Srinagar: “Anatomy department is a place where death delights to serve the living,” reads the line written above the entrance of the dissection hall at Government Medical College Srinagar. A group of eight medical students, clad in white aprons, stand right at the entrance, blocking the passage. Make your way in and you see that the dissection hall is quite large. On either side of it are two rows of tables, covered with pink cloth, each row consisting of eight waist-high tables. Groups of two female students stand separately along these tables, restlessly waiting for their teacher.
Three small aluminium boxes lie in one corner. A narrow corridor at the back end of the hall leads towards a histology laboratory. On the left of this corridor is another narrow laboratory, where four attendants are seated on a wooden chair, sipping tea.
Someone calls out the name of one of these attendants. Abdul Aziz Sheikh, a sweeper, keeps down his cup and goes to the dissection hall, from where he returns almost immediately. “Doctor sahab is asking for a cadaver. She has to conduct a class,” he tells his colleagues. “Stand up and help me, we will have tea later on,” he instructs and leaves the laboratory. Two other attendants shun their cups and follow him.
One among these men opens the lid of a tank that is situated just outside the narrow laboratory. With hands that have thin rubber gloves on them, he pulls out a cadaver.
The men carefully place the cadaver on a stretcher and take it to “bed number seven”, one of the tables placed in the dissection hall. Sheikh covers the cadaver with a white cloth from head to toe. Before he does so, it is noticeable that some flesh of the cadaver is peeled or cut off.
One group of the female students, along with a lady doctor, goes close to the specimen. The doctor takes a scalpel in her hand and cuts through the flesh of the leg to let her students see what lies inside.
Bashir Ahmad Bhat and Abdul Aziz Sheikh are the two persons at the anatomy department who preserve cadavers by pumping formaldehyde solution into them. Bhat does the main work and Sheikh assists him.
A frail, tall man, Bhat is the senior-most staff of the department. He has been working for about forty years as “dissection technical assistant”. He claims that his family members are unaware of the work he does; all they know is that he is an employee at the Government Medical College.
Bhat is a religious person who prays five times a day. He always keeps a rosary in his hands during working hours in order to pay respect to the dead. He was posted in the anatomy department five years after he was recruited as staff in the Government Medical College. For the first three days of his appointment at anatomy department, he could not bring himself to enter the dissection hall. But once he realised that “how long can one escape from reality”, he stepped inside and saw cadavers for the first time.
“I felt heavy-hearted that day,” he still recalls. “But once an individual gets used to the environment of the place, everything becomes normal.”
Bhat in his career of four decades has performed the embalming of thousands of corpses. He says that those dead bodies were of non-locals mostly, people who had come to Kashmir as tourists. “It is not possible for me to recall the figures,” he says. “Only a few bodies belonged to Kashmirs.”
Embalming, according to Bhat, is a unique job as compared to others. Bhat especially remembers the times of the mid-’90s, when armed conflict in Kashmir was at its peak. Bodies, then, were brought to the mortuary in the dead of night and he had to report for work for “emergency cases”. His colleagues say that Bhat often recalls the day when some army men knocked the door of his house at 11pm.
“Everyone at my home woke up to the non-stop knocking at our main gate. We were scared to hear those knocks but somehow I gathered the courage and went and opened the door. I was shocked to see several army vehicles parked outside our house,” Bhat said. “An army man approached me and said, ‘One of our colleagues was killed somewhere and his body has to be shifted to his home, and you need do the embalming’.”
The army man, Bhat said, asked him to sit in their vehicle but Bhat refused to do so. “I told them that unless I get a vehicle from my office I will not go anywhere. Later, one of my office vehicles arrived and I went and preserved the dead body under their (army’s) torch, as there was no electricity that night. The army made the embalming machine functional using their resources,” Bhat recalled.
The anatomy department has two concrete tanks for the preservation of cadavers. Sheikh along with another person lifts the coffin-shaped lid of the tank. A cadaver, perhaps of a woman, is lying inside the tank which is filled with formaldehyde solution. The cadaver looks like a mannequin: its colour has turned into a blackish pink.
“About 10 cadavers are preserved in this tank. They all have an identification tag either on their arms or legs,” Sheikh said, before lifting the lid of another tank where multiple limbs, skulls, feet were preserved in the same manner. “Once the remnants are mutilated, we bury them in a piece of land inside the college, with proper respect,” Sheikh informed.
Dr Gulam Mohmmad Bhat, a professor who has been teaching in the department for two decades, said that cadavers were the main sources of knowledge for students – as their sight leaves a “long-lasting impression.”
“Students get to learn from cadavers in a better way as compared to dummies,” Prof Bhat said. “The department has always given preference to teaching from cadavers as it creates a long-lasting impression.”
Since a long time, the department has been getting its cadavers from outside the state. Every year, about 5 bodies are imported.
Sheikh said that many of his colleagues who work in other departments are afraid of entering the anatomy department because of the notions associated with it. Several people have claimed to see the lights in the dissection hall “twinkling” during the night.
“Some employees of the college even claim that they have seen a group of women, wearing white veils, entering the department at midnight,” an amused Sheikh said. “Outsiders usually say goodbye to us from the main entrance of the department. Only God knows what they have seen, but we haven’t witnessed any such thing since we were posted.”