student one runs into in the streets of the city blurts out that Sushiladevi and Jagdish had wanted the dissection to be done later or in different circumstances. If this is true, she does not betray any clue of any such sentiment to the outside world. She wears earrings and green bangles, and laughs. She even wears an apron while standing near her husband’s body as the TV cameras come on.
Like piranhas, outdoor broadcast vans nibble away at the dignity and order of the event. There are three or four of them on the Kankanawadi premises. At one stage, it seems that the piranhas are not just being entertained but given precedence. Mahantesh and the TV crews cannot seem to get enough of each
other, even as Dr BS Ramannavar’s cadaver lies covered on a table on the dais under a bright white lamp. Caught between the lure of ephemeral fame and the duty of social obligations, Mahantesh has an awkward moment getting his ear wired for a TV interview even as he touches the feet of an elder who has walked up to him.
Syed Shahbaz, a student of Mahantesh who has played an active role in the organisation of the dissection and exuded a blazing loyalty towards his teacher, jumps to his defence if any suspicion over the sincerity of the event is raised. “We did not call the media,” he says. “But we don’t mind it if they are here. It
will help us spread the message of body donation.”
But redemption is near. At around a quarter past four, six hours after the day has begun for most of us, Dr Mahantesh returns to the dissection room, conveying a certain purpose. He walks fast, heads straight to the stage, and finally asks the cameramen to give it a break. “I request you with folded hands,” he says in Kannada. Gone is the media supplicant. In his place is a professional wanting to get down to work, even at the cost of adopting a firm tone with the very mob he has so far courted—journalists. Though he does not entirely succeed in stopping them, Mahantesh commences his task.
The others in the room, warned of the possibility of strong odours, pull green Suvidha brand surgery masks over their nose and mouth. Vantage positions are secured. A few stand on window sills. Mahantesh, who has done six to seven human dissections so far, but none on a close relative, pulls on rubber gloves. He touches the cadaver’s feet and bows to it. Walking to the right shoulder, on which his father must have doubtless carried him at some point, he makes a cut in the right pectoral region.
Instructions, comments, questions burst forth from him. His actions prove the truth of his interest in the subject. “I can see the muscle, a beautiful fan-shaped muscle,” he says at one point, holding up the parched outer skin by a corner and looking in. The blood in the body has clotted. Which is why Mahantesh’s gloves do not turn red even after his fingers vigorously probe his father’s chest area.
The students are around the table, clutching copies of Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy and peering into the body. When Mahantesh asks a question, the unsynchronised chorus of their answers rumbles through the room. As the boys and girls gaze at the cadaver with wide eyes, it becomes impossible not to recall the ‘Junior Mint’ episode from the sitcom Seinfeld. This is the episode in which the characters watch a surgery from a gallery over the operation theatre. Jerry gets inquisitive about the Junior Mints candy that Kramer has been having. Kramer offers him one. Jerry declines. Kramer coaxes, Jerry resists. In the process, a Junior Mint goes out flying and plops in the innards of the patient. Later, against all odds, the patient makes a recovery. One of the last lines of the episode has the doctor saying, “I have no medical evidence to back me up, but something happened during the operation that staved off that infection. Something beyond science. Something perhaps from above.”
For Mahantesh, the students of this college and their counterparts all over India, the solution is not Junior Mints, but more cadavers. If they have more bodies, they can learn more. But they won’t have bodies unless people donate them. Things are improving, however, with projects like these.
“The respect that people have for cadavers has increased,” says Shruti Tarapure, a student who had stood right near the cadaver’s chest during the dissection. Akshay Gurav, another student, says, “Our families are also seeing the point in signing up for donation now.”
It has been pouring outside. Around 6 pm, when the sky clears, many of the students pile into an ambulance for the ride to their hostel. A girl turns on recent Hindi film songs on her phone at loud volume. Atmanand and Yoganand eyeball the fish in an indoor tank near the entrance. Dr Mahantesh? He is busy, once again, with the piranhas.