IN 1918, misfortune befell the 22-year-old poet Suryakant Tripathi, better known as Nirala or “the strange one.” “I travelled to the riverbank in Dalmau and waited,” he wrote in his memoir, A Life Misspent. “The Ganga was swollen with dead bodies. At my in-laws’ house, I learned that my wife had passed away.” Many other members of Nirala’s family died too. There was not enough wood to cremate them. “This was the strangest time in my life,” he recalled later. “My family disappeared in the blink of an eye. All our sharecroppers and labourers died, the four who worked for my cousin, as well as the two who worked for me. My cousin’s eldest son was fifteen years old, my young daughter a year old. In whichever direction I turned, I saw darkness.” These deaths were not just a coincidence of personal tragedies visited upon the poet, they were connected: “The newspapers had informed us about the ravages of the epidemic,” Nirala wrote.
The epidemic was actually a pandemic that affected not just the subcontinent but the entire globe. The disease, influenza, claimed between 50 and 100 million lives worldwide—possibly more than both world wars combined—and India was the country that bore the greatest burden of death. Though other countries lost a higher fraction of their populations—Western Samoa (now Samoa) lost 22 percent, for example, compared to 6 percent in India—because of the larger size of the Indian population, that 6 percent translated into a staggering slew of death. Between 1918 and 1920, an estimated 18 million Indians lost their lives to influenza or its complications, making India the focal point of the disaster in terms of mortality. Asia as a whole experienced some of the highest flu-related death rates in those years, but the story of how the disease ravaged the continent is relatively unknown. The 1918 flu pandemic has been called the “forgotten” pandemic, and ironically the continent that seems to have forgotten it most thoroughly is the one that bore the brunt of it.
As Stalin is supposed to have observed, a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. Perhaps that is why we turn to a poet to tell us what it felt like to live through that terrible moment—to translate the sterile numbers into human experience. Nirala is now recognised as a leading figure in modern Hindi literature, and there is no doubt that the 1918 flu pandemic left a deep impression on him, as it did on many Indians. In fact, as I argue in my book on the Spanish flu—as the pandemic was sometimes known, though there was nothing particularly Spanish about it—there is a good case to be made that the devastation wrought by the disease exacerbated social tensions in India, contributing to an eruption of violence and significantly strengthening the independence movement. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the nature of flu pandemics in general, and of the 1918 flu pandemic in particular.
THE INFLUENZA VIRUS INFECTS many animals besides humans. It is notorious for the ease with which it mutates, so that occasionally a novel strain arises that can cross the species barrier from one of those animals—often a bird—to a human. If that strain acquires the capacity, again through mutation, to pass easily between human beings, then it may trigger a pandemic. That is because no living person has been exposed to it previously, meaning that the human population as a whole has very little immunity to it. Over time, however, the new strain moderates its virulence in order to live in a more harmonious equilibrium with its human host. It does not do this consciously, but through a process of natural selection, since viral mutations that keep the host alive for longer—so that he or she can move around and infect other hosts—allow the virus to continue reproducing and generating more copies of itself. The pandemic recedes, but the strain that caused it continues to circulate in humans as a seasonal flu.
Flu pandemics happen, therefore, whether we like it or not, and there have been an estimated 15 of them in the last 500 years. But another thing researchers have discovered about them is that their severity is in part determined by the human population into which they emerge. Of the five flu pandemics humanity has endured since the 1890s, for example, none—with the exception of the 1918 episode—has killed more than about two million people. The one in 1918 was therefore an anomaly, and researchers think that has a lot to do with the state of the world at the time—notably its state of war.