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LORD, HAVE MERCY ON US!
"HERE-we-have-some-ve-ry-char-act-er-is-tic-and-typ-i-cal-tem-per-a-ture-charts," said the doctor. A Parsi speaks English with a staccato that accents every syllable alike. But for that you would hardly have distinguished the doctor, in his gold-rimmed spectacles, well-cut flannel suit, and grey pith helmet, from a swarthy European. The truth is that he has never been in Europe at all; yet he is one of the best-known authorities on bubonic plague in the world.
Down the long, light, and airy ward — plague and light and air cannot live together — was a double row of some thirty beds, covered with violet blankets. From under each protruded a dark, small, close-cropped head. Some lay quite still with eyes tight shut; some stared up at the pointed roof with eyes moist and shining; one boy grinned almost merrily. All were sick of the plague; on statistics it was to be expected that three out of every four would die in the next few hours.
At its first onset, two years ago, plague killed its two hundred and forty a-day; now it has sunk to fifty a-day, but it goes on steadily. Bombay has resigned herself to another four or five years of it — which means, at the present rate, that one-tenth of her population will die of it between now and 1904.
Then what is to be done? asks the practical Englishman. Ask the uneducated native, and he will say that the white Empress is angry because some blackguards defaced her statue two years ago; now that it is restored again things may be expected to go better. Ask the educated native, and he will placidly reply, "Nothing." Let it spend itself, let it become endemic, says he, finding much consolation in the Greek word. Human life has always been abundant and cheap in India. Here is the spectacle of a great city where one disease has killed its thousands in two years, and is killing its hundreds now every week; and nobody cares. White man and brown alike accept it as a new circumstance of their existence, and that is all.
Yet not quite all, nor is it quite just to say that nobody cares. It seemed that at present all that can be done, short of pulling down Bombay, Was being done, and — it seemed for the moment — not wholly in vain. The municipality had partly recovered from the paralysis which overtook it at the enemy's first attack; it had come back to Bombay again, even the most enlightened native no longer feeling his life in danger. The military visitations had ceased. They frightened the natives. In one case, I was told, when a couple of naval officers, with bluejackets and native infantry, arrived to inspect a large tenement house, they found that every one of the three hundred tenants had bolted in the night — leaving only two men to die alone of plague — and had spread themselves to sow contagion all over the quarter. Now the municipality does what is to be done, especially the few British members of it.
I had the luck to fall in with men who could show me the whole process, from cause to cure — or death. The cause was simple enough: two minutes in the native quarter, and you saw and smelt and tasted it. The cause is sheer piggery, dirt and darkness, foul air and rabbit-warren overcrowding. The huge houses, with their ranks of windows, their worn plaster and scratched, rickety shutters, have slum written all over them in a universal language; but for wooden hoods projecting like gargoyles to shade some of the windows, they might be in Edinburgh or Naples.
But walk in, and what you see surpasses everything European. On stamped earth floors, between bare walls, by the dimness of one tiny window, you see shapes squatting like monkeys. They stir, lithe but always languid, and presently you see that they are human. Babies, naked children, young women and youths, mothers and fathers, shrivelled grandsires and grand-dams — whole families stifle together in the thick darkness, breed, and take in lodgers. In the room, where there is hardly space to move, they sleep and work at trades, and cook their food with pungent cakes of cow-dung. Because January is cold to their bare limbs, they shut doors and windows, to fug and fester worse. The lower rooms are worn down beneath the level of the street and of the drains; the upper are holes beneath the sloping roof, where a man cannot stand upright. On the storeys between these are dens lighted only from the dark corridor. You look into them, and at first see no more than a feeble wick fluttering in a night-glass; then moist eyes shine at you out of the darkness, and again two, four, six, ten men and women are sitting motionless against the wall. They neither speak nor stir just sit and ripen for pestilence.
On the door jamb of this house are a dozen red marks — dates with a line round them, in some semicircular, in others a complete circle. Each means a case of plague — the full circles a death, the halves a removal to hospital. For your own part you wonder that anybody in the poisonous lair is left alive.
Improvement is coming — tardy and partial, still an improvement on the worst. At this house we fell in with an English gentleman, a man of business and a member of the municipality, who was devoting his money and time and life to saving these wretches. Equipped with large powers of compulsion, he was forcing the landlord to pierce shafts through the whole height of the house, to replace small windows by big, to do away with the garrets. The landlord, a Hindu, had all the native's terror of spending a farthing: he had argued and pleaded and dallied, but this morning he was at last beginning. We came across him — a fat, yellow toad in spotless white turban, shirt, and drawers, with a red kummerbund — half-sulky, half-fawning, trembling to the naked eye. For most of his rooms he will be getting two rupees (2s. 8d.) a-week. A native docker's pay is only seven; but a native can easily live on two rupees a-week, and afford the rent out of the five. There are perhaps fifty rooms in the house, so that it is not wonderful that the yellow toad grows fat.
The English councillor had persuaded some of the worst-lodged to run up shelters of bamboo and matting and live in the yard outside. It was light and airy at least, though foul, whereas the rooms indoors were mostly clean. Here, little isles of brown skin and scarlet, white and yellow cotton, sat families amid the carts and humped oxen, the goats and the fowls. In the house the goat and kid lived upstairs with the people; at one door a cooped duck was quacking mournfully. In the yard the oxen lived in the open, for the councillor had converted the byre with bamboo and limewash into an emergency hospital.
