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Monday, September 20, 2021

References to death and disease in Hindi literature

In this pandemic season, a look at how deaths and diseases have been central to several narratives in Hindi literature.

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: April 12, 2020 9:22:01 am
Deaths and diseases have been recurrent themes in literature.

In Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s memoir Kulli Bhat (1938; A Life Misspent, 2016, English translation) captures the misery of the Spanish Flu, that swept through India in 1918. Indian soldiers in the British army, who has participated in World War I, returned home, becoming unwitting carriers of the disease.

In India, the Spanish Flu killed between 10-20 million people. Nirala was 22 at the time, on his way to meet his teenaged wife at his in-law’s place in UP’s Dalmau. But she dies before he makes it. That’s not the only death he encounters. There are others who die, too — caretakers, and, most poignantly, an infant in his lap. Nirala’s description of the river Ganga, laden with swollen, abandoned dead bodies, bear witness to the scale of the devastation that befell India. “My family disappeared in the blink of an eye. All our sharecroppers and labourers died…,” he writes.

The book captures the misery of the Spanish Flu, that swept through India in 1918.

In Phaneshwar Nath Renu’s landmark novel Maila Aanchal (1954) has, as its protagonist, a doctor who leaves his city life behind to work in the hinterlands of what is now Bihar, where malaria, kalazar, and numerous other epidemics ran havoc. Based on the true story of a doctor named Alakh Niranjan, who battled not just diseases and infection but also ignorance and superstitions in one of the most under-developed areas in Bihar, Maila Aanchal shows how poverty is the biggest social malaise.

In Shrikant Verma’s Bukhar mein Kavita is a meditation on a lived life, with strong allusions to mortality and the fleeting nature of existence. He writes,

(Small pox and cholera empty colonies, cancer kills the well-known, lawyers die of blood pressure, but no one dies of their ill-deeds.)

In the last poem of the renowned Hindi poet from Varanasi, Sudama Pandey Dhoomil, presents a personal meditation on a near-death experience. The poet who died early — at the age of 39 — writes,

(Ask the horse about the test of metal, not the person who makes the leash, as the horse can taste it in
his mouth.)

In Kamlakant Tripathi’s novel, Paahighar (2016) is centred around the 1857 Uprising and how it changed the course of lives in rural Poorvanchal, ravaged as it is by floods, plagues and cholera. Writer and journalist Mrinal Pande speaks of the use of the word “fever” in the “language from the kitchens”. Tripathi writes, (“The body was on fire, quite like the oven.”).

On epidemic or vaba, Urdu poet Hasan Naim (1927-1991) writes: Sab pareshan hain ki akhir kis vaba men vo mire
Jin ko ghurbat ke alava koi bimari na thee (Everyone is worried about the epidemic that will get them/ Them who have no illness save poverty).

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