Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, I have been thinking of my mother. If ever there was a person who was ready for an epidemic, it was my mother. She was the FDA and the CDC combined. Her advice on health matters was prescient. Fearing cancer, she refused to use artificial colorings in food even though the FDA would not study and ban some for six decades. She suspected that fats like margarine, which were solid at room temperature, would stick inside you. When you consider that she was raising children in India in the nineteen-fifties you have to marvel at her audacity.
Yet she was a middle-class woman with no college education. Not for lack of ambition, mind you, but because women of her generation were not even expected to finish high school. She had worked alongside Anglo Indian girls at the General Post Office in Mumbai during the Second World War however and felt nostalgic for her life as a working woman.
One of my earliest memories is of being taken to the family doctor because she thought one of my legs looked shorter than the other and suspected polio. We lived in the old part of Nagpur then, where stones were covered in saffron paint and worshipped as Gods. Where women wearing nine-yard saris carried offerings of oil to the temple to appease the goddess who had scourged their children with smallpox. The women did not know science, my mother said, so they catered to andhashraddha, blind belief. She was so wary of superstition that she refused to keep the vatasavitri fast she was expected to observe as a Hindu woman in order to obtain the same husband for the next seven incarnations.
I can see her now, sitting on the doorstep and reading Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare, the only mother I knew to do so. Dr. Spock was her bible and her Bhagavad Gita. Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Jonas Salk were household names in our family.
My mother was devoted to science because she lived in a world teetering on the edge of calamity. In his thirties, my father had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to move his family from Mumbai to his hometown of Nagpur in case he needed help from his brothers. My father’s plate and eating utensils were kept separate, he never hugged or kissed me, he lay in his cot, resting. His chest X-Rays were stored in a locked trunk and the word TB was never uttered in my earshot, yet I sensed death in the air. Streptomycin, the cure for tuberculosis, was either around the corner or had recently been invented, but not commonplace in India, I suspect. I recall being taken by an aunt to a series of TB-themed Bollywood movies, similar to the cancer movies of a later era in Hollywood. I would cry at the imminent death of the hero or the heroine in these movies, not realizing that the films allowed me much needed catharsis.
Dangers lurked everywhere. Cholera, typhoid, and malaria were rampant. I had to drop out of preschool because of measles.
After my father recovered, my infant brother was taken ill with diphtheria in the middle of the night and carried to the hospital in a rickshaw by my mother.
Upon her return, she made a bonfire in the yard and threw into it her clothes, including the best sari she had worn to the hospital. It was the only sure method of sterilization she knew, since alternatives like clothes washers and powerful detergents were not accessible to her.
Health and hygiene were never far from my parent’s minds. So that when the Nagpur Improvement Trust began to develop land on the outskirts of town, my mother withdrew from her post office savings account the money she had saved from her job in Mumbai and made the down payment. Soon we moved to our new house with running water – cold, not hot – and a flush latrine and the quality of our life made a quantum leap.
Slowly, India began to catch up with my mother’s ideas. Newly independent after one hundred and fifty years of British rule, the country aimed to build a public health system along the lines of Europe. Public health workers began to come to our door every month to ask if anyone had a fever and if the answer was yes, to offer pills. This was how malaria was eradicated in our region. Later, one of my aunts began working as a public health worker as well, distributing contraceptives to women in remote villages.
Our community celebrated all of the Hindu rites and rituals while maintaining a firm belief in medicine and science. Thousands of cities and towns like mine thrived across the nation. No wonder then that India began to nurture one of the largest workforces trained in science, medicine, and engineering in the world.
My mother is long gone from this earth. But I wonder what she would say if she learned that many citizens of the nation of Dr. Spock are denying vaccines and science today. What would she say if she discovered that there does not exist a nationwide public health infrastructure capable of coping with COVID-19 in Dr. Spock’s America? What would she say if she learned that not only is there no such system along the lines of what many European nations have and what India and other developing countries have always aspired to, but that many Americans do not even expect to have it?
Would she laugh at the jokes many Indians are posting on social media about Americans belonging to the flat earth society?
Or would she feel incredibly sad?
Would she be shocked that the US has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths?
What would she say if she learned that in defiance of medical advice, the president of the nation of Dr. Spock and Dr. Salk refuses to wear a mask? That he has suggested that people should drink Lysol to cure COVID19? Or that they should shine ultraviolet light on their inner organs?
Would she curl her lips and ask if Donald Trump studied any science in school at all?
Sarita Sarvate has written op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Baltimore Sun, and Salon.com among other publications and has written her Last Word column for India Currents for twenty-five years.
Featured image is of Sarita Sarvate’s Parents.