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In India, modern life threatens old ways of healing

May 11, 2010

In India, modern life threatens old ways of healing

MITHAGODA, INDIA–On a still, sweltering afternoon, Harkha Makwana lounged on a reed cot below a clattering ceiling fan and shared with visitors some of what life has taught him over the past 103 years. Wearing thick brown glasses, a long necklace of wooden beads and a thin wool cap despite the withering 45-degree heat, Makwana occasionally glanced at his wife Jivi – his senior by six months – and grinned.
In this village of 1,400 in rural Gujarat, surrounded by salt evaporation ponds, few residents take time to sit with Makwana and his wife anymore. Modern cellphones and cable and satellite TV are widely available. Some residents even have access to the Internet through their phones. Who has the time to listen to a centenarian couple explain how they cured maladies such as fevers, sprains and stomach aches in their younger days? Anyone want to sit down to hear a fix for mastitis in cattle? Forget it. This is a country of 52 billionaires where many young people, even in the rural countryside, are feverishly battling to join the ranks of the affluent.
"We don't have many visitors," Jivi said, fiddling with a battered gold earring. The generational divide here in Mithagoda is playing out throughout the rest of India and carries a steep cost. Too often, this country's aged are dying without passing on the local knowledge they've acquired during their lives. It's a trend that vexes Anil Gupta, a management professor and head of India's National Innovation Foundation in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's state capital. For the past 12 years, Gupta has organized twice yearly so-called shodhyratras, which translates loosely to "journeys in the search of knowledge," through this country's backwater districts. Gupta's researchers, who go home to home during the week-long marches, scour for local know-how about herbs, unorthodox medical treatments, unusual irrigation methods or local tactics including how to better conserve water. Over the past five years, Gupta said his team has interviewed 270 centenarians.

"More knowledge has been lost in the past century than at any time in history," Gupta says. "No one is interested in traditional cures or medicines anymore. Young people insist on going to a modern doctor and want fast-acting treatments for their children, even if they have side effects and are expensive. Traditional remedies, which are low-cost, slower acting but with few side-effects, are being forgotten forever."

Once researchers collect advice about traditional medicines, it is entered into a database. If the treatments are for animal ailments, they are forwarded for testing to a veterinary college in Mumbai. Human-related treatments go to experts in New Delhi. The goal is to commercialize the best concepts. Remedies and herbal concoctions are as varied as the villagers themselves. The Makwanas, parents of eight children – Jivi had her first baby as a 20-year-old and her last at 60 – offered a host of cures.
For fevers, they would grind up leaves from the local neem tree, soak them overnight in water, and give them to their kids the following day. Sprains called for a mix of saffron and water.
For cattle that wouldn't eat or drink, Jivi said she heated camphor in edible oil and rubbed it on the buffalo's stomach. Worked well enough she used it on her own aches through the years.
But the crowd preferred to hear stories about the Makwanas' lives. After all, they were both 40 when India gained independence in 1947. A year later, Mahatma Gandhi was gunned down. "He was the greatest Indian and I felt very bad, but I didn't cry," Makwana said. The entrance to their spartan two-room home was crowded with neighbours who leaned in to hear Makwana. He revelled in the attention and often answered questions with a flourish, waving his arms wildly in the air. Makwana's audience was most entranced when he was asked how he met Jivi. They were 15 when they married in 1922. "My cousin said there's a girl in the next village who looks good," Makwana said. "She did. She looked like gold."
Gupta, meantime, says he gives his researchers simple encouragement when they venture out into India's jungles, river basins and arid plains. "Surprise me," he tells them.

Sometimes they do. After one recent knowledge march, researchers returned and handed Gupta a handful of a mysterious black granular substance. He studied it closely but was flummoxed before he was told it was fly excrement collected by villagers from a clothesline where the flies slept. Villagers collected the excrement, mixed it with water and gave it to babies to help them sleep.
"You're going to write about that one, aren't you," Gupta said with a laugh. "But we won't pursue that." But for every bizarre story that confirms stereotypes of India's backward villages, there's another that proves them wrong. Researcher Kiran Rawat spoke with a farmer who wraps bark around the horns of cattle that have mastitis. "We created an extract, tested it using a syringe in the udders and there's no question it works," Rawat said. She said she can't disclose the species of tree because the extract is in the process of being patented.
As you'd expect, Makwana was asked the secret to his longevity.
"There is no magic in it," he said dismissively. "If it is God's will you will live this long. But I am ready to die, maybe tonight."

Article by Rick Westhead: The Toronto Star

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