Medical Maladies: Book Review

Mousana Nightingale Chowdhury reviews the short story anthology Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages edited by Haris Qadeer (Nioyogi Books, 2022) and reflects on India’s position within the postcolonial medical humanities.

A book cover with a stone head facing the left on a dark blue background with overlapping images of stones, drawings of flowers, writing and glass medicine bottles.
Figure 1: Cover of Medical Maladies, Edited by Haris Qadeer (Niyogi Press, 2022)

While the Medical Humanities as a discipline and its subsequent expansion into the broader area of Health Humanities has made significant interventions in biomedical practice and wider culture in recent decades, it seems the field is yet to see an equivalent flourish in theory and practice in India. With its multi-lingual and multi-cultural landscape, India as a country offers extensive opportunities for paradigmatic shifts, expansion of knowledge bases and dialogues around global inequalities in healthcare. In this context, the short story anthology Medical Maladies (2022) presents an excellent and necessary gateway to not only initiate conversations in research topics central to Medical Humanities in general, but also to raise and potentially answer questions exploring the specific, locally grounded meanings of the discipline in India.

The collection brings together a total of nineteen short stories translated from a range of regional Indian languages which includes selections from both canonical as well as lesser-known writers from across the country. Although, classifying the stories available in this collection into well-defined thematic categories would be an understatement of the complexity that each individual story provides, identifying some broad areas of focus may be helpful in framing the overall contribution it makes to the understanding of health, illness and disability in India. Thus, the stories may be read according to the following thematic concerns:

  • 1- Epidemics and The Collective Experience of Illness
  • 2- Ethics of Medical Practice
  • 3- Healthcare and Heterotopias
  • 4- Intersectionality and Socio-Economic Realities
  • 5- The Diversity of Medical Cultures in India

Epidemics and The Collective Experience of Illness

Figure 2: Black and white image of a man wearing a surgical mask, (Unsplash)

The first category of stories includes three pieces from the collection, each of which foregrounds a different aspect of how epidemics are experienced and dealt with by affected populations. Rajinder Singh Bedi’s “Quarantine” paints a grim picture of the quarantine system with a powerful contemporary resonance. The story, originally written in 1939, proves a timeless take on healthcare practices in India by asking questions relevant even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It poses important questions on care, risk and selfless service voiced through the musings of a sanitary worker at the quarantine centre, who comes to realize that more deaths have occurred because of isolation and quarantine than because of the disease itself. Singh Bedi’s narrative exposes the neglect, loneliness and hopelessness that patients experience as they are separated from family and dissolves meta-narratives that glorify the quarantine system, mostly perpetuated by state-led apparatuses. The inclusion of this historical exploration of the emotional impact of quarantine systems in Medical Maladies presents a crucial parallel to contemporary criticisms of the use of similar healthcare measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shankar Raina’s “Whose Turn Now?’ exploring the cholera epidemic in Kashmir provokes similarly politicised questions about the emotional impact of quarantine measures on populations. This story is particularly harrowing in the way it depicts patients waiting at the general hospital ward for either recovery or death. The shadow of death looms large even as the muti-patient chamber becomes a microcosm of everyday human life full of love and dreams. “The Plague-Witch” by ‘Master’ Bhagwandas, however, takes a unique turn by connecting the problem of illness to the practice of witch-hunting, still prevalent in many remote and rural areas (particularly Northern and Central parts) of Indian states. Witch-hunting, in this context, refers to the framing and subsequent execution of usually older and single women who are suspected of having supernatural powers and malicious intentions. The reasons for such framing may range from ignorance and superstition to personal grudges but the framed individuals are almost always tortured to death. Bhagwandas’ story, therefore, brings the problems of superstition, illiteracy and lack of awareness among the people to the fore by telling the story of how even plagues may be blamed on women in a staunchly patriarchal society. While these issues have garnered considerable interest from governing bodies, these still require a more rigorous socio-cultural and economic engagement for their solution.

Ethics of Medical Practice

Figure 3: Black and white image of a female medical aid worker in white coat sitting next to a man seated on a stool, attending to an injury on his upper arm, (Unsplash)

There are three stories included in Medical Maladies which explore the ethics of medical practice, commenting particularly on how medical care has been commercialised in India to become a mechanically performed ‘service’ dominated by the ‘cure ideology’ (Bhat 1996, Clare 2017). “The Surgeon” by Sheeba E.K. for instance, highlights the immorality of the practice whereby hospitals hold on to patients till their last breath to extract maximum monetary profits. Likewise, “Mantra” by Prem Chand and “The Final Test” by Amar productively examine the concept of the “medical gaze” propounded by Michel Foucault ([1963] 2003), whereby patients are turned into scripts of biomedical knowledge and their bodies into overwritten narratives of experiments, drug trials and treatments.

