Monday, August 15th, 2022 05:27:55

From my Bookshelf

By Sanjeev Chopra
Updated: June 22, 2021 2:19 pm

In ‘The Plague’, based on the epidemic in the Algerian French city of Oran in 1849, Albet Camus stressed the helplessness of an individual in circumstances and situations beyond his control. ‘Love in the Times of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was set in the midst of the Columbian pandemic of 1875, and ‘They Came Like Swallows’ by William Maxwell, was a vivid description of   California of 1918 where the influenza pandemic ‘disintegrated’ the normative middle-class world of the Morrison family.  These literary works have shaped our imagination on how it was to live in, and through pandemic times in those times.

There is a sense of déjà vu as one sits down to review Chinmay Tumbe’s deeply researched, eminently readable and insightful book: ‘The Age of Pandemics: 1817-1920: How They Shaped India and The World’. It is important to place it in the context of the time when this review is being written. India seems to have crossed the ‘hump’ of the second wave of Covid 19 (June 2021), and preparing herself for the eventuality of the third.

It is almost axiomatic to say that a pandemic leaves its mark on the collective consciousness of a people. It spawns newer terms and terminologies, newer controversies and newer ways of looking at life and death. Everyone loses someone – a family member, a childhood friend, a close colleague and these days, members of the what’s app group – people from whom one was getting a message every morning. One moves from one zoom condolence meet to the next. And then one begins to count –immediate and extended family members, batchmates, office colleagues and the neighborhood. The shock element gives way to dread and fear. The state and the media can no longer keep a tally of individual names, and numbers stare one in the face.  Unlike martyrs in a war, or freedom fighters in a revolutionary struggle, no memorials are built, no names are etched on arches or gates. We also do not know how the next century would look at our ‘contemporary response’ – as individuals, institutions, governments and media -but in Tumbe’s book we get a perspective on how the three major pandemics of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: cholera, plague and influenza were dealt with, especially in the colonial state of British India.

Tumbe starts his discussion by quoting extracts from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, compiled at least eighteen centuries ago in which he classifies calamities and also gives the response of the state:

‘Calamities due to acts of God are fire, floods, diseases, epidemics and famine. Other calamities of divine origin are rats, wild animals, snakes and evil spirits. It is the duty of the King to protect the people from all these calamities. The royal proclamation ‘no one shall throw dirt on the streets or let mud and water collect there. this applies particularly to royal highways. No one shall pass urine or faeces in (or near) a holy place, a water reservoir, a temple or a royal property. corpses shall be taken out of the city only by the prescribed route and the gate for corpses and cremation or burial done only at designated places’ reads much like instructions of a typical District Magistrate under the Disaster Management Act.

Why do we describe 1817 to 1920 as the age of pandemics? Because it saw the outbreak of cholera in recurring bouts from 1817, the havoc caused by plague from the end of nineteenth century, especially in India where it claimed twelve of the thirteen million deaths worldwide, and the deathly influenza, the first pandemic on the global scale claiming forty million lives in a period of two years, of which half were in India alone. And yet, there is little about these pandemics in the popular narratives of our history, or even in the great intellectual debates of those times. Eric Hobsbawm wrote his classics: The Age of Revolution:1789-1848, The age of Capital:1848-1875 and the Age of the Empire :1875-1914, but pandemics did not figure in this narrative. This book is an attempt to change the narrative, and ensure that we do not forget our dead, for as George Eliot said ‘our dead are never dead to us until we forget them’.

