Lunar Chronicles: Belief and Bodies in Pain

In this highly personal piece Deepsikha Dasgupta recounts the intersection between lunar phases and the arthritic pain experienced by women in her family.

Celestial Bodies

“Are you stressed?”

“It must be those heavy grocery bags you carried all the way from the bazaar”

My mother has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis for over a decade and a half. She found out a few years after her mother had received the same diagnosis for her persistent joint aches. Whilst recovering from Covid-19, my aunt (my mother’s sister) would also be told that she had the same affliction. She, my aunt, believes the arthritis is an aftermath of the viral infection. It set off something that had long been lurking in her own body.

As a child, my idea of my mother’s condition was one of good days and bad days, based on how much pain she would express. On bad days (or nights) my mother clutches on to her aching shoulder and cries. On good days she will walk with a limp and tell me. “Not to jinx it, but the pain is less this afternoon.” On her bad days, I will list possible explanations to her: ‘are you stressed?’

“No, it is purnima (full moon)”

My mother’s response to her pain often has to do with the lunar phase: the variations in the visibly lit portions of the moon by the sun, caused by the moon’s orbit around the earth. She will flip through the Bengali calendar on the wall, tucked below the “English” (Georgian) one, to confirm her suspicions: “I told you so.” It is a belief among many Hindus in Bengal that lunar phases have a bearing upon the pain in the body. The Bengali calendar tracks the moon’s movement and the phases are marked on to dates.

Pain increases on full moon, new moon, and on Ekadashi (eleventh day of the cycle of the moon). This reasoning, and reference to the lunar cycle, is part of the everyday illness experience of my mother, grandmother, and my aunt. In this very personal piece, arising out of my scholarly interest in the matter, I reflect on what this belief tells us about bodies in pain, and how we seek to understand them.

A Pluralistic Illness Experience

As my mother’s caregiver, I have grown accustomed to two “timely” things. First, the cyclicity of her routine bloodwork and doctor appointments every three months. Secondly, how my mother finds her ‘bad days’ timed with the movement of the moon. Charles Hirschkind (2011) has posed the poignant question: “Is there a secular body?” I have leaned on this question to think through my mother’s experience. Biomedical discourse has long posited itself as apparently secular vis-à-vis a religious “other” (Whitmarsh and Roberts 2015). One expects that the scientific thrust of biomedically produced illness experiences will be devoid of religious affects. However, for my mother, her corporeal reality is produced through an entanglement of her chronic illness, the clinic, and her religious cosmos.

If she has something planned involving physical exhaustion, my mother will peek at the calendar. If it is a full moon day, and there is room for rescheduling, she will do that. In case it is not possible, she pops a paracetamol before stepping out. Despite its non-biomedical roots, my mother will rely on her allopathic medicine to allay her lunar woes. “I do not believe in any alternative to allopathy,” she tells me. Plural forms of beliefs, including religious affects, surface to generate my mother’s illness experience.

I would argue that the duality of belief (religious and biomedical) has allowed my mother to structure this unpredictable condition. Chronic illnesses warp temporalities. Life splits time into before and after diagnosis, one waits for repetitive medical appointments. For the women in my family, the pain recurs, and disappears. Yet, being synced with the lunar cycle, has allowed them to imagine a pattern that structures when to anticipate pain.

Dismissed Bodies

Time in individual biographies get muddled and reorganised once a diagnosis is delivered. My grandmother refers to certain instances of pain in her life as leading up to the moment of finding out about her chronic autoimmune condition. Her late twenties and thirties were dotted with staccato phases of debilitating pain. “I would be unable to even climb out of my bed,” she says, “on some days I still dragged my body to cook for everyone in our large family.”

Women’s pain possesses a long history of being dismissed while her body must remain engaged in productive and reproductive labour.  After failing to arrive at a cause, one doctor told my young grandmother that it was moner rog. The literal translation would be illness of the mind i.e., pain was all in her head. It was a ruse to refuse the toil of domestic work.

I had curiously asked my mother, and my grandmother, whether they ever told their doctor that they experience more pain on certain days of the lunar phase. “It is a belief of our mind moner biswas,” my grandmother said, after meeting my question with laughter. Yet, it is felt by her.

Pain, especially in its chronic form, has disrupted the inherent Cartesian dualism in modern biomedical discourse. Jean Jackson (2005) invokes liminality to situate chronic pain in mind-body “borderlands.” Perhaps, it is not mere duality but rather a fragmentary mind body continuum that informs illness experience. Fragments brought to wholeness by belief in lunar cycles alongside biomedicine.

