Wednesday, June 30, 2010

BOMBAY -The Parsis

Gujarat ...

Some Zoroastrian Persians migrated to India after the fall of the Sassanian Empire, and gave rise to the modern Indian Parsi community. According to a chronicle written in the 17th century, the Kissah-i-Sanjan, the Parsis first came to India in the 8th century. They landed in Diu, and were later given refuge in Sanjan (Gujarat) by the local king, Jadi Rana. Five years after this they built the first fire temple, Atash Behram, to shelter the holy fire rescued from Iran.
Over the years this community accultured to the new land. Gujarati became the native language of the community and the sari the garment of the women. However the Parsis preserved their separate cultural and religious identity.
Towards the end of the 10th century, the Parsis began to settle in other parts of Gujarat. This gave rise to difficulties in defining the limits of priestly jurisdiction, which were resolved in 1290 AD by the establishment of five panthaks or districts--
The main cave at Bahrot
The Dakhma Mound at Sanjan
Structures and Ringwells at Sanjan
The Bahrot Fort wall

Godareh-Ankleswar, Broach and Cambay.
Late in the 15th century Sanjan was attacked by a Muslim army, probably a war of conquest by the sixth Sultan of Gujarat. The Parsis supported the local Hindu king with 1400 men, and were annihilated. The survivors fled with the holy fire, which was installed in Nausari in 1516. Later, due to disputes between priests, it was transferred and came to its present location in

Udvada in 1742.

Iranshah Atashbehram in Udwada - Kuwait Zoroastrain Association(KZA)


... Bombay

Parparsisi Fire Temple, Bombay.
Parsi fire temple Bombay

From the 16th century, Surat became a major centre of trade, and more and more Parsis migrated to this town. The newly arrived European traders preferred to conduct business through this community, since their status as a minority gave them the necessary flexibility in their new role as brokers. The first record of a Parsi, Dorabji Nanabhai, 
settling in Bombay dates from 1640.
After 1661, when Bombay passed to the British, there was a concerted effort to bring artisans and traders to settle in the new town. Aungier wrote a letter to the Factor in Surat on November 21, 1647
to invite as many weavers as possible, ... whereinto you will promise them such priviledges, immunities, and exemptions from publique duties as they shall reasonably desire from you..

A large part of the Parsi migrants to Bombay in these years was constituted of weavers and other artisans. In 1673, the British handed over a piece of land in Malabar Hill to the Parsi community for the establishment of their first Dakhma

Tower of Silence.
Parsi Tower Of Silence Picture

In 1735 Lowjee Nusserwanji, a master shipbuilder, was granted land in Bombay by the East India Company. He took the name of his trade, Wadia, and moved into the developing town
{Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia – the shipbuilder from Surat

It has been said that it was not the British merchant but the Parsi shipbuilder who was the real creator of Bombay. In 1736, East India Company officials, very impressed with the work of a young Parsi foreman in their Surat dockyard, invited him to Bombay, with ten of his carpenters, to build the Bombay shipyard. Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia came to Bombay and put in fifty years of service, at a salary of forty rupees a month, handing down his skills to his sons and grandsons. For many decades, it was the success of the shipyards alone that persuaded the East India Company to keep this otherwise expensive settlement going.
The Wadias made ships of Malabar teak for an international clientele. Their Bombay Frigates were ordered by the British Admiralty and used in the Battle of Trafalgar. One of their ships sailed the world for years with the following message carved on her kelson by the chief shipwright, Jamshetji Wadia, "This ship was built by a d----d Black Fellow AD 1800." The Wadias weren't the only stars in the Parsi firmament. Parsi entrepreneurs began springing up in every direction, attempting new professions and being enormously successful. It is said that the Bombay of those days was a level playing field where there were fortunes to be made, caste, colour, creed, no bar; though in the colour-conscious world of British India, it could not have hurt to be light-skinned like some Parsis.}

 Incidentally, the Wadias built the ship Minden, on board which Francis Scott Key composed the US national anthem "Star Spangled Banner".

