Scrolling through the leaves of history

A research-based narrative podcast that brings together science, health and culture

Published - September 19, 2020 04:38 pm IST

“It feels like we’re policing ourselves and our neighbours these days. Our governments are certainly tracking us. States keep opening and closing borders.... We stay at home, waiting for permission to leave.... Our lives feel a bit dystopian, and the question is, how did we get here?”

The journey toward an answer takes up the next 35 minutes or so, as Mary-Rose Abraham and Gayathri Vaidyanathan explore archives, speak to experts, bring up old stories, and puzzle through the mists of time in Pandemics and Borders , the opening episode of the new podcast Scrolls & Leaves . The series emerged as a collaborative effort between the two longtime journalists and the Bengaluru-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) Archives.

Natural process

The podcast came up “almost as a very natural process”, explains Abraham, when she and Vaidyanathan were talking to Venkat Srinivasan, an archivist at NCBS, about the need for a research-based narrative podcast that brought together elements of science, health, history and culture, especially one that went beyond dominant Western perspectives. Access to the NCBS Archives helped them find an array of stories that could be brought to life with the added heft of historical record. “We really wanted to prioritise the voices from the margins,” says Vaidyanathan.

The first episode has four segments that explore how disease prompts the construction of borders and walls—from the masks we wear to the doors we shut to the passport control at aiports. While the opening scene is set in the present time, drawing on our experience of the COVID-19 lockdown, the documentary quickly tunnels into the past to recreate the context of the first global pandemic—cholera—and the ways in which it was understood by science, interpreted by colonial power, baked into policy and draconian law by exclusionist administrators and, ultimately, experienced as tragedy and hardship by an entire people.

Atmospheric storytelling

From a hut in Jessore in early 19th century Bengal to a Haj pilgrimage, the episode, in the manner of an audio documentary, moves between narration, expert interviews and atmospheric storytelling.

“We were very conscious of the fact that the podcast had to go beyond the usual interview format... we wanted to bring more of an auditory experience... in a way that makes the past come alive,” says Vaidyanathan, speaking on Skype from Canada. Nikhil Nagaraj, a Bangalore-based sound designer adds this element, helping create what they call a bi-aural “3-D immersive sound experience”. The podcast’s storyteller, Sumit Kumar, voices a series of roles that fill out the human side of these complex histories.

Trade Winds

The first season, called Trade Winds has six episodes that span the first two millennia with a focus on stories that pursue the question, how did global trade over two millennia shape our lives? The first two episodes use the lens of the current pandemic to understand the historical forces that govern our response to disease (the second, Healing Plants , is scheduled to drop next week). The podcast also includes a series of “Chatroom episodes” with extended interviews with experts featured in the main episodes—in one, historian of medicine Alison Bashford traces the complicated backstory of quarantines and border regulations as a response to contagion: “...that’s when you get... a link between keeping disease out, and keeping out people.”

In terms of technical sophistication, storytelling techniques and depth of research, Scrolls & Leaves has much to recommend it. But listeners have a long wait between episodes; the rest of Season 1 comes out only next year!

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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