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: