Studies from an eastern home
"I HAVE a case for you, Sister." It was the doctor's voice in the doorway, and I knew at once what he meant. My first case of plague. A few minutes later we entered the cottage where the patient lay. It was an ordinary mud hut, with its tiny unlighted compartments opening on a central court. In one room lay a quantity of clean linen, for the people were dhobies; in another division was the family cow; and at the moment of our entrance the matter in hand was the lifting of the invalid out of a confined room to a small wooden bed on the veranda. Utterly lethargic he lay there, poor child, a bright promising boy of twelve or fourteen. He had been ill since the previous evening; it was now nine o’clock in the morning; the bubo was slightly developed; and with the gravest predictions and repeated instructions the doctor hurried off to attend just such another.
It was so little that could be done. Food, medicine, and a bath--all these could be given. Yes, and the head could be shaved, ice applied,
and a fan kept going; but when all was said and done, one was sitting there to watch a human being die--to watch, without hope of saving. For no one who knew the awful intensity of the struggle into which he would presently have to enter, who knew too the overgrown and underfed condition of the child himself, could have a doubt as to the way the battle would end. The evening would come, and he would die. So the doctor had said. Not that I realised this. If I had, I doubt whether I could have driven the mother off at once, as, to my bitter regret, I did, possessed by the notion that isolation and disinfection, the only services I could render, should be thoroughly performed. She was busy near her boy, fanning him perhaps, and constantly inhaling the air that he was breathing out. Did I know she was his mother? I should like to think not. I should like to make any excuse for the fact that I pointed out to her that it would be wise if she sat some distance away. Poor mother! She went at once, crushed and broken-spirited, without a word. But quietly, quietly the tears began to flow down her poor thin face, and she broke into stifled sobs. That was too much. I found something that she must do, and with careful advice brought her back to do it. And there she sat, thenceforward, curled up beside the pillow with the boy's head at her feet.
He was violent now, and the great effort was to keep him quiet, for one unlucky movement might be fatal. But even in his delirium I had this always before me--the sight of perfect love between a mother and her son. Once, indeed, mistaking me for her, he snatched at my hand, and carried his own to his lips, and often, not catching his mother's eyes, he would smile at me--always with that same debonair and tender look of the good comrade, given to carrying the burdens and bringing his mother cheer. I was reminded of that moment earlier in the morning, when he had caught the announcement that no barber could be got for him under two or three pice, and struggling to rise from his bed had cried that he would bring him for one.
He was evidently a good boy, in more senses than one--a devotee and a dreamer of dreams. For every now and then, as a gleam of consciousness would displace the awful look of alienation in the great brown eyes--every now and then he would call loudly upon Shiva, Kali! or repeat words of worship; and nothing soothed and quieted him like the incessant repetition of Haribol, or the hymn that was commonly sung about the streets at that time:
Call on the Lord,
Call on the Lord, my brother, p. 73
Than this name of the Lord,
For mortal man,
There is no other way."
"There is no other way," the weak voice would murmur in snatches after me, and then the invisible hand would again, as it were, draw the curtain, and the soul would be seen no more at the windows whence for a moment it had looked forth.
And so the end came. All day long the family had watched in the courtyard, his mother and myself on the little veranda. All day long they had been eager to serve in every way that was possible, and when I had to go away for an hour or two my place was taken by a young man from the neighbourhood, whose quiet dignity and firmness in dealing with the patient roused my hearty admiration. At five in the afternoon the doctor returned. "He is getting very low," he said; "another hour or two at most and the outburst will end in a collapse of the heart."
How long the minutes seemed! For the last outbreak of violence was very short-lived, and ended in a wild attempt to repeat the Haribol for a length of time. I took up the words, and stood saying them over and over to the movements of the fan, while with a look of relief the lad's head sank back on the pillow. He lay quiet, the breath came in shorter and shorter gasps, and he died.
"Give me twelve instead of one," said the doctor, "and I can try steam baths."
It was evident that one could hope to do nothing alone. All the medical men held that a man once down with plague was doomed. It was a great thing to know that there was a field for work; that the disease, though so deadly, was neither repulsive nor specially infectious; that assistance was wanted in order to try finer methods of treatment; and above all, that, as I had ample opportunity of verifying later, no prejudice of caste or religion would stand in the way of our help being accepted. But in order to act upon all this knowledge, religious orders like those Franciscans of the Middle Ages who put an end to the same disease in Europe would be required, so for the moment we gave up the idea.
Then persons with influence were consulted, and offers of help came from zenana ladies, if we should turn a house of our own into a women's hospital. At this point our difficulties began to be amusing. The nurses were to be zenana ladies, and so were the patients. This sounded simple enough. But the latter would insist on being accompanied to the hospital by their husbands, brothers, or sons, who would watch by their bedside day and night. And in that case, how could the nurses attend to them?
"Besides," said the kindly official who was advising
us, "to turn your house into a hospital would involve some little expense, and do you know what would be your chance of receiving patients, after all?"
I shook my head.
"There are more than six hundred hospitals in Calcutta," 1 he said, "and they contain an aggregate of something like four patients."
So our dream of a hospital for Bengali women, managed by Bengali ladies, also came to an end, and we also realised the wisdom of the Government in deciding that its duty lay not in grappling with the disease itself, but rather with the conditions that had led to its development.
The conditions which are immediately preventible appear to be twofold: (1) insanitation, and (2) ignorance; and if solid work is done towards the removal of these evils, it cannot but be that the plague shall prove a friend to mankind in the long run.