My feisty aunt had, however, raised with her rheumatologist that her pain increases when there is a full moon. He jokingly suggested that she should not look at the calendar anymore.

Out of sight, out of mind.

“Water” Bodies

“But Maa, have you ever wondered why it happens?”

I had asked this question to my mother years back. When I ask her again while writing this article, she gives me the same response, “It is the pull of the moon.” My aunt explains, “The moon is responsible for the tides, and our bodies are mostly water.” The body is not merely situated in the environment but rather the body is conceptualised as environment. I would add that the logic of the climate arising from tropical living in deltaic Bengal has shaped the illness imagination. In my ethnographic work on healing rituals among devotees of the Hindu goddess Sitala, I also found similar corporeal ontologies. Maa Sitala is popularly worshipped as a deity overseeing epidemics, mainly smallpox, in parts of South Asia. The field, the humid air, the eutrophication of water bodies is correlated to the fevered body. The body is seemingly permeable and entangled with the environment.

In Ayurvedic conceptions, there exists humoral elements within the body known as doshas. These correspond to the elements of the universe: vayu (wind), pitta (bile), kapha (phlegm). Food often becomes central to obtaining balance between the doshas to ensure a healthy body (See Chatterjee,1985). Although no direct allusions to the doshas were made in the illness narratives of my mother, aunt, and grandma, food emerged as very important in tempering the fluid “excess.” One must consume “dry” food.  So, my grandmother explains, it is recommended to not eat rice on the stipulated days.

“Rice is roshalo,” my grandmother tells me, “I have heard how it is best to consume ruti (or roti;flatbreads) on full moon, and new moon, to avoid pain.” Close translation of the usage of roshalo here would be juicy. It implies a watery affair that needs to be steered clear off. It will aid in counteracting some of the moon’s pull. “Ruti is dry, so it is better suited,” my grandmother says.

Seated on the mosaic floor of my grandmother’s house, I am flooded with images of her bulging knees. Before her knee replacement surgery, my grandmother would often suffer from knee effusion. In Bengali common parlance, this is simply referred to as jol joma, or accumulated/collected water. It would result in outpatient procedures which aimed to ‘draw out’ the liquid.  My aunt had to undergo this procedure three times recently. Meanwhile, my mother would anxiously confide in me asking, “Will I also become like Maa?”

As I have talked about, different temporalities collide in the trajectory of chronic illnesses. One of them is the act of looking at the lives of others placed at different points of the condition itself. My mother sees her future self in my grandmother and her swollen knees. Water and watery bodies become a critical metaphor in the illness narratives as well as part of the very material reality in the lives of my grandmother, aunt, and mother.

In a piece on water commodification, Astrida Neimanis (2009) has succinctly written that the watery composition of our bodies means that water is embedded in a nature-culture relationship. As she writes, “our bodies have cultural or social meaning not despite their wateriness, but rather because of and through their watery constitution: water animates our limbs, expresses our emotions, enables our reproductive proliferation” (Neimanis, p.162). This surfaces lucidly in my aunt’s explanation behind her belief in the lunar phases, and how it intersects with increased chronic pain.  The way our seas, and river banks swell during high tide, waves of pain course through her body due to the moon’s attraction. She locates tidal forces within our watery bodies which remain deeply susceptible to the lunar “pull”- all of which could be tracked through the lunar calendar.

To conclude, the cyclicity of lunar phases, recurring aches, and tidal movement dissolve into each other in the bodies of the women in my family. The marked days of the lunar calendar become important anchors as they wade through everyday life with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain.

References

Chatterjee, Meera. 1985. “The Food of Healing.” India International Centre Quarterly 12 (2): 129–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23001540.

Hirschkind, Charles. 2011. “IS THERE A SECULAR BODY?” Cultural Anthropology 26 (4): 633–47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01116.x.

Jackson, Jean E. 2005. “Stigma, Liminality, and Chronic Pain: Mind-Body Borderlands.” American Ethnologist 32 (3): 332–53. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3805289.

Neimanis, Astrida. 2009. “Bodies of Water, Human Rights and the Hydrocommons.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 21 (May): 161–82. https://doi.org/10.3138/topia.21.161.

Whitmarsh, Ian, and Elizabeth F. S. Roberts. 2016. “Nonsecular Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology 35 (3): 203–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2015.1118099.

About the author

Deepsikha Dasgupta completed her Masters in Sociology from South Asian University, New Delhi in 2023. Her research interests include medical anthropology, religion, and gender. She can be found on X (formerly Twitter) @DeepsikhaDg

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