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Why ‘The Age of Pandemics’, by Chinmay Tumbe, deals with the missing historiography in India

The new book opens up both a conversation with the past and a critique of pandemic politics.

Written by Shahrukh Alam |
Updated: March 7, 2021 7:53:33 am
In his effort to create such a historiography, Tumbe paints a wide canvas, almost breathless with information and anecdotes.

The oral history of my family describes our origins as being entangled in an epidemic. In the later part of the 19th century, there lived a man and his wife and son in Patna. He was a man of some means and held some land. One day, he rode out to a neighbouring town to attend a friend’s wedding. As was the custom, on his way out of town, he stopped at the family graveyard and said a du’a (prayer) for his ancestors. Two days later, as he rode back, he stopped again at the graveyard and noticed a fresh grave. It could only be someone from the family. It turned out that while he was away, cholera had struck and taken his young son. His wife blamed him for the death and refused to see him again.

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He moved to the outer haveli and lived there, until the time that his friends persuaded him to go to Mecca on pilgrimage, and for a general change of scenery. There, he fell in love with a young woman (she could have been from Georgia, or from Syria), whose family had trading posts in Mecca. She came to live in Patna, where she was called Gurjan (for Georgian) bibi. My family descended from her, and, for our part, we recollect the epidemic in our collective memory.

Tumbe’s primary concern in the book has to do with the missing historiography of the “age of Pandemics”. He misses the sense of any collective consciousness of the pandemics, mainly cholera, plague and influenza, which resulted in about 70 million deaths worldwide, and 40 million deaths in India between 1817 and 1920.

Tumbe notes “those pandemics left their marks not necessarily in statistical registries, but in literature, art and culture, on tombstones and even inside the occasional tomb.” However, the book does not ask how it is that if literature, culture, and, indeed, oral histories were repositories of the collective memory of the pandemics, it is missing from the more quotidian consciousness of people in 2020.

Tumbe assumes that the age of pandemic was always neglected, since it was overshadowed by other historiographies of the “age of revolution”, the “age of capital” and the “age of empire”. Thus, although the period from 1817-1920 — which he characterises as the age of pandemics — has had a profound effect on populations, trade, political structures and modernism, there is no historiography of it.

In his effort to create such a historiography, Tumbe paints a wide canvas, almost breathless with information and anecdotes. In this, his methods are different from that of a historian, for he doesn’t so much give us a social history of the age, as presents us with patterns, for comparison, in the past pandemics and the current one. The book still remains an enjoyable read.

Tumbe seeks to respond — very gently — to popular sentiments that have arisen during the present pandemic: “The memory loss in Asia is harder to understand, more so in India, the country most affected by the pandemic age. This was brought home to me starkly at the beginning of COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, when social media was rife with misinformation, attacking China as the source of all pandemics in history, applauding the wholesome diets and vegetarianism in India as a traditional bulwark against pandemics and more generally lauding the nation for never having been the originator of pandemics.”

His book presents a view of the disease that has shaped state structures and has had profound effects on market and society. The idea of the COVID “warrior” seems shallow, if one were to understand that engagement with the disease is long and sustained. Pandemics are not an attack from the outside, but more a product of the social, economic and environmental systems that we inhabit.

I might mention here two other excellent historiographies of the Florentine plagues [by Giulia Calvi (1989) and John Henderson (2019)], which present a detailed social history of the time through a compilation of the “trial case records” of the special sanita (public health board) courts. The books provide an institutional history of the public health institution that came up in response to the plagues, with an understanding that public health was linked to the lives of the poor and how these sanitas began to exert control on citizens generally and on the poor and the marginalised primarily.

While noting these changes in Italy, Tumbe records two important facts in the Indian context: the pandemics reduced significantly after 1920; and, between 1920-2020, life expectancy increased manifold (from 25 years to 70 years). However, he doesn’t address the questions that might follow: What are the social/ institutional histories of this significant change? What effect did the socialist welfare state have on these statistics and how does economic neo-liberalism affect the same? Can there exist a collective consciousness of the pandemics without a sense of the role of public health institutions in it — and how does one harmonise that sense of history, with the current neoliberal consciousness on healthcare? Did the Indian practice of producing cheap generic medicines through reverse engineering have any bearing on vaccine production?

Tumbe has not given us a history of institutions or of the lives of people through the age of pandemics. He addresses current concerns by looking into the past, and, indeed, there seems to be a fascinating anecdote for every current WhatsApp forward: the links between cholera and poverty, and, in turn, between poverty and lack of sanitation, unclean water and crowded spaces; the more implicit connections between poverty and marginalised peoples, which resulted in bigotry towards them. He quotes BR Ambedkar to show how there were instances of attacks on “untouchables” for fear that they were carriers of cholera. He also shows how perceptions about the spread of disease operate from a position of power and the resistance it births.

Tumbe’s most perceptive notes focus on the effect of the lockdown on the lives of the poor. He also deciphers the primary “pandemic politics” and says that it “revolves around showcasing your success. Of lives saved. Of places doing worse than you. Of your timely actions.” Tumbe suceeds in mounting a critique, starting a conversation with the past, but I look forward to subsequent works, which might provide more blueprints for an “alternative pandemic politics”.
Shahrukh Alam practises law at the Supreme Court and likes to write in her free time

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