I flew into Kolkata (what used to be known as Calcutta) not really knowing what to expect – of the city itself or the people and place I had arranged to visit. The former had a reputation as the soulful, cultural heart of India, filled with the ramshackle architectural beauty, elegant buildings, and teeming slums; the latter an incredibly busy clinic of a renowned homeopath and his son where many patients with very severe pathologies such as cancer and chronic renal failure are treated with unique protocols. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I had very few expectations at all. A little over a year ago, an Indian homeopathic colleague had related to me that he had spent some time observing at a clinic that was using unique protocols to treat very serious pathologies such as cancer and that subsequently he himself had found it effective for his own patients. That was all it took to whet my appetite.
I e-mailed Drs. Prasanta and Pratip Banerji, a father and son who are the third and fourth generations of their family to practice homeopathy, to ask permission to visit their clinic in order to study their treatment protocols. The first response I got was a suggestion that it would not be a good fit: “We see from your Web site that you are a constitutional homeopath. We are not, so perhaps you can arrange to study from someone who is...” Constitutional homeopathy, which for the most part is synonymous with the terms “classical” or “Hahnemannian” homeopathy, refers to a number of principles concerning the “proper” use of homeopathic remedies. Although even amongst constitutional homeopaths, there is a fair amount of diversity in the way they work (and a tremendous enthusiasm to debate amongst themselves about whose style truly embodies these principles), there are two fundamental tenets to which all adhere. Namely, a single remedy is used at one time and that the choice of a remedy is not based on the name of a disease or pathology that a person has, but on a complex of signs or symptoms that accompany the disease which characterize the individual nature of the person.
Well, as I was to find out later, the Banerjis do not adhere to either principle and, as their e-mail suggested, are unabashed about the fact. But this fact did not dissuade me. Not only did I have an inkling about their way of practicing based on my colleague’s description of his experience at their clinic, but, more importantly, my identity as a “constitutional homeopath” is quite subordinate to a desire to effectively treat people suffering from a broad range of illnesses with tools readily available to me.
The fundamental principle to which all homeopaths adhere – or at least ought to adhere – our “Hahnemannian Oath,” so to speak, is to bring about “rapid, gentle, and permanent cure.” It is a secondary matter if a protocol breaks some rules, as long as it follows this dictate. And, frankly speaking, few constitutional homeopaths today, especially in this country, have the tools to adequately deal with severe pathologies such as cancer or chronic renal failure.
This was the essence of my reply to the Banerjis. And that seemed to satisfy them. I figured that they were running me through my paces and making sure that there were no misunderstandings. A few more e-mail exchanges to set up dates some six months down the road and to ask for suggestions about hotels – and that was the last we communicated until two days before I was to show up.
That was when I called from the Mumbai (Bombay) area where I had been staying for the previous two weeks at a homeopathic hospital. The call served partially as a reminder, partially to ascertain when would be the best time to arrive at the clinic on the first day of my stay. On being told not to come until 5 p.m., some doubt crept in as to how seriously they were taking my desire to learn about their work. After all, I was only going to be there for five days – and now the first day wasn’t going to begin until the late afternoon. Getting to Kolkata turned out to be a remarkably pleasant experience. I was flying a domestic airline from Mumbai, and expected that it would be a fairly primitive affair. But that was a very mistaken preconception.
There is a fellow named Vijay Mallya, quite famous in India, who is a billionaire born in Calcutta with a house in Sausalito, and who made his fortune in alcohol (United Breweries Group – which has grown into a huge conglomerate of over 60 companies extending well beyond the confines of the liquor industry).
He cuts a rather large swath. On top of his business ventures, he is a member of the upper house of parliament and is a darling of the Indian press for his opulent lifestyle (lavish parties, a big yacht, a fleet of vintage cars, a stud farm with over 200 horses). This altogether Richard Branson-like figure was true to form when, in 2005, he created an airline company, Kingfisher Airlines, that flies domestically in India. (His most famous alcohol product is Kingfisher Beer. It does seem a bit odd – or at least not great marketing – for an airline and a beer to have the same name.)
Kingfisher obviously reflects Mallya’s tastes – a very classy airline with great service, great food (Can you imagine getting a meal in economy on a two-hour domestic flight on an American carrier?), and a bevy of very attractive stewardesses that seems a throwback to TWA in the 1960s.
So, I was in a good mood when I got to Kolkata and quite relieved that the hotel hadn’t forgotten to send someone to pick me up at the airport (to rescue me from the chaos, if nothing else, even if they overcharged me for it). The hotel itself, which I had booked on the Internet, seemed adequate enough. The postage stamp-sized room not withstanding, it was clean, the hot water was working in the bathroom, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the price was right – more than enough to make up for the airport pick-up charge.
