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Shimla, Indian Himalayas ;

Indian Himalayas: Postcard from the field

Arriving in September last year, I had been conducting fieldwork in Shimla – a small city nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas – when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. India is the only licit exporter of raw opium in the world, yet few opiates are dispensed in its own hospitals. Working in the city’s cancer hospital, I had been investigating the use of morphine in this location. However, from the start of the lockdown in mid-March until my repatriation flight at the end of April I was mostly confined to my apartment. This is a short note from that time.

Nick Surawy Stepney GHSM PhD candidate
Nickolas Surawy Stepney

At exactly 10 am an air raid siren rings out across the ramshackle roofs strung across the steep hillsides. Its wail rises to a crescendo before, with a sigh like the last air escaping a balloon, it lapses back into silence. When I first visited, ‘the horn,’ as locals call it, it nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. It was installed after the Japanese bombed Calcutta in 1942, during the final years of British rule, when Shimla was the summer capital. I quickly learned that it still sounds at 10am and 5pm every day except Sunday, to indicate working hours for government employees.

Almost twelve months later, the first warm rays of spring sunshine fall on empty streets and closed shops, drawing the scent of pine sap back into the air after a long winter. The city has been under lockdown for almost five weeks. The horn has a new role. In this time I’ve not left my apartment except to chat with others who share the building. “The lockdown was done too quickly,” Raj, another occupant told me one evening, lowering the volume of an endless remix of Chris Isaac’s 1989 hit Wicked Game that had been playing from the computer on his desk. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just been on the television mounted above his bookshelf.

“When the prime minister comes on TV to address people,” Raj continued, gesturing at the screen, “you must listen.” The previous time that Modi had spoken to the country this way was in 2016, when he unexpectedly announced the demonetisation of all 500 and 1000 rupee notes. Those working in unorganised professions, such as labourers and rickshaw drivers, had lost much of their earnings.

As the current crisis continues, the same section of society is suffering once again. The speed of the nationwide lockdown has trapped huge numbers of people in the major cities. With nowhere to go, no way to make money, and nothing to eat, reports of these people trying to walk hundreds of miles back to their villages now fill Raj’s living room. Shimla, a relatively prosperous town, has been spared some of these troubles.

People adapt to adhere to Modi’s requests, the new routine a dance orchestrated by the siren. When I heard it at 10 am, its long, sustained note signalled the start of the three-hour window during which people may leave their houses to go shopping. At 1 pm, the horn sounds for a second time. This time its wail is tortured, rising and falling in waves that crash against the mountains and chase the few remaining people back into their homes.

Those restrictions impacted everyone and visiting researchers were no different. My primary research question interrogates the contemporary discourses around morphine; asks how it is imagined, regulated, and consumed. By that time I had been in the hospital long enough to gain a good understanding of the medical and regulatory discourses that surround this object, but had hoped to use the time left in India to develop my knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry. The source of the morphine used in the hospital was a company based in a town only 40 kilometres away.

This study will now have to be done virtually, from a desk overlooking not a tree full of monkeys but a field of slowly yellowing wheat bordered by Cotswold stone. Yet it is not all change; outside the front gate two flowers have sprung up almost overnight. With their thick pale green stems and purple petals, they can only be Papaver Somniferum. Or, as they are more commonly known, opium poppies.

Indian morphine tablet box

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