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Book: Bombay Fever
Author: Sidin Vadukut
Publication: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 371 pages
The notion of a deadly plague sweeping through the land has long provided fodder for creativity. In Bombay Fever, Sidin Vadukut takes this all-too-believable genre and adapts it smartly to an Indian context, despite some shortcomings in terms of plausibility and style.
A chance encounter in a foreign land leads to the birth of a contagion that soon grows to terrorise India. Struggling in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating society, a diverse group of people ranging from medical workers to doctors without licenses must attempt to make sense of a disease that proves to be as baffling as it is dangerous. Backed by the premise of drug-resistant diseases — a growing fear in modern society — the book attempts a broad depiction of the growth and spread of a contagion, and the ensuing reactions.
The strength of Bombay Fever is the lack of a central protagonist, with a sufficiently broad narrative vantage point. It hops from character to character with commendable fluidity, fleshing out its world with each new perspective. There are, of course, a handful of characters whose points of view are visited more often, but progress often comes from minor and seemingly unexpected corners, including, at one point, mass-forwarded messages on social media. This makes the unspooling of the plot much more organic, though certain incidents teeter between believable and convenient. The sheer scope of the story necessitates putting an abrupt end to certain characters or plot threads, but such conclusions do not come across as gratuitous.
The novel has an unfortunate tendency to indulge in portentous statements (“She had an idea that would eventually change everything”…), which greatly detracts from the pace, and leaves one wishing they had been allowed to discover such things as the book progressed. Other phrases simply come across as unwieldy (“Brilliant. I have achieved complete secrecy”), or prescriptive (“Instead of visiting the doctor, like he should have…”).
Towards the end, the most chilling realisation is the thought that the book never ventures into the realm of the impossible or improbable. This, perhaps, is the triumph of Bombay Fever.