Vaccination Day – In the 1950s

When Kolkata was Calcutta and I was a pre-teen, my little sister and I lived in a large household with parents, uncles, aunts, our paternal grandfather, Dadamoni, and his brother, our Chotodadu.

The household’s wheels were kept rolling with the help of our middle-aged cook Ram, and the younger live-in domestic worker Nagarbasi. Both had been with the family for many years. Daily domestic workers did the additional work of washing clothes and dishes.

Days came and went smoothly except for the one day every year when the household came to a grinding halt – on Vaccination Day, the day when we had to take our injections against Typhoid and Cholera.

Vaccination Day was an annual event just before the onset of summer. Dadamoni patiently explained to me that these two diseases were terribly contagious. They sickened thousands and killed many. The diseases could be treated, but prevention was easier. One injection, and you were safe for a year. I saw the rationale, yet dreaded it.

When the much-feared day arrived, I had to pretend to be calm so that my little sister wouldn’t panic, but she protested loudly and large tear drops rolled down her puffy cheeks, her eyes appealing for mercy.

Ma held her close and said, “After you take the vaccine, I will get you strawberry ice cream – your favourite.”

“It will be over before you can count ten,” I said. “I will play with you afterwards for as long as you want. I promise.”

She was inconsolable. “I won’t take the horrid injection, it hurts. I hate you, I hate everyone,” she said in between sobs. I hated the injection too, but knew that protesting was useless.

Meanwhile I heard Chotodadu call Nagarbasi, but there was no reply. Ram was not in the kitchen. Neither of them could be found anywhere in the house.  However, the grown-ups didn’t appear to be particularly concerned. I would hear conversations, such as:

“They have sneaked out again”.

“I’ll go and fetch them.”

“No rush, let’s have our breakfast. They won’t go far.”

Neither Ram nor Nagarbasi knew their way about the city, as they had never ventured beyond the nearby streets. Rather than walk even half a mile, Ram, with his big belly, preferred to sit on the bench in the park or drink tea at the local tea-shop. Nagarbasi, although young and agile, was not very bright. He knew the way to the nearest market, but not much more.

Also read: Calcutta Memories: Adda, Football and Howrah Bridge

In spite of my mother and my aunts taking over Ram’s work that day, breakfast and lunch were delayed. Nagarbasi’s job of cleaning the house was left undone. One of our uncles would set out after breakfast and bring them back.

Ram and Nagarbasi were usually found standing where our road joined the busy five-road crossing where hapless policemen were trying to control traffic without success. The two of them must have been frightened. I understood their plight: what could be worse than having to choose between the likelihood of getting lost and the certainty of the dreaded big needle? They re-entered reluctant and shamefaced. They were soundly scolded, and even threatened with words like, “If you do this again, you will be dismissed”, followed by reassurances like, “We are all taking the injection, it is for your own good.”

Later that afternoon, when the doorbell rang and our family doctor entered with his formidable bag, Ram would be sitting in the kitchen, head bent down, gazing at the floor. Nagarbasi would be on the third floor terrace, farthest from the needle.

“Ready for the vaccine?” the doctor asked. “Who will be first?”

When our turns came, my sister howled. The doctor took out a lollipop from his pocket, she grabbed it, the injection needle went in and it was done. When the shock of it was over, she started crying again! Though terrified, I pretended to be brave. My heart was pounding, my knees turned to jelly but I gritted my teeth. The needle was long and thick, and the injection was painful. Ram and Nagarbasi watched as the adults and even we, the children were vaccinated. Finally, they accepted the inevitable and took their injections with groans and moans, eyes tightly shut and faces contorted. From the oldest aged 70+, to the youngest, aged six plus, every family member was vaccinated. The doctor was offered tea and biscuits, took his fee and left with his bag.

The stuff that went in was strong and potent. We were all unwell the next day. Some of us had slight fever, all had pain in the injected arm. My little sister would walk bending her body to the left, the injected side, for a week. Ram and Nagarbasi were excused from work and we ate a simple dinner of khichdi.

This drama was repeated every year. Ram and Nagarbasi would temporarily disappear, only to be brought back to take the vaccine.


Now when I look back at Vaccination Day, I begin to see it from their perspective. Obviously Ram and Nagarbasi did not understand why the vaccination was needed. They knew from experience that if one was seriously ill, an injection might be necessary, but why should a healthy person need an injection?  Disease prevention made no sense to them. No wonder they were terrified.

Why then did they disappear every year? Perhaps they thought that the family would eventually give up the effort of getting them vaccinated. Or it was just a token act of resistance destined to fail.

Today we are facing a pandemic and most countries have begun mass vaccination programmes. Yet many people, even among the educated, are choosing not to take it. I wonder if it is due to a lack of trust in the system, or in the science that has developed the vaccine. Could it be sheer ignorance or misinformation?

As I try to understand this, my mind goes back to Ram and Nagarbasi on vaccination days at our home in Calcutta many decades ago in the 1950s.

Sunanda Krishnamurty lives in Geneva. She is a writer with several publications to her credit. She has also published translations in English of works of Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra and Bankimchandra.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty