Around me there is a frenzy of women getting dressed in glittery paraphernalia. The chatter is amusing and boisterous. We are all excited about yet another pre-wedding ritual. I reach out for my glass bangles. Red. To go with that lovely mekhala chador I picked up on my trip to Jorhat. As I slip in the red glass bangles around my wrist, the first one cracks.
I slowly turn myself so that the others don’t notice me, and slip into my dressing room trying to find a quiet place in that crowd. I try and force some more glass bangles onto my wrist— some more break. Now my hands are bleeding at three different places. Some of the shards have torn into my skin. I grab some cotton from my dressing table and try to control the bleeding. My excitement of getting dressed has dampened slightly.
My hands. Hard. Dry. Ugly. Scarred. Full of deep painful fissures. Dead skin peeling away. I suffer from palmar psoriasis. My skin cells multiply almost seven times faster than normal skin cells do. So I develop scaly dry itchy patches which keep coming back in the affected areas. There is no known cure, though there are ways of controlling the disease. My sister-in-law notices my absence from the bedroom.
She walks in quickly and tries to help me control the bleeding. The glass shards have just grazed against my skin. I am fine soon. She holds both my hands in her palms gently. “Pata nahin aapko kiski nazar lag gayi (Don’t know who has cast an evil eye on you)”, she says woefully. Her statement instantly takes me into flashback mode.
1989. Muzaffarpur. Bihar. I’m at my grandfather’s house. I am here with my father to give the state medical entrance examination. I am under-prepared and unenthusiastic about giving the exam. We are here to honour the wishes of my grandfather, who so thoughtfully sent me the entrance examination form. The next day, I go through the multiple choice questions in the examination mechanically. After the exam bell rings, they let all the boys leave. The girls are asked to stay back, for another 45 minutes till the boys disperse. For our safety, I am told. I am angry and now certain I don’t want to come back to study here even if I accidentally qualify. That done, I am free for the evening.
My father has to go and meet some distant relatives. I’m not even familiar with anyone, but it is better than sitting at home, so I tag along. We enter their mansion. They are filthy rich. They own one of the most famous jewellery shops in town. We have barely been seated in the living room, when one of the ladies in the house peeps in and ushers me inside. Women don’t sit with the men folk— the message is not very subtle. I’m feeling suffocated already in that unfamiliar environment.
I’m now seated in a bedroom with three other women. All dressed in synthetic sarees, with pallus covering their heads. I can’t ignore the large gold ornaments that dangle from their ears, necks and wrists. The room chimes every time someone shuffles. They serve me tea and snacks.
“You have finished Std 12, haven’t you?”. Yes, I nod. “So what are your plans of getting married?” I almost choke over the thekuaa I am eating. I am barely seventeen, with dreams in my eyes and confusion in my brain about the career I should choose. I am hardly in a state to deal with this bombshell. In the next few seconds, I’m sure my decision to tag along with Dad was wrong. There is nothing we have in common to talk about. I barely understand their dialect, having lived away from Bihar all my life. They are mentally assessing my value in the marriage market. They’ve probably already started match-making in their heads. I am distinctly uncomfortable in that room.
“You have such beautiful hands!”, says one of the ladies as she cradles my hands in her palms. It is a line I have heard frequently. I have small hands, like those of a child. Soft, delicate. People often hold my hands and tell me how lucky I am to have them. I smile at her statement, and am just beginning to thank her, when the next cruel thunderbolt lands on my head. “It doesn’t appear from your smooth hands that you even know how to work in the kitchen. Don’t you ever wash clothes or utensils?” So much for compliments! I was so glad to escape from that stifling environment.
It is foolish to think that an evil eye would be the cause of my psoriasis. Of course, all this is mere superstition. Yes, I do miss my soft hands. Especially when I want to shake hands with someone. It is not just me who is conscious. It never escapes my eye how people cringe and resort to Namaste instead. As a doctor, I know my condition is not infectious. But then there is a social stigma attached to most chronic skin conditions. If my disease was in another site, it could have been concealed under clothing. But then, some things are to be lived with.
It used to worry me earlier. Until my dermatologist mentioned how lucky I was to have localized disease. He often talks about a Sikh patient of his, who had psoriasis all over his body. Imagine him trying to itch under his turban. Stress exacerbates this disease. The day you accept you have the disease, life will become easy— my dermatologist says. I agree. There is a lot more to life than psoriasis. It is just one of those irritants you have to learn to ignore.
For some strange reason as I write this, I remember my English teacher. ‘As proud as a peacock’, she taught us. She then used to narrate the example of how the peacock was so proud of his pretty feathers. So creation bestowed him with the ugliest feet. I remember my wedding day, surrounded by people fussing over my beautiful hands. ‘Pride always goes before a fall’— my English teacher resounds in my head again! Perhaps psoriasis is my curse for being vain about my pretty hands.