In 1780, 9.2% of the population of Bombay were Parsis. A first wave of migration followed a famine in Gujarat in 1790. By 1812 the number of Parsis in Bombay had quadrupled. In 1837, a second large wave of migrations to Bombay followed a huge fire in Surat. Today, more than 70% of all Parsis live in Bombay.

he Parsis are intimately connected with the history of Bombay. The cotton boom was largely fuelled by Parsi entrepreneurs. The oldest newspaper in Bombay, "Bombay Samachar", was run by Parsis.Congress stalwarts like

Dadabhai Naoroji, 
Click to see an enlarged picture

 To educate the British public and to fight for Indian rights, in 1892 he stood for elections to the British House of Commons as a liberal from Central Finsbury. He won by three votes and his constituents nicknamed him 'Mr Narrow Majority'. He was the first Indian to beat the British at their own game. The conservative press did their best to stir up racial prejudice against him.
Central Finsbury should be ashamed of itself at having publicly confessed that there was not in the whole of the Division an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, or an Irishman as worthy of their votes as this fire-worshipper from BombaY

Pherozeshah Mehta 
Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, KCIE (August 4, 1845 - November 5, 1915) was an Parsi Indian political leader, activist, and a leading lawyer, who was knighted by then British Government in India for his service to the law. His political ideology was, as was the case with most of the Indian leaders of his time, moderate and was hence not directly opposed to the crown's sovereignty but only demanded more autonomy for Indians to self-rule.
He became the Municipal commissioner of Bombay Municipality in 1873 and its President four times - 1884, 1885, 1905 and 1911.

Madame Bhikaiji Cama (1861-1936) our radical firebrand, was exiled from India and Britain and lived in France. Bhikaiji was a tireless propagandist for Indian Independence. Russian comrades used to call her India's Joan of Arc. Lenin reportedly invited her to reside in Russia but she did not accept the invitation.44
          In 1907, she addressed an audience of 1,000 Germans at the Stuttgart Conference. After her impassioned speech she unfurled a flag, a tricolour, which became, with some changes, India's national flag forty years later. As her activities grew more radical the British requested the French to extradite her. The French refused. In 1936, alone and seriously ill, wishing to die in her own country she petitioned the British government to be allowed to return home. Her request was granted, provided she sign what she had refused to all her life; a statement promising she would take no part in politics. She returned to Bombay and after an illness of eight months, died lonely, forgotten and unsung in the Parsi General Hospital.
ame Bhikaiji Cama (1861-1936) our radical firebrand, was exiled from India and Britain and lived in France. Bhikaiji was a tireless propagandist for Indian Independence. Russian comrades used to call her India's Joan of Arc. Lenin reportedly invited her to reside in Russia but she did not accept the invitation.44
          In 1907, she addressed an audience of 1,000 Germans at the Stuttgart Conference. After her impassioned speech she unfurled a flag, a tricolour, which became, with some changes, India's national flag forty years later. As her activities grew more radical the British requested the French to extradite her. The French refused. In 1936, alone and seriously ill, wishing to die in her own country she petitioned the British government to be allowed to return home. Her request was granted, provided she sign what she had refused to all her life; a statement promising she would take no part in politics. She returned to Bombay and after an illness of eight months, died lonely, forgotten and unsung in the Parsi General Hospital.

 Dinshaw Wacha
See full size image

Sir Dinshaw Edulji Wacha (1844-1936) was a Parsi Indian politician from Bombay. He was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, and its President in 1901.
He was President of the Indian Merchants' Chamber in 1915.


