This travelogue takes you through Indian medicine (Book Review)

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Title: In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels through Indian Medicine; Author: Aarathi Prasad; Publisher: Hachette; Pages: 214; Price: Rs 499

The story of India’s healthcare system, as most of us look at it, is one of apathy, abominably rooted in deprivation and inequality, but this striking chronicle of Indian medicine argues that despite all odds, it is also a story of constant innovation, hope and passionate individuals who have moved heaven and earth in search of solutions.

Easier said than done is the narrative of the establishment in providing for and meeting the medical needs of the sick among the country’s 1.28 billion people. According to the author’s estimates, the MBBS doctor-to-patient ratio in rural areas may be as high as 100,000:1 . Couple this with brain drain from the world’s largest exporter of doctors — about 47,000 currently practising in the United States and about 25,000 in the United Kingdom.

“On top of all this, for far too many, the cost of conventional medical treatment for common health problems is prohibitive and the distribution of drugs and the execution of public health programmes can face massive bureaucratic and logistical hurdles,” the author says.

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Needless to mention that there is no-one-rule-fits-all solution to the grave health issues in our country of 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects — and countless diversities.

Along with the English (also known as allopathic, Western, modern or biomedicine) “one that Westerners are most familiar with”, there continues to be a multidisciplinary system in which there are seven officially recognised types of healthcare.

AYUSH, for instance, signifies Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Naturopathy and Homoeopathy. Three of these: Ayurveda, Yoga and Siddha are Indian by birth while Unani, also of ancient origin, is Greek that came to India via the Arab world and finally Naturopathy and Homoeopathy originated in 18th century Europe. The Sanskrit word for “long life” and also the acronym of most of their initials, AYUSH is the sextet of traditional medicine systems.

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Going back in history, immediately after independence, even as thousands of refugees created by the sub-continent’s partition continued to live in makeshift camps, the blueprints for India’s new policies were being moulded. The major goals were sustained economic development, education for the masses and healthcare for all.

The last named demanded making use not only of Western drugs and procedures but also of “the many and varied traditional systems” that had been practised across the country for centuries. The author’s grandfather was appointed Secretary to the Chopra Committee that was set up to make recommendations on both the training and the synthesis of Indian and Western medicines.

“Yet, despite the committee’s best efforts,” regrets Aarathi Prasad, “it would be around another 50 years before the Government of India would create a Department for Traditional Medicine under its Ministry of Health.”

“In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room” she adequately investigates how Indian medicine came to be the way it is. Prasad’s travels during the course of her research for the book takes her to bonesetter clinics in Jaipur and Hyderabad and the waiting-rooms of Bollywood’s best plastic surgeons, and introduces her to traditional healers as well as an unnamed Indian heart surgeon who is revolutionising treatment of the poor around the globe.

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From the asthma “cure” that involves swallowing a live fish, to ground-breaking mental health initiatives in Mumbai’s Dharavi mega-slum and ground-breaking neuroscience happening inside the Mughal walls of old Delhi, this book tells the story of the Indian people, in sickness and in health, and provides a unique perspective on the most diverse and fascinating aspect from our surroundings that we little cared to think about.

“In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room” is a fascinating mix of the ancient and the modern. Prasad takes us through the myriad medicinal worlds, a gentle reminder of sorts but more importantly, a significant travelogue through the course of Indian medicine.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])



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