Satish Kumar Midda, better known as Hari Pahalwan, is sitting on an upholstered cushion on the floor, waiting for his next patient in his hole-in-the-wall clinic in old Delhi’s Lajpat Rai market. It has a small bench, a shelf filled with bandage and cotton rolls, and a signboard on the wall listing the services on offer.
He does not have to wait long.
A woman writhing in pain arrives with her husband. She says she hurt her leg a few days ago, and the pain is unbearable. Pahalwan, a plump man in his early fifties, examines the painful part and delivers the diagnosis in a minute flat. “It’s infection, not injury,” he says, his face beatific.
The couple seems impressed — though they do not quite ask Midda how he arrived at the diagnosis.
Midda, a boner-setter, soaks a bandage in dark brown oil and wraps it around the affected part of the leg. “Do not worry, you will be fine in a couple of days,” he says. Come and show it to me next Monday.” The fee? `200. “It is the cost of the material,” Midda tells the couple.
The woman’s husband Anil Kumar says Midda has a Midas touch. “I have been coming to him for nine years and he has cured all my bone-related problems,” says Kumar, as Midda makes an effort to look self-effacing.
Midda says his clients include top politicians, including a former prime minister. “I can cure all bone-related problems except broken backbone,” he says as he puts the money in his pocket. “I am getting more patients than ever before.”
Midda is not the only one. There are any number of Pahalwans (a generic title for bone-setters in north India) running flourishing ‘ortho clinics’ across the city, where they claim to provide ‘traditional and natural treatment’ for everything from fractures to all kinds of muscle spasm, sprains and strains. And, like Midda, who has studied up to class six only, they all claim to have learned the ‘art’ of bone-setting — a manipulation therapy for dislocated and fractured bones — from their forefathers.
Theirs is a world where homemade ‘secret oils’, salves and lotions in various shades of brown serve as medicines and bamboo sticks and cardboard as splints.
No X-ray machines, no casts, no forceps. Most of the work is done with bare hands with a pair of scissors being the only the equipment. Curiously, their clinics – there are many of them in places such as Mahipalpur near the airport, Shahdara in east Delhi, Uttam Nagar in west Delhi – flaunt large flex signboards with photographs of WWF wrestlers with bandaged hands and legs. Many feel these Pahalwans are quacks but there are others who swear by their expertise. In fact, at some clinics, such as Ghuggi Pahalwan’s in Shahadra, the waiting time can be up to four hours.
Almost all of them have had no formal training and claim to rely on ‘wisdom and experience’ received from their forefathers. And they all call themselves Pahalwans – though most have never been a wrestler.
“Our medicines and techniques originated in Akharas. Our forefathers were wrestlers who made their own herbal medicines to treat injuries sustained during wrestling,” says Mohammad Ikran, who runs a clinic called ‘Chaudhury Pahalwan’ in west Delhi’s Uttam Nagar. “No one understands the human body better than wrestlers; they know all the bones, joints and muscles,” he adds, as he rubs his ‘secret oil’ on the hand and wrist of a patient. “Every Pahalwan has his own herbal preparation. Each of those oils is meant for a different bone ailment,” he says, pointing to a dozen bottles neatly placed on a shelf above his desk.
The patient he is attending to is Mohammad Naved, a tall, dapper man in red T-shirt and blue jeans. An exporter, he has come all the way from Gurgaon to get treatment for an injury he sustained in the gym. Naved is all praise for Ikran as the latter administers an elaborate treatment: He first pours oil on the affected part, then foments it with a device whose exact name he does not know, applies some white paste, bandages it, places a piece of cardboard as a splint, and then puts another layer of bandage.
“My father has been coming to him for the last 10 years, and he always got cured. I did not want X-ray or other allopathic medicines, so I came here,” says Naved.
The bone-setter is happy with the way his patient has acknowledged his expertise.
“When people cannot get cured there, they come here,” says Ikran, pointing to a multi-specialty hospital just across the road. “You see, there are a few families like ours who have the knowledge and expertise, the rest are all frauds. Our business runs on word-of-mouth.”
There is tough competition among the Pahalwans of Delhi. Take for example the Chaudhury Pahlwans of Mahipalpur, which is a mini-hub of Pahalwan clinics or rather Chaudhury Pahalwan clinics. Mohammad Irshad, who runs one of them, warns you to be beware of copycats — but it is not quite clear who is the original one.
“We are the original Chaudhury Pahalwans; the rest are all dodgy,” says Irshad. A large signboard both outside and inside his shop says, “People with sexual problems must also consult,” but he is not willing to dwell on that line of his work. “I make an oil for those types of problems, but the bone-setting is my specialisation, so let’s focus on that only for now,” says bespectacled Irshad dressed in a white shirt and grey trousers. Behind him is a wooden shelf filled with dark-brown oils in designer glass bottles, boxes of powders and bandage rolls. On the right is larger-than-life poster of a wrestler with a bandaged arm.
“I only deal with dislocation and muscle-related issues, I refer other cases to doctors,” says Irshad, who has studied up to class nine. But unlike others, Irshad admits he is not a doctor of bones. “My clients are mostly poor people who cannot afford doctors. They get cheap treatment here and I manage to eke out a living. It benefits both.”
While not every Pahalwan provides treatment for sexual diseases, all of them boast about their family legacy, and their secret formulation. But no one takes more pride in his family legacy and his secret salve than Shafiq Mannan. His father Hazi Abdul Mannan Pahalwan was one of the most famous bone-setters of the Walled City. Their clinic is at the end of a narrow, winding lane, but almost everyone has heard of ‘Mannan sahib’ and they easily guide you to the place.
Inside the clinic with tiled walls and green curtains, there are about five men and a young woman sitting on steel boxes that double up as benches. There is wooden plank where the Pahalwan sits. Next to it is an old, rusting iron box with bandages, a pair of scissors and a bowl of yellow paste—yes, the secret salve of the family. One has to take off shoes to get into the clinic.
It is 1 p.m. and Pahalwan has gone for his namaz. When he returns around 2 p.m. everyone stands up and greets him. He prefers to talk to us at a nearby shop run by his brother. “Our family belongs to the Iran-Afghanistan border and we shifted to Delhi in the 1920s. We have been practising bone-setting for the past 300 years,” says Shafiq. “The salve we use has huge healing properties and it has been passed down to us though generations.”
The short, stout man dressed in impeccable white, Shafiq, looks more like a businessman. “Only my brothers and I know the ingredients of this salve,” he says. Shafiq claims that 50 patients visit him every day from all over the country. “Apart from patients, I get a lot of researchers and foreign journalists from countries such as Germany and England.”
Keen to show his knowledge, Shafiq talks about how bone and joint problems are increasing like never before in the country. “These days, I get a lot of patients, including youngsters, with knee pain. Increased use of refined oil is responsible for it. We should take a decent amount of mustard oil or desi ghee every day, which is very necessary for healthy bones,” he says. Ask him why his clinic is so popular, and pat comes the reply: “Our expertise, and low-cost treatment.”
But orthopedicians are not quite amused. Mention ‘Pahalwan’ and Atul Vaish, vice president, Delhi Orthopedic Association, says: “They are just quacks and do more harm than good. There are no ifs and buts about it. For them every bone-related problem is a case of dislocation. Their methods are unscientific and highly questionable,” he says. “You need to understand the anatomy of a person to carry out any manipulation. And for that you need formal training.”