Bones, Books and Parental Expectations: The Day the Scalpel Lost to the Pen

She showed me what looked like a human thigh bone the same way a sari salesman would show the detailed zari work on an expensive Banarasi sari.

“This is the femur. It is the longest bone in our body,” my mother announced enthusiastically.

I listened to her and kept hoping it was just a close replica and not a real human bone. But what if it was real? If it was, did it belong to a man or woman? Did this person live a fulfilling life? What is the worth of life if we are all going to become just bones and dust one day?

Unable to control my thoughts anymore, I asked her, “Is the bone real? It certainly looks very real.”

“That’s not the point,” she said curtly.

“The important thing is that you will inherit all this when you become a doctor like us,” she added with obvious pride. With a you-can-thank-me-later look on her face, she pointed at the half-a-dozen big boxes lying on the floor – all of them full of books on medical science that would belong to me some day. We had just moved from another city and my mother was arranging things. I was trying to be helpful.

My mother is a gynaecologist. My father was a neurosurgeon. And there are more than a dozen doctors in our extended family who have specialised in different branches of medical science, including neurology, medicine, gynaecology (a favourite), ophthalmology, radiotherapy, dental practice, etc.

The older generation of the family primarily worked in government hospitals while the younger ones have joined private establishments and corporate hospitals. Anyway, this long list of doctors in my life does not stop at relatives. Even our family friends were largely doctors. Naturally, my parents expected me to join the club when I grew up.

I wasn’t so sure.

Anyone who is often surrounded by doctors would understand my situation. At family gatherings, I looked at them in disbelief as all they discussed were hospitals, surgeries and medical trends. They always used incomprehensible words when they could have easily used simple ones. As a child, I imagined that they were playing some sort of a game with each one trying to come up with the longest, convoluted word for an ailment.

What shocked me the most was how they could discuss certain parts of the body and bodily processes even while having a chicken tikka or delicious matar paneer and not be affected by the detailed descriptions at all. For example, they had the special ability to discuss “bowel movements” and “bowel sounds” and gobble a gulab jamun at the same time.

My mother also had a quality of talking about the most beautiful human emotions in a weird medical way. For instance, I remember I told her about a friend of mine developing feelings for a boy during my teenage years. She explained to me that it was just a case of “hormonal takeover” which is common during that phase of life.

“Best you try to avoid such ‘hormonal takeovers’,” she added. “I am a gynaecologist. I know what these things lead to.”

So, my childhood days passed without any major events. But things changed just after I completed my Class 10 board exams. I was looking forward to a fun vacation at that time. Little did I know that there would be a nuclear winter to deal with in the middle of that memorable Indian summer.

A war ensued between my parents and I. They wanted me to become a doctor. But I did not want to take up science. I preferred the arts. My parents were shattered when I told them I did not want to take up the family profession.

“But what about our legacy?” my father asked.

My parents talked about their hopes and expectations. I listened. Instead of arguing with them relentlessly, I wrote down my rebuttal on a piece of paper and stuck it on the refrigerator. It had a solid 10 points in my favour.

I stayed in my room and waited for them to read it. My mother read it immediately. But my father waited for me to sleep to read it. I know because I was peeping out of the dark room, waiting for him to go over my list. He did not say anything.

Was I being a bad daughter? I wondered.

After days of arguments, intense emotional moments, and the written rebuttal, they gave in. Of course, I did not know what I wanted to become at that time. I told them I wanted to do something where I could both write and teach.

While they looked for concrete assurances, all I had to offer at that time were abstract thoughts.

That summer, all their friends’ children enrolled in the science stream. I was the only person who enrolled in the arts class. Whenever someone asked my father about my area of enrolment, he tried to avoid answering the question. It made me sad.

But things improved a great deal after the results of my Class 12 board exams were declared. I topped my state. Our local newspaper even carried a little story on me. My parents became hopeful that whatever I had in mind for myself might just be worth it. Thus, began a journey of self-discovery that I joyfully shared with my parents every step of the way.

The day my first article was published in a newspaper, my parents were really happy. When I later gave up my job in journalism and decided to go abroad to study further, they supported my decision. They set me free and I loved them more for the gesture.

Meanwhile, my little brother became a doctor. He has my parents’ medical books.

And I don’t know what happened to the bone.

Smeeta Mishra has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has taught Communication at management institutes such as IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta. She tweets @smeetamishra.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty