December 8, 2017
"Smoking is the only one thing that I do wrong and do for myself, Divvy – if I quit smoking, I might as well buy a saffron robe and head to the Himalayas. And how dare you, a damn first year student, how dare you ask me to quit. Get out!"
And with those angry words I was berated and kicked out of Dr Arunachalam Kumar’s room. It was around October 2002 and I was a first year 'freshie' at Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore – my alma mater. He kicked me out of his room but unknowingly allowed me to invade his personal life for the next few years.
A couple of months prior to that in August, I entered the portals of India’s first and most prestigious private medical school to become a doctor. My habit of the reading the morning newspaper led me to my biochemistry professor’s doorstep. Back then (as I am today), I was amazed that my professor, Dr Narendra Nayak was a rationalist and fought quackery and other social ills prevalent in society. I read in the paper about his 'performance' on rationalism in villages around India and asked him why wouldn’t he consider doing an awareness event for our class – all 250 of us. He told me no student had ever asked him and warned me that his activities were controversial. I told him as long as you were dispelling quackery and exploitation what could stop you. Probably impressed by my answer, he asked me if I had a few minutes and took me down to the ground floor office of Dr Kumar in the Bejai campus of KMC Mangalore - the home for first year students. Dr Kumar made an amazing first impression. I was bowled over. With a cigarette in one hand and talking about rationalism and atheism with such vigor and boldness in a room that overlooked the statue of Lord Ganesha, I was a bit overwhelmed. I was all of 18, very impressionable and after I learnt he had a fossa – an anatomical part – named after him (for in some ways discovering it) in Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook considered the bible of anatomy) I was star-stuck.
(Photo credit: Dr Harish Kakkilaya)
My free-flowing conversation with Dr Nayak and Dr Kumar put me over the moon. I was young and I was fascinated finding purpose and meaning in life. I helped organize a programme on rationalism which Dr Nayak led and Dr Kumar participated too. Personally, Dr Kumar become my hero. Not surprisingly, a couple of months later, finding him as a father-figure, I took the bold step of getting personal and emotional with him. I asked him why would he ruin his life smoking. I told him if I could reason with a rationalist like him, I could gain some insight (and guts) into asking my own father to stop smoking. But little did I know Dr Kumar’s ire. Actually, not just I – the whole batch of 250 students knew and were scared of his ire. No one wanted to make Dr Kumar angry. Many avoided him initially. He had a reputation. He was known as "AK 47". Or "AK 56" – a combination of his initials and assumed age. Seniors had warned us. "Buddha pagal hain, bachke rehna".
Dr Arunachalam Kumar with Dr Narendra Nayak
Little did anyone know that right at that time he was going through a hurricane of immeasurable proportions in his personal life. In the summer of that year, 2002, his wife and daughter abandoned him, leaving him penniless when he was in Kuwait as a visiting professor at a medical university. He returned to India to find all materialistic and philosophical essence of life vanished. Few of his friends and colleagues helped him stay afloat. He survived and fought. Just what he was famous for. The king of protests and strikes, he was called. At the prime of his age, he once was a leader of the auto and bus union in Mangalore, a true rebel who even led several protests as the leader of the student union. There’s a legend he once rode on an elephant after sensing victory as a student union leader.
All the social activism and rebellion came at a price. He took a few additional years to clear his MBBS. When he finally did – it is told he excelled as one of the most brilliant students – even winning the famed Dr TMA Pai Gold medal for research in 1984. By then he had also found love. Coming from a strict conservative Tamil Brahmin family, he was ostracized for his choice of spouse for marriage. I remember him telling me and I am sure he wrote about it as well – the love of his life, left him initially I think, only to return with a baby in hand and herself, a victim of domestic violence. His love was unconditional – he accepted the love of his life and her child with open arms and began what went on to be a happy married life until life took a sudden dark turn in the year 2002. And that happened to be the year when I met him. Fascinated by him and in awe of him as any 18-year-old could easily be, I took the risk of telling him to stop smoking. And I got kicked out of his room.
