At the border of Akathethara and the neighbouring Malampuzha panchayat is the St Josephine’s Mission Hospital. It is walking distance from our house, if you’re well, or a very short drive if you’re not.

Saar has taken house guests there in time of need. When my father got a bout of food poisoning, Dr Regi Allappat scolded him roundly for having eaten coconut chutney in a hotel. Her grey habit seemed to give her words an authority over him that ours have never had.

(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)

We last went to deal with saar’s high fever and swollen joints and spent an evening in the waiting room, swatting mosquitoes and chatting with neighbours, many of them equally feverish. It was a viral epidemic but, when we met the doctor, she was still humming under her breath and remained attentive to the last of the evening patients. Don’t worry about whether it is chikungunya or dengue, she said. We’ll start the treatment.

If we were ever bitten by something scarier, we had the option of going half a mile in the other direction to find Josetta, or brother Jose. He lives up a lane running alongside the big quarry. Mrs Paulose told me about him the first week I lived in this house. I had seen a scorpion on the kitchen-door frame one evening and whopped it with a coconut broom. Then I couldn’t find it anywhere. On cue, the lights went out just then—load shedding. I slammed the door shut, stripped on the spot in case the critter was clipped to the hemline of my nightdress, and ran to the bedroom for fresh clothes. When the lights came on, I searched the kitchen. I kept the lights on all night, in fact, and read Jane Austen instead of sleeping.

Next morning, I told Mrs Paulose about the missing scorpion. With her characteristic crispness, she asked, “Did you leave the broom inside or outside?" I had left it out. She said the scorpion is a wily animal and darts into the broom. Next time, she advised, I should smash it with a stone. She also told me what I hadn’t known before—a scorpion sting will not kill, it just hurts like blazes. And that brother Jose would “draw the poison out". She didn’t refer to him by name. Few people know his name, he says. They all call him the veshavaidyar, or poison doctor.

We met him a couple of times on our evening walks as he was grazing his cows. He gets a case of snakebite or scorpion stingnearly every day, and he can tell some hair-raising tales. For minor snakebites, he writes out a prescription of items to be bought from a herbalist and to be ingested according to his instructions. For scorpion stings, he has a topical herbal cure, a family secret, that takes away the pain in an hour.

For a serious snakebite, you need to act quickly, he says. Don’t waste time going to the local nursing homes and the district hospital, from which only dead bodies return. Instead, get to the Coimbatore Medical College, where they have the antidotes.

Brother Jose charges nothing for his cures. His skill is a gift from God, he says, and it is his duty to use it to serve people. But survivors are grateful. One man put in a water connection for him, and another got him a telephone.

I was a bit rattled when he told me that rat snakes are indeed poisonous, though their poison is not lethal. Everyone else had told us they were harmless, and when we got home, saar phoned up a man at the district hospital, who again insisted their bites were harmless. The man who picked up the phone may not even have been a doctor, I argued. So the rat snake is an unknown factor. Still, I stored up the cautions brother Jose had given us. Shake your clothes out before you put them on. Carry a torch when you walk out at night. And watch your step.

This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.

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