It was a time when a sneeze drew stares and prompted people to move away from you. It was 1896. Nearly 2,000 people were dying every week from the highly contagious bubonic plague, which had surfaced in the city the year before.
In the slums where the working classes that manned the mills, docks and other industries were packed together in tiny rooms, the Black Death spread swiftly and silently.
Outside, a city had begun to change in ways that are still visible nearly 120 years later. You can track the changes yourself, on a Plague Walk being organised by art organisation Art X and travel company Beyond Bombay this weekend.
The BIT chawls? They’re a result of the plague. So is the Haffkine Institute, and the development of the suburbs.
Horrified and frightened by the spread of the plague — sporadic outbreaks of which would continue to occur in the city for another 18 years — the British government set up the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to decongest the city and plan more hygienic living spaces for the working classes.
This initiative would also serve to expand the city’s limits, as the BIT built chawls in Dadar and Sion.
“In Bandra’s churches, nuns and priests worked tirelessly to treat the ailing — and it was one of the few times the Mount Mary church suspended mass, for fear that the disease would spread if a large group came together in one enclosed space,” says Shriti Tyagi, founder of Beyond Bombay, who will be conducting the walk.
Bandra’s Ranwar Village was one of the isolation zones, where the diseased were housed together in a kind of loose quarantine. Some of the 160 crosses now found in this suburb were constructed then to ward off plague, says Tyagi.
“The plague also made an entire generation accept modern medicine,” she adds. “A population that considered hospitals places for the dead and had an extreme reluctance to be admitted, finally began to trust the system.”
(To sign up for the walks on Saturday and Sunday, call 98336-75287)