Central & South Asia

Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure From Indian Languages

Haris Qadeer explores the intersection of literature and medicine in India. Indeed, fictional stories can inform medical practice. They can explore medical ethics, patient experiences, doctor-patient relationships and the interplay between traditional and modern medicine.
Medical Maladies

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June 15, 2024 04:34 EDT

Can the study of literature be helpful to the practice of medicine? In his seminal work The Silent World of Doctor and Patient (1984), Professor Jay Katz narrates the medical condition of Iphigenia Jones, a young patient with a circumscribed breast malignancy. By alluding to the classical Greek myth of the near-sacrifice of the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Katz raises the crucial issue of medical paternalism, and Iphigenia Jones, in his analysis of the text, becomes ‘a symbol of the maiming and sacrificing of patients by physicians from antiquity to the present time’ (Duffy 22). Katz’s work has influenced generations of scholars and researchers who have expressed concerns over patients’ rights over their bodies. The Indian-American doctor, Atul Gawande underscores how in the past patients had no say in the matter, and how ‘they were regarded as children: too fragile and simple-minded to handle the truth, let alone make decisions. And they suffered for it. People were put on machines, given drugs, and subjected to operations they would not have chosen’ (Gawande 210).

Commenting on the complex intersections between medicine and literature, Jane Wood notes, ‘medicine and literature [have] looked to each other for elucidation and inspiration’. In their article, ‘Literature and Medicine: Contributions to Clinical Practice,’ the authors focus upon the relationship: ‘Narrative accounts of patients’ experiences of illness are regularly considered in medical school courses and in professional reflections on the patient-physician relationship, aging, death and dying, disability, and women’s health’ (Charon et al.). They also claim that the acquaintance with literary works and ‘writing in narrative genres allow physicians and students to better understand patients’ experience and to grow in self-understanding, and literary theory contributes to an ethical, satisfying, and effective practice of medicine’ (Charon et al.). Fictional depictions of epidemics, diseases, and other health conditions can create awareness about health and hygiene. Literature can play a crucial role in generating awareness about health and society and may persuade readers to contemplate important questions on the intersections of health and humanities.

In the European as well as American literary histories, some of the prominent authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, William Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, Robin Cook, and William Carlos Williams hailed from medical disciplines. Similarly, doctor-writers such as Rashid Jahan, Kalpish Ratna, Punathil Kunjabullah, Guruprasad Kaginele have made their mark on the literary map of India.

Across the globe, India is identified as the birthplace of Ayurveda and Yoga, the ancient systems of medicine and health, and is also known for ancient medical texts such as Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita produced by early medical practitioners. Other classical systems of medicine such as Siddha, Amchi, and Naturopathy have also been prevalent in different parts of India for centuries. Apart from the indigenous systems of medicine, the country has also nourished foreign systems of medicine such as Unani (Graeco-Islamic), homeopathy, and allopathy on its soil by adopting and adapting them. Medical pluralism has existed in India for centuries but, as Khatri and Joshi claim, ‘the healthcare of the masses was always dependent upon the more informal and un-institutionalized sector’. In early times, it was difficult for the common folk to get access to Ayurvedic and Unani practitioners. The practitioners ‘easily invariably catered to the needs of the kings, lords, and the elites. There has always been a divide between the folk and professional sectors of medicine, with folk medicine catering to the masses’. As an alternative system, folk medicine has also been existing along with other systems. The presence of magico-religious healers, bone setter pahalwans, street-dentists, snake-bite healers in both urban and rural localities underscores how even in contemporary India, folk healing is a popular alternative system of cure and healing for the masses.

The roots of the modern/western system of medicine can be traced back to colonialism. It is believed that the Portuguese introduced western medicine in India in the sixteenth century. In his book, Projit Bihari Mukharji comments on the presence of ‘western medicines’ in the region: ‘South Asia had been exposed to ‘western’ medicine for at least two centuries before the term daktar emerged as a socially significant entity. Numerous European medical travellers such as Francois Bernier, Niccolao Manucci, Garcia d’Orta, and John Ovington, visited Mughal South Asia’ (Mukharji 1). The East India Company brought medical practitioners with them and established medical departments in various parts (Bengal, Madras, and Bombay presidencies) of colonial India to look after the health and the welfare of their military personnel and civilians. Commenting on the medical system in colonial India, David Arnold notes: ‘Nineteenth-century India presents us with a medical system that attempted not just to function for the benefit of the colonial rulers themselves (though that was undoubtedly one of its priorities) but also, often ineffectually, to straddle the vastness of a peculiarly colonial divide’ (Mukharji 7). The advent of modern medicine (allopathy) in India appears to have created a dichotomy in the medical landscapes of India—a binary between traditional systems of medicine and modern medicine.

Though scholars of medicine have been writing manuals, treatises, and other medical texts on health and hygiene from ancient times, it won’t be wrong to say that the genre of fiction provided authors to reflect upon the issues on health, hygiene, and cure. Thus, from the beginning of the twentieth century—when the genre of short fiction was still in its early phase—several celebrated and less-known authors, wrote short stories dealing with the issues of illness, trauma, health, and medicine. Their writings demonstrate the ethnomedicinal wisdom of different communities, home remedies, plural cultures of medicine, and issues of biomedicalization amongst others.

Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages focuses on various contexts of health, illness, patient care, and medical ethics. Stories in the collection deal with different facets of disease and cure in India: How are the different systems of medicines depicted in the genre of short fiction? How are traditional practitioners (vaids, hakims, folk healers, midwives) as well as modern doctors and surgeons represented in Indian short fiction? How do doctors incorporate medical knowledge into their narratives? How are the spaces of hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics depicted in short stories? In what ways are the ethics of care and empathy dealt with in the genre of short stories? Who has the right over the patient’s body? How are issues of medical paternalism portrayed in Indian short fiction? How do authors narrate the doctor-patient decision making process in their stories?

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Medical Maladies: Stories Of Disease And Cure From Indian Languages, Haris Qadeer, Niyogi Books, 2022.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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