 Even the physical shape of Bombay was determined by donations to build causeways, roads and buildings by members of theJeejeebhoy his first voyage to China (1800)to trade in cotton and opium.
Sir JJ as he was
known , was one of India's greatest philanthropists
Sketch of Jejeebhoy, 1857
An essentially self-made man, having experienced the miseries of poverty in early life, Jejeebhoy developed great sympathy for his poorer countrymen, and in his later life was occupied with alleviating human distress in all its forms. Parsi and Christian, Hindu and Muslim, were alike the objects of his beneficence. Hospitals, schools, homes of charity and pension funds throughout India (particularly in Mumbai,
Jejeebhoy donated to at least 126 notable public charities, including the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, the Sir J. J. College of Architecture, the Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art and the Seth R.J.J. High School. He also endowed charities dedicated to helping his fellow Parsis and created the "Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy Parsi Benevolent Fund".
Mahim Causeway: the British Government had refused to build a causeway to connect the island of Salsette to Mumbai. Jejeebhoy's wife Avabai Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy spent 1,55,800 rupees to finance its construction, naming it after his wife Avabai. The work began in the year 1841 and is believed to have been completed 4 years late

File:Residence of Jejeebhoy.jpg
The Illustrated London News print of Jejeebhoy's residence, 1858

The fifth Baronet, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy at home. The first Baronet, Sir JJ as he was
known , was one of India's greatest philanthropists. Schools, colleges, hospitals, still
bear his name. Bombay 1984.

and Readymoney families.

Sir Cowasji Jehangir ReadymoneyCSI (1812–1878)
Fountain erected by Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney in Regent's Park, London
SIR COWASJI JEHANGIR READYMONEY (1812-1878), "the Peabody of Bombay."  Readymoney (first to loan money to the British).Early in the 18th century three Parsee brothers moved from Nowsari, near Surat, in Gujarat, to Bombay, and became the pioneers of a lucrative trade with China. They gained the sobriquet of "Readymoney," which they adopted as a surname. Only Hirji Jewanji Readymoney left issue, two daughters, the elder of whom married a Banaji, and the younger a Dady Sett. The son of the former, Jehangir Hirji, married Mirbae, the daughter of the latter, and was made the heir not only of his grandfather, but of his two granduncles. The younger of their two sons was Cowasji Jehangir. His only English education was at the then well-known school kept by Serjeant Sykes in the Fort of Bombay. At the age of 15 he entered the firm of Duncan, Gibb & Co. as "godown keeper," or warehouse clerk. In 1837 he was promoted to the responsible and lucrative appointment of "guarantee broker" to two of the leading European firms of Bombay. In 1846 he was able to begin trading on his own account. He was made a J.P. for the town and island of Bombay, and a member of the board of conservancy; and in 1866 was appointed a commissioner of income tax, his tactful management being largely responsible for the fact that this tax, then new to Bombay and unpopular, was levied with unexpected financial success. He was made C.S.I. in 1871; and in 1872 he was created a Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom, and his statue, by T. Woolner, R. A., was erected in the town hall. His donations to the institutions of Bombay amounted to close on £ 200,000. His health broke down in 1871, and he died in 1878, being succeeded by his son, Sir J. Cowasji Jehangir [Readymoney],

 who was created a Knight Bachelor in 1895, and a Baronet in 1908.

1858-BOMBAY--Residence of Jejeebhoy[Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, 1st Baronet (15 July 1783 – 14 April 1859)]

File:Residence of Jejeebhoy.jpg

1858-BOMBAY--Residence of Jejeebhoy[Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, 1st Baronet (15 July 1783 – 14 April 1859)]

File:Residence of Jejeebhoy.jpg

1858-BOMBAY--Engraving of the Bombay Native Hospital, constructed at the joint expense of Jejeebhoy and the East India Company; it was later renamed "Sir J.J. Hospital".

File:JJ Hospital.jpg


In 1661, the islands of Bombay passed to the British Crown, when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. However, the Portuguese garrison in Bassein refused to part with the islands of Salsette, Parel, Worli and Mazagaon.1700 Map

