This appeared in the March/April issue of Biblio
Plagues have always attracted writers. The word itself occurs no less than 113 times in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, the most memorable use being, of course, when it was employed by Mercutio to damn the houses of Capulet and Montagu in Romeo and Juliet. Going back a few centuries from here, one can still sense the horror and wonderment that arose in the mind of Giovanni Boccaccio from his description of the Black Plague at the beginning of The Decameron. There are echoes of this in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, an account of a character’s experiences while sojourning through London during the Great Plague of 1665. To turn to the 20th century, it was Albert Camus who made use of the affliction for allegorical purposes. In his 1947 The Plague, the city of Oran in Algiers is struck by a pestilence, one that ravages the city because the people are slow to act when it first makes an appearance. The obvious parallel is with the Nazi occupation of France.
The duo of Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, writing as Kalpish Ratna, are similarly influenced in their latest work, The Quarantine Papers. This capacious novel delineates the lives of characters during two difficult times in Mumbai’s history, in the late 19th century and in December 1992. The first was when an outbreak of plague struck the city and the second, of course, was when it was stained by riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The book opens with bite-sized, intriguing accounts of a variety of as-yet-unknown characters and their doings. In one sense, all that follows is a filling in of the blanks and an explication. It is December 6, 1992, the very day the masjid crumbled, and we’re introduced to Ratan Oak, 36, a freelance microbiologist living with his ailing father and coming to terms with the end of his relationship with his wife. As shock and anger sweep the city, Ratan finds himself discovering the body of a woman who was protesting against the razing of an outhouse on the grounds of the Sir J.J. School of Art, once owned by none other than Lockwood Kipling, father of the man who wrote about the white man’s burden.
Ratan falls prey to mysterious visions and what one could call the opposite of clairvoyance: he realises soon enough that this other world he inhabits is that of Ramratan Oak, his great-grandfather, who was active during the city’s late 19th-century plague years. The present, then, is transformed into a mirror that reflects the events of the past, showing that not much – especially the nature of human beings – has changed. The book see-saws between the two periods, detailing a breathtaking succession of events that involve riots, Hindu-Muslim marriages, fundamentalist ire, attempts to get hold of a crude biological weapon, missing persons, sudden deaths and the fates of the families of four friends who make a covenant to “defeat hate”. Slow-moving is certainly not an adjective that can be applied to The Quarantine Papers.
Breezy and quick in pace though it may be, there is evidence of much research that underpins the novel, most of which is drawn from the state archives. Details of the period apart, these emerge in the form of old letters, statements, petitions, medical reports and the like. These, woven into the narrative, thicken and lend it greater verisimilitude. In addition, there are several occasions when the authors’ medical knowledge comes to the fore, such as in details of autopsies, injuries and effects of bacilli; here, one is put in mind of the medical prose employed by another doctor, Abraham Verghese, in his recent novel, Cutting for Stone.
Though there is dexterity in the manner in which the novel switches back and forth between the two ages it deals with, there’s no denying that the prose can sometimes turn purple. Take this passage, an account of a book of watercolours:
“Red opened its flower. From its vermilion frill to its cerise heart through a swirl of reds – cardinal, carnation, carnelian, carmine, crimson. Satin unfurled, shiny and dense, a slither on the skin that made him gasp. Then further agape, a silken billow, a swell of red blown thin, left glistening in the air to harden, a glass bubble though which the sun came in and inked the sun pink. When he blinked, it splintered and scattered in pink shards. Pink petals, turned vermeil at the edges, enameled jewels.”
Goodness. However, almost as though to offset these, there are other passages with resonant metaphors (the sea on one occasion is described as “a shed snakeskin in the sun”), and the sections describing the buildings and general milieu of the city’s inner streets are particularly effective. Take this one, for example:
“A road run berserk, traffic snarls matted and choked in exhalations of their own filth. Broad-backed gutters, their oily scum a glacial glint in the sun. Tidal waves of garbage washed up against buildings like end moraines. Buildings erupting past the hairline, breakaways from the grid of roads, lanes, parks, pavements, lunging into the traffic. Peopled long before they were plastered or painted, numbered of named….Walls like slow bruises changing colour after seasons of abuse as old Bollywood posters peeled off, and returning finally to their natural pigments of earth and excrement. Pavements spilling over with lives that began faraway and were headed elsewhere.”
(The clear fondness for contrasts and alliterations in prose can be discerned from the title of the duo’s earlier work, during the researching of which much material must have turned up for this one. It was called Uncertain Life and Sure Death: Medicine and Mahamaari in Maritime Mumbai.)
Though the strengths of The Quarantine Papers are not inconsiderable, it must be said that on many occasions, the abundance of characters and the speed of events cause the narrative thread to become needlessly coiled and intricate. Some more pauses for breath, some paring down of the number of people and their back-stories, would have made it much more effective.
The structure of the book uses the present to scrutinize the past; in doing so, it’s the present itself that comes under scrutiny. Towards the end, Ratan finds that “with hate coming to a boil, every man could stand accused. A mosque is destroyed, hate breaks free, memory becomes weapon.” That sentiment, unfortunately, is all too true given the headlines that one encounters virtually every morning in the papers and on TV. It is to Shakespeare again that one must turn, and recall the line he puts in the mouth of King Lear’s hapless Gloucester: “ ’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”