Book Title: And He Opened the Window
Author: Binapani Thokchom
Translated from Manipuri by the Author
Often, milk powder for the children was distributed at the Sagolmang dispensary. There was a long queue of people to take the milk powder. The doctor also asked his children to stand in the queue. Binapani, his youngest daughter was a rebel by nature. She stood there once but she refused to go there again. One day, the doctor found no milk powder in the house. He asked his daughter,
“You did not go there and stand in the queue?”
“I hate standing in the line. You bring my share, fatherT”
Gobardhon knew child psychology but he told his youngest daughter.
“One must do one’s own work.”
Why he said it to’ her daughter was to cast off false pride.
On June 29, 1963 there was an order of the superannuation for Dr. Gobardhon. So he returned from Sagolmang to Imphal. He came back totally broke.
A time came when most dispensaries of Manipur was converted into primary health centres. But there were not enough number of doctors. The then Chief Executive Officer made an order to continue the service of the retired doctors till the new batch of doctors emerged.
Doctor Gobardhon’s service was extended again at Sagolmang for two years. But the journey was the last of the doctor’s life. There was Pukhao river in front of the Sagolmang health centre. The water of the stream looked very beautiful and the doctor used to take bath in the river. One day, he climbed up the riverbank very weakly. For the first time he suspected that he had a trouble in his kidney.
For further treatment of his ailment, he took leave and came to his house at Loklaobung. After a surgery at the Imphal district hospital; he was referred to the Calcutta Chitaranjan Cancer HospitaL His second son Satyapriya accompanied him for the treatment. He stayed there for further observation. But he insisted his son to go back home. Satyapriya obeyed his father. He knew cancer was incurable.
Ater he returned from the Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital, Dr. Gobardhon used to walk and watch the green plants and flowers. around his garden in the early mornings and the evenings. He walked with the help of a stick. He was old and weak. One day, he went to the bank of the Imphal River and watched at the river. Some days later, he became so weak that he could not get up from the bed. He lay on the bed.
It was in Wakching, the month of Meitei lunar year, Dr. Gobardhon whispered to himself,
“I don’t want to die during the month of Wakching!”
It was believed among the Meitei elders that only the sinners die during the month of Wakching. He imagined that he would leave the mundane world in the early part of Phairen month. He said, one day,
“Bring some papers and a pen!” said the old doctor. When his children brought he wrote a will of his properties. He mentioned in his will that all his properties would be divided equally among all his children without any gender bias. Apart from that, he divided equal shares between his two wives: Tampakleima annd Pati Devi. After making a complete will, he remained silent.
He became weaker and weaker soon. All the possible treatment was given to him. But it was in vain. His journey in life was at the brink of the destination. A once strong man was lying on the death bed. His house was filled with relatives and friends waiting for his last journey. All necessary preparations were made by his family members and relatives. The doctor had been arguing with the Maibas on the treatment of the sick people since 1891 but he was now looked after by such a Maiba. The Maiba checked his pulse again and again. He stayed near the ailing doctor day and night. He said,
“Call all his children and relatives. He may expire within two or three days!”
Gobardhon’s sister Thokchom Leima cried “you should not die before I do. It is me who should die first, my brother my sweet, Oh! Golden Lotus of our land.”
The Maiba had abandoned hope. Doctors tried to save the old doctor. They repeatedly checked the physical changes of the old man.
His daughter, Dr. Sheityabati brought Dr. Irengbam Muhendra and Dr. Nando Roy to examine him. They gave injections and oxygen support to Dr. Gobardhon. The doctors did not predict the time of death. Even as his pulse rate became weaker, they gave medicines. They all expected that the pulse might become stronger in some way. But the ultimate truth of human life seemed to hold the old doctor in its fold. His brave soul bid farewell to his tired, old body. He was taking breath in stupor, forgetting his duty, children and relatives. His contemporary friends sat silently at the verandah. They were disheartened. They recalled the coffin had to be there. They remembered their past lives and wiped out tear from their eyes.
It was the year of 1964 A.D. The older generation was in a dilemma, they could not adjust with the new generation. The pride of Independent Manipur, Maharaja, and Manipuri society was no more, worthless now. Nobody wanted to hear about those.
Lairenmayum Ibohal, Laishram Kirti, Arambam Ibungohal, Sougaijam Samarendro and Khongbantabam lbetombi were among the people who visited the doctor. They talked about the loss of monarchy in Manipur, how they had struggled to take education despite the orthodoxy of untouchables, excommunication and purity. But their ideas and views were of the times of yore.
On the 7th day of Phairen month of Manipuri lunar calendar of 1964 A.D., Dr. Gobardhon breathed his last. His mortal remains were cremated on the bank of the Imphal River. The day was a fine evening. The day was not Wakching month it was the 7th day of the Phairen and the beautiful moon light spread over the river bank.
Medical officers Dr. K. Gopal, Dr, N.B. Roy, Dr. I. Muhendra and Dr. P. Kumud and other junior doctors held condolence meeting of the departed soul.
His death was flashed in the radio and newspapers.
Thus the story of the long journey of Dr. Gobardhon’s life cames to an end with these few words.
* * * *
Berry White Medical School was upgraded and rechristened as the Assam Medical ColJege, Dibugarh at a new site on the 8mofNovember 1947.
FATE OF JOHN BERRY WHITE MEDICAL SCHOOL
After the years of Dr. Gobardhon’s demise, the ruins of Assam’s first medical school in Dibrugarh were also soon dismantled. In this regard, the Telegraph on its 15th June 2010 issue published, “Medical museum to rise from ruins .. .in its place will raise a replica of the building built by Dr. John Berry White in 1900, to house the state’s medical museum.