Proceeding roughly south to north, the seven islands ceded by the Portuguese to the British were
  1. Colaba: whose name is a corruption of the Koliname Kolbhat.
  2. Old Woman's Island: (alternatively, Old Man's Island) a small rock between Colaba and Bombay, whose name is a corruption of the Arabic name Al-Omani, after the deep-sea fishermen who ranged up to the Gulf of Oman.
  3. Bombay: the main harbour and the nucleus of the British fort from which the modern city grew; it stretched from Dongri on the east to Malabar Hill on the west.
  4. Mazagaon: a Koli settlement to the east of Bombay island was seperated from it by Umarkhadi andPydhonie.
  5. Worli: north of Bombay was seperated from it by the Great Breach, which extended westwards almost to Dongri.
  6. Parel: North of Mazagaon and called by many other names, including Matunga, Dharavi and Sion. The original population was predominantly Koli.
  7. Mahim: to the west of Parel and north of Worli, took its name from the Mahim river and was the capital of a 13th century kingdom founded by Raja Bhimdev.

This list does not exhaust all the islands that have merged into the modern city of Bombay. In particular,Salsette, the large northern island which remained under Portuguese control till 1739, is not counted among these seven.

 British soldiers captured these islands only in 1665, and a treaty was signed in the manor house on the island of Bombay.
The British East India Company received it from the crown in 1668 for the sum of 10 pounds a year, payable every September 30. Sir George Oxenden, then President of the factory in Surat, became the first Governor of Bombay. The Company immediately set about the task of opening up the islands by constructing a quay and warehouses. A customs house was also built. Fortifications were made around the manor house, now renamed Bombay Castle. A Judge-Advocate was appointed for the purpose of civil administration. Sir George died in 1669.
Gerald Aungier was appointed the President of the Surat factory and Governor of Bombay in 1672, and remained at this post till 1675. He offered various inducement to skilled workers and traders to set up business in the new township. As a result, a large number of Parsis, Armenian, Bohras, Jews, Gujarati banias from Surat and Diu and Brahmins from Salsette came to Bombay. The population of Bombay was estimated to have risen from 10,000 in 1661 to 60,000 in 1675.
The first four governors held Bombay for the Crown:-

1Abraham Shipman19 March 1662October 16642
2Humphrey CookeFebruary 16655 November 16661Acting
3Gervase Lucas5 November 166621 May 16671
4Henry Gary22 May 166723 September 16681Acting

1George Oxeden23 September 166814 July 16691
2Matthew Gray14 July 16697 June 16723Acting
3Gerald Aungier7 June 167230 June 16775
4Henry Oxenden30 June 167727 October 16814
5John Child27 October 168127 December 16832
6Richard Keigwin27 December 168319 November 16841Acting
7Charles Zinzan19 November 168416851Acting
8John Wyborne16852 May 16872Acting
9John Child2 May 16874 Feb 16903
10Bartholomew Harris4 February 169010 May 16944
11Daniel Annesley10 May 169417 May 1694Acting
12John Gayer17 May 1694November 170410

Gerald Aungier established the first mint in Bombay. In 1670 the Parsi businessman Bhimjee Parikh imported the first printing press into Bombay.

 Aungier planned extensive fortifications from Dongri in the north to Mendham's Point (near present day Lion Gate) in the south. However, these walls were only built in the beginning of the 18th century. The harbour was also developed, with space for the berthing of 20 ships. In 1686, the Company shifted its main holdings from Surat to Bombay.
During the Portuguese occupation, Bombay exported only coir and coconuts. With the coming of many Indian and British merchants, Bombay's trade developed. Soon it was trading in salt, rice, ivory, cloth, lead and sword blades with many Indian ports as well as with Mecca and Basra.