But what was I going to find at the Banerji Clinic the next day?
Cacophonous. That is the Indian urban experience. And nowhere is it greater than in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). What first hits you is the noise coming at you from all the various forms of transportation: buses, trams, taxis, private cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycle rickshaws, manpowered rickshaws, wagons....
Then there is the spatial onslaught of the teeming humanity – hordes of commuters on the way to and from work, school kids in uniform on the way to and from school, women on the way to and from the market, merchants hawking their goods, diners taking a quick meal at an outdoor eatery, tradesman – a barber, a locksmith or cobbler plying there trade on the sidewalk, beggars – too old, too young, too helpless, crippled, or deformed, with hands outstretched or pulling at your sleeve. Life is in full display on the street.
And then there is the fascinating melange of buildings, most of which in various stages of disrepair. A legacy of the British, each appears to be constructed in a different architectural style, none appear maintained as we are accustomed to in the West – except for splotches of bright colors here and there. There is a peculiar beauty to it, an aesthetic akin to old New England barns, listing and dilapidated.
My first day in Kolkata was spent wandering around the city center. Although I had intended to show up at the Banerji Homeopathic Clinic first thing in the morning, they had told me over the phone a few days before to not come before 5 in the afternoon. So, I set out toward city center, walking with only a vague sense of where I was going. The first challenge was to get across the six lanes of the road in front of the hotel, Bose Avenue, without the assistance of traffic signals or crosswalks. I successfully negotiated the traffic to find myself in front of the Mother Theresa’s Mission of Charity Guest House, a facility, I was later to learn, where many of the caregivers to the indigent sick and dying of Kolkata, nuns and volunteers, Indians and Westerners alike, stayed.
I next followed the tram off Bose Avenue, down Elliot Street, a cobblestoned thoroughfare that went through what appeared to be a largely Muslim neighborhood. It brought me to Mirza Ghalib Street, where the residential buildings gave way to shops, hotels and other businesses with decidedly more upscale. I doubled back to Carmac Street, passing by Shakespeare Sarani (Street?) and then Lenin Sarani (an odd juxtaposition, but remember the State of West Bengal where Kolkata is located has long been run by the Communist Party).
Then turning onto the largest avenue in sight, I walked up Nehru Road. To the right was a huge, open green space, the Esplanade, Kolkata’s Central Park. But the crowds on the sidewalk were torrential. Half the sidewalk was occupied by hawkers and various forms of street merchants, many of whom shouted out or rushed up to the passing Westerner.
After 20 minutes or so, I had to pull into a shop just to restore my sanity. It was the Kashmiri State Emporium, where I was able to make like a prospective customer, sit down, and leisurely look through a pile of stunning handwoven carpets that were unfurled one by one at my feet.
Back out into the chaos, it wasn’t long before I came across a name recognized from my old Lonely Planets guidebook – Sudder Street. This was where the cheap hotels and the footloose, young Westerners were to be found. I ducked into an Internet Caf to check my messages – and found it full of just such a group. The computers were down, but the very personable and hip proprietor assuaged the assembled crowd of Europeans, Aussies, Japanese, and Americans with his cheerful demeanor and free Chai. When the system came back on, I got my messages, plied the owner for some directions and a place to eat, then made my way back into the pandemonium.
A quick meal at a South Indian restaurant for my most cherished idli (steamed rice cakes) and sambhar (curried lentil soup), and then I was headed back to the hotel to shower, change, and rest up before heading off to the Banerji Clinic.
By this point, I felt too exhausted and oversensitized to make my way on my own power and thought it might be interesting to hop one of those antiquated red buses with the conductors hanging out the doors barking what I assumed to be routes and destinations. A fellow on the street gave me some spot-on information about which number bus to board and where to get off. It didn’t take long before that very one pulled up in front of me, I hopped on, conveyed the name of my stop to the conductor who nodded assuredly. A half hour later he motioned for me to get off. Damned if I wasn’t a few doors down from my hotel!
I was reminded yet again that this is how things go in India. Under a layer of confusion and chaos, there is a system, a form of organization though oftentimes flexible to a degree that might drive the uninitiated mad but yet still functional, often remarkably functional. My experiences in India, whether negotiating around a new city, interacting with bureaucrats or in an extended family, or observing at a medical facility, have by and large always followed this same pattern – overwhelmed by sensory input and by the sheer number of people, mystified by the apparent disorganization and inefficiency, and finally redeemed by the perception of underlying order and a sense of admiration at how things do work.