Healthcare and Heterotopias

Figure 4: Black and white image of two physicians in gowns and surgical masks delivering a baby, (Unsplash)

However, the work of Medical Humanities can no longer limit itself to the critiquing of unethical and dehumanizing practices that characterise the biomedical apparatus, but should expand its contours to facilitating productive engagements with patient narratives beyond the discipline’s “utilitarian bias” (Bleakley 2014, 23) that reduces the humanities to a footnote in the practice of healthcare. This collection of stories deftly addresses this problem by including pieces that focus on structural inequalities, establish an alliance with the work of fields like Disability Studies and take us into the grass-root terrains of Indian healthcare. Thus, the three stories, namely, “A Day in the Labour Room” by Jeelani Bano, “Manzoor” by Saadat Hasan Manto and “Day Care” by Zakia Mashhadi are excellent additions that explore “heterotopic” (Foucault 1997) spaces like the labour room, the waiting room and the multi-patient chamber that patients and carers have to traverse regularly, the intimacies that develop in these environments and the shared sense of humanity that emerges. Such “heterotopic” spaces highlight the inadequacies of contemporary biomedical systems in India, not only in terms of the lack of infrastructure, unavailability of physicians and long waiting hours, but also the failure to cater to the emotional needs of patients. On the other hand, the relationships that develop among patients that co-habit these spaces are fraught with feelings of empathy and camaraderie along with a sense of competition, occasionally disgust or hostility, all of which find brilliant expression in these stories.

Intersectionality and Socio-Economic Realities

Figure 5: Black and white image of an older woman sitting on a chair with little girl on a pushcart outside a roadside shack, (Unsplash)

The collection includes four more stories which further existing debates on intersectionality explored so far by foregrounding the structural inequalities among different groups of people which make certain communities more vulnerable to certain health conditions and make it difficult for them to access healthcare effectively. These stories comment on poverty, caste, gender and patriarchy to contextualize the specific problems of illness and disability in India. “Doctor Moni” by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is particularly interesting in that it challenges the stereotype of the doctor as purely rational and emotionless by introducing a physician who treats patients who are unable to afford care for free in a non-medical manner. In fact, the poor untrained ‘quack’ doctor’s figure represented by Moni is a real staple of Indian villages where hospitals and clinics are scarce and treatment involves long hours of travel to cities. While such doctors often exploit vulnerable groups by providing potentially dangerous healthcare, Doctor Moni is presented as a generous man who devotes his life to treating the poor and the desolate. “The Longing” by Kartar Singh Duggal and “Narova Kunjarova” by Shirin Shashikant Valavade are significant expositions on female foeticide, women’s abortion rights, bodily autonomy and critiques patriarchal social mores along with dogmatic legal systems that condemn women to unethical and unhygienic means of healthcare. While Rashid Jahan’s piece “Asif Jahan’s Daughter-in-Law” posits the dangers of child marriage and traditional methods of child delivery, Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s “The Cavern” appropriates the dramatic story of a heart transplant surgery to ruminate on the stigma and discrimination around caste, class and racial difference.

The Diversity of Medical Cultures in India

Figure 6: Black and white images of bowls of herbs and spices laid out, used in Ayurvedic medicine, (Unsplash)

Finally, in a fiercely postcolonial vein, the remaining set of stories covers the “medical pluralism in India” that has existed in the sub-continent for centuries and served the masses as alternatives to pathology, diagnosis and cure oriented western/colonial biomedicine (Qadeer 2022, 23).   Basant Kumar Satpathy’s “A Major Operation” and Rajshekhar Basu Parshuram’s “A Crisis of Medical Treatment” present stark representations of the failures of modern medicine and turn the conversation towards the usefulness of ethnomedicinal knowledge retained by local communities. These stories argue for the potential and necessity of collaborative efforts among traditional indigenous systems of healthcare like Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, homeopathy with modern biomedicine to yield greater benefits for patients. Elsewhere in “The Gift of Vision”, Rabindranath Tagore sheds light on the tussle between religion and science that often shapes the way illnesses are interpreted and treated across India. Additionally, two stories, namely, “The Stranger” by Ashok Vasishth and “Heartless” by Annie Zaidi utilise the genres of romance and speculative fiction to explore the diversity of medical cultures in new and innovative ways.

Conclusion

As David T. Mitchell notes in his Foreword to Medical Maladies, the work of Medical Humanities needs to overcome the myopic vision of healthcare that centres simply on doctor-patient encounters (2022, 10) and turn to social, cultural, political and economic questions that inform experiences of illness and care. The collection of stories in Medical Maladies, therefore, presses the need to think along these lines in adapting epistemologies and methodologies from allied disciplines so that the specificities of local realities are not lost in the shadow of the global. As corporeal and geographical borders are sometimes crossed and at other times reified through the polyphonic narratives, the road to a postcolonial Medical Humanities seems to be taking concrete shape in this rewarding collection. 

About the Author

Mousana Nightingale Chowdhury is a third-year doctoral candidate in English at Cotton University, India. She is pursuing her PhD in dementia narratives at the intersection of Health Humanities and Disability Studies. Other areas of her research interest include Victorian Literature, Literatures of the Anthropocene and Japanese Anime and Manga. She is currently working on two forthcoming publications with Springer and Lexington Press respectively, and can be found on X @Todorokinogf.

References

Bhat, Ramesh. 1996. “Regulating the Private Health Care Sector: The Case of the Indian Consumer Protection Act.” Health Policy and Planning 11 (3): 265-279.

Bleakley, Alan. 2014. “Towards a ‘critical medical humanities’”, in Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the medical humanities, eds. Victoria Bates, Alan Bleakley and Sam Goodman, 17-26.New York: Routledge.

Clare, Eli. 2017. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Dukes University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1963) 2003. The Birth of The Clinic. London: Routledge.

−. 1997. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach, 330-36. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, David T. 2022. Foreword to Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages, ed. Haris Qadeer, 7-12. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Qadeer, Haris, ed. 2022. Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Qadeer, Haris. 2022. Introduction to Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages, ed. Haris Qadeer, 13-35. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

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