Although Gerald Aungier took possession of Colaba and Old Woman's Island in 1675, development of these areas took a long time. In 1743 Colaba was leased to a Richard Broughton at Rs. 200 per annum, a lease that was renewed in 1764. Colaba was well-known for the variety of fishes in the nearby waters. The bombil, called Bombay Duck after being dried, rawashalwa, turtles, crabs, prawns and lobsters, could all be found here.
By 1796 Colaba became a cantonment for troops. At the southern end of the island, called Upper Colaba, a meteorological observatory was established in 1826. This was on the eastern side of the island. In the same year a mental asylum was constructed on the western side.
With the completion of the Colaba Causeway in 1838, these remaining two islands were joined to the others. The price of land shot up. Colaba became a centre of commerce with the opening of the Cotton Exchange at Cotton Green in 1844. The Causeway was widened and strengthened in 1861 and again in 1863. It became a separate ward of the Municipality in 1872.
Civil constructions in Colaba did not push out the troops. During this period the Sick Bungalows, now known as INS Ashwin, were built. Work on the church of St. John the Evangelist was begun in 1847. The church, now known as the Afghan Church (after the First Afghan War of 1838) was consecrated in 1858 and work on the steeple was concluded in 1865.
Transport to this end of the new town was revolutionised by the introduction of horse-drawn tram-cars in 1873 by Stearns and Kitteredge, who had their offices on the west side of the Causeway, where the Electric House now stands.
The Prong's lighthouse, at the southern tip of the island, was constructed in 1875. Also in the same year, the eponymous Sassoon Docks were built by David Sassoon on reclaimed land. The BB&CI Railways established their terminus in Colaba. These developments pushed the indigenous kolis to the edges of the island, near the Sassoon Docks and to the west.
90,000 square yards of land were reclaimed on the western shore of Colaba by the City Improvement Trust. The work was opposed by eminent citizens like Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, on the grounds that such a large area of land coming on the market would depress prices. The work was nevertheless carried out, and completed in 1905. Land prices did not fall. A seafront road along with a raised sea-side promenade (the Parade, named after T. W. Cuffe of the Trust) were completed the next year.
Graph: 4.4 Kb
The population of Bombay was estimated to have risen from 10,000 in 1661 to 60,000 in 1675.

1700 Map

HISTORY OF BOMBAY--1600'S--Gerald Aungier--Born:? ? Died: 1690.

Gerald Aungier

Born: ?
Died: 1690.
Gerald Aungier was the second Governor of Bombay. He was made the president of the Surat factor and the governor of Bombay in 1672, which posts he held till 1675. He was responsible for the initial growth of the city. He died in the year 1677.
Although the Portuguese king had ceded all the islands of Bombay to the British king Charles, the Portuguese in India refused to hand over the the territory. It was not till 1675 that Aungier actually took possession of Colaba and Old Man's Island, thus completing the transfer of power to the British. His plan of fortifying the main island, from Dongri in the north to the harbour, had to wait until 1715 for completion, when Charles Boone became the governor of the town.
He offered various inducements to skilled workers and traders to set up business in Bombay. His offers were tempting enough to lure many traders and artisans from Gujarat to the newly developing town. As a result Bombay registered its first population boom. Between 1661 and 1675 there was a six-fold increase in population.
Aungier established the first mint in Bombay, and ceded land near the Malabar hill to immigrant Parsiworkers and traders for a Tower of Silence. It was during his governorship, in 1670, that the first printing press was imported and set up in Bombay.

BOMBAY-1880-Flora Fountain, in a photo from the 1880's

Completed in 1864, the Flora Fountain was erected by the Agri-Horticultural society of Western India out of a donation by Cursetjee Fardoonjee Parekh. Built in imported Portland stone, but now defaced with white oil paint, it was originally meant to be named after Sir Bartle Frere, then governor of Bombay. However, the name was changed before the fountain was unveiled. It stood in the center of the town as it then was. Now this area is the heart of the business district of the town

an overview of the scene*-BOMBAY-FLORA FOUNTAIN-A collotype by Clifton & Co., c.1900; *

"Flora fountain or Hutatma Chowk in Bombay, India," by Bourne and Shephard, 1880's

BOMBAY-1908-"The splendid Municipal Building, Bombay," c.1908*

The foundation stone for the offices of the Bombay Municipal Corporation was laid on December 9, 1884, by the Viceroy, Lord Ripon. The Gothic design by F. W. Stevens was selected over the Indo-Saracenic design submitted by R. F. Chisholm. Completed in 1893, the building has a 255 feet tall tower.



