Back To The Future – The Plague And Covid

Back to the future

THE PLAGUE PANDEMIC – Nairobi, Early 1900s

Hardei was well into another pregnancy. Some women, not much older, had already given birth to seven or eight children. By the time they were forty or so, they had had as many as twelve or even fourteen children, some of who died before they were four. More than the physical pain of continual pregnancy, though, Hardei’s biggest discomfort was the number of times her bladder had to be emptied. Her nightmare was going to the toilet late at night or in the early hours of the morning, especially when the drivers of the night-soil carts came to collect excrement from each house.

The toilet was a small shed with a pit-latrine, actually a hole in a raised platform. Under this a bucket was placed. The rear end of the shed opened to a sanitary lane. Buckets were emptied each night into a tank mounted on a municipal cart pulled by oxen. Barrel shaped containers on metal-rimmed cart wheels were driven to the river for disposal.

One morning around 4 am, the strong urge from the bladder returned. Hardei heaved and turned in her charpoy, but sleep did not come. Just as she was getting up to go and relieve herself, she heard loud voices in the distance. The churas were announcing their arrival. The drivers of the night-soil carts were already on their way. Many of them were outcasts. Others had converted to Sikhism to escape the stigma. She could hear them clearly now, they were very close. They were urging their oxen to move on. Hardei waited until they had left, their voices fading into the distance. A kerosene lamp in one hand – she kept it lit throughout the night as her pregnancy progressed – and a small tin of water in the other hand, she made her way through the cold Nairobi night to the toilet that lay at the far end of the house. It had rained at night and once again the soil was mucky.  

The place was without air or electric light. Going to the pit latrine was a hazardous business, especially in the dark, or when it rained heavily. A wrong turn and one could land a leg, if not the entire body, in the hole. Pouring water in the hole after use, she was just about to leave when the light from her small lamp illuminated a dead rat in the corner. She felt sick and quickly left the toilet, only to throw up just outside. Hardei turned down the wick of the hurricane lamp, placed it next to her cot and lay down. They have come again, she thought, and took several deep breaths to try to calm down. She was right. She found another rat in the gunny sack containing grain in her store the next morning.

Haiza, Haiza, Haiza, Itis back with us! We are ruined!’ Screams were heard throughout the bazaar. Once again pandemonium broke out. All hell broke loose. Almost every house was in mourning. Death was thick in the air. The plague had returned. It was to return again and yet again over the next three years. Many Indian traders were put under quarantine. It claimed many lives and rendered others homeless as the bazaar was repeatedly burnt down. Their shanties that served as both shop and home, were razed to the ground. Their stocks were destroyed. Quarantine quarters were set up in tents. There was fear that if you went into quarantine you would not come out alive. But people were forced to remain in quarantine for up to six weeks.

Hardei and Kirparam’s third child had high fever. At first they thought that it was just due to the cold. When she started trembling and the pain spread all over the body, they were afraid. The fourth child followed suit, that night she had fever. The whole family panicked and lay awake through the night. Before the night was over, Kirparam knew that if he was to save the rest of the family, he must make quick decisions. He had to send them away somewhere, somehow. Before dawn, Hardei, their eldest son Chunilal and Yashoda, their second born who would become my grandmother, were packed off to Ruaraka.

The colonial authorities came knocking on the door very early next morning, checking on all households. ‘Quarantine, it has to be!’ when they saw the fever-ridden children. ‘They are just babies, I can’t let them go to that place of death all by themselves,’ Kirparam cried in pain and insisted, ‘Let me nurse them at home.’ ‘What home?’ the British officer shouted back, ‘Every house in the bazaar is going to be razed to the ground, do you hear? Is that clear? We have enough work to do here without you adding to the problems.’ 

Kirparam asked if he could accompany the girls into quarantine. ‘You will be risking your own life,’ he was told, but eventually, they let him. He sat by the two girls all day and night, doing what little he could to make them somewhat comfortable. He lay down on the ground next to the little cots. Stories of the Punjab plague, when several millions had become victims, and that he had witnessed, returned to his mind again and again; he was totally tormented. He closed his eyes, but the images were still there. He cried and tried to sleep, but the images continued to resurface.

