That Sinking Feeling

Deadly Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death depicts the 16th-century plague. European colonisers often carried diseases

KALPISH RATNA’S HISTORY of Mahamaari in Mumbai lumbers portentously in the beginning, falling into a muse on the Conquistadors, those bearded Spanish musclemen in armoured suits and chudidars, feathers sticking out of their caps, sailing out in their many-masted carracks and caravels and their discovery of the new world, labelling lands with that wonderfully medieval and Latinate expression — terra nullius: land unclaimed by a sovereign European state. The lands of the natives were empty, newfound lands belonged to no one, the Pope, therefore, had dominium and imperium over them. So they came and stayed, and not just for the gardening.

Throughout the book, predictably, the authors whoop the combined metaphorical arse of European adventurers and the quixotic politics of conquest. ‘Historical agency’ is appended to their large, pestiferous vessels. Their plagues and poxes travelled to the antipodes, not the other way round. “The medieval ship was the vector, a floating island of plagues. Sailors and passengers, crew and cargo were captives in a complex milieu that fostered these plagues. They were in thrall to the ship, and the ship moved in thrall to the weather.”

A significant part of the book (but not enough to justify the subtitle) is the story of Mumbai and its strange gestation. Bom bahiawas a ‘sylvan retreat’ before the Iberians arrived in their fancy ships. Then it went to pot. The subsequent settlers were particularly scummy. Dissolute tradesmen, runaway seafarers, scores of them, heterodox, miasmatic and unhealthy, carriers of disease.

Through vignettes and syncopated passages that coagulate into a fully realised narrative, the authors take the long view on five maritime distempers. The plague of arrival (scurvy), the plague of displacement (intestinal catarrhs and dysenteries), the Yersinia pestis plague, the plague of extinction (smallpox) and the pilgrim’s plague (cholera).

Kalpish Ratna
Maritime History Society
366 pp; Rs 500

Dramatis personae include (in no specific order) guinea pigs, Doktor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beak of Rome), celebrity historians of the ancient world Thucydides and Procopius, Jani Beg Kipchak Khan and his special missile, John Milne (surgeon’s mate on the Carnatic, 1793), Vasco da Gama, maritime anti-scorbutics, benign cow with oral ulcers, Edward Jenner, John Snow (Big Daddy of Cholera), Sitala Devi and the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, Jagannath of Puri, Jehangir (Emperor, Mughal), the Bay of Bengal and myriad others, playing their parts in the peepshow.

Much of it is a reprise of old material, a study of causal chains, but not in the language of empirical sciences. The prose is lovely, that of medical historians, cultural analysts and raconteurs (I’ve heard the phrase ‘transplanted Europeans’ but ‘ectopic’ Europeans is just too precious). Even the footnotes are plummy.

There are terrific bits on Containment and Hajj in the time of Cholera. But the passages that are almost indecently satisfying are the ones harrumphing over Old World treatises on plague, and there are many. The Paris Consilium for instance — a treatise on the causes of the plague written by 49 medical masters at the University of Paris (1348). What follows is Joseph Browne’s remedy for the suppurating plague-infested lymph node: Pluck the feather of the Tail of a Cock, Hen, Pigeon or Chicken, and holding their bills close, apply the Fundament of the Fowl to the Botch or the Swelling and so keep it on till it dies and it will draw out the Contagion.

This is England in 1720. The poor bleeders had no idea what was sodding them.

Kalpish Ratna is the collective takhallus of Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, writers of rare intellectual prowess. This is a splendidly pulsatile history of the plagues. As far as I am concerned, there are two main irritants: mediocre production values and NCERT-grade photographic plates.


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