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We continue to make the same mistakes: Kalpish Ratna

'Room 000' by Kalpish Ratna is an insightful look at how the deadly bubonic plague created havoc in Mumbai in 1896, and offers telling lessons for today’s times as we grapple with H1N1 and Ebola

Why release a book on the deadly bubonic plague that hit Mumbai nearly 120 years ago?
Mumbai in 2015 is very like the Bombay of 1896: overburdened and overdeveloped, unsanitary and undernourished. Like it did in 1896, ‘development’ means the destruction of natural habitats. New diseases always emerge whenever this happens. When bubonic plague emerged in 1896, it was as strange and unknown as Ebola and H1N1 are to us today. Yet we continue to make the same mistakes. Recalling what happened in 1896 might, just might, get us to look more critically at today’s strategies.


Authors-surgeon duo Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan (better known as Kalpish Ratna)

Will it appeal to today's readers?
This is a book full of stories about people. People whose worries and hopes were no different from yours or mine.

What was the most difficult/challenging part of piecing this research-heavy title?
The title was a gift! How could anyone who walks past a sign with the words ‘Room 000’ not want to write a book about it? It took us a long time to get round to the book, but we’ve had this title since our undergraduate years!

Do you believe that we, as a society, might have glossed over the contributions made by men like Haffkine, Dr Viegas and many others mentioned in the book
We have ignored their work and forgotten their genius, at our peril too.

What can Mumbai and India take home from this book as it battles with the deadly H1N1 virus?
Health is not about battling viruses and bacteria. Hippocrates, Sushruta and Ibn e Sina thought disease was caused by an imbalance between humans and their environment. Today’s science coheres with this view. We must no longer battle with viruses and bacteria. We must consider their point of view. Diseases break out when their natural habitat is disrupted. Viruses and bacteria are older than us and much smarter than us. Conquest is unrealistic—but we can work towards a détente.

Finally, your next book will be about Garcia d’Orta – again someone known mostly to history and heritage buffs. Why the choice?
Because more people ought to know him. He was such an interesting guy!

The Black Rat of Ballarat

Rats! They remained the inexplicable part of plague. Were rats the origin of plague, or were they merely susceptible to the disease? Rat control was not part of the plague strategy.

In Gatacre’s time they had thought of calling in traditional rat catchers but it was argued that city conditions would not suit their methods.

Simond’s idea was not taken seriously by the few who read it: Human mortality has followed regularly the track charted by the emigration and mortality of rats.

Similar observations had been made by earlier Plague Committees in Bombay. It remained a curiosity. It was not explored.

Inspection, segregation, quarantine—the mantra so sacred to the Government had not contained the plague. Plague had travelled beyond the subcontinent. It had appeared in Aden, in Madagascar, in Colombo.

Port authorities were flummoxed and not a little irritated by headlines screaming blue murder every time someone was quarantined.

Most of these cases were not plague at all, but they could not be ignored. They were duly noted and segregated, the ship disinfected and quarantined—until next time.

Simond noted these cases, but the conclusions he drew went unnoticed. Port Authorities had to deal with staggering numbers.

In Bombay, 50,177 incoming vessels were inspected between April ’97 and April ’98. Of the 873,197 people examined, 482,003 were passengers and 391,194 crew. Of these 43,477 were segregated in observation camps and retained there for anything between 2 and 10 days. In all, the Port Health Officer’s official count was 269 cases of plague.

These inspections were tedious. Shipping Companies like Shepherd’s, which ran 333 passenger ships, constructed large sheds on shore. Native passengers were herded into them.

Every man exposed his chest as he took his place in the queue. Overseers were quick to snag a buttoned up shirt or qameez with the sharp end of a stick.

The examination took little more than a minute, but it was remarkably thorough. First, the Medical Officer laid his hands on the chest. If it felt hot, he reached for his Hicks’ thermometer and stuck it in the man’s armpit. He flashed his torch at the tongue and took note of the eyes.

In sequence he felt neck, armpit, and groin. Fever and palpable glands labeled a man as ‘suspicious.’ He was plucked from the queue and detained.

Natives with chronically enlarged glands were refused passage, even if there was no suspicion of plague. And yet, plague was reported on board.

The Clyde, the Pekin, the Patna, the Ballarat, the Dilwara, the Carthage, all reported plague. On the Ballarat, the crew noticed a most peculiar smell. It seemed to come from the saloon near the forecastle. On investigation, a couple of black rats were found dead beneath a cupboard. This was a day before the ‘native fireman’ was taken ill. No connection was made between the events.

Most of the plague cases on board were among the native crew. Many ship companies fired their usual crew when there was an outbreak on board and took on fresh talent.

The mail was a common source of outbreaks on ship. The first victim was the postal official sequestered with the bundles in his care. Invariably, dead rats were found among the letters and packages. This was usually passed off as mere coincidence.

On the Shannon, for example, where the postal official died on board, the rats were believed to have drunk themselves to death with carbolic acid meant to disinfect the bilge water.

Extracted with permission from the publisher: Pan Macmillan India/Macmillan, Non-Fiction, Price: Rs 599

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