I was literally not allowed in his room. I often ended up at his window that overlooked the Lord Ganesha statue. Seeing my face would be a trigger for him to light a new cigarette and on many an occasion, he would come to the window to puff the smoke on my face in a sign of mocking dissent. One day later that year, he was in a good mood and even though he did not forgive me, he had started having some conversations with me while I stood near the Bejai college entrance under his window (outside his room) while he would sit in his room, type on the typewriter, smoke, sip a cup of tea and make light conversations with me. Especially early in the morning. There were many days when he would crack a joke, make light of a situation and just about an hour later life would turn upside down as he would strongly scold and berate me in the class in front of my 250 classmates. I had gained notoriety for being the student who dared to mess with "AK 47". It wasn’t unusual for me to fear my medical career. But back then books were not priority. As any first year college student, I was relishing the perception of independence and the false sense of maturity any 18-year-old has.
One day, standing below his window and inhaling his second-hand smoke, he suddenly asked me if I had ever teased a girl. I replied in the negative. Right then, he whistled and called out Dr Latha Prabhu, a charmingly tall beautiful professor of ours and unabashedly complimented her on her saree and hair style. Like me, she was caught unawares, but managed to smile, her cheeks becoming red, and just as she slowly and gracefully turned after handling the situation with such poise, she lost her smile and glared at me. That afternoon, I knew I was dead. Back then, as freshies, all we knew was she could be stern in her own right, was the warden of the girls hostel but more importantly, she was the wife of another much feared professor in the administration. I don’t know what she thought about me leaving the scene – I only prayed to God she didn’t think I was involved in planning the incident in any way. Dr Kumar, ofcourse, couldn’t stop laughing. Some days later, when I swore to God that I won’t ever bring up the topic of quitting smoking again, I was allowed back in his room. By then we had formed a bond. He showed me his new Nokia phone. He told me that the college dean, back then, Dr H S Ballal, had given him that phone. It's at that point Dr Kumar shared how his personal life was in shatters after his family vanished mysteriously leaving him nothing.
About a year later, one night, I got a phone call from his maid, Laxmi. She was very worried. In broken English, she conveyed to me that Dr Kumar was bought to the UMC Jyoti Circle hospital emergency room. He had high fever and was shivering. She said he was in too much pain and she felt helpless. By then I spent many afternoons and evenings with Dr Kumar chatting over endless cups of coffee and breathing in his second-hand smoke while we discussed everything from politics to sports to several of his stories (he was a prolific writer). By then I had almost read all books and blogs he had written. We discussed all about how he predicted Sachin’s back injury to his days as a union leader and sometimes the conversation would drift to the happy times he had with his wife and daughter. From the moment he saw her carrying a baby in her hands at the Moti Mahal hotel to the days when he would glare at boys who would line up on a street to catch a glimpse of his pretty daughter zooming across town on her scooty.
Anyway, given my closeness to him at that point, I think Laxmi thought best to call me. He really did not have any family around him. A fact that always beat me. Thousands – and I really mean thousands of medical students love him for his skill, his knowledge, his eccentricity, and his kindness but back then there was no family. Anyway, I sensed the worry in Laxmi’s voice and reached the hospital to learn that he was diagnosed with mixed malaria which is usually bad, especially the first two days. Until that day, even if he was kind and friendly, I still regarded him as a professor, as a mentor. That night, seeing him suffer in pain, fever and uncontrollable shivering, I got a glimpse of life. Of how one could never control life. In my mind, he was the unfathomable, but at that point he lay there in pain, sometimes crying, holding my hand. His condition stabilized by the end of the second day. I sent Laxmi home and asked her to prepare some good simple kanchi (rice-water) and even take care of herself and the dogs. Anyone who knows him, knows his love for his dogs – back then mudhold hounds – they were not his pets – but his kids. The hospital room was my home until he was discharged but as soon as he gained some consciousness and a sense of stability – he suffered from severe headaches.
