1 January 1897, Bombay

A stroll through the old town brought him back to the cheeriest building in Parell: the Government House. It was built on the ruins of the old Parali Vaijanath Mahadeo temple which had, in its young days, given its name to the precinct. He liked the funny flick of the native tongue, the bastard child of la and da that was the tail of the word Paral. It was built as a monastery by the Portuguese and had served as the Governor’s country house.

Haffkine and Darius were headed for the Parsi Fever Hospital, which was a small makeshift arrangement in the house of the Cama brothers, Merwanji and Hormusji. Haffkine was to address the District Segregation Committee and the Hospital Committee of the Parsis to introduce his new-fangled plague antitoxine. The first batch of rabbits was doing well. Haffkine, for his part, had a tense, emblematic bubo in the groin.

Haffkine had liked the city and felt a strange kinship with the Parsis of Bombay.

Each of them, he thought, like members of his own community, helplessly carried the acorn of exodus in them. He liked them for their clean, fair skin and their sententious manner of speaking.

For some time now, the waters had been rolled back and western Parell was pinched pink by its proletariat. The Shets of Bombay had resigned themselves to manufacturing and the mills had wronged the salubrity of the Government House. Governor Lloyd’s wife had died of cholera a year back. In her blessed memory the Parell house had been abandoned.

The smoke, the smells and perhaps the fear of pestilence had driven Governor Sandhurst to Malabar Point on the Hill. Haffkine did not know Sandhurst well enough to ask him about his plans for the Laboratory, but someday, he would ask the government for the Parell house. In the meanwhile, if their requirements ever battened themselves, the Aga Khan had pledged to give them Khushru lodge in Nesbit lane, Mazagaon.

Sandhurst, at lunch, seemed happy. It seemed that he had weathered well, like his native heather. Haffkine was informed that they were to move out of Grant Medical College and into a new house on the Hill, rented and fitted up by the Municipality. Major Bannerman had been deputed by the government of Madras to work with him as an associate. Two more clerks were on the rolls along with three peons and four hamals, who would work directly under Darius; their salaries would be defrayed by the Municipality.

Over blistering mouthfuls of Bombay Biryani, which in many ways was a travesty of its archetype, Sandhurst narrated the terms of the Venice convention. Most of the city’s ports were heavily infected. A bunch of Civil Surgeons led by Major Jennings was abidingly guarding the commerce of the ports. Their single point agenda was to prevent plague travelling by sea. But it was tacitly expressed to them that trade would be kept open.

The only plague measure known well to Sandhurst was Evacuation.

He had remotely heard of Disinfection; somebody had mentioned corrosive sublimate and Lysol and what he remembered as a matter of trivia was that the results were inconclusive and weakly reproducible. Most of his advisers believed, in all sincerity, that the desertion of an infected locality by its inhabitants and their transference to another locality achieved excellent results. The virulence and duration of the outbreak could be contained. The infection of plague appears to be an infection of locality. When he said that, he seemed oddly intent on making a point.

I have the figures, Mr Haffkine, said Sandhurst, looking at the margin of a foolscap on the table. Suppose a town of sixty thousand is to be evacuated, Solapur for instance, at least thirty thousand will run away or erect their own huts and shelters. The cost of hutting the remaining thirty thousand will be six thousand huts at rupees three and four annas each, that is nineteen and a half thousand rupees. Twelve common latrine enclosures at two hundred rupees each: rupees two thousand four hundred, and a thousand rupees for the police huts. About twenty-five thousand for a town like Solapur.

The cost of evacuation was nominal. The housing units were going to be triangular shelters made of gunny bags stretched over bamboos. Open in the front, closed in the rear, floor area 8’ x 8’, giving accommodation to a family of five, Haffkine remembered from an official dossier.

And finally when a particularly decadent dessert spread its pinions before them, Haffkine decided to speak up. Your Excellency, the inoculation fluid, as promised, is ready.

Matters of the Vendidad – the book of religious observance – had been resolved by the great Kurshedji Cama earlier in the day. Trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet had assembled at the Dadi Seth Agiary in the Fort and had acquiesced in Cama’s plan of mass Parsi vaccination if Haffkine could come up with a safe vaccine. Their numbers were small and none of the Fragards of the Vendidad specifically prohibited the use of a serum or a prophylactic.

The Parsi Fever Hospital was situated in a bungalow called the Belvedere, but there wasn’t much of a view. Haffkine gave the committees an account of his prophylactic: the goat’s flesh minced up, mixed with acid, digested by heat, filtered, neutralised and finally sterilised in a large steriliser. This was the soil for their seed.

He told them of the astonishing stalactites formed by the bacilli in long-nosed flasks. These were flasks given to him by Pasteur; they were fermented serially for six weeks during which the inanimate poison secreted by the organisms found its way into the nutrient broth. The broth was then heated to kill the bacilli and render the poison inert. The upshot was the prize, the inoculum.

