Who’s afraid of a virus wolf?

The human tryst with epidemics is as old as the hills; writers over centuries have repeatedly explored it in prose and verse, underlining not just its terrifying power but also the resilience of the human mind in confronting it

Published - March 28, 2020 04:00 pm IST

Peace: ‘Reading is solitude. One reads alone, even in another's presence’ — Italo Calvino.

Peace: ‘Reading is solitude. One reads alone, even in another's presence’ — Italo Calvino.

After the hailstorm of graves/ the column was thrust up high/ and four old poets/ leaned back on it / to write on the books pages/ their bestsellers.

Jaroslav Seifert in ‘The Plague Column’ (Translated by Ewald Osers from Czech)

In his poem, ‘The Abandoned Cemetery at Balasore, India’ Jayanta Mahapatra conjures up an atmosphere of “timeless ennui” that foreshadows an epidemic looming over human kind. For the poet, the cholera epidemic embodies “a quiet power” as it “moves easily, swiftly” through “past and present” into “the growing young, into the final bone”, threatening to wear down “all truth with ruin”. The poem underlines the insignificance of human life against a contagious malady’s potent power.

As we struggle with the outbreak of Covid 19, we must remember that the human tryst with epidemics is as old as the hills. From the Antonine Plague (165-180AD), the Plague of Justinian (541-543 AD), and the Great Bubonic Plague in Europe (1346-1353) to the Spanish Flu (1918-20) HIV (1981-) and the Asian Flu (1957-58). It was Homer who first used the term epidemios for the returning natives in Odyssey. The word was first advocated as a medical term in a treatise by Hippocrates to mean “that which circulates or propagates in a country.” Writers over centuries have explored the impact of epidemics in prose and verse.

Living with death

“The plague was posting sentries at the gates and turning away ships bound for Oran,’’ wrote Albert Camus . For contemporary readers, the fictional examination of a pandemic is almost synonymous with Camus’ The Plague. The seminal allegorical work is a critique of “repugnant materialism” as well as a graphic account of human confrontation and co-habitation with death.

How true these words ring today: “Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come.”

As research, Camus meticulously studied earlier histories and literature, going back to Thucydides’ account of the typhus plague that ravaged Athens. Later writers explored and expanded the plague metaphor further. Notable among these is José Saramago’s Ensaio sobre a Cegueira ( Blindness ) and Mario Bellatin’s Salon de Belleza ( Beauty Salon ).

Laws dissolved

Perhaps the most virulent pandemic in human history is the Black Death of the 14th century that lasted till as late as the early 18th century, recurring at sporadic intervals. Then too, the initial outbreak devastated Italy, inflicting heavy casualties on Florence; and later in Marseilles, France.Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, composed in the 14th century, which inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, provides an authentic description of the pestilence in Florence. In his introduction, Boccaccio chronicles the devastation he witnessed: “In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for (lack of) the ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore everyone had license to do whatever pleased him.” Chaucer’s portrayal of plague in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’was in all probability inspired by Boccaccio, although England had been repeatedly ravaged by plague between 1348 and 1376.

Ravings and ragings

Daniel Defoe gives a firsthand account in A Journal of the Plague Year Written by a Citizen who Continued all the While in London (1722): “And here I must observe also that the plague, as I suppose all distempers do, operated in a different manner on differing constitutions; some were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains; others with swellings and tumors in the neck or groin, or armpits, which till they could be broke put them into insufferable agonies and torment; while others, as I have observed, were silently infected, the fever preying upon their spirits insensibly, and they seeing little of it till they fell into swooning, and faintings, and death without pain.” More than two centuries later, Thom Gunn would describe the AIDs epidemic in his poem ‘In Time of Plague’:

My thoughts are crowded with death

and it draws so oddly on the sexual

that I am confused

confused to be attracted

by, in effect, my own annihilation.

Comic proportions

Epidemics and human responses to it occasionally gained a lighter dimension. In Due Preparations for the Plague as well for Soul as Body, Defoe narrates the extraordinary precautionary measures taken by the head of a family during a self-imposed quarantine that lasted an amazing five and a half months in 1665. Besides gathering provisions for the family (husband, wife, three sons, two daughters, two maids and an apprentice), elaborate measures, often of comic proportions, were undertaken to prevent infection. Even letters delivered by the postman were purified: “...he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbad his friends writing to him at all.”

It wasn’t just the plague; with colonial ambitions came the ‘White Man’s Burden’, a self-inflicted responsibility assumed by the British that came with its unique share of cholera, small pox, flu, dysentery, tuberculosis and a host of other epidemics. Corresponding with his aunt Edith Macdonald in 1884, young Rudyard Kipling articulated his fears, emblematic of those that plagued the average European in India: “As you are seven thousand miles away, I don’t mind telling you that there has been a case of sporadic cholera already and, as this is the third year since we had the last epidemic, we are anticipating a festive season later on.” The outbreak of epidemics in the colonised space was often interpreted as a ‘problematic reversal’ of the aggressive act of subjugation by the colonisers.

Wrath of deities

However, beyond the Euro-centric portrayal of epidemics, there were also indigenous accounts. Celebrated Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi’s memoir, A Life Misspent, provides a heart-rending account of the influenza epidemic that ravaged India during the early years of the 20th century: “I travelled to the riverbank in Dalmau and waited… The Ganga was swollen with dead bodies. At my in-laws’ house, I learned that my wife had passed away.”

In Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works, malaria is an inevitable part of rural life. His central protagonists, Ramesh in Pallisamaj, Brindaban in Panditmasay, orSrikanta in Srikanta, are frequently portrayed as altruists, eager to take on the arduous task of rescuing pandemic-afflicted villagers, oblivious to the danger of contagion. Interestingly, the villagers held the wrath of deities responsible for diseases like plague, cholera and small pox, and made offerings to goddesses like Olabibi, Sitala, Manasa, Bonobibi, Olaichandiand others.

Epidemics feature in Tagore’s novels too. In Chaturanga (1916), when Calcutta is scourged by plague, Saachish’s compassionate uncle converts his home into an infirmary for the poor, but while nursing the patients, succumbs to the disease.

Literature, in responding to epidemics, celebrates the enduring range of human responses, the gamut of feelings that rage against the onslaught of disease and death. We will no doubt see poets and writers chronicle the current difficult times too.

The writer is the Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata.

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