Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Room 000 by Kalpish Ratna: A Review in TNIE

Left to myself I would never have bought a book on medical history to read. But it seemed exciting enough when I was sent a review copy. Though the overly dramatic beginning left me a little wary, I had a good time reading it. Here is an edited version of the review, published in the magazine section of The New Indian Express on Sunday. See below for the slightly unedited version.


(Inside a plague hospital in Bombay, photo published in TNIE)

"On 29 September (1896), Lord Sandhurst, the Governor of Bombay, sent a telegram to Lord Elgin, the Governor General of India, notifying him of an outbreak of plague in Bombay city."

A few pages after a theatrical prologue set within buildings which had turrets that “were embarrassing - vestigial appendages to a building otherwise in good repair”, you read these ominous lines and the first thought is of high school history lessons. 

Elgin, Sandhurst and their grand designations sound familiar from some faint memories of learning who ruled after whom and what they did in British India. We must have studied about the plague as well, although I suspect it was reduced to a stray line somewhere. The sharper memory of the plague is that of the outbreak in Surat, 1994. The fear of this killer had percolated 1500 kms away to my tiny hometown in the hills.

Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague by the doctor-writer duo Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan details a world where the plague was discovered in the even then crowded city of erstwhile Bombay, the brave men – mostly men – who spent years trying to understand the disease and find a cure and most crucially, the lives of the thousands who died. In keeping with the crime fiction that the duo, who write their books under the nom de plume Kalpish Ratna, are well known for, they also solve a deep mystery.

The then Bombay that they describe is the Bombay that is still familiar, if not mightily overgrown with its excesses now. Crowded neighbourhoods and the crush of people, fed by the constant flow of labour that come to the city in hopes of a better life, the pockets where certain communities dominate and their tensions within, with each other are themes that are as contemporary about the city as they were over a century ago.

On what was otherwise a regular day, Dr Accacio Gabriel Viegas diagnoses the index case in what would bulge into an epidemic of the bubonic plague in the city. From utter disregard and outright dismissal by the ‘Sarkar’ - the British government - to hasty, unviable decisions to quarantine the patients and entire neighbourhoods to the inevitable fatalism of people to the many men, some women, who played key roles in the plague story, Room 000 details every stage of the epidemic. The title refers to the room number at Grant Medical College, Mumbai, where Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian, created the first vaccine against bubonic plague, injecting himself with it first and going on to save millions of lives across the country.

Alongside an array of doctors and scientists who spend their days and whole nights in the room trying to discover more about the killer disease, there runs a mystery that they must solve. The bubonic plague is always a step ahead of those that are trying to beat it. It knows no class, caste or status. They have to solve where this killer comes from, to know how they can prevent the next death. Incidentally, somewhere along the way, they invent a new science, research that still remains crucial for our understanding of medical sciences. The Holmesian quality to the way the scientists try to find highly elusive answers is a delicious touch to what could easily have ended up being just a drab account of an old half-forgotten epidemic. Room 000 is anything but that.

The book lifts the lid off deified names, going behind the legends they have become to tell stories of when they were mere humans. Haffkine has a firm place in history for his vaccine, meriting a plaque, and later an institute in his name. But the pages of this book show his vulnerabilities, his insecurities, his very-human personality, the competitions and politics that went behind his elevation to legend-hood. Culled from letters, announcements, research papers and innumerable personal accounts, each of the names who have become, if at all, footnotes in regular history books, are handed back their individual personalities and allowed to tell their own stories.

Room 000 is largely a narrative of medical history. In some stray places, you do yearn for a shorter, cheat-version. But then, nearly immediately, the monotony is broken by moving portraits of patients and their families, their very real fears and rare triumphs, people who historians have never bothered naming. Incomplete facts demanded the invention of peripheral characters or events, the authors say in their acknowledgements. These peripherals are what make the book the fascinating account that it is, elevating it from a book that only medical students and historians might have use for to a beautiful piece of literature. That it is speckled with lovely lines like “…daylight just a sigh away” is but a bonus of great reading.

The book is part medical history, part mystery novel, part drama and part poetry, in places. It is at its heart a story of human triumph. Multi-layered and highly entertaining, Room 000 is as much a narrative of a people as it is the story of the city they lived in.

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