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|July 18, 1998||
The Rediff Interview/ Gerhard Fischer
'Eradication of leprosy by 2000 by the Indian government and WHO is wishful thinking'
Was it an instantaneous decision?
No. Myself and my wife had been thinking about that for a long time before I decided to leave the job. In 1985, I wrote a letter of resignation to the foreign minister and said, 'Thank you, I am prematurely leaving the service.' And, zoom… I came back here. Looking back, I feel I am lucky. How do you know how long you will live? It could have been only one year longer. Then I wouldn't have had the chance of doing much in leprosy. I am lucky. It lasted for 12 years. And I hope it will last a little longer. You may ask, why India?
I will ask, why did you choose a place like Chettipatty near Salem?
When I was the consul general of Germany in Madras, to be precise in 1960, a woman came to my room, panting after climbing the steps and asked, 'Can you help me get a permit? I want to help leprosy patients.' I thought that was great. I asked her 'Why do you want to help them?' She said, 'I have heard about a French nun nursing leprosy patients. I am a general practitioner. I have taken a crash course in English and leprosy. I have 30,000 marks in my pocket.' So I took her to the minister of health and she was given a work permit. Then, all of us drove to Chettipatty. She, Dr Elizabeth Vomstein, still works there in Chettipatty.
For four years, we were here in Tamil Nadu. If you ask me which was my best posting professionally and personally, I will say, South India. I mean, all the four states. I admire that man, E M S Namboodiripad. I used to meet him if I passed by Kerala even though most of my work is here in Tamil Nadu. Because of its beautiful water and good climate, there is not much leprosy there.
For four years, we watched how Dr Vomstein worked. When she came here, she stayed with us and we went to Chettipatty often to see her and her station. This fabulous woman slowly built up what today is a model station. She is still cutting off the infected fingers of her patients and she is 81! She is someone very special.
When I resigned, I went and worked for her from 1985 to 1991. She is very, very difficult. After six years, I said, 'Doctor, I have swallowed enough. I can't take any more.' So I left her and started my own stations. I have nothing to do with Chettipatty anymore even though I did a lot for her. I honour her. In my speech in Europe, I put her on a pedestal but I also say, 'You can't work with her.' If she wasn't that type, she wouldn't have lasted 38 years. At 81, she still sits there and cuts off infected fingers.
Are lepers treated the same way all over the world as they are treated here, as outcasts?
Don't call them lepers. They are leprosy patients. I always tell this to people. Yes, there is a difference in this country. Again, I am straight. You say to these people, 'This is your karma! Your karma is not my concern. Mine is none of your concern too. This is a curse from God because of your former life. So, I have no concern for you.'
In my speech at Rashtrapati Bhavan, I said, 'It is not enough to have compassion, daya, karuna and pity for the leprosy patients. We lepers, we don't care about compassion. We want action. That's the difference. In other countries, action is there because there is no karma theory there. It is not their fault. It is the bloody bug that caught them.
How are they treated in other countries?
In the books of Moses, it is written, move out, here comes a leprosy patient. The word 'leprosy' has a horrible connotation in other countries also. We also have leprosy, but in very small numbers. It is not very sizeable. But there, fear and stigma are enormous. Compassion in other countries is tied to action. Here you have daya and karuna and when you walk by him, you pity him and maybe throw a paisa in his bowl near a temple. That's it and nothing more.
Only two people did more. You have pictures of them and you have heard about them. They are Christ and Gandhiji. They picked up leprosy patients, took them into their houses. That is not what is done normally. The leprosy patients themselves think, 'I am cursed by God for my karma in the previous birth. I have to go through life as a leprosy patient, honourable to the end because I am going to be in Fischer's shoes.' This is a drawback for us, in medical sense because it creates fatalism.
What was their reaction when you went to help them? How did they view you?
My patients are my friends. Yes, friends, there is a problem in people's mind because of the stigma and fear attached to the disease. I will accept visitors to come to my stations but I know they can't face it. The disease is horrible physically. But it is far worse mentally to be an outcast from one's family, community, etc.
