Un­rav­el­ling the Bom­bay plague

The eco­log­i­cal con­nec­tion com­pletes the puz­zle

Down to Earth - - REVIEW - VIBHA VARSH­NEY

IN­DIA IS no stranger to epi­demics. Room 000:Nar­ra­tives Of The Bom­bay Plague is the story of the plague that killed thou­sands in Mum­bai in the late 1890s. Very lit­tle was known about the dis­ease at that time.It was said to be trans­mit­ted by a bac­te­ria, but it was not known where it em­anated from.The book fol­lows the story of how re­searchers and doc­tors un­rav­eled the science be­hind the Bom­bay plague. Room 000 at Mum­bai’s Grant Med­i­cal Col­lege was the epi­cen­ter of epi­demic re­search, where the first vac­cine against the plague was dis­cov­ered.

But the book is not a dry de­scrip­tion of sci­en­tific the­o­ries. It is a story about the peo­ple who were caught in the plague, the doc­tors who treated them, and the re­searchers who tried to de­ci­pher the life cy­cle of the dis­ease. It is about how doc­tors and re­searchers turned de­tec­tives to an­a­lyse some cru­cial ques­tions about the dis­ease.And it is a story of how the gov­ern­ment dealt with the sit­u­a­tion.

This was the time of the Bri­tish Raj and the story cap­tures the so­cial un­der­cur­rents of those times. It is writ­ten in a racy style; the nar­ra­tive is sim­ple — even when the con­cepts, both sci­en­tific and lin­guis­tic, are tough. The book is an in­tri­cate web of con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple and places.

The bubonic plague pro­vided the doc­tors and re­searchers an op­por­tu­nity to study the dis­ease in greater de­tail. While some an­swers emerged by the end of the epi­demic, the most cru­cial ques­tions re­mained unan­swered. Where does the plague orig­i­nate? When does it stop, and why does it reap­pear?

Rats too died dur­ing the epi­demic, but it is not clear how they ac­quired the pathogen. Though it was known that some ar­eas were en­demic to plague, Mum­bai was not one of them.It is also not clear how the bac­te­ria passed from rat to hu­man be­ings, as the af­fected peo­ple were not bit­ten by rats. Later it was found that fleas that lived in the rat car­ried the bac­terium. But if the rats, the car­ri­ers of the dis­ease, died, why did the dis­ease keep spread­ing?

Mys­tery trail

Re­searchers in­ves­ti­gated a few the­o­ries be­hind the source of the dis­ease. In one, they pos­tu­lated that the dis­ease came to Mum­bai from Garhwal, where the dis­ease is en­demic, along with sad­hus on their way to Kumbh Mela. In another, they said that it must have

made its way from Hong Kong through sick rats stowed away in ships—Mum­bai was the busi­ness cen­tre even then. The rail­ways that con­nected all parts of the coun­try too could have been the car­rier of the in­fected rats. What­ever the rea­son, the en­tire Mum­bai city was con­tam­i­nated. It was present even in the wa­ter, drains and sewage. The san­i­ta­tion drive did lit­tle to con­tain its spread. The plague con­tin­ued for some years and then ended sud­denly.

Out­breaks of plague have been erupt­ing now and then. We might have some un­der­stand­ing to­day, but there are still huge gaps which need to be stud­ied. Writ­ing to­gether un­der the nom de plume, Kalpish Ratna, doc­tors Kalpana Swami­nathan and Ishrat Syed an­swer these ques­tions to­wards the end. They blame it on en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion. The au­thors sug­gest that rats liv­ing in forests around Mum­bai were dis­placed, as mi­grants had started com­ing in huge num­bers look­ing for jobs, and hous­ing had to be cre­ated for them. They com­pare the sce­nario with plague out­breaks in Mamla vil­lage in Beed dis­trict of Ma­ha­rash­tra in 1994 and af­ter the Latur earth­quake in 1993.

Plague oc­curs nat­u­rally in the en­vi­ron­ment. When the en­vi­ron­ment is dis­turbed, the car­rier come in close con­tact with peo­ple and the dis­ease jumps the species. This is now com­mon knowl­edge.We have had epi­demics such as Ebola, sars, Kyasa­nur for­est dis­ease that have driven home this mes­sage. What we can learn from the book is how re­searchers and doc­tors dealt with the dis­ease in those times.

The book is sig­nif­i­cant as the num­ber of un­known mys­tery dis­eases have been grow­ing in In­dia. In­dian sci­en­tists have been un­able to iden­tify the cause for acute en­cephali­tis syn­drome, Silig­uri fever and Sa­ha­ran­pur fever, to name a few. Many more are just termed as “mys­te­ri­ous dis­eases”. The an­swers to these ques­tions may lie in the fields, and not only in the labs.


Kalpish Ratna

Pan Macmil­lan In­dia | 512 pages | ` 499


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