A few hours later, after sitting in an old yellow Ambassador taxicab where I alternated between impatiently enduring a traffic-jam of epic proportions and making attempts to communicate with the driver who had only the most approximate notion of where I needed to go, I was in front of the Banerji Clinic. And from the swarm of people milling around the front gate and outer retaining area visible beyond it, I knew immediately that the cycle was to begin yet.
The building that houses the Banerji Homeopathic Clinic is a square two storied red brick edifice located in the heart of what has grown to be a rather upscale district of Kolkata (Calcutta). Next door is what looks to be a spanking new indoor shopping mall filled with high end shops and department stores, and manned by uniformed guards who double as doormen for the wealthy clientele parading in and out.
Across the street is the former residence of and now a beautifully maintained museum dedicated to Subhas Chandra Bose, a famous political activist who agitated for Indian independence from the British. (‘Netaji’ or ‘Respected Leader’, as he is usually referred to, is considered by many in this part of India to be the true father of the independence movement – as opposed to Gandhi with whom he had ideological and political differences. During the Second World War, he fled to Japan to escape arrest, organized a battalion of Indians, the Indian National Army to fight alongside the Japanese against the British in Burma. He is said to have died in a plane crash over Taiwan toward the end of the war – though many Bengalis have never accepted this as fact.)
In contrast to these prominent buildings, the Clinic commands little attention. My cab driver had no idea where it was beyond the name of the street I had shown him, and try as we might we could find no sign of it as we drove up and down the street. It was only after getting out and asking at a shop that I was noticed a small nameplate embedded in a square pillar by the front gate: ‘Dr. Prasanta Banerji’ written above ‘Dr. Pratip Banerji’. But pass through the gate, and one has entered another world where their name is writ large.
A porch with long rows of wooden benches mostly takes up the front yard. Depending on the time of day or night, there are varying numbers of people sitting or lying down on them. The latter are either too weak to sit upright or possibly catching up on their rest after a trek of hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to be seen by the Banerjis.
By the front door is a placard that read:
THROUGH THE YEAR OUR DISPENSARY HAS GROWN AND EARNED INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION WITH Dr. PRASANTA BANERJI AS ITS HEAD. Dr. PRATIP BANERJI. Also have Years Of Experience With His Father And An Able And Reputed Doctor Assistent Doctors Are Also Trained in This Institution The Line Of Banerji Protocol in Absence of Doctors Banerjis They Are Able To Treat The Patients And Continue Their Prevailing Treatment Patients From Outside Of Kolkata Are Requested To Come as Early As Possible and Submit a Request Letter With Proper Evidence In the Enquiry Counter For Same Day Appointment. The Serious Patients Like Brain Tumour, Kidney Failure, Cancer etc Are Also Requested To Contact The Doctors in The Reporting Counter By Showing Proper Evidence for Same Day Appointment. We Can Try For all if Possible. So Wait in the Waiting Room Pleasantly. Dr. PRASANTA BANERJI
I puzzled over this for a few minutes and then passed into the waiting room. It was five in afternoon. The place was packed. On one side, people were queued up to register with the front desk, the ‘Reporting Counter’. On another side, they were crowded around the pharmacy window, waiting for prescriptions to be filled.
Pushing through the throng, I sidled up to the Counter and got the attention of a young man on the other side of the glass. “I have an appointment with Dr. Banerji. I called on Friday and was told to come at 5 o’clock.” He looked at me quizzically and asked, “Are you a patient?” “No, I am a doctor.” (In this part of the world, this was not a misrepresentation because homeopaths are indeed thought of as, no they are, doctors.) The fellow disappeared for a few minutes, returned to the window and pointed me toward a door to my right that lead from the waiting room into the inner sanctum.
I squeezed through the crowd, pushed open the door, passed yet another line of patients in a corridor on the other side and entered a large room with the Register Counter on one side and a number of occupied desks. Greeted by a young woman, one of the ‘assistent doctors’ I was later to learn, I was soon ushered into the office of Dr. Prasanta Banerji.
With an altogether disarming smile and gentle demeanor, Dr. Banerji stood on the other side of his large desk, where a number of patients were seated, and extended his hand. “Thank you so much for allowing me to come”, I offered. “Not at all. We are glad you made it.” The vibrant eyes, large ears (a sign of wisdom and longevity in the East) and smooth skin all exuded an unusual vitality for a man of 75 years.
Vital indeed. I was later to learn that he attended to patients, hundreds and hundreds of them daily, for nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week. This was a routine he had been keeping for some 55 years. By the end of my week sojourn at his clinic, I came to regard him as something of a homeopathic saint.
