Sunday, June 12, 2011

A hole in the skull

I grew up in a small and nondescript town in north India. Most of my teachers held a deep, and almost biblical conviction close to their hearts, which we all have come across, some time or the other in our lives. Spare the rod and spoil the child. And all of them, made ample use of the cane in the classroom. The math teachers were specially dreaded. They held the firm belief that if you were from the land of Aryabhatta and Bhaskaracharya, the land that gave the world the concept of zero, then you deserved nothing but a zero, if you didn't get your sums right. And a sound round of thrashing would usually complement the zero. Followed by the warning that you didn't even have a shot at selling vegetables on the roadside for a career. Since you wouldn't know what to charge your customer when you made the sale. That was always the ultimate insult. 

Most of the time, being an average student who stayed out of trouble, I did not attract much attention. And since I was generally good at math, I usually did not attract attention from the dreadful quarters. But once, when I got everything right in the algebra paper, but made a silly mistake in a problem that my teacher expected me to solve, my name was called, and I was asked to approach the bench.  

Justice, was waiting for me.

I had expected the cane. But the teacher picked up the thick math book on his table and hit me on the head with it, as if, he was throwing the book at me. Figuratively. But, what he said next, hurt a lot, specially, because it was echoed by my classmates for a long time afterwards. He said, "Teri khopdi mein chhed hai kya?" Simply translated, it means, "Do you have a hole in your skull?". But, this statement, often used in the Hindi belt to address the dimwits, is generally open to interpretation.

 I had forgotten all of this, but it came back to me a few days ago, when I read a strange story in The Telegraph. An extract is reproduced below.

(Extract from an original story published in The Telegraph, Calcutta.)

It is a pretty exciting story. It is not an Indiana Jones adventure, but it has history and archaeology, quite a public fight between two intellectuals across continents, and indignant accusations and counter-accusations galore. Who cares if the archaeologists don't jump off from collapsing pillars into boiling pits of mud, while being chased by hordes of cannibals?! Read it, you will still find it interesting.

Before I read this story, I had no idea that a word actually exists for the act of drilling a hole in the skull. Trepanation, as I noted with much trepidation, is the name for that procedure, and apparently, you could be called a brain surgeon, if you knew how to perform it. It was quite surprising that more than four thousand years ago, in the Harappan valley, there was an unknown surgeon, who performed this procedure on a patient. I can almost imagine a dignified looking man with a long flowing beard, probing the skull of his patient from all angles, before gravely pronouncing his judgment.

"Hmmm... Your son looks like he is going to make it, but, in order to ensure that, I need to drill a hole in his skull."   After a pause. "Don't look so alarmed, Trepenation, is a normal surgical procedure, we perform it all the time. My secretary will take your payment information, we accept all major coins, but Mesopotamian coins, unless made of gold, are no longer accepted. Since their civilization collapsed."

But, there could have been a second possibility with the skull, that none of these erudite scholars thought about. Could the hole in the skull have been a congenital defect? Perhaps, earlier that day, the poor man's professor yelled at him in the Harappan academy of mathematics. After he got his algebra problem all wrong. 

"Teri khopdi mein chhed hai kya?" (Originally said in the still undeciphered Harrapan language)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. hahahahaha :) Nice one! And, yes I was pathetic at maths and I am shuddering reading the maths bit. Maths teachers are a terror, no doubt!