Hyderabad: The oldest habits are the hardest to break. Bathini Harinath Goud is part of the fourth generation of a famous family that has, for 163 years, dispensed an asthma “cure” packaged inside a live murrel fish. Calling it dawai, or medicine, comes naturally to him, but he must keep tripping himself up over the word.
Since 2000, a small but seething opposition has decried the remedy as sheer quackery and protested the government’s tacit, at times overt, support of the magnetic annual event. The family cannily took to calling their offering a “fish prasadam” instead of a medicine, to avoid legal implications. But this leaves Goud engaging in constant self-correction.
Now, a public interest litigation filed in a Hyderabad city civil court challenges five government departments and the Gouds; the case comes up for hearing on 19 June.
Before the hordes descend on Hyderabad on Saturday, Goud, a 68-year-old man with a white beard and angry tufts of ear hair, doesn’t seem unduly anxious. He’s done this every June for 63 years. “On Friday, after a puja, we’ll begin making the medicine…the prasadam,” he says. “Then on Saturday, around 6pm, we’ll transport it to the Exhibition Grounds”—with a police escort, no less—“and start dosing.” The medicine is manufactured, in strict secrecy, at the Gouds’ ancestral home in the Doodh Bowli section of Hyderabad. Until 1997, the narrow alleys around that house would bristle with crowds every June, demanding treatment. “They would sleep on the roads and the sidewalks,” Goud remembers. “You’d get tears in your eyes just looking at them and listening to them cough all night.”
Magic formula? Bathina Harinath Goud with brother Umamaheshwar Goud (right) at Hyderabad’s Exhibition Grounds ( P Anil Kumar / Mint)
As the crowds grew every year, then chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu granted the Gouds free use of larger public facilities—first the football fields at Nizam College, then the Exhibition Grounds. The Hyderabad chapter of the rationalist US-based Center for Inquiry, a non-profit which advocates reason and science over superstition, protests the governmental munificence and other perks, such as a supply of murrel fish at ruinously inexpensive rates.
Since its founding five years ago, the Center for Inquiry has worked with an NGO named Jana Vignana Vedika to ban what they call a cult of superstition (the NGO was born of, but is no longer associated with, the Communist Party of India-Marxist).
The huge public space is an absolute necessity, Goud says. “Last year, we had an attendance of 4-4.5 lakh.”
But even the provenance of that number is dubious. The Center for Inquiry’s chair Innaiah Narisetti, the father of Mint editor Raju Narisetti, says that the Andhra Pradesh department of fisheries reported only 20,000 fish sold. R.P. Chandra Rao, a senior executive of Bartronics, a firm that introduced an electronic token system at the Exhibition Grounds last June, says it issued 40,000 tokens.
V. Raghothama Swamy, joint director at the fisheries department, confirms the Bartronics figure. When he hears Goud’s claim, he smiles, looks at a colleague, and then says gently: “There were also 10,000 or so vegetarians, and they take their medicine in jaggery. And many attendants for the asthmatics, so the crowd was large.”
But was it 400,000? “No. Definitely not,” Swamy answers.
In fact, he notes, there are fewer and fewer attendees every year, but the milling, wheezing congregation remains formidable. Last June, Bartronics implemented a rather needless biometrics system of fingerprints and photographs to regulate the crowd.
“But it took a long time to check biometrics, and people started shouting,” one Bartronics employee remembers. Besides, Chandra Rao says, there is no real danger of any malpractice. So, biometrics sits on the bench this year.
Perhaps the most seductive aspect drawing the breathless is that it is free. “That was part of the original promise—that we should not commercialize it,” says Goud. “My great-grandfather got the recipe for the medicine from a holy man of the Himalayas in 1845, and it was entrusted to him solely to benefit the people.”
The Goud prasadam involves month-old murrel fish and proprietary yellow gunk. The mechanics are simple: The gunk goes into the fish, the fish goes into you, come back the next two years, and you will be, the Gouds claim, rid of asthma for life. “In 1995, some pharmaceutical companies came to us, put down a blank cheque, and said: ‘Tell us the formula,’” Goud remembers. “Some of our kids still say that we made a mistake in not taking the money.”
Part of the opposition’s campaign has been a criticism that, far from being beneficial, the Gouds’ yellow herbal paste could actually be harmful. In response, the Gouds sent samples to Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata. The latter’s report, of which Mint obtained a copy, offered no opinion about curative properties.
It would only state that an assay revealed heavy metal concentrations to be within the limits prescribed by law, and that the paste had no steroid content.
A subsequent letter from the department of Ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homoeopathy (Ayush) refused to classify the cure as Ayurveda, calling it “at best...a folklore medicine practised by a traditional healer, who is not institutionally qualified.”
Goud insists that his is a most scientific prasadam. “We have test-tube babies now, so why don’t we believe the legend of Duryodhana and his brothers being born of a ball of flesh?” he asks. “We have rocket ships now, so why not the vimanas of the Ramayan?” Then, perhaps realizing where his rhetoric has led him, he says stubbornly: “It works.”
It doesn’t, says the Center for Inquiry. No patient record is maintained, and there are no individual follow-ups. One asthmatic woman followed the treatment for 20 consecutive years and still finds herself breathless and wheezing. The Center says patients also have a right to know what they are swallowing.
Meanwhile, at the Exhibition Grounds, the Bartronics counter—one of six in Hyderabad—has issued 500 tokens before noon, even with a malfunctioning dot-matrix printer. Two tokens went to Amarendra Kumar and his wife, just arrived from Bihar. “We thought the treatment was on Friday and Saturday.
There was no information on television or radio, you see,” Kumar says. Their return tickets are booked for 5pm on Saturday—three hours before the Gouds take the stage. So what will they do? “What else can we do? We’ll cancel our train tickets and get new ones. After all, this is the only reason we’re here.”