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The stigma born of leprosy cuts across all man-made barriers of race, caste, class and religion. Even after the leprosy bacteria is absent in the body thanks to now easily accessible medicine, the tell-tale scars pursue that unfortunate, affected person till the end. A generation or two ago, smallpox signs on the face were sometimes seen as a visitation of past sins. In the case of leprosy, this is sadly a perception that even the educated continue to have. From Malaysia to Japan to large parts of Africa, where the disease or its remnants exist, societal discrimination causes the leprosy-affected to be confined to slums and ghettos at one end of the spectrum, to more sanitised colonies and dormitories in more affluent societies.
Suresh (name changed), about 40, has no leprosy, but is a victim of its stigma. This is because his parents were afflicted with the disease. He was separated as a child from his parents and grew up in a hostel. That they are now cured seems to matter little to Suresh's peer group. He was lucky to get a government job. From the first, his colleagues began to shun him. What hurt him most, I once asked. He said his colleagues would not allow him to join them for lunch. A few weeks ago, some 18 years later, I asked him whether attitudes had changed. He gave a rueful smile that said all.
Suresh is fortunate. Not directly scarred, the security of a government job helped him break away from poverty and into the middle class. Asha (name changed), however, died a miserable death. Once the matron of a well-known prep school (where her charges over the years included many of the rich and privileged), she contracted leprosy in her later years. Terrified of its disclosure, she hid it for several years. Treatment in the early years would have cured her easily, and there would have been no ulceration. When nerve damage and ulceration set in, she became an embarrassment to her sons. Asha was brought to Mother Teresa's leprosy centre in Delhi. One day, when I was accompanying Mother Teresa on a round of the dormitories, she stopped to console Asha, a tiny woman with bandaged stumps for hands and feet. Mother Teresa told me she missed her elder son terribly. He had not visited her even once in the last few years.