GV: Have you heard the story of Ganga Din? 

MRA: Yeah, I’ve seen the old Hollywood movie starring Cary Grant. Is that the same thing?

GV: That movie was loosely based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It was written in 1890. So — I have to give a trigger warning here… it’s racist, but that’s how it was in those days so I’m not going to color it in. 

A British soldier in India is on the frontlines, and he says that when you’re out killing for the Queen, the only thing you really want is water…

And the man who had the water is Ganga Din — a bhisti. The soldiers would yell at him and say things like…

“   ‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!

   ‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’

Din has very little, he wears a loincloth that hardly covers his behind. And he carried a goatskin water-bag. As the heat rose, the men’s eyebrows crawled, and their throats went brick dry — and they’d yell out for water… but Din couldn’t serve them all — so they’d abuse him — “you heathen!” come here quick else i’ll skin ya… 

MRA: ugh, so bad

GV: Ganga Din knows no fear. The soldiers are on the front lines, charging, receding, cutting — and Din is just 50 steps behind the right flank! And he’s carrying his goatskin bag. Bullets whiz by and take a bite out of the dust and when men go down, Ganga Din goes and tends to them. 

One night, our soldier is shot — and he says “I was chokin’ mad with thirst, an’ the man that spied me first was our good old grinnin’ gruntin’ Gunga Din”

Din lifts up the soldier’s head, stops the bleeding and gives him a drink of water that seems alive with critters — but it’s the best water the soldier’s ever drunk. Din carries him off the front lines to safety …. And then a bullet hits Din, who falls down dying, and his last words are, “I hope you liked your drink.”

The soldier says that he will meet Din in hell later — and he’s sure that even there he’s squatting on coals given’ drink to poor damned souls. 

“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

MRA: That’s very touching. One reason we told you that poem is firstly because it vividly hints at the attitudes of Europeans towards Indans in the 19th century. But also because of its hero  — Ganga Din — is a bhisti or water carrier. The term comes from the Persian word behesht, which means paradise — so Bishtis are angels of paradise because they carry precious water. I’m sure you have seen pictures of them — they are one of those mythic symbols of India like the snake charmer… if not, you can see some on our instagram account. 

MRA: So this episode, if you haven’t already guessed it — is about water and sanitation. We’ll try to answer why so many colonial cities in the developing world do not have piped water. In fact, bhistis exist to this day in Kolkata, Delhi and other parts of India taking water to people who don’t have piped water — though they are a fading breed, and being replaced by water tankers. 

Historian Pratik Chakrabarti told us colonial cities were not properly planned and built to support their huge populations… if you imagine cities are like organisms, then pipes carrying water and sewage would be their arteries and veins — except in many parts of old cities, this infrastructure is missing….

Pratik: You have this huge problem of colonial cities and just not Calcutta, you have the same problem in Lagos in Nigeria, you have the same problem in Bombay, in Calcutta, where huge unplanned, poor development of cities had presented this system, where it was almost impossible economically or even infrastructurally to build a large scale water supply or urban development systems. 

MRA: Pratik will also talk a bit about quarantine during the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century, racism and disease, and surveillance during Covid19 …in this bonus episode, called “Chatroom” on Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Mary-Rose.

GV: And I’m Gayathri… And three housekeeping notes for you — the music used here is Psychedelic Blues 1 by Lobo Loco. Second, Scrolls & Leaves is on a hiatus at the moment — and we’ll be back with Episode 3 in a couple of months. Finally, if you like what you hear, could you tell one other person about this podcast? 

MRA: Ok – back to Pratik. He’s an acclaimed historian and the chair in History of Science and Medicine at the University of Manchester in the UK. He’s written four books, and his research covers the medical history of South Asia, the Caribbean and the Atlantic. He began his career at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. 

MRA: So, let’s start at the beginning –all the way back in the 1800s… cholera spread around the world, carried by dirty water contaminated with sewage — no one knew how to stop it at first…10s of millions of people died. The disease thrived, especially among the poor–

Pratik: The key element about cholera is that it exposed the living conditions of the poor in Europe and in Asia and everywhere else that it was visited. Because as you know, that cholera is a waterborne disease and it is linked to if your sewage system and if your drinking waters are not separated, that’s how cholera circulates. So it kind of exposed the conditions of life, the conditions of poor, it almost made poverty visible, you know, poverty is otherwise so normalized, we often don’t see it. It’s only when people start dying out of a terrible disease that many Europe hi an urban planners suddenly became aware, that is a condition of life in these urban slums within which cholera was thriving, so cholera kind of exposed the political economy of poverty in Europe and in Asia and other places. 

