A rusty portrait of Katre at the ‘Deccan Wall of Fame’ at the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune
In a world barely crawling out of the ravages of a pandemic and debates around vaccination, a document preserved by accident on the politics of vaccination from ninety years ago may not only be interesting but also instructive. Precisely such a form was found in the deep shelves of books once owned by legendary linguist SM Katre at the site of his longest stint, the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. It takes perseverance for objects to subsist and that is what makes them enthralling to us. This form, while making us ponder on the varying attitudes of the state towards a disease, also raises interesting questions on what an archive means; how to unearth documents and material? Who to look to for what information? After all, this was no man of medicine but an undying enthusiast of Sanskrit and historical linguistics.
Katre passed away in the United States in 1998 leaving his rich and prolific library behind in India, in the very alleys he must have spent countless hours reading, researching, writing, and dreaming. In a space that is lit by sunshine raining from Pune’s skies and distant from the reading-hall where students peruse journals, attend to assignments, and chat, the collection where the scholar’s passions, erudition, and embarkations dwell is stacked, unguarded. The object that interests me and forms the subject of this write-up is a thin sheet of paper. The last book on one of the shelves was in blue hard cover with gold glossy letters, Robert Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages (1856). In this work, between two rusty pages, was a sheet folded into four quarters; preserved but untouched for nearly 90 years. It tore into four neat pieces which I had to then reassemble as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. The document was titled in bold only as, “Bandra Municipality”, already a curiosity. It was a form printed by the corporation and sent to Katre to request that his daughter be vaccinated. This is much like the SMS from the CoWin system when one nears the deadline for the second dose.
At this point a short study of the life of the linguist can help situate this collection in context. SM Katre, born in Honnavar in present-day north coastal Karnataka (then-Bombay Presidency) in 1906 to a socially mobile and well-off Saraswat Brahmin family, received both formal school education and traditional training in Mangalore. After a degree in Mathematics, Katre travelled to England with the hope of continuing studies in Mathematics. Instead, on reaching there, he applied to do his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London – which he completed in 1931. But throughout this period he was fascinated by Sanskrit and the genius of Panini in particular. On his return, he initially worked with the Asiatic Society of Bombay, taught Sanskrit at Wadia College, and Sir Parashuram College, before being offered a position at Deccan College which had just been resurrected from being a defunct Undergraduate Institution. In 1939, as the College took shape as a Post-Graduate and Research Institute, he occupied the Professorship for Indo-European Philology. He was soon promoted as the director of the institute. During his tenure as professor and administrator, he expanded the institute into a two-campus university with two museums: for Maratha history and Archaeology – with a vast faculty. Katre’s bibliography included Prakrit Languages and their Contribution to Indian Culture (1964) and The Formation of Konkani (1966). However, his life’s work was in Panini. He translated the very cryptic and terse Paninian grammar sutras to English and also published a dictionary to assist the reading of Panini. The most durable contribution of his was the initiation of the Sanskrit Dictionary according to Historical Principles, in 1947 which is the most comprehensive Encyclopaedic Dictionary for the language, relying on a textual base of nearly 1500 scriptures and documents. During his lifetime, he served as its director – and his persistence with the project ensured that the College continues to date to be consistently engaged with it.
The depth of his work explains the richness of this collection. Caldwell’s book stands unremarkably here along with sociological studies of forest communities of India, grammars of European languages, volumes edited by Katre’s own idols like VS Sukthankar and KT Telang, and spiritual books on and by Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. In the tight shelves I located Aurobindo’s Mind of Light signed by the author, ‘To Radha and Sumitra, Sri Aurobindo’. In multiple places, Katre leaves behind notes, postcards, and letters that he received from publishers requesting initial reviews. In the same chord, there is a pre-print copy of Visuddhimagga edited by Dharmanand Kosambi with the signature of the publisher, KM Munshi (this was part of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series).
We may now return to the document and what it means to us. Let us explore it by each component. To the top-right, in black, the address ‘Kumar Villa BB Road (?), is written in cursive. On the blank under ‘To’, against ‘Mr’, SM Katre’s name is found. The matter of the form is indicated next. We learn that within 12 months, his child ought to be vaccinated under the Bombay District Vaccination Act, 1892 – or he shall be fined fifty rupees. The sender of the form also suggests with a caret that this could be ‘say 27-8-33’. The address of the child’s vaccination in the form is marked “Laxminagar Municipal Marathi Boys’ School, Khar’. The timings for the vaccination are standard, hence printed ‘8 AM-10:30 AM’ and Tuesday is the slot offered for the programme. It is noted that if on the said days and time, the service is availed for, the child may be vaccinated for free. The recipient is reminded that a vaccination certificate should be procured once the vaccination is completed. Finally it is requested that this document be submitted to the vaccinator. The form is duly dated ‘2/Sept/1933’ (with 193 already printed). It is signed using a stamp – and the signee is designated ‘Superintendent of Vaccination and Registrar of Births and Deaths’ of BANDRA MUNICIPALITY.
