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Looking at past pandemics in the time of coronavirus

Ashoke Mukhopadhyay’s book, ably translated from Bengali into English by Arunava Sinha, takes the reader in the lanes of a plague-hit Bengal of the 18th and the 19th centuries.

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A Ballad of Remittent Fever
Ashoke Mukhopadhyay
Translated by Arunava Sinha
Aleph, Rs 699

As one treads through the pages of Ashoke Mukhopadhyay’s A Ballad of Remittent Fever, the reader finds himself walking in the lanes of a plague-hit Bengal of the 18th and the 19th century. After presenting struggling physicians of the old Bengal combating a disease with saline solution, Mukhopadhyay introduces the reader with the family of Dwarikanath Ghoshal whose four generations, despite all odds, are trying to inculcate scientific temperament in the society.

Originally written in Bengali Abhiram Jworer Roopkatha, this novel has been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. This book becomes important and interesting in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic because this story narrates Ghoshal family’s will to overcome a medical crisis through scientific means, pragmatic approach and a rationalistic mindset in a society whose thinking is crippled by religious dogmas and superstitious beliefs. Dr Dwarikanath’s only aim is to save his people and nothing else. It is an achievement of the author who has successfully married historical research with the craft of storytelling. This is a tale of changes in medicine and above all it is an introspection which reflects love, hope and dreams in the middle of despair.

The story is also a heroic portrayal of doctors who battle on the frontline sometimes without any government support. Mukhopadhyay has successfully translated history’s facts into dialogues. On being asked about what inspired him to come up with this book, he says, “Epidemics change the lifestyle of human beings. In the outside world it impacts urban planning, architecture and public health issues. In the locality, it exposes superstitions, illogical attitude in the social fabric; while at home it is the time for an acid test of mutual relationships. It happens everywhere in the world and Calcutta is no exception. I wanted to highlight the scientists and physicians’ quest for cure to illness, superstitions around the disease and reactions-responses of the rest of the society on it through a maze of characters in A Ballad of Remittent Fever.”

During 1867-1967, Calcutta experienced more than one epidemic; of which plague, Asiatic cholera, malarial fever and smallpox are noteworthy. Besides, tuberculosis (“consumption” in the early nineteenth century doctors’ lingo), typhus and Spanish flu also struck the population.

 Plague prompted the British to lay stress on cleanliness in the city and suburbs; the underground sewerage network was commissioned. Calcutta, then under the British rule, had also witnessed the laying of underground sewers, the hallmark of the rulers. “While on one hand the city chronicled the lack of empathy of the commoners towards the plague-bitten human being, the effort of Sister Nivedita to keep the locality, where she lived, clean and her caregiver role were also recorded. Finally, much before the vaccine came to the fore the disease was controlled out of cleanliness drive; disinfectants were sprayed at all nooks and the corners of the city,” Mukhopadhyay said.

Asiatic cholera was a deadly epidemic. According to a report, during 1817-57, only six per cent of soldiers posted in Calcutta and other parts of India under the British East India Company, died of battling the enemy; remaining ninety-four per cent expired out of Cholera and other enteric diseases. While the public health and hygiene measures were enforced, people were educated on the use of potassium permanganate in wells and ponds; they were educated on personal hygiene.

“All the components in the society in the period dealt with challenges are still present in our existing system and the situation is still relevant in a period where mankind is under threat of ‘Holocene’ extinction. Probably that is why the novel resonates within a wider audience especially during a pandemic,” says Mukhopadhyay.

Apart from storytelling, the book is a great attempt to instil scientific temperament in the society. The author feels that other than a few sporadic attempts, we failed to instil scientific and rational beliefs within us. “We have failed in this count. Mistakes may happen but intention to learn from it is more important. Do you have an iron-will to spread scientific awareness? Do you foster and inculcate rationalism in the society? The answer is one big no! Mere presence of some chapters on general science in school textbooks is futile unless you are making it a part of your daily life,” he says.

“The commoners’ attitude is to take science for granted; the way most of us take our parents for granted, in an attitude very similar to that we fail to recognise the contributions of the honest medical community. I want you not to miss the word ‘honest’,” he adds.

 Ashoke Mukhopadhyay writes in Bengali and like many others, he too is trying his best to carry forward the legacy of great Bengali novelists and poets like Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Manik Bandopadhyay and the great Rabindranath Tagore. However, he feels that the contemporary authors are unable to match the standards set by these figures.