A magnificent building, completed in 1888, the Victoria Terminus was named after the then Queen Empress on Jubilee Day, 1887. Construction started in 1878 based on a design by F. W. Stevens, and took 10 years to complete. The cost of construction was Rs. 16.14 lakhs (Rs. 1.614 million). The railway station was opened to the public on New Year's Day, 1882. It is now the starting point of the Central Railways.

Built in the Victorian Gothic Revival style, based on Italian Gothic models, the complicated ground plan of the building is counterpointed by marvellous filigrees, carvings and arches. The south-western part of the building is topped by a dome holding up a statue of Progress. It is an early example of a uniquely Bombay style of architecture which emerged when British architects worked with Indian craftsmen to include Indian architectural tradition and idioms.

When the building was first used it held not only railway functionaries such as the accounts, chief engineer and traffic manager but also other municipal offices such as the superintendent of the police. Curiously, railway tickets were also printed in the same building. The number of people working here rose for almost a hundred years. In the 1980's the Railways began to lighten the load on the structure. It presently holds over 700 employees of the Central Railway.

another view, c.1880's*OF SAME BUILDING:-

A collotype print, c.1900, by Clifton & Co.:-

*Victoria Terminus and its streetscape, 1908*

A modern visitor's photo

The Victoria Terminus was renamed Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminus on March 4, 1996. In September 1999 pedestrian access to the suburban railway terminus was moved underground. The subway was built at the incredible cost of Rs. 15 crores (Rs. 150 million).
This building has long been on the urban heritage list and a protected monument. It was put on theUNESCO World Heritage List on July 2, 2004. It is the first functional administrative building to be put on this list.


"The Indian Famine: Great Intercessory Prayer Meeting of Mohammedans in Bombay"; a wood engraving, 1897

Hackerry, Bombay,[BULLOCK CART FOR PASSENGERS] a photo by Francis Frith, c.1870'

Hackerry, Bombay," a photo by Francis Frith, c.1870'



Life India-- Elephants Stable--Bullock powered Mill---Bullock cart --

BOMBAY-1867--SCREW STEAMER 'EUPHRATES' CARRYING BRITISH TROOPS TO INDIA[older steam ships all had paddle wheel ;not screw/propeller ]

Above is paddle wheel ;below is screw or propeller

Below pictures of paddle wheel steam ships:-

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Plague-- Bombay-- Burning Bodies--1898

Image result for Plague-- Bombay-- Burning Bodies--1898

History revisited

19th-century Mumbai plague may offer clues in dealing with Ebola

Isolation, segregation, quarantine? The city saw it all in 1896.

As the plane landed, our misty city was a huddled patchwork quilt of slums. The guy next to me gasped. It was his first glimpse of Mumbai.

"What if Ebola breaks out in a slum? We wouldn’t know what to do. Of course," he consoled himself quickly, "Nobody in a slum would ever come within a mile of the airport. So the chance of getting infected is practically zero, right?"

Wrong. How utterly wrong.

If Ebola breaks out in a slum, we must know what to do because we’ve been there before. And his second observation is exactly what made things go so horribly wrong that time.

We’ve had Ebola before?

No, but we’ve had the plague. It broke out in September 1896, but let’s ignore the date. That moment was incendiary, like it is now.

Mumbai didn’t have slums in 1896.

Hell, yes we did.

It was Bombay then and we’ve had slums since the 17th century.

Surely those were chawls, not slums?

The distinction is invidious.

In 1896, in newly industrial Parel, people lived 64 to the room. About ten of them were employed. The rest were friends and relations escaping the famine.

That was only the plague. This is Ebola!

Onlythe plague?

By January 1900, more than 2.9 million had died of the plague in Bombay Province. The recorded number of cases in this period  was 3.8 million.  The mortality was even higher in the first decade of the new century. Bombay had epidemics every year until 1923.

Fever. Collapse. Death.

The pattern is the same as Ebola.

Plague victims died exactly as Ebola victims do, within a day of onset, bleeding from every orifice.

Plague’s an ancient disease. The treatment may be recent, but surely doctors knew what to expect!

