Typhoid at home

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 14 February 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 p. 2. Diary 4-10 February 1885.

In his autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling recalls that he was once given a ‘really filthy job’ as a reporter in Lahore, ‘an inquiry into the percentage of lepers among the butchers who supplied beef and mutton to the European community of Lahore’. If he actually wrote such a thing, it has not been found. But, as this article sufficiently shows, he did have ‘really filthy jobs’ to do.

The Article

From a correspondent

If you would eat your dinner, it has been wisely said, keep out of the kitchen. If you would enjoy chota hazree (early breakfast) or afternoon tea with an untroubled mind, avoid any inquiry into the milk-supply. For this reason it will be as well not to read what is written below — the record of one morning’s exploration of the cow-byres in Lahore city and Anarkullee.

In the first place, the inspection was, for certain pressing reasons, a short one. It occupied in all two hours, and with two exceptions, was limited to one division of Lahore city — that which lies nearest to the Delhi Gate. A casual policeman volunteered to show the sahib to such places as would be most likely to contain what he wanted. ‘Cows, Protector of the Poor, are usually bought at fairs, and there are few of the city cow- keepers willing to part with their beasts. But, without doubt, the Sahib’s hookum (order) shall be obeyed.’ An Englishman parading the bye-ways of a native town, in company with a policeman, is an object of the liveliest curiosity, not to say suspicion. Either he has come to hunt up a thief, or there is a ‘takkus’ in process of incubation. If, however, his avowed object be to purchase a cow, he will be welcomed, and above all, referred to neighbouring gowallas and byres without end.

The yellow-breeked guardian of the public peace plunged into a bye-way leading from the main street to the right side of the city, as you come into it through the Delhi Gate. This passage was fully three paces wide. Down the centre of it struggled a stream of bluish ooze, gay atop with the rain-bow hues of putrescence. Here and there, side drains from the neighbouring houses added to the sluggish currents, or spread themselves aimlessly over the interstices of the worn and broken brick pavement. Presently, and after many turns and windings, the roadway narrowed from three paces to two; and the blue stream became wider and swifter. Obviously, the policeman was tracking it to the fountain head; as a traveller might track a river to its source. He hurried on over the uneven ground through the still narrowing gully, past closed and shuttered windows; past small doors in blank walls, giving access to dark courtyards even more uncleanly than the region through which he was making his way; beyond the reach of the sunlight, into high walled clefts (it is impossible to call them lanes) where it seemed that, last summer’s sultry breath still lingered; and eventually halted in a cul-de-sac. Here lay the first, and comparatively the cleanest byre. Within a space, twelve paces long by four broad, six cows and seven buffaloes, were standing side by side. This expression must be taken in its literal sense, for they touched shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Their hind feet were immersed in the blue stream above referred to; their fore feet were buried nearly to the knee in accumulations of filth. They were mired, caked and coated with the same filth from the withers downwards.

Within three feet of the rank was located a hulwaie’s (confectioners) shop, and the proprietor thereof, wrapped up in his rezai (quilt), sat upon the shop-board waiting the morning supply of milk which the gowalla (cowherd) was even then drawing. How the latter had contrived to jam himself between the wretched beasts was a mystery; and his sublime indifference to the horrors in which he knelt, a wonder. One brass lotah (pot), already full, was in the hulwaie’s possession; a second, empty, lay within a few inches of the blue stream, and a third was being filled by the gowalla. Add to this picture some calves and a collection of pariah dogs disporting themselves after the manner of dogs all the world over; a knot of natives in the gully for their morning toilet; throw in a few strong smells, and there you have the first byre complete. The details have been sketched as lightly as possible; but any one who knows the manners and customs of the Punjabi will be able to fill them in a discretion. I have said advisedly, that this was the cleanest byre of any in the division, inasmuch as the filth was merely ordinary farm-yard muck, accumulated in some places to the depth of eight inches or more. Other byres, as will be seen later on, were not so satisfactory, ‘The milk of these cows,’ explained the gowalla, in answer to my question, ‘is given to the hulwaies.’ ‘But the Sahib wants to buy a cow. Have you one to sell?’ (This from the policeman). ‘These, protector of the poor, are very good cows, and give milk often to the Sahib-logues. ’ The gowalla was accommodating in his statements; and there is no special reason for discrediting the later one. The hulwaie who happened to be nearest bought the milk; but if there was any over it was doubtless passed on to European customers.

