I saw her at one of the Leprosy referral centres which we (LEPRA) have. Am recent corporate to NGO convertee and the world of Leprosy is new to me. For me visiting our various centres and projects which we run nationally is a means of understanding the work we do and helps me learn more about the social sector which I am now a part of. And it was during one such visits that I saw her. Let’s call her “Hope”. The first thing I noticed about Hope was her beautiful smile and I promptly smiled back. I was stuck by the fact that she seemed so out of place there.
I did not notice her eyes until she came into the physician room where I was sitting. Hope once had Leprosy and she is completely cured of it now. She had come to meet the physician for her follow up visit. That is when I saw that her eyes were sad and were in stark contrast to the happiness in her smile. I was curious. So, after she was done with the physician, I sought her out to know more about her.
Her first husband was physically and mentally abusive to her because she had Leprosy. In spite of countless counselling sessions offered by our LEPRA staff, he remained abusive and was convinced that she got Leprosy because she was not faithful to him. After 10 years of the abusive relationship, she mustered the courage to divorce him. She got remarried again and now has a baby boy. “My second husband is good”, she said. “Then why are you still sad?” I asked. Her answer shook me.
“I never told my second husband that I once had Leprosy and that I come for the follow up visits” she said. So she in constant fear that he might find out and take the baby away from her. I asked her how she manages to visit the clinic without his knowledge. It seems that she tells him that she is going to her parent’s house, leaves the baby with her mother, and comes to the clinic with her sister. So, except for her parents and us at LEPRA, her reality is mostly hidden.
And I learned that day that not everyone has the freedom to be truthful. I learned that a happy smile can also mean an alternate reality. And that there are many people like Hope who always have a mask on so that their fake happy smile can seem real to the outside world. For me, that day marked the start of my journey towards understanding the realities of the lives which were/are affected by Leprosy.
Now I look at the eyes of a person first before anything else to see if they have a mask on.
By Kasturi Kilaru