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Narenddra Modi, Myth Making And The Medical profession

By Vidyadhar Date

29 September, 2015

A more philosophically-inclined Prime Minister would have given a completely different interpretation of Ganesha . The recently concluded Ganapati festival reminded me of the controversial remark made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year about Ganesha. He was subjected to a lot of criticism in the media for his remark that the elephant head on the lord showed that ancient India had developed expertise for major transplants.

Looking at the issue a year later, it seems little has changed in the thinking of the BJP on such issues.

Such stories can best be interpreted for their deeper philosophical meaning. An ancient Indian tale inspired Thomas Mann, the eminent writer, to write his famous novella The Transposed Heads in 1940. This in turn inspired Girish Karnad to write the famous play Hayavadana. The Transposed Heads is about two friends who behead themselves in front of goddess Kali. The grieving widow of one of them is asked by the goddess to join their heads so that both the men will come back to life. But then she joins the wrong heads and there emerge serious questions of identity, body and mind and metaphysical anguish .

It is a story about human imperfection and a longing for perfection, the woman aspires for both the men, one for his intellect, another for his physical strength. It would be absurd to look at the joining of heads here as a feat of medical expertise.

The tale is from the Kathasagarsarita of the 11th century , part of brain teaser stories. Brain teaser is the key word and a relevant one here. The ancients asked us to use our brains, ask questions, to ponder, not to come to such unscientific conclusions as Mr Modi did.

Karnad also wrote the play Yayati drawing on the ancient Indian story of the king Yayati who borrowed the youth of his sons to live long and enjoy a life of lust and power. The story is symbolic and it does not mean that our ancients knew of such techniques. V.S. Khandekar, the leading Marathi novelist, used the theme as a critique of modern era’s vulgar materialism. If the same logic of Mr Modi is used for Yayati, he would say that in ancient India a technique had been developed which enabled people to exchange their life spans.

And by the same logic of Mr Modi, the ancient Greeks too would have to be given the credit for very advanced surgery because the Sphinx has a human head and the body of a lion.

Animals figure so prominently in ancient tales from different parts of the world because earlier man lived in such proximity, harmony with animals. In a brilliant essay of 1977 John Berger, the eminent critic, has shown how we have marginalized animals in the last few hundred years. In the essay Why Look at Animals he says that having destroyed much of the animal world, we now confine animals to the zoo. They are a living monument to their own disappearance.

The BJP seems to have little awareness of such history. Its policy on environment is more ruthless than of the Congress government.
Among prominent ruling party politicians of recent times, Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, was perhaps the only one who was equipped to interpret Indian history and culture.

It is astounding that Mr Modi made his claim about ancient advance in surgery before a gathering of top names in the medical profession and industry. None of them has dared question him even subsequently which shows what a timid class of educated people we have.

Mr Modi had made his claims at the inauguration of the fancy high tech hospital of Reliance. It is an old hospital Hurkisondas in an old part of Mumbai now rebuilt into a high rise with superspeciality facilities.

Mr Modi needed to be questioned on other counts as well but this too has not happened. He was quite pleased with the Ambanis taking over two hospitals, one is Hurkisondas and the other is a hospital in Andheri which was built by heart specialist Nitu Mandke with free land given with the initiative of the then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Now, Mandke’s name does not figure anywhere prominently and the hospital is named after the Ambani brothers’ mother Kokilaben.

While Mr Modi stressed the need for world class medical facilities at the Ambani function, which means facilities for the rich, his own party’s government was responsible a few days later for the death of several young women who had been subjected to a sterilization operation in Bilaspur in the BJP-ruled Chhatisgarh state. The Times of India was right in its heading in suggesting that the women were actually killed because of negligence in carrying out a most simple operation.

So the elite now wants super speciality , luxury hospitals for the rich and the most pathetic conditions in public hospitals. If these worthies can’t cure people or save their lives, they should at least not let people be killed..

Another odd part is that only a few days before inaugurating the ultra modern hospital of the Ambanis , Mr Modi was lavish in singing praises of Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary in October. Mr Modi seems to have little idea that Gandhi was extremely critical of doctors and the medical system in his brief but widely acclaimed booklet Hind Swaraj written more than 100 years ago. He said that we ourselves create many problems through overeating or indulging in other wrong practices. The doctors, instead of correcting the basic problem, only cure the symptom. Actually, in most cases nature has its own healing process. Gandhi called doctors worse than quacks. Gandhi said he had wanted to become a doctor to serve the country but gave up the idea when he saw what was happening.

The stress should be on preventive measures and there is indeed a discipline in medical studies called preventive and social medicine. But it is being totally neglected. It is a big business for big criminal pharmaceutical companies and corrupt doctors to treat disease rather than prevent it.

One can now understand why Dr Harsha Vardhan, the union health minister, was stripped of his ministry and given another job. He was a supporter of the Gandhian approach to medicine even while being a medical practitioner by training. On Gandhi Jayanti day he had sent messages on mobile phones to doctors asking for suggestions on the Gandhian approach to health issues. Dr Mirza Anwar Baig, my co-walker in Joggers Park, showed me one such messae. He is an allopath and trained surgeon but he supports homeopathy and Nature’s curative powers, the sort that Gandhiji espoused..

The sterling work done by Dr Prakash Amte and his doctor wife Manda is the theme of a Marathi film released last year in Maharashtra with Nana Patekar in the lead role. Dr Amte was recently selected winner of the Mother Teresa award. We need such doctors. They are carrying on the noble work started by Baba Amte and his wife among leprosy patients in an extremely neglected, interior region in the thick jungle of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Prakash and his wife began work in 1970s in an area infested with large mosquitoes and with no electricity or any other basic amenity.

The government’s extreme callousness towards the public health system is demonstrated not only by the deaths of women in a simple operation in Chhatisgarh but also the proliferation of mosquitoes in prominent public municipal hospitals in Mumbai. Doctors say civic hospitals are themselves breeding grounds of mosquitoes which have created the havoc of a dengue epidemic. Shruti Khobragade, a doctor in the historic KEM hospital, herself died of dengue last year creating an outrage among doctors.

A scene outside film star Salman Khan’s house at B.J. Road on the seaside in Bandra tells a lot about the state of public health and morality in our country. Scores of poor people sit in a queue on benches on the promenade early in the morning from six. A doctor examines their papers, takes a look at the patients and writes out a cheque to meet the expenses. It is charity work by the film star. The contradiction is that here is a man who is facing serious charges, one of culpable homicide, killing two people through rash driving in a drunken state and killing wildlife in Rajasthan. It is apparently a very laudable activity on the part of the foundation set up by Salman Khan but it is also a big PR exercise.

I chanced on the phenomenon of the charity seeking poor people in Bandra when I went to attend a workshop on yoga asanas and breathing exercises conducted by Dr M.R. Narayanarao, preventive cardiologist. in Mumbai, on the seaside.

(Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority).



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