MRA: So, what did the Europeans do to stop cholera in the poor places? And I ask about Europeans in particular, because they were ruling over large parts of the world…

Pratik: they were trying various ways of trying to prevent the spread of cholera — so one of the main and automatic reactions to any spread of disease is quarantine —  that you put people you suspect of carrying the disease in isolation and that’s one of the one of the immediate reactions. So one of the main debates around cholera that started after a long, long time was that we must establish quarantine systems, large scale quarantine systems to stop the spread of this disease from Asia — into Europe. So it was also a very Eurocentric mode, that Europe should protect itself from Asiatic diseases. There was absolutely no concern about the poor and the people dying of it in Asia, or even in Africa. 

MRA:  what did the British do when cholera was running rampant in India? I know that they didn’t really quarantine anyone within the country, except they stopped Indians who were going to Europe and quarantined them. So what did they do in India when faced with a huge loss of life? 

Pratik: I think that there are two answers to this. On the one hand the British did undertake measures to protect people in Indian cities from outbreaks of cholera. Now, that attempt was partly to protect British lives themselves because you know, the British themselves living in Indian cities like Calcutta, Bombay, or Madras were themselves threatened by outbreaks of diseases. 

And you know, a city like Calcutta in the 19th century, essentially had a White City and a Black City. So the White City was essentially the parts where the Europeans lived and the Black City is where the local Indians lived. So the sanitary conditions in the White Cities, the water supply, the sewage system, the water filtration system, the piped water supply, pipe water, which is filtered water coming into houses, was much better organized in the White City than in the Black City. And there’s a whole historical evidence to show that when the white part of Calcutta, for example, enjoyed piped water, which would have effectively reduced cases of cholera, in the 19th century, the black part of the city had absolutely no piped water supply.

So the citizens in living in the Black, Black city collected water from the local ponds, the same water that is used for multiple purposes. And I’m not going to the details of it but you can imagine what I mean by that. So the same water that is used for different purposes is also used in the 19th century– as much as it is now– in terms of collecting water for drinking. 


MRA: that’s shocking! Can you tell us a story from those times?

Pratik: I can’t tell you a particular story that comes to my mind. But you know one of the interesting not — outcomes of this to this system the British built, but what you can call a dual system — because most urban areas in the 19th century when cholera was identified in a water supply, cities like London, New York built massive infrastructure for piped water, which means that large parts of the city were beginning to receive piped water supply. Calcutta for example, which is considered one of the hotbeds of cholera outbreak in the 19th century… so the what the British tried to do was, they established a dual water supply system which is unprecedented; you will not hear about dual water supply systems in New York or in London or in Paris. 

So what the British decided was we cannot actually build or we cannot afford to build an urban water supply system for the entire city. So, what they did is the dual system is — there’s a filtered water supply that the river water is filtered and then passed on to certain households. There is another water supply which is unfiltered water. So, that unfiltered water went to the black city. 

So most Indians in the 19th century grew up in this period in the 19th century, getting water from the unfiltered sources. So even even now, if you travel in Calcutta, you will find local people who you know there are people who are called bhistis who collect water and carry water. So they literally collect water from these local ponds, which are unfiltered. So that legacy of a supply system of unfiltered water  continues, so they actually collect water — if you walk down the old city streets, you’ll find the bhistis collecting water from these unfiltered sources and distributing it in different households. So that legacy was was very, very interesting. 

And there’s a story about, there’s a story that I will tell you anyway because you asked for a story is you know when, when the new water supply system was established in the white city —  Rabindranath Tagore, who was a famous Bengali poet, was a son of of a very rich wealthy landlord family. So their house was in the rich part of the city, in the White City 

So their house, because they were part of the White City had a piped water supply. And he writes about it, you know, he was a small child when the piped water supply started. Because earlier, they would have their servants carrying water from the ponds or the local rivers with which they will do their daily duties of. But he writes about it — as a boy he wakes up one morning and goes to his father’s bathroom. And he suddenly realizes there’s a pipe, he can turn a tap and the water starts flowing. So a simple phenomena, which we take for granted, that if you open a tab and the water starts flowing, is a momentous experience in his childhood, that how can there be are tap and the water starts running?! And remember, remember most poor in the city in the 19th century, did not have that experience. They could not open a tap and have water running through, and that’s the differential experiences of water supplies in the city of Calcutta.

