It was the summer of 1988. Ramesh was taking care of the clinic and Devaraj had just left after the completion of our internship. The vehicle given by the Shankaracharya was now immobile and parked in a corner and we were using the jeep that Swami Sureshanandaji had lent to us. It was evening and I had driven down to Matakere tribal colony, 25 km away. After spending some time at the tribal ashram school (as it was called), I joined the meeting of a women’s self help group that was taking place there. There were around 20 women and they were animatedly discussing what to do with one woman who was repeatedly defaulting on her repayments. While there was consensus on some action that needed to be taken, I was impressed with the concern and compassion that these women also showed towards her. They were worried that this defaulting woman’s husband, who was an alcoholic, may be the prime reason for the non-repayment. They also discussed how to confront him and get him to be more responsible and helpful.
I came to attend this meeting mainly to establish myself as a doctor who now lived in Brahmagiri and was eager to help them with their health problems. I knew that many of them had relatives living in Brahmagiri and I had hoped that the news of our dispensary would have reached them. After the welcome and the small talk, we slowly started discussing on what they did when they fell sick. Someone told me that her two year old child was having an acute diarrheal episode. I saw this as a good opportunity to establish my relevance as a ‘doctor’ and started telling them about Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). I told them all about diarrhea, how to prevent them, the efficacy of boiling water and ended my talk with how the ORS should be prepared and that it should taste like human tears.
Little did it occur to me that drinking something tasting like tears required a lot of motivation and may not exactly be something that a two year old would like to have. The women were silent and did not respond as enthusiastically as I wanted them to do. I was talking to them about what the World Health Organization (WHO) called the ‘discovery of the century’ and these women just did not seem to care!! Then it occurred to me that these were people with more than 50,000 years of anthropological history and must have been having diarrheas all along. They must have been doing something very effective to counter it. I asked the women what they would do to help this baby. This kick-started a very vibrant and energetic discussion. The women told me that they would spend about a rupee on buying a banana and some flattened rice (called poha in hindi or avalakki in kannada). They would powder the flattened rice and crush the banana and mix the two well. They would then feed this to the baby. If the diarrhea persisted, they would make a decoction out of the peel of pomegranate fruit and make the baby drink it 4-5 times a day.
Here I was, stupidly telling this community to use a tasteless drink like ORS while they could give their baby carbohydrates, much needed sodium & potassium and fluids, in a simple yet tasty way. Banana is also a well-known bowel binder. How much traditional wisdom and knowledge exists in such indigenous communities! All that we need to do is swallow our pride, throw away the arrogance that modern schooling brings and come to these people with the humility to learn. One will never be disappointed nor cease to be surprised with the things they can teach us.