Before 1896 nobody in the city had seen a case of plague. Scientists knew just as much about the plague germ as we do of the Ebola virus today ‒ which is to say, practically nothing.

It had a name and identifiable markers, anything more was guesswork. Doctors didn’t know what it would do, how it would move, what damage it would inflict. They could only watch and learn. As are courageous doctors and nurses in Liberia are doing now, learning on the job.

But science is so much more advanced now. They couldn’t have known much about immunity in 1896. And wasn’t there a vaccine against plague?

Agreed. They didn’t know much about immunity, and yes, there were vaccines and therapies and none of them worked.

Are we so much more advanced today?

We don’t know how Ebola emerged ‒ which really is the key to containing an epidemic. We don’t know how the body defends itself against its assault. Tentative vaccines, we’re told, are being tried. But can your family doctor, or even your friendly neighborhood five-star hospital, produce one to protect you? Not a chance. There are no drugs to cure Ebola.

Yes, we can dress better for Ebola than they did for the plague. We can do spacewalks in those spiffy protective suits.

Incidentally, the European plague doctor, circa 1400 had an even hotter wardrobe. But by 1896 it was considered too retro, and Bombay’s doctors did little to protect themselves against the plague.

Thank God for quarantine! It’s all up to airport surveillance now.

Here we go again.

Quarantine didn’t work with the Black Death of medieval Europe, it didn’t work in Bombay in 1896. Quarantine was in full force when plague spread from one continent to another. Then, as it is now, quarantine was the first response. Unfortunately then, as now, it remains the only response ‒ a knee-jerk response, the startled reaction to panic. It’s also the most violent, the most primitive human response to danger. It is xenophobia based on the perception that the outsider is evil and must be kept out at any cost. Shoot on sight orders have historically been part of quarantine.

Isolation, segregation, quarantine were all forms of exclusion practiced in  Bombay in 1896. Houses were inspected, suspicious cases were dragged out to hospital where they invariably died, their goods and belongings were burnt at street corners, relatives were herded into plague camps while their houses were de-roofed, sluiced with perchloride of mercury, fumigated and limewashed. Survivors were given new clothes and sent back to their sanitised homes ‒ only to contract the plague again the following week.

Bombay’s plague camps and temporary plague hospitals had deeper political implications. They allowed the Sarkar to control the population by fragmenting it on the basis of religion, caste, and community.

That was the British Sarkar. This is independent India!

Right. Has the country ever been more divided, more polarised, than it is now? We’re a nation on the brink of fragmentation. Xenophobia’s practically a birthright for us Indians. What better tool for fascists than the threat of an epidemic?

The plague camps of Bombay were the blueprint for the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. How long before we travel that road today?

So if isolation didn’t work in 1896, what did? Is there anything in that experience which might help us today?

The only thing that worked in 1896 is what’s working today in Liberia.

We can’t read that in the historical narrative of the 1896 plague, but we can in the notes of the doctors, and they did keep detailed notes.

One man in particular, Dr NH  Choksy of Arthur Road (now Kasturba) Hospital recorded his personal experience of over 4,000 cases of plague through eight epidemics. He relied solely on what he observed. He had no cure, so he anticipated complications and made ready to face them.

This is what doctors (often with a sneer) call "supportive treatment". It means taking every step to prevent the body’s major organs from failing ‒ and it’s the only thing doctors in Liberia are now doing. Because, the assault of Ebola is the same as the assault of plague, the same as the assault of any and every infection that overcomes the body’s barriers. This assault is on the organs that keep life going.

Doctors in Liberia are battling to keep their patients hydrated, just as Dr Choksy did, to prevent circulatory failure, to prevent the fatal effects of shock on heart, liver, kidney, brain.

The worst we can do is to subscribe to the viewpoint of that guy on the plane ‒ that people exist in airtight compartments, that the ragged man on the roadside can’t possibly rub shoulders with deodorised airport staff. This presumption is na├»ve in a citizen, but  criminal in scientists or policy makers.

And yet, here we go again.

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their new book, ROOM 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague will be published in January.

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