If you work in a leprosy community, the mental anguish is supreme and it is no different for me. Everyday, when I go to see them in the mornings and evenings and during the day, I touch everybody and say, 'Nalla thane irukku (you are alright). Come on, get up.' Because everybody in my station has a small job to do. Let me tell you, the human side is very important.
With mask and gloves, there is a barrier between me and him. No, I don't want any barrier. Yes, he has it, I may get it too. But there is no difference between us, two human beings. That is the condition for somebody who wants to work there. Others, please don't come.
After the publicity in 1985, many press people came there to see Fischer, the ambassador who has gone to a leprosy camp, kicking his cushy job. Two teams arrived within two weeks. The critical moment came when they wanted to take pictures of me with the patients. They said they had powerful lenses so they would take pictures through the window. I told them, 'I will take you to the gate and say goodbye. Get out! If you want to take pictures, you are coming with me.'
In Germany, I object to television and the press peering at my farm because I don't need it there. But here I need publicity. I want to beat the drum, Leprosy is curable. Come and watch. Forget about the stigma. Forget about treating them as outcasts. Here I am constantly shouting to make the community aware and this Prize gives me a chance to focus the attention on 'us' who are forgotten.
Were you not scared of getting infected?
I don't think of that. I wouldn't have been here, if I ever thought that way. But then, why should I be scared? No, this is my life.
You said somewhere that rehabilitation of leprosy patients is more important.
Yes, to me, rehabiltation is more important. In leprosy stations, we cure leprosy by giving nice treatment, nice food, etc. Rehabilitation is my primary aim. Can you imagine somebody with a wooden leg getting a job to pull a car or carrying a bag? No. No, he has no chance of surviving outside. So, I train this fellow to make chappals. I train this woman in weaving and carpet making.
Curing is easy nowadays. But rehabilitation because of their unfortunate state, with no fingers, is very, very important. I don't want him to be cooped up inside the station. We want to reach a position when stations don't need donations but can survive on their production. In the North, we make beautiful carpets. In other stations, we make table clothes, mats, bed covers, etc. etc.
Lastly, let me say, beat the drum and tell everyone that leprosy is curable. Come at once. Then there will be no mutilation. But with the fear of being thrown out of your family and community, you don't show it in time. If you get early treatment, nobody can see that you ever had leprosy. This message is very important.
Your goal was to eradicate leprosy by 2000. Is it possible?
I'll tell you one thing, people like Sonia Gandhi were sitting in front at Rashtrapati Bhavan and I made them uncomfortable through my speech. The slogan of eradication of leprosy by 2000 by the Indian government and WHO, to my mind, is wishful thinking, Eradication by that year is stuck with dreams, notions and presumptions. Eradication is possible. Tuberculosis is something far more dangerous nowadays. So, funds for leprosy have been shifted. Here and at WHO, the emphasis has shifted from leprosy to TB. It is most unfortunate.
When we who are engaged in this work go for donations, they ask, 'What are you taking about? WHO said it is over. Government said, it is over. So, don't come and beg.' Fortunately my donors are very loyal. So, leprosy goes on.... Because you can't immunise yourself, you can't prevent it, you can only cure it.
Are you an angry man?
(Laughs loudly) No, not at all. But I love battles. I always loved battles. I battled against the head of my government. I battled against collectors and district magistrates. I always said, don't try to fool Fischer.
Was it because of the Second World War that you became a tough man?
I think it is in my genes. My mother is a Norwegian, my father a German. Then, of course, toughened by those eight years, I agree. But I think the toughness came mainly from our childhood when we grew up hearing our parents 'Don't accept anything that is against your conviction.' It is your conviction that should decide what to do. That I got from my parents.
Do you believe in karma?
I believe in karma.
Do you feel you were destined to do this work for the leprosy patients?
I don't look at it as a spiritual trip. It is principles. Now, I am waiting for another question which comes always. What drives you? Some are disappointed with my answer. My answer is, what drives me is my interest for human beings. Secondly, I need challenges in life. I could have chosen any other country for this work which would have been far, far easier. Third is, I am adventurous. No, there is nothing spiritual in my work. No one is guiding me in my work, and I don't have a contract with Him.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
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