Photos and Text by Iqra Zargar
I am on the banks of famous Nageen Lake in Srinagar and can clearly relish its pristine beauty from a viewpoint known as Behrar which is inhabited by about 85 leprosy affected patients and their families. The contrast is clearly visible when I compare the shabby living standards of these patients and the posh living of ‘normal’ people outside the colony.
The colony was basically a ‘live-in’ hospital established by the Kashmir Medical Mission in the eighteenth century and as per the census in 1890 (The Valley of Kashmir- W.R. Lawrence) about 133 leprosy cases were encountered. These patients were given this piece of land after being abandoned by their families to live and also get treated here. I feel another reason for establishing this colony might have been to isolate them from the population in view of the mild-contagious nature of the disease and the unfortunate social stigma associated with them which unfortunately are still inflicted among the locals. My grandma, a student of a leading missionary school at Srinagar used to narrate her experiences when the students were made to visit and help these patients in the past.
But even today, in 2012, the time seems to be frozen as if I am still walking in the corridors of the eighteenth century Kashmir Medical Mission’s Leprosy Hospital and even in not so better conditions than the yesteryears.
As I cross the gates of the colony, I am greeted by Lateef Ahmed, the head of the colony and it seemed he was hopeful that some more donations were in the offing as the job of its distribution lies with him. He was already busy with cutting and dividing mutton pieces among the patients. The mutton was donated in the early morning by Manzoor Ahmad who belongs to a rich family from Nageen associated with the tourism industry, after his grandson had had a narrow escape while his new SUV crashed a few days back!
Back in the colony at 9.30 AM the children were walking towards school through the dusty road leading from the colony. In these children, from leprosy affected patients, there is a noticeable sense of apprehension and disappointment who see their future not so bright. Asrar, 12, says, “I want to be a doctor but, I know my limitations being born from poor leprosy patients dependent on donations with no source of livelihood.”
I move ahead the patients, mostly weak, and old gossip on the porches of their one-room homes. The rooms look very dingy and set aside all the medical advice for proper hygiene for these patients. Meanwhile I meet an old man with a couple of goats and children nearby. He is Isa Balti, 78, who earns his livelihood from these goats now.
Soon a young man, Abdul Majeed, the proud son of ‘leprosy affected’ parents visits some families with medicine supplies and dressing items. He works as a pharmacist in the nearby medical facility meant for these patients. Majeed says that after the completion of two year course by most of the patients in 1997, the patients now get few medicines from the hospital and for most of the drugs they depend on donations. Sara was complaining that her supplies of Tablet Omperazole & Amlodipine were already exhausted a week back and she was feeling sick. Another patient Abdul Haqque had no eye drops to soothe his eyes.
The sky is now overcast with clouds and a light breeze with a drizzle chills the climate and the patients move into their rooms with blankets to keep their frail and deformed bodies safe.
Feeling thirsty, I soon discover a small tuck-shop in the colony run by Abdul Rehman as a source of livelihood. A man soon visits the tuck-shop on a self driven wheel chair provided by Voluntary Healthcare Organization from uptown Bemina in Srinagar and asks Rehman for a pack of cigarettes, who bluntly refuses and tells him to clear his debt first . He is Rashid, 46, who has lost both his limbs because of the disease but is thankful to Voluntary Healthcare Organization who donated him the wheel chair, making his movement possible. As I talk to them, a soul shivering sight meets my eyes. Samina, an old lady being helped by a young lady visits the shop to sell her merchandize- a dozen or so brown-shelled eggs, which according to her were laid by hens donated by a group of veterinarians last year. She is blind and the opacity of her big unblinking eyes and very pale skin says her life’s tale. She buys a few kilos of rice in exchange of the eggs.
Another peculiar and disturbing commonality was noted by me in the colony. Most of the patients were donning dark glasses in order to save their eyes from irritations and infections which majority of them have who have lost eyesight.
A shrill blub and a chaotic rumbling of few men nearby alerted us all and we rushed to a nearby room to witness a frightfully sad scene. The room belonged to Hamid Khan, 81, who was suffering from occasional epileptic fits. Some young men were already forcibly trying to help Hamid and calm him down after an attack. He had reportedly not been able to buy anti-epileptic Tablet Phenobarbitone for one month. The frothing climax of the episode spilled an eerie gloom in the room.
It was 10 AM and most of the men were now readying for their routine chores. Shabir, 22, works as a salesman in Lal Chowk, Srinagar and Aamir, 21, sells vegetables on a cart in nearby Lal Bazaar area. We were alerted by a sudden flurry among some patients nearby. Rafiqa, 31, married a year back who had started labour pains and some elder ladies were trying to help her. An ambulance donated by a local leader readies to shift Rafiqa to a hospital. But Rafiqa soon delivers a cute baby girl. Manzoor Ahmad, 87, breaks the silence in the room by making the mandatory prayer call in the ears of the new born baby, who was named Umeed Jan by his grandfather. The eyes of Rafiqa brighten up seeing a ray of hope in the birth of Umeed (hope). This small hope will also bring in more responsibilities and an invincible sense of insecurity and helplessness, as has been the case with the birth of most of the kids within the colony. The life has been reeling on like this in the colony since centuries with the tides of hope and despair.