This is a page out of Lady Hardinge Medical College memories in New Delhi in the late 1960s. We were in the third year of College. It was our prerogative as seniors to devise ways to harass the freshers. It started with me dressed up as the Lecturer on the first day in the hall of 150 freshers. They stood up respectfully as I made a grand appearance, waving my wooden pointer and then asking them to sit down and take proper notes as medical studies must be taken very seriously. One-hour lecture over, the girls meekly left the hall. I had spoken for one hour in a stern voice, without blinking, an epitome of academic dignity. Later, an announcement was made for the freshers that a dissection class would be held from 9pm to midnight and that they must come to the Anatomy dissection hall. I cannot imagine assertive students and their unions of today would agree to such a preposterous command! These, however, were good obedient students of the 1960s and they took the directive seriously. I had taken the key from the DOM (the staff responsible for preserving the cadavers for dissection and looking after the hall). He was told not to complain to the faculty the next day as it was a harmless prank being played on the newcomers.
The serious-faced apprehensive students started arriving in the dark. A few of us stood in our white overalls with two torches for eyes. The hall lights had been switched off. The girls entered the hall wondering why it was so dark. They saw the white figures and bright flashes for eyes as we started making eerie sounds. The poor kids ran for their lives. We asked them the next morning why we hadn’t seen them in the dissection hall at night. One girl ventured to say that it was very dark. At once we pounced on her saying that all the lights were on and we teachers had been waiting for them. They were so confused that no one spoke after that.
One girl, speaking in Hindi said, ‘I didn’t go yesterday because I am scared of dead bodies at night.’ We had to teach this girl a lesson for disobeying orders. That night, I dressed up as a ghost as I was the tallest in the class. I stood on a stool in the hostel corridor, covered from head to foot in a white bedsheet and held 2 torches where my eyes were. I must have measured 8 feet tall. The other girls (Jyoti Rao, Manjula Gupta, Meena Bhargava, Madhu Garg) hid near me, the stool with me on it, positioned near the girl’s room. At midnight we knocked loudly at her door. She responded sleepily, ‘kaun hain ji, itni raat mein?’ (Who’s that? So late at night?) In a shrill nasal voice I asked her to open the door. Slowly she got up and opened the door. My friends started their ghoulish sounds, while I swayed and flashed my torch eyes. She ran to her bed and collapsed murmuring, “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram!1” It was now our turn to get scared as she began perspiring profusely. Her pulse was fast and thready (we had to check her pulse, as that is what doctors do first). We rushed to the toilet, got mugs of water and drenched her. Thankfully, it was not a cold winter night. She opened her eyes, again muttered, “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram!” Her pulse was now normal. We disappeared with the stool and all the other paraphernalia before she could recognize us. Next day, during lunch time in the mess, the juniors were discussing how the dissection hall was haunted and their classmate Prabhadevi had seen a ghost in her room!
We assured them that they would be safe in the hostel. After all, we had spent three years with the friendly ghosts who had never harmed us. Unfortunately, within a week they had identified us as students and not the forbidding Lecturers. Ghosts, however, remained a mystery.
Returning to our first year of College, Zubie was a helpful second year student, chubby and friendly. The first- and second-year students would all be in the Anatomy dissection hall together, working on cadavers and going through practical guide books. Zubie, as a senior, was always ready to take a junior under her wing. She would help us struggling with our dissection of the human body. She would coach us for tutorials, taking theory classes in the evening explaining sections from the formidable textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY, our nightmare. She didn’t mind being called to the hostel rooms at odd hours. She was often in my room, preparing me for tutorials and seminars. A contrast from the daily ragging by our seniors, she was an angel protecting us.
One day, there was a commotion and a flurry of activities. Later, the faculty held closed-door meetings. A general announcement was made after that to students. We were cautioned not to talk to our classmates about our family or known relatives or associates, who were in the armed forces, police and other sensitive positions. Such tittle-tattle would have to be stopped immediately. It made no sense, as that was how we developed bonds in the hostel, talking about our families.
A few nights later, a girl went running to the warden to tell her that there was a blood trail from the common room all the way to a hostel room. Cautiously, the ominous trail was tracked by the warden and our residential faculty Dr. Anjali Saha, torch in hand, frightened students following. The trail of blood went up to a locked room. The lock was pried open and, like the intrepid detective about to unravel a crime and a gruesome murder, Dr. Saha cautiously switched on the light. We saw a pool of blood. But where was the body? The detective team looked utterly foolish when a red chili pickle bottle was found broken on the shelf. Later, the boarder, back from home, explained she was carrying the achaar bottle home when it broke near the common room. She went back to her room and kept it on the shelf to salvage whatever remained when she returned.
