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The Modern Plague: India Responds To The Culture Of The Macabre (1896-1914)

Research Scholar

Natasha Sarkar, History (India)
John Brooke, Faculty Mentor


Natasha Sarkar has recently received her doctorate in history from the National University of Singapore. Currently, she is a Center for Historical Research junior faculty fellow at Ohio State. Her pursuits in research and teaching have witnessed an engagement with broader social, political and economic dimensions of historical study in South Asia. While her current research focuses on colonial Indian medical history, she is drawn to the social history of medicine for the promise it holds in providing a deeper understanding of the relationship between disease, health, culture and society.

What is the issue or problem addressed in your research?

My research investigates British India's experience with bubonic plague. It documents and analyses a broad range of social, political and medical perspectives, while examining indigenous response in resistance, rebellion and cooperation. Shifting perceptions of plague and colonial endeavours at containing the epidemic in the face of non-biomedical alternatives are traced. While rural areas have been practically left out of the scope of public health studies in South Asian medical history, current research explores India's urban-rural dichotomy while offering a comparative vision of shared experiences in Hong Kong, Sydney, San Francisco and South Africa.

What methodology did you use in your research?

This research has involved a careful and systematic use of archival and library material in Bombay, New Delhi, Punjab, Calcutta, and London. Plague diffusion has been located through trade and communication networks and migratory movements. A comprehensive study has been possible through the scrupulous examination of colonial records on plague management, while the tensions between the metropole and colony in the framing, interpretation and implementation of plague policy have been revealed through private papers. Newspapers, both vernacular and Anglo-Indian, have been instrumental in uncovering the indigenous response.

What are the purpose/rationale and implications of your research?

The work adds new direction to current scholarship on disease, medicine and empire, for it brings to the fore questions of social responsibility, individual freedom and shared apprehensions that have the ability to unite people. Conversely, latent social tensions and other antagonisms are magnified, revealing much about the way societies are structured and the manner of their functioning. This epidemic has been a significant historical marker of the burgeoning growth in public health inequalities. The untold story of popular medicine explains how the indigenes coped with disease in interesting ways. This narrative, with its social, political and demographic dimensions, should add much value to the social history of disease and medicine.