3rd October 1994
The Fear of the plague sat like a rat in the caves of my subconscious as I stepped out of the Sarah International Airport at midnight in Bombay and got into a taxi. Just sheer nerves. Check lymph glands every morning and evening, and keep the faith, because the faithful wont succumb, the Prophet Mohammed said.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
My doctor, chemist and chief editor all advised a more precautionary approach - Vibramycin, one tablet a day as preventative medicine, and if the plague does get me then a blast of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
I had ampoules with instructions, syringes and needles, but no idea how to put a syringe together or how to hit the vein. For the first time I thought it a disadvantage, having never been a junky.
“Welcome to India”, said the driver, “we have a big problem here.” Like always. I offered him a cigarette. In order to light it I had to lean right over him, coming very close to his face. He took my lighter and lit the cigarette himself, then handed it back to me. Do I have the plague now?
4th October 1994
Slept really well in the ‘Taj Mahal’. It was the best hotel room I’ve ever been in. Colonial-style, room service around the clock, with buttery-soft rugs and a bathroom as big as a single room at ‘The Sheraton’. My window looked out over the gate of India towards the Arabian Sea.
There were ships, boats and people on the quay. Nobody wore facemasks.
Nor in the lobby, where I met Enrico the Italian photographer. He has already been here for six days. All over, he said. You’re too late. The panic is over. People aren’t dying any more. They’ve taken off their facemasks and opened up their businesses again. What do you want to do?
Settle in first, then out onto the streets. Hardly had I opened the heavy front door of the ‘Taj Mahal’ when, boof, the tropics. Big mother India embraced me with a hot, humid kiss. Welcome. Forget the plague. Enrico thought differently. He wanted to set off immediately with a troupe of rat-catchers. They had killed over six thousand rats in the last three days.
They say that in Bombay there are forty rats to each person, with a population of over twelve million people. This is going to be a long night, Enrico, no need to be in a hurry. Also, I don’t like rats. I don’t want to see any.
“So what do you want then?”
“Batteries for my hearing aids.”
After ten minutes we had already found some. I’d never have expected that in Bombay, this city has really changed. Enrico wanted to go to the hospital.
And when do I put my facemask on? When Enrico does, he knows what he’s doing. He also knows the doctor at the quarantine ward, a funny little man who is unable to lie. No one in this country can, and they know that better than anyone. When Indians lie, their eyes glaze over to try and veil their true thoughts. Realizing that this gives them away, they become insecure. And when they feel insecure, they laugh. The little Indian doctor in his little hospital office from whose walls the plaster was peeling, told us of one hundred and twenty new suspected cases of the plague. But all the blood tests came back negative. They all had something else; cholera, malaria, syphilis, TB. But no plague, not one case. All the while he was laughing. Enrico laughed and I laughed too, and as a second doctor entered the room and saw us laughing, he joined in. All in all I hadn’t imagined Indian plague hospitals would be so funny.
Of course, I could understand it. The plague had spread through the country in two ways; firstly through fleas hopping from rats onto people, and then through the media. The germs brought disease, and the journalists brought panic. Without them, no one would have flown out to Surat, and no one would have taken the disease back with them to Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Bangalore. Journalism and epidemics, like fuel to a fire.
Time for the facemask, time for the fear, time for all vital organs to seize up in trying to shut out what was trying to get in. There they lay in their beds, faceless except for their large Indian eyes.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
Several of them got up and came closer, and as the doctor introduced us to one of the patients they came closer still. That’s how it is in India; they almost try to crawl inside you with curiosity. A circle of people allegedly not suffering from the plague, all wearing face masks and blue gowns, closed in around me pulling ever closer. Something inside me made a noise, like one you hear when a trap snaps shut. Something touched me - one of them nudged my arm with his face. The doctor shooed him away. Have I got the plague now?
In the taxi on the way back to the hotel I wasn’t feeling well. There are three known sorts of plague; bubonic, pneumonic and psychological - the latter being the most contagious kind, you only need to read about it and you’ll get ill. I suddenly saw the world from the taxi as if through double glass - through the car window, and through that which you can't wind down. It surrounded me like a bell of negative energy. I saw Indian life on the street; the funny cars, the lights, the people, the palm trees, the fruit on the stands. I saw dogs, a couple of sacred cows, nice houses, ugly houses, traffic lights and adverts, and it was no longer my world. As if I had already said farewell, already taken a few steps away from everything. Can bacteria pass through a patient's facemask and then penetrate the sleeve of my cotton shirt? Do they assume I hadn’t taken preventative antibiotics? Pff, I'll do what I want? That’s where the psychological plague takes the mind.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
We flew with Indian Airlines, one of the worst airlines in the world. Luckily they noticed their technical problems before takeoff.
Foto von Enrico Bossan
Photo by Enrico Bossan
We had breakfast in a hotel called Taj Residence’ in Aurangabad, which was built like a palace, and completely empty. “Because of the plague”, our waiter told us. The morning papers reported that the epidemic had been brought under control throughout India except for in Beed, where it was still raging. One hundred and twenty-five kilometers of tea shops and markets lined the country roads all the way there.
