Book Review: A Ballad of Remittent Fever by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha

Book Name: A Ballad of Remittent Fever

Author: Ashoke Mukhopadhyay

Translator: Arunava Sinha

Publisher: Aleph

Genre: Fiction

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: In the early years of the twentieth century, Calcutta is grappling with deadly diseases such as the plague, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and kala-azar. The populace is restive under British rule as World War I looms large on the horizon. Set against this backdrop, is an indelible tale of loss, hope, love, and mortality.

Dr Dwarikanath Ghoshal is propelled by a fierce desire to vanquish the diseases that ravage the population. He does not hesitate to dismiss quackery, superstition, and old-fashioned beliefs that have contributed to the spread of infectious diseases.

Four generations of Ghoshals continue to infuse their scientific temper and liberal values into the lives of people around them. There is Dwarikanath’s headstrong son, Kritindranath Ghoshal, who joins the Bengal Ambulance Corps and sets off for the battlefield in Mesopotamia during World War I. There is also his soulmate, Madhumadhabi, who trains to be an Ayurvedic doctor, and is heartbroken when Kritindranath is married off.
Equally compelling are Dwarikanath’s wife, Amodini, his grandson, his great-grandson, and a myriad other brilliantly imagined characters who play out their lives in the course of the novel, fighting diseases, social mores, and trying to cope with the enormous, convulsive changes the city is experiencing.

Distinctive and beautifully wrought, A Ballad of Remittent Fever is a stunning exploration of the world of medicine and the ordinary miracles performed by physicians in the course of their daily lives. Originally published in the Bengali as Abiram Jwarer Roopkatha, this is one of the most original novels to have come out of India in the twenty-first century.

Review: A Ballad of Remittent Fever has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha. There is a wealth of vernacular literature and translations serve a unique purpose- taking the books to other readers who otherwise may never get a chance to read it. Translation is difficult work as it not only requires linguistic expertise but also a bit of creativity- good writers make good translators.

A Ballad of Remittent Fever is set in Calcutta where diseases such as malaria and cholera are rampant. It recounts the story of Dr. Dwarikanath and his family. After rebelling against his father and selecting the medical profession, he battles various diseases in a time when people depended far more on quacks and alternative therapy for relief.

“There was just one doctor in the vicinity- young Nabindranath Gupta, rather green behind the ears. No one knew which college Nabin had studied medicine at.”

While called upon to look at a boy inflicted with malaria, he is quick to detect initial pleurisy in Baikunthanath who after being surprised at having his hookah snatched says, “There is nothing wrong with me, the patient is inside.”

The book transports a reader to a time when people did not take modern medicine seriously. Even today, in many Indian villages where hospitals are a rare sight, there is often a quack who after having worked with a doctor for a few years, starts treating patients. Such quacks charge lesser amount and are often the first line of defence for poor villagers who cannot afford or have access to city hospitals. It works well for illnesses such as occasional viral fever or wounds but fails in the time of a pandemic.

There couldn’t be a better time to publish such a book. We are in the middle of a pandemic and many of the narratives in the book are still relevant today- such as people’s dependency on untested alternative cures and refusal to pay attention to pollution and practice basic hygiene- such as washing hands.

“…you know what they say in English…fond of lawsuits, little wealth; fond of doctors, little health.”

A Ballad of Remittent Fever is a very moving story, not morbid in the end but reasserts the age old fact- human will can triumph over any adversity. Fictional works incorporating scientific temper are always a delight to read. Be prepared to transport yourself in old Calcutta and learn a thing or too on surviving cataclysmic diseases.

Quite apt for these strange times when its difficult to separate fact from fiction. After all, adversity and human despair provide far more inspiration to fiction than happiness and songs of joy.

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