“Long Live Jaga-Kalia,” Prays Odisha

“Surgery on Jaga-Kalia today.” “Marathon surgery on Jaga-Kalia begins.” “20-hour long operation successful; Jaga-Kalia separated.” “Jaga out of ventilator.” “Jaga out of ICU.” “Kalia still critical.” “Mother meets Jaga for first time after surgery.” “Kalia still on ventilator.” “Fits delaying Kalia’s recovery, say doctors.” “Jaga eats rice, egg.” “Jaga plays ball.” With the media providing a blow-by-blow account of the highly complicated surgery and its aftermath, Odisha has been riveted on the progress the now separated Kandhamal conjoined twins Jaga, Kalia have been making since the surgery.

In a significant departure from its regular practice of moving on to another story after covering any big news break, the media has been at it for over three months now, providing almost daily updates on the post-surgery condition of the separated twins. For the first week or so after the surgery, no television news bulletin was complete without the mandatory update on the twins. My good friend Simanchal Pattnaik, the Kandhamal reporter of Kanak TV, has been posting regular updates on the twins on Facebook while urging friends to pray for them – as have several others. Some enterprising journalists ferreted out the case of the other conjoined twins from Odisha, Radhika and Doodica, who took Europe and America by storm towards the end of the 19th century before dying within months of each other post a separation surgery conducted by famous French surgeon Eugene Louis Doyen in 1902.

Realising the immense curiosity about the twins among the people, Health minister Pratap Jena too has started briefing reporters about their progress almost on a daily basis.

As if on cue, prayer meetings are being held and pujas being organized across the state praying for the well being of the conjoined twins. Even habishyalis on their customary one-month sojourn to Puri during the holy month of Kartika were not left untouched by the collective, statewide outpouring of emotions for the unfortunate kids.

What explains this abiding interest in and feelings for the twins among people who don’t even know them? In a society where people, especially in urban areas, don’t bother about what is happening in their immediate neighbourhood or care about their own family members, is it not extraordinary that people have developed such an emotional connect with someone they have little hope of meeting in person in their lifetime?

A primary reason for this bonding, of course, is the rarity of their condition and the surgery conducted on them by a team of doctors led by Dr. Ashok Mohapatra, the head of the Neurosurgery department at AIIMS, Delhi. The sight of the two siblings joined at the head moving about in tandem in their Kandhamal home on TV was a surefire attention grabber as was the visual of a bandaged Jaga throwing a ball after the surgery. It is hard for anyone not to be moved or get curious about them. It is normal human psychology to get curious about anything that is out of the ordinary and this particular case truly comes under the rarest of rare category.

A second possible reason for the near obsession with the twins is their names – Jaga and Kalia (some, however, maintain that it’s Balia). The fact that Jaga and Kalia are terms of endearment millions of Odias use for Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of the state, lent an emotional, religious and spiritual connect to the prolonged affair with the twins. (Balia, by the way, is how Odias fondly address Lord Balabhadra, the elder brother of Lord Jagannath). The names ensured that the whole state got behind the siblings as they went into the operation theatre.

The Naveen Patnaik government too has done more than its bit to keep the interest in Jaga-Kalia alive. Sensing a heaven-sent opportunity to enhance its benevolent image, the government jumped on to the bandwagon and generously opened its chest to take care of the entire expenses on the surgery. Apart from building its image as a government ‘that cares’, the decision also helped sweep under the carpet its resounding failures in providing timely medical care to the people, especially in remote areas, as evident in the death of nearly 200 children due to Japanese encephalitis in Malkangiri and 20 others on account of malnutrition in Nagada last year or pictures of pregnant women dying on the way while being carried to the hospital on cots, slings or shoulders this year. All its sins were washed away in one fell swoop. A crore or two spent on the twins did for the government what hundreds of crores spent on delivery of medical services could not.

In the days ahead, one can expect enterprising people to cash in on the case of the conjoined twins by writing stories/novels, painting or making films on them. (It is eminently possible that some people are already toying with the idea!). But it would be in the fitness of things if Dr. Ashok Mohapatra writes an account of the whole surgery and its aftermath – not just for medical professionals, but also for the lay reader – some day.

On its part, Scandeep joins millions of Odias in praying to Lord Jagannath for a long and healthy life of Jaga and Kalia!