The hospital in Beed was just like the one in Bombay, except for uniformed nurses and a doctor who didn't laugh. He was afraid. Or was it because a face covered by a mask from the root of the nose to the chin always conveys fear? Because one gets so hot from one's own breath behind it? It's a strange feeling. And you can only see the upper part of the face. Facemasks alone signal danger in your brain, highest level, red alert.
They had a hundred and forty cases of the plague, and none of them got up when we entered the intensive care unit. They were really ill. Enrico shot his photos in no time, and then we went out to get some space.
We walked through the district’s capital. Fifty thousand inhabitants, never any tourists. No sights worth seeing, just early capitalist trade and textile industry. A small town with small shops and narrow streets, Enrico was looking for the crematorium. Photographers are like that. Hospitals, cremation sites, rat extermination campaigns, it’s just in their nature. Not mine. I wanted to go to the temple. I was fed up and still hadn't found my story.
I needed the help of the Gods. Anything - a wave, a hint. Enrico looked for the crematorium, I didn't want to know about it. We came to the river that divided Beed in half; in front of it was a city wall and a gate, behind it the temple. Indian temples often stand on the banks of rivers or bodies of water where the Hindus do their washing and bathe their souls. The water here was dirty, and a dirty Sadhu sat at its edge.
Through the water led a path to the temple. I did the usual thing and sat at the edge of the pool to meditate for five minutes, which was difficult because three Indians were talking to me at the same time. Then I took off my shoes and went to Ganesh's shrine. Ganesh, the elephant god. Overcoming all difficulties. Patron saint of poets, thieves and traders. I rang the bells above me three times, three times each. Ganesh, Ga-nesh, standing in stone in front of me, hear my plea and show me the way, I don’t mind if it’s with your trunk.
"What is the name of the village?"
"How far is it from here?"
"Are you coming with me?"
This was the owner of the tea house - he spoke English and told me where I needed to go five minutes after my visit to the temple. The plague had come to Beed from the small village of Mamla more than a month ago. He didn't know what it looked like now, but he would have liked to know. He still didn't want to come along though, despite his curiosity.
When we drove out of Beed I could almost smell it, I was on the right track. In the right India. The country road was getting very narrow, and there were only mud huts and pot-bellied pigs all along it. Instead of cars, ox carts came up to us with men wearing red turbans. The women, as colorful as butterflies, wore flowers and nose rings. It was a hilly, green, fertile land with mountains to the far right on the horizon. Beautiful light fell from the sky. Late afternoon, maybe two hours until sunset.
Eventually we had to go from the paved road onto a path for ox carts. The driver swore at the big stones along the way, and cursed because he couldn't find the village. Asked a few people. A little boy offered to be the guide. Got in the car with us. He was beautiful, he beamed and I felt my heart swim away. I don't know how else to describe it: the little one in the front seat had a great soul.
"What is your name?"
Another mile of terrible stones, then we were there. "Mamla," said Rabrindra. The village from which the plague came.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
At first no one could understand each other. Forty children and a few men looked at me brightly. "You speak English?” It seemed not - smiles were their only reply. I waved to our driver, he knew a few words. Well, Maybe ten. I was lacking a few words, too. Thank god for mime. I put my hands on my head like a pair of wings that flew away with my thoughts.
Using this approach, the following was learned; around three hundred people live in the village and more than half of them have the plague. A doctor or medical assistant and a nurse come every day. Tomorrow morning too, at ten o'clock. And now it would be better if we went back to the city, because armed robbers were out and about at night.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
6th October 1994.
I bought three cakes for the children from the ‘Rama International’ hotel bakery. One chocolate, one strawberry, and one cream cake. I thought it was a good idea. The driver didn’t - the cakes were in cardboard boxes beside him during the four-hour drive to Mamla. He feared that they would melt in the sun and spill out onto his elaborately embroidered passenger seat. A bit silly worrying about that, all other dangers considered.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
“What dangers? There are none”, said Mr. Dattatraya Babusao, the medical assistant. He was in Mamla the next morning, as was the Nurse Miss Sushila Gaikwad and Mr. Mukesh Waichalkar, the disinfector. I had two helpers, rat cages and DDT insecticide with me. Both Mr. Babusao and Mr. Waichalkar spoke English - finally, intelligible words in this panicky, confused world.
So it was on the 26th of August this year that eleven-year-old Mahadeo Sambhaji Khalge woke in the morning with a high fever. His parents thought he had malaria and took him to the Kuppa First Aid Center ten kilometers away, a small stone house with two rooms and an old microscope. It wasn't malaria; little Mahadeo was the first to come down with the plague in India.
They gave him the antibiotic tetracycline, and he recovered. When we talked about him he pulled at me smiling and wanted to show me something. Took me to his father's fields. Strange flowers grew on it. He touched his shirt to explain that it was a cotton field.
