Friday, August 09, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Bombay Then and Now

Read & Reflect Column #2

The Quarantine Papers by Kalpish Ratna
Paediatric surgeon, columnist and novelist Kalpana Swaminathan has made a name for herself in Indian literary circles today with her engrossing mystery novels featuring female detective ‘Last Resort Lalli’. She has also written unusual children’s fiction such as Ordinary Mr Pai and Gavial Avial.
She is equally prolific as half the person behind ‘Kalpish Ratna’, the pseudonym used by her and her surgeon and writer colleague Ishrat Syed, for articles, columns and eight books written together. Their common interests, history and medicine, come together, compellingly, in The Quarantine Papers. Published in 2010, this is a mystery novel set against two historic events in Bombay – the riots of 1993 and the plague of 1896.
‘The Plague Inspectors broke into homes, summarily removed anybody they found having a fever… The quarantine was ingenious. It even dealt with Bombay’s railways and roads. Plague passes were issued for people who wanted to go from Bandra to Mahim… Inspectors were stationed along the causeway. In you boarded the train at Bandra, the carriage doors were locked shut till you reached Grant Road or Mahalakshmi. There you were jumped by the Plague Inspectors, and whisked away to a hospital or a Segregation Camp. They learnt and perfected it here, the British. It would be their model for the Concentration Camps in South Africa that Alfred Milner would establish two years later during the Boer War. This was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee! Hitler was just a copycat. It all sounds sane at this remove, but imagine it happening to you!’
The book is set on a somewhat flimsy premise of a secret pact made by four men that must be honoured by their families down the ages; flimsier still is the story of the protagonist Ratan who lives two lives – one his own in 1993 and one of his grandfather a century before. His grandfather’s memories and experiences of communal tension are sparked into urgent action when Bombay breaks out into riots and communal violence following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Ratan slips in and out of history as he tries to make sense of inexplicable bits of knowledge and a sense of tragedy that must be averted. As a laboratory technician he finds himself working on victims of communal violence; however, his medical knowledge and skills belong to the doctor his grandfather was. He struggles to come to terms with what these flashbacks are trying to tell him even as his modern-day surroundings fill him with anger and despair.
The book works despite its undeniable flaws because of its evocative storytelling. Bombay of 1993 comes alive, with its fear and disbelief, as does the Bombay of 1896 wracked by disease and consequences such as evacuation, segregation and travel restrictions.
A short description of the bubonic plague in Bombay may be found here:

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Other People’s Stories

Note: I write a monthly column called Read & Reflect for Indian Weekender these days. I will be posting the pieces here after they are published in New Zealand.

Read & Reflect Column #1

Another Man’s Wife by Manjul Bajaj

Having read Manjul Bajaj’s first book Come, Before Evening Falls with deep appreciation only a year ago, I approached her second offering Another Man’s Wife with high expectations. The latter, a collection of short stories, did not disappoint. Her strengths remain the same: strong characterisation, detailed depiction of period detail and cultural context, and finely nuanced storytelling.
The first story, ‘Ripe Mangoes’, is a stellar example of all this. A young Kathak dancer, married for convenience to her father’s creditor, yet tries to hold on to all that is dear to her. She leaves behind her family orchards, her lover and her old life in Murshidabad and moves to “a grey matchbox of a home” in Calcutta where she looks after her three growing children. A home where she installs a tutor for her sons, the man she has loved most of her life. A life which is now threatened by her adolescent daughter who is unable to bear the weight of her mother’s adultery.
The motif of blurring lines is central to ‘Crossed Borders’ where old crimes follow an immigrant gardener around all his life. As an old man he think he has finally achieved the anonymity needed for a peaceful existence but a yellowed newspaper clipping lands him in the hands of his employer, a vengeful ex-wife looking for somebody to murder her husband’s new love.
 ‘The Birthmark’ is a more fanciful, less satisfying tale. Discussing the female infanticide rampant in the Doab areas, it pits a mother-in-law prepared to keep her bloodline ‘pure’ against the Bihari tribal worker her younger son married. Pregnant with a girl, the daughter-in-law refuses an abortion and her mother-in-law finds herself resorting to scheming against this “strange dark witch” who is teaching her son to accept a girlchild.
Cory Fernandez, in her story ‘Me and Sammy Fernandez’, offers a setting which is almost filmy in its extravagance: an aspiring music journalist falls in love with the son of a celebrated Goan singer. Rejecting the demands of her own Parsi background she enters into a relationship that turns abusive. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is described in disturbing detail as Cory struggles to reconcile her conscience, work and family with her rapidly souring marriage.  The final straw comes when she discovers the truth behind the death of her husband’s singer mother Amethyst, the idol of Cory’s youth.
The young village boy who dreamt of ‘Marrying Nusrat’, of giving the young NGO worker the stability and love she did not find in her marriage finds his path rockier than planned. Nusrat came from “some do-gooder agency” in Lucknow to organise the chikan workers of the village into a co-operative. In the process she opened the eyes of many of the villagers to the world outside the village and herself received unconditional love and support from them in her time of need. This story provides an eye-opening account of the lives and hopes of the men and women who provide the exquisitely hand-embroidered that are sold in ‘Indian’ shops everywhere.
One of my favourite stories in the book is ‘Underneath a Moonlit Sky’, about two couples who meet while honeymooning in Kashmir. Against the backdrop of the violence that destroyed Kashmiri tourism in the 1990s the Kashmiri husband and wife struggle to keep their love and marriage alive; in Madras the ex-honeymooners have their own troubles with childlessness and demanding relatives. Each year Rohini sends a little photo-postcard to Kashmir, unconsciously creating mementoes of happier times as well as of guilt and despair.
The eponymous ‘Another Man’s Wife’ is possibly the highlight of the collection. Kuheli and Devji grow up together in an adivasi village in Gujarat. They plan their lives together, forseeing a future of children, farming, togetherness. The building of a dam disrupts their lives, flooding their villages and making them penniless refugees overnight. Their struggle for survival is further complicated by the government official who wishes to make Kuheli his mistress. The resulting strain on their marriage is almost more than the bonds can bear.
Manjul Bajaj’s poetry and blog posts can be found online at and