The older girl was mumbling something in her delirious state. The wick of the bedside lamp began to flicker. Kirparam was not unduly superstitious, but at this moment it seemed like an inauspicious sign; he felt uneasy. ‘Lila’, he called out to her softly, ‘Do you know that you are very precious to me ? When you get well, I will take you up to the mountain covered with snow, the mountain that you like so much.’ Kirparam continued to talk to her thinking that this might keep her conscious and improve her state. ‘Do you know why I chose to call you Lila? It is because when you were born, you were so playful. You were so full of life, of amusement. You made us laugh. We loved to play with you.’  His voice broke even as he spoke. He could see that her condition was worsening. Her lymphatic ganglions had swollen up. The strain was too much for her frail body. Kirparam knew that the worst was not far away.
The younger girl’s condition was not much better. Both had become victims of the dreaded disease. All it took was the bite of a small flea, normally found on the back of the rodent. The fragile ones, very often children, were easily infected. Kirparam and Hardei lost both girls that night. 

His heart broke. Sounds of pain and suffering from other patients surrounded him. He could offer them neither hope nor comfort. In the badly lit quarters smelling of all kinds of disinfectants, he felt as if he would suffocate, unable even to give vent to his pain. At this moment, he needed to be alone. He went out of the tents and immediately burst into a flood of tears.

Plague and other contagious ailments were attributed to them. The settlers called the Indians unhygenic, backward, lazy. Foul liars, drunkards, thieves. Living in conditions under which no English farmer would keep his pigs. They forgot that overcrowding was mainly due to unavailability of space for expansion – without proper drainage and sewerage systems.
The new outbreak in the bazaar precipitated yet another attack on the Indians by the settlers initiating a move to reinforce residential and commercial segregation. ‘The bazaar must be demolished!’ And it was.


From Kenya to France 2020, 2021
Smiles may not be visible  
There may be more alcohol on people’s hands
Than in their stomachs  
The whole world is holding its breath
For a magic wand.
The vaccine? Or to adapt? Or laissez faire?
2020 will not be forgotten.  

It was then called the Corona Virus when a global pandemic was declared. Not long after we left Nairobi and arrived in France, we were under our first lockdown. This was in March 2020. Barricaded, cloistered in our homes – especially, if you were old. At first we did not realize the full impact, nor the continuing duration, and braved it in our usual way.

A whole new language became a sudden norm. Masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing, PCR tests. But the masks were not there yet. The spokesperson for the French state declared that she did not even know how to wear a mask; actually, the Government had no masks in reserve.  When we were finally encouraged to wear masks, no masks were to be found in the shops. I quickly cut up two of my strong sports bras and spent an entire day stitching by hand, trying to learn how to convert them to masks for Alain and myself.  

Forms, to show to police patrols controlling every area in the country, were filled out each time we needed to leave the house for urgent necessities – describing our reasons, and the time, out and in. All our shopping had to be left outside – so we were told by ‘professionals’ – for several hours, removed of all packaging before they were allowed inside and for consumption. It took me three hours, maybe more. Our clothes had to be disinfected by washing at 60 degrees, as were my hand-stitched masks. Suddenly, shopping for food became a torture exercise, deprived of all pleasure. Very soon, supermarkets shot up their prices. The consumer was left with no choice. Almost a year later, shopping continues to be risky in every way.

Summer came, and summer went. For a while, the country was opened. Schools, bars, restaurants, bookstores, beaches and tourists. People made merry. The virus would return with a rage. Alain and I, being ‘seniors’ and in the high risk category, continued to isolate ourselves. Alain saw his daughters and grandchildren rarely, very briefly, in the open air; they did not enter the house.  

November, 2020. Alain was unwell all night. He cried. I have never seen him like this, he is the strong one. We had bought tickets to return home to Kenya this weekend but cancelled. The choice between wanting to go and trying to be responsible is very hard. 

Diwali came, we had nothing to celebrate. For the festival of light, I did not even light a candle. Christmas came, we were still by ourselves, in our pyjamas – a small dinner by the fire. Alain’s family came briefly the next day; it was pouring. They wore masks. Alain smiled, laughed. Under his mask, his eyes showed the pleasure. A short reprieve! It brought some calm, relief and joy. 

2021. The New Year has come and gone. The sun came out this morning to wish us, warm our hearts briefly. The days are short. Winter continues to be long, dark, cold; it rains often, very often. We try to aerate the rooms, as advised, when possible. We brave the cold and go for a walk. Talk of a third lockdown looms in the air. Besides food stores, most other shops remain closed.