“Rabindranath was a freak of nature. Had God composed songs, he would have written in Rabindranath’s language! So, the question of Rabindranath does not arise. Contemporary popular Bengali writers, who mostly write in mainstream magazines and newspapers, are unable to match the standards set by the greats like Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Manik Bandyopadhyay et al. Contemporary Bengali novels, mostly treading in superficial extramarital affairs, reveal its ignorance of the various factors influencing the broader section of the society; they cannot go deep into it; it lack the attitude of an explorer, the quest for truth,” he says.

While saying this, the author also admitted the importance of the subalterns in the society which is now being felt by a few authors and they are trying to explore the community. “Another important point — in the time of Saratchandra-Bibhutibhusan, they could earn their livelihood only by writing but in the present Bengal none can survive only by writing, at least writing in Bengali; so one has to do a full-time job for survival and resort to part-time writing to fulfil the desire for creations,” he adds.

 Meanwhile Arunava Sinha, who does not subscribe to the term “lost in translation”, has done a good job in translating the book in English. Talking about his challenges in translation, he says, “It was no easier or more difficult than translating any other book from Bengali. Whether I’ve been successful or not is for readers to decide after reading the book. Not that they will be comparing it with the original, but if they have a sense of having read a good book, I believe my job will have been done.”

 He adds, “The challenges are the same: To be faithful to the original book in every sense — content, form, music, silence, affect. Every language has its own way of accommodating a text; it is the combination of content and form that makes a book. So naturally a translated book will be a slightly different one from the first version in the original language. That doesn’t mean anything is lost or gained.”

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Books to look out for this week

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The Buddhist on Death Row
David Sheff
HarperCollins India, Rs 350

With uncanny clarity, David Sheff describes Jarvis Jay Masters’ gradual but profound transformation from a man dedicated to hurting others to one who has prevented violence on the prison yard, counselled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners – and even guards – find meaning in their lives. Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the Buddhist principles – compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment -and gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he shows us all how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.

CAPITAL CONTEST: How AAP and Kejriwal Won Delhi
Deepak Bajpai, Sidharth Pandey
Rupa Publications, Rs 195

Capital Contest tells us the story of how the political disruptor man- aged to disrupt once again and win the capital contest. It also gives deep insights into how the AAP has grown as a political entity. Weaving in candid accounts from the party’s key decision-makers and strategists, this book is an essential read not only for those who keenly track politics and sociology, but also for all those who are interested in understanding how India has changed and continues to change and how its politicians must continuously monitor the pulse of the people so as to be in sync with a fast-changing nation.

Doing Business in India
Jamie Cid
LID Publishing, Rs 1392

More and more businesses world- wide are looking to do business in India, but its unique business environment, culture and traditions make it a challenging market for most foreigners. Doing Business in India is designed to make anyone exploring, starting or already doing business in India better aware of the cultural and business etiquette necessary to succeed in this market. This book is a one-stop guide that aims to shed light on the intricacies and complexities of doing business in India. It will help inspire and remove the fear of doing business in India from entrepreneurs and business owners who may find it overwhelming, confusing and even intimidating.

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Understanding world of boys is first step to understand men: Vaidyanathan

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Journalist-turned-author Siddhartha Vaidyanathan tells why he decided to take a journey inside the adolescent minds through his new book, What’s Wrong with You, Karthik? (Picador India, Rs 599).

Excerpts:

Q: At a time when most authors are using heavy topics like gender equality, racism, violence, etc, you chose to explore an adolescent mind with humour. Why?

A: I am drawn to fiction that engages with serious topics through the medium of storytelling. The writing needs to sustain the reader’s interest. The heavier themes can then glide below the surface. Humour, when done well, can bring the reader onto your side. It is like you are telling her: Trust me, I can make you laugh. You then go about subtly weaving in serious themes like the lasting effects of bullying, the profound relationship kids have with gods, the unreasonable academic pressures that are placed on children, and an education system that tends to reward memory over creativity.

Q. Does comedy come naturally to you?

A: As paradoxical as it sounds, I take comedy seriously. So I am never entirely satisfied with the parts meant to be funny. The challenge is to spring the humour when the reader least expects it. And to make sure the joke is calibrated to fit with the mood of the scene.

Q: The story also talks about hyper-masculinity which is a less discussed yet important side, especially in boys. Why did you feel is it important to talk about this?

A: Many men are at their most relaxed when in the company of male friends. They swear without inhibition, make inappropriate jokes, and talk about their sexual experiences. Teenage boys are similar, though some don’t stay within their limits, especially when fuelled by the male energy around them. Stronger boys dominate the weaker ones, confident boys gang up on those who are struggling to fit in, and there is an obsession with muscularity and other physical attributes. Going deep into this world helps us see why bullies act in certain ways and how the victims try, and often fail, to cope. We hear intimate conversations and realise how sexism and homophobia are easily normalised. To understand the world of boys is the first step in understanding men.

