Among the Outcasts

  • Danish Zargar
  • Publish Date: May 26 2017 2:35AM
  • |
  • Updated Date: May 26 2017 2:35AM
Among the Outcasts

Their disease is history, but the residents of Bahrar lepers’ colony still live ostracised lives

 

Bahrar is a remote corner of Srinagar. Isolated. Forsaken. Most people don’t even know of its existence on a mound between two interconnected lateral segments of Nigeen Lake.

The muddy exterior of its dozen-odd kuccha houses, nestled among a growth of bushes, is concealed by the arrangement of houseboats floating beyond its steel-mesh fence. So is the penury and desperation dwelling within.

Tourists from Indian and abroad frequent the further end of the lake, to relax in the luxury of the houseboats and, occasionally, to fish by the calm shores. Bahrar leaves them untroubled; its eerie silence doesn’t attract attention.

It has been there since 1898, in Bhagwanpora in northeast Srinagar, overlooked by the Hari Parbhat hill. And it has been the abode of Kashmir’s outcast leprosy patients.

Eighty of them, now cured, still live here amid the healthy population born out of marriages between the patients. Most kill their time idling in the shade of trees or praying in the secluded mosque five times a day. (The younger generation, mostly men, go out to work, only cautiously revealing to anyone their association with the colony.)

No one visits them. They are welcome nowhere. Bahrar is the only place they can call home. Everywhere else, they are seen as carriers of the once contagious Hansen’s disease though medical science long ago silenced the nerve-impairing bacteria inside them. 

“Ignorance is responsible for the treatment meted out to us,” says Sharief-ud-Din Sheikh.

Sheikh has lived at Bahrar since 1984. He was 19 years of age when his family realised he had symptoms of Hansen’s disease. Soon, their entire neighbourhood in Tangmarg, in north Kashmir’s district Baramulla, visited the family with advice.

“They told my parents to cast me away,” he recollects. “I was infected, and they didn’t want the infection to spread. So, my family was made to throw me out of the house.”

Sheikh landed in the leprosy hospital, of which Bahrar has been the residential extension, meant to keep the disease restricted to the infected few. Over time, it became his world, where he married and fathered uninfected kids.

Three decades later, the skinny Sheikh lives in his concrete apartment, one of the many newly-built structures for the inmates of Bahrar. Everything else, however, is almost unchanged.

“I cannot go home because people still identify me as someone who suffered leprosy. I do visit my family once in six months or a year, but I cannot go back to live with them,” he says. “Only my mother comes to visit me sometimes. But people don’t believe that I am healed. They think: ‘why shall he be there (at Bahrar) if he isn’t sick anymore?’”

Perhaps thanks to its comparatively higher literacy, Srinagar has responded differently to the colony’s presence, say the inmates, none of whom is from the city apparently.

“Most of them (the people of the city) are well-informed about the disease. So, they don’t fear coming closer to us,” Sheikh, flanked by half a dozen elderly men who share his fate, says. “Several people (of Srinagar) come here to donate food or money. We even have some people of Srinagar now coming here in the evenings.”

Combating ostracism of leprosy patients isn’t easy. The fear of condemnation leaves the likes of Imran (name changed) tongue-tied, sometimes.

Young and handsome, Imran, originally from Ladakh, has come to Bahrar to live with his wife’s parents, who have been residing at the facility for many decades.

Imran had been living at Tibetan Colony, Hawal, since he was a student at an English medium school nearby. Five years ago, he got married to Rehana (name changed), who was born and raised at Bahrar with her brother and two sisters.

Six months ago, Imran was given a choice to live with his in-laws. He didn’t say no. “What is so difficult about it? They are human. Why can’t we live together?” Imran, father to two daughters and a son, reasons.

He doesn’t stop his children from socialising with others in the colony; they are free to visit any house. In the mosque, Imran stands shoulder to shoulder with the patients and their children, and is led by a man whose toes have been damaged by the disease.

But his wife counsels him to not let the media tell their story, making him plead anonymity. “That is why I was trying to avoid you. I don’t think there is a problem in talking to the media, but they (his wife and her family) don’t agree with me. So, please don’t mention my name,” he pleads, and rushes to his home. 

Imran may yet leave and go live somewhere else. That is what the younger generation is doing anyway, severing their association with the colony and leaving behind the old to die and be buried in Bahrar’s graveyard. The fear of leprosy, and of its victims’ company, however, will live until the last one of the patients is underneath an epitaph.