On a limb and a prayer

In Delhi’s not-too-fashionable areas, Sayantan Bera photographs musclemen who set sprains and fractures right

by Syantan Bera

Trying to save a dog can prove costly. Mohammed Kamaluddin found out one morning while on his way to work. He had turned onto the main road from his home in the lanes of Sangam Vihar in south Delhi when the canine sprang, apparently from nowhere. Kamaluddin swerved, lost balance and fell, spraining his left leg. Doctors at the government hospital in Okhla put a plaster cast and advised a month’s rest. Kamaluddin knew he had lost a month’s wages. But when the cast was removed, he could barely walk. The factory worker could not afford to sit at home. Someone then told him about a Kazmi clinic in Khanpur.

A shirtless hunk with rippling muscles looks at you from a board outside the clinic promising to heal broken bones and treat a myriad diseases, ranging from constipation to sex-related disorders. Inside there is Rizwan, a cellphone-toting teenager, a far cry from the strongman on the billboard. Rizwan asks his patient to sit on a wooden bench and after a brief examination, promises to set the sprain right in less than two weeks. The charges are Rs 150 for the first consultation and Rs 100 for every subsequent visit. Visibly in pain, Kamaluddin submits to Rizwan. Out comes a box of balm and a tray with bandages. The massage has Kamaluddin grimacing and clenching his fist. But minutes later, he is ready to hobble back home.

Adjacent to Rizwan’s clinic sits Pankaj Pehlwan. Once a wrestler, Pankaj has been in the bone-setting business for 16 years. “Patients come to us for two reasons,” Pankaj said. “Most of them are daily wagers, who need to get back to work quickly. We seldom advise long rest. Second, we charge nominally compared to orthopaedics and treat poor patients free.”

We had to cut our conversation short because Pankaj had a patient. Pankaj puts a comforting arm around the patient who mumbles his hip is in severe pain. A little later, he introduces himself as Rajeev, an employee of Delhi’s municipal corporation. Numerous visits to hospitals had not helped. Rajeev had run up a bill of more than Rs 15,000 on X-rays, mri scans, consultations and medicines. It was then his friend, Ashok, got him to Pankaj. A few years earlier, Pankaj had fixed Ashok’s dislocated collarbone in three days.

I ask Pankaj about the ingredients of his ointments. He pretends not to hear, but when I persist, he advises me to visit his ustad: Haji Mannan Pattiwala from Lal Kuan in old Delhi. Locating Haji Mannan was easy. A scrap metal dealer waved his hand at the mention of the Haji and said: “Take the next narrow lane and you will find a grumpy looking man with thick moustaches looking down at you from a billboard.” The grumpy one on the billboard promises “health, vigour and vitality and cure for all sex problems.”

But the action is at a unit a yard away. Twenty-five odd people queued up outside the premises. Inside, a middle-aged man with a warm smile bandaged a kid’s hand. “I ask my patients to get an X-ray done, but only after treatment. Just to make sure the fracture is repaired. I can locate the injury just by feeling the affected area.” Someone speaks out in English from an adjacent chamber: “You must write my story.” Iqrup Dhaneja, who has had a frozen shoulder since June, says, “You must put Haji Sahab’s story on the Internet. I consulted top orthopaedics. Only Haji Sahab could set my injury right.” I remembered what A K Mukherjee, currently director of Indian Spinal Injury Centre at Delhi had once told me: “Our profession is akin to handicraft, a skill. The government can train bone setters to improve their skill.”

My next stop was a prominent orthopaedic who did not wish to be named. He explained stable fractures (one where the nerves are not damaged) get cured with time. According to him, bonesetters can reduce the pain of sprains and aches through ointments and bandages. He informed me of Hugh Owen Thomas who established what is today the discipline of orthopaedics. His father, Evan, had a successful bonesetting practice in Liverpool, UK. But the lack of a degree meant he earned the ire of doctors who dragged him to court several times. The constant antagonism led him to send all his five sons to train as doctors. Thomas got his degree in 1857. He is credited for several treatment procedures from stabilizing a fractured femur to “oesteoclast”—a procedure to break and reset bones.

This note of history took me back to a remark from Pankaj. He has a lingering fear of lawmakers. He too intends to send his son to a medical school.
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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