A younger man with a broad face entered from an adjoining room. “You know there was something of a mistake. We had expected you at one this afternoon…” This was the son, Dr. Pratip Banerji. “I called last week and was told to come at five…” “Yes, they misunderstood. Thought you were a patient. Anyhow, you’ve made it.” With that he excused himself to go back to work. I was not to see him for the next 3 days.
Dr. Banerji the elder motioned for me to sit down. He gave me a brief overview of his method and then continued with his consultations. An assistant doctor was assigned the task to translate and explain to me the details and logic of his prescriptions. I sat at the end of the desk, opened a notebook. Thus began a most remarkable week.
After arriving at his dispensary in the heart of Kolkata, I was promptly ushered into the office of Dr. Prasanta Banerji. He gave me a brief overview of the way he practices and then afforded me the opportunity to observe him consulting with patients for several hours. At some point, he told the assistant physician who not only was acting as his scribe but was also explaining the methodology as well as translating for me to take me out of the room and make a place for me by a desk where all the patients present their prescriptions to a chashier after their consultations. Sitting there would make it possible to review all the prescriptions at my own pace, take notes and ask questions of any of the assistants within earshot.
It was a good plan. Plunked down in a chair by the desk, I basically spent most of the next week there reviewing hundreds of cases and filling up the good part of two notebooks. As exciting as it was for me to be exposed to all of these cases, the sheer number of them and the amount of information I was trying assimilate often overloaded my mind. Just as overwhelming at times was the frenetic energy of the clinic and the weight of all the suffering of this endless stream of people.
The number of patients who seek out his help – over one hundred new patients daily, many traveling long distances, and the severity of their conditions is literally unthinkable for a homeopathic from the West. But Dr. Banerji seemed at ease in his element, taking one case after the next. He listens to the complaint, makes a few queries, feels the pulse, palpates the abdomen, assesses the condition and decides on a prescription usually within the space of ten minutes or so.
And at the age of seventy-five, he is doing this for ten hours a day, six days a week. Typically, the mornings are spent making house calls to those too ill to visit his homeopathic dispensary. Around noon he arrives at the dispensary, sees patients for about three hours, takes an hour for a meal, and then consults for another five hours. It used to be that every day from five to nine pm he held a free clinic for anyone unable to pay, but that responsibility is now solely assumed by his son. As is the custom throughout most of India, he takes a late evening meal around nine, then reviews his correspondences and emails, retires for four or five hours of sleep and begins again early the next day. “I trained myself to not need much sleep”, he assured me.
Dr. Banerji has been at it for fifty-five years, and one might reasonably assume that his schedule was once even more demanding. But he appears to be a very vigorous man, with clear eyes, smooth skin and an altogether healthy, cheerful demeanor. Perhaps he hasn’t needed to slow down at all. Certainly, someone less robust, someone without his hopeful, assured manner could very well be crushed by the burden of responsibility he has assumed.
Dr. Banerji openly eschews the very concept of constitutional homeopathy. He does not believe that there is one remedy most suitable for a patient that has been selected on the basis of a set of characteristic qualities reprsenting a fundamental, underlying energetic state unique to that person. Instead, based on the symptoms and pathologies of the patient, he prescribes a number of remedies. Usually it is on the order of three to six, to be taken in a set pattern – some daily or several times a day, some a few times a week, some weekly.
These protocols are quite formulaic. As an example, if a patient presents with a brain cancer – the treatment of which Dr. Banerji is quite reknowned, they will be prescribed two remedies, Ruta graveleons at the sixth centesimal potency and Calcarea phosphorica at the third decimal potency, each to be taken two pills twice a day. If, for instance, the patient presents with convulsions due to the tumor, another medicine, Cuprum metallicum in the sixth centesimal potency will be added to the protocol. If there is headache, he will most likely add a unique remedy he has invented which combines Picric acid in the two hundredth centesimal potency and Belladonna in the third centesimal potency to be taken as necessary when the pain arises. And so on.
Each type of cancer - and I saw any number of cases of liver, breast, cervical, ovarian, bone, throat, tongue, lung, intestinal cancer, to name only the most common ones, during the week spent at the clinic – is treated with a specific protocol for that cancer, with other remedies also prescribed for the specific symptoms presenting at that time.
There are hundreds of these protocols. Each disease, each symptom has one. And there are also secondary protocols, in case the first does not produce positive results. What is remarkable about them is the specificity of not only the remedies, but also about their strength (or potency) and the patterns of repetition.
