Darkness and Light in India
The cows, always the cows, hundreds of them, thousands of them. They stand in a pack blocking traffic, take naps in the middle of a busy highway, walk unmolested through a fruit stand, devour the grass and flowers in a public park. Somehow the snarling motorcycles, motorized rickshaws, trucks, and automobiles thread their way through the bovine obstacle course—a good thing, for woe to the Indian driver who injures a sacred cow.
India assaults the senses. Vehicle horns beep out a percussive background rhythm to life in cities and villages both. Women in bright-colored saris squat along the roadside, cutting the grass by hand with knives. An elephant wanders by, gaudily painted for a Hindu festival. A motorcycle zooms past: a young boy no older than two stands on the seat grasping the handlebars while behind him his six-year brother is sandwiched between the father, who is driving, and the mother, who is sitting side-saddle and holding an infant fresh from the hospital (none of them wear helmets). A funeral procession marches down a side street to the beat of a drum, its mourners lighting firecrackers to scare devils from the cemetery.
Some of our best doctors and software engineers have emigrated from India, and when my computer locks up, chances are I'll talk to a support person based there. Yet in this paradoxical nation twice as many people have access to cell phones as to toilets and running water. I visited a high-tech hospital that outsources laundry service to women who use big, heavy irons that flip open to reveal charcoal as the source of their heat. I asked my Indian host about the colorful plastic bags hanging like oversized Christmas ornaments from some banyan trees. "Oh, they contain the placentas of cows," he said, which explained the ever-present odor. "Villagers believe the practice will make their birthing cows more fertile and produce more milk."
Paradoxes abound. A land where temples display carvings of shockingly explicit sexual acts, and the home of Kama Sutra, houses a Bollywood movie industry that rarely portrays anything beyond a demure kiss. Divorce is rare, though a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents, not the product of romance. The caste system has supposedly ended, but everyone's identity card specifies his or her caste, and matrimonial ads in the daily papers stipulate the caste of prospective suitors; lower castes need not apply. While Westerners value a bronze, tanned look, Indians advertise for applicants with "wheatish skin."
I made my fourth trip to this land of endless fascination in August. I'd been asked to give the Ida Scudder Humanitarian Oration (a fancy word for a speech) at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in honor of Dr. Paul Brand, with whom I wrote three books.
The Healing Place
CMC Vellore, as it's known, has a storied history. In the early 1800s Dr. John Scudder of New Jersey became the first medical missionary to India. Seven of his sons followed in his footsteps, likewise serving as missionary doctors in India. Growing up in such a single-focused family, granddaughter Ida Scudder wanted nothing more than to find a non-medical career, marry, and settle in the U.S. A visit to care for her ailing mother back in India changed her plans.
Late one night during that visit a Hindu Brahmin knocked on the door and asked for help; his 14-year-old wife was in great distress trying to deliver a child. Ida said she knew nothing about medicine but would notify her father. The man shook his head, responded "Our religion does not permit a man to even look at my wife's face," and went away crestfallen. That same evening a Muslim and then another Hindu came with an identical request of help for their wives in childbirth. Each time Ida offered the same solution and each time the men turned it down, saying it was better that their wives die than be seen by a man. The next day all three young women were taken away in coffins.
Convinced that extraordinary night was a sign from God, Ida returned to the U.S. and studied medicine at Cornell, becoming its first female medical graduate. She went on to found a small clinic in Vellore in 1902 and then opened a nursing school for women and ultimately a medical school to train female physicians. At the time, female patients in India faced a Catch-22 situation: although custom prevented male doctors from treating them, few medical schools in India accepted women. Skeptics warned Dr. Scudder that she might get two or three female applicants; 151 women applied to the medical school. Not until thirty years later did the school begin accepting male applicants.