Fear, myths and a disease
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About a dozen men, both old and young, sit by the road outside the village, gossiping in the sun. "How many cancer patients do you have in this village?" They turn their faces away. An old man breaks the silence: "There were a lot of them two-three years ago. Now there is no cancer. The last death took place two years ago." That's odd for Giana village of Talwandi Sabo block, the buckle of the bimari belt. A youth speaks up, "No, no. One or two die every month." The old man shouts at him, "Oye kanjar deya, eh khangh taap naal mare hoyan baare thoda puchhda (Rascal, he is not asking about deaths due to fever but cancer!)." The youth gets the cue and falls silent.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson imagined in her book Silent Spring a future ecological dystopia where no birds sang because they had died of pollution. The Malwa region of Punj-ab is nearing another ecological dystopia where cancer has become an evil which thrives in a web of silences. Here, instead of the birds, it's the people who have fallen silent. Families don't want to tell patients, patients don't want to tell families, families don't want to tell relatives or other villagers, and villagers don't want to tell the outsiders or the government. And the government wasn't too keen to tell anyone—at least till two weeks ago when the state health minister came out with the first credible government survey on cancer, which shows a big spurt in the disease in the last few years. The government decided to break its silence when it saw cancer becoming the biggest issue in the Malwa region.
When Ranjeet Kaur, the wife of Kaka carpenter of Bhangchari village in Muktsar district—the worst affected, according to the government survey—was diagnosed with cancer, the family hid it from her. "We thought telling her would put her under a lot of pressure. But she was educated. She could find out. When her hair started falling, she knew what it was," says Kaka. Mehma Singh, a fellow villager, says, "Women used to scare her, saying who would take care of her son after her. Kaake di bahu taan hauke naal hi mar gi (Kaka's wife died of grief and shock)." Mehma Singh himself has lost five of his relatives to cancer—father-in-law, mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law and a nephew.