Home >Lounge >Features >Can the papaya leaf unite India?

Several things have been proposed recently to unite our mighty nation. Challenging the multiparty system, putting some politicians in jail, letting others out of jail, confining some people to their homes, forcing many others to leave their homes, speaking Hindi and so on. But I have begun to feel that the one thing the country has in common is its pursuit of papaya leaves.

In a sentimental short story by the always brilliant Malayalam writer Paul Zachariah, a man finds himself at the end of his tether. He has no work, no money and nothing to eat. He takes his little son along to the railway tracks and tells him that they have to stop a train and rob the passengers. He stands at the tracks armed with a papaya wrapped in newspaper. If he manages to stop the train, he will pretend it is a bomb to scare the passengers into handing over their cash, he decides. At the tracks, he dithers, continuously telling his silent son about his pangs of guilt. When it is time to take action, the man can’t do it. The idea of scaring random people on the train appals him. He tells his son that they should go home and eat the papaya instead. Despite the many things going on in the story, I have always been embarrassingly distracted by the papaya. The idea that a Malayali man, even in the most desperate straits, is likely to have a papaya always made me laugh and cry. But now that the leaves of the papaya, those leaves shaped like cartoon snowflakes, have became hot property, my feelings have changed.

As you must have guessed, I had dengue last week. I am sure you did too. Dengue and chikungunya are as new in our lives as Instagram but all three now seem like we have had them forever. Karnataka had over 10,000 cases of dengue this year, up 138% from last year. Fourteen members of the Border Roads Organisation in Jammu and Kashmir’s Samba district alone have tested positive for dengue this month. We don’t have any information about how dengue is affecting civilians in the state. Dengue has been listed as one of the causes for reduced life expectancy for women in urban India, according to a government survey under the Sample Registration System. Joining the thousands stricken by dengue, I too had the kind of towering, crushing fever that makes you rethink your entire existence. The kind that makes your family look like strangers through your fever haze. How bad was yours?

Like you, I too had everyone recommend papaya leaf juice to me. Here is my highly scientific theory on the papaya leaf juice. It tastes gross. You really don’t want to be throwing up on top of everything else you get in dengue. Were you the good kind of patient who just swallowed the papaya leaf juice and hoped for the best? I have nursed three people with dengue using just cold compresses, paracetamol and water. Which makes me sound like the “I can make it with just one small aubergine" woman but you know what I mean. Doctors say that as long as you drink huge quantities of any palatable fluid, you are usually fine. Over the last few years, I have thought of the papaya leaf craze often. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to trace its origins like a meme? Instead, I have seen the belief in the papaya leaf grow from strength to strength and even find a revenue model in companies which have created—don’t laugh— papaya leaf capsules.

Yes, I have had the terrible body pain ever since. What about you? Yesterday, I was in the strange position of having to explain to a cab driver that I was using my hands to lift my legs out of the car not because my skirt was so tight but because my knees didn’t bend. Perhaps I should have had the papaya leaf juice? You think?

Hospitals and doctors can do little to help you when you have dengue except put you on a drip. And we can’t seem to do anything about mosquitoes. Genetically modified mosquitoes released in Brazil to bump off other mosquitoes seem to have agreed to join them instead. Scientists are arguing over the possibility that it has created a “more robust mosquito population". It’s like the ending of a Mani Ratnam movie.

Into this vacuum that nature abhors steps the papaya leaf. Or something else that can make you comfortable, the last priority of the medical system which promises to cure you but not make you feel better. As soon as she heard I had dengue, my friend Brinda, busy with her dance workshop, called. She swore that the juice of night jasmine leaves helped her recover swiftly and without pain from dengue. She was going to get out of class and call a neighbour who had the night jasmine plant to get me some leaves. I, who have spent the last three years loudly making fun of papaya leaves, found myself saying thanks weakly. Another old friend grit her teeth and went to see if the annoying woman next door had night jasmine in her garden. And while these women were on these missions, I hallucinated about bitter potions. Night jasmine was gonna save me, like a new character from the Marvel universe.

And that really is the story of the papaya leaf. It is the closest many of us get to a public health system, that is, your health becomes the property of the public. Dengue is the fever that makes family look like strangers and strangers act like loved ones. So the man delivering groceries, your reserved neighbour, the receptionist at the lab, all ask that question with great kindness and familiarity. If I had told the cab driver, I am sure he too would have asked: papaya leaf juice?

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

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