Gandhi and the plague

GANDHI BLOG

IN THE CURRENT CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK, infection is spread from person to person in close contact with one another. Isolation and quarantine are likely to be effective in eventually reducing the rate of infection.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, another deadly pandemic, the bubonic plague, spread around the world. It was then believed that separating people from each other was likely to help arrest the plague. It was not because bubonic plague is rarely contagious, but usually transmitted by a vector.

While researching the life of my great grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, sometime Mayor of King Williams Town and later a South African Senator, I needed to explore the history of bubonic plague in South Africa. While doing so, I discovered that the young Indian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, also entered the story. The following is extracted from my article that was published in a South African medical journal back in 2008:

INVISIBLE INVADERS

When the Boer forces, provoked by the British, started invading the Cape Colony in 1899, another invasion, covert in nature, was also beginning to threaten the area. The hidden enemy, a bacterium, lives in the blood of fleas and the rats (and other rodents) whose blood they ingest. These fleas are also partial to feeding off the blood of humans. When an infected flea feeds off the blood of a susceptible human, that person runs the risk of developing an often fatal illness known as ‘bubonic plague’. When my great-grandfather Councillor Franz Ginsberg (1862-1933) was serving on the Borough Council of King William’s Town in 1899, little was known about the transmission of the plague, even in the scientific world, except that its causativeagent was the bacterium Yersinia pestis (Y.pestis). This ‘bug’ is named after one of its discoverers Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943).

PESTILENT FLEAS

Today, much is known about the mechanism of transmission of Y. pestis. Bubonic plague is an example of a zoonosis: a disease that normally exists in other animals, but also infects humans. The danger to humans is that the bacterium is carried in the blood of certain kinds of rat, and that these rats often live in close proximity to humans. The rats serve as a mobile reservoir for this pest, but they are susceptible to its ill-effects. When a flea bites an infected rat, it ingests the blood of the rat and some of the bacteria living in it and the bacteria multiply within the flea’s digestive tract, causing considerable harm to the flea itself. If this same flea should bite a human, the human victim will receive some of the bacteria from the flea because the flea, while feeding, regurgitates some of its Yersinia-infected stomach contents into its human victim, who may then begin to exhibit the symptoms of bubonic plague. The plague can produce numbers of victims in epidemic or pandemic proportions. The Black Death, also known as ‘The Second Pandemic’, killed between one third and one half of the population of Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. It is thought by some to have been a pandemic of (bacterial) bubonic plague but others feel that it was a viral infection. The ‘Third Pandemic’ began in China’s Yunnan Province in 1855, and is known to have been caused by Y.pestis. Its dissemination around the world in the decades that followed was facilitated by global shipping. Rats and their fleas were frequent stowaways on ships, and as infected rats moved from port to port so did the bubonic plague.

AN UNWELCOME IMPORT

In September 1896, the bubonic plague reached India (most probably from Hong Kong) and had claimed its first of many victims in the port of Bombay. News of the plague spread faster that the plague itself. In 1896, the Natal Medical Council discussed the bubonic plague – by then well-established in India – and its relevance to Natal. The Council decided that the whole of India should be regarded as an infected area, and that all ships entering the ports on the coast of Natal should be quarantined.

In January 1897, an anti-Indian demonstration was held in Durban to protest against the landing of ‘asiatics’ on board two Indian-owned ships which arrived there in mid-December 1896. The ships had been held in quarantine for 25 days. A group of Indians in Durban, including Mohanlal K Gandhi (later to be known as ‘Mahatma Gandhi’) who had just arrived in Durban on one of these two ships, the ‘Courland’, sent a long ‘memorial’ protesting against this to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Its authors shrewdly noted:

‘…that the quarantine was more a political move against the Indians than a safeguard against the introduction of the bubonic plague into the Colony’,

and they provided evidence that the measures taken to effect quarantine were done ineffectively and too late to have been of any practical use. Despite measures such as these, bubonic plague reached South Africa sometime between 1899 and 1901.

The Natal medical community had some grounds for its fears that the plague might arrive from India. At a meeting of the Borough Council of King William’s Town in February 1899,13 it was announced that the bubonic plague had arrived in Port Louis on the island of Mauritius (a place that ships sailing from India to South Africa may have visited occasionally), and the Council had received a letter from the Town Office of Port Elizabeth, asking for the support of King William’s Town in their request for the government to enforce quarantine regulations (the Transvaal and Orange Free State prohibited entry to Indians in early 1899).

My great-grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, moved that the Council of his town should cooperate with that of Port Elizabeth. Although fear of importing the dreaded plague was the cause of an anti-Indian demonstration in this port as early as about 1897, the disease only began to occur in the town in April 1901 –soon after its arrival in grand style in Cape Town in March 1900 (having possibly arrived on board a ship from plague infested Rosario in Argentina). As early as November 1900, a doctor in King William’s Town reported eight cases of bubonic plague amongst Africans, three of these leading to death. By early 1901, the inhabitants of King William’s Town had good reason to worry about the plague.

