In the short story “How To Escape From A Leper Colony” by Tiphanie Yanique, Deepa is taken to a Christian leper colony where she is to be housed, having developed leprosy like her light Hindu father. Deepa was instructed by the nuns to bathe in the Caribbean Sea–on the leper side–and is greeted by Lazaro, a youth of mixed blood lacking both leprosy and a place to return to. Deepa is set up with an older African woman by the name of Tantie B. and begins her life and treatment in the colony. On the second day her father is cremated and Deepa learns that all lepers are to share the same fate, as most are assumed to be Hindu. On one of their walks past the barrier separating nuns from lepers, Lazaro and Deepa visit the graveyard and converse about their love for their mothers, and their desired Epitaphs, and their God, allowing Deepa to finally let go of all the grief she had been holding in. During her treatment, Deepa is able to keep her arm, and the lepers watch a film with the nuns once a month. After some time had passed, Deepa and Lazaro build an altar to Kali, conducting forbidden worship under the guise of building a separate home, resigned to the fact that they would not be buried. With none of them knowing the correct words, they worship their fashioned statue until they are caught under the assumption that they had been performing lewd acts in the woods. A volunteer throws his torch at the wooden idol, setting off a chain reaction of Lazaro throwing himself into the flames and Kali falling on top of Deepa. She wakes up bandaged and along with Tantie, finds a dead nun on the beach. They are told the boats were sabotaged and that the radios have disappeared. The nuns and lepers jump into the water and swim away, leaving Tantie and the island behind for good.
To analyze this story, I focused on the recurring theme of the separation of lepers from human kind. In the story, the leper colony is segregated from the camp of volunteers and nuns, both mentally and physically. Throughout the story they are not referred to as people but as ‘lepers,’ the alienating term serving to isolate them from society. A prominent example of the divide between the afflicted and the healthy is displayed in the second paragraph, reading:
Killing a young mother is not such a big thing if the mother is a leper, especially if she was a leper when she conceived…not supposed to have romantic feelings…something they are thought to have in common with lepers. We are not supposed to have desires. The volunteer was asked to leave, and that was to be the end of it.
The murder of a young woman is downplayed and the culprit faces no repercussions for their actions because the victim was a leper. A major character, the son of the murdered woman, is a shining example of this variance. He is kept in the leper colony, whilst perfectly healthy due to being born to a leper, with the others convinced he will eventually develop leprosy. The dehumanization of the lepers in lines such as
For a leper, many things are impossible, and many other things are easily done.
further distinguishes them from the norm. The overall separation of the camp–while done with good intentions–mirrors that of racially segregated cities with assigned facilities or physical barriers:
If you are a leper, go bathe in the sea—but on the leper’s side.
The lepers in turn develop a sort of kinship, with Deepa referring to Lazaro and Tantie as her brother and grandmother respectively, along with her commenting:
Some of the other lepers sat with me. Perhaps we have a sixth sense.
Even during the watching of the movie, a unifying act, the two groups are kept apart:
The lepers sat in the front rows. The nuns sat in the very back, like chaperons.
The most impactful difference between the two intertwines with the other theme I chose to highlight, religion. The lepers are all assumed to be Hindu and cremated despite attending church with the nuns, denying them the privilege of being buried, and a fact that distresses Deepa. This inconsistency only serves to highlight the disparity between the two as shown by:
I didn’t understand why they cremated the lepers when they had so much bare land on the island. When I asked Sister Theresa she told me that this was okay because so many of the lepers are Hindu anyway.
But it wasn’t okay, really. Because my mother is a Christian, and she told me that if I went to Chacachacare the nuns would feed me better than she could and give me medicine that she could not and that I would be buried under a stone like Jesus.
By the end of the story, in the face of a crisis, the barriers between the two dissolve, much like the protective salve running off of the nuns faces, revealing them to be not so different from the mixed races of the lepers after all.
Nuns and volunteers holding on to lepers for dear life. The dark protective salve running off their faces and revealing them to be of every race.
This is concluded in the second to last paragraph where Deepa refers to the lepers as ‘someone’ for the first time. Not nuns, not volunteers, not lepers but ‘someone’:
Someone’s arms were too ruined to hold her baby, someone else had been cremated. Someone had begged to be killed in his sleep.
The other theme I chose to highlight, as previously stated, was the emphasis of separation due to religion. As already shown above, the difference in burial rites is a major contribution to the plot, leading Deepa to join Lazaro in the forbidden building Kali. But before that, let’s take a step back. The main character’s mother and father are Christian and Hindu, respectively. This leads to some arguments between the two as shown by:
My mother would slap my father in the face when he said things like that. Then she would accept his cuffs as her martyrdom. When he showed the first signs of leprosy in his fingers she told him that it was God’s punishment.
Concluding with the mother worrying that Deepa had developed leprosy because of the actions of her father. Aside from the familial issues differing religions manifested, it also took the form of exclusion in places of worship.
There were two churches. One for the Catholics, where the nuns joined us on Sundays, and one for the Protestants, who were thought of as exotic. There wasn’t any place for Hindus.
What is intriguing about this exclusion is that while they impress Christianity on the lepers, they deny them a Christian burial in a display of hypocrisy. This, along with her conflicting views on religion based on her childhood, drives Deepa to commit “Blasphemy” along with Lazaro. The labeling of the worship of Kali as “occult,” a word with many implications, illustrates the lack of tolerance they hold towards others. This theme of separation due to religion is enforced in Deepak’s comparison of the two religions, remarking on the similarities. Another way this theme is expressed is through the pity that accompanies the leper’s status in the bible as the afflicted. Deepa expresses her frustration in the categorization.
Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.
Finally, the entire existence of the leper colony is implied to be solely because it was written in the bible, with the quote
From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera.
affirming this in Deepak’s mind.
What I would love t to imitate, would be the show don’t tell approach to the characterization of personalities. I also wish to copy how the work utilized the themes of disease, religion and budding sexuality solidly through the story with the writer’s unique voice shining through. I found that the characters felt human-like in their dialect and actions.
What is the significance of the nuns, leaping into the water with the lepers?
What is the overall theme of the story?
For what purpose was the story written?