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The final diagnosis: Review of ‘A Ballad of Remittent Fever’

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caught us unawares, there has been a glut of books trying to make sense of the new normal. Most of them are post-facto affairs, written with the present contagion in mind and cashing in on it. Ashoke Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali novel, Abiram Jwarer Roopkotha — about four generations of doctors from one Bengali family dealing with waves of epidemic in Calcutta from the early years of the 20th century till the late 60s — was published in January 2018. Its English translation by Arunava Sinha came out in early April this year when the lockdown had just about started in India. Since it is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, the novel can only be described as prescient.

That’s why its flat, realistic narrative gives you goosebumps. But with its emphasis on the objectivity and rationality the lead characters swear by, the novel is essentially anti-thrill. Unless you are the kind who is thrilled by the mysteries of the human body — like the doctors who pore excitedly over a dissected corpse in Rembrandt’s masterpiece ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’, a painting referred to in A Ballad.

The patriarch of the Ghoshal family, Dwarikanath, with whom A Ballad opens, might remind one of Dr. Ashok Gupta from Ray’s Ganashatru — like Dr. Gupta, Dr. Ghoshal is unbending in his pursuit of knowledge. He scoffs at the quackery that passes off as medical expertise as he goes about his practice at a time when modern medicine was largely viewed with suspicion. When his dearly loved wife dies of the Spanish flu, he dissects her body, scandalising everyone.

Yet A Ballad is not an encomium upon modern medicine. As one of the doctors of Dwarika’s great grandson’s generation says, “Many of today’s treatments owe their origins to Stone Age exorcisms.” Moreover, Dwarika’s favourite niece, the redoubtable Madhumadhabi, is an ayurveda practitioner, as competent in her chosen field as her uncle is in his own. All the good doctors in the cast are united in their relentless desire to learn, to question given beliefs, to think, even in the face of inexplicable and deadly diseases. There’s an important lesson for us here if we care to listen.

And herein also lies the significance of the titular “remittent fever”. While apparently referring to successive onslaughts of cholera, typhoid, malaria, Spanish flu, kala-azar on Calcutta, it is also a nod to the hereditary illness of the Ghoshals — the feverish desire to know that makes and unmakes them.

By now, whenever one finds an English translation of a Bengali novel, one thinks Arunava Sinha. However, in the case of A Ballad, Sinha seems to have bested himself, owning the text so completely that there is none of the awkwardness usually associated with translations. In a doggedly realistic narrative, sentences such as, “The fog was a muslin veil, spreading across the earth like chloroform seeping into the air” stand out.

A Ballad of Remittent Fever; Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, trs Arunava Sinha, Aleph, ₹699

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 9:44:12 PM |

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