Illness confines us, despite the everlasting search for physical perfectibility. The virus COVID 19 has put a halt to the speed of our modern world. In the backdrop of such a massive epidemiological collapse, mankind tries to grapple with the existential dilemma of mortality by looking for an answer in art.
Worldwide lockdown for the past few weeks has also challenged the millennial to pause and look for a restorative meaning in the day-to-day life. As news stories of forced isolation and complaints of quarantined Israeli voters[i] and French health care workers[ii] being treated as ‘lepers’ surface in the headlines, it reminds me of the unwritten hierarchy of diseases and the base rank in which leprosy is still positioned despite the promise of cure. While Coronavirus still continues to terrorize the world, one must not forget that that the specter of Mycobacterium leprae (causative agent of leprosy) still continues to haunt the patient even after a cure. The disease has been historically and culturally equated with moral corruption. In 2013, Pope Francis compared “careerism”[iii] in church to leprosy hinting at its destructive effect. In January 2020, a newspaper compared Pakistan’s diplomatic relationship with its neighboring subcontinent as a “diplomatic leper”[iv]. For ages, punitive meanings have been associated with leprosy. Religious books like Bible represent the disease as a metaphor of damnation. Thus, physical suffering is compounded manifold by the loss of dignity due to the stigma attached to it for centuries. The trauma of confinement of COVID 19 suspects today is paralleled with isolation of incarcerated leprosy patients. Often the fear of being treated as ‘untouchables’ is what they imply when they compare the horror of quarantined or isolated COVID 19 suspects with leprosy patients. Unlike COVID 19 suspects and patients, leprosy patients were compelled to accept the exile (for example, the harrowing exile at Molokai island, Hawaii) often as a punishment to contemplate on their sins. Despite the obvious differences, leprosy narratives are compelling studies of exile and forced isolation where patients are compelled to sever all contacts (both physical and social).
The two weapons that have continued their battle against the stigmatization and discrimination of the diseased are science and literature. Science and medicine are often seen as the only and obvious choices to cure while literature has been used as a weapon to reconcile with the ailing soul of humanity since time immemorial. Literature may not have been a panacea to the suffering but history has witnessed the emergence of illness narratives that have taught coping mechanisms and provided the ailing with consolation beyond measures. Dr. Ramachandra Mishra was one such figure of Odia literature whose buoyant magnitude is best reflected through the illness narrative, Mo Foota Danga Ra Kahani, a story of human resilience against adversity.
Born in the year 1915, Dr. Ramachandra Mishra, popularly known as Faturananda was one of the greatest Odia satirists time has ever witnessed. His humorous collection of short stories rarely gave away the dim dark truth of his own life. As he juggled with the social stigma, financial turmoil and physical pain of the worst kind, he also took up the responsibility of holding a mirror for the society to reflect. From political satires to comedies featuring the common man, his inspiration was always within his hand’s reach, the typical Odia neighborhood. His works such as Nakata Chitrakaar and Sahi Mahabharat are some of the most exemplary achievements during his short-lived literary life. However, one gets to witness a prismatic self-portrait of Faturananda through his autobiography Mo Foota Danga Ra Kahani (The Story of My Leaking Boat). Propelled by a debilitating disease called leprosy, Dr. Ramchandra Mishra battled with the adversities of life by using literature as a weapon during isolation. He dubs the narrative of sickness with metaphors of India’s struggle for independence from the British. The political setting becomes a part of his life narrative.
Dr. Ramachandra Mishra was born to an affluent Brahmin Vaidya family. Like most Indian families, his fate had been decided by the elders at home. He was brought up to be a doctor, a wish which was soon realized when he joined SCB Medical School, Cuttack. He paints an interesting picture of his colorful days at the campus in his autobiography but before he could extend his services as a trained doctor, he was unfortunately diagnosed with leprosy in the final year of medical school.
The onset of leprosy coincides with a powerful event in the social life. The chapter “My best friend leprosy” (‘Moro Parama Mitra Mahabyadhi’) uses illness as a metaphor. The author compares the leprosy spreading through his body with the colonization of India by the British Empire. Just like the East India Company arriving from far across the sea and making its first settlement in a little hamlet Sutanati, the first visible sign of leprosy on his body was a small patch on the elbow. Soon, he was diagnosed with leprosy that spread across his whole body like the British Empire conquering the nation. Faturananda also compares the Britishers and leprosy with a python that slowly attacks and swallows up its victim completely. He also realized the misfortune of having to battle against a disease whose causative agent or cure was still unknown to science. The ignorance and weakness of Indians had similarly encouraged the British to take advantage of this situation.
