Home >mint-lounge >features >Book review: ‘Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague’

The surgeon-storytellers Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed—who use the pen name Kalpish Ratna—have been writing about Mumbai for their entire careers, and about diseases and their cures for a significant part of that. They explored the intertwined history of colonialism, the sea trade and sicknesses in the 2008 work Uncertain Life And Sure Death: Medicine And Mahamaari In Maritime Mumbai; their 2010 novel, The Quarantine Papers, told an intricate story whose origins lay in the great plague that beset Bombay in 1896.

To this epidemic they return again, in what is surely their magnum opus on the subject. It is almost certain that no one will write a more comprehensive book about the plague, nor a more imaginative and compassionate one. This forms the basis of its admirable successes, but is also, strangely, responsible for its failings.

The plague comes to Bombay, a city that has no memory of ever having harboured it, in the winter of 1896. It has likely arrived from its sister entrepôt, Hong Kong, where an epidemic had caused havoc just a couple of years previously. It kills without regard to religion, caste and, eventually, race. If Room 000 were a dystopian novel, such a monster could not help but destroy the precarious and many-layered society it infected. But we live in a future that was shaped by that plague, so we know that what happened was neither a disaster, nor a triumph.

Room 000—Narratives Of The Bombay Plague: Pan Macmillan, Rs 495 pages, Rs 599
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Room 000—Narratives Of The Bombay Plague: Pan Macmillan, Rs 495 pages, Rs 599

With his high voice and pink lips, Haffkine enters Room 000 very realistically, at the height of the epidemic, rather than its beginning, and catches it on its downward curve. Well before we meet him, though, come the other men who detected the disease, treated it, and tried to cure it: a great many of them Indians, neglected in public memory, such as the Goan who first detects a case in Mandvi, Acacio Viegas, and the bacteriologist who isolated the plague bacillus from a patient’s sample, Nusserwanji Surveyor. Other characters include dozens of sufferers of every stripe, as well as Marathi inspector, Tatya Lakshman, through whom Ratna enacts some entertaining, if slight, late-Victorian detective adventures.

Their literary ancestor may properly be Daniel Defoe, who wrote the historio-fictional A Journal Of A Plague Year—and gets a cheeky mention early on in Room 000—in 1722; but the book bears more firmly the stamp of Arthur Conan Doyle, both in style and quotation. This is a credit to Ratna’s sense of fun, although it can often be irritating in its whimsy. Nor does it go well with the authors’ curious tendency towards heavy-handedness in their exposition. Their more-is-more approach to storytelling can test a reader’s attention, especially since the book goes back and forth in time, losing precious tension as it does so. It will be difficult even for enthusiasts of medical fiction, Bombay history, or both, to love it uncritically.

What their meticulous research and joy in history do achieve is a wonderful understanding of where many attitudes that persist today, are inherited from. Epidemics are prevented by early detection and instant response, but in British India, disease ran rampant simply because the colonial administration was indifferent, and often directly opposed, to measures that made it possible to prevent disasters. Perhaps this was why many Indians, even in an outward-looking metropolis, found hospitals little better than graveyards.

The authors have long been critics of the top-down systems that govern disease eradication, and much of this book is underwritten by their contempt for this institutional insensitivity. As we battle swine flu in Indian cities, and anxiously track African responses to Ebola, it’s hard not to feel as though we have something in common with the Bombayites of 1896.

Supriya Nair is an editor with The Caravan.

For an excerpt from the book, visit www.livemint.com/bookexcerpts

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