The Anatomy Museum

I was on a professional visit to Manipal University, near the temple town of Udupi recently. But then, professional trips, many a time, are not so professional.


I was on a professional visit to Manipal University, near the temple town of Udupi recently. I was taken around to the many institutions of the university by a very genial public relations officer, Vidya Pratap. I went to a couple of medical colleges, the technology campus, the communication school, the life sciences school etc. There was nothing extraordinary about these visits, it was predictable and routine for a journalist. But my visit to one place in the university town stirred me for days and nights. Even as I sit down to write about that place, I can experience torrents of emotion and unreason. I am referring to the 55-year-old anatomy museum of the Kasturba Medical College, which has been set up to teach medical students the intricacies of the human body.

Like the other institutions that she wanted me to see, Vidya had this museum too on her list and just led me into it one afternoon. Even as we stepped in she asked for the curator, but was told that the person had not returned from lunch. So we were left to have a quiet communion with the nearly one thousand true specimens of the human body. As an afterthought, the curator's running commentary would have interfered with the solemnity of the communion. The specimens were classified into brain, head and neck, thorax, abdomen, pelvis and the limbs. One has to walk in a serpentine line to see these specimens preserved in huge glass jars filled with formalene solution. This place, where you see every single part of the human body sliced and arranged is, for the record, the biggest in Asia and was developed by one Dr. Godbole.

The chaos that can be unleashed in the mind when one sees parts of the human body -- which could once breathe, feel and touch -- mounted like artwork is simply enormous. They start appearing like reflections of your working brain, moving hand, belching stomach, seeing eyes and the stretching spine. You realise that conceit and contortion, sadness and the sagging mood, ecstatic surges and calm joy are all hidden in similar interstices of the brain or are running in the labyrinth of the nerves that you so clearly see in the specimens. Certain important nerve routes in the specimens were coloured red, yellow and blue by the curator. How interesting to give them colours! You unknowingly start talking to them and they begin to whisper.

Strangely, in this anatomy museum, you have to often remind yourself that it is meant to be a place of science and not art. That it is a place where method, reason and only rationality triumphed. If natural decay was life's surrogate in this museum, then there was formaldehyde to induce stillness and create an in-between state. The trainee doctor who comes and sits before these specimens for hours to make notes has a defined utilitarian engagement with it. He or she can't perhaps imagine what kind of clasp and warmth the specimen hand contained while alive or what fine mind the brain in the formalene jar was or would they be interested in reconstructing life out of the neatly torn pieces like in a folktale. It is not a place where you can engage yourself emotionally with the curves and colours you see in the jars as you may do when you stare at exhibits in an art gallery. But then I wondered why should I be in this museum to seek knowledge or satisfy my curiosity about the human body? For a moment I felt reason too had the stubbornness and dogma of ideology. That science too was an ideology and that one would appreciate this museum better with some unreason and emotion. So I journeyed back to my father's death.

There was a hand in one of the jars that had thick, untrimmed nails, with a stout thumb just like that of my father. My father's nails were so thick that it couldn't be gripped and cut with a nail cutter. He always employed his used 7 O'Clock shaving blade to do the job. The nail-cutting ritual would invariably happen on a Sunday morning immediately after his bath and surely before his breakfast. The logic he offered was that having soaked in water the nails would be relatively soft and trimming them wouldn't be a bloody mess. It was always an anxious moment for me to watch him cut his nails, because the double-edged razor blade was a precarious affair and more so because he was a diabetic. But I never remember the blade making even the slightest incision on his skin. He cut his nails so round and clean that they hardly needed any filing. It was an art by itself. Even the day before his death, a Thursday, he had mentioned that cutting nails on the following Sunday was on his 'must do' list. But on his death, his nails remained untrimmed. Since his body too was given to a medical college, I suspect that his hands too must be preserved in a pretty formalene jar with the nails intact. Soaked in formalene, how soft would the nails get? Well, that was the only question that I asked my unsuspecting host.

But before I end, let me complete the museum story. Adjoining the anatomy museum there is a pathology museum and this one has far greater number of specimens, about 2600 or so. I walked in and started looking among many damaged hearts on display for the one which had suffered 'myocardial infarction.' Nothing else interested me. Professional trips, many a time, are not so professional after all.