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Research Article

Living with illness uncertainty: nature cure caregiving in Kerala, South India

Victoria SheldonVictoria Sheldon

Victoria Sheldon holds a PhD in Anthropology with a Collaborative Specialization in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. Her thesis, “Vital Bodies, Natural Cures: Moral Quests for Care in Kerala, South India”, examines how nature cure healers and users engage a collectivized vision of wellness and self-care, ethnographically bringing into relief the ways that biomedicine does not in itself equate to effective rehabilitation. She currently works as an Educational Developer & Learning Strategist at the University of Toronto.

Abstract

First promoted in India as part of M.K. Gandhi’s anti-colonial project, nature cure (prakr̥ti jīvanaṁ) draws on the metaphor of vitality to frame the body as having a natural wisdom—a vital force—that works to restore health and balance. In Kerala, South India, patients forge mentorships with nature cure healers to repair their ill bodies, revive the toxic environment, and respond to moral collapse. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, this paper offers a person-centred analysis of one practitioner, Dr Vinod, as he instils trust in two chronically ill patients facing uncertain futures. First, I demonstrate the limits of public categorisations of alternative medicines in India for representing the multiplicity of healers and their care strategies. Despite nature cure being outwardly centred as a mode of self-healing, Dr Vinod does not engage liberal conceptions of autonomy and independence, nor does he solely critique biomedicine. Rather, Dr Vinod attends to patients’ histories and the specific arrangements of kinship, caste, class, and gender shaping their vulnerabilities, to transform feelings of doubt into those of trust amid illness uncertainty. In this way, alternative healers hold the capacity to reconfigure socially embedded lives. Second, to illuminate how naturopathic care tactics reveal the relational dimensions of illness experience, I draw on and expand the work of philosopher Havi Carel. Carel argues that bodily doubt shapes the experience of chronic illness in three ways: loss of faith in one’s body, loss of transparency, and loss of continuity. Engaging with Cheryl Mattingly’s approach to narrative phenomenology, I demonstrate how Dr Vinod moves a step further, asking how articulations of illness and loss are inherently intersubjective. Empathetic to his patients’ social worlds, Dr Vinod gently intervenes in their lives, forging therapeutic ties to support them—all the while outwardly claiming that the locus of healing lies in the self.

Keywords

carenature curenaturopathyalternative medicineillness experienceillness narrativesKeralaSouth India
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Published on: 19 December 2023
Volume: 11
Issue: Supplementary issue 6
Article ID: 119
Pages:119 - 136
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© The author(s) 2023.
Cite this article
Sheldon (2023), ' Living with illness uncertainty: nature cure caregiving in Kerala, South India ', Journal of the British Academy, 11(Supplementary issue 6): 119 https://doi.org/10.5871/jba/011s6.119

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Living with illness uncertainty: nature cure caregiving in Kerala, South India

Victoria SheldonVictoria Sheldon

Victoria Sheldon holds a PhD in Anthropology with a Collaborative Specialization in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. Her thesis, “Vital Bodies, Natural Cures: Moral Quests for Care in Kerala, South India”, examines how nature cure healers and users engage a collectivized vision of wellness and self-care, ethnographically bringing into relief the ways that biomedicine does not in itself equate to effective rehabilitation. She currently works as an Educational Developer & Learning Strategist at the University of Toronto.