They put up a tent in the middle of the village right opposite their little Maruti shrine. Maruti are the wind gods of the ancient Aryans who were here around 2,500 BC, companions of the war god Indra, children of Shiva, servants of the storm. Every morning at sunrise, the villagers stood in front of the shrine, waving their little candles and singing in the hope that the storm might drive the plague out of the village.
Then they went to the tent, where nurse Sushila was waiting for them with a large tin of coloured pills. Only those who were really ill got tetracycline. No such thing as preventative medicine in Mamla, for four reasons;
1. Taking preventative antibiotics for too long means they stop working at some point, so you could still have bad luck and get the disease anyway.
2. The side effects are awful.
3. Plague symptoms are much easier to detected without antibiotics.
4. The pills are almost 100% effective when someone does get ill.
Caught early enough, the chances of recovering from the plague are better than those with malaria. And those who do recover are thereafter immune for all time.
Treated early enough, that’s the point. The first signs of plague are always a high fever and boils. The lymph glands swell up and bacteria enters the bloodstream. When it reaches the lungs and becomes pneumonic, it’s no laughing matter - transmitted through breathing and saliva, it is extremely contagious. That must be how it happened, someone being infected that way as they traveled from Beed to Surat. And then came the pictures that we are all so familiar with now. There was no vaccine available in Surat for the first few days, and no one had really caught on to what was happening. Most of those infected lived in the slums - feeble and emaciated with weak immune systems. The pneumonic plague is curable, you just have to catch it early enough or you’ll be dead in three days. You’d have two weeks with the bubonic plague, untreated. With antibiotics, half an age.
Photo by Enrico Bossan
As I was in Mamla it became clear to me that there was something not quite right with the world as the plague broke out in India. As we were calling Indian doctors sloppy and negligent, they were showing us how things were done. There are as good as no doctors in the west with any practical experience of the plague, not even in the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg - their last case was in 1948.
There’s always a bit of plague going round every year in India - roughly twenty cases or so on average - for them its like cholera or malaria. Anyone coming down with the plague is much better off being treated by an Indian doctor than any of ours, because a) they will be treated properly and b) won’t be prescribed any panic. The Indians don’t go for such horror-mongering, any such panic was the media’s doing. Two-hundred deaths in a country with a population of nine-hundred million, can we really call it an epidemic that threatens the whole country, the entire world, even? That’s what you call over-reporting.
Of the one hundred and forty-five plague sufferers in Mamla, not one has died and it doesn’t look as if any of them will. On the contrary. Where once you could smell the black death, now life smells sweeter than ever. That is what made their faces shine radiantly. That's why I had the cakes with me, a birthday party for the village. I cut the pieces with a giant knife as all the children queued up. About half of them regretted it, they didn't like the cakes from the posh pastry shop. Ate it anyway though, to be polite. Then they showed me the sunflower fields, running all the way there. I mean like an endurance run, with short sprints every now and then. That’s what children are like. A little outside the village we passed a remote hut. There was also a stream and a pig, and a half-naked old man sitting in the hut. A bowl of rice next to him, he didn't move. Not even when I stood in front of him with the children. I wasn't just the first journalist, I was the first foreigner ever in this village. and he didn't even bat an eyelid. A holy man? Little Mahadeo Sambheji Khalge, India's first plague patient, tapped his forehead with a finger by way of explanation and rolled his eyes.
Three women appeared on a path out of the sunflower field. We left the nutcase to it and went back to the village with them, and from time to time they put up some posters along the way. They’d just got some new ones. Before my walk I’d only seen little black and white posters stuck to the huts with the code of conduct for the plague, but now they had two large, colorful ones. One showed a man and a woman, exhausted, carrying a huge house with too many children. On the other was a girl with long black braids who was crying. Something like a black belt was tied around her head, from which stirrups hung parallel to the braids. Below was something in Hindi. The medical assistant translated it for me.
"Don't marry a girl under eighteen!"
"Why?" I asked.
"Because she’s too young for that. She still has her whole life ahead of her. "
"What if she was eighteen?"
"Then marry her."
What else is there to say about that day in Mamla? A goat gave birth to two little black babies, and women wearing nose rings crouched in front of their huts and cooked the usual meal of rice and dahl, and when we drove out of the village that the plague called home, thirty or forty children laughed and waved after us. Thank you, gods of the wind. And thanks to you, god of the pesticide factory.
Author Helge Timmerberg and photographer Enrico Bossan.
Published November 1994 in TEMPO magazine, and in the book 'Tigers don't eat Yogis'.
"The book is not a drug, even though some of the travel reports seem like LSD trips, but medicine for the soul. (...) A book that creates peace, despite or because of the extremes that collide and reconcile with each other."
Der Standard (Vienna)
Illustrationen: Maielin van Eilum
Translator: Artemis Meereis
Proofreading: Ada Delsolco
TEMPO Archiv: Stephan Timm
Cover Page Photo : Santiago Ruy Sanchez
Published by Solibro Verlag
Audiobook spoken by Mathieu Carrière
Many thanks to Wolfgang Neumann / Solibro Verlag