If The Quarantine Papers by Kalpish Ratna has a major flaw, it’s this: it turns you into an antisocial element.
I foolishly began reading it on a Thursday evening. The next day, I deeply resented the need to go to the office, deeply resented having to go out for a drink, deeply resented everyone who phoned me, deeply resented everything that kept me away from the book.
Naturally, this made my work and relationships hell for a while, but it did bring some sunshine into a couple of people’s lives. Namely Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, surgeons, writers and the two halves of the duo that comprise the pseudonymous writer, Kalpish Ratna. “It vindicates us as the authors of the book,” says Syed.
Why The Quarantine Papers should require vindication is beyond me. It is a gripping, highly textured, very solid novel that had drawn me wholesale into its world(s) and even now, three weeks since I finished the book, I hate being away from it.
Briefly, The Quarantine Papers glides smoothly between the Bombay of December 1992 when the Babri Masjid was torn down and communal passions ran high, as lived by one Ratan Oak, a microbiologist, and the Bombay of 1896, when the plague swept through the city and intensified communal hatreds, as lived by Ratan’s great-grandfather, Ramratan Oak, a mortician. But so much is packed into the book that you could get quite breathless. For instance, Ratan Oak learns that he’s not only Ratan Oak. He’s also Ramratan Oak, his great-grandfather. And he’s part of a pact between people from several communities, a pact to stop hate.
Then there’s the brilliant sarcasm (ooh, it is lovely) that shows how colonial rule in India was not the happy Raj party that the British would have the world (and us) believe it was. There are fascinating passages on the development of medicine in India and the world. And there are relationships to sort out — between lovers, spouses, parents and children, and friends.
But where did the idea to tie the plague of 1896 with the communal tension of 1992 come from? “Well, we’d always wanted to write on Bombay and on the history of medicine, and that’s what this is,” says Syed. Adds Swaminathan: “When we researched a non-fiction book on the plague (Uncertain Life and Sure Death: Medicine and Mahamaari in Maritime Mumbai), and we came across so much rich material in the state archives, we knew we had our book.”
Add a little help from a newspaper reporter who covered the communal carnage of December 1992, and you learn that the only truly fictional elements in The Quarantine Papers are Ratan and Ramratan Oak (“But we’ve lived with them in our heads for years,” says Swaminathan) and the conversations between the characters, most of whom were real people.
The obvious theme of the book is communal hatred. That makes Kalpish Ratna very angry. “Where is the anger of the common citizen,” wonders Syed. “Have we have less 9/11s in India than anywhere else? Why is what’s happening in our city happening? Who’s going to talk about this?”
But equally important for the writers is the need to change mindsets with regard to India and the world of the Whites. “Many aspects of history are so coloured with White that no one gives a damn for the truth,” says Syed.
“The voice of the native is always forgotten.”’
“For instance,” explains Swaminathan, “Any standard medical text on cholera — including those that are taught in our colleges — will open with a map of shipping routes. It’d tell you there were seven pandemics of cholera in so many years, and it’d give you the number of mortalities in each. But no text would tell you that in the same period discussed in the text, 23 million people died of cholera in India. The narrative of any disease has always been from a western perspective.”
But Kalpish Ratna aim to bring us these “forgotten Indian lives”. “It’s all there, all first person accounts, all archived,” says Swaminathan. When the sequel(s) to The Quarantine Papers are published (“We have 10 plots,” chuckles Syed) hopefully, we’ll find ourselves. And hopefully, we’ll find ten more great books.