Often, during a medical call, I received lessons in health and wellness from the most unlikely of people. No textbook in the world would ever contain these ‘tutorials.' An evening in the late 1980s, a few days after Diwali in late October, on the banks of the Karamana river, was one such time when a popular local character, Chuppayyan (Subbayyan), opened up a new vista of well-being.

Karamana was a quaint, sleepy, and nondescript suburb in Trivandrum city and it was here that Chuppayyan wandered around without a home to call his own. He was an orphan but I would disagree if you say Chuppayyan was a beggar as he did many odd jobs. Also, unlike the scraggy looks of a destitute, he was a little plump and had a cherubic face. He would seek alms only when his earnings failed to satisfy his hunger.

If there was someone that he was close to, it was Valliamma the old woman who sold vegetables door-to-door in a basket made of palm leaves. Nobody knew how they were related but then Chuppayyan could be seen at her side helping her. Valliamma would sell small unripe mangoes for making pickles from January to March and every child at Karamana was familiar with her Kanni maanggai (unripe mangoes) chant as she went around with the basket on her head. Chuppayyan would follow her for a while and then wander off as she sat on the thinnai (pyol) of a house and measured her mangoes with a pakkah, a measuring jar of those times.

This incident occurred as I was returning home with a friend after attending a medical call at the house of an old lady who was incapacitated by a stroke. We took a shorter path along the dyke constructed along the Karamana river. A canopy of coconut trees lent the evening a darker shade than it really was and we could see the silhouette of Chuppayyan ahead of us. There was a place where the dyke took an undulating turn and we could see some people sitting in a circle and playing cards. There were empty bottles littered around, revealing that the game of cards was accompanied by some fun with fresh toddy.

As Chuppayan neared them, one of the card players started taunting him. As if on cue, others joined him and started making disparaging remarks about Chuppayyan's parents, especially his mother. Chuppayyan passed them without uttering a word and his head was held low. Emboldened by his passivity, one of the card players got up and came close to him menacingly though he was too drunk to progress further. It was at this point that we reached the inebriated players and my friend, a member of a cadre-based political party, raised his voice and threatened them. Seeing my friend's reaction, the more sober of the card players rushed to pull back their friend, who was intending to harm Chuppayyan.

My friend turned to Chuppayyan and berated him for being silent. “Why didn't you react,” he asked as we resumed our walk back to our homes. Chuppayyan replied: “Avangalukku puriyadhu” (they are all so drunk that they will not understand).

My friend, who was known for his fire-brand temperament, persisted: “But then they were abusing your parents, weren't they? One should hit back if one's parents are made fun off.” I was watching Chuppayyan, who replied very calmly: “Anna [brother], I do not know who my parents are and hence it does not make any difference.” I was surprised by his rather calm demeanour and obvious lack of ill feelings towards his tormentors. I was also puzzled by his nonchalance and promised myself to seek the truth from Valliamma.

Some months passed and came summer. I had forgotten Chuppayyyan as I busied myself with life and the challenges on its professional and personal fronts. On a hot summer noon in May, I found Valliamma on my doorstep with a minor medical problem. After prescribing her medication, I broached the subject of Chuppayyan's paternity with her. “Where are his parents? Is he your son?” She was surprised but answered clearly: “Chuppayyan knows who his parents are. They are a family of rich traders in Bhoothapandi. When the boy was young he had epileptic fits and the parents got scared and abandoned him on the banks of the Karamana. When he grew up, they got in touch with him again, but he told them that he was happy with me as I raised him after I lost my husband in my younger days.”

I looked back on the day when Chuppayyan was harassed and taunted on account of his paternity. His response to his tormentors and his parents who abandoned him was indeed the most unexpected from a vagabond. He scored high that day for his emotional quotient, in stark contrast to many of us who would seethe in anger at the slightest provocation and perception of unfairness in our lives. We hit back losing more in the process. Our roads are the best examples of the latter group which whip itself into a frenzy at the slightest provocation from fellow-drivers. They lose all reason and harm themselves in the process of flying into road rage.

That was the day when I learnt an important lesson for good health: one should always engineer one's perceptions in a way that does not hurt us — learning to forget, forgive, and get on with the journey of life; simply because there are too many things around us which we cannot change.

We humans are perhaps the most insecure among the animal species as we live our lives, going to great lengths to ensure that our health and wellbeing are not adversely affected during our spell on this planet. It is this insecurity that drives endeavours as varied as astrology, the bullion markets and, of course, the big business — religion — as we seek to secure our future. In our times, even the ‘medical industry,' which includes investigatory tools such as CT and MR scans and the countless blood tests, is sometimes used in this human quest for reassurance.

If you ask the ‘wise,' they would say that the key to wellbeing lies in the mind and it is the mind's reactions to events that determine our health and happiness. What do you think of the man who had a heart attack when his favourite team lost a cricket match? Or a boy who decided that the world ended for him because he did not qualify in the medical entrance exam. And then there was this businessman who had a heart attack soon after he lost a bid for a lucrative contract to his rival. Why does this lady run her blood pressure up when she meets her brother who, she feels, cheated her in the division of their paternal property? The wise would say that all these are the result of the way we perceive these events. It is here that many of us could learn from Chuppayyan.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Dept of Neurosurgery, SCTIMST, Thiruvananthapuram, and his email ID is: dreaswer@gmail.com)

Keywords: health issues