The institution that began as Dr. John Berry White Medical School was upgraded to become the Assam Medical College in 1947. With the upgradation, the glorious chapter of Dr. John Berry White Medical School came to an end, with most of the buildings built during the British era being abandoned.
The medical college hospital, now famous as the Assam Medical College and Hospitals (AMCH), began functioning from an abandoned military hospital set up by the US army during the World War II at Barbari in Dibrugarh town.
Some of the buildings of the erstwhile medical school still stand, unattended and uncared for.
For years, there have been demands from the various organisations to turn these buildings into a heritage site. The Assam government has finally given its nod to converting the ruins of Berry White Medical School into a medical museum.
Founder of the Medical School Dibrugarh
Dr. John Berry White was born on the 5th June of 1834 in England. He duly qualified for the Membership of Royal College of Surgeons in mid 1850s. After being commissioned as Assistant Surgeon in 1857 under the then East India Company, he was posted in Upper Assam. As a young British Surgeon of only 24 years of age he landed in Assam in 1858 with vigour and zeal for a new chapter of his life. At that time Sir Henry Cotton, a great visionary of modern education was the Chief Commissioner of undivided Assam. Dr. John Berry White, a MRCS started his medical career in 1858. Initially he served in 42 Assam Native Infantry Battalion solely to look after the Army, the Civilian, the personals of British Administration, the Tea Planters and the Garden laborers. He served in various capacities in Upper Assam for long 24 years. Dr. John Berry. White rose to the most coveted post of Civil Surgeon of the then biggest district of undivided Assam, that is, Lakhimpur District.
During his service life he was aggrieved to see the most pathetic and deplorable state of affairs in terms of the paucity of medical facilities and resourceful personnel in the Health Department. The high mortality from Malaria, Kala Azar and other infectious diseases like diarrhea, dysentery etc. moved him very mucl1. He became restless for the amelioration of the pathetic condition of the people of this region. Some hawks in the name of treatment practiced ayurvedic, homeopathic without any ‘scientific knowledge. He was convinced that unless the local personals are educated, the condition of the mass people would not improve. The idea of setting up a medical institute became a dream for him. It became an obsession for him to give reality to his dream project. He donated from his personal savings an amount of Rs. 50,0001-towards the institution with a will that his conceived medical institute must be set up in Dibrugarh itself. Today this amount is more than 10 million rupees. This shows his magnanimity, commitment, generosity, sincerity, conviction and great love for the people of Assam. He retired from his illustrious career and left for his native London. His dream became a reality in 1900 with the establishment of first medical school in this part of the country. And the school was most befittingly named ”The Berry White Medical School”. But destiny willed otherwise. Dr. John Berry White left this mortal world on 19th November 1896 in London before he could see his dream become a reality.
Dr. John Berry White was a multifaceted personality. During his service life of 24 years in Upper Assam he worked in different capacities. He excelled in all the fields. The establishment and subsequent development of Tea, Coal and Oil industries in this region owe a great deal to him for he was directly involved in those projects.
In almost all those mentioned industries he had share of business in Margherita, Ledo and Doomdooma. He could visualize that without any iota of good transportation no business of any sort could thrive and survive. To promote the success of these businesses he worked hard for the establishment of road and railway communication in this remote corner of the country. So the railway line from Ledo to Dibrugarh Town was the fruit of his vision and hard labour. And it was the first railway line in this part of country. Subsequently it was extended from Dibrugarh to Amingaon. Not being satisfied with those, he developed and contributed hugely to the water transportation. The then famous RSN company Ltd. with its headquarter at Dibrugarh was the result. He proved himself as an able administrator, a great visionary and an industrial entrepreneur besides being a successful and competent surgeon.
In those days the British administration used to appoint LMP doctors along with semi trained paramedical staff from erstwhile Dacca and Calcutta to look after the health care of the larger section of population. In those days the Govt. of Assam sponsored 3-5 candidates from Assam for the M.B.B.S. course to study in the Calcutta Medical College, Calcutta.
The conservative Assamese people then were scared of pursuing a medical career. They abhor it so much so that certain communities of that time considered the touching of dead bodies (even for dissection by the students) as most disdainful for some religious taboos. So the medical education did not take up well with the students as the families were very reluctant to see their wards as doctors.
So to overcome this hurdle students studying up to class VII & VIII were encouraged for enrolment in the Licentiate Medical course. The local families were motivated to send their wards to study medicine. When after sometime it slowly started getting acceptance the minimal qualification for admission was made Matriculation (today’s HSLC) in 1917.
These LMP doctors along with very few MBBS doctors qualifying from Calcutta and some British Surgeons in higher post tried to ameliorate the health Scenario of Assam with great dedication till 1947. After independence when,the question of setting up a medical sprang up in Assam, the seed sowed by Dr. Berry White came as a front runner. Hence the Berry White Medical School was upgraded and rechristened as the ASSAM MEDICAL COLLEGE, Dibrugarh at a new site called Barbari on the 3rd of November 1947. The medical college hospital now famous as the Assam Medical College & Hospital started functioning in the then abandoned Military Hospital of the US Army of the 2nd World War at Barbari. With this unfortunately the glorious Chapter of Berry White Medical School ended. The first batch of MBBS had only fifty six male and one female student. In the final, only nine students came out successful in 1952 as first MBBS doctors of the Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh.
On the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee 3Ed November 2007 of the Assam Medical College, I remember this versatile personality with reverence and take the opportunity to express my profound gratitude and pay my respectful homage to the departed soul of this great philanthropist Dr.John Berry White. Because of his vision and for what he did for the people of this remote part of the country Dr. John Berry White is the really the Father of Modem Allopathic Medical Education in Assam. May his soul rest in peace.
Author and translator