When fiction is contagious

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 20, 2020

Settle down to social distancing with a selection of works from literature’s long and proud history of epidemic narratives

As people, and their governments around the world, grapple with the widespread panic over the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, doctors everywhere have been ordering social distancing and self-isolation. For those who wish to curl up with a book or two as they hunker down during isolation/quarantine, what better than a selection of works on pandemics real and imagined? It is also a way to learn from our mistakes, and identify patterns of institutional and individual behaviour.

An outstanding Indian book I’d recommend in this context is Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague by Kalpish Ratna (the portmanteau nom de plume of surgeons Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed). This novel is based on the 1896 Bombay plague, which claimed tens of thousands of lives within months of the first recorded case. Through a combination of meticulous research and some seriously forensic prose, Room 000 creates compelling portraits of several key figures from the plague-fighting effort — such as Waldemar Haffkine, the Russian Jewish doctor who’d developed a successful anti-cholera vaccine. Haffkine was invited to Bombay by the imperial British government, which hoped he would create a cure for the plague, too.

Swaminathan and Syed are a great writing team — and they’re doctors, which is why they do not look too kindly upon some of Haffkine’s unethical (and, some would say, immoral) practices. A harrowing passage describes how Haffkine tested his serum on 154 healthy prison inmates, who had no idea they were about to be injected with the plague.

Other sections describe the questionable actions of the British government: Humiliating spot checks conducted at train stations, quarantines enforced at gunpoint and so on. We learn of how the plague continued to claim lives by the millions even after an effective serum was developed, simply because poor and/or uneducated people (whichwas the vast majority of Indians) often had no access to the serum.

All of these anecdotes are telling us the same thing — during an epidemic, it is the disenfranchised whose bodies are on the line first. Remember, the Kerala government used prisoners’ labour to make pollution masks, which was followed by similar efforts at prisons in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and other places. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, revealed last week that prisoners made the new state-manufactured hand sanitiser he showed off to the press (prisoners in New York state are paid an appalling 10-62 cents an hour, according to a recent TheNew York Times report). Room 000 has valuable lessons for just about every stakeholder: Doctors, patients, administrators, governments. It is a sobering reminder of the high-stakes contest between man and microbe, and just how quickly mistakes turn into catastrophes.

If this is already getting too bleak for you, wait till you discover speculative fiction’s long and proud history of epidemic narratives. It paints a distressing picture of how society’s fault lines (racism, sexism, xenophobia, et al) are amplified during epidemics. Post-plague novels present especially fertile ground.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt is a case in point. In this book, Robinson imagines what the world would be like if the 14th-century plague outbreak in Europe (known as the Black Death) had wiped out 99 per cent of the population — as opposed to the 33 per cent in reality. Different chapters follow the impact of the plague in different parts of the world. In India, a courageous young woman’s feminist rebellion is crushed with an iron fist by the oligarchy. Timur’s armies are cutting across Hungary like a knife through butter. The Chinese have taken over large swathes of the planet — and they are killing off indigenous populations with a ruthless efficiency. And yet, somehow, Robinson manages the near-impossible feat of making this a hopeful novel.

Events of the recent past in India bear a frightening resemblance to many of these fictional scenarios — for instance, people with Mongoloid features (especially anyone from the country’s Northeast) being subjected to racist taunts simply because the coronavirus outbreak was first reported from China. US President Donald Trump came under fire for referring to novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”.

Then there’s Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), a novel so chilling that even the author advised against reading it at the moment (she joked on Twitter recently that a few months down the line would perhaps be a more germane time to do so). Mandel’s novel imagines the “Georgia flu”, a swine flu variant that kills most of humanity. One of the book’s greatest achievements is its exploration of issues such as survivor’s guilt — and the long-term psychological impacts of a pandemic. As a famous line from the book goes, survival is insufficient.

I copied a paragraph from the book by hand and pasted it on a board above my writing desk. It’s useful and more than a little sobering.

“I’ve been thinking lately about immortality. What it means to be remembered, what I want to be remembered for, certain questions concerning memory and fame. I love watching old movies. I watch the faces of long-dead actors on the screen, and I think about how they’ll never truly die. (…) First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”

Published on March 20, 2020

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