Essay: Forever Amber revisited
We travelled from Mumbai to Northwestern University (USA) in December 2019, intending to return in early April 2020. During those four months however, the world changed in ways no one had anticipated and it was end-June before we were able to return home. Stuck in the US with no imminent end in sight following the Indian government’s ban on international travel, struggling to understand what was happening amid a whirling kaleidoscope of conflicting reports and analyses, rumours, speculations, and advice from concerned friends and family members, the phrase “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” seemed to make a whole lot of sense as each morning off-loaded diverging data on infections and fatality rates.
The rapidly-disintegrating global village as nations shuttered themselves, the spiralling infections, the disconcerting accounts of dead bodies stacked high for mass burial or cremation, were like a throwback to another age, instinctively bringing to mind Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 bestseller Forever Amber which I first read in the late 1960s. The story about a country lass who ran away to London and overcame all manner of adversity, scrambling her way up the social ladder to become a mistress to Charles II was riveting enough to teenaged minds. But what struck us most as students of literature was the vast research that had gone into a “historical” novel, capturing the essence of that period more vividly than many of the scholarly works that formed our prescribed reading, and our lofty no-nonsense tutors little suspected how hungrily we devoured the book to better understand that catalytic era.
Forever Amber transformed the Restoration period from a course topic into a living, vibrant, corrupt, fascinatingly amoral age whose socio-political changes had a lasting impact. England’s mercantile expansion, the growing power of its merchants and traders, the way it illustrated the proverbial “rise of the middle class”, the efforts to consolidate its maritime supremacy, all belonged to this period as did the setting up of the interdisciplinary Royal Society under the patronage of Charles II. But equally central to the book’s storyline was the Great Plague of the 1660s, and it was graphically described. Perhaps because of this going back to Forever Amber in April 2020 was a spontaneous, eerie experience.
The Great Plague insinuated itself into public consciousness much the way COVID-19 was now doing. Reading how life at Charles II’s court continued with its merriment and intrigues, indifferent to the looming threat, I thought of us at Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Boxing Day 2019, jostling happy crowds enjoying a freak summer-like warmth, the chattering tourists who transformed that Avenue into a Tower of Babel. In retrospect it appeared incredible how oblivious everyone was to the approaching tsunami of infection, illness and death even though the first signs were already manifest in China’s Hubei province in November 2019, with the virus reportedly circulating undetected in the US around the same time. Even when 27 “viral pneumonia” cases were confirmed by the Wuhan municipal health commission at the end of December, it hardly caused a ripple elsewhere. The world partied, celebrated, and rang in the New Year as if there were no tomorrow.
Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice, published 6 years before the deadly Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, described how Venetian authorities concealed a raging cholera epidemic to prevent the exodus of tourists and much the same thing happened in early 2020 as countries in denial mode refrained from closing their borders to tourists. Though the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the US was reported on 20 January 2020 and Wuhan was in lockdown mode from 23 January it was not till 30 January, when laboratory-confirmed cases were reported from 22 other countries and WHO declared what was now being called COVID-19 a global health emergency and subsequently (11 March) a pandemic, that the US media and health agencies went into overdrive. In Winsor’s novel, Amber had skeptically termed plague “the poor man’s disease”, and it was only when the Court left London that she grew nervous. Likewise, the alarm and media spotlight in 2020 owed much to the fact that the world’s five wealthiest nations (USA, UK, Italy, France and Germany) were among the worst affected initially.
By end January the US banned travellers from China, from Europe on 11 March and from the UK and Ireland about a week later. By end February, a church event in South Korea became a super spreader, and WHO warned against large gatherings. Despite this the Namaste Trump event was held with much fanfare in Ahmedabad on 24 February. A week or so after the European Union banned international travel in mid-March people in India were exhorted to stave off the growing global threat by banging thalis in a symbolic charade of national camaraderie. A total national lockdown a mere couple of days later caught the nation unawares much the way demonetisation did in 2016 and the resultant, heart-breaking visuals of migrant workers fleeing to home towns and villages brought back memories of images of Partition.