One of its first and greatest services leas lain in the humanising of the lower castes. Their labour is at this moment in high demand. Bright little sweeper-boys command the wages of full-grown men, with short hours and plenty of encouragement
and stimulus to work. How proud of themselves the conservancy gangs look, spades in their hands and buckets on their shoulders! Strange how all things work in together to further the great purpose of an epoch, and even a catastrophe like the present is really to hasten that supreme function of the English in India, the giving of democracy to the Indian people. For the immediate outcome of good work and good wages is sure to be the establishment of schools in sweeper-villages, and with that first step taken towards the mountain-peaks of knowledge it is not too early to look forward to the day when they shall be received as men in the councils of their nation.
One thing that has struck me daily, as I have gone about the bustees to note progress and conditions, is the fine physique of these "untouchables," compared with higher-caste boys of their own age. Though small-built, they are lithe, active, and well-knit. One never sees among them those physical deformities of bad feeding and ill-health that are so common among the children of the very poor.
But, except for this superiority, I must confess that I find no marked difference of type. They seem to me to have, like other Hindus, the same faces that I have been accustomed to all my life, under slightly darker skins. If I had not known the country, I should have believed that this so-called
[paragraph continues] Negritoid Pariah was as good an Aryan as myself; that he was no aboriginal, set to the hewing of wood and drawing of water for the race's sake, but one who had simply lost rank by that same process of trade-differentiation that certainly accounts for so many of the castes. These men are very dark, it is true--quite a chocolate-brown in some cases; but they are by no means uniformly so, and I have seen this particular colour sometimes in the highest classes, especially, as I fancy, where there is much exposure to the weather. Perhaps, however, there is greater irregularity of features amongst these pariahs than higher up in the social scale; but the question remains, whether this is due to race-inferiority, or to that freedom for individuality which must result from laxity of conventions. No one who has seen how the children of converted Jews lose the physiognomy of their forefathers will despise the influence of ideas on national types.
Anyway, whatever may be the future of our boys, for the present they are full of fun and enthusiasm. A really bad drain is quite a find to them all, and they work with patience and ardour, under supervision. For the real inferiority of the lower castes is that they require so much organisation and superintendence from their more fortunate countrymen. In the case of the one gang in which I am interested, three different people devote time
and attention to overlooking the labour, and under these, again, there is the foreman of the gang; and every bit of this is absolutely necessary.
One of the most intolerable evils is the arrangement of bamboo "sanitary structures" in large clusters in the very centre and in close contact with dwelling-huts. These and the tanks--which continually receive sewage and other contaminations from the bustees--constitute the great permanent nuisances of the town. Nothing short of complete effacement could be efficient sanitation; but it should be added that the present state of things is of very long standing, and not an outgrowth of recent years.
In the pursuit of difficulties there is, I find, a limit at which toil becomes more or less sullen and despairing. Such toil for a scavenger can be found in one of the outlying districts of the Calcutta municipal area, where our workers discovered drains which would bid a fair defiance to Herakles himself. And there dwelt a Mussulman population, consisting of poultry, goats, and human beings iii inextricable confusion.
There are open spaces with green grass in these villages, and visions of how it might be tantalise one as one explores--a well-flushed and repaired ditch; a pleasant village-green; a tree or a flowering shrub here and there. Given the land, these things ought not to be impossible for
two thousand people paying municipal rates in one of the richest cities of the world. But we have had to keep twenty men digging for a week to get even a tiny stream of water to trickle feebly out of that terrible ditch. It had not been touched, they say, for fifteen years. And though we have swept the village-green, we have had no means for turning it into a garden, nor would we if we could, since we could not thereafter provide the wherewithal to keep it sweet and beautiful.
In the heart of this sordid quarter we come upon a little Moslem burying-ground. A low wall, pierced with a simple pattern, bounds it in restful curving lines. It is entirely without monuments or memorials, but in one corner a blasted tree of some sort--not unlike those grudging-leaved elders of the English Black Country--seems to stand for a landmark. And here, as they tell us, a holy man lies buried, and they, too poor to erect a stone, and too faithful to forget, have made shift with this old stump to keep green the memory of one who, poor like themselves, helped them years ago to live a fuller life.
A curious thing about a neighbourhood like this is that now and then one finds in it some old house and garden of great respectability. Is it a law of the growth of population that the
poor inhabit always what the rich have left? How else can one explain the traces of past grandeur that one meets everywhere? In another bustee, surely one of the most hopeless of its sort, we find on the great central tank a ruined ghat that was once superb. The whole thing, with the reflection of the water in the sky, and the old tree that to this day bears its yearly load of glorious flame-coloured blossoms, is uncommonly like the picturesque and ruined villages of Kashmir.
One has to go down under the surface to see that the plague is here at all. When we hear in Europe that a place is "declared" stricken, we conjure up pictures of mortality in all its forms: grass growing on deserted pavements, houses marked with crosses, and the weird voice at midnight crying "Bring out your dead!" How different it really is! I first heard of the ravages of the disease at a European dinner party, and I came home and discovered that seven deaths had occurred in one week in my own lane.
Not a sound had betrayed the fact. The accustomed wailing had all been hushed. The dead had been buried or burned at night. Not one word to the outside world had betrayed the agony of the watchers by the beloved. Not one token told that men had dropped out of the ranks of the living. This was, of course, at the
beginning of the outbreak. As time went on, the people realised, I think, that no outrage on their privacy was intended, and one began to meet the bearers more often about the streets, chanting Rama Nama Satya hai (The Name of the Lord alone is real) to their swinging pace, as they carried silent forms to the last rites; or one encountered one of those mournful Moslem processions by torchlight to the sound of the solemn Allah illa, ’ill, ’ill Allah! in the hour of dusk.
75:1 Six hundred hospitals was a computation that included all family hospitals and single rooms licensed and set apart as wards under the Plague Regulations. Even of these many were allowed to lapse, so that the actual number came to be much below six hundred while still unnecessarily large. [This refers to the outbreak of 1899.]
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.