Q: The book also talks about the school system and how the rat race impacts a young mind. Was this angle explored intentionally?

A: Karthik has spent six years in alternative schooling and has only now joined the academic rat race. As an outsider, he sees the contrast. He is also clueless about how to prepare for exams. It is obvious that your grades don’t reveal your intelligence or account for your innovativeness, creativity and sensitivity, but it takes time for a child to come to terms with this. Especially a child whose
parents are as demanding as Karthik’s. Each of us will know someone who has been left broken by the system simply because they didn’t figure out how to cram textbooks and crack exams. I felt it is important to highlight the debilitating effects these exams have on many students.

Q: While reading the novel, one gets a touch of R.K. Naryan’s ‘Malgudi Days’. Who are your favourite authors and why?

A: That is the highest compliment anyone can give this book. R.K. Narayan is one of my inspirations and Swami and Friends was the first book I fell in love with. That book is full of such insights from a child’s vantage. I am delighted to read it even as an adult. I love V.S. Naipaul’s early works. Miguel Street is a rare gem. It taught me that even the best writers have drawn on their childhood experiences in their fiction. And one can never tire of how masterfully Naipaul crafts his sentences. Every word, punctuation mark does its job. And guides the reader along, one step at a time

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The magic of Himalayas

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On a rather sultry day, while I was grappling with back-to-back official meetings, Haunting Himalayas — a collection of short stories by Rajni Sekhri Sibal, a former career bureaucrat and a poetess — arrived on my desk. Dreadfully searching for a distraction more than a reprieve, I took a quick look and chanced upon these lines from the author’s note: “There is a fuzzy realm that separates the here and the now from what is ethereal…” Maybe it was because of how I was feeling then, or perhaps because there was a realm of insight in the “Author’s Note”, but even though writing is often idiosyncratic and subjective, it seemed as though the words spoke to me. Me alone.

Haunting Himalayas is fantasy and fiction rolled into one. Flipping through the pages of this book is like breathing in a lungful of pine and deodar-scented Himalayan air. Just like the Himalayan air, the author’s writing style is fresh and crisp. The book is a collection of eight short stories. Every story has an element of veracity behind it. The author, however, has taken the creative license to let her imagination run wild and sprinkle a dash of fiction on the narrative.

Truth be told, the mysterious occurrences in these stories are true incidences that people have experienced firsthand. Even the most indiscernible reader might find it difficult to rubbish these freak instances in the hills as mere fiction. True, these stories may baffle the average reader, but every plot promises to fascinate, enchant and bewilder. Take, for instance, the opening story, which is titled, “Ishmiley Mem Saab”. Trekkers have spotted the ‘lady in white’ near the River Bhagirathi at Harsil in the Garhwal mountains and also near River Parvati in the Parvati Valley beyond Manikaran. That’s not all. The last story, “Headless Soldier”, is based on an actual sighting by a lady back in the late 1930s and the instance has been narrated to the author by the lady’s daughter-in-law. The story titled “Mulberry House Magnet” is also based on a true episode that happened with a Parsi family.

Usually, short story collections are disconnected in time and space. Their characters are unrelated and the plots often change tracks between myriad themes. However, the common thread that shines through this book is the backdrop of the mystic Himalayas, which lends the volume a sense of gravity. Each story takes the reader through the varied landscapes of the Himalayas — be it in Mussoorie,
Chamba, Shimla, Lahaul-Spiti or Nainital. The author, like an ace story-teller, does complete justice as she un- ravels the mysteries hidden deep inside the folds of these glorious mountain ranges. It is reminiscent of the pleasures of long solitary walks in the hills and brings out the author’s unsophisticated yet deep love for the natural world — mountains, rivers and the seasons. Rajni Sekhri Sibal understands the Himalayas like no one else. Although she hails from the heart of Punjab, she’s spent a great deal of her life in the hills: first, as a student at the Welham Girls’ School and later, as an IAS probationer at the academy in Mussoorie. In fact, in the short story “Tinkling Anklets”, the author makes a passing reference to her alma mater.

Haunting Himalayas might not sparkle with the brilliance of a thriller, but it is an open invitation for the reader into the supernatural and transcendental world of the hills, as the author lets the reader into her imaginative and creative mind. Delving into the pages of Rajni Sekhri’s book is like sipping unspiced, clear, hot chicken broth at the end of an extremely rough day at work — it does not excite your taste buds but soothes them — and you are grateful for that.

