There was a time when we too, used to be considered human beings. Now this time has come when people come to have a look at us’.
A chill ran down our spine when we heard these words from the old man sitting in front of us, bitterness writ large on his mutilated face, his equally disfigured wife sitting beside him. It was a small stuffy room which felt more oppressive after his words. The walls otherwise bare of any decorations were decked with family photographs.
After a brief silence, the man said again, in a tone full of remorse,’ we are unloved. No one cares for us. Relatives are scared to visit this godforsaken place Clergy calls us accursed and warns others to avoid us if they want to avoid wrath of God’.
Only visitors we receive are people like you who come on a trip to see how we live here’.
We were numb and did not know how to respond. Our initial euphoria to visit leprosy centre seemed to be crushed under tons of humiliation. We felt ashamed as if our study visit as final year students was a beastly act which had deeply offended these lepers living in small dilapidated building far away in outskirts of Faisalabad.
Sensing our embarrassment, the wife tried to step in for our rescue. ‘The situation is not as grave. My husband is too sensitive. Please don’t mind his acerbic remarks. He otherwise has a very kind heart. We used to have a mud house in a small hamlet in Sindh when this curse struck us. We too had a caring family. The truth is that they still love us and keep on writing occasional letters’.
With a wide sweep of her stump of an arm, she pointed towards pictures on the wall. ‘Look at those pictures. This is our whole family. Whenever there is a marriage or childbirth, we are informed with a picture of newcomers. We paste them on here. These albums arranged according to family tree give us a feeling of being in touch with our loved ones. Deaths of our loved ones sadden us and in fact the whole community of lepers mourns the death’.
‘We miss them a lot. We know they love us and must have the same feelings about us. It is just that they are scared of being infected with this illness’. Then she broke out, with tears rolling round her cheeks which she tried to wipe with what used to be fingers. ‘I wish them a life full of happiness. We wish, God protect them from this illness’.
The room suddenly was thick with grief. The man averted his gaze and started looking out of window, probably trying to conceal his emotions.
All of us were quite, not knowing how to behave. Finally after an eerie silence for what seemed an eternity, we decided to slip out of room leaving the couple immersed in their misery without uttering a word of consolation for them.
It was an overcast wintry morning when we were escorted on an academic visit under guidance of our associate professor of medicine. The day had started with feelings of a break from the monotony of daily routine with a promise of sightseeing.
What we saw was beyond our expectations. In our over protected family lives, we had no idea of the extent of human wretchedness, isolation and misery. We had seen poverty and patients without limbs in our hospitals, but these lepers stumbling on their stumps of limbs, disfigured leonine faces, festering skin wounds were too much to absorb. One could just palpate an aura of gloom, dejection and loneliness pervading in the court yard.
We saw few patients who were admitted before partition. No one bothered about them when in 1947, assets were being divided. Their relatives opted for India and left them here. They felt being uprooted, not knowing where they belonged to, hoping that finally their dead bodies would be disposed according to their faiths.
This small community of sick people were allotted rooms and were allowed to do what they choose. They had small patches of land where they would grow vegetables. The life in that compound had developed a rhythm and style of its own.
Some of us had the courage to shake hands with them as well. That seemed pointless bravado at the time but the psychological lift it gave to those poor people—treating them as normal human beings instead of animals as they were used to—was incalculable
On our way back, the whole bus had an ominous hush. Everyone seemed lost in one’s own thoughts. Our teacher too was immersed in his own imaginations. After few minutes, I mustered the courage to ask him, ‘Sir! I wonder what it was. Why there is an untold misery and why we are unable to eradicate this illness and provide these wretched people an honourable living? Sometimes I wonder about the life itself. Is there a meaning to whole conundrum, we call creation’?
After a gap of few minutes, our teacher responded back, ‘No idea son. Probably it is the curse of God. May be they are bearing the cross of some unknown sins committed by their past generations. We should be thankful to God for all his grace and benevolence. That is all I know’.
This whole incidence which occurred almost 35 years back is still etched in my memory.
All those minor details came rushing to my mind when I was on my way to lepers house Rawalpindi. Time had changed; I was now a professor of medicine and was on an academic trip with a small group of house officers. Our aim was to look at the patients with a view to being enlightened at the progress hitherto achieved against this illness.
I was not sure how my own students would behave? Would they be shocked as we were? I had shared some of those details with them in an attempt to prepare for the possible emotional shock.
On a bright spring day, we set off in a small wagon to a congested place in the heart of city. I felt a pleasant surprise when we disembarked from the wagon to see a neat building with a busy outdoor and a clean hospital at its back.
I looked for those miserable creatures of yesteryears but instead found only few patients, all with minor skin lesions and faces brimming with hope of recovery. Dr Christine Schmotzer, medical director of the facility briefed us and with a pride on her face, mentioned that Pakistan, since 1996 has been declared a leprosy free country, first to achieve this milestone in Asia. The few people admitted were old cases who needed regular check-ups and care.
All this has been possible because of dedication to Dr Ruth Pfau and her team of German nuns who have devoted last 50 years of their lives in service of lepers of this area forsaking their own personal and family lives.
We kept on listening with a sense of unbelief. Does this world is still not devoid of those who have faith in humanism above the barriers of religion, caste, language and colours? With all this rat race of materialism, these nuns seemed other worldly.
Pious faithful, who in order to earn the paradise of God, have made this world a hell for others were understandable for us but who were these creatures and what were their motives? Was there a method in their madness?
These thoughts occupied my mind on our way back. All around me, students, equally impressed and awestruck, kept on chattering.
Impressive——- Theses ladies are angles in human form——- We are the first in Asia——-I wish they had embraced Islam——–Can’t believe we are free of that nightmare of leprosy——-Would these ladies receive the grace of God in the hereafter? ——I never knew about this hospital though belonging to this area——–But she was graceful, isn’t it?
This incessant chatter kept on humming in the wagon and then all students turned to me. Sir! What do you think? We did not find those monsters you talked about. What is life after all? Is there an absolute truth in all this never ending circle of life and death? Would these ladies be in paradise for their service to humanity, even if they were not faithful?
I looked at their faces, curious to understand the ultimate truth, questions pouring out in torrents, with an expectation to receive a philosophical answer from their guru.
I listened to all this with patience and after a silence of few minutes said,’ I have no answer to all your quarries. Honestly speaking I am still as clueless to solve the mystery of life as I was many decades ago. This is all I can say about philosophy of creation. This is all I know’.