Bombay Blues

The island city isn’t made of the life that thrives on it alone. Deaths and diseases too played a crucial role in determining its nature and fortune.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Published:January 4, 2009 3:28 am

Writer duo Kalpish Ratna traces the island city’s history through epidemics

The island city isn’t made of the life that thrives on it alone. Deaths and diseases too played a crucial role in determining its nature and fortune. And their intermittent carrier remained the sea,which gave the city its identity as well as exposed it to dangers as November 26,2008,has proved again. When ships dropped their anchors on the subcontinent’s western coast to plunder,conquer and trade,they also brought along new cultures,beliefs and plagues.

The writer duo Kalpish Ratna — a pseudonym used by Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed for their collaborative works — put together evidences of Bombay taking shape “through sickness and health” in their newest book,Uncertain Life and Sure Death: Medicine and Mahamari in Maritime Mumbai. The book published by the Maritime History Society,Mumbai,tracks the bouts of epidemics that swept the islands,which boasts of 500 years of maritime history.

“India is seen as a place full of diseases but the irony remains that most of them travelled from Europe with the explorers and the immune population of the subcontinent fell prey to them,” says Swaminathan frowning at the

‘Asiatic’ prefix attached to cholera even though it came from the West.

“As students,we were angry that India was considered to be a hotbed of plagues,as adults we decided to change that perception,” says Syed. Both of them are alumni of Grant Medical College and practicing pediatricians. Since the documentation of medical history was mostly done by westerners,it was obvious that their perception has prevailed.

However,it isn’t just emotion that has set Kalpish Ratna,a writing partnership of nearly 15 years,on the job of compiling this aspect of Bombay’s history. Their instincts and impulses as medical historians were at work too. “Two years ago,we presented a paper on this subject at the society’s famous monsoon lectures. We were already researching the subject for a year by then,” recalls Swaminathan. Following the interest shown by the society,they worked on giving it the shape of a book.

In his foreword,Vice-Admiral Manohar Awati says that the book reveals “the methods of rampaging explorers from Europe who brought with them enlightenment as well as diseases and death on a massive scale to the countries they colonised”.

The first outbreak of cholera was experienced in the metropolis in 1819. Cholera,scurvy,syphilis,smallpox and bubonic plague are some of the diseases which landed along with the Europeans and caused epidemics. The book has dedicated separate chapters on each of these plagues,barring syphilis. “We plan to write a separate book on syphilis,” says Syed. Uncertain Life and Sure Death also talks about the dangerous repercussions of changes that the city has undergone accompanied by a caution for the future.

Researching the medical history of the 15th-17th Century took them to Goa and Lisbon. For the documents of the period after that,they had to leaf through the accounts of the British preserved in the city’s archives. “The book is based on facts,sourced from historical documents,” says Syed.

The memories of the mass deaths can be spotted across the city in the form of ‘plague crosses’. “We have tracked nearly 20 such crosses. Then there is Sitala Devi temple in Mahim,whose presiding deity is worshipped since the 10th century,to get rid of smallpox,” says Swaminathan. The duo claims that now they are ready for a photo-book,which will be a city walk through diseases,replete with Syed’s photographs. The Nalanda Chronicles is the next offering from Kalpish Ratna while Venus Crossing will be Swaminathan’s new novel. They also promise a literary romp through the city soon with a hijack drama-packed with fun and action.

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