Sunday, June 08, 2008

The heart of the matter

(A series on childhood memories)

Cardiac specialist, Jose Chacko Periappuram, talks about beatings in school and the death of a younger brother

By Shevlin Sebastian

At St. Paul’s school in Ettumanoor, Jose Chacko Periappuram sat on a jute dustbin by accident. The dustbin, as expected, was flattened. The teacher complained to the headmistress, a nun. The next day, in front of the assembly, Jose was asked to come on stage. The nun made a sign and a peon bought another dustbin.

Then she said, “Jose, do show the assembly how you sat on a dustbin.” As he was about to sit down, the nun gave a whack with the cane. Thereafter, she followed it with several strikes, as the students and teachers sniggered.

“It was cruel and degrading,” says Jose, 49, one of the leading heart specialists in the city. Later, the humiliation continued when he returned to class and his classmates took turns in making fun of him.

In his air-conditioned chamber at Lisie Hospital, in Kochi, where he is the chief cardiac surgeon, as nurses hovered around and several people waited patiently to talk to him, Jose travelled easily into the distant past.

Here is another memory: one day, during class, he began to draw an image of a boy with horns sticking out from his head. The first few drawings did not come up to expectations, so he carried on making more figures. Suddenly, the teacher said, “Jose, what are you doing?” Then, she looked at the drawings and said, “You have done 19 drawings of devils, and there are 19 teachers.”

The teacher took offence and even though Jose protested his innocence, she complained to the principal. He was hauled up in front of the assembly and given another beating. “Too much punishment has a negative effect,” he says.

But it was not all sadness and reprimands. During the summer holidays he would go and spend time at his grandfather’s farm in Piravom. There were pigs, ducks, hens and cows, apart from 100 acres under paddy cultivation.

And Jose, along with his cousins, tilled the fields, plucked tapioca, and collected chillies. “We would also go to the nearby hills to collect fruit,” he says. “But there was an ever-present danger of snake bites. People had died because of it.”

But the elders did not prevent the children from going. “Remember this was the time when there were no pagers or telephones or mobiles,” he says. “There were very few hospitals and public transport was rare. So, if you suffered a snake bite, there was a good chance you could die.” But the children went ahead and had a good time.

“At that time, the air was pure,” he says. “When we returned, we did not eat burgers but healthy food like rice and jackfruit.” He says that, nowadays, children are missing out on childhood. “They feel more at home with computers and laptops,” says this father of three boys. “They live future-oriented lives. To be honest, my childhood has been far better than those of my children.”

It was an enjoyable childhood, indeed, but it was marred by tragedy. His younger brother, Kuriachan, died of a skin infection when he was four years old. “At that time, infant mortality was high,” says Jose.

He remembers his late father, Prof. P.M. Chacko, a former principal of St. Thomas College, Pala, saying, “Our son has gone to heaven to bless and look after us.”

Thereafter, for many years, Jose prayed to Kuriachan when he was going through difficult times. And whenever he went anywhere, via Paravoor, he would pray at his brother’s grave at St. John’s church. “I always feel he is protecting me,” he says.

Jose, himself, escaped death by a whisker. One day his father and uncles – one of them was the famous Fr. Abel, the founder of Kala Bhawan -- had gone to swim in a nearby lake at Piravom.

They asked Jose, then six years old, to sit on the edge of the bank. When his father looked up after a while, Jose was missing. The uncles thought he had gone back home.

“But suddenly, my father saw my head bob in the water,” says Jose. He went down again and it was only when he had come up for the third time that his father was able to reach him.

“There is a belief that after coming up for the third time, the person usually drowns, but, by the grace of God, I was saved,” he says.

He was saved, he thought, to become a priest. That was his initial ambition. But, instead, he has become a celebrated cardiac surgeon, who performed Kerala’s first heart transplant surgery. “Just like a priest does spiritual healing, similarly, I do physical healing,” says the chairman of the Heartcare Foundation.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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