Going out — it was good to open your mouth and nostrils again — we passed blocks of the new buildings the municipality has provided, — hideous, like all works of corporations, but solidly built of stone and brick, with at least a chance of seeing and breathing. We came next to a segregation camp, where they isolate and watch people who have been in contact or under suspicion of contact with the plague-stricken. It was a little village of white bamboo-matting, with an open compartment in a big shed for each family. As it was already eight o'clock, most of the inhabitants were out; here and there sat a nose-ringed woman among the few brass cooking-pans which made up the family furniture. The inmates of these camps may go to work, but they must be back by six; meanwhile, the spectacled, unshaven native apothecary in charge strolls up and down chambers as soundless as if they were already graves.
For the climax of the dismal story we come to the hospital and the Parsi physician — one native, at least, who knows his duty and does it. As he walked from bed to bed there stepped in from the sun-steeped garden a golden-haired English girl in a white-and-red uniform — a nurse who had volunteered to come out for plague duty, and has lived with death for two years. As they passed, one skeleton raised brilliant eyes and cried out thickly. "It-is-the-ty-pi-cal-voice-of-plague-as-in-in-tox-i-ca-tion," remarked the doctor. The next was a boy with facial bubo — a hideous enlargement of one cheek and jaw to double the size of the other. The next lay and panted; the next — his wrists tied firmly to the bed — muttered and struggled in delirium. The next was recovering, but had lost his reason. On the breast of the last of the row was a great stain of treacly gangrene with a yellow border round it.
Outside there was a clash of cymbals, and raucous voices seemed to be singing a round. A dozen men strode briskly up the street carrying a bier and a shape under a pall strewn with flowers.
The foregoing description was written in the first week of January 1899. In the first week of March I was again in Bombay and found a very different state of things. Plague had increased fearfully, and the natives were once more in full flight. In the first week of February the deaths that admittedly resulted from plague were five hundred and eighty-eight. The next week they rose to a hundred a-day. By the end of the third week in February they were over one hundred and twenty a-day; and in the first week of March it was admitted that over one hundred and fifty cases were dying daily of plague, while every unofficial person you met insisted that the official estimates were designedly optimistic, and put the daily mortality between two hundred and fifty and three hundred. Thousands of natives fled daily; and though, to my eye, the city seemed as full as ever, I was assured by residents who knew it well that I was mistaken. In addition to this, plague was reappearing at Poona, was very severe at Bangalore, while on the Kolar gold-fields, in Hyderabad territory, at least one European had been infected, and the flight of the coolies had thrown all work into disorder. About the same time plague made its reappearance in Calcutta; it was asserted — of course unofficially — that several Europeans died of it. With the advent of the hot weather, which in these parts of the country begins at mid-March, plague has hitherto always declined.
It is difficult to be certain of statistics in a country like India, where a constitutionally nervous government withholds all the information it can; but even the few figures quoted disclose a situation which in Great Britain would be thought appalling. In India nobody cares. Yet it is easy to see that if plague is to recur every cold weather in Bombay with added severity — and there is apparently no scientific certainty in the pious hope that it will exhaust itself in seven years or so — the only possible end will be ruin to the city. Suppose an average mortality of one hundred a-day spread over one hundred days in the early part of the year. Even this moderate estimate comes to ten thousand a-year, and for one that dies you may assume that at least ten bolt till hot weather returns. In a year or two business will be paralysed by quarantine and segregation and by the lack of labour, and Bombay, at the present rate, will sooner or later cease to exist as a great city.
Of course this is not to be taken as a prophecy. The one certain thing about plague — and it is the only excuse for the apathy of the Indian Government in presence of it — is that nobody knows anything certain about it. Conferences and commissions dot the country, and medical Lieutenant-Colonels give evidence before them; but nothing coherent emerges from the mass of detail and opinion. Nobody seems quite certain whether inoculation will keep off, much less cure, the disease. Nobody would be surprised if it were to become endemic in India — a second cholera, only far worse; on the other hand, nobody would be surprised if it disappeared as suddenly as it came.
In this uncertainty most of the provincial governments prefer to sit still and hope, rather than irritate native opinion by taking strong measures of local segregation. Most Europeans in high office applaud this policy; most others despise it. Some say that it would have paid better to burn Bombay to the ground as soon as plague broke out; others, more moderate, deplore the abandon ment, in deference to native prejudice, of the strict measures of visitation and segregation which were at first enforced in Bombay. There are three methods of dealing with plague. The first is that attributed — let us hope mistakenly — to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. Being pressed by the Viceroy, who was in turn pressed by the Home Government, to take strong measures to enforce sanitation, observation of suspects, and segregation, in Calcutta, the Lieutenant-Governor--so the tale goes — refused, and threatened to resign if he were pressed further. The only possible reason for such a refusal would be sheer cowardice — the fear of an agitation in the native press and possible riots in the native quarters; its only possible result would be contempt of government among the governed, and, sooner or later, thousands dead of plague. The second method was pursued with great success in a large village in the Punjab. Plague had broken out, and the infected persons were to be taken away. The civil servant and police-officer went into the village to fetch them, whereon the inhabitants collected on the roofs and pelted them with tiles. As long as only the white men were hit, this was very entertaining sport; only by bad luck a few ill-aimed tiles fell among the Pathan policemen who were following. These at once opened fire and killed eight of the villagers. The infected persons were then peacefully taken away, the village isolated, and the attack of plague nipped in the bud. The third method, employed with great success at Poona by (I think) Colonel Creagh, V.C., is a combination of the other two. He employed soldiers to visit suspected houses, and Brahmans to go with them to explain the necessity of the measures taken. This is probably the best method of the three, The fatalistic attitude hitherto adopted by the provincial governments — with the meritorious exception of Madras — seems explicable only as a convenient means for keeping down the overgrowth of Indian populations.