Blog | August 2009

Ominous illness initiators – Germans, Indians and in-laws

by Gabriele Alex


Travelling to India evokes generally two kinds of reactions – the first one goes like – wow, that is so cool, and the second one is – but hey, what about the illnesses that you might catch there. India has a long history of being seen as the disease laden and deadly landscape, hosting maladies like cholera, malaria, the plague, to name just a few, and in this light it is not surprising that my employer asked me to have a check up and renew all relevant vaccinations before travelling there recently. When reaching India this image of healthy Germany and illness-prone India was suddenly contested and reversed, as I learned that travellers from Germany are now seen as a major health threat for India. This is because Germans and other Europeans are currently considered as a high risk group potentially carrying the H1N1 influenza virus. Before even getting to the immigration control all passengers had to undergo a temperature test in order to make sure that those with fever are kept away from the Indian public.

Thank God my temperature was normal and one day later I found myself with my Indian friends in a restaurant eating idly, discussing health risks. They were not at all of the opinion that India is a country with many diseases and in contrast Europe a healthy place – quite the contrary. They believe that not only are HIV/AIDS and the HN01-flu imported by Western tourists, but Western lifestyle and especially Western food are considered by my friends as mainly responsible for the rise in diabetes, obesity and heart disease in India.

Now this is exactly what I am interested in – the ways that ideas about the origin and cause of health and illness are related to other cultural and social qualities, places and spaces, and more importantly are attributed to particular ethnic or social groups. Healing is not only a technique and a skill, it’s also an individual and/or social quality. Part of my research is to accompany sick people to the doctor or the hospital in order to understand their health seeking behaviour and their ideas about illness causation. Seeking health is partly a rational endeavour, entailing efforts to locate the best treatment and the best healer; but health seeking also contains elements of great uncertainty, because at the end of the day the mechanisms of falling ill or getting healthy are not purely logical. For most people what is decisive in the health care choice is the belief in the qualities and skills of certain healers that go beyond university certificates and practice.

Not only are the physical state of individuals and groups often related to their ethnic or social background, also social categories are very important when people try to understand why they became ill. This became most obvious to me when I developed a stomach problem myself in the second week of my stay. I started to look for treatment, and following the advice of a neighbour, I went to see a famous mantiravadi, a kind of sorcerer/healer who is also knowledgeable in astrology, face reading and herbal medicine. The mantiravadi’s practice is rather unimpressive, being situated in a little countryside village, in a shed next to his house. To my surprise the mantiravadi not only had a token system (the tokens were little pieces of carton on which numbers were written, one token was sold for 10 Rupies and the patients were called in according to the numbers), but also there was a long line of people waiting. Intriguingly the mantiravadi diagnosed my stomach disorder neither with reference to disease trodden places such as India or Germany, or germs or bugs or bad food, but with reference to the location of the stars and the fact that black magic had been carried out on me by my in-laws. He offered to remove this black magic, if I was willing to pay the fees for this. His ability to heal, he explained to me, was partly inherited from his father, but partly also a gift of God. The patients I talked to affirmed this concept: the mantiravadi, they said, was able to heal diseases after all other doctors had failed because he was able to locate the real reasons and origins of illnesses.

The idea that the in-laws are the root of illnesses is very interesting in the context of Indian kinship relations, and from a certain point of view it is an idea similar to the idea that India, or Europe are contagious and dangerous places per se and that people coming from this country are suspect of transmitting a dangerous disease, because it combines ideas about places and social groups (German, English, in-law) as the prime indicator, regardless of the actual biological illness causation. These sorts of things make me think further about notions of the person and its boundaries and concepts of the social landscape and the ways illnesses and health are embedded in systems of meanings and sets of values. After my return to Germany, as usual one of the most asked questions among friends and colleagues was whether I had stayed healthy in India. People never ask me this question after a three week stay in Denmark or Switzerland... but with the high prevalence of H1N1 in some European states, the perception of risk and the medical topography might be changing, making formerly healthy countries suddenly ominous as a presumed source of illness as well.


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