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My job is that of a gardener, says Anand Neelakantan

I have to adhere to the Bahubali universe while crafting this novel series. It is like a gardener being handed over a patch of land. There are boundaries, there are some rules on what he could cultivate, yet the gardener must create a beautiful garden. If there were no boundaries, there would be no garden but a patch of wilderness.

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Known for his keen retelling — or counter-telling — of episodes from Indian mythology, Anand Neelakantan is now working on a trilogy based on the blockbuster Bahubali films. The acclaimed author spoke to The Daily Guardian about Chaturanga, the second book in the series which has just come out, and how writing within certain narrative boundaries is just like cultivating a garden.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Chaturanga tells a tale about the nexus of power, gender and caste, and the strategy needed to navigate a hierarchical and unjust society. Did you draw any inspiration from contemporary politics and social issues while writing the book?

A. All my books draw from contemporary politics and social issues. The story may be set in Lanka, Hastinapura, Kishkinda or Mahishmathi of many thousand years ago, but the issues the characters face would be those of now. If you read between the lines, you can perhaps get which events in recent history or which political character I am alluding to in my books. I believe human nature and human experience remain unchanged across time, culture and location.

Q. Sivagami is a rather grey character and her quest for vengeance culminates in a bloody act of violence at the end of this book. Tell us about how you carved such a complex character.

A. The story deals with medieval politics. Violence is a close cousin of power and deceit is the sibling. For a book series spanning three books, a simplistic story of good triumph- ing over evil would not work. A book does not have the advantage of visual storytelling where a simple story can be told spectacularly with the help of visual effects, stunts, scale of production and music. A writer has to depend on intriguing plots and deep characterisation to tell a gripping story. I had no choice other than to make Sivagami complex. The advantage of that is that it would make her more relatable and humane. The disadvantage is disappointing those who relish perfect squeaky white heroes and coal black villains.

Q. What sort of research did you do while shaping the fictional Mahishmathi and its people?

A. I had set up the timeline as sometime around 8th century in the Deccan for my Mahishmathi. I had taken the clue from the scene in the film where a Middle-Eastern merchant comes to sell a sword to Kattappa. My research involved knowing more about this historic period, the way people dressed, the social structure, etc. Though strictly not from this period, I have drawn a lot from the Vijayanagara Empire, the Kakatiyas, Cholas and Cheras for modelling different kingdoms. The species of horses that were imported, the folk songs of this period — all these little details I have carved may perhaps delight a reader who is aware of these things. For the majority of readers who may not care about it, I have tried to make the novel as thrilling as possible and I can only wish they would come back to read the book at a slower pace later. 

Q. Even though you are authoring the books, their narrative has to adhere to the Bahubali universe which began with the films. Does that pose any sort of limits on your writing?

A. Any creative art needs boundaries and limitations. Art and literature have rules and I accepted that I have to adhere to the Bahubali universe while crafting this novel series. It is like a gardener being handed over a patch of land. There are boundaries, there are some rules on what he could cultivate, the seed he is given, the nature of soil and availability of water. Yet, the gardener must create a beautiful garden. If there were no limitations or boundaries, there would be no garden but a patch of wilderness. My job was that of a gardener.

Q. With a massive set of characters and multiple themes, this is a trilogy of epic proportions. How do you keep the threads of the plot together while writing?

A. I go with the characters. I am an organic writer. I sow the character seeds and water them with my imagination. I let the characters grow, pruning them here and there, allowing some to grow bigger, some to remain in bonsai form and so on. If I was approaching the story writing as how an engineer makes a building, then I would be worried about the plan and about keeping a strict adherence to the plan. Here, I consider myself as a gardener and let the plot grow by itself. I need to keep checking the blueprint.

Q. You have written novels, scripts for TV, and now this trilogy of novels based on films, which is about to get adapted for Netflix! How did you adjust your writing process to each situation?

A. Each is a different art. I am experimenting with different writing forms. I write columns in newspapers. I have written more than 500 hours of scripts for TV, published poetry, short stories, finished a script for a feature film and have now ventured into children’s books. It is like a cricketer playing T20, one-day matches and Tests. Each may require a different temperament and skills, but all of them are cricket. The basic rules remain the same.

