Saturday, April 29, 2006

Of Witchdoctors, Evil Spirits and AIDS

Even after science has taken man to the moon, there are some things that have not changed. Man is still as superstitious, still as questioning, still as trusting as he (or she) has ever been in the forces of nature. While scientists look for the cure to AIDS, there are still those who believe that ghostly possessions are the world’s greatest problem. They have even made this their livelihood.

L.Govindan, nestled away in a small hamlet near Nilavur on the Yelagiri hill is one such ‘Witch Doctor’. When asked about the biggest health problem on the hill, he looks around, crosses his fingers in one of the oldest and commonest actions to ward off evil and says “ghosts”. Ghosts allegedly target women more often. “They are brought in with their hair open and torn clothes. They get very violent and yell abuses and generally act wild.” He adds, “There are some things that can be done to get rid of the ghosts, but it takes time.”

Acording to the only Primary Health Care Centre (PHC) on the hill, AIDS and TB are the two biggest problems they have to deal with. There have been about 42 new cases of the HIV reported in the last three years. The occurrence of TB is now diminishing, but it is still a problem.

Govindan claims that TB is caused by spirits eating away at your happiness. As far as AIDS is concerned, there’s “nothing like that here”.

People trust Govindan more than they trust the doctors in the PHC, say his neighbours, most of whom also happen to be his nephews.

This distrust of doctors was echoed in other villages around Yelagiri as well. According to people in Nilavur and Mangalam, there are too few doctors, and they are too far between. Women in Thaayanur would rather have their babies at home or, if possible go all the way to Tirupattur to find medical help, rather than make their way down to the PHC, where doctors may or may not be available. Even the nurses there are very rude, often making fun of women in labour, said Kannammai, an Octogenarian grandmother of four.

He is famous in these parts, with people coming from as far as Dharmapuri to visit him. In fact, a family of three waited patiently for him to finish talking to The Word. Not wanting to break patient confidentiality, he simply said they were having family problems and wanted his help. Their ‘treatment’ would last about three days, he said. During this time, the family would be his guests.

On average, treatment lasts anywhere from 1 day to a week, sometimes, even longer, with treatment costing anywhere between Rs.150 - Rs.7000, depending on the severity and type of affliction. He acts as psycho-analyst, physician, and guidance counselor to those who approach him. He believes that talking to people helps them in difficult situations, “especially for women having abortions.” When asked if there were a lot of abortions in the area, he explained, “Most men go down to look for work in the plains. So the women folk are left behind with only a handful of men. Occasionally, things like that happen… women whose husbands have been away for months get pregnant. Then they have to have abortions.”

He says he has perfected the technique of ‘aiding’ abortions. His method is non surgical, and non-invasive, he says. He powders a mix of dried herbs and adds it to milk, which the woman needing the abortion is asked to drink twice a day. This needs to be done for 4 days and the foetus ‘dissolves’. This is one of the few ‘treatments’ he allows away from his watchful eye. He even claims to have cured a paralytic with his exotic sounding chants and local herbs.

Govindan gathers his cures from among the native flora of the region, which means dipping into the wealth of the nearby reserve forest occasionally. Do the authorities have a problem? “No”, he says. “I don’t disturb anyone, so I don’t have any problems with anybody. Besides, I know where to find what and it’s all close enough. So I don’t take too much of anything at a time.”

However, if you go looking Govindan, do not expect to find the “Witch Doctor” of popular culture. He wears no animal skin or feathers. Neither does he wear a necklace of animal teeth or claws. He is unassuming, clad, like most other men in the area in a lungi. While his home is a good 20 minute trek up hill from the Yelagiri YMCA office, past ragi and rice fields, Govindan isn’t exactly cut off from civilization. He stays tuned in to the rest of the world thanks to his dish antenna. On being asked why he needed a Dish, “Simple. Cable wires don’t reach all the way here,” he replies, pokerfaced and then breaks into a wide grin.


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