I would have liked the opportunity to have discussed with Dr. Banerji how the protocols were developed. Clearly, he had enormous experience and presumably a great deal was passed down from his father and grandfather, both of whom were homeopaths. But how was it that of all the hundreds of thousands of homeopaths in India, he had created such a unique system?
In India it often seems that for any job where one person may suffice, there will always be two to do it. Maybe its because wages are low or jobs are scarce or the nature of the social structure or just the fact that there are 1.13 billion people who need to find something to do. I first noticed this phenomenon at a homoeopathic conference where the company hired to video it had a crew of around ten people. Now, we aren’t talking about making the Lord of the Rings. It was a pretty straightforward production and it appeared that most of the crew spent most of their time just hanging around. During a recent trip to a homeopathic hospital north of Mumbai, when I needed a ride to the post office, two men were dispatched to drive me. No one, it seems, had any concern about the inefficiency or lost man hours.
At the homeopathic clinic of Dr. Prasanta and Pratip Banerji, there are also a lot of employees – my best guess would be about 25 to 30 people – for a space that is the size of a large American home. My first assumption was that this was indicative of the same superfluity of human resources. But as I began to sort out how the clinic functioned and the logistics of dealing with the many hundreds of patients who appeared daily, I realized there was very little excess baggage in this operation.
Everyone performs a specific function and is fully occupied all day long. The pharmacy is staffed by around five ‘compounders’ who spend their day making remedies to be dispensed or packed up and mailed out. There are at least an equal number of people who took care of the business of running the clinic – organizing the patient flow, taking care of the accounts, handling patient emails from all over the world, amongst other tasks. In addition, there are a few people employed as cleaning and maintenance workers.
And of course, there is a staff of assistant physicians, twelve of them, who conduct preliminary interviews, most of the follow-ups, and also take turns serving as scribes for the Banerjis when they are seeing patients. Some of these doctors have been with the dispensary for as much as five to ten years, and seemingly have learned most of the Banerji’s homeopathic protocols.
The assistant physician who helped me that first evening was a young woman named Archita Dey. It turned out that of all the assistants, her English was the most serviceable and I came to rely on her considerably that week. Her manner was stolid and self-assured. She had been at the dispensary for five years and clearly had mastered the protocols for just about every condition. In addition to her responsibilities at the clinic, she had also established her own clinic, held weekly near her home on her one ‘day off’. On that single day, Dr. Dey tends to some two to three hundred patients.
I wondered what kept her working at Dr. Banerji’s clinic when she was clearly quite competent to have her own. At one point I asked her why she stayed on when she had paid her dues, was confident of her abilities and had no trouble attracting patients. I thought that perhaps it was a sense of loyalty or obligation or security or familiarity or the very un-American deference to one’s teacher. But, she indicated that it was just a matter of gaining still more experience.
Dr. Banerji’s treatment protocols are quite precise and rather unique. They are the consequence of several generations of continual homeopathic practice and many of them have little precedence in other homeopathic traditions. For instance, the use of Ruta Graveolens or Garden Rue in the treatment of brain cancer appears to be absolutely original with Dr. Banerji. He has gained quite a reputation regarding this protocol, yet other homeopaths are baffled by the reasoning behind it. Although Ruta is indicated in the homeopathic literature as a possible remedy for the treatment of bowel cancer, there is no reference to it in relation to the brain. According to his son Pratip Banerji, the idea came to his father in something of a flash of insight.
Another remarkable aspect about these protocols is the specificity of not only the remedies, but also the form and potency of the remedy. (In homeopathy, ‘potency’ indicates the precise extent to which the remedy substance has been diluted and thus to what extent it has been energized or ‘potentized’.) Homeopathic remedies are produced in a huge variety of potencies, and there are numerous theories about the selection of the most appropriate potency for any particular case.
Most homeopaths consider the choice of potency secondary to the selection of the specific remedy. But for Dr. Banerji, the action of a remedy will vary considerably based on the potency, and thus determining the proper potency is absolutely essential. For instance, the remedy Nitric acid is used in the third centesimal potency for cancers of the mucous membranes. But the same remedy in the two hundredth centesimal potency will be used to treat vitiligo (a chronic skin disease where there is loss of pigment and whitening of the skin). Likewise, Ruta is only used in the sixth centesimal potency. Not only that, but Dr. Banerji, unlike most homeopaths, is very particular about whether a remedy is to be administered in liquid or pill form.
Since returning from my visit to Kolkata, I have spent a good deal of time collating my notes and organizing them into a referable database. Already I have used a number of the protocols and am looking forward to integrating more of them into my own practice. For the opportunity to observe and the assistance offered me at the clinic, I am humbly grateful to the Banerjis.