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By Geeta Doctor
Book: Room 000– Narratives of the Plague in Bombay
Author: Kalpish Ratna
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Price: Rs 599
After food and sex, the one topic that inflames the common mind has to be disease. We are not talking of those rare souls dedicated to the pursuit of inter-planetary explorations or Fermat’s Last Theorem, but those to whom the idea of a sudden death in the afternoon is the ultimate orgasmic frontier.
These are the ones that thrill at the Biblical idea of retribution which descends upon the populace with pestilence-carrying floods and vapours. There are old-world ones such as leprosy or Hansen’s disease immortalised in films like Ben Hur, common or garden ones like small pox, malaria and tuberculosis celebrated in great works of art like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; and latter-day ones like HIV and the Ebola virus.
Plague, on the other hand, has been remarkably resilient. It’s both ancient and contemporary. Or so the reader is assured after romping through the latest view from the innards of the disease as it manifested itself in 19th century Bombay in this new book by the dauntless duo of writers who go by the name of Kalpish Ratna. Their zest for their subject, grim and depressing as it may appear, is nothing if not infectious (pun intended).
This is not the first time they have focused on the plague and its consequences as it manifested itself in Bombay. Their research is encyclopedic. As they note in a chapter towards the end of the current book: “In India, between 1898 and 1908, six million people died of the plague. The epidemic of 1910-12 killed 15 million in China.”
Some part of their focus is in uncovering the part played by the political apathy of the ruling colonial powers during the plague of 1898 in both Bombay and Hong Kong. The indifference was perhaps because it was seen as a disease of the poor. That is to say, at first. As the scale of the epidemic spread from the dark and dirty inner lanes near the Bombay docks and from the surrounding villages and hamlets to the more prosperous areas, the authorities had to take note. The reactions ranged from denial to panic-stricken measures for quarantine and deportation and
attempts to destroy localities and areas where the plague had appeared unbidden.
The authors have provided a vast canvas that brings Bombay alive in all its multi-cultural diversity. Then again, just like the multiplying bacilli there is a shrillness about some of the stories that brings to mind a madwoman in the attic descending every now and then to shout at the reader. Stiff doses of a vaccine administered by an editor would have helped.
Geeta Doctor is a writer in Chennai