MRA: I read in that Tagore’s book “My Reminiscences” that he would secretly spend his afternoons in his father’s room, just on the sofa — or sometimes, “turning on the shower tap I would indulge to my heart’s content in an untimely bath. Not so much for the comfort of it, as to give rein to my desire to do just as I fancied. The alternation of the joy of liberty, and the fear of being caught, made that shower of municipal water send arrows of delight thrilling into me.”

GV: That’s lovely. So, why did the Brits not give water to the whole city? Was it maybe simply because they could not afford to install a water system in all of Calcutta? 

Pratik: So that’s a complicated economic story that — it’s difficult to explain that because unless you see the exploitation of the economy of how much of what was being generated as revenue was being taken away from the country — so, very little money was being left to develop the infrastructure of the cities itself, unlike other places where, in Europe where the revenues would be established or were invested in the running and an infrastructure of the city itself.

So it’s a larger colonial economic system that will answer that question. But one of the critical problems in this period is that if you want to establish our infrastructure, or any urban infrastructure, for example, water supply or roads or housing, you need taxation. Now one of the problems of, of the 19th century in Calcutta were most people did not pay taxes. And one of the issues that the British constantly came up with was that we have very little municipality tax to pay for the city’s infrastructure. Now, there’s then the question of why did not people have the money to pay for these taxes? And the reason is that there were fewer jobs, the industrialization was taking place in Britain. So people had suffered economically in this period, which meant that the urban economy had suffered. 

And Calcutta had grown as an entirely unplanned way. So, so, you have this huge problem of colonial cities and just not Calcutta, you have the same problem in Lagos in Nigeria, you have the same problem in Bombay, in Calcutta, where huge unplanned, poor development of cities had presented this system, where it was almost impossible economically or even infrastructurally to build a large scale water supply or urban development systems. And, you know, this is part of a large urban pattern, where you see cities like Paris, New York, London, increasingly investing in urban infrastructure. That is one of the reasons that epidemic outbreaks stop in the cities. While you have a divergent history of colonial cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Lagos, unable to do so. That is why epidemic outbreaks continued in these cities. So If you answer if you ask a question, why couldn’t these cities rid themselves of cholera

cholera outbreak stops in Britain by the 1880s while cholera outbreaks continue in Calcutta.. one of the reasons is that there’s a divergent history of urbanization in a global economic system, which is defined by colonialism in the 19th and early 20th century. Sorry, that was a long answer to your question.

GV: I read in a paper by historian Sheldon Watts that in 1900, which was a year when India faced the Great Famine and at least 900,000 Indians died from cholera…. The year after that, the governor general Lord Curzon claims that they had no more money “at present” for “grants-in-aid” to create local centers to provide clean potable water or improve sanitation. And yet — that same year —  17 million 747 thousand 300 pounds was sent to Britain from India! And independently, British merchants in India took home 15 million pounds. In that one year.

MRA: But there’s also another reason why the Brits don’t take much action — and that’s because of this idea of filth — there was a recurrent theme that Indians are filthy, diseased — so there’s no point addressing the situation because cholera belongs to Indians. Do you think they were right? 


Pratik: Now asking me as an Indian there can be only one answer to that question. But I will give you a serious answer to the question. Now, you know– that so there are two assumptions getting mixed here.

So one is a presumption that develops over a long period but from the 18th and 19th century, that tropical regions are filthy, full of dirt full of poverty, miasma, bad idea, bad water. You know, there’s a general idea about tropics from the 18th and 19th century, that these regions are full of filth. And then the people who inhabit these spaces like Indians, or Africans, or South Asians, or South Americans in various parts of tropical South America, are as filthy as their environment. So there’s a connection that is established, and that there’s a racial question here, the 18th and 19th century question of race, that why do black people appear as filthy because they are associated with the places that become from — that these are filthy places, and these body people embody that filth from which they come from — so I if I’m filthy because I come from a filthy region, a filthy part of the world. And so that association is taking place from the 18th and the 19th century. So, that is one on the one hand, that the idea of filth of a region and the filthiness of a person gets linked. 

