Good Friday

Years ago, I knew a dentist, who owned his own practice. His residence was in the same building. His patients could ring him any time of the day or night. If there was an urgent out-of-hours problem, he would usually open the surgery and try to help the unfortunate patient. Most of his patients were considerate and did not ring him at inconvenient times. However, once someone rung him at three in the morning. The caller said that his toothache was so bad that he was unable to sleep. My friend, an intelligent man, said to him:

“You come and see me at eight in the morning. That way only one of us will have a sleepless night.”

 

boy

 

Occasionally, I had to be ‘on call’ for out-of-hours and weekend emergencies. When I worked in Kent before the widespread use of mobile ‘phones had begun, I had to carry a small radio receiver in my pocket during the hours I was ‘on-call’. If the gadget bleeped, I had to ring the telephone number of some remote call-handling centre. The centre would then provide me with the telephone number of the person in trouble. Usually, the ‘emergency’ turned out to be someone wanting to make or cancel a dental appointment in the middle of the night or on a Sunday or bank holiday. There was little I could do about these abuses of the emergency system.

One Easter weekend, I was contacted by a mother, whose son’s front tooth had snapped off and he was in pain. I asked the caller to bring her son to see me in the surgery, which I opened specially for her son. The boy arrived. The situation was not good. The child had managed to snap off a lateral incisor, leaving the root below gum-level. The tooth was un-saveable and needed to be removed. To extract it, I knew that I would have to perform some minor surgery, lifting the gum and then replacing it (using sutures). It was a job that would have been difficult to perform alone without an assistant. Fortunately, I had the ‘phone number of one of the practice nurses, who lived nearby. Luckily, she was able to come to assist. The operation was done without problem.

When I had finished treating the child, the mother neither thanked my assistant nor me.  She was typical of many National Health Service (‘NHS’) patients, who do not appreciate what is done for them because it is done free of charge. Many of the services provided by the NHS are free, and because of this a proportion of patients show no gratefulness. They take the system for granted, feeling that what is done for them is their birth right.

It was Good Friday morning when this emergency treatment was carried out. The boy’s mother said:

“What a shame that this happened today of all days, Good Friday.”

Silently, I agreed with her. I said:

“Well it’s been a bad Good Friday for your child.”

After a few moments, I added:

“It was also not an awfully good day for Jesus Christ.”

The mother gave me a dirty look, and then took her child home.

 

[Picture source: “Der Zahnarzt in der Karikatur” by E Henrich (1963)]

The bank manager

I have always had difficulty reproducing my signature. Sometimes, this can create problems.

money

It was a warm day, lunchtime, in Spring 1982 when I walked to the local branch of my bank in the village, where I had just begun practising dentistry in north Kent. I needed some money. I wanted to cash a cheque to obtain ten Pounds.

I filled in one of my cheques, signed it, and handed it along with my bank card to the teller. She looked at the card and the cheque, and then said:

“I am sorry, sir, but your signatures do not match. Please re-sign your cheque.”

I did as was requested. But, the third signature differed significantly from the first two, which also looked unalike.

“Try again, Sir.”

My fourth attempt was yet another variation on a theme. The teller did not approve of it. By now, I was feeling both sweaty and slightly hypoglycaemic. I snatched my cheque and card and stormed out of the bank.

After returning to the dental practice, I calmed down. I still needed that £10. I rang the bank and asked to see the manager immediately. I was asked to return, which I did. On my arrival, the manager, dressed in a smart suit, was summoned to the counter. He said to me:

“How can I help you, sir?”

“I have just begun working as a dentist in the practice up the…”

Before I could finish, the manager invited me into his office. He offered me a chair, and then sat down. I explained what had happened earlier, and that I was concerned about having similar problems in the future as his branch was the most convenient bank to reach on my working days.

“Please give me the cheque, Mr Yamey.”

I handed him my cheque, which was covered with a selection of vaguely similar signatures.

“Please wait a moment,” the manager said, leaving the room.

A couple of minutes later, he returned and then handed me the cash.

I used that branch of the bank for the next eleven years and was never again asked to show my bank card when I wanted to cash a cheque. Such was the respect that the dental profession commanded several decades ago. Since then, I have simplified my signature so that I am able to reproduce it more or less reliably.

Turn it off!

When I first qualified as a dentist and went into practice in 1982, nobody possessed mobile telephones (cell-phones). By the time I retired in 2017, practically all of my patients, even some of the children, carried and used these ‘phones. Believe it or not, my patients often tried using their ‘phones during my appointments.

phon

It was very annoying and ruinous for concentration when a patient stopped me in the midst of performing a delicate operation in his or her mouth in order to answer the ‘phone. Some patients even attempted speaking on their mobiles when their mouths were full of impression materials.

 

One day, I met my next patient at the reception desk. He had arrived punctually, but had his ‘phone up to his ear. He smiled at me, and then said:

“Give me a minute, I am in the middle of a telephone interview for a job.”

“Ok,” I replied, “come into my surgery when you are finished.”