He had tried convincing me since the first day of admission that either he had cerebral malaria that would soon become fatal or the severe unbearable headache was due to withdrawal symptoms because he wasn’t smoking since being admitted to the hospital. It had been 36 hours without a cigarette for a man who smoked nearly 40 Wills Classic Cigarettes (the red box) in a day. Praying hard to God that it wasn’t cerebral malaria, I went down to the liquor store right next to the hospital and bought a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. Smuggled it into the hospital and lit him a cigarette. He took a few puffs and literally thanked me for giving him his life back. I went and opened the windows of his room which was on the 9th floor. I asked him what if the nurses came. He asked me not to worry. He said he knew the nursing incharge of that floor for ages and was recently involved in appointing her in a leadership position. Just asked me to take it easy and relax. I was doing the unthinkable. I felt like I was committing a crime but did not hesitate as I felt it was important to rid him of his withdrawal symptoms. This was the time to fight malaria, not tobacco addiction.
Six or seven puffs later, the door suddenly opened and till this date, I have no recollection of how it happened but in a very quick moment he handed the lit cigarette to me. I think I took it from him thinking I’ll tell the nurse I was smoking so she doesn’t get mad at him, but it wasn’t the nurse. It was the Chair of the Department of Medicine, Dr Chakrapani and some junior doctors. They were bewildered at the sight. And I lost all hope as I thought my medical career had come to an end. There I was holding a lit cigarette standing in my shorts and a t-shirt in front of the Chair of the medicine department and at the bedside of the then Chair of the Anatomy department. No words were exchanged. The doctors stared at me. I quietly lowered my head and went to the restroom to flush the cigarette. Many cigarettes were smoked in that room for the 8 or 9 days until he was discharged home.
Smoking in the hospital room is not the only reason I remember those days. On the 3rd or 4th day when he was able to sit up in bed and felt a bit better, he expressed desire to have a bath. He was weak and we couldn’t let him do that alone and he wouldn’t agree to any of the nurses seeing him in his birthday suit. A nurse finally came to me and told me if you can get him cigarettes you can also bathe him. He reluctantly agreed and I didn’t mind. I wanted to make sure he didn’t fall or get any injuries taking bath alone. There was a time when he glared at me and told me never to ask him to quit smoking. This time, I saw the same glare and he said, "Divvy, don’t you dare mess with my hair". He was very protective of his long 70s style flowing hair that reached his shoulders or shirt collar – a collar of usually a white shirt with the top button always open. That’s what he was identified with. His white old TVS scooty, his white shirt and blue jeans at work or white kurta pyjama at home. And smoking. Sometimes right under the "no smoking" sign in the college.
Many memories come to me tonight as I write this. Not just from my personal time with him, but also the fun times at school. Almost every student of KMC from the late 80s, 90s and early 2000 can narrate their favorite story from his class or his viva during oral exams. He may have been friendly with me but that didn’t mean I got any discount as a student. Probably the only anatomy I learned was that out of his fear (and of course for the love and respect I had for our HOD back then, the gracious, mother-like Dr Chitra Prakash Rao or as we fondly called her CPR ma’am). In the later years, the early risers we both were, we often met at the Taj Mahal Restaurant (opposite Wenlock Hospital) where any waiter would tell you how he almost had a permanent table booked for him – and the same daily order of his coffee with buns or idlis. If he wouldn’t be in a mood to talk which he usually wasn’t at 5 am – he would just feed me buns and ask me to shut up and read a newspaper. On other days, he would ask me if I knew why the four ladies on the next table were all dressed up with make up. They did feel unusual – but I suggested they must have just arrived by bus for some social function later that day. He would refuse to accept my answer till I finally understood those ladies were perhaps just having a snack after a long night hard at work in what is often known as the world’s oldest profession. Some days, like that day, would be fun, and some other days he would flat out refuse to entertain me asking me to go get a life. The smoking continued. But slowly my visits decreased.