Then I would take you to a completely different episode of our history — and that episode takes place in Germany in 1902, where, Robert Koch, the German bacteriologist, makes a discovery in a small village in Germany, that there is an outbreak of of typhoid in the village of Trier and he cannot identify what is the reason for the outbreak of typhoid. And then he identifies that there is a baker who’s making bread in Trier. And anybody who’s buying bread from the person is falling ill. And that’s the beginning of his thesis, which is called the carrier thesis, which means that the baker who has never himself suffered from typhoid, but carries the germ of typhoid in his body and he can pass it on with his habits of baking to his customers. So he is the carrier of the disease, an asymptomatic — that word that carries on into COVID-19 so much — that we can be asymptomatic carriers that we don’t show signs of disease, but we are carriers of the disease and we can infect others. So that is the beginning — 1902 Robert Koch’s discovery of the carrier thesis is the beginning of an association made between people who do not show any signs of the disease. 

So what happens is, once that is done, you have a preconceived idea of Indians being filthy. So those two get mixed, that I as an Indian, then become a filthy carrier — I do not shown any signs of it because I come from that region.

And I am myself immune to the disease. So my body doesn’t suffer from the disease. But I am carrying it in my intestines, in my hands, in my filthy habits, and I’m passing it on to the unsuspecting body. So the entire idea of the filthy disease starts from a racialization of people and places in the 18th century, get linked to an idea of asymptomatic carriers, and then it’s racialization of asymptomatic carriers, and you have the same phenomena being imposed on Indians coming from Asia, and being seen as every Indian coming from Asia becomes an asymptomatic carrier of a disease. You have the same phenomena of Mexican migrants into North America, being seen as asymptomatic carriers of disease like yellow fever, although they might not be showing signs of it.

You have the same issue of Jewish migrants coming into Germany in the early 20th century, from Russia as asymptomatic carriers. So all of your prejudice, racial prejudices, now have a scientific basis that you can be an asymptomatic carrier and you cannot show, you need not show any signs because you are asymptomatic carrier of a disease, but because you are coming from a filthy region, chances are you’re a filthy person.

GV: So that takes us to the idea of quarantine of disease people — is that good or bad? I mean, I’d say that isolating people with disease seems on the surface like a good thing…

Pratik: It’s a very very important question and I think that question keeps coming back even today whether either quarantine is good or bad. 

Now, let’s start the discussion by understanding what quarantine is. Quarantine is by definition, isolation of ships or trains or any kind of vehicle or the vessels that carry people or it’s an isolation of people themselves. That isolation can take place in an island, that isolation can take place in terms of the entire ship being isolated off the port. Or the isolation can take place in case of a, of a building or a couple of buildings which are completely isolated from the rest of the city.

Now, the problem with the isolation is that that isolation is not often imposed on people who have symptoms of the disease. Isolation takes place often on people who do not have any symptoms, but who kind of come from places which are suffering from those diseases. One of the problems of of quarantine was that it’s quite indiscriminate. It isolates anyone, any individual coming from a site, which is supposed to be endemic for a disease. So on the one hand, quarantine is good because it protects citizens from an outbreak of a disease. But if you look at it from a humanitarian point of view, from the people who are coming in, it’s a violation of their human rights, about travel, about normal existence and access to life. In a normal sense, because just because they come from a certain region, thaty are supposed to be asymptomatic, carriers of diseases. And that idea of being asymptomatic — that is you do not have symptoms of the disease, but because you come from certain regions, you are considered to be a potential threat of a career becomes associated in the early 20th century with immigration laws, immigration regulations. People from certain regions are stopped at borders are not allowed to come in and are quarantined. It generates isolation of people. You know, the famous story of Mary Malone, who was an Irish cook in New York, who was supposedly a healthy carrier that is an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid was isolated for the rest of her life in quarantine in Long Island, outside New York. So, quarantine is good, but it can easily often be used as an exclusionary or isolation principle about who is a carrier of a disease. So it has those both sides and that’s why the debate is always out on what actual quarantine does and whether it actually prevents outbreak of a disease.

MRA – Are there takeaways from the response to cholera that sort of apply in the case of Covid19 — any similarities you see from history?

