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Medicine men

How many roads must a doctor walk down before becoming a healer? KAVERY NAMBISAN, from her acquaintance with an ayurvedic physician, a homoeopath and a yogacharya, suggests that healing — as different from treatment — need not always stem from the magic letters MBBS.


WHY would a person who trained in modern medicine, who lives and earns by it, seek out those who follow radically different concepts of treatment and cure? I discovered much later the reasons for my curiosity.

The Vaidyar, I first saw during a visit to my husband's village in Kerala. The image of this sprightly man carrying a heavy vessel full of water out of the house and across the road to the temple stayed with me. He was a grandfather whose daughter's daughter was soon to be married. I wondered how old he was. 70? He was 87, and a doctor of Ayurveda. In the last few years I've met him briefly a couple of times, and in July managed to spend half a day in his home in Pathramangalam village, Thrissur district. His son, an industrious bank official in Kochi with a working wife and two children, thought nothing of sacrificing his Sunday to drive me there for the purpose.

The Vaidyar was in the front room waiting for us. At 92, he had the graceful agility of a man who is comfortable with his age. Dressed in a short mundu, his small lean frame bare above the waist except for the thread, he sat in a cushionless cane chair and listened patiently to my questions. He had a quaint way of sitting with both his feet on the chair, the knees crossed, and peeping between his skinny arms and legs.

As a young boy, Neelakantan did not go to school. He worked in the paddy and areca fields, which belonged to his family. When 14, he convinced his father to let him learn Sanskrit from a neighbouring scholar. At 17, he started his training in Ayurveda. For five years, he studied among other works the Ashtanga Hrdayam, the Gita of Ayurveda. A Sanskrit text of 120 chapters in shlokas, it describes every ailment: the rogam (disease), its kaaranam (cause) and chikitsa (treatment). It is datable to the 6th Century. While practising he would also often consult specialised volumes such as Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita.

The Vaidyar showed me his yellowed copy of the book, carefully preserved from his student days, the margins tightly filled with notes. Diabetes, which we like to think of as being fairly neoteric, is classified here according to the type of urine, there being 20 different varieties: udakameham, or colourless, ikshumeham which resembles sugarcane juice, neelameham, kaalameham, madhumeham, raktameham and so on. The Vaidyar described these, speaking easily from memory.

Neelakantan was in his early 20s when he passed the Vaidya Pariksha; he then did a year's training at the Ayurveda Hospital in Thrissur city. Before beginning to practise, he paid homage to Dhanvantari, the God of Healing, at the temple in nearby Nelluvaye by worshipping and working there for a year.

He went on to gain more specialised knowledge from Kuttanchery Moos, a renowned practitioner of Ayurveda. In 1934, he was registered as a doctor in the government hospital near his home. His first salary was Rs. 20 and when he retired after 34 years, it had increased to Rs. 275.


His son remembers how the crowd of patients waiting for treatment outside his clinic while the Public Health Centre, which offered modern medicines was mostly empty. The Vaidyar's life then, as now, was simple and the work was hard but he made sure that his four sons and two daughters were well educated. None of his children followed in his footsteps but a grandson is now studying Ayurveda. After retirement, he continued to treat patients from home; if he had any whose illness posed a challenge he would take them to his teacher and mentor, Kuttanchery Moos. Yes, he did refer cases, which were beyond him to the MBBS in the village; and he in turn treated patients who were dissatisfied with allopathy.

It was past three in the afternoon when after lunch we took leave of him. It was late for his daytime nap but he graciously bade us goodbye and lay down for a rest, turning slowly towards the green outside the window.

* * *

Tired of recurrent attacks of tonsillitis, which required me to take antibiotics several times a year, I met the homoeopath through a doctor friend in Coimbatore. I did so only because I had heard that the medicines could do no harm. Dhanalakshmi Clinic is right opposite the Police Commissioner's office but can easily be missed. The cramped room on the first floor of a three-storied building is lined with shelves containing little bottles of pills. Dr. Gopal sits behind a desk cluttered with more bottles. He listened attentively to my complaints, checked my pulse, asked questions. "I can cure you," he said with the confidence of one who has complete faith in the treatment he offers. He picked out two bottles and shook out little white pellets into thumb-sized plastic containers. "Four of each every four hours until the symptoms disappear," he told me, "and no sour or cold food until you're better." Dr. Gopal's medicines worked miraculously, in spite of the fact that I wasn't too scrupulous about the diet. I consulted him regularly thereafter. I needed antibiotics only rarely and my health and resistance to illness improved. It was a revelation to me that other complaints like migraine, joint pains, fever and travel sickness could be treated effectively with such simple medicines. Dr. Gopal refused to take payment from a fellow-doctor and would reluctantly accept a packet of tea or coffee from the plantations.

He lives with his family in a small flat above his clinic; he moves about town on his two-wheeler and teaches at the homoeopathy college every evening. In his 25 years of service, he has treated countless patients — with asthma, skin ailments, throat infections, simple fevers and joint pains. His fees, when he bills his patients, are modest.

* * *

A chronic backache, which had dogged me since my medical college days, had resurfaced after many years. It plagued me all the time; I tried traction, rest, analgesics and physiotherapy with marginal relief. Friends suggested I learn yoga but I did not want to. I was already doing back-strengthening exercises for 10 minutes every day and yoga would take up too much time. It would also be dull. But an appointment had been fixed at a well-known yoga centre and I went.


I was led into the large room built of reed mats where Sri Desikachar saw his patients. He is a respected figure in Chennai (and familiar to readers of these pages), and people milled outside to see him. He had an easy, unaffected manner and a complete involvement with the problems of the person before him.

In spite of his busy schedule, he did not seem to be in any hurry as he listened to my complaints, asked questions and examined me. I was put on a course of asanas and had to report once a week until I was comfortable. I began to improve steadily.

It was several months before I became aware of the strengthening influence of yoga and pranayama. The deep breathing helps to focus the mind and dispel tension. I became less prone to anxiety and stress and clearer in my mind about my goals.

Every time I go to Chennai I visit Desikachar, a teacher and friend who knows that the best way to teach is to show the way. Although he does not prescribe medicines, he plays a significant and positive role in healing sick people.

Yoga should be a part of the treatment for asthma, backache, paralysis, and many debilitating illnesses, including cancer. It is an excellent supplement to physiotherapy and is safe and beneficial in pregnancy. Last year, when I attended a three-week course conducted by Desikachar I was both astonished and saddened to find that most of the 80 participants were foreigners who had come all the way to Chennai to improve their already sound knowledge of yoga. Very few Indians apparently thought it worthwhile, but there are signs that this is changing.

* * *

I am a doctor who relies on surgery and chemical drugs to cure my patients.

In the last 50 years, society has grown accustomed to the miracles of modern medicine, the ever-improving skills and modalities of treatment, and the high cost. The Government sinks crores in hospitals; micro-speciality centres pop up in every town with amazing speed. People pay, swallow medicines and subject themselves to investigations almost automatically. It may help us — the practitioners of allopathy, the high priests of the faith — to look with an honest gaze at the work of our colleagues who see the body and its maladies differently from us. We have much to learn from them, the most important lesson being to have a vision of the Whole. As I go about my routine of operating and treating, I think about three physicians who heal patients at much less cost; who lead simple lives; and who have managed better than I have to marry the science and the art of healing into a happy unity.

The author is a surgeon and novelist whose latest novel, On Wings of Butterflies, was published by Penguin India.

E-mail: wallden@eth.net

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