Your soil will be salted, he said, providing his favourite analogy. The germ can no longer grow in your soil.

There was a brief ceremony showcasing the invention of a meek and peaceable Parsi called DJ Soonawala. It was, rather unimaginatively, called a generator and generated chlorine gas for the topical disinfection of living quarters. Cowasji Dinshaw of Aden, Soonawala’s benefactor, was also feted.

KN Bahadurji, honorary physician of the Fever Hospital, then spoke of the last pestilence, which had broken out in Cutch in 1812 and had spread thence over Kathiawar, Ahmedabad and southern Sindh. The years 1811 and 1812 were remarkable for a severe famine. It was at the close of this famine that the Plague had appeared in Cutch. The district had reportedly lost half its population in the epidemic.

The considerations affecting the introduction of a plague measure should include its feasibility, its influence on trade and on the lives, occupations and minds of people. They all agreed that the sphere of its effect was very important, as was the duration.

We have to live, said Dr Bahadurji. This siege has to be broken, he said, spraying his spittle on his beard. I am willing to offer my body for a public trial of Mr Haffkine’s antitoxine. My consent finds resonance in the trustees of the Parsi Punchayet present here.

There were a few representatives from the Parsi Natak Company and one of them made an impromptu speech and quoted something wholly irrelevant from King Henry the Sixth, which was lost on everyone; nonetheless, they clapped noisily.

This one before him was a Hindu woman, 40 years, admitted for childbirth on the second of January. She had stated that she was five days short of her full term of gestation, that for the past several days she had had fever preceded by rigors, and that for a few hours before admission, she had suffered severe abdominal pains of a bearing down character and thought she was about to be confined.

Haffkine had examined her on admission. She was not in labour; the cervix was not effaced. The pain was relieved by an enema. She was quite conscious and able to walk, but was febrile with a temperature of 102 degrees Farenheit.

On the morning of the third of January, she was still febrile. Her abdominal pain had disappeared, but there was pain and tenderness in the right groin, where a few glands could be felt. She had acquired a peculiar drowsy expression of features and there was an inflammatory suffusion in her conjunctivae. Her body temperature continued to mount: at about four in the evening it was a hundred and four. At this hour the labour pains commenced. Over the next few hours her neck glands became palpable.

Labour progressed normally, but her temperature reached one hundred and five. At eleven pm she delivered a male child, 18 inches in length, 4 pounds; small, but fully developed. There was no unusual haemorrhage per vaginum but her pulse was one hundred forty. Her respiratory rate was seventy-two per minute, with considerable dyspnoea.

The next morning she died at seven-fifty am.

Now, four hours after her death, there were no petechiae on her skin, no haemorrhages under her conjunctivae. There were, however, petechiae under the pericardium. The heart muscles were firm. Post mortem clots were found in the cavities and the aorta.

Her lungs were oedematous, full of fluid. He sorrowed over them for they had killed her. There was one large patch of pneumonia in the lower lobe of the left lung; it was lightly red and fairly solid, like the wing of a seraph, with recent pleurisy over it. The bronchial mucus membrane was much engorged, purple and swollen. The bronchi contained a frothy, watery fluid, but no pus. The liver was mildly enlarged. Its substance was rather pale and soft.

The spleen was large and soft as well, of purple colour and engorged. Liquid areas had appeared in its pulp, little eyes of God, which were prominent and darksome.

Everywhere the all-beauteous loss of blood. A large haematoma had inundated the surrounding tissues. The kidneys had given all their grief: haemorrhage under the capsule, in the pelvis and the calyces. The whole ureters were purple red. The bladder contained urine: scant, but unmoved and silent.

The uterus was large, as of a woman in puerperium. There was a recent clot in its cavity, of normal appearance. All the generative organs looked normal.

The lymph nodes were like filberts, almonds, beans sitting courteously in the bends.

On Saturday evening the children of St Peter’s High School, Mazagaon gave a concert which was largely attended by the parents of the children and other people interested in the welfare of the school. Haffkine was there for Darius, who was there to watch his son in a quaint octette called Butterfly.

All the seats were taken so Darius and Haffkine had propped themselves against the wall in the rear and watched little Neville in his present winged and antennaed incarnation. The little girls were all lined up as flowers. The boys were supposed to flap around them and make a terrific rumpus. Miss Carr, who had trained the children, was on the piano in the wings.

Little Neville looked pale like his father, biding his opportunity, labouring to accomplish the simple task of being a butterfly. His face was of the weasel kind. Without seeming intention, he ever so unexpectedly touched the hair of one of the girls. Haffkine was reminded of Darius in a recent performance of Ashiq-e-sadiq urf Heer Ranjha at the Gaiety theatre wherein he had played Ranjha’s part with dazzling whimsy and had looked at his heroine and touched her with such an appetite that the audience had very nearly believed it was a woman playing the part of Heer.

