Hyderabad: The trickiest part to swallowing the Bathini Goud asthma “medication” is not the fish; that slips down, accompanied only by a tickling sensation. The challenge, instead, is the yellow paste which smells and tastes like one large repellent lump of asafoetida (hing in Hindi).
That asthma nostrum seems harshest on the young. The soundtrack to the 2008 edition was filled with bawling, retching children, fighting to get away from their parents and from a three-centimetre fish.
In spotlight: (left to right) Bathini Harinath Goud, Bathini Vishwanath Goud and Umamaheshwar Goud. Photograph: P. Anil Kumar / Mint
As the Gouds began treatment at 7.45pm on Saturday, hundreds of people surged around 33 counters, dragging their children, holding aloft little polythene bags of fish like lighters at a rock concert.
Invariably, every child would have to be held down, as Harinath Goud or somebody else pinched open the jaws of a murrel fish, slipped in some proprietary paste, and plunged an entire hand into the back of a reluctant throat. Harinath did this, in the first four hours, a couple of hundred times before he tired and handed over his post.
He must have been disappointed with attendance. The previous day, he had said, “I expect 600,000 people tomorrow.” At a taking-stock meeting of officials, he warned, “We’ll be dispensing five or six fish per minute at each of the 33 counters. At that rate, we should be treating 10,000-odd people every hour.”
The bureaucratic ensemble itself, however, prepared itself for last year’s 42,000 attendees. By 3pm on Sunday, a few hours before the Gouds would shut shop, the steady flow of the previous evening had slowed to a trickle. Bartronics India Ltd, which implemented the entry systems, registered only 30,000 tokens.
“There are some reasons for the low turnout, I think,” says J. Vijayaraghavan, senior general manager of Bartronics. “In many parts, bandhs (strikes) about the petrol price hike disrupted traffic.” But more crucially, he hints that when the numbers were considered, perhaps there never were the lakhs and lakhs of attendees the Gouds like to claim.
The administration’s support is undoubted. At the officials’ meeting, the numbers were paraded before Navin Mittal, the district collector. Deputed at the Exhibition Grounds were eight ambulances, 1,100 police personnel, six closed-circuit televisions, and an assured power supply of 1,000 kilowatts. Mittal estimates the administration has deployed resources worth Rs60 lakh to the event this year.
“But it’s all necessary,” defends Ram Gopal Rao, additional director at Andhra Pradesh’s department of fisheries. “We just want to ensure that there is no inconvenience to the public whatsoever.”
Among many of the people who did come, the Gouds enjoy a semi-divine status. One man, his legs deformed, abandons his crutches to kneel and touch Harinath Goud’s feet. A woman from Maharashtra, who identified herself only as Priya, said, “I’ve taken the medicine for two years, and my asthma is nearly cured. This is my final visit.”
For one Canadian, who asked not be named, the Gouds are healers of last resort. “My lungs are operating at 38% capacity, and I’ve tried every medical option,” he says. “I read about this online, and that’s why I’m here.” Does he believe in it? He shrugs, “Really, I have nothing to lose.”
Not everybody seems to feel that way. At least one in 10 comes up to Harinath Goud fully aware of what lies ahead, only to duck and struggle when the moment arrives, even forcing the fish and his hand away violently. In those instances, even the asthmatic’s desperate hope for a cure has been defeated by the immediate, unsavoury, hing-heavy reality.