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In Sickness and in Wealth

The Booby Trap

by FARZANA VERSEY

All eyes have been on our mammaries the whole of October. Was it breast cancer awareness month or does the Big C stand for the Big Consumer gifted another marketed opportunity wrapped with a pink ribbon?

This is not to belittle those who have suffered and the survivors, but why are malignant tumours in individual women’s bodies made into a universal threat? Each of us has a different metabolic system and our organs are wired differently. Even the risks would not be the same across genetic disparities, habits, and, in many instances, cultures.

Healthcare is the new terror psychosis. It works like LSD, giving us multi-hued delusionary images of flying pills, cotton swab clouds, and lasers throwing beams in the darkness of our prostates, cervixes, lungs, intestines, hearts, breasts. We are no more the sum of our parts, but the parts stand for what we are: organs that need tweaking and pampering.

In almost every country, from America to Saudi Arabia, India to Indonesia, they celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. People run wearing T-shirts with logos, there are dolls on sale, and camps for free checkups. In India, the major campaign was conducted by a media group; its newspaper layouts advertised the pink satin ribbon between editorial space. Every day, there were anecdotes by celebrities. This immediately puts what they tell us is serious business in the realm of pop culture. Many of these celebrities have held forth on their drug habits and alcoholism earlier. Has that stopped people from drinking or snorting?

Years ago there was an article on the subject and the model was deliberately chosen because she had “normal breasts” – that is not pumped up. As a rookie, I was around for the photo-shoot rehearsal. Some lotion was slathered over the nipples and in the cleavage to give the impression of whipped cream. The model was doing her job, but how much connectivity would there be between the reader and the illness when there was such sensual distraction?

What really does ‘pre-emptive’ mean in the context of a disease? How can you pre-empt paralysis or dementia? While it is important to follow basic measures, the underlying message of self-diagnosis is that after feeling for lumps no one can depend on their own judgment. We are either brainwashed about our carelessness or given the thumbs up for our enthusiasm. This superficial empowerment, illustrated with perfectly luscious images, works about as well as selling a sleek car with slightly damaged parts that can be replaced.

Don’t you see it? The empowerment is relegated to a few. Awareness is sold to those who are already aware. From the surfeit of such human interest stories one would imagine that it is an illness that affects a certain class of people. That could be the reason you do not come across cases of the poor suffering from hypochondria.

Survival stories can at best make us admire the person who has gone through it. Would we say the same about anyone who has been strapped to a bed for days, vomit dried on sheets, and quarantined because of cholera or tuberculosis, unless they become epidemics that can be exploited to ghettoise people and use them as guinea pigs as well as consumers? Does anyone recall how swine flu and mad cow disease became lucrative propositions? Not only were they sold as people’s malady movements, they also became a camping site for the pharmaceutical industry and another manner in which governments sought to save and control their people. This ‘theirs and ours’ attitude reeks of apartheid. Developed societies believe they are better off, and yet their populations suffer far more from the fear of suffering. A good way to gauge a society’s level of development – even as self-perception – is how it views healthcare.

India now thinks it is a global player. Without considering the ailments that beset the majority and the rural populations, it has begun to blindly ape the western modules of diagnosis. The ‘good’ hospitals are run by the corporate sector.

I speak from personal experience as one who has been lured by these executive health plans. You can go for silver, gold, platinum packages. You sit in a room with a large plasma television, there is soft music in the background, they serve you herbal tea and even light snacks. After the tests, you can take the DVD and watch colourful images of your insides. It is like being a star in an art-house movie and you are the red carpet.

The real problem is that even when the diagnosis is “benign” and you are wondering about the smiling Buddha within you, phantom fear hovers as authoritative voices mention other tests, other doctors, other DVDS to take home, and too many Buddhas now jostling for space in the shrine your body has become.

What is happening here is pretty simple. They are playing on several emotions and ideas: fear (“you never know, it could be”), sensibility (“it is smart to be cautious”), consciousness (“we need to spread the word”), faith (“believe in yourself”), posterity (“it is not just about surviving but longevity and ageing gracefully”) and, most important of all, vanity (“if it comes to the worst, with new techniques you can be as good as new”).

It is time we noticed the subtle shift in how cosmetic surgery has been refined and redefined to get its time on the pedestal as reconstructive surgery. The latter has always been around but by marrying Pam Anderson’s assets with a cause just give them a certain sanctity. Those gel packs become saviours. It is not about getting the boobs you need; it is about self-esteem.

Who is this catering to? How many of these awareness campaigns have gone to the poor and inside villages? Don’t the people there suffer from ailments that require caution, which in turn feeds an industry that thrives on paranoia and is lubricated by the governments? Strangely, these governments probably spend a tenth of their budget on healthcare as compared with the defence budget, and unfortunately that is all it takes to push the threat.

It is the emphasis on the flaky crust of courage that has blurred the line between medicine and cosmetics. The alternative health product manufacturers create a faux naturalle demand. The consumer who is asphyxiated by noxious fumes starts to breathe imaginary fresh fern-scented air as aloe vera extracts appear from genie lamps.

Illness itself has been painted on a broader canvas and now includes those who are ‘different’. How does anyone expect inclusiveness if the idea if to emphasise the difference?

Recently, there was a meeting at a trendy bar in a tony suburb of Mumbai by an organisation that works with burn victims. The founder is someone who has suffered an acid attack. Due to the disfigurement, there have been curious glances at what she refers to as “visual difference – (from) what is considered to be normal”. Can such a movement, and talking about it at a place where she admitted she had on other occasions felt uncomfortable, “sensitise” people? The group was there because she now runs an organisation and has been made a brand ambassador of a salon patronised by celebrities. Is this about turning the concept of beauty on the head or paying lip-gloss service to the difference? Will there be a range of haircuts and cosmetics specially designed for these “visually different”? Are we not each visually different and does not the concept of beauty or even the ordinary vary in societies?

In a cringing account of the meet, the young woman apparently “looked the audience in the eye and asked how many would flinch from sitting next to her, and shaking her hand. Although silent, all seemed to say, ‘We’re not afraid.’” Not only is this shameless, it is insensitive to both the ‘different’ as the well as the ‘normal’, for there could be several reasons why some may not come forward. These are the same people who throw coins in the bowls of beggar lepers. Of course, it is not the same, but since we are talking about differences let us not stop at what suits the commercially-propped agenda.

It reminds me of a fashion show where the designer got models to walk the ramp in clothes with Braille prints. During the finale, a couple of visually-impaired women were brought on stage, wearing their regular clothes. What was the idea, then, except as a cheap gimmick that would rake in some conscience cash? Would these same audiences attend a function if dowry victims from the lower middle-class gathered at some hole-in-the- wall?

I am not suggesting that people who can afford a certain lifestyle do not suffer from diseases. They do and have to go through similar pain and treatment. The sheer magnitude of the elitism of enlightenment bothers me. With celebrity endorsements and sponsors, the overload of information is targeted at the click clique. It leads to looking for soothers, with every tale a harbinger of posterity. Other people’s reality becomes our fiction. Once we read and turn the page, there is only lingering doubt that makes us look for tunnels in the light.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/