It was a magnificent entertainment, a spectacle unlike any Haffkine had seen in his native Odessa. The Gaiety playhouse was a new being, born in the wake of the emerging middle classes. It could boast of a stage larger than the others, seventy by forty feet, large enough for the standard issue mythological romps. The charge for a seat in the pit was eight annas. The boxes went for two and a half rupees, despite the pall of the epidemic.

The amateur Natak Mandalis had finally started getting their just deserts. Darius had looked in handsome order, his shadow lashing against the large, painted drop scene, his face lit up by the gaslights on the proscenium.

The unconscious Ranjha lies on Heer’s lap after an accident and slowly revives under her bosom saying: “Tu ne behosh ba yak jalwa mujhe yaar kiya, rakh ke phir sar mera zaanu pe bahut pyar kiya.” And then, when she pushes him away, “Hosh aaya mujhe to milne se kyon aar kiya, bekhudi pe jo karam itna tha dildar kiya.”

The words, whatever their meaning, easily worked, soft and clinging. There was the matter of the flesh-creeping ooze he excited, the sexual attraction, back and forth, the matter that Haffkine, the sightseer, was now lovesick, languishing on account of a Parsi clerk and part-time actor.

Neville’s Butterfly drew a special applause. Darius and Haffkine clapped and cheered more than the others. This was followed by Land of the Dolls, the dreams of a young Alice-like lady and then a tableau called Blueboard.

In the darkness, the room smelled of fullness, of people, of frivolity, which carried with it the obligatory waft of the future, of proud parents who would run and hide to save their offspring, would arm themselves with sticks and kitchen knives against search parties that threatened to take them away, would flee the city as a cultural response to the epidemic. By the end of January four hundred thousand people – about one half of the population of the city – had fled.

There were rumours sounding the flight of the halalkhors and the biggharies, who were the sanitation workforce of the city. The city’s drains would then choke on dead vermin and effluents of the sick. The others would leave as well, leaving only the sea to press its tawny bulk over the derelict island.

Manser’s decease left the Plague Research Committee headless for a while. He, in Haffkine’s opinion, was the first documented case of a primary pneumonic plague. Haffkine had heard of the condition in Hong Kong, largely from apocryphal stories, and had believed it to be a product of fancy.

Surgeon-Major Manser was in his usual health on the second of January, when a sudden rigor and fever assailed him with great stealth. He vomited several times on the second and the third and from the night of the forth of January, he began to cough, and brought up a mucoid, bronchitic expectorate at first, which soon turned blood-tinged and copious. On the morning of the sixth, he was dead.

There were no buboes found on his body throughout the course of his illness. Mrs Philip, his attending nurse, was the second casualty. She died of a similar plague four days later. Surgeon-Major Lyons was to take his place as president of the Committee.

They found that they were living in a folly. That pneumonia was always secondary to the vanquishment of the patient’s serum, that the lungs were the last bastion to fall, that buboes were guileful stations of fellowship for the bacteria, dominoes that fell when they played their mimetic games. Or perhaps this was different: they had landed an evolutionary monster here in Bombay. The primary “lung” plague.

Haffkine had a theory that came from a fresh reading of the chronicles of plague. He believed that pestilences devalued life, changed its tenor. Following epidemics of plague, societies became restive and violent, wars broke out, flagellant movements were spawned, minorities were persecuted.

The Parsis were particularly paranoid: theirs was a small, consanguineous community. The bacillus pestis orientalis, sporeless and non-motile, had entered their world of milk and honey and thrown it into a roiling tizzy.

All cases of fever were treated as suspects. Segregation of contacts was strictly enforced and all plague suspects were removed and quarantined. Gangs of scoundrels started roaming the streets, claiming to represent the Police or the Municipality, blackmailing the Parsis, extorting money as they did under threats of picking them up. The newer hospitals in Bhuleshwar and Mandvi were attacked by throngs protesting against segregation and quarantine.

There were rumours that a nexus of sellers, millers and grain parchers was offloading infected grain to Parsis and the shets to take over their wealth. There were two reported cases of Parsis from well-known families converting to Christianity. The Bombay Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman, known for its rigour, had passed a lengthy resolution considering the re-entry of converts and the Bureshnoom ceremony for nine nights. Parsis, thrivers by nature, were girdling each other, not allowing wounds in their faith.

Will-writing had reached epidemic proportions, love had re-entered loveless marriages.

