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.