“I thought if Yama had a kingdom anywhere it had to be here. The place was terrifying, the night was terrifying, the surroundings were terrifying and the state of my heart was terrifying.”

This kingdom of the dead, described as terrifying in every way, was the quarantine centre at Ahmednagar in Maharashtra at around 1900. The writer is Lakshmibai Tilak (1868-1936) whose remarkable autobiography Smritichitre (first published in Marathi in 1934) is accessible again thanks to an empathetic translation by Shanta Gokhale. Lakshmibai and her husband (the poet Narayan Waman Tilak) spent 18 days in this camp with their little daughter who had just been diagnosed with the bubonic plague.

The bubonic plague came to India in 1896 and lasted till around 1921, during which time an estimated 10 million people died in the country. The colonial administration responded with controversial and wide-ranging public health measures that were strongly resisted and debated by the native population. Lakshmibai’s writings record several experiences that readers in 2020 will be able to relate to – mandatory testing, quarantine, collective anxiety and grief, and chronic uncertainty.

Sustained outbreaks of virulent illness were not unusual for the colonial administration – cholera and malaria were among diseases that caused death in large numbers. But the bubonic plague at the turn of the 20th century was different in two aspects. First, it arrived not long after the emergence and acceptance of the germ theory of disease, so there was a clear identification of bacteria as the source of illness. Secondly, the nature of the spread of this pandemic (bacteria transmitted by fleas that live on rats) made it a disease of certain environments that impacted Indians more than Europeans (who had the means and access to better living conditions).

Historian David Arnold argues that the impact of these two aspects on the perception of the colonial authorities, and the nature of the sanitary and medical measures deployed against the bubonic plague (perceived by Indians as socially invasive), provoked an “unparalleled” and “profound crisis for Western medicine and for the power of the colonial state.”

The outbreak

The initial outbreak of the bubonic plague coincided with a time of unparalleled and profound crisis in Lakshmibai’s personal sphere as well. She was 27 years old, and her husband had just converted to Christianity (in February 1895) causing a furore in their Chitpavan Brahmin community. It was a hard trial for the young woman who had already endured a difficult life – she had been married at the age of eleven, endured ill treatment at the hands of her father-in-law, suffered the assaults of a temperamental husband and mourned the deaths of two children in infancy.

But far from being a tale of woe, Lakshmibai’s autobiography reveals a feisty and outspoken temperament with the gift of wry humour. The suffering is nonetheless a part of her life script, especially when her husband becomes a Christian. It was the unthinkable horror for Lakshmibai’s orthodox family and they separate her (and her young son Dattu) from Narayan Tilak for nearly five years. This period of separation is testimony to the deep love and trust that she had shared with her husband despite his misdemeanours.

The couple is reunited when Lakshmibai decides to return to her husband (despite the fierce objection of the community) while continuing to maintain her Brahmin identity (and purity rituals). Living and traveling with her husband, Lakshmibai starts to question the ideas of purity that she has inherited. In due course, Lakshmibai asks to be baptised as well. She now has a second child and names her Tara. All these events in the Tilak household take place while the country is grappling with the vicissitudes of plague and famine.

Running away

Lakshmibai records her first awareness of proximity to plague with characteristic humour. “Although no Brahmins came to eject us from our home, Lord Ganapati, the remover of obstacles was very much with us. He ordered his vehicle, the Rat, to arrange for our eviction.” The family notices two rats come out to eat the ritual offerings to the gods. “Ahmednagar rats are not scared of anyone, we said to ourselves and got up.” But then the rats spin around and fall dead.

The rats are sent for testing and found to have plague. The family moves to Rahuri and later to Mahabaleshwar by bullock-cart, after doing a ten-day quarantine in a hut. Lakshmibai recollects these experiences in a matter-of-fact manner. Plague or not, the business of life (jobs, family responsibilities, personal aspirations) cannot come to a halt. The family soon returns to Ahmednagar.

Lakshmibai writes of her keen interest in home remedies and native medications. Her desire to “study something that would help me in difficult times and also be useful to others” motivates her to undertake and clear a three-month training as a nurse. At this point, Ahmednagar is experiencing another sudden outbreak.

Inoculation was newly available at that time but several people, including her husband were against it. He forbids it for their children and sends their son to Rahuri. Lakshmibai decides to get the inoculation and has to deal with the discomfort of a swollen arm. Rats re-appear in her house and her daughter develops a high fever. The doctor takes one look at Tara and announces it to be plague.

“Tara’s screams reached fever pitch. There was no money for carts and no manservant to fetch them […] the news of Tara’s plague had got around. Nobody dared enter our house.” Lakshmibai manages to get back some money she had lent in the past and arranges for a bullock-cart even though no driver was willing to ferry a plague patient. They finally leave for the quarantine centre in the pitch-dark of the night.

It is winter and they are freezing. At the centre they have only icy water and dry jowar bhakri to eat. Their first night at the camp is the night of the dead that Lakshmibai describes. “We were surrounded by the sick. They screamed and beat on the tin walls. At times, a patient would climb on to a wall and jump with a loud thud into the neighbouring room. The floors of the cottages had not been levelled. When you walked, pebbles bit into the soles of our feet. There was no food in our stomachs and no sleep in our eyes.”

A poignant episode

Lakshmibai tells us that only ten percent of plague victims survived. Everyone shared the same glass of medicine and thermometer in the quarantine camp, but she kept a separate set for her daughter. After fourteen tormenting days amidst ill and dying people, the Tilaks are told by the doctors to prepare for their child’s inevitable death. This is one of the most poignant sections of her autobiography.

Lakshmibai plasters Tara from chest to stomach with a poultice of flax seed flour that she cooks on the stove, and then coaxes the child to swallow warm castor oil with milk and sugar. She writes:

“I placed the stove by her feet. I wrapped her up in a blanket. Then I said to her, ‘Now you are free to die. I didn’t want to feel I had left anything undone.’ I shut the door, left her alone in the room and walked far away into the jungle. When I saw I was completely alone, I shouted out to god, ‘My lord, please let this child live. She is not my child. She is yours. You gave her to me. I only nurtured her. If it is your will, You will take her. But if she recovers, I will stay here to care for other patients.‘ Then I let myself go. I howled.”

When Lakshmibai returns to her child’s room, her heart is filled with fear and she has to force herself to open the door. To her surprise, Tara speaks to her. The doctors are astonished by Tara’s recovery and the family is able to leave the camp after 18 days.

This experience convinces Lakshmibai and her husband to return to serve plague victims languishing in quarantine. They live in a hut inside the camp and work hard at various tasks, including sorting out irregularities in the camp provisions, tending to personal needs of patients, sweeping the camp, and lifting corpses onto carts.

This deep awareness of service and reflection is woven through Smritichitre, a sparkling record of an unconventional, eventful and courageous life. Lakshmibai Tilak began writing a biography of her husband (requested by her son) but it soon turned into an autobiography that took seven years to write and was published in four parts from 1934 to 1936.

In the hands of an intuitive translator like Shanta Gokhale, we are able to get a sense of the pace, wit and warm tonalities of Lakshmibai’s inimitable voice. Though the bubonic plague only appears in a few chapters of the sprawling autobiography, to read Smritichitre today is to have a better understanding of how pandemics shape communities, and how individuals forge ahead with erratic hope.