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Wimal and Malu: Leprosy to Sisterhood

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Wimal and Malu were an unlikely pair. Brought together by leprosy, their friendship was uncommon in its foundations, but had the love, mutual respect and care that you’d expect to find in any strong bond. Leprosy plagued both of their lives for years, but the time they shared together gave them respite from the suffering they’d endured for so long, and reignited a sense of purpose. This is how their lives became forever entwined before they passed away.

Wimal’s story

Wimal Yadav caught leprosy around the age of 12. After her family became aware, she was forced out of her home by her brother - abandoned on the streets where she was vulnerable to the forms of exploitation that disproportionately impact women: sexual abuse, trafficking and violence. Her brother made no effort to send her to the nearest leprosy colony, Dattapur, where she could have at least found some semblance of support. Instead, Wimal was left completely desolate and alone, with nothing to accompany her except the traumatic memories of rejection and mistreatment at the hands of her own family.

Eventually, she came across a community of beggars and drug addicts in an area called Telankaddi, famed for a temple where beggars collect alms from visitors. After finally securing a source of income through begging, Wimal decided to remain at Telankaddi, where she quickly befriended a woman who ostensibly seemed to want to help Wimal, but had ulterior motives to marry Wimal to her son, who was 20 years her senior and battling a drug addiction. This woman was an imposing, notorious character in the Telankadi slum community who made a living from selling “Desi Daru”, a beverage that can contain lethal doses of alcohol. As Wimal came to witness for herself, the woman who became her mother-in-law was an alcoholic with a violent temper. As time passed, Wimal’s untreated leprosy became evident through a light coloured patch covering her body, and the clawing of her figures due to nerve damage. Typically, leprosy and social exclusion go hand in hand, but Wimal’s new family viewed her developing deformity as asset that could attract more money at the temple, monetising and prolonging Wimal's suffering. When a leprosy paramedic noticed her symptoms and directed her to a nearby Primary Health Centre, she was prescribed MDT treatment, but her mother-in-law threw it away. Wimal’s leprosy rendered her ripe for exploitation by people who wanted to profit from her pain. With nowhere to go and no one to help her, Wimal was now a leprosy victim, a beggar, a prisoner and a slave. Malu’s story While Wimal contended with poverty and exploitation, Malu Gawai had to overcome her own leprosy-induced challenges. Coming from a modest background, Malu was a proud nursery teacher who could even read in English - an atypical but coveted skill for India’s working class. She had two children with her husband, but was particularly protective of her son, who had been born with a hole in his heart. Although poor, the family lived happily in a safe community until her husband’s sudden death of a heart attack, which brought an end to the life she had built. Shortly after his death, she developed leprosy and tried to conceal her symptoms out of fear that she’d lose the job she treasured so much. As her symptoms worsened, Malu did lose her job and with it, her self-respect. With no other means of financial support for her children, she was forced to beg for money to survive. This tormented Malu, stripping her of self-worth and dignity, but like the poor single mothers who came before and after her, she made the necessary sacrifices to protect her children. After holding a respected job, begging was a bitter pill to swallow, but she did it for the welfare of her family. Without her, they didn’t stand much of a chance. When Malu met Wimal Each Saturday, Malu begged at Telankadi temple which is where she met Wimal. By the time they met, Malu had earned enough money to support her children throughout school until their marriage. Now cured of leprosy, she lived with her son, daughter-in-law and two infant grandchildren, but their home environment was toxic. Her daughter-in-law resented having to live with a leprosy patient and denied Malu interaction with her grandchildren. Her son was an alcoholic who beat his wife, and rarely earned enough money to feed the family. The money Malu generated through begging became the primary source of income for the entire family. When her daughter-in-law left home because of the drunken domestic abuse, Malu – who was in her 60s – became responsible for two young children and her alcoholic son. For the next few years, she put aside what little she could for the children’s education, and kept the family going to the detriment of her own health. WIN’s intervention This is where we come into the story. A local leprosy paramedic brought Malu to our attention after putting her forward as a candidate for help. Malu had large, often infected ulcers on the soles of her feet (plantar ulcers), and was walking miles to Telankadi temple to beg. Coupled with the nerve damage caused by leprosy, Malu was unable to feel the pain of her infected blisters that soon became open wounds. Each time she cooked for the family, her wounds were aggravated by the burns triggered by the heightened sensitivity of her hands. Wounds that aren’t kept dry and clean during the healing process are primed for infection, but keeping them sanitised is exceptionally difficult without your own washing facilities and access to clean water.

Eventually, in spite of her selflessness and devotion to her family, she was beaten and forced out of her own home by her son. She moved into Telankadi’s slum, where she constructed a makeshift shack out of sticks and plastic sheeting. We asked Malu to report her son to the police. She had the deeds to the property and every right to be there, but her blind love for him led her to sign over her property to him on the condition that she be allowed to visit the grandchildren.

While living in Telankadi, Malu introduced us to Wimal. Wimal’s leprosy needed urgent treatment; her husband and mother-in-law’s insistence on allowing the disease to progress had caused irreparable deformity. We had to take control of the situation. With Malu’s support, Wimal moved into Malu’s shack where she was free to undergo treatment. After we threatened Wimal’s mother-in-law and husband with police intervention, she was no longer theirs to torment. We also managed to trace her mother, reuniting mother and daughter after 23 years, without alerting Wimal’s brother. They met each week at our office in Nagpur.

While living together, Wimal and Malu gave each other a purpose. At the time, Wimal was in her mid-thirties but having left home at 12 without completing her education, she had a younger mindset that made her appear quite vulnerable and naïve. The older, wiser and educated Malu needed Wimal to care for. Their friendship lasted for years until Malu grew old and frail, ending her days in our shelter for women where she died peacefully. Wimal, although around half of Malu’s age, died a year later from a broken heart.

Leah and Usha were extremely fond of them both, and hold some warm memories of them in their hearts.

“During our many visits to check on Wimal and Malu, Malu overheard that I liked “Suki Jinge” dried prawns made into a spicy curry. As a gesture of thanks for the charity’s support, she paid a local chef to cook Suki Jinge for the entire WIN team. She paid the chef because she thought we may not want to eat something cooked by her deformed hands, which couldn’t have been further from the truth! So, when she knew what day we were coming, she presented us all with a beautifully-cooked 3 course meal that was served out in the open in a nearby paddock that Malu had paid the paddock owner to let her use for a few hours for our picnic.”

We supported Wimal and Malu until the end of their lives, providing them with all the necessary medical care they needed. Both women, as with all the women we care for, received the last rights and a funeral, in accordance with their religious beliefs. For all our women, the knowledge that they will get an after death ceremony, and that their bodies will be cremated with care, brings some relief near the end of their lives. Wimal and Malu were remarkable women who endured so much shared adversity because of leprosy. They continue to inspire our work today.

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