The excitement of solving a murder may have been deflated but there was something else to follow. A few days later, Zubie was taken into custody and led out of the premises, to our utter shock. She turned out to be a Pakistani spy and was overheard by the night-guard at the telephone booth. She had booked a trunk-call to Islamabad and was passing on information about sensitive Indian military installations, names of streets. Zubie had been on the radar as a spy for some time, so the night-guard informed our officiating principal Dr. C.S.Mallik in the middle of the night. He made a quiet appearance near the booth and heard her loudly giving dates and places where attacks should be made immediately and also names of Intelligence officers. Thanks to long distance trunk-calls, her voice was loud and clear. The police were called, she was handcuffed and led away. A list of sensitive military data, addresses and names of officers and dates to make the attacks on, were recovered from her.
We saw the headlines in all the newspapers next morning about the midnight arrest of a student spy in Lady Hardinge Medical College. She had remained in the second year for the last few years, making no attempt to pass, so she could stay on in the hostel, endearing herself to all of us. This was a ploy to have a place in central Delhi and not arouse undue interest in her.
The suspicion that she was a spy had been going around for a while from her frequent trunk-calls to Pakistan, but she was never caught red-handed till that night. The blood-trail story, we were told later, was thought to be a murder she may have committed. All these were part of secret investigations that were being conducted by the faculty. Students were kept in the dark so as not to cause alarm and disruption. Finding a broken achaar bottle instead of a murdered girl! How foolish our faculty detectives must have felt!
My truck with spies, however, had begun earlier. I was in 1st year B.Sc. in Maharani Lakshmi Bai College, in Bhopal in 1965 when the Indo-Pak war broke out. The newspapers had stories of planes coming into Indian airspace, spies dropped by parachutes infiltrating cities near the border and beyond. One day my cousin, who was an air force pilot, arrived in Bhopal. He came home and told us that Delhi airfields were being evacuated and fighter planes sent to nearby cities from where they could fly to the Indo-Pakistan border at a moment’s notice. There was intelligence that Pakistan was trying to reach Delhi via Amritsar. My cousin had flown a fighter plane to Bhopal. He took our family to see what it looked like. We entered the plane and were shown the various gadgets. It was an exciting experience for us. He went back to Delhi but not before warning us about spies having entered some big cities including Bhopal.
A few days later, I was back from college in the afternoon, when a gentleman came asking for my father. I told him he would be in office. He asked me his office address and what his current designation was. I thought this a little strange, that he knew nothing about my father and yet here he was at his home. The man then said he was thirsty, so I got up to go to the kitchen when I found he had followed me, saying he was not thirsty for water. I got the scare of my life by his proximity, so I immediately called out to my grandmother and my mother (pretending they were at home) and said, “They will make whatever you want to have.” There was, however, no one at home just then. It was my sixth sense which made me react for safety. He said, “I thought you were alone at home.” He hastily left and was out of the gate. I rang up my father in office and narrated the entire incident. My mother had gone to our neighbour’s house. I called her too. My grandparents were in my uncle’s house in Nagpur that time.
My father came with a truckload of policemen and asked me where the man had gone. I had just seen him leaving the gate, so the police were sent in different directions, but he could not be traced anywhere in the 74- Bungalow colony that was ours. Later, I was taken to the police headquarters and shown many pictures – if I could identify anyone. Sure enough, the man with the cap, muffler and check shirt and stubby beard was the man I had greeted into our sitting room. I can still recall his face vividly. These were pictures of Pakistani spies who had landed in India a few days back. In Bhopal, they were getting addresses of police officers, details of wireless network and other installations. This man had been seen earlier at the gates of other officers with various enquiries, but he had entered our home and was welcomed in by me.
I wonder how many of my friends have encountered spies at such close quarters!
Dr. Nandita Ray Bhattacharya is a Pathologist. She lives in Kolkata.
Very interesting. In my college days too, there was a mid-night challenge, to run to the nearby cremation ground, pull-out a femur bone, from a still burning pyre and run back to the hostel, without looking back. While many gave up half-way, some fainted while returning, the one who came back to the hostel with the hot femur bone, was feared as the ghost, for the rest of our hostel life???. Sometimes, the hostel pranks can be ruthless.
Lovely piece, congrats! So Tuklu, looks like you have been hiding your light under a bushel! Is that because you are also are a true detective ( Satyajit Ray’s undiscovered Feludidi?) from your student days? After all docs do have to use a lot of detective skills to get to the root of diseases. The Covid crisis has peeled back your hidden talents. So now we can look forward to more entertaining stuff from you, to break our Covid boredom. Keep it up! All the best! Cheers!
Very exciting stories from the past, narrated with wonderful lucidity. I could almost visualise the blood trail and the spy who came home! Looking forward to many more such intriguing tales.
A bit more imagination and intrigues thrown in and you can be another Agatha Christie.
The spy stories were so thrilling! And I do hope Prabhadevi got over her fear of ghosts at some stage 🙂
PS I finally know why the television series ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ is called that!
What a thrilling story. Spine chilling