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Amazing Grace

Mohan Rao

By James Staples
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 290, Rs. 595.00


There has been a huge explosion of studies in medical anthropology – some good, some indifferent, and many appalling – in recent years. How does one explain this? Is it related to the sexiness of Faoucaldian post-structuralism? Of Subaltern Studies and their disillusionment with political economy? Is it what Mamdani incisively describes as “ culture talk”, a neo-Orientalist project, with huge political implications (Mamdani 2004)? Indeed even those who contest this seem to do so extremely defensively, using the same impossible language (Goswami 2004).   As a student of public health, I should be devoted to large-scale data, population- based data, data for example thrown up in surveys by the NSS and in the NFHS. My epidemiological instincts tell me this data is important and can perhaps teach us a lot about the determinants of health, and not just prevalence and incidence rates. However, given the kind of banal associations that most analyses of large- scale data give us, there is reason to be skeptical.   Ethnographic studies cannot supplant large-scale data – and good ethnographic studies, as in the case of the book under review, do not claim to be “representative”. On the other hand, ethnographic studies provide us a richness of “thick data”, of processes and lived experience, the incandescence of the everyday, that also illumines health, as perhaps few studies can. Zurbrigg’s Raku’s Story, an analysis of the life of one woman achingly told, for instances, teaches our students more about the social production of health than perhaps anything else (Zurbrigg 1984).   Peculiar People, Amazing Lives is a study of a community of leprosy sufferers in “colony” in Andhra Pradesh. What unites them into a community is not just their disease, but also their social exclusion, they are outcastes from even the outcastes. But ironically, as a Christian community, they exclude others too, non-Christian. The author carried out intensive field over not only in the “colony” but also in Mumbai, where many of them earn their livelihoods as beggars.   The disappearance of leprosy from Europe in the late middle-ages is an epidemiological puzzle. It has been argued that they were large-scale victims of the plague pandemics that is estimated to have reduced European populations by a third. It has also been suggested that improving socio-economic circumstances in the subsequent periods lead to its decline. Nevertheless, lepers in Europe were shunned, ritually buried, and had to leave their home and hearth – with separate churches, the ...

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