Haffkine was melancholic about the gravid woman whose autopsy he had attended. She was from the wilting minority of Bene Israelis, from the same ancient stock as he was. He was struck by her ugliness, by the colour of her skin, her jawline, the distance between her eyes. The Bene Israelis were from the ten lost tribes he had read about, from the scattering before the temple was broken for the second time. They bore no mark of Jewry, except the epithet Shaniwar.

Shaniwar Telis, the Saturday Oilpressers, they were called, because of the Shabbat they kept. They were a handful in the weltering masses sucked in by the spinning and weaving mills and the reclamation projects of Bombay, and had moved out of their native Konkan perhaps for the first time in two thousand years. They clung to whatever little they could remember, did not eat fish which did not have fins and scales, and had names like Ashtamkar and Divekar.

They weren’t even aware of Hannukah. Some of them had risen to the clerical classes in Bombay, but as a people, they seemed to be artisanal creatures, not capable of any amount of learning or erudition.

Bombay and Salsette were bellowing with fear and religiosity, most of which was of the transcendental kind. The keepers of this stunted, embryonic faith were confused and scared.

Darius had once asked Haffkine if it was the seed of the Jew that made the Jew.

Would the Bene Israelis ever want to leave their adopted land? Would the Diaspora go back, Haffkine had wondered, to their brood nest? What would then become of their acquired argot, their sarees, their bangles?

Darius held the light behind the flask and looked through the fluid from the opposite side. The cloudiness had disappeared and Haffkine’s stalactites could be seen, hanging magically from the surface of the neutral peptone. He then moved it gently and each stalactite rolled itself into a small mass and fell to the bottom, like snowfall.

The flasks were on the table in the small, dark room. His turning back, small and skinny, excited Haffkine. He had monologued about the effusion around the buboes and asked Darius to take off his clothes.

Darius surprised himself by dropping the trousers first. He held his sudreh up with his chin so his hands were free, but the words were stuck in his throat. The skin on his buboes gleamed, felt like wax.

At first, it was the solicitous embrace of the lover, the examiner. They were going down the rabbit hole.

The effusion had made his thigh brawny, almost doughy, especially around the papule of inoculation. With the effusion, the buboes had become less painful. They did not know what would happen, Haffkine had similar buboes in the groin. The fever, they hoped, would break by lysis. If they lived long enough, the buboes would break down on the eighth day, as in rabbits, and discharge sanies. The climactic ulcer would form on the morrow with ragged, overhanging edges and a grey, sloughy base, which would resolve with a cicatrix if they lived.

If Haffkine and Darius lived, the first trials would start in the Byculla house of corrections: the first public opportunity of assessing the immunising properties of the vaccine. Three hundred adult prisoners – volunteers – living under identical conditions of life, exposed to the same chances of infection. If this bunch lived, then the Parsis and the Bene Israelis would be inoculated. They would serve as inducements to the town and island of Bombay.

Haffkine was much affected by the lordly expression Darius had suddenly assumed. Darius was the employee, the lesser partner in their arrangement, but he had been invited to this unequal exchange.

They kissed weakly, their sinews weakened by their common gentleness.

Haffkine had no hair on his chest; Darius looked at his axillary folds and the hair there as they crouched on the floor; he skimmed over the hair on the mound – the marvellous whetter of the appetite.

Haffkine moved with the facilities of the facile consort, made wonderful, agitated noises. This was his sex of rearing: the pastoral eyes, the angelic face alight with happiness, the legs wide apart, the plump labioscrotum, indeterminate at first, reared as a male, but in verity bearing the vulval slit in the middle and some degree of clitoral hypertrophy above it.

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine was born of Jewish parents on 15 March 1860, in Odessa, Russia.

A large part of his research in Bacteriology and Preventive Medicine was carried out in Paris at the Insitut Pasteur.

Haffkine arrived in Calcutta in March 1893, flushed with the success of his anti-cholera vaccine, for the first clinical trials in Asia.

In late 1896, following the outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay, the imperial government reassigned him to Bombay.

Haffkine started his work in Bombay in a one-room laboratory in the corridor outside the Framji Dinshaw Petit Laboratory of Grant Medical College.

In January 1897, he inoculated himself and a subordinate clerk with his anti-plague vaccine. The dose was four times larger than that later used.

All the inoculated prisoners in the Byculla house of corrections lived through the plague epidemic.

The new laboratory at Government House, Parel, was formally opened by HE the Governor, Lord Sandhurst, in August 1899. By then Haffkine was producing 4,11,600 adult doses of vaccine every month.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Haffkine made overtures to Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire for resettling Jews in Palestine. “The land would be obtained from the sultan’s subjects; the capital would be provided by the wealthier members of the Jewish community.” The project failed to take off.

Waldemar Haffkine never married.

“Bombay Bubonic”: Excerpted with permission from Perineum: Nether Parts Of The Empire, Ambarish Satwik, Penguin Books.