Updated: Mar 12
Shitala – How India enabled vaccination by Mitra Desai is a truly engrossing and unique tale that weaves together several seemingly disparate themes. In a year when the Covid pandemic is paramount on everyone’s minds, this novelette delves into a thrilling revelation & perspective about ancient India’s millennia-old knowledge, regarding its unknown past of using scientific methods for smallpox vaccination. The fact that the disease and its symptoms were well known and treated with advanced methods and instruments for centuries before the world even recognized the epidemic, is an eye-opener. What is truly ingenious about the author however is her ability to ingeniously interweave the personal narrative between a teenager, Tara and her grandfather, Nana, into a seamless investigation of historical evidence that provides irrefutable proof of India’s immense scientific contributions in the realm of medicine thousands of years ago.
Initially, as a typical teenager, Tara outright ridicules & rejects her grandfather’s suggestion that Ancient India already possessed knowledge about smallpox vaccination. She sets out to prove him wrong, but as she delves into her research, a trail of increasing evidence shakes her confidence and finds her questioning the conventional concepts she believed were the truth. As she unearths more evidence that validates Nana’s claim, Tara begins viewing her grandfather’s wisdom with a newfound respect and experiences the frustration of belonging to a culture that is repeatedly denied its rightful place as a leading light in the history of human medicine.
In the process of Tara’s re-education, the reader also learns that centuries before the rest of the world even knew what smallpox was, Indians were identifying, observing, treating and inoculating against the deadly epidemic. So much so that the scientific process for treating the disease became integrated into the religious tradition of Shitala Mata – referring to the goddess who cures and heals victims from smallpox.
The ongoing conversations between Tara & Nana advance the plot & reveal further hidden facets of Devi Shitala’s worship and how the iconography associated with her, in reality, depicts a riveting metaphor for the scientific processes related to smallpox vaccination. Interspersed with Tara’s journey to truth are significant historical snippets informing us how specific families & professions were trained on tools & biological materials for the particular purpose of inoculating against the deadly disease. Additionally, Tara discovers the contempt and outright dismissive attitude of Western scientists who had knowledge about such Indian methods. Facts mingle with descriptions of the awakening consciousness of the teenager as she finds her intellectual perceptions based on a faulty & limited foundation of Indian history. The more she is intrigued by her grandfather’s stories, scientific details and wisdom, the more she learns that many Hindu legends have symbolic meanings that point to their actual scientific origin. Consequently, her rational mind begins rejecting the narrow-minded version of world history that ignores and minimizes the contributions of Indian culture.
The likeable characters, the casual unfolding of historical facts, the nuanced explanations of religious symbolism all combine to turn this novelette into a fascinating read. The language is often evocative and brings up fragrances of Tara’s mother preparing home-cooked food, visions of Nana’s voice chanting timeless prayers which echo across the home and the soft wonder of a dream where the divine himself offers Tara guidance on her future path. The novelette beautifully touches upon the all too important subject of how the new generation of Indian youth can learn from the invaluable wisdom of elders like Nana & lead the way in unearthing factual evidence of India’s immeasurable contributions to science through the ages. This, as Tara learns from Krishna, is her Karmic duty and that of every young Hindu in this age in order to enlighten & benefit the world.