At a time when the whole world is learning to tackle a pandemic that even as we speak has altered much of life as we know it, A Ballad of Remittent Fever resonates deeply with all of us. The novel is set in the 19th and early 20th century that has at its epicentre the respected Ghoshal family of Calcutta. Originally written in Bangla (Abiram Jworer Roopkotha) by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, the story is both a deeply personal and sensitive portrayal of a family that for generations has tried to inculcate scientific temper in those around them with admirable doggedness. It also dexterously weaves in a tapestry that encapsulates the tectonic shifts that science was simultaneously making in the field of medicine, and the advancements and breakthroughs that most of us today take for granted.
In its English translation, Arunava Sinha does an absolutely brilliant job of making us forget that we are, in fact, reading it in English, and not the original Bangla. And it’s a testament to his skill that the import and the meaning isn’t as they say ‘lost in translation’.We meet Dwarikanath Ghoshal in the year 1884. His revolt against his father’s rather conservative wishes is witnessed and he peruses Medicine with obdurate determination.
The story that moves forward in a non-linear fashion also introduces us to Dwarikanath’s spirited son Kritindranath Ghoshal, the great-grandson Dwijottamand Dwijoittam’s father Punyendranath. Calcutta is a disease-torn, beleaguered city and the battle is as much against the diseases as against superstitions. The research is fascinating, while telling us how Dwarikanath’s son joined the Bengal Medical Corps and set off for the battlefields of Mesopotamia. There is also a reference to William Stewart Halsted and his innovation of the rubber gloves which interestingly came about out of his concern for his assistant nurse’s hands that turned rough and red from handling carbolic acid. Cholera, syphilis, malaria, kala-azar, TB, plague, Spanish flu—it’s admirable how we slowly and steadily made giant leaps in curing and mitigating these diseases.
It’s also a highly heroic portrayal of the lives of doctors who battle diseases with sometimes little or no support from the government and authorities. As one of the characters mentions that the small pox epidemic in Calcutta between November 1956 and April 1957 was because of not administering the vaccine. But no one was held accountable and it made no appearance in the manifesto of political parties. Something like this sadly is perhaps true even today with public health never given the importance it deserves.
The raison d’etre of the Ghoshal family across generations has been to find a cure to deadly diseases and encourage liberal thought. It also tells us about the system of medicine that India can claim to be as its own and is championed by Madumadhabi, an Ayurvedic doctor and a feisty character who has a significant role in the narrative. In fact, the women, be it the equally compelling Dwarikanath’s wife Amodini, or Alokjharan who fancies Dwijottam, have a distinctive voice.
The personal story of the precariously balanced relationships within the Ghoshal household infused with fascinating nuggets of information about medical science is what makes A Ballad of Remittent Fever such an immersive, arresting read. It’s to the credit of Mukhopadhyay that the story seems relevant even today giving us an insight into life as it were in the early 20th century and Sinha’s English translation for remaining true to the milieu and context it was set it. Hugely readable.