Cumin, Capsules, and Colonialism

“Real” and “Imagined” Medical Encounters in the Hindi Literary Sphere

In: Asian Medicine

Abstract

The institutionalization of Western allopathic medicine in colonial India had significant implications for the cultural politics of the early twentieth century. The introduction of vaccinations, the establishment of hospitals and dispensaries, scientific discourses on hygiene, bacteriology, and nutrition, the emergence of obstetrics and gynecology as medical disciplines, and the commercialization of medicine—to name but a few aspects of the institutionalization or elements leading thereto—were all topics that also concerned the Hindi literary sphere. This essay investigates how the Hindi literary public tackled the colonial state’s promotion of allopathy and modern sciences while, within the same discourse, it (re)discovered, systemized, and modernized indigenous medical knowledge traditions—most notably Ayurveda but also homespun remedies and folk medicine—for the prevention, treatment, and cure of disease. Prose fiction and prose essays, alongside advertisements in Hindi periodicals, testify to a range of opinions on what constituted a “healthy” blend of diverse “Eastern” and diverse “Western” medical traditions. This essay argues that the Hindi discourse on medicine and colonial modernity was steered by gendered nationalist politics, modern Western sciences, and commercial interests in maintaining a healthy body and working toward a healthy nation.

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