(For the sake of brevity, I may state that the two queries in the order named, were asked at every byre in the division, and almost exactly similar answers were returned. The milk was bought, by the hulwaies and was also sold to the Sahib-logue. It never for a moment seemed to cross the Gowallas’ minds that a Sahib had called to see how inconceivably foul were their surroundings; and in justice to them, it must be said, that they were uniformly kind and courteous. But this is a digression.)

From the first byre the policeman and his companion were referred to the second. Another hurried tramp through more narrow gullies, open sewers and the like, led to an ooplah- plastered wall, opening into an irregular shaped courtyard fifteen paces long by seven wide at the broadest part. Here five buffaloes and seven cows were accommodated; and excepting only the foot-deep deposit of filth, seemed comfortable enough. Two charpoys (beds), three men, two dogs and a puppy shared the courtyard with the kine; and the temperature was somewhat higher than that of the outside gully, which again was much warmer than the open street. Two tattered chicks hung over two doors at the right of the courtyard, and hid two detachments of ‘milky mothers’. One lot resented vigorously any attempt to break the seclusion that shrouds the ‘purdah nashin’, but a glimpse into the darkened chamber showed a frowzy charpoy and a heap of tattered garments mixed up generally with the cows and calves. The second room — stall, stable, or cess-pit — was pitch dark, and the unwary explorer sank over ankle deep into the foul compost that lay thick on the floor, and was nearly suffocated by the fetid stench inside. Evidently the place was full of animals, but it was at first hard to estimate the exact number. The gowalla stated that six cows who had lately calved were shut up there for a few days; and when the eye became more accustomed to the gloom, it was seen that his statement was perfectly correct. Six cows, and five calves were massed together in a room, nine paces long by about three broad, and the heat of this Black Hole was almost unendurable. All these cows will in a short time be in regular use as milkers. The ‘unutterable aroma’ from their byre made me suspect that one of the new-born calves had died, and was rotting inside. This the gowalla denied at once. It was unfortunately too dark to make a lengthened exploration; even if the temper of the inmates had admitted of it. As it was, they objected strongly to an Englishman pacing out their lying-in chamber.

From this byre, the policeman crossed the main street of the city and passed to the left of the Delhi gate. It would be hopeless to attempt to describe the narrow gullies through which he led his ‘charge’, or the extreme filthiness of some of the interiors which that ‘charge’ saw. These bye-lanes were comparatively deserted, for a frosty February morning has not charms for an under-fed, under-clothed Punjabi. But the dead walls, the barred and grated windows, and the high storeyed houses, were throbbing and humming with human life, as you may hear a hive of bees hum ere they go forth to their day’s work. Voices of children singing their lessons at school; sounds of feet on stone steps, or wooden balconies over-head; voices raised in argument, or conversation, sounded dead and muffled as though they came through wool; and it seemed as if, at any moment, the tide of unclean humanity might burst through its dam of rotten brickwork and filth-smeared wood, blockading the passages below. Nor was this impression removed when we turned out of the gully into a third courtyard surrounded by a mass of ruinous houses, thus taking the pent up army on the flank, as it were.