Ten minutes of his half an hour appointment passed, then fifteen, and then twenty…

At the end of half an hour, I returned to the reception desk. My patient laid down his ‘phone, smiled, and said:

“I’m ready now. My interview is over.”

I replied:

“So is your dental appointment. You had better book another one another day.”

Even more annoying were those who insisted on asking me a question and then, instead of listening to my reply, began sending SMS messages. I recall one lady, who had very complex dental problems, which required much explanation of treatment options before I could proceed any further with helping her. Did she listen to me? Oh, no she did not. For half an hour, she sent a series of SMS messages whilst I spoke. At the end of her appointment, she asked me to repeat what I had been telling her because she had had to send a series of “very important” messages. After that experience, I put up a notice in my surgery, forbidding the use of mobile ‘phones. It was a successful move. Patients would reach for their ‘phones, and then my assistant or I would point at the notice. The patient would then apologise, and turn off the ‘phone.

Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

ALBDENT 0

Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

ALBDENT 1

Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

ALBDENT 2

Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

ALBDENT 3

Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle

Not really…

American and English

similar lingos

sometimes different  

USA

Some years ago, I practised dentistry in a surgery near Ladbroke Grove in West London. One day while I was waiting for the next patient to arrive, I found myself alone at the reception desk, the receptionists having gone off somewhere briefly. The telephone rang. Being a helpful sort of person, I picked it up.

“Hello, this is the dental surgery,” I said.

A man with an American accent said to me:

“I want to speak with June Courtney.”

June was a dentist, who used to work in the practice.

“I am afraid she does not work here anymore,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you’re her husband?”

“No, I am not.”

“Well, maybe I can interest you in buying some bonds,” continued the trans-Atlantic caller.

“I’m not really interested,” I replied.

“Well, that means you might be a little bit interested,” the caller replied.

“let me explain something to you,” I began, “if someone English says that they are not really interested, it does not mean that they are ‘slightly interested. It is a polite way of saying that they are not at all interested; they are totally uninterested.”

“Well, thank you for explaining that, sir,” the caller said before ending the call.

I guess that sometimes it pays to speak bluntly.

Monkey business

MONKEY

 

I was reminded of what follows, a true story,  after seeing an excellent photograph (reproduced above). The photographer Ajay Ghatage (from Bangalore) has kindly allowed me to use this photo.

Until I first visited India in 1994, I had never seen a monkey except in a zoo. Even in the hearts of big cities in India, these creatures are as successful as other city fauna such as pigeons, wild dogs, and birds of prey. I never cease to be fascinated by the monkeys’ antics, but I do recognise their nuisance value.

Kitchen windows need to be protected to stop monkeys from entering. At least once I walked into the family kitchen and startled a monkey, which was about to leap out of the window clasping a bunch of bananas.

Once my wife’s family decided that it would be fun to go on an outing to the Big Banyan, a few miles outside Bangalore. The Big Banyan is at least 400 years old and lives up to its name – it is a vast rambling tree that spreads its branches and aerial roots over a huge area. It is a popular picnic place, but, having visited it, I fail to see why. We found a clearing within the area covered by the tree, and then laid out a blanket for a picnic. Before we could sit down, many monkeys appeared. One of them began tugging at the blanket, and others looked greedily at our picnic baskets. The situation became so menacing that we abandoned the idea of a picnic and retired to eat in the car.

Many years later, my wife, our daughter, and I visited Badami in northern Karnataka. This place is famed for its fabulous Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples, some of which were carved in the living rock by the Chalukya dynasty in the 5th to 8th centuries AD. The area was infested with monkeys on the look-out for almost anything they could get hold of.

Some of the ancient temples are located next to a ‘tank’ or lake. While we were looking at these, our daughter wanted to take a photo. So, my wife held her bag.  Suddenly, I heard my wife making loud growling sounds. She was tugging our daughter’s bag while a monkey was trying to pull it away from her. The monkey was strong, but my wife’s growls scared it into releasing the bag.

A short while later, we sat down to have soft drinks under some trees. Our daughter ordered a virulently coloured orange carbonated drink. It was not one we would have recommended, but it appealed to our daughter. After the bag incident, we had warned her not to let go of anything, but she forgot momentarily. She put the opened bottle of drink beside her on the bench. Before she could say “monkey”, the bottle had disappeared. We looked up into one of the trees, and saw a monkey putting the bottle to its lips.

A few seconds later the monkey turned the bottle upside down, and then poured its contents down through the branches. Clearly, it was a creature with a discerning palate.  

A bit too far

Drill a bit,  not too far.

In the tooth is a nerve:

do not disturb it

 

DRILL 1

 

It would not have been fair to my patients if I had written what follows before I had retired from practising dentistry. If I had been one of my patients, I might have lost confidence in my dentist after reading this.

