Battles with cancer have become a minor publishing industry within Bollywood. Manisha Koirala sparked it by going public with her triumph over cancer in 2018 with Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life. Lisa Ray’s memoir, Close to the Bone, is to be released this month. Sonali Bendre chronicled her recovery in New York in picture-perfect inspirational detail in a series of Instagram posts. Irrfan Khan wrote an open letter to his fans on the unusual nature of his cancer and while Rishi Kapoor has not revealed the exact nature of his cancer, he has said in an interview that it was perhaps “God’s way of teaching me patience”. Tahira Kashyap, Ayushmann Khurrana’s wife, has documented her battle with cancer on social media in detail.
All of them owe a debt to the First Lady of Cancer, as it were, Nargis, whose epic battle with the disease against the backdrop of her son Sanjay Dutt’s increasing dependence on drugs became the subject of a blockbuster movie, Sanju, in 2018. It was a struggle that had all the ingredients of the hit that it eventually became – beloved movie star retires at height of fame, devotes life to public service, raises three children, is diagnosed with cancer, her loving husband vows to do everything to save her, fails but is forever enshrined in the nation’s memory as the man who almost defied death.
Bollywood film stars seem to have understood the power of authenticity. The more open they are, the better their story is in a crowded marketplace with competing celebrities.
Oncologist Dr Sameer Kaul says film stars readily identify themselves with cancer because it adds gravitas to their otherwise superficial and glamorous image. “It adds a handsome heart to their beautiful body. Politicians, on the other hand, feel that the social work they supposedly do is good enough. Most of them are not even minimally educated or evolved enough to break free of social taboos and superstitions surrounding the ailment,” he says.
They are not expected to lead us in war or peace, to deliver jobs, to resolve our healthcare issues, or to ensure our children get a good education. It’s why Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia became an election issue even though she was clearly healthier than her overweight, cheeseburger-eating opponent – Donald Trump – who became the oldest person to become President of the United States, surpassing even Ronald Reagan.
Perhaps our politicians need to start looking towards the film industry.
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Silent political illness
Popularly known as Dr Feelgood, Max Jacobson would often visit President John F. Kennedy when he was in the White House and administer him with a mix of amphetamines and back injections of painkillers. Kennedy, who had a history of back trouble, knew there were suspicions about Jacobson but he would say: “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”
If only John F. Kennedy could have met terror-accused and BJP’s Bhopal candidate Sadhvi Pragya Thakur who believes in the curative powers of cow urine. It cured her of cancer, she claims, although that claim has now been busted by the doctor who supposedly operated on her. However, it makes Pragya Thakur quite unique in Indian politics in revealing that she was ever a patient of the Big C.
From Sonia Gandhi’s mysterious illness that took her away from Indian politics for three weeks in 2011 to Manohar Parrikar’s sudden decline a year after returning to Goa as chief minister in 2017 following a stint as defence minister at the Centre, politicians have chosen to keep their battles with cancer to themselves.
When there were rumours about Union minister Arun Jaitley’s surgery at a hospital in New York earlier this year, all that people were told was that he had undergone tests for soft tissue cancer and has been advised at least two weeks rest. Even then, he made sure he was seen and heard, writing blogs and addressing media conferences through a video call. Jaitley had two major episodes of ill health prior to this—he underwent a complicated bariatric surgery in 2014 to treat weight gain due to diabetes and then a renal transplant surgery in 2018. His colleague Sushma Swaraj also underwent a renal transplant surgery in 2016.
Emperor of all maladies
Every era has its own emblematic disease, writes Siddhartha Mukherjee, cancer’s brilliant biographer in The Emperor of All Maladies, because it “impinges on an anxiety latent within that imagination”. He gives the example of AIDS in the 1980s because it was a generation inherently haunted by its sexuality and freedom, and of SARS in the 1990s because globalism and social contagion were issues simmering nervously in the West. He calls cancer our desperate, malevolent, contemporary doppelganger, a phenomenally successful invader and coloniser.
What would he make of the chatter about cancer during this Lok Sabha election? Take BJP MP Subramanian Swamy who says the Congress is suffering from political cancer. According to Swamy, “when cancer develops in a body, the cells start working independently and go out of control, just as is happening with the Congress”. Former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan likened the BJP to a cancer that the country has developed and which will destroy it unless rooted out. At a time when public discourse in the country has reached an all-time nadir, such coarseness is not unusual. Not only does it stigmatise the disease but also those who suffer from it.
Little wonder then that politicians in India choose to keep their cancers to themselves.
Whether it was Union parliamentary minister Ananth Kumar or Sharad Pawar, who only opened up about the disease recently although it had clearly affected both his speech and his facial structure, cancer remains a taboo for those in public service. Clearly, it has something to do with the idea of our politicians being fully fit to do battle for their constituents.
Iron hands can’t falter
Indians don’t seem particularly keen on politicians who wear their vulnerabilities on their starched kurta sleeves. If the experience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is anything to go by, they seem to want their politicians to work 18-hour days, fast during Navratra, and be forever immaculately groomed. It’s called the Strong Man complex and it works very well in a climate of hate mongering and scare tactics.
But great leaders of men and women are not necessarily made of Teflon. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected US president four times, was paralysed from the waist down 11 years before he entered the White House in 1932. According to Robert Dallek of The Altantic, as president, John F. Kennedy was under the care of an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist, and a urologist, along with that of three other doctors — Janet Travell, Admiral George Burkley, and Max Jacobson — for a variety of medical conditions, primary among them the Addison’s Disease, an endocrine disorder.
But all this information is available only now because records are being declassified. For the public at large, the Kennedy Years were Camelot at its peak.
Even now, over five decades later, illness is not something politicians like to admit to, especially if it happens to be cancer.
No one likes to see their leaders weak and no one understood this better than Mohammad Ali Jinnah who concealed from the whole world the terrible secret that he was suffering from tuberculosis, which Susan Sontag once called the cancer equivalent of the 19th century, and had been given a short time to live. Just a year after the formation of Pakistan, which cost at least a million lives and the displacement of fifteen million, and which Jinnah had supervised through sheer force of will, he was gone.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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