A little blue card was tacked to the windshield wiper of my car. It said all those suffering from any sort of physical or mental pain including one caused by a heartbreak, must immediately meet Baba Sikandar Shah Bengal Walley . Dua aur tabiz se taqdeer badlti hai ! (prayers and amulets can change one’s luck), promised the card. The problem areas for which Baba’s spiritual help was available ranged from epilepsy, asthma and jaundice to family quarrels, love marriage (sic), getting rid of “the other" in a troubled marriage and stalled foreign trips. The card claimed that if needed, the Baba would also reverse evil spells cast by someone on a husband, lover or son.

Anyone who has travelled around India by train would remember mud, stone or brick walls around all towns and villages displaying similar messages in large black letters. The healers they name are obviously popular locally and their “clinics" are conveniently located near some ghantaghar (city clock tower) or behind a kotwali (police post) or next to a holy shrine. A large number of people in India sincerely believe that illness of all sorts can be healed by prayers, holy ashes and amulets. Also that healing is possible not just psychically (that has been proven possible by eminent psychiatrists such as Sudhir Kakar), but also physically—that elasticity can be restored to calcified joints by chanting mantras, malignant tumours can be cured by prayers combined with herbal potions, that even asthma can be cured by swallowing live fish on certain auspicious days.

Today our government hospitals are proving to be totally inadequate to cater to the large number of poor patients who arrive there hoping to be cured of all kinds of chronic illnesses, from cardiovascular diseases to diabetes and brittle bones. The doctors and the staff have become so grossly overworked and/or distracted that after a detailed survey of the knowledge of medical practitioners treating patients in primary healthcare centres in Delhi for five common conditions, a recent World Bank study in 2005 reveals that there are 50-50 chances of the doctors recommending a harmful treatment.

It is, therefore, not surprising that after they have met a couple of times in corridors, canteens or the little temples and dargahs that inevitably sprout up within the premises of all Indian hospitals and police stations, desperate wives, mothers, husbands and brothers of patients will swap addresses and mobile phone numbers of well-known shamans in various small-towns.

The most noticeable difference between government hospitals and shamanic clinics is aesthetic. The cheerfulness and kindliness of a baba or pir sahib or ojhaji is in sharp contrast to the dour faces and snarling tones of the staff in government hospitals. How can the overworked and understaffed doctors of medicine help a 30-year-old rickshaw puller suffering from jaundice who, in a miasma of pain and nausea, has forgotten to bring along a record of the previous prescriptions? The doctor could, of course, if he is exceptionally kind and can manage to get a bed in a ward, suggest hospitalization and carry out the pathological tests.

The tests will only establish the disease, which is curable by rest and clean water—both not easily available to the patient who, meanwhile, faces the option of lying for days in a dirty and overcrowded hospital room among odours of bleaching powders and urine and rotting drains outside. The shaman, on the other hand, will offer him instant treatment and send him home with an amulet. In all probability, the treatment will consist of seeing his reflection in a pot filled with fragrant oil or turmeric-coloured water that the shaman has sanctified by whispering some mantras. Meanwhile, the sick man and his family can all sit chatting up other patients, in a courtyard full of other fellow sufferers and made fragrant with years of burning incense.

Rx. Wear proffered amulet for three weeks, meanwhile avoid yellow food, eat boiled food only and sleep with an iron knife or betel nut cracker (Sarauta) under the pillow. After three weeks, start to leave a pinch of flour for ants at ant holes for four successive Thursdays and feed birds with millet seeds for five Wednesdays. Immerse the amulet in a pond or river nearby. All will be well.

The shamans are successful in India because, unlike many of our doctors, they have not forgotten a basic truth about healing: Just as flowers will release their fragrance when someone moves them gently, by taking a personal interest in the patient’s soul, the healer can release much of its pain—which, god willing, may then begin to evaporate slowly as he or she inhales the kindness and love behind the simplest words: All will be well.

Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at theotherside@livemint.com