Depending on one’s perspective, this blighted year has been the best or worst possible time to pick up a book (properly sanitised, of course) about the history of deadly global pandemics. Chinmay Tumbe makes a strong case for the former.

In The Age of Pandemics, he documents a series of catastrophes which makes the past year look positively benign in comparison. Between 1817 and 1920, some 70 million people around the world died during cholera, plague, and influenza pandemics. Over half of those deaths occurred in India.

How did this happen? And why has this morbid occurrence been so completely wiped away from our collective memory? While searching for answers, Tumbe offers perspectives on our own tryst with Covid-19 – and how we can stay alert for the next pandemic.

Deadly viruses and rogue bacilli have been two relatively unappreciated historical agents. They nevertheless played a decisive role in everything from the ebb of the Roman Empire to the European conquest of the Americas. Tumbe sees pandemics as instrumental in understanding colonial India, too.

Uncanny similiarities

Significantly, India’s Age of Pandemics began just as Western Europe decisively pulled ahead of South and East Asia in terms of wealth and development, what historians have termed the Great Divergence. As Asia’s population contracted relative to the rest of the world, so did its economic and political clout.

Cholera, plague and influenza pandemics burst across India with horrifying precision, devastating cities and depopulating large swathes of the countryside (malaria, Tumbe notes, has been far deadlier but has been merely endemic or epidemic in its nature). And they left, in their wake, a remarkable series of changes. Even the gods were not left alone: Tumbe notes how deities associated with cholera enjoyed soaring popularity in the early 1800s.

Past pandemics throw up some uncanny similarities to the present. Just as the “Chinese virus” has amplified Sinophobia, cholera in the nineteenth century focused global ire on India. Deltaic Bengal was thought to be the disease’s breeding ground while religious pilgrims – Hindus flocking to Puri or Haridwar and Muslims sailing to Mecca – were singled out as potent vectors.

In response, European governments convened a series of sanitary conferences designed to halt the spread of “Asiatic diseases” westward and pressure the colonial government of India to institute quarantines and regulate pilgrim traffic. Within India, British authorities poured contempt upon Indians, accusing them of gross and deadly neglect of sanitation. William Wilson Hunter, author of the Imperial Gazetteer of India, condemned the pilgrimage to Jagannath Temple as a “homicidal enterprise.”

It took another disease, the plague, to really hammer in the association between India’s poverty, filth, and disease. As was evident from the draconian measures instituted by the government in Bombay in 1896, authorities believed that the very insalubriousness of poor people fanned the fires of the pandemic. The inevitable response – widespread panic, resentment, resistance, and violence – has been well-told by historians in the months since Covid-19 prompted the search for historical precedents of mass lockdowns.

Unconventional remedies

Tumbe goes beyond events in Bombay to throw some light on lesser-known aspects of the pandemic, such as Indians’ utilisation of reservoirs of traditional knowledge. Across western India, people responded to the tell-tale signs of plague – rats spinning around in a disoriented manner and then dying en masse – through almost instinctive recourse to evacuation and migration.

One British doctor described in remarkable detail how nearly the entire city of Bijapur emptied out into surrounding fields every night (modern science has confirmed that plague transmission is usually a nocturnal phenomenon). Around ten percent of India’s population, Tumbe estimates, temporarily moved into evacuation camps during the pandemic’s duration.

It would prove far more difficult to run away from influenza. The so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-20 was “India’s worst recorded demographic disaster till date” with some 20 million people dying – about half of the total worldwide mortality. In the most detailed chapter in this book, Tumbe delves into the question of why flu was so deadly in India. It certainly spread far and wide: he estimates that anywhere from 40 per cent to 60 per cent of the population contracted it in 1918.

The virus of forgetfulness

But the biggest factor was an unprecedented drought in 1918, which pushed up grain prices and thereby led to worsening malnutrition. Already enfeebled by a constricted diet, Indians were easily picked off by the influenza virus. There was an even more morbid aspect of this pandemic.

The sudden death of so many poor people actually brought down overall mortality rates in India after 1919: the flu killed people who would otherwise have died from malaria, plague, cholera, and other diseases. One can think of few other anecdotes that so devastatingly illustrate the abject poverty of India in the early twentieth century.

Pandemics, like wars or natural disasters, wreak havoc upon the social and political order. Diseases illuminated caste boundaries – cholera could infect an upper-caste well and thereby spare those prohibited from using it – but disproportionately killed off lower castes and Adivasis. Women were more likely to die than men since womenfolk tended to the infected.

Numerous political figures, ranging from Bal Gangadhar Tilak to Vallabhbhai Patel, rose to prominence from their responses to plague. And the Indian labour movement received a fillip from plague and influenza since employers had to offer increased benefits to entice labourers back to work.

But the defining legacy of these pandemics, Tumbe notes, is the sheer erasure of their memory – an almost wilful amnesia which might be explained by the lack of pandemics after 1920.

This amnesia has had real consequences during Covid-19. Government authorities, for example, might have thought twice about shutting down railways in March 2020 if they were better aware of historical precedents: when the plague arrived in Bombay in 1896, colonial officers wisely kept the trains running, knowing that migrant workers would find their way home one way or the other.

India’s Age of Pandemics holds many other lessons for policymakers and, as Tumbe argues, “there is value in remembering it as a major event just as the ‘Black Death’ plague pandemic of the fourteenth century is registered in European consciousness to this day.” Public memory in India is notoriously fickle – short-term in most instances yet stubbornly elephantine in others – but this book makes a convincing case for not subjecting Covid-19 to the same process of erasure committed a hundred years ago. We’ll need those memories when the next pandemic hits.

The Age of Pandemics

The Age of Pandemics, 1817-1920: How They Shaped India and the World, Chinmay Tumbe, HarperCollins India.