Emails from India spoke of deserted, ghost-like neighbourhoods, social isolation, and suspicion not unlike the1660s when Amber, stuck in plague-affected London with her infected lover, saw London change day by day: “Gradually the vendors disappeared from the streets, and with them went the age-old cries which had rung through the town for centuries. Many shops had closed… the shop-keepers were afraid of the customers, the customers were afraid of the shop-keepers. Friends looked the other way when they passed, or crossed the street to avoid speaking… Fear was as contagious as the plague, and it spread as the plague spread. The well expected to be sick; hope of escape was small. Death was everywhere now. You might inhale it with a breath; you might take it up with a bundle of food; you might pass it in the street and bring it walking home beside you.” As with the Plague which “made no choice between the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly, the young and the old…”, infection and death were democratic in the times of COVID.
Forever Amber described how it soon became impossible to bury the dead with dignity. Huge pits at the city’s edge received the dead each night, “some of them decently in coffins, more and more shrouded only in a sheet or naked, as they had died. In the grave they found a common anonymity…” Similar accounts were reported globally from as early as April 2020: mass graves, mass burials, mass cremations and, closer home more recently, corpses dumped into a holy river. Rumours of organ theft, accounts of life-saving drugs sold at absurdly high premiums, the fake vaccination drive executed by medical practitioners, all reiterated what a Keki N Daruwalla poem had bluntly predicted as far back as 1967: If we had plague/ Camus-style/ and doctors searched for the virus/there would be black-market in rats. In 17C England, the superstitious had fallen prey to unauthenticated preventive measures which included contracting a venereal disease, carrying a newly-minted coin in one’s mouth, sniffing an orange, and wearing a unicorn’s horn. In much the same way a global market for preventives and traditional remedies, some even promising “99.9%” protection against the coronavirus, commenced as early as February 2020 and conflicting daily summaries of dos and don’ts brought on a panic buying and hoarding of bathroom tissue, face masks, hand sanitisers and disinfectant wipes that was as comical as it was scary.
The Great Plague outbreak faded from public memory in Forever Amber as it must have in real life. Those who had fled London returned to resume their daily lives, seemingly unaffected by the suffering and death, with no lessons learnt even after the Great Fire of the 1660s which followed soon after and destroyed virtually all of London. As COVID-19 showed, despite similar global outbreaks including the Spanish flu (1918), Ebola (1976), Nipah (1998), SARS-CoV (2003), H1N1 (declared a pandemic in 2009), MERS-CoV (2012), and so on, public health remained low priority in virtually every country and the existing infrastructure proved hopelessly inadequate in 2020. Few of us may be aware that a disaster of this magnitude was not wholly unanticipated; that following the H1N1 pandemic WHO had set up an advisory group which met as far back as February 2018 and drew up a priority list of dangerous viruses with no known antidote by way of drugs or vaccines; and that though the list included SARS, MERS, and even a “Disease X” which could be a variant or mutant of one of the known viruses, no proactive measures were taken anywhere in the world: “prevention was very possible,” a member of the advisory group was quoted as saying when the 2020 pandemic hit. “But we didn’t do it. Governments thought it was too expensive. Pharmaceutical companies operate for profit”.
As 2020 went by, people grew sanguine about the way the pandemic had altered priorities and lifestyles but as curbs were lifted it was apparent that hedonistic consumerism was entrenched in the global consciousness and that very little had changed in that department. In fact, the visible changes from the pre-pandemic era are far from promising. Globalisation had always seemed skewed in favour of the richer nations, making it difficult to accept that the old prejudices of racial “othering” were over and done with. If seventeenth century xenophobia in Forever Amber saw foreigners killed and the French Ambassador’s windows shattered, COVID-19’s xenophobia targeted Asian Americans and people of colour. Likewise, many of us would remember a time not so long ago when getting inoculated against stipulated diseases was a precondition to foreign travel from India, a mark of where you came from and what the world thought of you as a result – a state of affairs that changed over the past few decades as the global village became a possibility. “Someone told me that the gates are guarded now and that no one can leave without a certificate of health,” Amber’s lover had said in the 1660s. Post-COVID, post the second wave and what was initially dubbed “the Indian (now Delta) variant”, the conflicting, fluctuating, country-specific mandates on RT-PCR and vaccine certificates indicate that the global honeymoon, and indeed globalisation, may well be over.
Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic, and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.