July 05, 2020
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Said A Pustule

That rare thing: a literary thriller, with the quality of producing a sensation of vulnerability

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Said A Pustule
The Quarantine Papers
By Kalpish Ratna
HarperCollins | 416 pages | Rs 499

The Quarantine Papers is a masterful narrative: a thriller, a love story, a pathological view of history, a scrambled puzzle, a deeply disturbing morality tale, an account of the Bombay plague of 1896-98, the forgotten epidemic that marked India’s first direct collision between modern science and an epidemic.

The story begins on the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and moves menacingly through the backwash of sectarian rhetoric and violence that followed. It focuses on the life and encounters of Ratan Oak, a Maharashtrian Brahmin and freelancing microbiologist, who is given to hallucinations. A second narrative emerges with Ratan Oak’s—a plague chronicle from Bombay of the late 19th century, when fear of death by disease settled over the city like a frozen blanket, and a small, lonesome squad of pathologists investigated the pestilence.

The book is a curious study of the transforming nature of sectarian violence and epidemic disease. And their commonalities. Pestilences devalue life, change its tenor. Following epidemics, societies became restive and violent. Wars broke out, flagellant movements were spawned, minorities were persecuted.

The Quarantine Papers is that rare thing: a literary thriller, with the quality of producing a sensation of vulnerability. Kalpish Ratna is the collective takhallus of Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, both surgeons. Their prose has the characteristic of having occasional thickets of medical metaphors and tropes that are splendidly placed. Luverly.

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