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Looking for a cure: A nation reliant on 'totkas'

Updated April 18, 2015


We end up taking the wrong over-the-counter medication based on past experience or bad advice.—Creative Commons
We end up taking the wrong over-the-counter medication based on past experience or bad advice.—Creative Commons

It was exactly ten years ago that my aunt passed away after an eight-month long battle with liver cancer.

When we first heard that she had stage III cancer, it was an indescribable shock to the whole family. In the next few months, her treatment followed what was an unconventional path according to modern medical standards; but one that would be familiar to those surrounded by countless medical myths and only a few options and information on where to go and what to do when confronted by a deadly disease.

The doctors had informed us that there was a small chance she may be able to recover with proper treatment. But where she lived – in the village with few medical resources – the prospect of heading to a big city hospital was daunting.

“Go to my pir jee, he will cure you inshallah,” was the most common advice she received, and she took it.

When the pirs didn’t work, the next step was going to hakeems and homeopathy doctors. Their potions and sugary pills also failed to cure the disease ravaging her.

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So finally, near the very end, she went to Lahore, to Shaukat Khanam hospital. But by then, it was too late and she passed away a few weeks later.

My aunt’s behaviour following her diagnosis was not unusual. Neither was that of her well-wishers, who kept advising here to try out every available alternative to modern medicine. But it wasn’t just out of ignorance, it was also because proper treatment was not readily available to her and because the diagnosis and advice of overworked doctors in government hospitals is not always to be trusted.

Self-diagnosis and self-medication has become somewhat of a national habit of ours. Considering how large swathes of the country are cut off from access to basic healthcare, that is not odd at all.

Even in cities, where there are a number of private clinics, hospitals and labs, it isn't doctors we pay our first visit to when sickness strikes. Sometimes, that makes sense; grandma’s totkay, are enough to fix small problems like the common cold.

The medicines we take come with their own set of side effects. It is best to exercise caution and to keep ourselves informed regarding these. The overuse of antibiotics leaves one vulnerable over time since bacteria develop resistance to it.

But when, with these little tidbits of information, we begin considering ourselves experts on health and medicine, that is a recipe for disaster. We end up taking the wrong over-the-counter medication based on past experience or on the solicited or unsolicited advice of those ever present and knowledgeable well-wishers.

Most of this 'knowledge' is based on myths we heard back in the day: cold or sour food gives you a sore throat; there are foods with garam taseer and foods with thandi taseer (start asking around and you will realise no one is actually sure what that means); eating yogurt and fish together gives you vitiligo (phulbehri).

I still wait at least an hour after a meal before taking a bath because of how deeply it was drilled into my mind from an early age that taking baths right after meals makes one sick – again, not exactly sure how but ammi said so.

Over the years, this ‘knowledge’ is added to by half-remembered doctor’s prescriptions, things we hear on TV and things we read on the internet. As anecdotal evidence of the success of various hakeem and homeopathy prescriptions; dadi kay totkay; and random assortment of drugs pile up, we consider ourselves capable of getting well on our own (doctors, keep your stethoscopes in your pockets, thank you very much).

Also read: Pharmacists – the most neglected professionals

Our preventative measures boil down to staying away from cold food during winters and our cures involve a mixture of alternative and allopathic medicine that wreaks havoc on our insides until we finally cave and make the inevitable doctor’s trip.

Aches and pains are usually ignored until they become debilitating. Dental hygiene is only adopted in earnest after a couple of cavities have had to be filled in. And exercise? Isn’t that just for losing weight?

But along with all the myths there is also one other old adage that everyone has heard of; one of the few true ones: Prevention is better than cure.

For avoiding everything from heart disease to cancer to joint pains, the two things recommended most often are a healthy diet and exercise; not even the gym-based exercise with fancy equipment, just plain old walking does more for one’s health than a bag full of pills and herbal teas.

And when, despite healthy habits, a serious illness does come our way, it is always better (and in the long run, cheaper) to head to the doctor rather than consulting neem hakeems and pirs or raiding the medicine cabinet at home.