Wherever a charpoy might be laid, a man or woman was sitting on one, and children were crawling under-neath. By unclean comers of walls; on each step of ruinous staircases; on the roofs of low out-houses; by window, and housetop, or stretched amid garbage unutterable, this section of Lahore was awaking to another day’s life. Twelve cows and five buffaloes, besides an apparently unlimited number of calves and goats were found here. These were being milked for the morning’s market. They stood, as was the case in all the other byres, nearly up to their knees in filth; but the refuse was blue and rotten below the surface, and smelt beyond all description. As they were moved to and fro for the convenience of the milkers, their legs sank in nearly to the hock, and came out with a reluctant ‘sob’. Semi-circular depressions showed where the cows had been lying all night, and the blue black-veined slime was, of course, plastered liberally over udders, stomach and breast. Thegoivalla and his family were not much cleaner than the cows. They were just awake; and came out of their huts wrapped in all manner of foul garments. One woman had on a specially unclean chudder, which, in the course of milking, flapped and dangled into the lotahs. Her children, when they saw the chance, dipped their fingers into the warm milk and licked them afterward. These fingers were smeared with three distinct, albeit nameless, abominations. The brass lotahs themselves were externally comparatively clean — that is to say, they were merely marked with greasy fingers and daubs of cow-dung. The buffaloes chewed some polluted bhoosa which lay on the ground. The cows I did not see fed at all. Now even if that particular byre had been floored with marble, and drained according to the latest scientific principles, it would still be a public danger. Three men in that courtyard were deeply scarred and pitted with small pox. There is no reason for believing that cases of this disease are rare in gullies pullulating with frowsy, fetid humanity, or that milk does not convey infection more surely and readily than even water itself. The cleanest cowshed in the world would be deadly under the circumstances I have described; and the one that actually existed there could, of its own power, spread any amount of disease. I have, of course, omitted two or three of the more disgusting details with reference to children and dogs. The reader, as I have said before, may fill them up as he pleases.
The fourth byre, which lay about a hundred and fifty yards from the third, was reached by a broken and slimy flight of steps, which gave into a small courtyard on the second floor. This was most difficult of access. The very bulk of the animals inside, made it almost impossible to open the door, and once inside, there was barely standing room for one man. Three cows and three buffaloes were herded here. It was out of the question to attempt to pace the yard. Indeed, all observations had to be taken squeezed between the sides of two buffaloes who rather resented the intrusion. A stick thrust into the ground went in without opposition, to the depth of ten inches. Here too, as much of the refuse as could be seen, was blue and putrid, and there appeared to be no drain from the raised courtyard. How the heavy buffaloes could have ever climbed the steps which led to this byre is a mystery. The brass lotahs were lying on the ground below, at the foot of the steps, and the offal of the calving-shed was placed beneath them. Ooplahs, of course, covered the neighbouring walls, but these, when properly made, are perfectly cleanly. In reply to a question as to how the lotahs were cleaned, the gowalla obligingly took up one of these ooplahs, made a small fire with it, and held the lotah, mouth downwards, over the intensely acrid smoke. The cows’ food was composed of wet and sodden bhoosa, water, and rotten gram stirred in very sparingly. This concluded the list of byres in that division of the city. I had visited eight in all; but have only described four typical ones. The others were equally filthy in every possible respect, and nothing that I have written can convey any idea of the utter loathsomeness of these establishments; the absolute disregard of every law of decency and cleanliness in
their management, or their pestilential surroundings.

My guide now offered to lead me to a spot where the cows intended solely for the use of the sahib logue were kept. Not far from the Mayo Hospital, he walked through a mud hut, and ushered me into a spacious courtyard, where I counted sixty- seven kine and buffaloes herded together. At a distance, the place looked respectable enough.

Closer inspection showed that only in the matter of space was this byre in any way superior to the ones which I had already visited. Accumulations of filth were piled in mounds from three to five feet high. I counted nine of them. The blue, rotten compost lay deeper here than in any other byre, and the buffaloes had worked themselves holes nearly two feet deep therein. It was necessary to pick one’s way across the slough of unutterable abominations under the guidance of one of the gowallas. The cows were starved, and literally plastered with filth; the buffaloes who browsed among the refuse heaps were fat. Brass lotahs lay about wherever they happened to be put down. Four of them were placed mouth downwards on a layer of ooplahs preparatory to being smoked. Filthy children and women were scrubbing the outside of others; and glimpses into the mud huts that were scattered irregularly over the yard showed more lotahs thrown on a charpoys and bundles of bedding. In the middle of the sewage-logged ground, was sunk a brick well; and when I arrived a bhisti was drawing water for the general use from its depths. That water naturally stank.

My readers will be good enough to recollect that I went purposely in the early morning to ascertain how far human convenience was subordinated to a regard for public health. I am extremely sorry that I should have credited the native with any feelings higher than those of swine. The whole yard was one reeking latrine — unblushingly used as such. The gowalla I asked, declared that the cows here gave good milk which went to the sahib logue, and that, if anything went wrong, the Sircar would shut up the yard. Not one single cowkeeper seemed to have any idea that the beasts or byres were anything but what they should be. This concluded the morning’s investigations. At an outside estimate, I had seen perhaps one tenth of the cow- byres in the City under their most favourable circumstances, that is to say, when the chill of a winter morning killed any positively unattackable stench. What these places must be in the heat of summer I dare not guess.
If any one should consider what has been written exaggerated or overcoloured, an hour’s investigation will enable him to judge for himself of the conditions under which the milk supply of this Station is managed. But there is not the faintest hope of arousing popular interest on so unsavoury a matter. Some years ago, an investigation into the state of the cow-sheds in Bombay brought to light facts very much like those which are written above — and little, if anything, was done to remedy them. It rests with the public of Lahore to bestir themselves in this matter, and to demand that every byre within and without the City walls shall be at once removed to some spot where it is possible to exercise efficient and intelligent control over it. But there is small likelihood of their doing even as much as this.

Those who already keep cows of their own, will thank Providence that they are sure of unpolluted milk. Those who are too poor or reckless to do so, will remain as they are, on the principle that, as no ill-consequences have happened to them they may still escape scot-free. And the result will be — exactly what we see around us at present — preventable disease leading to death.