Was the Indian plague actually
plague, and if not why not?
Litter Bringeth Plague!
Admonitory sign at a California Renaissance Faire
Madras is a jumbled tropical city of five and a half million, flanked by a magnificent but polluted beach that stretches for a hundred unbroken kilometres along the Bay of Bengal. It was my point of arrival in the Indian subcontinent, and I quickly learned the first rule of survival in the city. If I glimpsed a stretch of open water, I held my breath and headed away from it as quickly as possible.
Open water filled with sewage is everywhere in Madras. The River Cooum oozes its unspeakable way through the heart of the city, and the River Adyar, only marginally less horrific, flanks it to the south. Equally malodorous lakes and swamps abound, most of them surrounded by shacks and shanties, and swarming with people bathing and washing their clothes in an effort to remove — or at least dilute — the pervasive filth. Everywhere there are rotting mounds of garbage, so repellent that they are spurned even by the goats.
As I travelled around India, I talked to dozens of scientists and bureaucrats about dozens of diseases. These ranged from major killers such as dysentery, TB and pneumonia to the more exotic chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis. Yet everywhere I went, one disease was inevitably the first topic of discussion. That disease was plague, the apparent re-emergence of which had petrified the world in September 1994. As I tried to follow up the story of the outbreak, I found myself enmeshed in a tangle of politics and science, confronted with as many opinions as people. I finished the trip in a state of sceptical confusion. Had there