We lack some essential clothing.  We are still ‘social distancing’, being by ourselves. Day and night, newspapers, radio, television, – the media is full of the virus, and the ‘experts’’ advice and intentions. Stress, anxiety, lockdowns, curfews, no socializing, masks, constant washing of hands.  

Endless washing. Washing hands, washing clothes, washing utensils, keeping hygiene. Clean all surfaces frequently touched – light switches, doors, windows etc. And then wash hands. Wash your hands, How to wash your hands correctly, 30 seconds. Dry with a clean paper napkin. And breathe a sigh of relief – now you are ‘clean’!  

The spontaneity, the freedom to make on the spot carefree decisions has gone. Every act is a meditated act, thought well in advance. Over time, I learn fear; fear that has built up over all these months… I cannot touch a light switch, nor open doors without using a paper napkin, nor invite visitors for a cup of tea or a quick meal.  

The nightmare rests in my mind. Mulling over it again and again, dark thoughts enter my sleep. We sleep badly. My hair has thinned, fallen, whitened. My nails are chapped, broken due to so much washing. I have not worn any makeup since March, nor any jewellery, much given away. My clothes don’t fit me anymore. I have lost weight and am down to 38 kg. The beautiful sarees that I cherished remain unopened, locked up in a trunk. Three sets of clothes changed every two or three days. Reduced to bare existence, I feel weary of the world in which I live. I dare not cry, Alain is trying to be brave. He chops wood and lights a fire in the salon. A warm meal, in a warm atmosphere; a blessing indeed!

The rich are making more money than ever, big organizations are flourishing. But many, many others are unable to meet their daily needs. Increasingly, we hear of people on the streets, thrown out of lodgings that they can no more pay for. Charity homes are full of people looking for free food. University students, isolated in their small rooms, attend courses by internet. Many are being treated for depression.

I wake up early, very early; it’s still dark. Domestic work is pending before I talk to mum on SKYPE – that and the little bit of writing that somehow just about sustains me. The days go by, but not joyfully. 

January, 2021. The first time Alain could register for a vaccine, it was cancelled at the last minute; shortage of vaccines. The second time, three weeks later, the vaccination centre did not even call to cancel. Alain did not want to go alone so we went together, only to be told that they had not received the vaccines. We are dismayed, depressed even.  It’s a battle that continues with a lot of paper work, filling forms online, getting an okay from a doctor, etc. Nothing, nothing is easy. 

The death toll is more than 90,000, those testing positive on an average over 20,000 daily. France continues to be very tough, increasingly challenging, very hostile. Without internet facilities, without a smartphone, you cannot be contacted, nor can you connect. You do not exist. The situation is only getting worse and making our lives increasingly unmanageable, depressing.

In Nairobi, Mum has been crying, she goes to the room we usually occupy, just to see,  she does not understand, she thinks we are returning tomorrow… our bags remained packed in the rooms here… I wish I had wings and could fly – somewhere where there are no PCR tests, no boundaries, no politicians. But first I will look for my mother.

Over one hundred years after Hardei and Kirparam lost their daughters to the plague, a strand of nucleic acid in a shell of protein, now called Covid-19, is forcing us to confront myths about ourselves, our lives, about the environment, and the ecosystem.  I cry out for my great grandparents. We are in a similar dilemma as they were, and perhaps victims to a worse scenario.  The tears they shed are on my face. Their fears become mine. I live their fears, day after day. I know what they went through during the plague. But they were brave, resilient, they weathered the storm. They made their lives and thrived for many more years after. I ask them for the same strength…..

The lack of certainty, amplified by the Global Pandemic! Missing family and friends! Holding hands, hugs and kisses! Travel, borders and freedoms!
All that we took for granted has been limited, eliminated. 
We are hurting and sometimes confused. Overwhelmed, bewildered, we look for hope. How to move forward? We look for excuses. Our monkey mind generates a thousand reasons – it’s okay to sit back or sit on the fence or even crawl under a rock. 2021 is here, we had hopes for a light from deep within. Not just deep within the body but deep within the interconnectedness of this miraculous Existence – this Life, this Universe, this Mystery. Are these dreams already fading? Dare we continue to believe that we can crawl out from under the rock, and stand up, ready for action? 


  • Neera Kapur-Dromsom’s ancestors came from British India to what was then British East Africa. Her love of Indian dance has led her to meet and work with African dancers - rich experiences. She is the author of From Jhelum to Tana – a family history, and is a regular writer in Old Africa magazine.

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