The death of a dream

I was standing at a workbench in the chemistry laboratory, with an open book in front of me conveying instructions for the first session of the practical work, and contemplating the array of equipment which I was to use. As I had no idea how to begin, I asked my neighbour, an American. …

I had never been in a lab because I had hurdled the first three years (out of four) of high school. As the youngest in that batch of 1946, I was probably the only one who lacked any exposure to a chemistry lab. … Of course, we all “cooked” our results (the tutors expected that, as they had done the same in their day). … No one in the institution paid any attention to one’s presence (or absence).

… … On one occasion, a professor said in the most authoritative manner permitted by his status that the lines on the palm of one’s hand “signified nothing more” than the connections between the surface skin and the tissues below. He stared at an Aussie lass in the front row as he said this. We knew that she believed in palmistry. Some of the others accepted the possibility of the palm having some indicative, if not predictive value. Naturally, God having spoken, we would not say anything.

However, a few years later, some medical researcher at a children’s hospital discovered that the lines on a new baby’s foot could be relied upon as an indicator of certain ailments in the child. Reportedly, this finding was used henceforth throughout the country. …

It did raise the question – how could any scientist take a firm position on something that had not been thoroughly investigated? How could he deny categorically the possibility of a suggested or apparent relationship simply because the mechanism for the link was not known? Does not the scientific method only reject the negative, i.e. that a relationship or connection could not have occurred by chance? The method does not prove conclusively the positive, that b is caused by a.

As I understand it, if a relationship could not have occurred by chance, then a causal connection is claimed on the basis of probability. But then, such a finding or conclusion could conceptually fit more than one hypothesis or explanation. So, the causal link claimed by the hypothesis tested is not proven beyond question. It certainly allows further investigation, especially to see if yet another hypothesis might be relevant. After all, how many hypotheses reflect the researcher’s beliefs (including the metaphysical)? Should not that professor have admitted that, in our present state of knowledge, we have no evidence to accept the causal link claimed by palmistry? Those of us who wanted to could still accept it as a hypothesis.

… … As far as the palm is involved, we Hindus have been told that the brain and the lines on each hand are linked. And that, as we develop, the brain reflects the changes, and thence the palm changes. What of the original lines on one’s hand? Are there imprints in the brain reflecting inheritance potential and karmic path? I soon began to realise how little mankind actually knew, against the theories shoved at us by academics …

… … When attending lectures, I found that Aussie students were effectively revising, during Term One (out of three terms), their years of high school work. I, on the other hand, found everything new. As some of us studied as a group, testing our knowledge as we progressed through the year, I felt that I was keeping up with the others. I worked as hard as the others. It was therefore a horrible shock to find, at the end of the year, that I had somehow failed a subject. Me fail anything? Impossible. Well, I did.

… …I … remedied the pass situation. Yet another shock followed. I was one of about fifty deferred from the next year of the course for a year, as ex-servicemen had priority. The real shock was finding myself not at the head of the queue, but near the bottom of it. It was like standing, after an earthquake, beside the bricks that were once my home. I lost my confidence thereafter. My capacity to learn and to think through a problem was obviously of no use to me.

The next year was wasted, and it was all my fault. I played hockey at top grade level, learnt to drink alcohol (“Wine is the best broom for troubles”), and to dance and socialise in the company of wealthy students, mainly from Malaya. I worked in a gym and built up both my strength and my physique. I trained vigorously to build up speed and stamina. It was a year of finding myself (there were the usual painful lessons in the process), of gaining confidence socially, and thereby compensating to a degree for the destruction of my belief in my academic competence.

… … I returned to the course the following year, but found that I did not care a damn where the ulnar nerve or any other nerve went. The stench of the cadaver did not help. The real problem was that I was never interested in the practice of medicine, for a number of reasons – but who was listening?

I did not like dirty people, infections, or smells. I did not even like walking on a dirty floor barefoot, or touching anything slimy. I felt sorry for the frogs we cut into. And this was the person anointed to bring the family fame and fortune. In my community, every family has to have a doctor, even if they have to buy one, by dowry.

(The above extracts from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out’ show either that I was misread by my family as clever, or that I was necessarily paddling to destruction in a frail sampan on a rough river of personal destiny: these views not being incompatible. But then how explain my previous scholastic success?

However, one learns that falling into a hole that was not there stimulates a change of direction, new learning, and an enhanced drive to knowledge and success.)