The Covid-19 pandemic has affected and changed the entire world in many ways. For most of us, this is the first (and hopefully the only) time of witnessing such a large scale pandemic.
And yet, human life has been affected by diseases throughout history, and movies and books have captured stories around them regularly. Before we are hit with a wave of novels based on coronavirus, here are some examples of the portrayal of a pandemic in Indian literature.
The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery by Amitav Ghosh
The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh can be described as a medical thriller, although it is a novel that stretches the boundaries of the genres. Set in New York and Calcutta and moving through different timelines, this complex tale tells the story of Antar, who becomes obsessed with finding about L Murugan, who had mysteriously disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. Murugan himself was obsessed with the life of Sir Roland Ross, who was instrumental in finding the cure for malaria.
While the novel mixes science with mystery and mysticism, the backdrop of malaria and related research is an important part of the story, and makes it not just a seminal work of Ghosh, but also of pandemic in Indian literature.
Pahighar is a Hindi novel by the writer Kamalkant Tripathi. This novel, which is set in the time of the first struggle for independence in 1857, also has the deadly disease of cholera and plague in its background.
As the uprising happened, the lives of the people were changed forever not just because of the impact of the struggle against the governing power but also because of the floods that brought with them the deadly epidemics that claimed many lives.
While highlighting pandemics in Indian literature, Pahighar also reminds us how history repeats itself – much, and tells the story of revolution in the time of a public health crisis – like anti-violence and anti-racism activism and protests have been taking over the world today.
Twilight in Delhi is set in the backdrop of the ravages of the Spanish flu which was predominant in Delhi around 100 years back, in the summer of 1918. While the novel does not exclusively deal with this deadly disease, the effects of the Spanish flu can be seen in the story.
Ali describes the multiple deaths that touched almost every family in the city poignantly and writes “There was not a single hour of the day when a few dead bodies were not carried outside the city to be buried.”
Read it for the history of the city, of the disease and how social and civic life looked like in its wake.
Pandemic in Indian Literature: The Oblivion Tapes (now, The Final Contagion)
Timeri Murari had written The Oblivion Tapes in 1978 and the book has been reissued as The Final Contagion recently.
Eerily similar to the present times, the novel is the story of a journalist Piers Shatner who discovers a deadly pandemic disease that is used to paralyse and kill people.
Because he has made such a discovery, his own life falls in danger and he is on the run to save himself. Murari has made certain changes in the book to keep it upto date with the present times in technology. The re-issued title is available on Kindle Unlimited.
A Life Misspent is a memoir by the stalwart Hindi poet ‘Nirala’, which is set, again, in the backdrop of the 1918 Spanish Flu.
The epidemic hits Nirala hard who is on his way to meet his wife at his in-law’s place. Before he can meet her though, his wife falls victim to the deadly disease, along with scores of others.
Nirala poignantly describes the scenes he encounters and his feelings of deep sadness to find his wife dead, along with many other family members. He describes the scene of Ganga overflowing with bodies who couldn’t even be cremated, and brings alive the tragedy and grief that pandemics bring with them.
A Ballad of Remittent Fever is the story of three generations of doctors who try to fight against the diseases rampant in Kolkata.
Translated from Bengali, the book takes us to Bengal of 1884 where we meet Dwarikanath Ghoshal, the first of his family to study medicine. The novel then moves in time and we see the future generations of this family as they try to combat the rampant diseases like cholera, malaria, TB, Spanish flu etc.
An ode to the fighting spirit of the medical professionals, this novel makes much sense today.
Rebati is one of the well known stories by the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati that shows the extent of havoc wrecked by epidemics.
Rebati is the story of the titular protagonist who is a young girl who wants to study. Her father arranges for a tutor named Basu. But soon tragedy strikes their village in the form of a cholera outbreak that kills her parents. Living with her grandmother, Rebati is completely dependent on Basu for her well being.
But Basu also falls victim to the deadly disease and by the time the story ends, Rebati also becomes a casualty of cholera.
Here a dramatized performance of the short story here:
Maila Aanchal (The Soiled Border) by Phansihwar Nath Renu
Maila Aanchal is one of the monumental works in Hindi literature. Said to be based on the life of a young doctor, Dr Alakh Niranjan, the novel tells the story of the people of Maryganj, a village in Bihar.
The doctor in the novel is Dr Prashant and he dedicates his life to helping the people fight against the various diseases, especially kala-azar, rampant in their locality besides helping them in their fight against the social injustices faced by them.
Small Pox Pandemic in Indian Literature: Vasoori by Kakkanadan
Vasoori (Smallpox) is a novel by the Malayalam writer Kakkanadan.
It tells the story of a small village in Kerala and how it deals with an outbreak of smallpox that takes the village in its grip suddenly.