Millennium Post

A tale of Stealth

This is an intriguing story of a creeping, swift villain that is difficult to trace. With the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna, Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan come together to present a  Holmesian treat. Marked with their signature style of melding science and adventure, and painting it with colours of language, Room 000 is a story that reconstructs the situation of the bubonic plague epidemic that hit the island of Bombay in the late 19th century. The Sunday of September 18, 1896 is marked with the detection of the first case of bubonic plague by   Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas.  Given the rapid growth of Bombay’s commerce, there was a massive influx of immigrant workers, about seventy per cent of whom lived in chawls.  Not a most amenity-endowed establishment, especially back then.

While Dr. Viegas visits a patient, there is also a glimpse into general familial bonds. “These natives treated their wives with scorn. The delicate attentions of romance were alien to them, but the bond between mother and son was always passionate.” This does not simply raise the question of denying a woman her due respect. It betrays just how selectively a woman might be entitled to due respect. Likely by being a mother of a son.  A wife seems to have only  little space, just enough to exist.

The social aspect of a time, a situation, or a relationship does not escape in this narrative about the landmark Bombay plague epidemic. There is a mention of Paloma, who was “less of a lady on weekends.

Sometimes she even spoke like a native.” Speaking like a “native” made a striking difference in that class of intelligentsia of doctors.  So did drinking one’s tea by “saucer and blow”, like a native. So elitist were the manners.  In times today, an elitist way of uninhibitedly and publicly drinking  tea the “saucer and blow” way  is more like a high end fantasy for still many people, where such a thing is a feature of village tourism with a sense of adventure.

Adventure is the essence of this narrative – investigating after a widespread health condition like a foul mystery. With the plethora of anatomical glossary, this chronicle is particularly a pleasure to any biology enthusiast with a taste for literature. This work is a rare presentation of science behind a historical event that is documented in a style that appeals to any regular reader. Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, both doctors,  together as Kalpish Ratna, interestingly, also break a stereotype that medicine is a field full of professionals with little room for imagination.

Their work speaks volumes for them. To batter this stereotype further, Ishrat Syed is also a gifted photographer who photo-documents traces of this late 19th centuary history.

Room 000 was where the medical detectives carried out their exhaustive investigation, armed with microscopes and cultures. It was here the birth of a new science took place. That Room 000 today is a blood bank. The narratives of the city continue. This is a book that springs the imagination inward; the investigators then worked with a goal.

“Their strategy was not combat but understanding.” An approach that stands relevant even today.
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