I think there are quite a few similarities — there are obviously, you know dissimilarities in various ways because COVID-19 is a viral disease as opposed to cholera, which is a bacterial disease. similarities that I would talk about — one is the link between cholera and poverty and COVID-19 and poverty. And so what is that link? So you will hear in common discussions about COVID-19, that the disease doesn’t make any distinction. You know, anybody can catch the disease — anywhere, anybody can catch the disease. But increasingly what we are seeing is that the greatest price that the people will have to pay in the disease, are already paying in the disease, are the poor, those who cannot isolate themselves, you have a huge problem in India, where migrant laborers are stuck because of the entire shutdown of the economy. So, and even in Europe and other places where people in short term contracts in the poverty lines are suffering the most or more immediately of the disease. So, one, although the disease itself doesn’t make any distinctions, it can spread to anywhere, but because of infrastructural reasons, because of privileges that we enjoy because of the social spaces that the rich can enjoy, the disease is going to, or already affecting the poor in a much more much higher way.

That was the same in cholera. Of course, although cholera does not make a distinction, the bacteria does not make a distinction between who is rich or poor. It is an absolute fact, as much in the 19th century as today, that it’s the poor people with inadequate water supply systems, housing conditions, living conditions, and it happens now –every time there’s an outbreak of cholera, that is in Yemen, you will see that there’s an breakdown of — public health systems because of civil war or because of other reasons, and it’s the poor who suffer. 

So COVID-19 is reiterating the link between infrastructure, urban development, privileges, isolation and poverty that keeps us taking keeps us taking back to the 19th century evidences of cholera. 

GV: So, as a historian of science who’s looked at many ancient pandemics, how do you think Covid19 will change us — our species?

Pratik: I do not know in exact shape or nature of what will happen but as I said, there would be fundamental changes and the fundamental changes in our behavior, in our actions as citizens and also governance — how, you know, countries or nations govern the lives of the people. And one of the one of the main debates in the 19th and early 20th century about public health to what extent does a state have the right to intervene into people’s lives? That was a fundamental debate, whether a state can decide to isolate people, its own citizens or other citizens because of disease outbreaks. The same issue came up in different cities, in Rio de Janeiro, the rich decided the poor are bringing in disease, so they kept let’s get the poor out of the city. So increasingly in the 19th century, with greater medical knowledge, about disease outbreaks, about who is the carrier, who’s not, there’s a greater surveillance culture that was brought in. 

And clearly we are going to a system that would require or bring about another regime of surveillance system. Now, whether that surveillance could be a self motivated one — that I, as a citizen, I’m protecting myself and others, or whether that could be driven by the state, by the government. But so it will be the government which tells us which parts to visit, which countries to visit, which countries the government will not allow a citizen to come in. So various kinds of surveillance systems will be existent. And it might mean that we are citizens might need or might allow governments to play a greater role in our private lives. 

GV: That’s a little scary…

Pratik: Yes, but you know, what is the interesting fact is that what you describe aptly as scary. For many, it is required. So it’s beneficial. So for many —  yes, we need the government to tell us. So, one, on one hand, it is scary, on the other for most people, it is also quite assuring that the government is telling them. You see what I mean?

GV: Yes — but It seems to me that that be at the expense of civil liberties and freedom…

Pratik: Yes. Yes, but you don’t see it as an expense of freedom if you are happy to give it up anyway. 

GV: I think it may be that many don’t realize that lives and nations will be transformed…

Pratik: And it might bring about a much stronger or absolute governments where it can tells us about our lives. So what is our private life doesn’t remain a private life, those boundaries will be shifted.

GV: Does all this sort of make you despair? 

Pratik: No, but it’s — for you, me and everyone else — it’s a strange time to live in. But as a historian of medicine for me, not the comfort but it gives me an element of detachment as well, to know that you know, we have gone through fundamental changes in the past as well. And what we are going through is, is a process so, on one hand it’s unknown. On the other hand is unknown here, and the known is that we are going through changes that has happened in the past as well. And we will adjust, human lives will adjust in a different way but we will adjust to living in different ways as we have done in the past.

MRA: You were listening to Pratik Chakrabarti on Chatroom on Scrolls & Leaves. If you want to learn more about the topics we discussed today, you can find some links on our website, www.scrollsandleaves.com slash chatroom4. We’ll meet in two weeks in a Chatroom. Bye for now!


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