Q. As an eminent author of the genre, what would be your advice for aspiring writers of mythological fiction?

A. I don’t know whether I can advise anyone. What I would suggest to any aspiring writer of any sort of fiction is to be prepared for a lot of rejection and criticism. For fiction derived from our Puranas, please do not restrict your research to Google. Most of the Puranic stories are still in an oral format and there are hundreds of variations of the same story across Asia. Never approach them in a dogmatic fashion and never write stories derived from Puranas unless you are passionate about them. It is back-breaking hard work.

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Books to look out for this week

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Wondering of Indian International Ethics
Padmaja Bharti
Leading trails, rs 149


Wondering of Indian International Eth- ics sends a mesage of unity. In present times, peace is crucial for our current and future generations. How does di- plomacy work with ethical value? We need ethics in every aspect of our life and work. The book serves to know knowledge and morality. Now with inner peace being pegged as the new wealth, at work and off it; how does diplomacy work with ethical value? It describes how Indian ethics affect the world. Just to realise our diversity has global value and by old sustainable theories, all are the part of ethics.

The Making of Aadhaar
Ram Sevak Sharma
Rupa, Rs 595


Aadhaar is the world’s largest iden- tity project that enrolled a billion resi- dents. This book offers insights into its creation, at a fraction of the cost of the alternative, less sophisticated identity systems that had been previ- ously tried in India and elsewhere. It makes for an interesting case study as outcomes of major projects, especially in government, tend to range from the ‘underwhelming’ to the ‘spectacular failures’. Alongside Nandan Nilekani, the author led a brilliant team in devel- oping the technology that undergirds Aadhaar. The book tells an inside story of how Aadhaar came into being.

And… Perhaps Love
Sanil Sachar
Penguin, rs 299


A new normal has replaced the estab- lished order. Distant relationships, vir- tual work, blurred futures and measur- ing our way back to this reality occupy us every day. Negotiating these changes, Sanil Sachar’s And … Perhaps Love will work as your companion. It is a silent observer for when you want to read it, and a patient listener when you wish to communicate with it. Each turn of the page is a new chapter and an instance of life as you’ve encountered. Captur- ing the ideas of love, darkness and the attempt to find balance in life, this is a book for now and forever.

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Squashing ancient demons in 21st century

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With Ayodhya in the news lately, the Ramayana has captured our imaginations again. Shubira Prasad’s Demons of Jaitraya is the newest entrant in the world of mythological fiction in India, which brings the lessons taught by the epic to the modern world.

Q. The book combines Indian mythology with fantasy. What inspired you to write the story?
A. My extreme love and fascination for the Indian epics compelled me to take a leaf from the Ramayana and go ahead from there. The book is about demons who escaped from the time of Ramayana, but the action takes place here in the 20th and the 21st centuries. Hence, there had to be an amalgamation of mythology and fantasy.

Q. Why did you choose to base your story off the Ramayana? Was it a deliberate decision to set it in the 21st century with a young female protagonist?

A. I have deliberately chosen the con- temporary period so that people can relate to it easily. Even though it is fantasy, the relevance of the story can be felt in the contemporary world. One doesn’t have to draw a parallel, but one can fix the modern day characters in templates provided in this book and appreciate its pertinence. I feel a sound knowledge of mythology makes one prepared to face today’s challenges.It was my idea to have a young female protagonist who is embodied with the traits and focus of Maa Durga yet has all the frailty and qualities of a human. I am also focusing on Bhagwan Ram in the book. Against popular belief, the war between Ram and Ravan or their forces, did not end with the killing of Ravan in Lanka. It is still on.

Q. The lead character, Aishani, is well read in Indian classical and religious texts. Are
there lessons from those texts which have guided you in life too?

A. Yes, of course, if you look closely, all the self-help and guidance books that are around have their roots in our ancient scriptures, which include day to day living, ethics, morality, relationships, work and a myriad of other ethical behaviours. Our ancient scriptures have impressed many erudite scholars from the West too. So much so that many of them have adopted the Hindu way of life. Thus in the book, I have tried to introduce one such figure who understood Hindu scriptures and was probably a Hindu warrior in their earlier births.

Q. Which mythological fiction author/s do you most admire?

A. My sources of inspiration have been the original writers or the sages of our ancient epics. Valmiki’s Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas have been the main sources of inspiration. However, Indian contemporary writers like Devdutt Patnaik, Amish Tripathi and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni have greatly impressed me and made me believe that writing based on the epics can be made interesting by adding fantasy to them. Reading of English fantasy writing made me realise that a vacuum existed in contemporary Indian fantasy, particularly in the English language. I have tried to fill that vacuum.

Shubira Prasad’s ‘Demons of Jaitraya’ is published by Vitasta (Rs 350).

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