Before dental students are allowed to drill teeth on living patients, much training is required. A great deal of this is done using plastic teeth mounted in the jaws of the heads of a mannequin, known as a ‘phantom head’. The plastic teeth are held in the artificial jaws with metal screws. The screws fit into holes on the undersides of the teeth so that the crowns of the teeth appear intact. As a dental student, I spent many hours each week practicing cutting standardised cavities. The cavities had to be cut to very precise dimensions, which were neither to be exceeded nor the opposite. I recall that certain parts of the plastic teeth had to be cut to exactly two millimetres deep and much the same width. At first, I found this extremely difficult. Not only was I not yet used to using dental drills, but also the plastic cuts in an awkward way.

Eventually, the time arrived for a practical test. Unsupervised, we were required to cut one of the several cavities that we had been learning to prepare. Disaster struck. Within a few seconds of starting my tooth, I had cut too deep. The metal of the screw retaining the plastic tooth in the phantom head was staring me in the face. I called over the examiners. They studied the tooth carefully, and then one of them said to me:

“I think you have exposed the nerve, Mr Yamey.”

“We might be looking at a root treatment, here, don’t you think?” asked the other examiner.

I could not believe what I was hearing.

“I think we’re looking at a failure here,” I replied.

They agreed.

I spent another few weeks in the phantom head room, and retook the exam, which I passed with flying colours, you will be relieved to learn. Now, I was deemed ready to treat dental cavities on real teeth in real patients – under supervision, of course.

The first tooth that I had to work on had only a little decay. Nevertheless, after the intense training, which emphasised cutting teeth should be done as conservatively as possible, cutting only as little of healthy tooth tissue as was strictly necessary to retain the restoration (‘filling’), I approached my first ‘real’ tooth with much trepidation. After boring down to the two-millimetre depth that was ingrained in my mind, I could see nothing but healthy tooth – no sign of decay. I summoned the clinical teacher (the ‘demonstrator’). He looked at the tiny hole I had created with great care and laughed.

“You have not yet cut through the enamel. Keep going,” he said.

The enamel, for those who are uncertain about dental anatomy, is the outer covering of the part of the tooth that is visible in the mouth. Beneath it, is the dentine, and below that the dental pulp chamber, which contains nerves and blood vessels. Decay spreads much more rapidly through dentine than through enamel.

I looked at the demonstrator, and said:

“But in the phantom head room we were told never to go deeper than two millimetres.”

“Those were just plastic teeth,” the demonstrator replied, “forget all that.”

 

[Picture from “Der Zahnarzt in der Karikatur” by E Henrich]

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

ALBOLLY 3

“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

ALBOLLY 2

“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

ALBOLLY 1

“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, Kindle,

and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)

The Red Balloon

The first film (movie) that I remember seeing was “The Red Balloon”. Directed by Albert Lamorisse (1922-70), a French film-maker, it was released in France in 1956, and then worldwide a year later, by which time I was five years old. After seeing the film, I was given a book with the story, which was illustrated by stills from the production.

Thinking back on it, the plot (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Balloon), written for children, is a little bit  too sad for young children. Nevertheless, the short film won awards all over the world.

 

BALLOON 1

 

My parents were not frequent cinema-goers. However, they took me to see the film at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cinema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas.  Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station and is, I am told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s.

BALLOON 3

The “Red Balloon” kindled my love of cinema. For a long while I preferred ‘off-the-beaten-track films’ of the sort that were shown at the Everyman and on the three screens of the Academy. I used to enjoy slow-moving films like Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, and Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road.” Now, my taste in film has changed dramatically.

The change began in mid-1993, shortly before marrying my wife, who is from India. She took me to meet an Indian couple, who lived in south London. After feeding us a great lunch, we watched the Bollywood film “Sholay”, which was released in 1975. After seeing this, I could not get enough of Bollywood films. Also, my love for slower-paced European and American films diminished.

BALLOON 2

What is it that attracts me to Bollywood films? First, they are colourful, lively, fast-paced, and filled with strong emotion, music and dancing: never a dull moment. They are also filled with meaning at various levels. There is the story, often complicated and ridiculously unlikely. Parts of the plot are often based on aspects of Hindu mythology. Then, the films often convey important moral or civic messages. For example, the 1977 film “Amar Akbar Anthony” is about inter-religious tolerance. More recently, the 2018 film “Padman” is about the importance of using disposable pads to promote women’s health.

I prefer to watch Bollywood films with subtitles, but great enjoyment can be gained without them. Many of the films have dialogue in Hindustani. However, many viewers in India have little or no understanding of this language. Therefore, the films are produced in such a way that much of the message of a film, maybe not the finer details, can be understood by people with no knowledge of Hindustani. In fact, Bollywood films are not only popular in India, but in many other countries of the world. Once some years ago, some Uzbek neighbours invited us for dinner. After serving us  a national dish, plov (like pilaff), they sat us in front of a television and played a DVD with a Bollywood film. They told us that this kind of film is very popular in Uzbekistan and, also, in most parts of the former Soviet Union.

Although I have come to love Bollywood films, I am not sure that they would have been to my parents’ taste. They never took me to see Disney films when I was too young to go alone. Had there been more ‘sophisticated’ children’s films like “The Red Balloon”, maybe I would have been taken to the cinema more often in my earliest years.

 

Image source: YouTube

Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job

 

When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.

SL BHATIA 3

In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)