In 2009, when actor-model Lisa Ray was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, she chose to chronicle her journey with the cancer and its lessons on a blog, calling it The Yellow Diaries. Two days ago, cricketer Yuvraj Singh, undergoing chemotherapy for a malignant lung tumour, posted a bald photo of himself on Twitter, adding a message about staying strong. A sign of change in the Indian psyche that found it a taboo to talk about illness? “Sickness in India was a group activity. Now with people becoming more individualistic, people find meaning/inspiration from these stories. If their idol can survive XYZ, so can they. With online spaces opening up, new kinds of solidarity are being created,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.
While we may not be punching out every little detail about our illnesses yet, it’s a step towards readiness in that direction, says Dr Bhavna Burmi, psychologist at Delhi’s Escorts Heart and Research Institute. “Things are changing. Greater value is accorded to the person than his/her accomplishments. Social media is helping this ‘empathetic awareness’ grow,” she says.
Abroad, celebrities such as American author Katie Couric put colon cancer screening in the public domain when she televised her own colonoscopy on a TV show almost a decade ago, while the late British-American writer Christopher Hitchens chronicled his battle with oesophageal cancer in a series of essays for a magazine. Last year, actor Catherine Zeta Jones spoke about her bipolar disorder and last month, actor Brad Pitt went public with his struggles with depression in the 90s.
While the west has been open for a while with issues generally considered taboo such as sexuality, abuse, death etc, India also now seems to be quite ready to talk about illness and death.
Indians earlier either blackboxed their ailments or the models for this kind of sharing were ‘emotionalism’, as seen in the Hindi films. “People used to be protective about their loved ones’ sickness and were hesitant to talk about it. When someone like Yuvi shares his experience it shows his own resolve/acceptance and compliance with the treatment and when it’s read by young people especially those who may have someone around them suffering from the same thing, it makes a positive impact,” says Samir Parikh, psychiatrist with Max Healthcare.
What about the idea of ‘illness voyeurism’? “Wasim Akram has campaigned for diabetes, Sanjay Dutt spoke about drugs after his battle, Oprah Winfrey has openly spoken about sexual abuse… Unless Yuvi or someone else goes into extreme attention seeking tactics, people will be empathetic,” says Burmi. The idea of ‘everyday detail’ is gaining tract. “If earlier it was about pain, now it’s about symptoms given the new sense of intimacy online,” says Visvanathan.
Do celebrities feel that they owe it to their fans/online followers to share such details? The relationship between the star and his/her fan is part confessional, part spectacle, part intimate, says Visvanathan. “When a star confesses to each of his fans, it’s also a collective act. Each one feels like he/she’s been spoken to individually. What I can’t act out, I’ll write out while earlier it was reverse. Writing is the new drama today,” he says adding that the attempt could be to create more support. “Maybe voyeurism is the new solidarity today.”
It seems Ray wrote, almost prophetically, in one of her early blog posts in 2009: ‘I asked around if I should speak openly about getting diagnosed recently with multiple myeloma. Some advised me to keep my ‘condition’ a secret as it could negatively affect my career. […] Laura Simms, my NY-based professional storyteller/surrogate Jewish mother, highlighted the ‘pathology of perfection’ which we suffer from in this age. How celebrity culture and media create unrealistic expectations… and how perhaps sharing my experiences… juxtaposed with my ongoing chemotherapy …could inform and loosen these expectations...’