view of a book. I suspect that that is a myth of modernity and some mythical ideas of science in the first place. This is instead a tribute to a friend, a valued colleague, a progressive individual and an outspoken one.
I knew Biswamoy Pati well academically. We organized a workshop together, funded by the ICSSR, where scholars from various departments in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, working on issues of medicine and health, presented papers from their work, and it was magnificent. There was no common ground between scholars of public health and history of medicine, it appeared. Crudely, Foucault dominated the literature on medicine, but in sexy postmodern times, it was not noticed that Foucault was talking of the West, of medicine, and not of health.
Biswamoy was also the PhD examiner for a wonderful PhD thesis submitted by my student, Daksha Parmar. He gave her thesis an adulatory report, said it was one of the best theses he has read, and at the viva, he asked Ms. Parmar if he may be permitted to publish her dissertation in the series he edited with Mark Harrison. I almost fell out of my chair with joy. He then gave her instructions on how to convert her thesis into a publishable manuscript in three months’ time.
Daksha, now Dr. Parmar, stuck to the deadline, but Biswamoy was not there any more.
Biswamoy asked her at the end of the viva, ‘Ok, the viva is over, you will get your degree. But tell me, could you have done your PhD anywhere else?’ She replied that she could not have gone to a private university, nor abroad. JNU is the only place she could have done her PhD, and indeed did a brilliant one. Daksha Parmar is the first PhD degree holder in her community. That JNU is now gone.
What was impressive about Biswamoy was his insistence on facts, and the fierce debates about interpreting these facts. This comes through in the elegant Introduction. The editors note the penchant for postcolonial studies to shift analysis from political economy to culture. ‘Over the last few decades, it is Foucault’s critique of modernity that has tended to dominate the historiography of colonial medicine’ (p. 4). While this is indeed important and provides many startling insights into bio-power, what it does do is to entirely ignore political economy. Indeed, Foucauldian historiography does not adequately appreciate that the ‘disease ecology of India—in rural and urban areas—was transformed by the incorporation of the subcontinent into what was becoming a world market’ (p. 11).
The volume is a feast of thirteen well-researched and well-written essays on diverse themes by a combination of well-known and new authors. Thus we have established scholars like Barbara Ramusack, Mridula Ramanna, Sujata Mukherjee, Achintya Kumar Datta and Pati and Harrison themselves. We also have exciting new scholars like Jane Buckinham, Burton Cleetus, Debjani Das, Amna Khalid, Saurabh Mishra, Leela Sami (my former student) and Samiksha Sahrawat. Three essays deal with cholera in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and the politics of empire, while three other essays deal with aspects of gender and two deal with mental health issues, two deal with so-called indigenous systems of medicine, while one each discuss famines and kala azar. The essays together highlight what factors shaped colonial intervention in public health, such as it was. One theme that I missed in the volume, given my own biases, was on population.
Colonial India was racked by epidemics, some crossing borders and threatening global trade and health, as they became pandemics. Indeed, epidemics and famines—both consequences of colonialism as many essays in the volume make evident—led to depopulation in India, even as it led to de-industrialization and more and more peasants were divested of land. As wave after wave of cholera spread West across the borders with trade, Britain came under pressure at the first international conference on sanitation in Istanbul where France gave a call for boycott of British goods. This led to a debate about the causes of cholera and what measures might be effected in India.
Mark Harrison’s essay describes the shifts in colonial policy, away from quarantine. This was singularly ironic because John Snow had published his epidemiological classic, a whodunit, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (Wilson and Ogilvy, London) in 1849, clearly demonstrating that cholera was a contagious disease spread by water supply contaminated with infected faeces. This was of course anathema to colonial authorities, anxious to blame miasma produced at pilgrimage sites and the filthy habits of barbaric superstitious natives, unwilling to change and become scientific and rational individuals, but choosing to remain in swoon with manners, customs and ceremonies. It was not therefore science or knowledge that guided colonial policies, despite claims to the contrary, but imperial objectives of revenue extraction that were not to be disturbed.
