Indian literature and epidemics

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Tagore, Premchand, 'Nirala', Senapati, Pillai, Ali

March 26, 2020: The Times of India

Pandemics are mass murderers. Diseases like plague, smallpox, influenza and cholera ruin families, destroy towns and leave a generation scarred and scared. Devastation caused by outbreaks impacted many major writers across India — Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala', Fakir Mohan Senapati, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and others — giving birth to haunting poems, short stories and novels.

“Literature regards each individual with compassion and goes deeper than what statistics or historical records can tell us. Literature may not explain away or fight off things such as pandemics, even as modern science sometimes can’t, but it does become a source of consolation, a way of sharing our common humanist concerns, and, in its own way, provides the deepest and most insightful record of the events,” says Harish Trivedi, who taught English literature at Delhi University. Tagore’s long poem, Puratan Bhritya (The Old Manservant), tells the aching story of a much-reviled house help who nurses his master to health but succumbs to smallpox. The poem, often recited at elocution contests, endures in popularity as YouTube indicates. One of its several uploads has over 3.25 lakh views. Smallpox, which originated in ancient times, killed around 300 million in the 20th century. On December 13, 2019, the WHO celebrated 40 years of eradication of smallpox.

A moving account of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which claimed an estimated 12-17 million lives in India and between 50 million and 100 million globally, is found in Ahmed Ali’s novel, “Twilight in Delhi”. The Delhi-born author, who later migrated to Pakistan, talks of how shroud thieves stole sheets from the graves and how gravediggers raised their fees four-fold during the pandemic. “They did not bother to see that the grave was properly dug or deep enough or not. They had so many more to dig,” Ali wrote.

“Delhi became a city of the dead… But the people of Delhi, true to the traditions of the past, did not miss an opportunity of having a few digs at fortune. They made songs and sang them and the leaflets containing them were sold for a pice each: “How deadly this fever is/Everyone is dying of it/The hospitals are gay and bright/But sorry is men’s plight,” he wrote.

Some writers coped with personal tragedy as well. “The Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala' lost half of his family, including his wife and daughter, in the 1918 influenza outbreak. He described how there were no wooden logs left with which to cremate the dead, and how even the Ganga grew heavy and seemed exhausted with its burden of corpses,” says Trivedi, a scholar of post-colonial and translation studies.

Several works by master storytellers mention pestilence in passing, which underlines that epidemics prominently occupied a writer’s mindscape, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Premchand’s Eidgah is one of his most remembered short stories. Some might recall that its protagonist, the 5-year-old boy Hamid, had lost his father to haija (cholera). In Doodh ka Dam, a poignant tale on untouchability, one of the characters succumbs to the plague. Many perish to cholera in Rebati, a well-known story by Fakir Mohan Senapati, often described as the father of Odia literature. Extremely virulent, cholera continues to kill thousands globally every year.

Writers in Malayalam have penned novels on epidemics. In eminent litterateur Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel, Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger’s Son), a contagious disease sweeps through Alappuzha town. Sahitya Akademi award recipient Malayalam writer Kakkanadan’s Vasoori (Smallpox) explores the reactions of a distant hamlet in central Kerala following the outbreak of smallpox. In Kannada, writer UR Ananthamurthy’s masterpiece, Samskara, one of the main characters, Narayanappa, dies of the plague.

In medieval Europe, too, plague and smallpox killed millions. Hindi author Mridula Garg says writers all over the world constantly wrote about the havoc outbreaks caused. But she believes that the emergence of a new breed of pandemics is linked to human behaviour. “They are the result of the destruction of forests, closer contact with wild animals, consumption of newer breeds of animals as food and consequent lowering of the biological barrier that kept the viruses prevalent in animals from affecting humans. We writers are concerned about this phenomenon and some works should emerge from it,” she says.

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