Dr Arunachalam Kumar in New Hampshire, USA in 1984
Initially many other students who were fond of him became part of his personal life too – which I liked as I knew I wasn’t the best solution to boredom or a man without a family. Later as he left KMC for another medical college, our contacts reduced to few and far in between as he moved from the city to Darlakatte. We kept in touch. Met with common groups of friends for dinners and coffee but slowly daily meetings went down to weekly, then monthly, then quarterly, then seasonal and then rarely. I left Mangalore for Manipal in 2008 and then moved from India to the US in 2010. And after a couple of years in the US, I lost the art of keeping in touch. Its not like I had any valid excuse – just on occasion kept in touch with him through facebook when I was in Birmingham, Alabama. I would often re-read his book called "Americana". I think he had published that in the year 1984 based on his trip to the US during early 80s.
Six years ago in November 2011, I wrote him a random email as I was thinking about him and in response he said:
Hi Dr Divvy
Yes, all are fine and life meanders on, regardless. The rains have eased off and a slight chill is in the air. Life has been kind to me of late and I am recouping and recovering from the aftershocks of the series of upsets and upheavals that rocked my boat some years ago.
Keep in touch, Kumar.
This perhaps was my last email communication with Dr Kumar– a mentor once upon a time and dare I say, a friend. A fellow traveler in life where I cherished the few precious moments I spent with him. Had been 8-9 years since I first met him but his response still clearly referenced the damage from 2002 when his family left him.
About few hours ago I received a text message from India informing me that he passed away around 6 am today – the 8th of Dec. I think he finally lost his battle with cancer – I have heard he fought hard the last few years. I am only one of the thousands of students who love him and have fond memories of him. If you see social media you will realize how popular, respected and loved he is. Even his struggle with cancer has been documented well by himself and his friends on facebook. His former students reunited for him and raised money for his battle against cancer. I somehow for some reason did not do anything. I may have communicated with him on facebook maybe a couple of times but in the last few years since 2012 I was hardly in touch with him. Even though, I would think of him every other day. Sometimes there are those very few people you think of very often but somehow lose touch with them. I think I hated the fact that he ended up with cancer and that I, till today, never broke my promise of ever requesting him to quit smoking. Just an internal battle I think that I lost and chose to not stay in touch. My heart broke when someone shared with me a picture of his from last month with his precious beautiful long hair all gone. I couldn’t even recognize his face without his hair. It wasn’t the Dr Kumar I know.
The Dr Kumar I know made us laugh, taught us, was a great educator and great teacher and for me, a personal friend with a very unfortunate life. Though after 2005, he adopted Laxmi her husband and their kids. His maid and her family basically became his family. Today, I fondly remember my professor from 15 years ago, Dr Narendra Nayak who introduced me to Dr Kumar. He wrote a great blog "My Friend Kumar" in 2015 which I encourage you to read and also read this prior coverage from January this year on Dr Kumar from Daijiworld – had great collection of photos. Do encourage you to read his blogs and stories on sulekha and other websites. His memories and stories are what will remain. I am only one of thousands of students whose life he impacted. At least now I assume he will rest in peace without fighting anymore. For any reason whatsoever. I can bet you he must have reached heaven and asked for a packed of cigarettes. The Wills Classic. Regular. Red Box.
And like I said, I only provide a small glimpse from a small part of his life. His impact as a teacher was huge. In fact just learnt from a post on facebook from Dr Latha Prabhu that he had donated his body for student education – his body will probably return to the same dissection hall in Bejai. The anatomy dissection hall used to be behind the Lord Ganesh statue – which faced his office room window. Exactly where my life’s mini-journey with him had begun.
I only wish I had not seen his picture without his lovely hair today. But I guess this is life. Or something like it.