Thus it was argued, ‘Even if it could be demonstrated beyond all doubt that cholera spreads by human intercourse, the difficulties of carrying out a really efficient system of quarantine over one single district in this country, appear to be insurmountable’ (p. 46). This, in 1869, twenty years after John Snow’s investigations and remarkable findings, much before Koch identified the Vibrio cholera in 1892.
It was easier to blame the victims. But as Amna Khalid’s essay reveals, ‘far from resisting the tenets of sanitary science, people were demanding that the state provide better sanitation, the very thing the state was blaming them for rejecting. In fact, they saw the colonial state’s sanitary neglect as the source of cholera epidemics’ (p. 75). Saurabh Mishra’s essay reveals that unani medicine was responding to changing ideas about the causes of cholera with creativity: indigenous medicine was not dead, frozen and unchanging.
As the editors note in their Introduction, ‘One area in which modernity posed a challenge to nationalism in India was in the attempts to revitalize what were increasingly presented as indigenous medical traditions, most obviously Ayurveda and Unani’ (p. 9). In some cases, it was done to imitate
what was called western medicine, which did not particularly have anything western
about it. In other cases, as Burton Cleetus shows us with reference to Ayurveda in
Kerala, it was done in the name of tradition, often invented. What we call western
medicine was deeply rooted in the science of non-western societies, not to mention the therapeutics that colonialism made possible. Indeed, the re-invention of Ayurveda, Cleetus shows us as a privileged one, textual, Sanskrit-based variant of Ayurveda,
although people protested against its ‘imposition’.
In a characteristically pungent essay ‘Confining “lunatics”’ Biswamoy Pati, through a case study of the Cuttack lunatic asylum, argues that colonial authorities, ‘the torch-bearers of post-Enlightenment and European “modernity”, who rode the horse of “science”, were fettered by a level of unreason and unscientific barbarity in their efforts to deal with both, madness and leprosy’ (p. 198). Pati also has his dig at Foucault: ‘A problem in scholarship to date seems to be the hegemonic hold of Michel Foucault, with undeclared assumptions about the relevance of his work when it comes to colonial India’ (p. 198). Examining a host of records, this essay reveals that the colonial regime did not always distinguish between the lunatic and the criminal, with the Cuttack Asylum located next to the Cuttack Jail. The insane person was confined for the good of society and not to help her get better, as part of Britain’s civilizing mission. Left to wallow in filth, barely kept alive on poor diets, they suffered enormous mortality,
even as they were made to work for therapeutic purposes. The colonial government’s parsimony with funds was felt as acutely
here as it was during famines and epidemics. Famines, epidemics and madness all affected the wretched of the earth, of concern to no one.
Sujata Mukherjee’s fascinating essay, based on a study of Bengali health and women’s journals, shows us that the late nineteenth century Bengali obsession with nation building was intimately linked to the creation of Hindu masculinities, tied in turn with the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction. Thus was created by the ‘bhadramahila’, harnessing her children for the greater glory of Mother India, unlike the lower-caste woman, dirty, superstitious and over-fertile. The bhadramahila was the repository of everything good and desirable; virtuous and self-sacrificing for the family, she also sacrificed lust, for uncontrolled sexual desire was responsible not only for a woman’s own ill-health, disease and depravity, it was also responsible for the same calamities to the Indian nation. Are we surprised then that the Kerala High Court recently came out with the scandalous judgment in the Hadiya case? That a Hindu woman (or a Muslim one) does not own her own body has a long history indeed.
The volume, brilliant, rich and provocative, is a vibrant tribute to the memory of Biswamoy Pati. Yet, his death, shockingly unexpected, is cruel. How much more he promised! How much he would have enjoyed seeing the brilliant work his students are doing! His life, cut short so suddenly, made us all so much richer.
Mohan Rao was till recently Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.