 

Misinterpretation

 

bright citrus close up color

 

In the 1960s, as a protest against the horrendous apartheid regime in South Africa, shoppers in the UK were asked not to buy produce from South Africa. This is a stry told to me by my late mother, who was born in South Africa but was completely disgusted with the prejudice against ‘black’ and other ‘non-white’ people in the country of her birth.

My mother was in a fruit store in a north London suburb. She saw a fellow customer take some oranges to the sales counter. The customer asked the shop keeper:

“Are these oranges from South Africa?”

“Definitely not, Ma’am.”

“Oh, that’s good. I’ll take them.”

Overhearing this conversation, my mother asked the lady who had just bought the oranges:

“What’s wrong with oranges from South Africa?”

The lady replied:

“You’re not supposed to buy them because they might have been touched by coloured people.”

My mother could not believe what she had heard.

This anecdote just goes to show how a simple message can be totally misinterpreted.

 

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Mustard

My father’s grandfather lived in Cape Town (South Africa) during the Spanish influenza pandemic at the end of the first world war.

He was terrified that he would be afflicted with the deadly illness. He had heard that applying a mustard plaster would help him avoid the disease. So, he smeared his stomach with mustard and covered it with an adhesive plaster. Then, he retired to bed.

After about three days, my great grandfather developed a high temperature. Fearing the worst, he summoned a doctor. The medic tore of the plaster to reveal the damage that the mustard was causing. It had ‘eaten’ through the skin, which was then becoming infected. The infection caused by the mustard was causing the fever, not the dreaded ‘flu.

My great grandfather survived the Spanish ‘flu. What killed him several years later was something that was supposed to protect him from illness. He died following an adverse reaction to an anti-tetanus injection.

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

Headquarters of Gandhi in Bombay

MAHATMA GANDHI TRAVELLED much during his life. I have visited several of the places in India, which were important landmarks in his life: Porbandar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, and Bombay. The latter saw much of Gandhi both before and after he had lived, worked, and campaigned in South Africa.

Mani Bhavan, a mansion in Laburnum Road in the Gamdevi district of Bombay, was owned by Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, a friend of Gandhi. It became Gandhi’s headquarters in Bombay between 1917 and 1934. Now, it is a popular museum dedicated to the history of Gandhi’s eventful life in South Africa, India, and elsewhere.

Most of the exhibits in the Mani Bhavan are photographs, many of which I have seen elsewhere. However, I had never before seen a photo of the Mahatma with his famous admirer Charlie Chaplin. There is also a photograph of the letter that Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler on the 27th July 1939, encouraging the German dictator to adopt peaceful methods rather than going to war. The British authorities did not allow this letter to reach Germany, let alone leave India.

There is a room on the second floor in which Gandhi used to spend much time spinning. It contains several of the spinning wheels that he used daily.

On the second floor, there is also a gallery with a series of dioramas, each one illustrating a different episode in the life of Gandhi. One of them shows the future Mahatma being thrown out of a first class railway compartment in Pietermaritzburg Station in Natal, South Africa. Another, shows him at a public burning in Bombay of cloth and clothes imported into India. This occurred in 1921. Gandhi was by no means the first to burn foreign cloth in India. Many years earlier, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindutva, supervised a bonfire of imported cloth in Nasik.

The well made dioramas reminded me of those I had seen at the Godra Ambe Dham temple complex near Kutch Mandvi. The ones at Ambe Dham are moralistic in content, chronicling the virtues of a healthy Hindu life and the awful consequences of straying from it.

The Mani Bhavan had plenty of foreign visitors, most of whom seemed very interested in what is on display.

Of all the Ghandhian sites I have visited in India so far, the Mani Bhavan has impressed me least. If pressed to say which have impressed and moved me most, I would choose Gandhi’s birthplace in Porbandar, his classroom in what used to be Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, and his first ashram in Ahmedabad, the Kochrab Ashram. Had I not already visited these three places nor seen the superb collection of Ghandian photos in the Gandhi Smrti in Bhavnagar, I think that a visit to the Mani Bhavan would have been more interesting for me than it was. I am pleasrd that I have visited the place because I enjoy following in the footsteps of the life of one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of India, nay the whole world.

However great or small your interest in Gandhi might be, visiting Mani Bhavan brings you to a part of Bombay rich in elegant mansions built by prosperous citizens over 100 years ago.

FIRST DAY DAWDLING IN DARJEELING

ISTANBUL AND GJIROKASTER (in Albania) share something in common with Darjeeling. The three places have no shortage of extremely steep inclines. However, Darjeeling beats the other two in steepness. Its footways and streets often seem almost vertical. The thoroughfares are so narrow in many places – wide enough for only one car, and as few of them are one way streets, Darjeeling’s drivers have to be skilled in reversing long distances along them. Driving difficulties are compounded by the oft appalling road surfaces, the steep drops along edges of some streets, and deep gutters.

The Mall and Chowrasta (a square where four roads meet) are vehicle free pedestrian precincts. Some of the buildings in this area are over 100 years old and recall the ‘heyday’ of Darjeeling, when it was a high altitude resort for British colonialists. One of these old structures houses the well stocked Oxford bookshop. It specialises in books about the Himalayas, tea, and natural history.

