Catastrophe by a cough
Author : Sidin Vadukut
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Rs 350
This is a well-researched work in terms of medical knowledge as well as politics and history. The hard work that has been put into the novel is clearly evident, writes SHWETA DUSEJA
Often we have heard our mothers say, “Don’t switch on the air conditioner right after you come from the Sun, else you will catch cold”. Sidin Vadukut, in his medical thriller, precisely suggests that through his cautionary tale, Bombay Fever. It is a mysterious narrative where thousands of people have been infected by a “bloody cough” and hundreds of them die leading to an epidemic in Mumbai. The Government declares a complete lockout on the airports, railway stations and bus terminals to prevent the infection from spreading across the nation.
A chill runs through the body each time a victim of the disease dies. The witnesses of the terrifying deaths within the body of the book and the readers of the novel share a similar response to the disintegrating bodies. Nobody in the book has any clue about the disease and the thrill lies in detecting the cause to save millions of lives. In the absence of any information on the new outbreak, the city disintegrates like the infected body of a victim. There are several accounts of mob violence because of wrong information circulating through social media, panic and self-preservation which add to the already prevalent fright.
Like all thrillers, Bombay Fever includes the readers as participants to join the dots of the puzzle and solve the riddle. Vadukut mingles history with fiction to produce a nerve-wracking narrative of the plague which makes it an impressively plausible account. There are several instances in the text that might puzzle the readers into asking the question, “Did it really happen?” because of the objective tone and interspersing of various facts from history. Sidin shares his excitement in an interview when he recounts how his editor repeatedly asked him, “Is this real?”, and emphasises the author’s efforts in making it happen, “And I was so happy. Because that is what I wanted readers to think.” The making of such a work of fiction requires a lot of research apart from creativity and originality.
And the author has left no stone unturned to collate his material. Bombay Fever is a well-researched work in terms of medical knowledge as well as politics and history. The hard work that has been put in the novel is clearly evident. The novel bares the way a microbe affects the body at the cellular level and the way it spreads in the community. The failure of the protection mechanism at the cellular level creates a sense of panic within the human body. The failure of the individual mental faculty to understand the goings-on in and around himself generates a sense of helplessness because of the knowledge of the ultimate fate of the infected people. The inability of the national institutions for safeguarding its nation against disease leads to widespread anxiety and horror. This is how most epidemics function. The narrative of the action-packed thriller on a dominant endemic reflects the nitty-gritties of the process of the spreading of the disease.
At the level of politics, Vadukut shows the need of the politicians and the leaders of the nation to intervene in placating panic. However, he also pinpoints what exactly happens in times like these, how the leaders who must help relieve the catastrophe, abuse their powers to save themselves or play with people’s emotions to gain power in the political world through their manipulated conduct during the moment of crisis. The choice of incorporating historical facts in the making of the thriller is an excellent one as it makes the narrative more believable and thereby fulfilling the task of the cautionary tale too. Unless the events in the cautionary tale are conceivable, no one would take the caution seriously. Vadukut includes references to the epidemics that plagued the nation before the Bombay fever. The most that is talked about is the one at Surat. He also makes several allusions to Indira Gandhi’s governance, the state of Emergency, her defeat at the hands of Morarji Desai post Emergency in 1977. In doing so, he questions the dominant narrative about Indira Gandhi and her Government. By weaving a narrative around it, he challenges the authority of such tales and invokes the readers to rethink about their idol in the political world.
Another impressive aspect of the novel is its characterisation. Because the narrative revolves around an epidemic, there is a need to portray several characters. Despite a limited typographical space, the author has done justice to his characters. We come across characters from various walks of life which include the elite, the middle class and the working class. We have varied portraits of characters from media, health care, politics, hospitality and business. In most cases, the author has tried to present their social and family background so that the readers are able to identify with them and are disturbed by their sufferings.
Overall, it is a great read and the readers would not be able to set it aside before completing it except at moments of horror when the verbal imagery transforms into the powerful visuals in the minds of the readers that they are shocked and grieved at the afflictions of the victims.
The reviewer is an Assistant Professor of English Literature in Delhi University
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