Tumbe devotes a chapter each to the Cholera, Plague and Influenza – this order also corresponds to the timeline of the three diseases. The dread of cholera was well known to the Unani doctors (Hakims) as Haiza, and in the Ayurveda tradition, the Vaidyas called it Vishuschika. It spread from Jessore (1817) moved up the Bengal Presidency, (which then included Orissa, Assam and Bihar) and from there to Narmada, Bundelkhand, Allahabad and Awadh, claiming in its wake the lives of two successive Commanders -in Chief of the EICs Army, Generals Anson (in 1857), and his immediate successor General Barnard, besides the Governor of Madras presidency Thomas Munro. The Mysore and Hyderabad kingdoms were also not spared, and Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem ‘The Cholera Camp’ to describe the macabre disease. There were no established cures – the doctors in the Indian Medical Service prescribed calomel, opium and prayers, and the Vaidyas and Hakims suggested black pepper, ginger and Heeng (asafetida) and prayers – the last being common to all prescriptions. Just as Sitala Mata had manifested herself as the goddess for the cure of small pox, Bengal had her own Ola Bibi – which responded to the cries of help from adherents of all religious denominations. This was also the period which saw the enactment of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 and the Indian Quarantine Act of 1870. Later when the plague took a pan India   agency, the Epidemic Diseases Act was promulgated, and this Act was used as the first response to the Covid 19 crisis – though now most of the orders are being issued under the Disaster Management Act.

The Plague struck Bombay, Pune and thence all of the Western region with great severity in 1896, and the Army was called in to assist the civil authorities to ensure strictest compliance with the Plague protocols.  The focus was on sanitation, disinfection, ventilation, lighting and extermination of ‘rats. Migrant workers left the city in hordes preferring to die in their village, rather than this impersonal city. Like the Jews of Europe, the Banias and Marwaris were accused of transporting the disease across the country.

Pune became the epicenter not just of the disease, but also on ways to counter it and the emergence of Tilak on the national scene. He was opposed to the very harsh ‘containment measures’ of Walter Rand, and such was the hysteria about women being ‘forcibly examined’ that two British officers, including Rand were shot dead.  One of the administrative legacies of Plague in India was the establishment of Improvement Trusts, which took away many of the powers of municipal governance, and which led to loud protests from the Nationalists. It also marked the rupture between the politics of Gokhale, who set up the Servants of people society, which worked with the government for ameliorating the impact of plague

On a pan India scale, plague claimed over twelve million lives between 1896 and 1918, peaking with over a million deaths in 1907. Unlike cholera which affected the East, the epicenter of plague was Punjab, United Provinces and Bombay. The city which suffered the most was Pune – it lost two of India’s most formidable women Savitribai Phule and Pandita Ramabai during this period.

We now move to Influenza or the Spanish Flu, which was called ‘La Grippe’ in France, ‘Nakhushi-i-bad’ in Iran, ‘Bolshevik disease’ in Poland, ‘Singapore Fever’ in Penang, ‘Luluku’ in West Africa, ‘KaapituHanga’ in Namibia and ‘Mari/Mahamari /Manmodi’ across the sub continent. It arrived in India by ship on the 29th of May ,1918, and by June, the Fever epidemic had gripped Bombay city. Between June 1918 and March 1919, the wider Bombay presidency – which included Sindh – faced an unprecedented sequence of events: the first wave of flu, an acute drought followed by the second wave and the declaration of famine in the region.

From Bombay, it spread to the entire Deccan region as well as to Jaisalmer, Rajputana engulfing Delhi and United Provinces before it touched Punjab where it spun out of control. District after district, especially the most populous ones – Ludhiana, Jullundur, Amritsar fell to the pandemic, and it did not spare Jammu, Kashmir and the Ladakh as well.  By March 1919, six million lives had been lost in the country, and over the next eighteen months, another fourteen million would succumb to this disease taking the toll to twenty million, which was half the total number of deaths in the world on this count.

But even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. The loss of lives in rural areas gave an impetus to the co-operative movement. While the major inspiration may have lain elsewhere, Tumbe notes that ‘the acute labour scarcity probably hastened the process of reorganizing production systems.

What then is the core message, or as they say in management schools, the ‘key takeaway’ from this book.  Thedemographic disaster caused by three pandemics which wiped away forty million Indians in one century, needs to be studied and understood   from multiple perspectives – history, political economy, law, literature, medicine, public health systems, communication strategy, perception management, philanthropy, volunteerism and the interface of the state with her citizens. What was just a footnote in the nationalist discourse of history calls for the resurrection of memory, and marking it as a transformative milestone in history  of our nation.


By Sanjeev Chopra

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