None of the biographical notes that I read of Katre say anything about his residence in Bombay or his building a family there. However, from Gouri Lad’s essay in the Katre Felicitation Volume (1992-93) I speculate that this notice may date from his Asiatic Society days before he assumed teaching duties at Wadia College. Now on the details of the notice, there is already a contradiction; how was Katre expected to have his daughter vaccinated by the end of August if the notice is issued in September, we do not know. But what comes alive is the state’s zeal to get all children vaccinated before they turn a year old. Bandra Suburb Municipality (it was not until March, 1950 when the Bombay Assembly voted in favour of merger that Bandra, Juhu, Andheri, Parle and over twenty villages in then-Rural Bombay District became part of Greater Bombay) indeed took tremendous pride in. At the end of 1933, the very year that this notice dates to, HR Michael, President of the Bandra Municipality announced, “Except for a few cases of smallpox it is gratifying to note that there was no epidemic in Bandra during the year under report. Smallpox assumed epidemic form in Bombay and owing to prompt action taken by the Municipality in opening additional vaccination stations, appointing additional vaccinators and by giving necessary facilities to vaccinators, the disease was kept under control in Bandra.” A Times of India article from February that year is also quite favourable to the Bandra establishment and points out that their success in vaccination had pushed citizens of other municipalities like Santa Cruz and Vile Parle to seek services here.
Several points in the document found in Katre’s book can help bolster the history that comes from the archives at large. We find an actual instance of a Vaccine Station and see the kinds of buildings that became these stations. As in the case of today a private school was converted into a camp. We may also be able to reconstruct the accessibility of these stations by computing the distance between the residence of Katre and the Vaccination station. We furthermore also gather the policy decisions taken by the administration at the higher levels. We learn for example from the signature under the notice that the occupier of the Office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths, a standard designation in bureaucracies across the world, was also made for the time being ‘Superintendent of Vaccination’. Moreover in the Date line, the fact of ‘193’ being printed is not without consequence. Standard years are often printed this way when the said notice or form is to be frequently issued in those years i.e. the 30s. Once again, Smallpox vaccine was a major preoccupation of the time. It is worthwhile also to analyse the prose in the latter part of the notice. The authorities very palpably emphasise ‘free of charge’ and hence vaccination as a right. It was a service that was being offered for the benefit of the people and had to be accessed as a basic need and not be perceived as a privilege.
Broadly speaking the form agrees with today’s vaccination policy excepting one critical fact. In those days those who did not get their children vaccinated were penalised with a monetary charge that was exceptionally high for its time. And this is connected obviously with the Act listed in the form – the ‘Bombay District Vaccination Act’ of 1892. This Act was passed in the Bombay Province Legislative Assembly (which had only recently been expanded to give more autonomy to the provincial politicians) as a re-enactment of the Compulsory Vaccination Act of the same year in the Central Legislative Council (Viceroy’s Imperial Council). The latter was placed before the House by the celebrated educationist Syed Ahmed Khan in 1880, who had been invited to be part of the Council as early as 1870 (only two years after the institution was created), along with several others in that season. The bill places the responsibility of vaccination upon local bodies; it expects them to frame the policy and timelines in order to get all vaccinated. Interestingly, the inspiration to even aim at maximum vaccination came from Bombay which had by this time already rolled out Vaccination Stations albeit without the full and fool-proof backing of all. While at the Imperial Council level, much of the debate had to do with the propriety in enforcing vaccination upon people and the question of whether this infringes upon their liberties (Gandhi infamously, in his writings would occupy this space and rally against vaccination), at Bombay, which was ahead in the Vaccination discussion debated largely on the logistics and method for vaccination.
The notice seems to lack in reflecting the sophistry of the Vaccination question as it was in Bombay. There was a worry that animal lymph, which is a primary constituent of Smallpox Vaccine, may not be sufficient should Child Vaccination be compulsory. It was then proposed, in February 1892, that Human Lymph too may be used, but only in the absence of Animal Lymph and then the question began to turn on the safety of these ingredients. Finally by the end of March of that year, doubts had been dispelled and the Bombay Act had been passed – with the penalty indicated in this notice. Despite these debates, the notice does not touch upon safety, which may certainly have been a concern in the public, at least a segment of it. There is a conspicuous and telling silence on that matter on the part of the establishment, another eminent facet of Vaccination politics (it is worthwhile to contrast this with worldwide Public Service Campaigns to assure the public of the safety of vaccines).
The beauty of dormant documents is that they mean what you make of them. When you turn this notice around, one can ask an entirely different set of questions, also political and perhaps even relating to vaccination still. The notice on the back is in Gujarati and contains the exact content. And that is a profound fact that has obvious resonance with politics that persist to this day. Why was an official Bandra Municipality form printed in Gujarati (along with English alone)? What does that say about the demographic of this suburb and in turn with relation to the rest of Bombay city? Now does this document reflect the true demographics of the elite locality or only the elite within that pie? Where then in all of this does SM Katre lay? Could linguistic politics also underlie the establishment of an institute like a ‘Marathi’ Boys’ School? And vis-a-vis vaccination, how does printing a form in Gujarati in a Bombay city suburb bode with the State’s effort to communicate about the vaccine and its enforcement? These are all only some of the questions raised by a lone document in a book, in a collection that a lone history student perused.
One can only imagine how many Sanskritists lay in how many old colleges with documents that speak so much about their time and to our time? And even in Katre’s collection, we can wonder how many artefacts have simply not been analysed thanks to the mere fact of their not being recognised as such. Despite the essential entropy in nature, things that we possess and sometimes not even consciously, decide to somehow stay on and when they resurface, they become artefacts and memorabilia – ways for us to touch days that are dead. The implication of this unconscious possession of objects is that histories that we never often intend to be part of become possible because of us and force us to be players in them.