The disease led to an altered relationship with his body, self, and the society, thus making him doubly disadvantaged – a ‘leper’ and a colonized Indian. Unlike other diseases, leprosy bears moral opprobrium. While it virtually ‘eats away’ (‘Kushtha’, or leprosy in Sanskrit, literally means ‘to eat away’) the sufferer, society makes it even more difficult for the survivor by ostracizing the patient for the irreversible signs of the physical deformity caused by it. However, Faturananda continued ceaselessly to be reintegrated into the society that sought to exclude him. Like the battle for independence against the British, he weathers several attacks on his dignity.
In the same chapter “My Best Friend Leprosy,” the fatal disease and its destructive power is highlighted when leprosy is referred to as “mahabyadhi” or “the great disease.” Since the disease was incurable and left the patient deformed, people treated it as the emperor of maladies. However, the author humorously states that despite having no fondness for medical sciences and flickering attention towards academics as a student at the medical school, in the end semester he determines to revive his dignity bypassing the final examinations. It can be observed that the author tries to give himself a reason to live by challenging himself and defying adversities, in this instance, the physical complications faced due to leprosy. He mentions humor to be his ultimate weapon since he has used it abundantly both in writing and treating leprosy. As a student of medicine, he had learnt that a good deal of laughter could stimulate memory and lighten the gravity of a situation. Perhaps this knowledge gave him the strength to fight leprosy cheerfully, with a positive spirit. Having passed his exams successfully, he tried to cure himself of leprosy under the guidance of his teacher Sri Biswanath Kar. The treatment went on for years and he compares this struggle with Gandhi’s movement of nonviolence against the British. Being a doctor, Faturananda injected himself with the medicine despite the immense pain which he describes as boiling oil put under the skin.
Faturananda was not just fighting the battle for his own dignity but, being an educated man of science, he carried out research to find ways to eradicate the evil of leprosy. The first ray of hope came in the form of an article from the journal Leprosy Review published from London. He wrote to the Abbot Research Laboratories seeking further information and succeeded in becoming one of the first Indians to try Dyson for the cure of leprosy. He not only administered the medicine to himself, he went on to help another friend who was also afflicted by the disease. While several relatives had convinced themselves that he would certainly succumb to his disease and could do nothing more than pity his decaying body, he himself never gave up and constantly engaged in collaborating with the socially alert men of his times as a writer and a doctor to find solutions to existing problems. Until then in the 1920s it was only under the treatment of Dr Isaac Santra, a well-known physician in the field, that a leper could find some relief but no permanent cure. A cure for leprosy was a dream for Odias and Faturanada brought it to the state for everyone to use.
It is interesting to note here that having successfully treated himself with Dyson followed by Dapsone injections, the author compares himself ‘to a warrior with scars all over the body’. Leprosy is compared to a tiger that lost the battle with him but left behind a few scars (visible patches) on his body. However, it was not just some scars but also diminished vision that made his life difficult. Diagnosed with cataract he was advised to undergo an operation at the Netaji Sebasadan, Cuttack. This is where he had a humiliating experience that kept oppressing him for a long time. A fellow doctor, Dr. Gyan Das, carried out the cataract operation and advised him bed rest. However, the Head of the Department, Dr Rajakishore Nanda called a press meet and accused Dr. Das of having defiled the hospital premises by admitting a leprosy patient without the permission of the authorities. He writes;
“I laid on the hospital bed listening to the discussion at the press meet in the room adjacent to mine. Dr Gyana Das was condemned of defiling the hospital premises by admitting a patient like me. My hospital tickets were seized. The humiliating discussions that I overheard brought a life taking agony. I was forced to the leave the hospital immediately and continue the treatment at home under the supervision of DrGyana Das”.
As a result, Faturananda had to return home without taking bed-rest due to which he lost vision forever. He describes this pain as almost “life-taking.”
Faturananda states that had not the British colonized our country, Indians might not have availed themselves of the advantages of modernity. Similarly, had he not been afflicted by leprosy he would have never been able to be loved and respected by such a large number of Odias. The disease isolated him from society and encouraged him to be a writer. This is where it is can be noted that the ailing man constantly searches for self-worth, a recognition which he succeeds to find through literature. The loss of social acceptability in the case of Faturananda, despite being born to a high caste and affluent family, leaves him longing for self-worth which he eventually discovers in his writing life.
Fatuarananda’s narrative articulates the collective sentiment of a colonized community on a national scale. It not only chronicles the story of a body as just a harbor of a disease but also bring the illness experience as a blessing in disguise. The autobiography shows the transformative power of literature which empowers him to revive the lost personhood and by the same token allows him a vision for the future.
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Sridhi Dash is a young Research Scholar pursuing Ph.D. from the Department of English, Ravenshaw University, India. She is also a Lecturer in English in the Department of Higher Education, Odisha. Her area of research includes the study of images of leprosy across literature and genres. She is interested in the examination of illness as a metaphor in imaginative as well as clinical narratives. Other areas of her interest include postcolonial travel narratives and rehabilitation studies.