Sumathy was known in the village as a level-headed girl who did her fair share of the family’s work without complaining. Her older sister brought her to see me because of abdominal pain so severe, nobody in the house had slept for a week. The strange part was that her pain would completely disappear during the day.
I checked her over, did a few lab tests and found nothing. She spoke confidently and was completely comfortable.
“Maybe it’s something you ate,” I told her. “Sometimes an infection causes spasms which can be very painful. I’m sure the problem will go away very soon.”
I gave her symptomatic treatment and asked her to return if things didn’t improve.
Two days later, they were back.
“Her pain is still there. If anything she’s worse. She cries the whole night. Maybe she has ‘intestine tail’.”
I examined her again and found her abdomen to be completely soft and pain free. “No appendicitis. Sometimes when there is this kind of pain, the cause can be due to stress and worry. Anything going on at home? Are they talking about marrying you off? Money problems? Is your father drinking? Any fights with your friends? Did anybody close to you die?”
She smiled quietly. “No, I’m not worried about things. I mean, we are poor, but we’re getting by. Appa and Amma go to work every day. Please do something to stop the pain.”
I sent Sumathy for a scan in Theni, an hour away. Perhaps she had an ovarian cyst or TB of the abdomen or some rare tumor. The next day she came back with the glossy report decorated with photos of a smiling German doctor in a white lab coat scanning a smiling German model with tasteful makeup surrounded by very high-tech, shiny German machines.
The radiologist reported that everything was completely normal except for a bit of fluid in the pelvis which could be an infection of her uterus and tubes. Since this fluid could sometimes mean a sexually transmitted disease, I asked the nurse practitioner to interview the girl privately. Could there be a young man involved? Incest? Rape?
Both sisters assured us that no such thing was going on. No ‘illicit contact’. No family secrets.
I prescribed a week’s worth of antibiotics to cover the usual suspects for STDs in case the girls were lying. Surely antibiotics would cure her possible pelvic infection.
She came back a week later, her condition unchanged, still the debilitating pain at night with completely normal days.
I began to suspect psychosomatic illness and handed her a prescription for an anxiety medication to take at night. I also gave her a homeopathic remedy and asked them to follow-up after another week.
After ten days, they were back. I was relieved to find that her pain was gone. She was cured.
“So those medicines finally helped? I’m so glad.”
“Well, actually…” The older sister twisted her mouth and studied the cobwebs lacing the coconut rafters. “We never bought the medicine.”
“The night after we last saw you, the pain was really bad. Appa took her to a priest who specializes in these sorts of problems. He is from
Melachokanathapuram, famous casting out spirits.”
“I see. What sort of treatment did he do?”
“Well he sat her in the middle of a room and did a special pooja, chanting various mantras. New and then he would beat her shoulders with a broom. After a while Sumathy began to talk in a stranger’s voice. I was really frightened. She said she was not Sumathy but was really a different young woman who had killed herself by drinking poison after she had fallen pregnant.”
I looked at Sumathy. She shrugged. “I don’t remember any of this.”
Her sister continued.
“The priest demanded that the spirit come out. ‘I won’t come out unless you give me ribbons, sandalwood powder and nice jasmine flowers,’ the ghost said. When we promised to go buy these things, the pain stopped instantly. Since she was completely fine for the rest of the night, we didn’t bother to go buy the stuff. That was a mistake. The following night, the pain was back. We thought she was going to die. Appa brought her to the priest who scolded us for not listening to him. This time I ran to the shop and bought the stuff.
“The priest did some more pooja and hit her with the broom again and again. He lit camphor pellets in her palms. As the flames burned and the black smoke rose, the spirit came out. Sumathy’s voice returned to normal and her pain disappeared. The priest cut a strand of hair from the top of her head, placed the ribbons and stuff under the large devil tree at the edge of town and nailed the hair into the trunk. My sister has been fine ever since.”
I didn’t reply at first, trying to take it all in.
“The priest says the problem is that our village’s Karapusamy idol fell over a few weeks ago and evil spirits from other villages have been able to cross the boundary and harass us. They even caused five boys on our street to have diarrhea. By the way, now Sumathy has horrible tooth pain.”
I verified that she indeed had a rotten molar, prescribed some antibiotics and sent her to see a dentist.
After she left, I paused to reflect on the mysteries of the human mind. Had this girl just needed extra attention? Had she really been possessed by some sort of evil spirit or the ghost of a young woman who had died an untimely death? Perhaps she had been pregnant and had undergone a secret abortion. Perhaps the ritual had reached her unconscious mind and brought her peace.
I turned my attention to the next patient, a little miffed. Whatever the case, the priest had cured her and Dr. Bruce had not.
Maybe I should buy a few of those little coconut brooms so I too can beat out those pesky little diseases which refuse to go away.