Two long straggling bazaars start at Chowrasta: the Mall Market that is under a fabric roof supported by bamboo poles, and the Mahakal Market. The latter runs along a path which overlooks a lower part of the town. The Mahakal Temple and a Bhuddist temple perch atop Observatory Hill. These can be reached by walking up a very steep winding path, which was lined by mendicants soliciting alms, often pitifully.

We ate lunch in the very popular Kunga restaurant, which serves Chinese style food. One visit there is enough for me. The restaurant is near a large Victorian gothic edifice with a tall clock tower. Built in 1850, this used to be Darjeeling town hall.

Our quest for a Samsung service centre led us down a long, perilously steep pathway to the busy Chauk Bazaar area. This typical bustling bazaar divided into areas that specialise in one line of business, be it, for example, vegetables or tailoring or sweetmeats or shoes, is laid out higgledy piggledy on an area of level ground that is large by Darjeeling standards.

A taxi conveyed us at great speed up steep winding streets to the huge Sinclairs Hotel where our new friends from Lincolnshire kindly offered us sundowners – well, the sun had actually set long before we reached them.

Returning to our lovely homestay, our young driver forced his poorly powered tiny Suzuki Maruti car along some absolutely appalling roads, which reminded me of some of the worst byways I have experienced in rural Albania and off the beaten track in South Africa.

Toy Train to Darjeeling

My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.

Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.

We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.

The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.

The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.

The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.

The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.

Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.

Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.

Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.

Biography of an idealist

gandhi blog

I have just finished reading a 660 page biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Its author, Rajmohan Gandhi, is one of his grandsons, a noted historian.

Gandhi was an idealist with a highly original mind. After a childhood in Gujarat (part of western India), he studied in London and became a barrister. After a brief return to India, Gandhi set off for South Africa to dwork as a barrister. He remained in South Africa for many years, managing his legal practice and fighting for the rights of Indians living in the country – actually, countries as South Africa was only unified in 1910. His struggles for the rights of the Indians was the proving ground for methods of non-violent revolution which he brought to India when he returned there for good in 1915.

It is no exaggeration to claim that Gandhi’s activities and his saintly persona, more than anything else, prepared the Indian masses for a desire to become liberated from the yoke of British imperial rule. Rajmohan Gandhi describes and explains this lucidly. So great was the respect for Gandhi all over India, that he was able to resolve numerous problems with the government or between different communities simply by fasting. He was willing to starve himself to death, but neither the British authorities nor most Indians were prepared to lose him. So, they gave in to his not unreasonable demands. His mass non-violent protests that were joined by thousands of ordinary people, who were prepared to be imprisoned or to be beaten by the police without offering resistance, often achieved their aims.

By the mid-1940s, the situation in India was such that the British began planning to leave it. During the lead up to Independence in August 1947 and after the Partition of India and the formation of the new state of Pakistan, India was plagued by excessively violent inter-communal conflicts: Hindus vs Muslims and Sikhs vs Muslims. Despite numerous fasts, Gandhi was unable to keep the peoples of India unified.

Gandhi’s ideals included seeing India achieve its independence. He was also keen to maintain harmony between members of India’s different religions. He did witness India’s freedom from the British, but had to suffer in the knowledge that despite his efforts, Independence was achieved whilst inter-communal violence kept increasing.

There were many in India who did not share Gandhi’s desire for inter-religious harmony. Amongst these were the so-called ‘Hindu nationalists’. It was a group of them who assasinated the Mahatma in 1948 at one of his prayer meetings in New Delhi.

Rajmohan Gandhi’s account of his famous grandfather is thorough. It gives a good idea of the Mahatma’s personality and his brilliance with dealing with everyone from the humblest harijan (‘untouchable’ or ‘dalit’) to the most pompous of politicians both Indian and British.

In brief, this book is first class and I can strongly reccommend it.

 

Postscript:

The book described above deals with the Mahatma’s rather eccentric, to put it mildly, relationship with women. However, it avoids mentioning his prejudices aagainst black Africans during the first few years of his sojourn in South Africa. No one is perfect! As he grew older, he could no longer be accused of holding racist views.

Captured by the British

COVER blog

 

This true story in this recently published book covers three contintents:

* It concerns the adventures of an educated South African, who was captured by the British during the Boer war (1899-1902)

* The prisoner of war (POW) was held in prison camps in what was then British India.

*Whilst in Captivity, he visited Indian localities such as Madras, Trichinopoly, Kolar, Amritsar, and Bangalore. Being observant, he made notes on what he experienced. His observations form the centrepiece of this book, which is also rich in South African history.

* The POW’s descriptions of Bangalore in 1901 are particularly detailed, and will fascinate anyone who knows the city today

* This book will appeal to anyone interested in the histories of South Africa and/or India 

 

IMPRISONED IN INDIA” by Adam Yamey

is available as a paperback (ISBN: 9780244826161) at:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-yamey/imprisoned-in-india/paperback/product-24280162.html

For readers in India: https://pothi.com/pothi/book/adam-yamey-imprisoned-india

and on Kindle

My artistic mother

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My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.